Mahatma Gandhi Community Forum

'Soul force' and the Occupy Movement

Muncie Star Press


Images on television of police abusing nonviolent protesters at the University of California at Davis brought back vivid memories of the civil rights era. Only instead of authorities delivering water from high-powered fire hoses, it was police-grade pepper spray.

What these students in California and in other states are engaging in through the Occupy Movement is what Mahatma Gandhi referred to as satyagraha.

Satyagraha (literally, "clinging to the truth") is experienced as a spiritual strength and is often translated as "soul force." The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made use of the phrase "soul force" in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Gandhi's concept of satyagraha also requires sacrificial action and a willingness to suffer for a just cause by openly allowing oneself to become a sacrificial victim of an injustice. Even as a Hindu, Gandhi saw it as an imitation of Christ's sacrifice.

The practice is intended to call public attention to injustice through nonviolent direct action without seeking revenge. Proactively, satyagraha initiates struggle and seeks to keep opponents off balance by doing the unexpected.

According to peace educator Michael Nagler, satyagraha requires "a kind of strength that does not come from numbers or from weapons." Rosa Parks was publicly arrested and taken to jail when she refused to give up her seat in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. In doing so, she performed an act of satyagraha.

Her sacrifice triggered the Montgomery bus boycott and helped expose the rampant racism of the South. Through her quiet courage and civil disobedience, she exemplified what Henry David Thoreau referred to in his essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience as "a majority of one."

In Gandhi's view, nonviolence applied in the pursuit of social justice is not passive, nor is it submissive or complacent. Satyagraha involves strategies that disrupt the status quo and is actually a form of fighting. It is perhaps best characterized as assertive nonviolent action that is free from hostile intention.

From the peace studies perspective, violence is a form of weakness, while ethical nonviolent perseverance is a form of strength. You know satyagraha is working when the aggression taken by authorities increases public support for the protesters and makes them even more committed to their cause.

Satyagraha has its greatest impact if we choose an injustice that a majority of the public perceives as beyond compromise. Banks that helped create the housing crisis getting a government bailout while homeowners undergo bank foreclosure is an example of such an injustice.

In response, protesters in some cities have begun to occupy properties threatened with foreclosure. For the Occupy Movement, satyagraha means taking direct action against self-centered out-of-control capitalism, corporate mismanagement, an unfair tax code, right-to-work legislation, and political leaders who seek to undo the hard-won protections against exploitation won by labor unions during the past century.


George Wolfe is the coordinator of outreach programs for the Ball State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. He is also a trained mediator and the author of The Spiritual Power of Nonviolence: Interfaith Understanding for a Future Without War.

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