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Mahatma Gandhi


Gandhi's Philosophy of Nonviolence

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 Kripalani again asserts "Gandhi was the first in Human history to extend the principle of nonviolence from the individual to social and political plane."2While scholars 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.

As the 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 pure democracy.

Satyagraha, the Centre of Gandhi's Contribution to the Philosophy of Nonviolence

It 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 the world.

What is Satyagraha?

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.' Satyagraha has 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 Nonviolence."10

Today 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.

Gandhi 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 therefore underlined:

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.

The Basic Precepts of Satyagraha

There 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:

» Sat/Satya - Truth implying openness, honesty and fairness

» Ahimsa/Nonviolence - refusal to inflict injury upon others.

» Tapasya - willingness to self-sacrifice.

These 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

2. Ahimsa:

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 Gandhi was:

To make the concept of Ahimsa meaningful in 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

It is 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.

At the 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

3. Tapasya (Self-Suffering):

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 says;

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.

It is 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.

The 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 in Action

For 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

South 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)

Gandhi 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 nature.

» 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.

In a 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 aspect... As a rule, this method depended upon moral force for its success. 19

Murphy 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 chapter.

End Notes

  1. M. SHEPARD, Mahatma Gandhi and his Myths, Civil Disobedience, Nonviolence and Satyagraha in the Real World, Los Angeles, Shepard Publications, 2002
  2. M.K. GANDHI, All Men Are Brothers, Autobiographical Reflections, Krishna Kripalani (ed.), New York; The Continuum Publishing Company, 1990, vii.
  3. M.K. GANDHI, Young India, 22-11-1928, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. xxxviii, Ahmedabad; Navajivan Trust, 1970, 69.
  4. M.K. GANDHI, Young India, 20-12-1928, in ibidem, 247.
  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 truth, Ahmedabad; Navajivan Trust, 2003, 254.
  7. NIRMAL KUMAR BOSE, Selections from Gandhi, Ahmedabad; Navajivan Trust, 1948,154.
  8. Mahatma Gandhi, Judith M. Brown, The Essential Writings, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008, 20. Also in Pyarelal Papers, CWMG, 60.
  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, 292.
  13. S.E. JONES, Gandhi, Portrayal of a Friend, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1948, 82.
  14. J.V. BONDURANT, Conquest of Violence, The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict. 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 York Mentor Books, 1954, 35.
  18. S.E. JONES, Gandhi, Portrayal of a Friend, 108.
  19. B. RUSSELL, Mahatma Gandhi, Boston, Atlantic Monthly, December 1952, 23.