At the very core of Gandhi’s philosophy lies the concept of Satyagraha which came to have a profound and lasting influence on his life. It was slowly matured in the soil of his deep reflection, prayer, and experience to eventually inform and enlarge his entire spiritual and political outlook. It was a perception of the world that was cultivated in the heart, as well as the mind, that eventually took him into a new landscape of insight and freedom – panna vimutta (liberation through understanding).
So what exactly is this power perception of satyagraha? How did Gandhi utilize it in his struggles? Does it still have any relevance in our post-modern world? Does it have relevance to our own, individual lives and if so how can we develop it to enrich us, to enrich others?
Satyagraha: the six elements
The concept of satyagraha was first outlined by Gandhi in an attempt to replace the term passive resistance which, it was widely felt, didn’t capture sufficiently enough the spirit of the Indian struggle in South Africa. Gandhi wrote: “ Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love …”
In order to explore what Gandhi meant by the concept of satyagraha, in pragmatic terms, I propose to outline six basic elements, which I feel, constitute its essential structure.
Awareness of injustice
Creative reflection on possible responses
Engagement of action
Resolution of conflict
Awareness of injustice
The very first stage of satyagraha is that of awareness. We need to realize that the perpetuation of certain actions violate a moral code which is considered unjust and therefore unacceptable. Without this perception of wrong there can be no satyagraha.
In 1907 the Transvaal Government implemented the Indian Registration Act which required all Indians living in the country to carry certificates of identification and have their fingerprints taken. They also passed the Immigrants Restriction Act which effectively curtailed Indians entering South Africa. Gandhi thought this legislation was prejudicial and morally wrong so initiated the first satyagraha campaign.
After Gandhi had reflected deeply on the injustice of the Transvaal Government’s legislation, and sought advice from those close to him, he issued a directive not to sign the register. Ninety-five percent of Indians supported him. From his participation in this action Gandhi was eventually sentenced to two months imprisonment. Later a compromise was reached (very much a part of satyagraha) where registration was taken out voluntarily by the Indian community, but it was not long-lasting. At a public meeting the registration documents were burnt in an act of solidarity and defiance. Challenges were also mounted on the Restriction Bill in an attempt to highlight the Transvaal Government’s unfair legislation. It was during this period of stay in South Africa that Gandhi first became aware of discrimination and injustice which set him off on a journey from which he would never, ever pull away …
Creative reflection on possible responses
The next stage of satyagraha involves a period of incubation where time is given for full reflection on possible ways forward, on possible ways to respond in nonviolent terms to the perpetuation of wrong-doing. For Gandhi, as a committed Hindu, this also embraced the spiritual practices of meditation and prayer. A good example of this was the Salt Satyagraha which Gandhi initiated to highlight the injustice of British taxation on Indian salt. Prior to the formulation and enactment of this satyagraha, Gandhi had instinctively felt that a powerful symbolic gesture of defiance had to be made in order to show the British administration the injustice of their presence in India. On 10 January 1930 Gandhi told Nehru: “ I have not seen my way clear as yet,” and continued to probe deeper into introspection. But a few weeks later he spoke about an inner voice that revealed to him a way forward ¬ the Salt Satyagraha. On 12 March 1930, Gandhi started on an historical march, leaving Ahmedabad to walk the two hundred and forty miles to the sea at Dandi. Originally only seventy-nine marchers were selected to undertake the walk, but the further they progressed into their journey the more people joined them, swelling their ranks to thousands. On 6 April Gandhi and his followers waded over the sands at Dandi and ceremoniously scooped up handfuls of natural salt which set off a huge explosion of emotions and jubilations. Gandhi was later arrested.
The Salt Satyagraha proved to be one of the most dramatic and poignant episodes in the struggle for independence, showing Britain, and the rest of the world, how unjust a tax on an abundant natural resource actually was.
Gandhi, throughout his life, acknowledged that a quick fired, instinctive reaction to injustice may cause unnecessary harm; may bring in its wake further, unexpected injustice. Flowing from a deep engagement with introspection, all responses, he thought must be measured in terms of their potential for meeting explicit, nonviolent objectives. Certainly, after giving sufficient creative time to contemplating all possible responses to a given problem, some fairly detailed evaluation needs to be made concerning the relevance and effectiveness of the proposed action. Here consultation, discussion, inquiry, and research take over in trying to minimize the risk of failure, but it is the initial phase of reflection and contemplation that provides the creative spark that sets everything else into motion.
Engagement of action
From the time that Gandhi experienced racial discrimination in South Africa, until the time of Indian Independence, he had been actively and diligently involved in civil resistance for over 50 years. That is commitment to action, a wonderful example of dedicated, pragmatic engagement in pursuing the goals of justice and equality. No amount of contemplation and deliberation, discussion and consultation, investigation and study, is of any real value unless it is supported by action. Gandhi realized this and always looked rigorously at different methodologies for implementing practical, achievable objectives. Because he had a fundamental belief in the justification of his cause, he pursued it with unrelenting vigour. He was involved in a moral crusade that kept the fires of motivation and dedication burning, even in the darkest days. Faith in justice and fairness was the underlying, sustaining quality that carried him through from one course of action to another, from one satyagraha to another, in a life of unyielding certainty of purpose.
” What is faith worth if it is not translated into action?”
In any satyagraha campaign there must be a constant monitoring procedure in place to evaluate progress, however small, however uncertain. Often it involves just waiting patiently knowing that the seeds have been sown and that the harvest is yet to come.
After Gandhi’s awakening he pursued the cause of equality for the rest of his life. A life that saw a constant ebb and flow of losses and gains; where he never really knew, at times, whether satyagraha action was making any real impact on British imperialism or not. But in his heart he knew that the campaign of resistance had to continue. He knew that he had to display an enormous patience and fortitude in order to overcome the tyranny of power.
” The method of satyagraha requires that the satyagrahi should never lose hope …”
Hope is the capacity, supremely human, to look beyond the rational, surface reality into hidden depths that contain many surprises, many possibilities. Gandhi knew that when fighting for justice, you must never give in, never give up hope because a new dawn can break at the most unexpected time. It is always the darkest just before the dawn.
Gandhi also knew that his life was seen to be exemplary and inspirational for so many people so he felt a strong sense of personal responsibility in leading by example and showing a transparent determination to fight on, regardless of setbacks.
A well conceived and fully effective delivery of satyagraha will always win in the end, Gandhi felt, because it attunes to a higher level of spiritual action which creates liberation for both the opposition and the satyagrahi. Both parties can pull away from their dispute with dignity because the perpetuation of force and wrong-doing by the oppressor have been effectively neutralized through the peaceful and ethically-based responses of the satyagrahi. Gandhi’s deeply felt respect, and regard, for the opposition, clearly displayed at every opportunity, was a powerful force that succeeded in winning over so many people.
” I offer you peace. I offer you love. I offer you friendship. I see your beauty. I hear your need. I feel your feelings. My wisdom flows from the Highest Source in you. I salute that Source in you. Let us work together for unity and love. “
And with such thoughtful and feeling words filtering through to shine on virtually every action of Gandhi, who could really oppose him?
The monitoring of conduct deserves a separate status from the monitoring of results because even if a campaign has achieved its desired ends, if the conduct leading to that is found wanting, then the satyagraha has failed. The emphasis here is on seeking positive outcomes that avoid not only the use of violence, but also discredited propaganda, insults, trickery or any other type of conduct that could be considered unbecoming to a committed satyagrahi.
“ A satyagrahi must strive to realize and live truth. And he must never contemplate hurting anyone by thought, word or deed. “
The behaviour of the engaged satyagrahis is therefore effectively ring-fenced by a strict ethical code that constrains them from venturing beyond the perimeter of skilful, compassionate action; despite the reactions of the opponent, despite everything.
In the very heart of a true satyagrahi lies a potential for self-sacrifice that is prepared to bear personal hardship and discomfort, pain and suffering, injustice and wrong-doing in order to seek out a fair and just way forward. An approach that never sets out to demonize or diminish the opponent in any way ¬ a very difficult undertaking! But Gandhi did indeed manage this, in a fine and noble manner. He also managed to endure with equanimity a total of five years imprisonment for the cause of greater change. Undoubtedly his experience of prison life was deeply unsettling but he came to see it as a necessary part of a committed engagement with satyagraha.
Self-sacrifice makes great demands, Gandhi knew his, but he was still prepared to pursue this path in the knowledge that it might lead him into dangerous territory … On Friday 30 January 1948, at a prayer gathering a Hindu fanatic drew out a pistol from his breast pocket and fired three shots into Gandhi’s chest. Crying out: “ He Ram! “ (Oh God!), Gandhi slumped to the ground, and died. He had made the supreme sacrifice. He had given his life for a belief and faith in a better life. He remained a true satyagrahi and paid the ultimate sacrifice of death.
Resolution of conflict
Gandhi held that good would always, ultimately, overcome evil and this fundamental belief provided the basic foundation for the entire concept of satyagraha. In any conflict or dispute there must never be any recourse to violence (physical or verbal) by the satyagrahis despite any wrong-doing by the opponent. This approach of absorption upholds the teachings of eastern philosophy which recognizes that the only way to permanently disarm any aggression is to meet it in non-aggressive ways and try to neutralize its influence. As Gandhi once said: “… return good for evil and kill it.” Satyagraha is not about ‘ defeating ‘ an opponent; it is more about winning them over, exposing them to the real truth inherent within any given situation. It reveals to them the injustice that they are involved in so that they can move forward to some degree of compromise. Satyagraha does not recognize evil people, only evil acts.
Conflict, dispute and tension are ever present in our vulnerable world – at the micro level of personal interrelationships, right up to the macro level of international politics. Every one of us exists within a context of possible discord where a clash of differences, apparent or real, can surface at any time to disrupt our relationships. This is a reality that we all face in our everyday lives and one that can test us to the limit. But if we can persevere, if we can try to utilize the transformative tool of satyagraha, then we might make that breakthrough which can carry us into a new and better direction. Many have used its techniques to pursue justice in many parts of the world. Martin Luther King applied it in the Civil Rights Movement and many groups of activists, directly engaged with issues such as nuclear disarmament, environmental damage, and animal rights, have also embraced it.
Eastern spiritual teachings tell us that all life is interconnected and interdependent, so therefore if we try to hurt others, then ultimately, we hurt ourselves. They also tell us that through understanding, compassion and compromise, both sides of a conflict can emerge with dignity and honour in a new framework of mutual respect and acceptance. And who of us, given the damaging consequences of hatred and violence, can refuse this precious gift of satyagraha?
“ When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall ¬think of it, always.”