GANDHI has been all over New York lately. First he appeared at Occupy Wall Street as a patron saint of sorts, inspiring the protest’s nonviolent tactics. (The demonstrators even named a lane for him.) Then he emerged at the Metropolitan Opera as the star of Philip Glass’s opera “Satyagraha.”
But with the Zuccotti Park encampment removed, and the opera closing on Dec. 1, is that it for Gandhi in New York? Or is it worth asking, what would Gandhi do in the world today?
Throughout his life, Gandhi was preoccupied with putting universal morals into practice. In doing so, he attempted to dissolve the division between ideas and action. This blend of ideas and action animates Mr. Glass’s “Satyagraha.” During the almost four-hour performance, Gandhi’s career as a young freedom fighter is set in the context of his intellectual debts to Tolstoy, Tagore and above all the Bhagavad Gita.
Along the way, the opera reveals the often-overlooked fact that Gandhi’s accomplishments were enabled by a core group of spirited collaborators amid a larger body of followers. In capturing the political drama of Gandhi’s life, the roots of his intellectual universe, and his reliance on the community he led, “Satyagraha” gives us a richer vision of Gandhi than most contemporary portraits of the Mahatma.
It can be difficult, though, to overlook the incongruity of Champagne corks popping at intermissions, the see-and-be-seen atmosphere and the steep ticket prices at the Met. These trappings have little to do with Gandhi’s ideas of social justice and make opera an uneasy medium for his political vision; in fact they lend an unhappy irony to the very deftness of the rendering of that vision on the stage. Mr. Glass’s opera ultimately lets its audience off the hook, leaving them uplifted but not necessarily more engaged in social problems or willing to redress them. The production shows us what Gandhi did, yet it never suggests how we might join in the action, and collapse the distance between the house and the stage.
For that, the show to see was downtown, at Occupy Wall Street. It was at once political theater, countercultural commune, and recruiting agent for progressive causes.
I believe Gandhi would have admired the energy and community spirit in Zuccotti Park, but if he were at the protests, he would have taken up the human microphone and suggested some modifications.
First, Gandhi would reject the division between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. Gandhi did not believe in enemies: he worked on the premise that solutions emerged only from cooperation. This truth is often lost in discussions of his political tactics of noncooperation and civil disobedience. Noncooperation is best understood as an invitation to cooperate. “We are the 100 percent” may not make for a dramatic slogan, but from Gandhi’s perspective, it is the only way to achieve true and lasting change in society.
Gandhi would underscore that social transformation requires significant responsibility on the part of each of us. The world is not a static system or an unalterable one. Society exists in a certain way when we enter it, but it is our actions or our inaction that maintain the status quo, make things worse, or transform them for the better. Gandhi explained this most pointedly when he declared that the British Empire existed because Indians had let it exist. He would say the same thing about the drastic income inequality in America today: it is here because Americans collectively allow it to be here.
He would therefore encourage the protesters to focus their efforts on direct social assistance and positive political action. In regard to social work, the protesters’ eviction from their tents in the park may be a blessing in disguise. At the height of his prominence in 1930, Gandhi renounced his own home and political headquarters and later moved into the heart of rural India to set up service organizations and promote “village industries” and sustainable small-scale economies.
Although the young Gandhi focused on protest and political organizing, the more mature one made his central focus “constructive work” and service. He realized that most important battles in the struggle for a just world were fought in the world — in community centers, schools, shelters, charities, clinics and churches, on street corners and across the countryside in rural communities.
As for political action, Gandhi would also want a more systematic, constructive plan for the movement. While he would have been patient as objectives and tactics were debated, he would insist that eventually the protesters adopt goals, define their strategy, and communicate these to their opponents and the broader public. That is the responsibility would-be revolutionaries must assume. If you want transparency, fairness and conscientiousness from your opponent, you have to become an exemplar of those virtues yourself.
Pointing fingers and assigning blame is easy — it can even be helpful. Protesting in the park downtown can be quite useful. So, for that matter, can patronizing the arts. To the extent that both help us think through the current state of our society, they contribute to a common cause of uplift and improvement. But they are most meaningful when they set the stage for constructive social action, through which we might begin to mend the world.
Ian Desai, who will be a visiting assistant professor of history at Wesleyan University beginning in January, is writing a book about Gandhi’s library.