What Did Lanza del Vasto See in Gandhi in the Year of His Conversion to Nonviolence (1937)?
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 25 Jan 2021
Before proceeding to the answer, let’s remember who Lanza del Vasto was at the time.
Graduated in philosophy, he had not chosen any social role. Poet and artist, he went from one job to another, without binding himself to anyone, or to one of the various women he knew, or to a definitive project. In the 1930s he decided to be a vegetarian, out of the horror he always had for killing animals, anti-fascist for the tacky arrogance of the fascist dictatorship, and anti-militarist because he was always opposed to killing another man (to the point of declaring himself to his mother conscientious objector, among the first ones in Italy). As an anti-militarist he watched helplessly the preparations for a new world war. The philosopher Hegel had taught that war is necessary to cleanse peoples of decadent ones, so that the Absolute Spirit can direct history with the strongest peoples. In the 1930s, Freud and Einstein exchanged letters on why the war; but they did not come to shared conclusions. (http://www.iisf.it/discorsi/einstein/carteggio.htm) Lanza del Vasto realizes that as an anti-militarist and as a philosopher he has no answers and he makes a crucial problem about it, until he decides to go to India to ask Gandhi answer and make yourself his disciple. He was the only one Western disciple beyond Madelein Slade and the unique catholic disciple of Gandhi.
To answer the question of the title, one could list all his texts describing Gandhi.[i] But it must be recognized that Lanza del Vasto never gave a precise and clear answer (just as he was unable to give a single and precise definition of nonviolence, although he has tried it dozens of times, also denying his previous definitions). In this sense, his inheritance on the fundamental points of Gandhi’s teaching remained somewhat vague; the possible interpretations are many and in order to answer one can also release imagination without control. For now, little has been studied about Lanza del Vasto’s legacy to understand this relationship thoroughly.
However, there is a somewhat precise answer; it is the one he gives in AAVV:
That trip was like a great love.
O mother, my mother! Which were our great dreams compared to the beauties, the greatnesses that I have seen!
And what was, in comparison with the beauty and grandeur of the banks and landscapes, jungles and peoples, rivers and festivals, temples and peaks, the encounter with the truth!
I expected a lot from Gandhi, I found more. The thought, like the dream, was overcome:
- A way out of misery, abuse, servitude, revolt and war;
- justice as mathematical and musical exactness in acts;
- unity of life in simplicity;
- the whiteness of the sage: inside as well as outside;
- nonviolence or rejection of all that disturbs the harmonious order of things.
And then I met India and its inner life that I was not looking for on the banks of the Ganges and on the paths of the Himalayas:
- self-knowledge, self-possession, a condition of self-giving and love for one’s neighbor as for oneself;
- inner unity, condition of faith or knowledge of the one One;
- all this helped me powerfully to complete my conversion to Christian catholicity.
(Lanza del Vasto, AAVV, Denoel, Paris, 1980, p. 15)
The reader understands that the entire message that Lanza del Vasto has received from Gandhi is contained here; but he also understands that Lanza del Vasto described it in bulk. This description manifests his enthusiasm more than a mature reflection. It is difficult to directly extract a simple formula; both because he indicates 13 characteristics (with also a repetition of the third with the penultimate); and it is not clear whether he indicates what led to his personal conversion or what has universal value; and because the third last (“self-knowledge…”) and penultimate (“inner unity…”) lines could by themselves give a first answer to the question.
Reflecting on the two lines indicated above, we understand that they express well a new spiritual and community life, but not the social commitment aimed at re-founding society and politics; a commitment that was Gandhi’s characteristic compared to almost all spiritual masters, Indian or not. So to those two lines we should add at least lines 6, 7 and 10: “way out of the scourges, justice as exactness in acts, nonviolence”. (Their order of corresponds to that of their discovery by Lanza del Vasto; it is the inverse of a pedagogical order). The resulting group of sentences is already a very significant answer; they can be summarized with six characteristics:
Inner unity, self-knowledge, simplicity, nonviolence, justice, coming out of social scourges”.
But these, together, do not give a really synthetic formula, nor do lead to understand, if not indirectly, Gandhi’s motivations, method and objectives and possibly ours to follow them.
Here I propose to synthesize them with “a new spirituality and a new sociality“. It is immediately clear that these two include all of the above; but in an approximate way; eg. what does “new” mean? I think we can understand their novelties through Lanza del Vasto’ writings on these issues. Let’s start with his most profound spiritual teaching that based on sacred texts (Western, but also seen in the light of the texts of other religions); that is, his interpretation of the greatest Evil on Earth: the Two Beasts of Revelation 13.
He gives excellent reasons for interpreting them as Science and Technology; which, according to him, are world institutional expressions of intelligence perverted to selfish interest; and moreover for interpreting the wisdom suggested by the apostle St. John to save us from their power: to know their name, in order to see them with detachment, understand their intimate nature and thus come to understand the way out of our collective servitude to them. The name suggested by the text is “666”; Lanza del Vasto understands it as the mathematical series “666 …” (a typical concept of modern science), that is, as he himself says, infinity. This clearly represents the intimate nature do Science (exactly based on mathematics). The text does not give the name of the other Beast; but its effects on humanity (global servitude) and its possible names (Machine, Mechanical State) converge to indicate the idea of organization (a word that unfortunately Lanza del Vasto did not want to use, because it seemed mechanistic).
Has Lanza del Vasto ever declared these two dimensions? Yes, in two writings (and not in the poem on Gandhi written before the meeting with him). In the first writing of 1950 he says:
The divine character of intelligence is marked by the notions of Infinity and Perfection [of the organization] …. [ii]
But even better he wrote about it in 1954; he describes a total conversion and the goal to be achieved:
And yet the fallen knowledge always maintains the double sign of its divine dignity. / The “Cord of Truth” (to speak as the Gita) is stretched between two poles:
And the one is Unity [the organization brought to its best result].
The other is Infinity.
From no operation, from any affirmation of Knowledge they are absent. From them Knowledge derives its value. However, they are never objects of knowledge; they remain one on this side and the other beyond the limits of the known. It cannot be said either of Unity or Infinity that they are known.[iii]
Furthermore, the five elements above result to be articulations of the aforementioned conversion according to the two dimensions:
- [organization of] inner unity,
- [infinite search for] self-knowledge,
- [infinite search for] nonviolence,
- [organization of] justice, coming out of
- [the organization of] social scourges.
But even better the two dimensions represent the seven vows of the Community as two equal groups:
- Work [of the infinite search] on oneself, of hands [in favor of a better organization of social life], for the [organization of the Order and the] Feast,
- Obedience [to the community organization and its responsible],
- Responsibility and co-responsibility [of the community organization],
- Purity [as an infinite search for purity],
- Poverty [as an infinite search for simplicity],
- Truth [as an infinite search for truthfulness],
- Nonviolence [as an infinite quest in order to do not harm anyone and to fight for a better general organization].
And did Gandhi express them? Certainly, since he understood that he no longer had to say that “God is truth”, but that “The [infinite search for] truth is God”, and since (in South Africa) he understood that resolving conflicts with nonviolence gave the ability to re-organize from below, starting with the communities, the entire associative life in order to achieve justice and peace.
By means of these two dimensions we also can obtain some very important clarifications:
Modernity: it is the introduction, in anyone’s life, of infinity (I) and the ability to organize oneself systematically (O). With these novelties, the promise of the snake was fulfilled: “You will become like gods”, because each person has incorporated two dimensions that previously belonged to God only.
Western Civilization: was the first in history to be firmly founded on these characteristics, systematically introducing them into the life of every person all over the world; but in addition he understood them in a particular way: he chose to pursue both a mythical and absolute infinity (AI) in spirituality (institution of the Church as Kingdom of God on earth), in economics (capitalism), in defense (infinite arms race in order to be invincible), in knowledge (gigantic libraries), in science (which was born precisely for having used the concept of this infinite); and in authoritatively organizing (AO)every aspect of society with special social institutions, political life with a pervasive state that has absolute powers, nature (including that of man) with technological artifacts. Lanza del Vasto said that Western civilization was the most great renewal of original sin and at the same time its more broader extension, to all people on the Earth).
Gandhi’s nonviolent alternative: is that of the two opposite choices to the previous ones: the search for the infinite in one’s person (with work on oneself) and in interpersonal relationships (IP), even during conflicts (which therefore must be resolved without resorting to objects, but with infinite trust in man, that is, with nonviolence); and the organization aimed at solving a crucial problem (OP), that of organizing men for a fraternal and just society and establishing a relationship of harmony with nature (therefore with self-managed social organizations, based on the minimum of formal economy, minimum of bureaucracy and technology).
Now we are in the position of answering in an accurate way to the question of the title. Lanza del Vasto wanted to leave Western civilization (“I am going to India to atone for Europe“[iv]). When Lanza del Vasto met Gandhi we can well think that he saw that this Indian had understood the fundamental choices for a renewed life, those choices that oriented Lanza del Vasto to get out of the structural violence of Western civilization and oriented him at founding an alternative spirituality and society. Then in the West he began with others the alternative of both the infinity of spirituality (IP) and the re-organization of society on the basis of communities capable of solving the problem of conflicts with nonviolence (OP).
What precise spirituality? The one that, after the thrill of Western Civilization of having believed that it has reached infinity on earth in a materialized form, returns to the infinite work on himself and to accumulate personal relationships.
What precise organization? The one that, after the authoritarianism of Western civilization, returns to coexist in peace, because it is based on communities that resolve conflicts without destroying, nonviolently.
The previous interpretation (with the two dimensions) of the Ark Community’s rule shows that it corresponds to Gandhi’s choices against the negativity of the world and for the construction of the alternative. This fact proves that the Ark’s life teaching truly carries on Gandhi’s teaching. All this shows that the two dimensions constitute the backbone, on the one hand, of maximum social evil (the two Beasts) and, on the other, of total conversion.
It is for the completeness of the two dimensions that in Gandhi’s and Lanza del Vasto’s teaching “everything is held”, both in itself and in response to the Evil of the world.
[i] In the poem “Gandhi grande ame”, written before going to India (Le Chiffre des Choses, Denoel, Paris, 1953, pp. 95-97;in Les Quatre Fléaux, Denoel, Paris, the entire chap. 5, in particular sect. 40); in the “Christian Prayer for Gandhi” (L’Arche avait pour voile une vigne, Denoel, Paris 1978 (AAVV), pp. 242-243) and in the two papers nos. 11 and 12, collected in Pages d’Enseigenement, Rocher, Monaco, 1992, pp. 69-76).
[ii] Commentaire de l’Evangile, Denoel, Paris, 1950 p. 58. For brevity’s sake I skipped the sequel which is very interesting.
[iii] In “La conversion de l’intelligence, du coeur et du corps”, Le Grand Retour, Rocher, Monaco, 1993, pp. 16-41, p. 17.
[iv] Viatique, Rocher, Monaco, 1991, vol. II, p. 285.
Prof. Antonino Drago – Member of the TRANSCEND Network, formerly at the University of Naples. Allied of Ark community, he teaches at the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU: I have a Master degree in physics (University of Pisa 1961), I am a follower of the Community of the Ark of Gandhi’s Italian disciple, Lanza del Vasto, I am a conscientious objector, a participant in the Italian campaigns for conscientious objection (1964-1972) and the Campaign for refusing to pay taxes to finance military expenditure (1983-2000). Owing to my long experience in these activities and also my writings on these subjects I was asked by the University of Pisa to teach Nonviolent popular defense in the curriculum of “Science for Peace” (from 2001 to 2012) and also Peacebuilding and Peacekeeping (2009-2013); then by the University of Florence to teach History and Techniques of nonviolence in the curriculum of “Operations of Peace” (2004-2010). I was the first President of the Italian ministerial committee for promoting un-armed and nonviolent civil defense (2004-2005). email@example.com.
Tags: Gandhi, History, Nonviolence
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 25 Jan 2021.
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