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Satyagraha: Can Opera Help Fight Climate Change?

By Matt Blank
and Stephen Kent
03 Apr 2008

Alan Oke as Gandhi in the 2007 English National Opera staging.
photo by Catherine Ashmore

In anticipation of the April 11 opening of Philip Glass's Satyagraha at the Met, there will be a series of related events beginning April 4 when it is the topic of WNYC's "Brian Lehrer Show."


The opening performance will also kick off a weekend of reflection and public debate about how Gandhi's ideas might transform the fight against climate change, culminating in a public forum at New York's Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on April 13.
 
Satyagraha is Gandhi's term for "truth force" -- the animating principle of nonviolent struggle which holds that peaceful ends can't be achieved by violent means, but only with love, and unflinching personal moral courage. The idea also has an American lineage connected with Thoreau's civil disobedience, Emerson's self-reliance, and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s agape.
 
Gandhi and King both read Emerson and Thoreau, and Gandhi deeply influenced King, whose leadership of the civil rights movement became unstoppable once he decided to embrace Gandhian nonviolence.  One of Gandhi's most famous acts of nonviolent civil disobedience was the Salt Satyagraha or Salt March in India, 78 years ago April 6, where he and his followers walked hundreds of miles to the sea and made salt in peaceful defiance of an oppressive salt tax.
 
With a Sanskrit libretto taken from the Bhagavad-Gita, Glass's Satyagraha manages to thematize all this while paying homage to Gandhi, Tolstoy and the poet Tagore.  Glass has said that "Tolstoy, Tagore, and King represent the past, present and future of satyagraha."  The work evokes an epic and almost sacred sense of the moral heroism of principled nonviolent struggle.
 
Besides delighting and moving operagoers, Satyagraha has recently struck a chord with social change movements, including with the movement to combat climate change.  In this year marking the 60th anniversary of Gandhi's assassination and the 40th anniversary of Dr. King's, contemporary thought and movement leaders sense the opportunity to apply Gandhi's ideas and tactics to today's burning issues including climate change.
 
Inspired in part by Glass's opera, the Satya Graha Forum has helped organize many satyagraha-themed events around New York throughout April, starting with a march to Gandhi's statue in Union Square April 6 to commemorate the Salt March.
 
Glass himself is appearing at the April 13 7pm St. John the Divine event, a free public forum presented by the Garrison Institute, a non-profit based in Garrison, NY entitled "Satyagraha:  Gandhi's Truth Force in the Age of Climate Change."  He will perform excerpts of his Satyagraha opera and other works, punctuating discussions led by environmental and thought leaders from around the world.  Those presenters will have attended the opening of the opera, gone on retreat for two days at the Garrison Institute to reflect on satyagraha and climate change, and then returned to St. John the Divine for an interactive discussion with the public.
 
Glass was interviewed about this in The New York Times on March 30 and said the link between satyagraha and the environment was an explict one in his mind: "The environment and nonviolence is like a marriage made in heaven," he told the Times. "If we treated the environment with nonviolence we wouldn't have the polar ice cap melting away."
 
In this he is far from alone.  Al Gore actually had Gandhi's "truth force" or satyagraha in mind when he coined "Inconvenient Truth."  He said in a speech before the Sierra Club Forum in 2007:
 
"Global warming is, first and foremost, a challenge to the moral imagination….Gandhi used the word satyagraha, or 'truth force.' In American politics, there have been soaring moments throughout our history when the truth has swept aside entrenched power...We need once again to disenthrall ourselves."  
 
It turns out that leaders of Gandhian movements and environmental leaders alike share this sense that in this moment in history, Gandhi's ideas can help reframe and strengthen the climate movement and other social change movements.   Among those participating in the Garrison Institute retreat and April 13 public forum are:
 

  • Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, founder of Sri Lanka's Gandhian Sarvodaya movement, featured recently in Newsweek.
  • John Francis, United Nations Environment Program Ambassador, founder of Planet Walk;
  • Rajmohan Gandhi, Gandhi's grandson and author of the new Gandhi biography Mohandas: A True Story Of A Man, His People, And An Empire;
  • Philip Glass performing excerpts from his opera, "Satyagraha," opening April 11 at the Metropolitan Opera
  • Paul Hawken, author of Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming and creator of wiserearth.org
  • Odetta, singer/songwriter who has been called "the voice of the civil rights movement"
  • Billy Parish, founder of the Climate Campaign, and Co-Founder of the Energy Action Coalition
  • Sulak Sivaraksa, founder of Thailand Spirit in Education Movement
  • Pavan Sukdhev, study leader of a new G8+5 report on the economics of biodiversity loss and environmental degradation
  • Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-founder and co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology.

 
Organizers hope the project will spark wider public discussion of the relevance of Gandhi and nonviolence to the climate movement and other contemporary social change movements.  For example, it is the topic of a radio segment April 4 at 11:00am on WNYC's  "Brian Lehrer Show." 

For more information, see www.garrisoninstitute.org and www.satya-graha.org.





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