Academic journal article International Journal on World Peace

The Power of the Truthful: Satya in the Nonviolence of Gandhi and Havel

Academic journal article International Journal on World Peace

The Power of the Truthful: Satya in the Nonviolence of Gandhi and Havel

Article excerpt

The logic of a story resembles the logic of games, a logic of tension between what is known and not known, between rules and chance, between the inevitable and the unforeseeable. We never really know what will emerge from the confrontation, what elements may yet enter into it, and how it will end; it is never clear what potential qualities it will arouse in a protagonist and what action he will be led to perform by the action of his antagonist. For this reason alone, mystery is a dimension of every story. What speaks to us through a story is not a particular agent of truth; instead, the story manifests the human world to us as an exhilarating arena where many such agents come into contact with each other. -Václav Havel1


Conflicting global narratives on good or right living, based on conflicting truth-claims, can and often do lead to violence. We need not look far to find examples in contemporary religious, ethnic, or ideological conflicts that confirm this. Yet, one of the central elements in the practice of nonviolence is that of satya, a Sanskrit term best translated as "truth." In this article I will address this paradox by arguing that satya points to a very specific conception of truth, which I will explore by examining satya in the lives and work of both Mohandas Gandhi and Václav Havel. I use the term nonviolence here not only to point to the absence of violence in solving problems, but as a coherent set of ideas and practices that provide a framework for understanding (social) reality.

The roots of contemporary nonviolence lie, to an important extent, in the work of Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi construed nonviolence, an ancient religious and philosophical concept, into a new systematic and pro-active way that made it applicable in contemporary society. He used it as a guiding principle in his own life and as a method for waging struggle against injustice and oppression. Since Gandhi, nonviolence has been a method of addressing conflicts and injustices for both large social movements, as well as for private people in interpersonal conflicts. An example of this latter case is the method of Nonviolent Communication, devised by Marshall Rosenberg.2 Prominent examples of nonviolent social movements are the civil rights movement in the USA, the overthrow of president Marcos in the Philippines of the 1980s and the movement of Charter 77 in thenCzechoslovakia, of which Václav Havel was a distinguished member. Each translates Gandhi's concepts to their own circumstances, expanding and amending different aspects. This has led to the emergence of a nonviolence paradigm3 in which five basic elements appear: satya or "truth," ahimsa or "the intention not to harm," tapasya or "self-suffering," sarvodaya or "the welfare of all," and swadeshi/swaraj or "authenticity and relational autonomy." Each of these elements is a complex and layered notion and each is equally important in a process of nonviolence. I will focus in this paper specifically on the element satya, or truth. I denote these concepts here with the Sanskrit terms originating in the work of Gandhi, because I believe these terms are able to adequately capture this complexity. I pose that satya as a central element is present in each nonviolent process. This does, however, not necessarily mean that the term satya itself is used in all circumstances. Even so, it is my claim that although in different contexts different terms are used, they point to what in a general sense can be called satya. To clarify this concept and its role in nonviolence I will start by explaining the origin of the term in the work of Gandhi and go on to compare this with the work of Václav Havel and his intellectual mentor Jan Patocka who both focus overtly on the importance of "living in truth."


Satya derives from the Sanskrit root sat meaning "to be." It refers both to truth in the sense of truthfulness or honesty, and to truth as "that which exists," or reality. …

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