Gandhi and Satyagraha – Validity and Relevance – Part One

By Dr C. Sheela Reddy, PhD Assistant Professor, Dept. of Political Science & Public Administration, SV University, Tirupati

A three part series of a paper presented by Dr C Sheela Reddy at the Satyagraha Centenary Conference in New Delhi, India

Satyagraha is the core of Gandhian thought. For Gandhi, Satyagraha was a creed or a fundamental belief. But through his various Satyagraha movements in South Africa and India, Gandhi was able to demonstrate its practical efficacy. It led to the Gandhi –Smuts agreement in South Africa, whereby the major grievances of the Indian settlers were substantially redressed. And, in India, it culminated in the retreat (from India) of the mightiest imperial power in recorded history. It stands to reason that with the requisite will and leadership, it can be expected to yield similar results in our day and in the times to come. The genuine Satyagraha is a weapon of timeless validity and relevance. Gandhi advocated Satyagraha not as a new religion but as a superior means for attaining social harmony and human advancement for peace. This alliance of a pragmatic quest for solutions and a deep spiritual conviction also point to the way in which future generations may be educated in the task of struggling for peace.

Gandhi coined the term Satyagraha to describe his philosophy of nonviolent resistance. In developing Satyagraha, Gandhi was influenced by the concept of ahimsa in the Hindu Upanishads and the tenets of Jainism, as well as earlier theorists of nonviolent resistance and nonresistance including Jesus (particularly the Sermon on the Mount), Leo Tolstoy (particularly The Kingdom of God Is Within You), John Ruskin (particularly Unto This Last), and Henry David Thoreau (particularly Civil Disobedience). Mahatma's technique of Satyagraha or, as it was at first known, Passive Resistance had its origin in South Africa. Satyagraha, the term Gandhi used to give a distinctive identity to his non-violent movement against racial discrimination is a compound of two Sanskrit expressions, Satya (Truth) and Agraha (Insistence or determined pursuit). Thus, it literally means “insistence on truth”, or the determined pursuit of or holding on to truth”. Since Truth is a transcendental or universal value – encompassing all existence, life and time – its pursuit by one person or group cannot be at the expense of others. Hence, the pursuit of Truth must, by definition, be through non-violence. For Gandhi, therefore, truth and non-violence (or Ahimsa) are coterminous or identical terms – and they together constitute the sum and substance of   Satyagraha.

Satyagraha – Not Passive Resistance
Initially Gandhi described the science of Satyagraha, discovered in the course of his movement (in South Africa) against racial discrimination during 1907-12 as passive resistance. But as his movement in South Africa advanced, Gandhi searched for a more suitable expression to replace the term “passive resistance”. He declared a prize to this end in his journal, Indian Opinion. His nephew and co-worker, Maganlal Gandhi suggested “Sadagraha” (firmness in good cause) which after a little modification by Gandhi, became “Satyagraha”. Passive resistance is a mere technique of fighting wrongs or a policy followed by the unarmed against superior force-apparently an expedient device. Satyagraha, as conceived and practiced by Gandhi, is a matter of faith or creed grounded in an integrated philosophy of the universe and life and concomitant ethical beliefs.

Passive resistance is practiced from an awareness of weakness or helplessness vis-à-vis the strong adversary. On the other hand, Satyagraha is practiced from a sense of strength arising from a belief in the essential goodness of human nature and its responsiveness to voluntary self-suffering and sacrifice. In passive resistance, there is room for the use of violent methods or such practices as sabotage or secrecy, if a suitable opportunity presents itself, while in Satyagraha the use of violence in any form is totally ruled out-even against a manifestly weaker adversary. In passive resistance, the aim is to embarrass and harass the adversary and eventually to defeat him. But, in Satyagraha the accent is on not causing the slightest harassment or injury to the opponent. Indeed, terms like ‘victory’ or ‘defeat’ have no place in the vocabulary or dictionary of Satyagraha. The aim is on the moral and mental conversion of the other party through voluntary self-suffering.

Passive resistance may be undertaken against persons, while Satyagraha is never directed against a person as such. It is directed only against institutions, systems, practices (or malpractices) and vested interests, i.e. against wrongs, and not against the wrongdoer.

Passive resistance may arise from hatred, anger or frustration and may thus aim at retribution, retaliation or from the intention of ‘teaching a lesson’ to the adversary. But not so with Satyagraha, which presumes love and human sympathy for other party. Indeed, a Satyagrahi wishes and prays that reason and good sense should prevail on the other side and that it should not come to harm. In the final analysis, passive resistance is just a technique for fighting wrongs in an unequal context. But Satyagraha is applicable to all contexts and situations equal or unequal and is based on fundamental philosophical, ethical and psychological assumptions, rationally and empirically perceived. Hence, unlike passive resistance, Satyagraha is scientific, holistic doctrine or “a way of life” aiming at the creation or restoration of normal life through normal means.

Satyagraha – the quintessence of Gandhism                                                                                
Satyagraha (or active non-violence of Gandhi’s conception) is an all- pervasive creed and technique. Gandhi said (in 1925): “Non-violence to be a creed has to be all pervasive. I cannot be non-violent about one activity of mine and violent about others. And, in 1939, he said: If one doesn’t practice non-violence in one’s personal relations with others and hopes to use it in bigger affairs, one is vastly mistaken. Non-violence like charity must begin at home. One cannot be non-violent in one’s own circle and violent outside it”. The law must apply to nations as to individuals. Thus according to Gandhi Satyagraha or non-violence covers family relations, relations with constituted authority and external aggression. It covers all human relations.

Satyagraha has also been considered as a weapon of soul force to resist any kind of oppression. During the freedom struggle of India, Satyagraha was used as a weapon to resist the authority of the state and to achieve various things for the general welfare of the people. The Champaran and Bardoli Satyagrahas were conducted by Gandhi not only to achieve material gains for the people, but also to resist the unjust authority of the then British regime. The civil disobedience movement of 1930, the Dandi Salt Satyagraha and the Quit India Movements were classic examples when Gandhi used Satyagraha as a weapon of the soul force.

Satyagraha as a means of resistance and conflict resolution has different forms. Hunger strike (fasting), hartal (striking work), hijrat (immigration) are some of the forms suggested. The use of Satyagraha carries with it many and varied implications. The man who adopts the weapon has to direct it against the evil, not the evil-doer, a very difficult thing to do without a continuous process of self-purification. At the same time, he has to see that it does not inflict violence on the other side, but is content to invite suffering on himself. Suffering, deliberately invited, in support of a cause which one considers righteous, naturally purges the mind of the Satyagrahi of ill-will and removes the element of bitterness from the antagonist. The efficacy of Satyagraha depends upon the tenacity to resist evil which, while it abjures force, develops in the Satyagrahi the faculty to face all risks cheerfully. Thus, the emphasis is transferred from aggression by force to resistance by tenacity. It is only when these requirements are met that non-violent Satyagraha becomes a mighty weapon of resistance both in the struggle for freedom as well as in self-realisation. The results are reached by slow degrees, it is true, but the resultant bitterness is short-lived. Satyagraha as a social force demands the highest form of heroism as well as self-control in the hour of danger.

Gandhi believed that conflict is a part of life, just as labour-pains are a part of birth. But that conflict should be resolved through peaceful means. A mother does not hate her child because she has to go through pains at birth so one does not hate the person with one whom one is in conflict but hates the deed. In order to build up the strength, the power and the will to react to adversity in this way Gandhiji started the Satyagraha movement, in which people received training to be able to view adversity differently and be able to react to it in a disciplined way. Satyagraha requires a particular discipline which is learnt through a way of life. It is a way of life which accepts suffering, and can survive hardships. It is a way of life that can love and be compassionate even in the face of adversity. It is a way of life that teaches one to be tolerant and respectful to all beings and things in the world. In it there is no place for prejudice, intolerance, class or caste differentiation as it accepts equality as the law of life. It is a system where we pursue truth and fight evil actively. Satyagraha cannot be viewed as a mere political strategy nor as a weapon against governments that are unjust but rather a way of life, an instrument that can be used in daily life as well as in larger battles against unjust governments, or powerful employers.      

In Part Two Dr Reddy writes further on the concept of Satyagraha and about the United Nations unanimous resolution to honour ‘the apostle of humanity and peace’ by declaring October 2, the birthday of Gandhjii, as the International Day of Non-Violence.