With Gandhi, the notion of
nonviolence attained a special status. He not only theorized on it, he
adopted nonviolence as a philosophy and an ideal way of life. He made us
understand that the philosophy of nonviolence is not a weapon of the weak;
it is a weapon, which can be tried by all.
Nonviolence was not
Gandhi’s invention. He is however called the father of nonviolence because
according to Mark Shepard, “He raised nonviolent action to a level never
before achieved.” 1 Krishna
again asserts “Gandhi was the first in Human history to extend the principle
of nonviolence from the individual to social and political plane.”
were talking about an idea without a name or a movement, Gandhi is the
person who came up with the name and brought together different related
ideas under one concept: Satyagraha.
Gandhi’s View of Violence / Nonviolence
Gandhi saw violence pejoratively and
also identified two formsof violence; Passive and Physical,
as we saw earlier. The practice of passive violence is a daily affair,
consciously and unconsciously. It is again the fuel that ignites the fire of
physical violence. Gandhi understands violence from its Sanskrit
root, “himsa”, meaning injury. In the midst of hyper violence, Gandhi
teaches that the one who possess nonviolence is blessed.
Blessed is the man who can perceive the law of ahimsa (nonviolence)
in the midst of the raging fire of himsa all around him. We bow in
reverence to such a man by his example. The more adverse the circumstances
around him, the intenser grows his longing for deliverance from the bondage
of flesh which is a vehicle of himsa…3Gandhi objects to violence because
it perpetuates hatred. When it appears to do ‘good’, the good is only
temporary and cannot do any good in the long run. A true nonviolence
activist accepts violence on himself without inflicting it on another. This
is heroism, and will be discussed in another section. When Gandhi says that
in the course of fighting for human rights, one should accept violence and
self-suffering, he does not applaud cowardice. Cowardice for him is “the
greatest violence, certainly, far greater than bloodshed and the like that
generally go under the name of violence.” 4For Gandhi, perpetrators of violence
(whom he referred to as criminals), are products of social disintegration.
Gandhi feels that violence is not a natural tendency of humans. It is a
learned experience. There is need for a perfect weapon to combat violence
and this is nonviolence.Gandhi understood
nonviolence from its Sanskrit root “Ahimsa”. Ahimsa is just
translated to mean nonviolence in English, but it implies more than just
avoidance of physical violence. Ahimsa implies total nonviolence, no
physical violence, and no passive violence. Gandhi translates Ahimsa as
love. This is explained by Arun Gandhi in an interview thus; “He
(Gandhi) said ahimsa means love. Because if you have love towards somebody,
and you respect that person, then you are not going to do any harm to that
person.” 5 For Gandhi, nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal
of mankind. It is mightier than any weapon of mass destruction. It is
superior to brute force. It is a living force of power and no one has been
or will ever be able to measure its limits or it’s extend.Gandhi’s nonviolence is the search
for truth. Truth is the most fundamental aspect in Gandhi’s Philosophy of
nonviolence. His whole life has been “experiments of truth”. It was in this
course of his pursuit of truth that Gandhi discovered nonviolence, which he
further explained in his Autobiography thus “Ahimsa is the basis of the
search for truth. I am realizing that this search is vain, unless it is
founded on ahimsa as the basis.” 6 Truth and nonviolence are as
old as the hills.For nonviolence to be strong and
effective, it must begin with the mind, without which it will be nonviolence
of the weak and cowardly. A coward is a person who lacks courage when
facing a dangerous and unpleasant situation and tries to avoid it. A man
cannot practice ahimsa and at the same time be a coward. True nonviolence is
dissociated from fear. Gandhi feels that possession of arms is not only
cowardice but also lack of fearlessness or courage. Gandhi stressed this
when he says; “I can imagine a fully armed man to be at heart a coward.
Possession of arms implies an element of fear, if not cowardice but true
nonviolence is impossibility without the possession of unadulterated
fearlessness.” 7 In the face of
violence and injustice, Gandhi considers violent resistance preferable to
cowardly submission. There is hope that a violent man may someday be
nonviolent, but there is no room for a coward to develop fearlessness.
world’s pioneer in nonviolent theory and practice, Gandhi unequivocally
stated that nonviolence contained a universal applicability. In his letter
to Daniel Oliver in Hammana Lebanon on the 11th of 1937 Gandhi
used these words: “ I have no message to give except this that there is no
deliverance for any people on this earth or for all the people of this earth
except through truth and nonviolence in every walk of life without any
exceptions.”8 In this passage, Gandhi promises “deliverance”
through nonviolence for oppressed peoples without exception. Speaking
primarily with regards to nonviolence as a libratory philosophy in this
passage, Gandhi emphasizes the power of nonviolence to emancipate
spiritually and physically. It is a science and of its own can lead one to
Satyagraha, the Centre of Gandhi’s Contribution to the Philosophy of
will be good here to examine what Stanley E. Jones calls “the centre of
Gandhi’s contribution to the world”. All else is marginal compared to it.
Satyagraha is the quintessence of Gandhism. Through it, Gandhi introduced a
new spirit to the world. It is the greatest of all Gandhi’s contribution to
Satyagraha (pronounced sat-YAH-graha) is a compound of two Sanskrit nouns
satya, meaning truth (from ‘sat’- ‘being’ with a suffix ‘ya’), and
agraha, meaning, “firm grasping” (a noun made from the agra,
which has its root ‘grah’- ‘seize’, ‘grasp’, with the verbal prefix
‘a’ – ‘to’ ‘towards). Thus Satyagraha literally means devotion to truth,
remaining firm on the truth and resisting untruth actively but nonviolently.
Since the only way for Gandhi getting to the truth is by nonviolence (love),
it follows that Satyagraha implies an unwavering search for the truth using
nonviolence. Satyagraha according to Michael Nagler literally means
‘clinging to truth,’ and that was exactly how Gandhi understood it:
“clinging to the truth that we are all one under the skin, that there is no
such thing as a ‘win/lose’ confrontation because all our important interests
are really the same, that consciously or not every single person wants unity
and peace with every other”9 Put succinctly, Satyagraha means
‘truth force’ , ‘soul force’ or as Martin Luther Jr would call it
‘love in action.’
often been defined as the philosophy of nonviolent resistance most famously
employed by Mahatma Gandhi, in forcing an end to the British domination.
Gene Sharp did not hesitate to define Satyagraha simply as “Gandhian
as Nagler would say, when we use the word Satyagraha we sometimes mean that
general principle, the fact that love is stronger than hate (and we can
learn to use it to overcome hate), and sometimes we mean more specifically
active resistance by a repressed group; sometimes, even more specifically,
we apply the term to a given movement like Salt Satyagraha etc. It is
worthwhile looking at the way Gandhi uses Satyagraha.
View of Satyagraha
Satyagraha was not a preconceived plan for Gandhi. Event in his life
culminating in his “Bramacharya vow”, 11 prepared him for it. He
Events were so shaping themselves in Johannesburg as to make this
self-purification on my part a preliminary as it were to Satyagraha. I can
now see that all the principal events of my life, culminating in the vow of
Bramacharya were secretly preparing me for it. 12
Satyagraha is a moral weapon and the stress is on soul force over physical
force. It aims at winning the enemy through love and patient suffering. It
aims at winning over an unjust law, not at crushing, punishing, or taking
revenge against the authority, but to convert and heal it. Though it started
as a struggle for political rights, Satyagraha became in the long run a
struggle for individual salvation, which could be achieved through love and
self-sacrifice. Satyagraha is meant to overcome all methods of violence.
Gandhi explained in a letter to Lord Hunter that Satyagraha is a movement
based entirely upon truth. It replaces every form of violence, direct and
indirect, veiled and unveiled and whether in thought, word or deed.
Satyagraha is for the strong in spirit. A doubter or a timid person cannot
do it. Satyagraha teaches the art of living well as well as dying. It is
love and unshakeable firmness that comes from it. Its training is meant for
all, irrespective of age and sex. The most important training is mental not
physical. It has some basic precepts treated below.
Precepts of Satyagraha
are three basic precepts essential to Satyagraha: Truth, Nonviolence and
self-suffering. These are called the pillars of Satyagraha. Failure to grasp
them is a handicap to the understanding of Gandhi’s non –violence. These
three fundamentals correspond to Sanskrit terms:
– Truth implying openness, honesty and fairness
– refusal to inflict injury upon others.
– willingness to self-sacrifice.
fundamental concepts are elaborated below.
Satyagraha as stated before literally means truth force. Truth is relative.
Man is not capable of knowing the absolute truth. Satyagraha implies working
steadily towards a discovery of the absolute truth and converting the
opponent into a trend in the working process. What a person sees as truth
may just as clearly be untrue for another. Gandhi made his life a numerous
experiments with truth. In holding to the truth, he claims to be making a
ceaseless effort to find it.
Gandhi’s conception of truth is deeply rooted in Hinduism. The emphasis of
Satya-truth is paramount in the writings of the Indian philosophers. “Satyannasti
Parodharmati (Satyan Nasti Paro Dharma Ti) – there is no religion or
duty greater than truth”, holds a prominent place in Hinduism. Reaching pure
and absolute truth is attaining moksha. Gandhi holds that truth is God, and
maintains that it is an integral part of Satyagraha. He explains it thus:
The world rests upon the bedrock of satya or truth; asatya meaning untruth
also means “nonexistent” and satya or truth, means that which is of untruth
does not so much exist. Its victory is out of the question. And truth being
“that which is” can never be destroyed. This is the doctrine of Satyagraha
in a nutshell.13
In Gandhi’s Satyagraha, truth is
inseparable from Ahimsa. Ahimsa expresses as ancient Hindu, Jain and
Buddhist ethical precept. The negative prefix ‘a’ plus himsa meaning injury
make up the world normally translated ‘nonviolence’. The term Ahimsa appears
in Hindu teachings as early as the Chandoya Upanishad. The Jain Religion
constitutes Ahimsa as the first vow. It is a cardinal virtue in Buddhism.
Despite its being rooted in these Religions, the special contribution of
To make the concept of Ahimsa meaningful
the social and political spheres by moulding tools for nonviolent action to
use as a positive force in the search for social and political truths.
Gandhi formed Ahimsa into the active social technique, which was to
challenge political authorities and religious orthodoxy. 14
worth noting that this ‘active social technique which was to challenge
political authorities’, used by Gandhi is none other than Satyagraha. Truly
enough, the Indian milieu was already infused with notions of Ahimsa.
Nevertheless, Gandhi acknowledged that it was an essential part of his
experiments with the truth whose technique of action he called Satyagraha.
root of Satya and Ahimsa is love. While making discourses on the
Bhagavad-Gita, an author says:
Truth, peace, righteousness
and nonviolence, Satya, Shanti, Dharma and Ahimsa, do not
exist separately. They are all essentially dependent on love. When love
enters the thoughts it becomes truth. When it manifests itself in the form
of action it becomes truth. When Love manifests itself in the form of action
it becomes Dharma or righteousness. When your feelings become
saturated with love you become peace itself. The very meaning of the word
peace is love. When you fill your understanding with love it is Ahimsa.
Practicing love is Dharma, thinking of love is Satya, feeling
love is Shanti, and understanding love is Ahimsa. For all
these values it is love which flows as the undercurrent.15
it remains a truism that
the classical yogic laws of self-restraint and self-discipline are familiar
elements in Indian culture. Self-suffering in Satyagraha is a test of love.
It is detected first of all towards the much persuasion of one whom is
undertaken. Gandhi distinguished self-suffering from cowardice. Gandhi’s
choice of self-suffering does not mean that he valued life low. It is rather
a sign of voluntary help and it is noble and morally enriching. He himself
It is not because I value life lo
I can countenance with joy Thousands voluntary losing their lives for
Satyagraha, but because I know that it results in the long run in the least
loss of life, and what is more, it ennobles those who lose their lives and
morally enriches the world for their sacrifice.16
Satyagraha is at its best when preached and practiced by those who would use
arms but decided instead to invite suffering upon them.
not easy for a western mind or nonoriental philosopher to understand this
issue of self-suffering. In fact, in Satyagraha, the element of
self-suffering is perhaps the least acceptable to a western mind. Yet such
sacrifice may well provide the ultimate means of realizing that
characteristic so eminent in Christian religion and western moral
philosophy: The dignity of the individual.
three elements: Satya, Ahimsa, Tapasya must move together for the success of
any Satyagraha campaign. It follows that Ahimsa – which implies love, leads
in turn to social service. Truth leads to an ethical humanism.
Self-suffering not for its own sake, but for the demonstration of sincerity
flowing from refusal to injure the opponent while at the same time holding
to the truth, implies sacrifice and preparation for sacrifice even to death.
Satyagraha to be valid, it has to be tested. When the principles are applied
to specific political and social action, the tools of civil disobedience,
noncooperation, nonviolent strike, and constructive action are cherished.
South Africa and India were ‘laboratories’ where Gandhi tested his new
technique. Satyagraha was a necessary weapon for Gandhi to work in South
Africa and India. Louis Fischer attests that: “Gandhi could never have
achieved what he did in South Africa and India but for a weapon peculiarly
his own. It was unprecedented indeed; it was so unique he could not find a
name for it until he finally hit upon Satyagraha.”17
Africa is the acclaimed birthplace of Satyagraha. Here Satyagraha was
employed to fight for the civil rights of Indians in South Africa. In India,
Gandhi applied Satyagraha in his socio-political milieu and carried out
several acts of civil disobedience culminating in the Salt March.
Another wonderful way of seeing Satyagraha in action is through the fasting
of Mahatma Gandhi. Fasting was part and parcel of his philosophy of truth
and nonviolence. Mahatma Gandhi was an activist – a moral and spiritual
activist. And fasting was “one of his strategies of activism, in many ways
his most powerful.” 18
Qualities of a Satyagrahi (Nonviolence Activist)
was quite aware that there was need to train people who could carry on with
his Satyagraha campaigns. He trained them in his “Satyagraha Ashrams”. Here
are some of the basic qualities of expected of a Satyagrahi.
A Satyagraha should have a living faith in God
for he is his only Rock.
One must believe in truth and nonviolence as
one’s creed and therefore have faith in the inherent goodness of human
One must live a chaste life and be ready and
willing for the sake of one’s cause to give up his life and his possessions.
One must be free from the use any intoxicant,
in order that his reason may be undivided and his mind constant.
One must carry out with a willing heart all
the rules of discipline as may be laid down from time to time.
One should carry out the jail rules unless
they are especially dense to hurt his self-respect.
A satyagrahi must accept to suffer in order to
correct a situation.
nutshell, Satyagraha is itself a movement intended to fight social and
promote ethical values. It is a whole philosophy of nonviolence. It is
undertaken only after all the other peaceful means have proven ineffective.
At its heart is nonviolence. An attempt is made to convert, persuade or win
over the opponent. It involves applying the forces of both reason and
conscience simultaneously, while holding aloft the indisputable truth of
his/her position. The Satyagrahi also engages in acts of voluntary
suffering. Any violence inflicted by the opponent is accepted without
retaliation. The opponent can only become morally bankrupt if violence
continues to be inflicted indefinitely.
Several methods can be applied in a Satyagraha campaign. Stephen Murphy
gives primacy to “noncooperation and fasting”. Bertrand Russell has this to
say about Gandhi’s method:
The essence of this method which he (Gandhi) gradually brought to greater
and greater perfection consisted in refusal to do things, which the
authorities wished to have done, while abstaining from any positive action
of an aggressive sort…. The method always had in Gandhi’s mind a religious
As a rule, this method depended upon moral force for its success. 19
and Russell do not accept Gandhi’s doctrine totally. Michael Nagler insists
that they ignore Constructive Programme, which Gandhi considered paramount.
A better understanding of Gandhi’s nonviolence will be seen in the next
1. M. SHEPARD, Mahatma Gandhi and his Myths, Civil Disobedience,
Nonviolence and Satyagraha in the Real World, Los
2. M. K. GANDHI, All Men Are Brothers, Autobiographical Reflections,
Krishna Kripalani (ed.), New York; The Continuum Publishing Company, 1990,
3. M. K. GANDHI, Young India, 22-11-1928, The Collected Works of Mahatma
Vol. xxxviii, Ahmedabad; Navajivan Trust, 1970, 69.
K. GANDHI, Young India, 20-12-1928, in ibidem
5. The New Zion’s Herald, July/August 2001,
vol. 175, issue 4, 17.
6. M. K. GANDHI, An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments With
Ahmedabad; Navajivan Trust, 2003, 254.
7. NIRMAL KUMAR BOSE, Selections from Gandhi,
8. Mahatma Gandhi, Judith M. Brown, The Essential Writings
Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008, 20. Also in Pyarelal Papers, EWMG,
9. Michael N. Nagler, Hope or Terror?
Minneapolis, METTA Center for
Nonviolence Education, 2009, p. 7.
10. T. WEBER and R. J. Burrowes, Nonviolence, An Introduction,
11. Bramacharya Simply means Celibacy, Chastity.
12. M. K. GANDHI, An Autobiography,
13. S. E. JONES, Gandhi, Portrayal of a Friend,
Press, 1948, 82.
14. J. V. BONDURANT, Conquest of Violence, The Gandhian Philosophy of
Los Angeles; University of California Press, 1965, 112.
15. BHAGAVAN SRI SATHYA SAI BABA, Discourses on the Bhagavad-Gita,
Andhra Pradesh; Sri Sathya Sai Books and Publications Trust, 1988, 51-52.
16. M. K. GANDHI, Nonviolence in Peace and War,(2nd ed.)
Ahmedadad, Navijivan Trust, 1944, 49.
17. L. FISCHER. Gandhi; His life and Message For the World, New
, 1954, 35.
18. S. E. JONES, Gandhi, Portrayal of a Friend
19. B. RUSSELL, Mahatma Gandhi,
Boston, Atlantic Monthly, December