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Gandhian Philosophy Of Satyagraha

By Ramananda Choudhurie 

The Gandhian philosophy of satyagraha is a natural outcome of the supreme concept of truth.  If truth is the ultimate reality, then it is imperative to safeguard the criteria and foundations of truth.  A votary of God which is the highest Truth and the highest Reality must be utterly selfless and gentle.  He should have an unconquerable determination to fight for the supremacy of spiritual and moral values.  Thus alone can he vindicate his sense of ethical devotion. 

Satyagraha means the exercise of the purest soul-force against all injustice, oppression and exploitation.  Suffering and trust are attributes of soul force.  The active nonviolent resistance of the ‘heroic meek’ makes an immediate appeal to the heart. It wants not to endanger the opponent but to overwhelm him by the over flooding power of innocence.  Satyagraha or stupendous effort at conversion can be applied against the Government, the social Czars and leaders of ‘orthodoxy’. 

Satyagraha is an inherent birthright of a person.  It is not merely a sacred right but it can also be a sacred duty.  If the Government does not represent the will of the people, and if it begins to support dishonesty and terrorism, then it should be disobeyed.  But one who wants to vindicate his rights should be prepared to bear all kinds of suffering.   

Gandhi referred to the teaching of Thoreau in this connection.  However, Gandhi stated that Thoreau was not a complete champion of nonviolence.  Probably Thoreau limiter his breach of governmental laws to the revenue law, i.e., he refused to pay taxes.  The dynamics of satyagraha as formulated by Gandhi are broader and more universally applicable.  From the family to the state—wheresoever one meets injustice and untruth—one can resort to satyagraha.  In his autobiography, Gandhi has referred to some experiences of satyagraha practiced in his own family life.  He said that the alphabet of ahimsa is learnt in the domestic school and can be extended to national and even international levels.  Gandhi felt that the Abyssinians, the Spaniards, the Czechs, the Chinese and the Poles could have offered nonviolent resistance against the aggressors.   

There are different techniques of satyagraha.  Fasting can be one form of satyagraha, but it has to be applied only against those who are bound by ties of close personal affection.  Voluntary migration can be another form of satyagraha.  “Tyranny is a kind of plague and when it is likely to make us angry or weak, it is wisdom to leave the scene of such temptation,” said Gandhi.  He even supported Hijrat.  The exodus refers to the planned flight of the Israelites.  In Russia, there was the flight of the Doukhabours who were nonviolent.  Gandhi would not consider the ‘scorched earth’ policy to be a form of satyagraha.  He ruled out underground activities, even though entirely innocent, as a part of legitimate fight for freedom based on truth and nonviolence.  

Satyagraha as conceived by Gandhi is not a formula of social and political disintegration.  A satyagrahi must have first rendered willing obedience to the laws of the state.  Gandhi writes: “a satyagrahi obeys the laws of the society intelligently and of his own freewill, because he considers it to be his sacred duty to do so.  It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws of society scrupulously that he is in a position to judge as to which particular rules are good and just and which are unjust and iniquitous and only then does the right accrue to him of the civil disobedience of certain laws in well-defined circumstances.”  Gandhi claimed to have been by nature law-abiding.  The capacity for civil resistance comes from the discipline undergone in the process of obeying the civil and moral laws of the state.  A satyagrahi while resisting the laws of the government should see that the social structure is not subverted. 

Gandhi laid down strict canons of moral discipline for the satyagrahi.  He must have an unshakeable faith in God, otherwise he will not be able to bear calmly the physical atrocities perpetrated on his person by the authorities with superior force of violence at the command.  He must not hanker after wealth and fame.  He must obey the leader of the satyagraha unit.  He should practice Brahmacharya and should be absolutely fearless and firm in his resolve.  He must have patience, single-minded purposefulness and must not be swayed from the path of duty by anger or any other passion.  Satyagraha can never be resorted to for personal gains.  It is a love process and the appeal is to the heart and not to the sense of fear of the wrong-doer.  Thus, satyagraha is based on personal purification.  The Gandhian stress on purity as a criterion for political power is a great contribution to political thought.  It is essential to employ pure means for serving a righteous cause. 

There are different forms of satyagraha.  Non cooperation with the evil doer is a mild form.  Civil disobedience of the laws of the government is a strong and extreme form of satyagraha.  There can be individual as well as mass civil disobedience.  The latter means spontaneous action by the masses.  In the beginning, masses will have to be rigorously trained for action.  According to Gandhi, complete civil disobedience implying a refusal to render obedience to every single state-made law can be a very powerful movement.  It can become more dangerous than an armed rebellion; because the stupendous power of innocent suffering undergone on a great scale has potency.  By bringing the scrutinizing glare of public opinion on the evils of an autocratic state, the fall even of a despotic political regime is ensured. 

It is not correct to say that Gandhi would not sanction satyagraha in a democratic form of government.  He had no special attachment for parliamentary democracy.  He did not accept the axiomatic superiority of the majority within parliament.  The basic problem, according to him, was life in accordance with the canons of truth.  Several times Gandhi opposed a law or system even if he were in a minority of one, because for him non cooperation with evil was a sacred duty.  A democracy can be swayed by all types of passions, prejudices and petty considerations, but a devotee of truth would no t tamely accept this.  He would not be content with merely trying to change the membership of the legislatures after four or five years.  He should certainly educate public opinion.  According to the political teachings of Gandhi, satyagraha is a perpetual law against any thing repugnant to the soul.  Even if alone, a man of truth and conscience will resist the laws and commands issued by a representative legislature if they go against the higher law of the atman.  A true satyagrahi will risk all dangers for the sake of truth.  Gandhi wrote: “But even so a call may come which one dare not neglect, cost it what it may.  I can clearly see the time coming to me when I must refuse obedience to every single state-made law, even though there may be a certainty of bloodshed.  When neglect of the call means a denial of God, civil disobedience becomes a preemptory duty.” 

Sometimes Gandhian satyagraha is confused with the passive resistance advocated by the Quakers.  But there are vital differences between them.  To begin with, satyagraha is a dynamic force because it contemplates action in resistance of injustice.  Passive resistance is compatible with internal violence towards the enemy but satyagraha stresses continuous cleansing of the mind.  It emphasizes even inner purity.  Passive resistance is mainly contemplated at a political level.  Satyagraha can be practiced at all levels—domestic, social and political.  Satyagraha goes beyond passive resistance in its stress on spiritual and moral teleology because the final source of hope and consolation for the satyagrahi is God.  The Gandhian theory of satyagraha is far more comprehensive than the passive resistance as advocated in India in 1906-1908.  Tilak and Aurobindo would not condemn violence on moral grounds.  But Gandhi accepted the absolution of ahimsa.  The passive resistance of 1906-1908 was a political technique of limited application.  Sometimes it meant only Swadeshi and boycott, while at other times it was extended to cover disobedience of unjust laws and decrees.  The Gandhian theory of satyagraha is a philosophy of life and politics and it contemplates stupendous mass action for paralyzing the total structure of a despotic government. 

It is true that there are points of similarity between the ideas of Gandhi and the British liberals, specially in their grudging attitude to the spheres of state action but they emerge from different traditions.  Gandhi was more radical and trenchant in his opposition to the state than any British liberal nurtured in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.  Essentially Gandhi was a moral prophet who had declared his unequivocal resistance to all concentrations of power, force and violence.  The influence of the individualistic spirit of the old Sanyasi and the Bhikshu tradition of India combined with the protestant individualism of Thoreau and the radical anti-static of Tolstoy was too pronounced in Gandhi. 

Source: Anasakti Darshan Vol. 2, No. 2, July-December 2006