Sarita Sarvate

San Jose Mercury News Opinion


The leaders who understood the truth-force


MY memories of our house in India are dominated by two objects: a candid portrait of Mahatma Gandhi wearing his famous wire-rimmed glasses, my parents’ wedding present; and hanging beside it on the living room wall, my brother’s charcoal sketch of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s coffin. America and India were thus entwined in the psyches of our post-independence generation forever; India, the cradle of our glorious past, and America, the land of the enfolding future.

All of us remember exactly the moment when the Kennedy assassination dawned on our consciousness, and most of us can recall vividly the news of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. We shared with America a common legacy: that of the murders of our leaders who had taught us peace and non-violence.

I read King’s writings only recently, but what struck me about them was his understanding not only of Gandhi’s life and preachings, but also that of India and its complexities. Referring to his visit there in 1959, he marveled at the relatively little amount of crime despite overwhelming poverty.

India had made greater progress in its fight against untouchability, King declared, than America had against segregation, because Indian leaders from the prime minister down to the village councilmen had placed their moral power against the caste system.

King arrived at non-violent civil disobedience as a means to achieve social justice after much soul-searching.

In “Pilgrimage to Non-violence”, he expressed doubt that the “turn the other cheek” Christian philosophy would solve social problems. After studying existential scholars like Nietzsche and Sartre, and comprehending the finite freedom of human beings and the perilous structure of modern existence, he came upon the Gandhian concept of “Satyagraha”, or truth-force.

It is a testament to King’s leadership that, after contemplating the philosophy of non-violence in the early ’50s, by December 1955 he was able to organize an American Satyagraha in the form of the Montgomery bus boycott.

Yet, 50 years after India’s independence and 40 years after the birth of the civil rights movement, the world is replete with racial and ethnic conflict. One cannot help but wonder what our world would look like today if Western leaders such as Churchill, Truman and Eisenhower had put their moral faith in non-violence as a viable political strategy after World War II.

Could the land of Gandhi have so easily resorted to Hindu-Muslim and Sikh-Hindu tensions if America and Europe had set different examples through peaceful resolutions of conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East?

Martin Luther King Jr. was the only Western leader visionary enough to preach that non-violent methods must be used in international relations as well.

Sadly, the leaders of the postwar West marginalized Gandhi into a brown buffoon by perpetuating the theory that a non-violent movement would not have succeeded against anyone other than the just and civilized British. Martin Luther King Jr. countered this argument often, insisting that non-violence was not an exercise in passivity, but the use of active moral force.

Instead of learning from the Eastern sage, the West has maintained a posture of moral superiority in the post-war era, hypocritically preaching the exercise of individual “human rights” to the world, while jeopardizing the rights and safety of millions through the stockpiling of nuclear arms and other weapons.

King spoke of three kinds of love described in the Greek language: eros, or aesthetic love; phihia, or mutual love; and agape, or understanding. He preached that we must use the last in appealing to our opponents. Perhaps it is time to start our individual pilgrimage to non-violence today by extending agape to those around us.

Saria Sarvate came to the United States from Nagpur, India, in 1976 to attend graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley. She is a senior policy analyst for the Public Utilities Commission.

Copyright, San Jose Mercury News, 1998