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Gandhian and Bahá'í Methods

It is instructive to consider and compare the methods used by Bahá'ís and by Gandhi to promote social change. Neither of them have resorted to armies, terrorism, sabotage or clandestine activities. Both of them have succeeded in achieving their aims using, what may be broadly termed, nonviolent methods.[footnote] But beyond this general similarity lie a number of differences. Gandhi's specific objective was to secure political autonomy and independence for his countrymen. This goal is vastly different from the aims of the Bahá'í Faith. Hence, it should not surprise the reader that since the founding of the Bahá'í Faith in 1863, the Bahá'ís have used methods that are even less socially disruptive--hence less violent--than those used by Gandhi.

For instance, Gandhi considered it necessary to resort to nonviolent civil disobedience as a last, extreme measure when less disruptive methods had been tried and failed. An example of Gandhi's political genius is his famous salt march, in which he skillfully used nonviolent civil disobedience as a highly effective instrument for raising awareness, ultimately resulting in the desired political and social change. Gandhi's disobedience often landed him in jail, from where he further grew in stature and political power. Notwithstanding Gandhi's many successes, his nonviolent civil disobedience was disobedience nonetheless. Although Gandhi understood the danger of civil disobedience to society, his rhetoric maintained that there was greater danger in doing nothing:

A good man will therefore resist an evil system or administration with his whole soul. Disobedience of the law of an evil State is therefore a duty...   Non-violent, i.e., civil, disobedience is the only and most successful remedy and is obligatory upon him who would dissociate himself from evil.

There is danger in civil disobedience only because it is still only a partially tried remedy and has always to be tried in an atmosphere surcharged with violence. For when tyranny is rampant much rage is generated among the victims. It remains latent because of their weakness and bursts in all its fury on the slightest pretext. Civil disobedience is a sovereign method of transmuting this undisciplined life-destroying latent energy into disciplined life-saving energy whose use ensures absolute success.[1]
In contrast, Bahá'ís have had a century-long history of obedience to even extremely oppressive and unjust governments. Bahá'ís have never engaged in any form of organized civil disobedience. The reason for this difference of approach is that Gandhi's immediate political goal was to secure some level of self-government. In contrast the Bahá'ís have no interest in any political objective beyond uniting and serving humankind, even if it becomes necessary at times to submit to the authority of tyrannical and merciless authorities. Esslemont gives an illustrative example of the Bahá'í approach towards nonviolent obedience to governments:
In bringing about the emancipation of women as in other matters, Bahá'u'lláh counsels His followers to avoid methods of violence. An excellent illustration of the Bahá'í method of social reform has been given by the Bahá'í in Persia, Egypt and Syria. In these countries it is customary for Muhammadan [Muslim] women outside their homes to wear a veil covering the face. The Báb indicated that in the New Dispensation women would be relieved from this irksome restraint, but Bahá'u'lláh counsels His followers, where no important question of morality is involved, to defer to established customs until people become enlightened, rather than scandalize those amongst whom they live, and arouse needless antagonism. The Bahá'í women, therefore, although well aware that the antiquated custom of wearing the veil is, for enlightened people, unnecessary and inconvenient, yet quietly put up with the inconvenience, rather than rouse a storm of fanatical hatred and rancorous opposition by uncovering their faces in public. This conformity to custom is in no way due to fear, but to an assured confidence in the power of education and in the transforming and life-giving effect of true religion. Bahá'ís in these regions are devoting their energies to the education of their children, especially their girls, and to the diffusion and promotion of the Bahá'í ideals, well knowing that as the new spiritual life grows and spreads among the people, antiquated customs and prejudices will by and by be shed, as naturally and inevitably as bud scales are shed in spring when the leaves and flowers expand in the sunshine.[2]
It may interest the reader to note that Esslemont wrote these words prior to 1923.

Robert Stockman, currently Director of the Research Office of the Bahá'í National Center of the United States, further compares and contrasts the Gandhian and the Bahá'í approaches:

Gandhi's thought on this subject was perhaps the highest and finest the world has currently produced outside the Faith. Civil disobedience, as a mechanism for social change, was impossible more than a century or so ago because it is dependent on a free press, public opinion, the rule of law, and transparency in civil proceedings. Eight hundred years ago, civil disobedience would not have worked against Genjis Khan; he would have massacred anyone like Gandhi and no one would have known. It worked against the British because they thought of themselves as a just people. Interestingly, it never worked against the French, who had to be driven violently out of Vietnam and Algeria (with consequences for both nations that continue to this day).

The Bahá'í position--which I think one could basically call ``nonviolent civil obedience''--may still be as premature in this society as non-violent civil disobedience was at the time of Genjis Khan. The Bahá'í position depends on consultation as a central cultural value of society, and it isn't yet. Saying this, I think, would allow one to put the Bahá'í and Gandhian positions, which are contradictory on the surface, in a greater context.[3]


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