Thursday July 9, 2015

Transformative Power of Soul-Force

By Binod Kumar, Research Fellow at the Human Rights Center

It was Mahatma Gandhi who coined the term soul-force while developing the philosophy and practice of Satyagraha over 100 years ago in South Africa. In addition to the standard and literal meaning of the term, it is associated with noble characteristics such as unconditional compliance with the truth and the complete exclusion of violence, both physical and mental. 

According to Gandhian philosophy, the truth and God are synonymous. Similar terms such as truth-force and love-force are also found in the Ahimsa (nonviolence) literature, although not as frequently as the soul-force. Usage of these terms implies that the force emanating from the soul is similar to the force (power) associated with the pursuit of truth and love. Generally, positive human emotions such as love, kindness, compassion and empathy are believed to be mediated by the soul. The concept of the soul-force is fundamental to the practice of the nonviolence philosophy; however it remains a vaguely understood term. It is a term which is often misinterpreted.

The soul, a nonphysical entity of living beings, has been a topic of strong interest among philosophers over millennia. Its embodiment and purpose are accepted in various moral traditions and cultures of the world. The existence of soul was proposed and analyzed by philosophers such as Plato (427 BCE) and Aristotle (384 BCE). It was suggested that the pineal gland is the “seat of the soul” (Descartes, 1596 CE). The contemporary belief contemplates that the soul dwells in the mind, yet it is separate from the mind.

Considerable progress has been made in the understanding of the human brain in the last few decades. Neuroscientists have investigated different parts of the brain in order to identify their functions. In spite of significant development in our understanding of the brain, “seat of the soul” remains a matter of curiosity. Theologians, psychologists and neuroscientists continue to explore the human brain and some of them pursue its connectivity with the soul. Perhaps, parts of human minds generating positive emotions (love, kindness, forgiveness, compassion, empathy etc.) and negative (anger, greed, vindictiveness etc.) need to be understood because the former is mediated by the soul while the latter is sinful and ego-centric. In spite of the uncertainty, the soul remains an important element of human faith and belief system.

Soul-force is a compound word in which soul, a word representing a theological concept is hyphenated with force which is a well-defined and quantifiable scientific term. The root words, soul and force complement each other and make the compound word impactful. Perhaps, this was the intent or may be institutive wisdom when Gandhi coined this term. In the context of Gandhian philosophy, a political or social struggle mediated by the soul-force must adhere to truth and denounce violence in all its manifestations.

A message of unconditional love and harmony needs to be conveyed to the adversary (oppressor) perpetrating violence and evil policies, rules and regulations while seeking a just solution for the specific oppressive act. The purpose of the soul-force mediated struggle is to transform the evil intents of the oppressor into noble actions for the benefit of the people seeking justice. This is the way the transformative power of the soul-force should work.

Soul-force also evokes a comparison with other types of forces such as physical force. In this context, the contributions of a very famous philosopher, Isaac Newton may be recalled. Newton formulated three fundamental laws dealing with physical forces. They are known as Newton’s laws of motion and they connect motion of a body with different kinds of forces. These laws have been the backbone of scientific and engineering practices for almost three centuries.

The third law of motion states that every action has equal and opposite reaction. The action and reaction imply application and generation (of force) respectively. The opposite reaction does not mean negative force – it simply specifies the direction of the force.

Soul-force merits a comparison with the third law. While comparing, it is logical to expect that the use of soul-force (associated with positive emotions) would also trigger generation of a force with positive attributes emanating from the oppressor. This may be the theory of nonviolent action. Generally, its response time (time difference between action and reaction) is long and the practitioners need to be patient and disciplined. Otherwise, the struggle may degenerate either through the actions of the oppressor or strategies (flawed nonviolent actions) of the oppressed.

To the practitioners of nonviolent action, soul-force mediated struggle to achieve noble ends is a postulate that must be accepted without any proof. The postulate, furthermore, is based on centuries of observations and real life experiences on global political conflicts. A recent study of political conflicts between 1900 and 2006 suggests that more than 50 percent of nonviolent political movements have succeeded as compared to only 25 percent in the case of violent insurgencies (Chenoweth and Stephen, 2011).

While developing strategies for political and social struggles, the postulate needs to be an integral part of specific actions. It must be strictly obeyed for transformative results.

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