Gandhi, during the Dandi Salt March, 1930 (Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/)

Yesterday, I gave an online lecture to an audience of students, their teachers, and other panellists, about a recent initiative of India’s government where there is cause for concern on adherence to democratic ideals and rule of law (I do not want to get into that issue here, so I will not mention specifics). Toward the end of the session, I noticed a comment made by one student in the chat box that I could not address before time ran out on the session. The comment expressed a sentiment that I have heard many express, often enough that it warrants attention, so I sat down to compose a message that I could send to the student. It then occurred to me that this sentiment has been repeatedly expressed across a range of contexts, and its ramifications bear a significance far wider than yesterday’s event. Therefore, I am choosing to address it in a public blog post but will speak as if I am personally addressing the student who made that comment.

You said that you get very depressed with the state of affairs in contemporary politics, feel mired in a helpless angst, and there seems to be no way out of this depression. I have also felt this often, and my solace in those moments is the teaching of Mahatma Gandhi, particularly a word that he coined: satyagraha.

The meaning of this word is not usually comprehended by all. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “pressure for social and political reform through friendly passive resistance practiced by M. K. Gandhi and his followers in India.” This definition is a common misunderstanding, one that considers the word as equivalent to the strategy Gandhi pioneered of nonviolent civil disobedience as the foundation of political resistance, a strategy that shaped the heart and soul of the Indian freedom movement.

The meaning of satyagraha is actually far deeper. It derives from satya (truth) and agraha (to hold insistently). It refers to a state of being you must come to terms with; a state where it is difficult to hold on to the truth, and to move constructively forward you must energise yourself into clinging insistently to it.

To understand this state, you must first ask where the truth springs from. To Gandhi, it undoubtedly springs from the antaryami (inner spirit), and he repeatedly affirmed that everything he said, wrote and did was as per the exhortations of the antaryami. The belief that one is, at the core, a divine spirit has been a key element of Hindu tradition, documented in major spiritual texts such as the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and many more. Gandhi was inspired by this tradition, and he often remarked on how the Bhagavad Gita constituted a beacon in his life. This belief is not confined to Hinduism and is also found in mystical strains of other major faith traditions.

You do not have to be a religious person to know the antaryami, for it speaks through everyday experience. Imagine yourself as sitting still and silent. You decide to speak. Think for a moment on what you have done; out of silence you have coaxed sound and meaning. Where did that creativity spring from? Then you take it further weaving emotion into your speech, transforming an inchoate yet overwhelming sensation into tangible power.

I started with asking you to imagine yourself sitting still and silent. Reflect on what you can do with stillness. Your creativity transforms stillness into movement. You weave emotion into that movement and meaningful gesture is born.

You find you can do more, you can impart form to this creativity. When vocalising, you can impart phonetic or textual form by speaking poetically, or you can impart tonal form by singing. You can impart form to your movement by dancing. If you practice rigorously, you can acquire increasing mastery of form, and the everyday potential in movement or vocalisation is elevated into an art that can be inspirational in its beauty.

On top of all this, you are unique to a mindboggling extent. Someone exactly like you has never existed before in all of history, and never will. The dancer Martha Graham remarked in an interview, “There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And, if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it.” The antaryami within you is of value because it expresses your unique voice. When it is creative, emotional, compassionate and rigorous, it begins to touch the transcendental. The creative agency of your antaryami, in its daily voice, is the everyday rebirth of the transcendental. This continuity of rebirth forms the core of what we call ‘life’.

Remember that most of what is important in life can only be known by your antaryami. Love, joy, beauty, wonder, compassion (to name just a few) are foundations of our life that resist our capacity to scientifically document but are an unquestionable and tangible reality when the spirit of those terms lives within us.

The everyday creativity and power of the antaryami is so great you must learn how to come to terms with it. The poet, philosopher and one-time priest, John O’Donohue remarked, “One of the sad things is that so many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence. They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, an image or a predetermined identity that other people have actually settled for them.”

The moment when you direct your antaryami outward as the foundation of your relationship with the world is the crucial moment when you are called to practice satyagraha. We all have a deep desire for validation which we mistakenly feel we must seek solely from the world outside us. This makes it a moment of fear and doubt carrying the danger of succumbing to external pressures so that conformance will stamp our acceptance in the world. This is the moment when you must hold insistently to the truth within, so that the creative agency of your antaryami remains alive. True validation is a two-way dialogue: you validate significance in the world against the voice of your antaryami, and you validate your antaryami by testing it against the world to know its wider and deeper resonances.

Gandhi considered ahimsa (non-violence) to be intrinsic to satyagraha, for the antaryami’s intrinsic nature is to seek the transcendental and universal. When you are successful in satyagraha you find reflection of yourself in the antaryami of others. This is no abstract philosophy, it is how you intuitively live, how you construct the personal relationships that sustain you. When you find yourself deep in trust, affection and love with another, it is because the two antaryamis have jointly woven a nurturing bond greater than either of you individually, so strong that to hurt the other is to hurt yourself. Live in satyagraha to its full extent, and you will find that this resonance is to be found in everyone, so even the one you resist is recognised as human, and your satyagraha carries ahimsa along with it everywhere. By this yardstick, to unthinkingly conform is the greatest himsa (violence), for it demands erasure of the authenticity and agency that has been gifted to you by your birth.

The first step is to recognise and know your antaryami. For this, it is necessary to shut out the incessant noise of the world and invest in time for inward reflection. This is not easy, and you must commit to what Indian tradition calls sadhana: rigorous, repetitive, ego-transcending, contemplative practice. Once you find it, you will tap into a source of creative energy that will always resist the shackles of depression and helplessness.

“That is all very well,” you may remark, “That may solve my own equanimity, but how will it help me make my existence meaningful by having an impact on the world?” Remember that you simultaneously live within two spheres: a sphere of influence and a sphere of concern. The sphere of concern represents all in the world that you feel needs change but lies beyond your capacity to change as an individual. The sphere of influence, on the other hand, consists of what is within your capacity to change. Often, the sphere of concern is so overwhelming that you become paralysed by its weight and forget to act on your sphere of influence. But there is always something you can do. You may not be able to achieve world peace, but you can imbue all your personal actions with peace. You may not be able to change the course of climate change, but you can adopt sustainable practices in your own life.

You must discard the conventional assumption that positive change can only be achieved by thinking big and turn your attention to the myriad lateral connections between you and your immediate circle of influence. If you are tuned in to your antaryami and make the effort to develop the platform of mastery that it enables, you will find that its transcendental dimension makes your message infectious. That is how Gandhi started; those early days of fighting for civil rights in South Africa were founded on local community mobilisation that started small and went on to gradually build effective momentum. If you had told him then that one day his role in winning India’s freedom would be of such significance that it would earn him titles like “Mahatma” and “Father of the Nation”, he probably would not have believed you. You need to focus on the authenticity of the moment and the depth of your voice, rather than being paralysed by or preoccupied with the weight of monumental ambitions.

Sow your authenticity in the wind, not because you aim at distant targets but because to do that is to be who you inherently are. Reap what you sow regularly, and the threads you weave every day with what you reap will merge with the threads of other weavers and grow into a mighty shawl whose spread may surprise even yourself. Seek to spread the reach of your circle of influence every day by a little bit, even if it is an imperceptible shift of a few millimetres. If that quest is grounded in the truth of your antaryami, if you can sustain satyagraha on a daily basis, you will feel grounded in a force of life that will energise you.

Remember that when you spontaneously dance, you do not seek the end effect of your dance, you immerse yourself in the joy of the moment. The famous scholar of myth, Joseph Campbell, remarked that we mistakenly believe that we seek the meaning of life, whereas what we actually seek is the rapture of being alive. One day at a time, seek the rapture of a day well spent. Watch the path where this takes you, taking time to inhale the fragrance of the flowers that lie along it.