March 2004

» The World Remains a Moral Gymnasium: A New Dedication After Ten Years - Nik Warren

» Beginning A History of Nonviolence - Michael Nagler 

The World Remains a Moral Gymnasium: A New Dedication After Ten Years

Nik Warren     

Dear Reader,

Welcome to a new issue of Ahimsa Voices. Although this is a small newsletter, it is offered with a big heart, for it marks our renewed dedication after reaching our original goal of ten years of service. In 1993 we started an organization, AHIMSA, dedicated to the principle of spiritual awareness. Our first issue of Ahimsa Voices was in the Spring of 1994. In that issue I offered a letter from which I draw again.

Welcome to the first issue of Ahimsa Voices. We are a non-profit and non-sectarian foundation dedicated to expanding the role of spiritual awareness in everyday life. Ahimsa Voices is published as part of our dialogue and connection to others... Perhaps the most critical discussions one can have are not those with one's friends who already understand you, but with people of other perspectives, who stand on different grounds of understanding and action. Such dialogue must be built on individual respect and on universal criteria. It is at this level that the meaning of "ahimsa" (non-violence) and the depth of human awareness become practical issues. AHIMSA's mandate is to encourage just such discussions and actions.

We set ourselves a ten-year goal (1993-2003), the cycle starting with the centennial (1893-1993) of the World's Parliament of Religions, which was held in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, September 11-23, 1893. It was cited as a parliament of humanity bringing together representatives of major religions and spiritual philosophies from around the world.

After one hundred years, we honored the thoughts and insights of Swami Vivekananda who arrived at the Parliament as a young monk from India. Of Vivekananda, it was noted that he was “beyond question the most popular and influential man in the parliament...[who] on all occasions…was received with greater enthusiasm than any other speaker, Christian or ‘Pagan’.” [Merwin-Marie Snell, Secretary of Bishop John Keane of the Catholic University of America, 1984]

Our inspiration has been, to quote Swami Vivekananda, to see the world as a “moral gymnasium”. As he said: “You need not worry or make yourself sleepless about the world, it will go on without you…we are all debtors to the world and the world does not owe us anything…[Yet] it is a great privilege for all of us to be allowed to do anything for the world. In helping the world we are really helping ourselves.”

Acknowledging this, we have held conferences, offered evening discussions, and published Ahimsa Voices as ways to do “gymnastics” through public forums on topics of science, consciousness, and society. Our first conference, held in October 1993 was on the impacts of science, religion, and social action. We have just finished compiling a book of talks and articles from over these past ten years. It is our hope that this book will both ground our past work and prove to be a resource for anyone who wishes to pursue particular topics or form reading groups. The book, Dimensions of Unity, will soon be available. For more information, see page 5.

And now we are framing the start of a new cycle? in a new world. Or so it seems a new world, for in the United States since September 11, 2001, civil/societal issues of threat, self-protection, and hegemony have drawn our national attention. Now our dialogues and discussions take on even more importance, even while becoming harder. How do we educate ourselves to the “hard” issues and views that are playing out on the national and global stage ? and which our dialogues must address? How do we find personal practices that sustain our deeper spiritual growth and insight to individual action?

When we picked AHIMSA as the name for our organization, ahimsa (non-violence) became our acronym:

A Agency (for)
H Human
I Interconnectedness (through)
M Manifestation (of)
S Spiritual
A Awareness     

Each of these words calls for meditation. They reiterate our goal that remains unchanged. How are each of us agents, and together, agency, for human interconnection? How do we gain knowledge of, insight into, and internalize human interconnectedness? How is this a personal deepening of spiritual awareness? What is spiritual awareness? How does spiritual awareness grow in us? How do we come to know it, to explore it, to practice it, and finally in our work and lives, to manifest it?

Ten years of dialogues are offered in Dimensions of Unity. Now we start anew. On March 16 we offer an evening discussion on the Patriot Act ? “Facing Freedoms and Fears”. Panelists will include the Hon. Kevin Ryan, U. S. Attorney for Northern California, and Rev. Heng Sure, abbot of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery. See the flyer in this newsletter.

Our next scheduled panel discussion will be on Tuesday, April 27. That evening program will address the non-ending turmoil and conflict in the Middle East. Later this year we plan to offer forums on spiritual practice through art.

We encourage you to send us your email address if you wish to stay posted on future events and invite you to check our Web site We will be operating increasingly via the Internet, to speed up communications, and to keep down costs. Yes, even we need to be somewhat practical.

Nik Warren, Acting Editor

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Beginning A History of Nonviolence

Michael Nagler

Violence is always against the individual; the human individual is always the source, and individuality the ultimate beneficiary of, nonviolence.

As Hannah Arendt observed: “The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”

Real nonviolence, by contrast, rarely has a backlash, because if it is real nonviolence, it does not operate by coercion. It operates by persuasion, often a kind of deep persuasion that moves people below the conscious level. “Compelling reason to be free,” or as Gandhi puts it elsewhere, “moving the heart,” is qualitatively different than merely forcing others by some form of punishment of sanction. Since the opponent has changed willingly, he or she is not looking for an opportunity to get back to you. When Satyagraha works it doesn’t just change one party’s position, it changes the relationship between parties…

It is here that one can most easily grasp the key fact that nonviolence is fundamentally a kind of force. Gandhi, among others, would use that kind of language from his earliest period: “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by fear of punishment, and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment.”

Or again, “Sanctions are of two kinds; one, physical force, and, two, soul force ? Satyagraha. Physical force is nothing compared to the power of truth.”

Today, science itself is learning to speak another language. The mind-boggling discoveries of “new physics” are giving us a new and promising vocabulary to describe the nature and the effectiveness of nonviolence, which was rather difficult to account for in the “hard” language of Newtonian objects. The noted criminologist Harold Pepinsky is one who has taken advantage of the new, more powerful vocabulary: (Where he says “responsiveness” I would say “nonviolence.”) Violence and responsiveness operate by the same principles at all levels, from the interpersonal to the international. Every human being... is at once the subject and the object of both violent and responsive energy. Crosscurrents of violence and responsiveness run constantly in all of us, and help to account for perversity and unanticipated behavior at any given level.

Whatever kind of power or forces we are speaking about here, we human beings experience them as a deep choice that is really supremely simple ? and here Pepinsky uses more conventional language. “From moment to moment, it is a profoundly religious choice whether to commit to violence or to democracy.”

Whether we use the scientific or the religious vocabulary, Pepinsky’s insight brings out a perplexity: why is it that we generally remain so unaware of nonviolence? If it is a moment-to-moment reality, should we not be talking about it cogently and often? Should it not be common fare in history and science among other venues?

I am not sure I have an answer to that question. Sometimes we are better at perceiving what are not moment-to-moment realities, just as it was hard to see the Milky Way because we’re part of it. The ancient Greeks, that most inquisitive people, discussed how to wage war and manage slaves at great length, but they never discussed war or slavery as such, or for that matter economics, or the position of women. Whatever may be the reason that the history of nonviolence is just beginning to be written and that its theory is just beginning to be devised, it was a galling frustration to Gandhi from the earliest years. He knew by the time he wrote his classic 1909 manifesto, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, that what he was up against was more than an empire; it was nothing less than what we would call today an outworn, inadequate paradigm. ‘History’ as we knew it was constitutionally unable to help. Gandhi wrote:

The fact that there are so many men still alive in the world shows that it is based not on the force of arms but on the force of truth or love… Little quarrels of millions of families in their daily lives disappear before the exercise of this force. Hundreds of nations live in peace. History does not and cannot take note of this fact. History is really a record of the interruption of the even working of the force of love or the soul… History, then, is a record of the interruptions of the course of nature. Soul-force, being natural, is not noted in history.

Excerpted from Is There No Other Way? The Search for a Nonviolent Future by Michael N. Nagler, with permission from Inner Ocean Publishing.

Michael Nagler is a Professor Emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley; founder and first Chairperson of the University’s Peace and Conflict Studies Program, and author of several books on Gandhian philosophy and nonviolence. He is a founding member of the AHIMSA Advisory Board.

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