WHEN ITALIAN prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a self-appointed spokesman for the West, asserted last week the ''superiority of our civilization,'' one wonders what Mahatma Gandhi would have made of it. The question arises because today is Gandhi's birthday. What is to be learned from a consideration of the present crisis in the light of the Indian national leader's life and teaching?
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in India to a family of the merchant class in 1869. As a young man, he studied law in London and set out to practice in Durban, South Africa. His 20 years in South Africa were shaped by the struggle against that country's racist structures. Returning to India, Gandhi became part of the Home Rule movement, which, over the decades, developed into a full-fledged independence movement of which he became the main leader.
Following strategies of noncooperation and civil disobedience, the movement grew. One of its great climaxes, in 1930, was the March to the Sea, where thousands gathered to make their own salt as a protest against a government tax on salt. Time in British prisons, rigorous public fasts, an extreme asceticism, and the discovery in his own Hindu religious tradition of spiritual resources that undergirded the great political struggle - these were marks of Gandhi's life. He opposed not only British colonialism, but the Indian caste system; the Raj, but also the oppressions of India's own petty tyrants. His followers bestowed on him the honorific ''Mahatma,'' or ''Great Soul.''
In 1947 the independence of India was achieved, but the conflict was not over. Muslim and Hindu factions were set against each other, a split that would lead to the establishment of two separate countries, Pakistan and India. Gandhi opposed the split. In early 1948, he undertook a public fast for the ideal of Muslim-Hindu amity. Within days, he was assassinated by an extremist from his own Hindu tradition.
Gandhian pacificism is admired in the abstract today, but in practice it is widely dismissed not only as too idealistic, but even as morally irresponsible. Gandhian pacificism is misunderstood as a refusal to resist evil or oppose violence, when, in fact, it spawned some of the most powerful acts of resistance of the 20th century. Indeed, Gandhian nonviolence proved to be an unstoppable force that led to political transformations around the globe, from the United States (Martin Luther King Jr.), to Ireland (John Hume), to the Philippines (Corazon Aquino), to the Soviet Union (Lech Walesa). The movement that recognized Gandhi as a founding hero was the greatest moral event of the century and, equally, one of the most politically effective.
To observe Gandhi's birthday today, in the light of heightened dangers from terrorism, the prospect of conflict between the West and Islam, and the particular nightmare represented by nuclear weapons on the subcontinent, is to recall how very much was unfinished when Gandhi died. After all, a terrorist murdered Gandhi, Gandhi's hope for Hindu peace with Islam failed, and his successors embarked on India's own nuclear weapons program.
But none of that removes the great insight that Gandhi brought to the world (and that I recall with help from authors John S. Dunne, Martin Green, Sissela Bok, and Taylor Branch).
Beginning with a sentimental embrace of ''love,'' as found in Tolstoy's reading of Jesus, and moving to an appreciation, in Thoreau, of civil disobedience, Gandhi invented a new notion of a nonviolent but coercive resistance. A figure who crossed over from one culture to another and back, his idea is innately respectful of religious and cultural differences - unlike, say, Berlusconi's.
Quite simply, Gandhi relied on what he called ''satyagraha,'' or truth-force. The truth will set you free. Gandhi's lifelong strategy was to bring about moments of epiphany when wide populations might come to decisive political and moral recognitions. Acts of resistance that lay bare the real character of evil, Gandhi taught, will lead to broad rejection of that evil. The history of the movements named above suggests that this is anything but the platitudinous meekness derided by those who prefer war.
The events of Sept. 11 were the dead opposite of ''satyagraha,'' but they were a world-historic moment of truth, a profound laying bare of the evil of global terrorism. More than that, the savage assault against thousands of innocent civilians amounted to an epiphany in which the real meaning of anticivilian violence could be seen with rare clarity.
At last, war against civilians, the main mode of war for half a century, is seen for what it is. The American response must enshrine both of these epiphanies - by resisting terrorism, but without an indiscriminate war. Mahatma Gandhi's faith in the power of truth and in the readiness of human beings to change when faced with truth has never been a more vivid image of hope.