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Satyagraha: Gandhian Way of Life

- Dr. Savita Singh

Mahatma Gandhi was a key to the revolutions of our time, which took place in different continents. It is widely held that of all the revolutionaries who dominated the 20th century, Gandhi alone offered hope for reform both within and without, physical and spiritual, without destruction. In that century of monstrous violence, it was and is our extraordinary good fortune that Gandhi lived.

As a visionary, Gandhi had foreseen these situations coming through the outcome of the follies of mankind committed throughout the 19th and 20th Century. Not surprising for the life and times of Mahatma Gandhi neatly spreads over three centuries. Born in the latter half of the 19th century, he develops a system in the 20th century by using his ‘self’ as a laboratory where he experiments with Truth as a pure scientist, finds solutions for the major problems now confronting humanity in the 21st century. His sane cautioned us to go only this far and not beyond, slow the pace and ponder carefully before you take the next step.

Mahatma Gandhi came on the scene when the transition from power politics to mass politics was taking place, and he strongly re-inforced the new trend. There are three distinct revolutionary currents in which Gandhi’s practical, earthy ability to apply to new situations what he called “the universal truths” has been instrumental in shaping the history of our times and in moving humanity towards a more rational existence. The first of these is the anti-colonial revolution; the second, the revolution for human dignity; and the third, the revolution for peace. In each of these three areas no scientist, no statesman, no educator has contributed so much as did the humble Indian lawyer who for nearly fifty years carried a torch for the oppressed peoples of all nations, all races and all creeds.

Was it the personality of Gandhi that did this or the force of the ideas that he represented and that he translated into action? Was it the rare spectacle of a man whose thought and word and act were so closely correlated as to form one integrated whole?

Mahatma Gandhi’s aim was to release the individual form the dichotomies and inner contradictions that modern technological civilization has created in the inner spaces of mankind, so also to free humanity from the yearning created though sheer manipulation. He sought to liberate men and women from the external tyranny of ‘modern living’, and bring back wholeness and integrity to the individual. Our age has witnessed the revolt of the disinherited in many countries and in varied forms.

Mahatma Gandhi rejected the weapons of hate and set about to discover the instrument of love for the battle of the weak against the strong. Discoveries came to him one after the other. He then put together all these ingredients of his discovery and welded them into the concept and practice of Satyagraha. Thus, step-by-step, the heroic and solitary experimenter in the dreaded laboratory of South Africa arrived at his radiant discovery of the power of collective non-violence, which evolved in time into the revolutionary weapon of Satyagraha.

It is difficult to make a discovery but even more difficult to apply it in a most difficult situation. How did Gandhi get the reckless courage to use Satyagraha in South Africa? He was himself undergoing a basic transformation within himself. Realizing that fear and non-violence action would be completely contradictory, he deliberately shed all fear and resolved that if he did not trust in the power of the soul he could do nothing. It was only when he was convinced that he had undergone all those changes he wanted to see in others, he tool the final plunge and gave his people the call to awake, arise and act non-violently.

The response was astonishing and justified Gandhi’s faith in God and man. His people rose as one man and followed him valiantly in the non-violent struggle, the meaning of which came to them instinctively and with growing conviction. What happened in this epic struggle, which lasted for seven years from September 11, 1906-1913, is now a part of our glorious history.

On his return to India in 1915, after 21 years sojourn in South Africa with the weapon of Satyagraha safe in his armoury, Gandhi launched his first Satyagraha on Indian soil in 1917 at Champaran, taking up the cause of the poor disinherited peasants, and humbled the might of the British and proved to the world that Satyagraha in South Africa was not a fluke, a one time wonder, but a powerful way of conflict resolution.

As Gandhi was forging ahead one the path of Satyagraha, in another corner of the world, a scientist par excellence Albert Einstein was keeping a keen eye on the experiments being carried out in the laboratory of another scientist – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. There were no professional rivalries between the two but only admiration.

On the 27 September 1931, Einstein wrote to Gandhi openly expressing his admiration for successfully leading the Salt Satyagraha: “You have shown by all you have done that we can achieve the ideal even without resorting to violence. We can conquer those votaries of violence by the non-violence method. Your example will inspire humanity to put an end to a conflict based on violence with international help and cooperation, guaranteeing peace of the world. With this expression of my devotion and admiration I hope to be able to meet you face to face.”

Einstein’s own analysis and an honest commentary on Gandhi, his admiration of Gandhi and the ideas of non-violent ways of solving political problems were equally honest and significant. In 1939 on the 70th Birth Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, he sent his special message. This is the tribute of one of the greatest scientist of all ages to another of his fraternity:

 Mahatma Gandhi’s life’s work is unique in political history. He has devised a quite a new and humane method for fostering the struggle for liberation of his suppressed people and has implemented it with greatest energy and devotion. The enormous influence which it has exerted on the consciously thinking people of the entire civilized world might be far more lasting than may appear in out time of overestimation of brutal method of force. For only the work of such statement is lasting who by example and education action awaken and establish the moral forces of their people.

We may all be happy and grateful that fate has given us such a shining contemporary, an example for coming generations.

It is interesting to note how in the same Champaran, close to the Kaccheri where Gandhi openly challenged the might of the British in India on April 18, 1917 and proved to the world the force of Satyagraha in the home of an English Civil Servant, the world renowned writer and thinker George Orwell was born in 1904. While he poor illiterate Peasant Rajkumar Shukla who was instrumental in taking Gandhi to Champaran and thousand of peasants like him were convinced that coming of Gandhi was like a ‘breeze of fresh air, George Orwell and several like him remained convinced that Mahatma Gandhi’s method will never succeed in modern mesmerized by the glitter and pageantry of science and technology. Perhaps Albert Einstein has spoken for all of us when he says, “My education comes in the way of my learning.”

This historic achievement of Mahatma Gandhi seemed almost inconceivable. How could one so spiritual and detached from the material world achieve so much in altering the course of history? He commanded no army and held no government position, yet he and the movement he lead shook the foundation of the British empire, entirely through the power of disciplined nonviolence. He was revered in his homeland and around the world, and is called the greatest man in history. All this from a frail-looking, toothless man dressed in a loincloth-a “half-naked fakir,” as Winston Churchill derisively labeled him.

In 1946 Joan Bondurant in her meeting with Mahatma Gandhi told him that she wanted to research on Satyagraha. “How can you do research on Satyagraha, you can only experience it. The search for enlightenment required strict adherence to nonviolence. Without ahimsa, it is not possible to seek and find Truth, “Gandhi said. “Ahimsa and Truth are so intertwined that it is practically impossible to disentangle and separate them.” As Joan Bondurant observes, “…if there is dogma in the Gandhian philosophy, it centers here: that the only test of truth is action based on the refusal to do harm.”

Luckily, Mahatma Gandhi has not left the power of Satyagraha in doubt. After the non-violence struggle in South Africa, Gandhi let millions of the Indian people in three massive non-violent revolutions against British rule through which the freedom of India was won. While his philosophy of Satyagraha can be understood in theory by any intelligent individual, and its principles practiced by the ardent and resolute aspirant, his socio-political programme for the regeneration of society, which he has described as Constructive Programme, will remain a riddle until he is perceived as a figure evolving naturally out of the hoary past of India. Satyagraha without Sarvodaya is meaningless. They are the two sides of the same coin; in a real sense embodying the forces, which are still moulding its present history for a vibrant future.

Through the freedom movement, Gandhiji set an agenda for a revolution in India, and subsequently for the entire mankind. Through the Constructive Programme, he presented a comprehensive vision of the kind of society he had in his mind. It was the blue print for inner change in the individual, which would subsequently bring about the social change, it was a process in which individual change and social change will run parallel to each other. Through the ‘Constructive Programme’, Gandhi was preparing the masses for the post independent India. The seed of this vision was sown in Gandhi early in his life when he came in contact with the views of John Ruskin, through the book ‘Unto this Last’. To bring about this ideal into being the entire social order has got to be reconstructed. A social based on non-violence cannot nurture any other ideal. Social change must be an ordered development and not a violent and disruptive change. For social institutions are, he felt, “the visible expression of moral values that mould the minds of individuals.” Mahatma Gandhi knew that his ideas and ideals are difficult to follow because of their inherent simplicity. “It has been my misfortune or good fortune to take the world by surprise. New experiments or old experiments in new style must sometimes engender misunderstanding.”

On his seventy-eighth birthday, October 2, 1947. Gandhi said: “With every breath I pray God to give me strength to quench the flames or remove me from this earth. I, who staked my life to gain India’s independence, do not wish to be a living witness to its destruction.”

While outwardly many things may be happening in India which are contrary to the spirit and the challenge of Mahatma Gandhi, there is under the surface of events, a current slowly gathering strength, which will in the very near future not only change the face of India but also the entire human societies across the globe. The spirit of Gandhi is strong in India. It is an abiding and revolutionary spirit. It will find its own instruments more and more as the years pass. No one, who knows Gandhi or India, will doubt it.

When the strife of these days is forgotten, Gandhi will stand out as the great prophet of a moral and spiritual revolution without which this distracted world will not find peace. It is said that non-violence is the dream of the wish while violence is the history of man.

Mahatma Gandhi had deep faith that mankind will rise up to the occasion and give new directions to an age drifting rapidly to its doom.

He firmly believed that the world is one in its deepest roots and highest aspirations. He knew that the purpose of historical humanity was to develop a word-civilization, a world-culture, a world-community. We can get out of the misery of this world only by exposing the dryness, which is strongly entrenched in our hearts and replacing it by understanding and tolerance. Gandhi’s tender and tormented heart heralds the world, which the United Nation now wish to create.

This is possible only if mankind adopts simplicity and abandonment of possession. The key to future of mankind lies in reflecting on what Gandhi held so dear, the need for keener social consciousness and a deeper sense of personal responsibility: “The essence of what I have said is that man should rest content with what are his real needs and become self-sufficient. If he does not have this control he cannot save himself. After all the world is made up of individuals, just as it is the drops that constitute the ocean. This is a well known truth.”

Mahatma Gandhi had the humility to acknowledge the truth that his advice will not be accepted at once by all, He said, “I may be taunted with the retort that is all utopian and, therefore, not worth a single thought…”

There is an opponent resistance to the appreciation of Gandhian values which seem hopelessly idealistic but are so essential for building a human society.

One of the factors that inhibit true assessment of Gandhi’s relevance for our times is that he is considered a saintly personality, an Ascetic who was far removed from the harsh realities of life in an urban-industrial society, and that he was a paradox – a man born in modern times but rejecting modernity can be nothing else than a paradox.

In answer to this, one has to simply recall that the literal meaning of ‘Ascetic’ in Greek denoted to an athlete who in the course of his training to win the race in Olympics voluntarily gave up indulgences in unessential luxuries of life. By this definition there is, indeed, no greater Ascetic than Gandhi who in the true spirit of “sportsmanship” voluntarily gave up what he regarded as ‘indulgence’ in order to lead the human civilisation out of the present morass and thereby showed the path of recovery to the world exhausted by over consumption.

But Gandhi himself never appreciated being called an ascetic. “It is wrong to call me an ascetic. The ideals that regulate my life are presented for acceptance by mankind in general. I have arrived at them by gradual evolution. Every step was thought out, well considered, and taken with greatest deliberation.”

Contrary to the claims of George Orwell, a century later, one finds a new awakening, which is evident in the quest for a new paradigm rooted in Gandhian values. There is a growing belief that Gandhian forms of intervention alone hold out hope of lasting peace. Extensive research on Mahatma Gandhi is on in several universities, specially in the West. Why is there a sudden interest in Mahatma Gandhi? The answer is not hard to find. There is a growing belief that Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence humbles the arrogance of modern civilisation. The question what is the way to peace is sought to be answered in Gandhian dictum: “…there is no way to peace, peace is the way.” We must not forget, Wars call for Peace, peace never calls for war.

Gandhi’s ideas, which the world is slowly discovering were not utopian or obsolete, they were in a sense far ahead of their times. Romain Rolland, the great French philosopher, biographer of Mahatma Gandhi regarded Gandhi’s ideologies as “the perfect manifestation of the principle of life which will lead a new humanity on to a new path.” Many of his contemporaries believed that Gandhi’s philosophy had meaning and significance beyond the shores of India and are eternal. His advice to go back to a simple sedentary rural life aimed at the reconstruction of small community is the first requisite. This alone will help in heralding the new dawn of a society based on non-violence in which voluntary cooperation is the per-condition for a dignified and peaceful existence.

Mahatma Gandhi’s influence even upon the generation which had been attracted by the ‘power of violence’ was immense. Louis Fischer, his most celebrated biographer, was the first in this list of such persons, As self-professed “dogmatically pro-communist writer… until I delved into Gandhi’s creed of nonviolent resistance.” No less surprising was when the book ‘Mahatma Gandhi, his life and times’ came Gen. Doughlas MacArthur, a professional soldier surprised everyone with his statement that “In the evolution of civilisation, if it is to survive, all men cannot fail eventually to adopt Gandhi’s belief that the process of mass application of force to resolve contentious issues is fundamentally not only wrong but contains within itself the germs of self destruction.”

Evidently, these accounts must reinforce our belief that this was a new type of revolutionary leader, strongly and yet immediately recognizable as belonging to a more inclusive world history. Louis Fischer makes a poignant point when he quotes General Omar Bradley while summing up his subject’s life thus: “We have too many men of science, too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. Gandhi was a unclear infant and an ethical giant. He knew nothing about killing and much about living in the twentieth century.”

Human ideas have a high rate of mortality especially now in this hi-tech culture with fast changing global scenario where ideas are picked up and put aside with an almost frivolous quickness. To imagine that Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy whether social, political or economic, which had their origin and inspirations in the nineteenth century could have anything but a remote chance of acceptance in the twenty-first century will be naive on our part. All that Gandhi did was to put forward from an astonishingly fertile mind a number of tentative hypothesis to be tested in the crucible of time and to be accepted or rejected, amended or added to.

But it would be doing a disservice to Gandhi by forcing the application of his ideas unchanged in situations, which have altered radically. And it would be equally a disservice to find piecemeal solutions for the predicament of humankind and put them together and imagine that we have found an integrated Gandhian solution.

Mahatma Gandhi would often say, “I am not built for academic writing. Action is my domain”. Yet he was guided by values and ideas that remained enduring throughout his life.

In this sense, he was a scientist and not a philosopher.

A scientist is a dreamer and so is a revolutionary. And Mahatma Gandhi was, both a scientist and a revolutionary. If we may say so, he was an ‘evolutionary scientist’.

The spirit of science that he had imbibed made his life a saga of experimentation and discovery. It needs to be remembered that no other teacher in world history but Gandhi had the opportunity to work in countries situated in three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe.

It is wrong to argue that Gandhi’s world is illogical in the sense of inconsistency between the different principles. M.K.Gandhi was much too serious a thinker to get into kind of simple trap. A Gandhian way of life is definitely possible with a World of Gandhians-in the Phoenix Experiment, in the Sabarmati Ashram or at Wardha. The real question is a somewhat different one. Is Gandhi’s thinking relevant in the Contemporary World? But did we ever try to put Gandhi’s ideas into practice to find its relevance?

Gandhi held forth that Armed with the weapon of Satyagraha the weak can refuse to obey. The weak must not surrender; the weak must invite suffering instead of inflicting suffering. The weapons of love must make the weapons of hate as useless as possible, and above all, the slaves must stand together as one united human community. Gandhi made it clear that it must be remembered that challenge was to use the weapons of love collectively and that the battle must inevitably be nonviolent.

We are learning, slowly and painfully what Mahatma Gandhi always taught that violence is always futile, that no wars are really won, that the human race must unify or perish.

The declaration of October 2, Gandhi Jayanti as the International Day of Nonviolence by the UNO mooted by India and supported by 142 member states is a manifestation of the change of hearts, a sincere cry of the war weary world – Please! No more wars! No more violence!

Mahatma Gandhi believed that even if one person takes the lead in the right direction, it will have a big impact on society. Samrat Ashoka is an historic example of this.

This new imperative laid upon us now is to place the weapon of Satyagraha in the hands of the suppressed and downtrodden throughout the world. No greater duty rests upon the people of India than this in view of the Centenary of Satyagraha. And in appreciation of which the global community has now declared October 2 as the International Day of Nonviolence.

It is not surprising, for long Mahatma Gandhi has been hailed as a practical mystic, whose philosophy of life based on Truth and Nonviolence were at once an inspiration to thousands and a puzzle to millions. Mahatma Gandhi’s life and work is also seen as an evolving and an unfinished chapter of Indian history played on a Global scale. It is a journey in spirituality. Great kingdoms with arts and literature of monumental proportions grew naturally from the roots of spiritual culture, embodied and taught by those individuals.

A deeper understanding of the meaning of Satyagraha is based on Truth and Nonviolence offers a way out of the impasse. October 2, 2007 should be seen as a glorious dawn when Satyagraha is accepted and projected as more than a method of social action. Several countries, specially India and south Africa are in the midst of celebrating the Centenary of the Birth of Satyagraha; not merely as a tactic but a strategy; not merely as a philosophical choice but a pragmatic option, a concept of profound importance of the future progress and survival of humankind.

“Expect nothing from the 21st century. It is the 21st century which expects”, said Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Mahatma Gandhi with his life’s message shows how to come up to his expectation. His life’s message and his experiments with Truth forcefully demonstrate that he was not prepared to be defeated. An ‘irrepressible optimist’, he had faith in the righteousness of his cause. He is to be judged not only by what he achieved but also by the what he failed to achieve. His failure lives as a challenge to the present generation and the generations to come. His practical programmes of economic and education reconstruction, of social regeneration and assertion of human dignity, demand a second look.

The Global community has affirmed their faith in the Gandhian way. Now the onus is on the shoulders of ever vigilant and a zealous protector of the eternal legacy of the Mahatma.

Are we prepared to face the challenge?