Note on Gandhi’s Understanding of Satyagraha

Gandhi’s conception of satya and ahimsa lie at the heart of his entire social and political philosophy. His concept of satya, with ahimsa as the means, determined his doctrine of satyagraha or active resistance to authority; while the concept of ahimsa, with satya as the common end enabled him to formulate his doctrine of sarvodaya or non violent socialism.

The doctrine of Satyagraha was meant to show how the man of conscience could engage in heroic action in the vindication of truth and freedom against all tyranny, in his appeal to justice against every social abuse and sectional interest. Satya and ahimsa alone can secure an enduring basis for social consensus and political loyalty. There is no external authority that can claim higher status than satya either in the religious or in the political sphere.

It is also important to mention that neither the doctrine nor the practice of passive resistance originated with Gandhi, for they are both found in political thought and tradition of both Europe and Asia. Gandhi, as he did with his conception of ahimsa, reinterpreted the notion of passive-resistance.

The Doctrine of Satyagraha

The term satyagraha was coined by Gandhi in 1906 in the early phase of his South African campaign to secure elementary human rights of Indian immigrants. He felt the phrase ‘passive resistance’ gave rise to confusion. Satyagraha comes from satya (truth) which implies love, and agraha (firmness) which implies engendering and therefore serves as a synonym for force. So Satyagraha is the force which is born to Truth and Love or non-violence and it is ‘a relentless search for truth and determination to reach truth’.

Although Gandhi sometimes used satyagraha and passive resistance as synonyms, he regarded the difference between the two as great and fundamental and pointed to five differences between passive resistance and satyagraha. First of all, satyagraha is believing in ourselves to be strong, a belief which grows day by day and the more it grows the more effective it become. Passive resistance on the other hand is passive and creates a belief, in ourselves and in others, of weakness and helplessness. Secondly, there is no scope of love in passive resistance, whereas there is no place for hatred in satyagraha. Thirdly, physical (brute) force is a negation of satyagraha, but not necessarily of passive resistance. Fourthly, satyagraha can be offered to one’s nearest and dearest, whereas passive resistance cannot unless they have ceased to be dear to us. Fifthly, in satyagraha there is no desire to injure the opponent, while in passive resistance the idea of harassing the other party is always present.

In short, satyagraha, unlike passive resistance, ‘postulates the conquest of the adversary by suffering in one’s own person”. Gandhi’s chief purpose in distinguishing satyagraha and passive resistance was to protect that former from the taint of weakness implicit in the adjective ‘passive’. Satyagraha is something ‘active’ and not ‘passive’.

Satyagraha as a Movement

The doctrine of Satyagraha was conceived by Gandhi as an extension of the rule of domestic life into political. He held that family disputes and differences are generally settled according to the ‘Law of Love’. This rule of domestic life or Law of Love may require self-suffering or some form of non-cooperation – e.g. if the headmaster of a school conducts his institution on an immoral basis, pupils must leave the school.

Non-cooperation, according to Gandhji, chiefly implies the withdrawal of cooperation from the State that, in the non-cooperator’s view, has become corrupt. However, Gandhi also distinguishes between to non-cooperation and civil disobedience. He says that civil disobedience signifies the resister’s outlawry in a civil non-violent manner and it invokes the sanctions of the law and cheerfully suffered imprisonment. Civil disobedience is the purest type of constitutional agitation. Civil disobedience presupposes a scrupulous and willing observance of all laws which do hurt the moral sense or violate individual conscience. It is a state of lawlessness, but does demand a law-abiding spirit combined with self-restraint.

Civil disobedience was regarded by Gandhi as a narrower concept (fewer people capable of it) with important political implication. Non-cooperation was conceived in a much wider context as an instrument of social action. Civil disobedience was regarded as a universal human right, which in practice only a few were capable of exemplifying in a spirit of tapas (self-suffering). Non-cooperation was considered to be a readily unverifiable method of social change, which made fewer spiritual demands on its users. Unlike civil disobedience, non-cooperation is not unconstitutional if it is undertaken only in conditions in which it is not followed by anarchy or disorder. And yet the purpose on non-cooperation is to put pressure upon a government by making it difficult for it to govern. Cooperation with a just government is a duty; non-cooperation with an unjust government is equally a duty.

Gandhi’s analysis of civil disobedience conflated two separate notions. Firstly, the natural light, the universal obligation, of every human being to act according to his conscience and in opposition, if necessary, of any external authority or restraint. Secondly, the duty of the citizen to qualify himself by obedience to the laws of the State to exercise on rare occasions his obligation to violate an unjust law or challenge an unjust system, and to accept willingly the consequence of his disobedience an determined by the legal sanctions of the State.

For Gandhi, civil disobedience a terrifying synonym for suffering; which is why he believes that tapas (self-suffeting) is a very important attribute of a satyagri (a person who believes and follows satyagraha). Satyagraha, Gandhi said, differs from the method of rational persuasion and violent action chiefly in its unique reliance upon tapas or self-suffering. Gandhi argues that experience has shown that the appeal to the reason produces no effect upon those who have settled convictions. So if the eyes of their understanding are not opened by argument then the satyagrahi must, only as the last resort, appeal to civil disobedience and open their eyes through his suffering. The satyagrahi strives to reach the reason through the heart. The method of reaching the heart is to awaken public opinion, since an awakened and intelligent public opinion it is the most potent weapon of a satyagrahi.

Satyagraha is thus ultimately ‘the argument of suffering’. It assumes that ‘the hardest heart and grossest ignorance must disappear before the rising sun of suffering without anger and without malice.”

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