You are here:
ONLINE BOOKS > GANDHI - His Relevance For Our Times > The Spiritual basis of Satyagraha
The Spiritual Basis Of Satyagraha
By K. M. Munshi
Gandhi and Truth
Gandhi is too near us in time to enable us to judge him from the perspective of history and human thought. Patriots may call him “Father of the Nation”; historians may call him the “Liberator of India”. However, it must not be forgotten that he was a Mahatma in the line of the great men who have stood, fought and suffered for vindicating the moral and spiritual values against the forces of barbarism.
The shifting code of behaviour accepted by one age or one civilization had little appeal for him. He stood for the supremacy of the eternal Moral Order, of which the prophets had spoken and the poets had sung. His achievements were all the more notable because he lived and worked in an age which, by and large, ignores God and scoffs at morals in the matter of social and political activities. He did not only stand for the Moral Order; he tried to translate it into his individual life. He came to pledge himself progressively not only to non-violence and truth but also non-stealing, non-waste and non-possession―ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha―described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra as the mahavratas (the great vows), which a yogi has to observe regardless of time and place.
Truth was God to Gandhi. “Once I believed that God is Truth”, he wrote once. “I now believe that Truth is God”. “God as Truth”, he wrote, “has been for me a treasure beyond price. May He be so to every one of us.” His whole life was an experiment in living for truth, a mighty effort to weld thought, word and deed into a unit. His achievements, great though they were, were only a partial expression of this effort.
Living by Truth in this sense led him to two far-reaching conclusions: first, pursuit of Truth in the individual life can only be the keystone of enduring creative activity; secondly, whosoever seeks to realise Truth must be ready to back it up with his life. To use the beautiful words of Romain Rolland: “A man’s first duty is to be himself, to remain himself even at the cost of life.”
Truth, thus viewed, is the only spiritual charter for free souls. It is the assertion of the dignity of man. It is a revolt against regimentation of life; against passive subordination to dogmas, social, political or religious; against the despotic unity which is being imposed by the political and social theories of modern Europe which deify the state. At the same time, Gandhi felt that living for one's truth may become unethical unless it is harnessed to nonviolence. It was this alchemy of welding truth with nonviolence which led him to forge the weapon of satyagraha (literally “insistence on truth”).
If one decides to stand up for the truth as one sees it and backs it up with one’s life, one must also accept the limitations of nonviolence and abjure the use of brute force. If this is done, the technique acquires a new edge and a fresh meaning. The use of satyagraha carries with it many and varied implications. The man who adopts the weapon has to direct it against the evil, not the evil-doer, a very difficult thing to do without a continuous process of self-purification. At the same time, he has to see that it does not inflict violence on the other side, but is content to invite suffering on himself. Suffering, deliberately invited, in support of a cause which one considers righteous, naturally purges the mind of the satyagrahi of ill-will and removes the element of bitterness from the antagonist.

The efficacy of satyagraha depends upon the tenacity to resist evil which, while it abjures force, develops in the satyagrahi the faculty to face all risks cheerfully. Thus, the emphasis is transferred from aggression by force to resistance by tenacity. It is only when these requirements are met that nonviolent satyagraha becomes a mighty weapon of resistance both in the struggle for freedom as well as in self-realisation. The results are reached by slow degrees, it is true, but the resultant bitterness is short-lived.
Satyagraha in some form or the other was adopted by various sets of people at different times in history. But it was left to Gandhi to perfect the technique by which mass resistance could succeed in achieving enduring results without resorting to force and without leaving a legacy of bitterness behind. The technique acquires great importance in the modern world when instruments of coercion and destruction are concentrated in the hands of a few rulers in every country. Those who serve the cause of freedom or collective welfare have no other efficacious weapon left, except satyagraha. We see this illustrated in the satyagraha offered by the Negroes in U.S.A.
Satyagraha as a social force is not a negative creed of the pacifists, a pious wish, a faith devoid of passion. It is an activity resulting from an effective will to vindicate the supremacy of the Moral Order. In the hour of danger, it demands the highest form of heroism as well as self-control.
Satyagraha, as Gandhi often said, is a weapon of the strong, not a cover for the cowardice of the weak. As he himself recognised, in the practical affairs of men there may be occasions when nonviolence may have to be tempered with the defensive use of violence.
Nonviolence is absolute in principle; but on occasions, as the one which presented itself to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, it has to be a mental attitude, not an absolute refusal to resist violence by violent methods.
The power of satyagraha lies in the satyagrahi’s firm determination to uphold his truth at the cost of his life in a spirit of humility. This power only comes to a satyagrahi when he acquires the faith that the cause he fights for is God-given. This aspect of satyagraha was thus expressed by Gandhi: “But who am I? I have no strength save what God gives me. I have no authority over my countrymen save the purely moral. If he holds me to be a sure instrument for the spread of nonviolence in place of the awful violence now ruling the earth, He will give me the strength and show me the way. My greatest weapon is mute prayer. The cause of peace is, therefore, in God’s good hands. Nothing can happen but His will expressed in His eternal, changeless Law which is He.” “God is a living presence to me. I am surer of His existence than of the fact that you and I are sitting in this room. I may live without air and water but not without Him.” “You may pluck out my eyes, but that cannot kill me. But blast my belief in God and I am dead.” “Whatever striking things I have done in life, I have not done prompted by reason but by instinct, I would say God."
Gandhi had none of the sanctions which position, power and wealth give; the only sanction he possessed proceeded from his nearness to God. It is this which gave him an authority over the hearts of men, an authority which was spiritual and moral. To a world dominated by what Aldous Huxley calls “the false doctrine of totalitarian anthropocentrism and the pernicious ideas and practices of nationalistic pseudo-mysticism”, Gandhi gave a new technique of spirituality in action.