Gandhi, through Satyagraha, has provided the world with a universal and
timeless philosophy. Like Socrates, Gandhi was like a gadfly and was often
an embarrassment and an irritant even to his friends and allies. He
challenged mostly power positions that pretended to be based on sound
knowledge and morality. Like Kant, he focused much of his attention to
motives and intentions, but moved a step further to emphasize the primacy of
morality. He therefore had little sympathy for detached theories of
knowledge that are not grounded in morality or for theology and metaphysics
which pretend to transcend morality.
Gandhi emphasized an integral relationship between means and ends. One cannot use
impure or immoral means to achieve worthy goals. Gandhi departs from the
Utilitarians as Sisir Sanyal attests:
The utilitarian philosophers in the west enunciated the concept of greatest good of the
greatest number as the aim of state policy. This has failed to take a
holistic view of the entire human race and ignored man; that is to say each
and every man, as the prime concern of the state…. As against this, Gandhi
propounded the theory of sarvodaya, which means the rise of all that
too in the fullest measure each man is capable of.1
order to understand this ‘timeless philosophy’ propounded by Gandhi, it will
be good to see the various interpretations given to it. After this, the
basic principles of nonviolence at public and private levels will be
exposed. This chapter will end with an understanding of Gandhi’s dialectics
and political theory, deduced from his philosophy of nonviolence.
The Etic and Emic Interpretations of Gandhian Satyagraha
Satyagraha has not been understood by all, especially those alien to the
oriental traditions. As a result, there have emerged two different views of
Satyagraha viz. the Emic and Etic views. When the perspective
stems from common culture and history, it may be termed Emic. This
contrasts to the perspective of an outsider to a culture, which can be
termed Etic. The Emic view of Satyagraha is seldom evident to an
untrained outsider because, while insensitive to the nuances of a given
culture, it invites generalizations and comparisons. Differences in context
might require differences of expression of Satyagraha. Events generally have
different meanings with respect to the actor and viewer. The way things are
done by a particular set of people may not be interpreted same as when
viewed by outsiders not having the same history and culture.
views have been well explained and used by William J. Starosta and Angu G.
Chaudhery in their article “I can wait 40 or 400 years: Gandhian Satyagraha
East and West.”2 Satyagraha in the West is seen as Etic while in
the east it is seen as Emic. This is because Satyagraha has much in common
with Eastern Traditions and Philosophy. We don’t negate in any way that
there might be a substantial tradition of Satyagraha, called by whatever
names, in the West.
Etic Interpretation: Satyagraha in the West
To understand Gandhi’s Satyagraha in the West, most students turn to a
familiar American Landmark. In the west, Gandhi’s Satyagraha has been
understood in terms of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’, though
some others move a little further than Thoreau. The Salt March is often
described ambiguously as Civil Disobedience. At times even Gandhi himself
referred to the Salt March as civil disobedience when he attests that “you
have given me a teacher in Thoreau who furnished me through his essay on
‘the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Scientific confirmation of what I was doing
in South Africa”
Gandhi differentiated his Satyagraha from Civil Disobedience. Civil
Disobedience is at most a branch of Satyagraha. For him, “Satyagraha is like
a Banyan tree with innumerable branches. Civil Disobedience is one such
branch. Satya (truth) and ahimsa (Nonviolence) together make
the present trunk from which innumerable branches shoot out.”4
Krishna Shridharani’s book on “War Without Violence” has been quoted
by Gene Sharp to show us 13 techniques most characteristic of Satyagraha. Of
these, Civil disobedience is the 11th technique. The Etic
interpretation seems too reductionist. The Emic interpretation will give a
better understanding of Gandhian Satyagraha.
Emic Interpretation: Satyagraha in the East
Gandhi and Satyagraha are viewed here as continuous with three millennia old
traditions of Indian tradition and practice. In other words Gandhi’s
Satyagraha is deeply rooted in the Indian traditions. There are seven Emic
aspects of Gandhian Satyagraha.
since the Post-Vendantic, Indian philosophic religion had evolved in
the direction of philosophic monism. This implies no distinctions between
self and absolute, thought and action, means and ends. While western
philosophy sees distinction between “means and ends”5,
Gandhi does not distinguish between them. To achieve good ends, one could
use none other than good means. Violence begets Violence, Nonviolence begets
In order to fetch Good out of Evil via Satyagraha constitutes a total effort
of heart, mind, and body. There is constant need in the Hindu culture for
purification. Purification can be done through renunciation of worldly
things. The Indian term for this is Bramacharya (Celibacy, Chastity).
Gandhi himself took the Bramachyrya vow and recommended it to the S
3) Sacrifice:the earliest forms of Hinduism stressed ‘vrata’ and 'tapas’6and
properly would produce results in defiance of the gods themselves. The power
of sacrifice was highly recommended by Gandhi. The Satyagrahi like Gandhi is
asked to sacrifice life, family, things on earth, self-importance, and to
court suffering in the belief that unearned suffering is redemptive. Gandhi
was optimistic that just as Vedic sacrifice could defy the gods, so too
self-sacrifice could defy British authorities
Gandhi was never daunted by length of time. “How long will a desired end
take to be effected by means of Satyagraha? The result was inevitable;
Gandhi never doubted”.
The stress in Hinduism upon samsara- a belief in repeated rebirths
for so long as the person is lacking in perfection or understanding (samsara
means ‘world cycle’). One object is to transcend rebirth through
disciplined action. This places Satyagraha into a mythic time frame, wherein
laws of sacrifice will work themselves out in however long the process must
take. A quick result might be politically desirable, but a religiously
inevitable result would certainly be assured if not this time, then in the
Satyagraha aims at converting the opponent. Evil is present in many forms
within the world. In its mildest form, evil could represent error in a
friend while in another case; it could represent evil in an opponent. The
remedy for any degree of evil in the emic view was conversion through
self-effacement. For example, if a follower of Satyagraha decides to put on
a foreign dress instead of home spurn clothes, a Satyagrahi would be
assigned to meet the offender on one’s knees and humbly implore the person
to correct the error. Satyagraha aims at fighting the person’s deed and not
the person. General Jan Smut was a target for conversion by means of
The very fact that Satyagraha in publicly permitting evil to act upon a
transparently defenseless target is the expectation that such evil would
destroy itself through conversion to Good in Nonmanipulation. Manipulation
is another form of force. Nonmanipulation sets up a scene in which an actor
risks characterization as evil because his acts become visible and morally
accountable. In such a scene, only morally acceptable acts are likely to be
performed. One writer refers to this force as “one of purification rather
than of manipulation.”
7) Being versus Doing:
Satyagraha grew as a philosophy within a context that stressed being,
contemplation, asceticism, and intrinsic goodness of character as preferred
social ends. Civil disobedience grew in a culture which favoured doing over
being. Contrary to a Western view, which would like to respond to act with
act, anger with anger, deed with deed, a satagrahi is trained to thank the
jail keeper for performing the arrest, to congratulate those who were
imprisoned. By this preference for being over doing, the conflict was joined
between spiritual truth and corrupt deeds not directly between antagonists.
In a nutshell it is good to understand Satyagraha within the cultural
background form, which it evolved. It should be noted that the etic accounts
saw the British as enemies and not friends. However, if understood with an
emic view, Satyagraha will be seen as a public expression of pure thought,
thought that is one with action; which is performed as a moral duty with no
dread of consequence. “Such detached witness as sacrifice leading immutably
and inexorably to conversion of evil to good”, Starosta and Chaudhery attest
“if not now, then sometime later.”
Gandhian Satyagraha for an emic culture resulted in the rendering of
Gandhian techniques as syncretic. This is because the impact of the west,
with etic views upon the several traditions of India bears traces of the
thought and experience of modern Europe. The transplanting of social and
political philosophies current in the west to the rich cultural soil of the
Indian sub-continent has resulted in a growth both vigorous and productive.
The impact of this syncretism Bondurant attests, has been “more tellingly
demonstrated…in the development of the Gandhian technique.”10
Essential Principles of Gandhi’s Philosophy of Nonviolence
Emic understanding of Gandhi’s Philosophy of Nonviolence will reveal some
essential principles both at the public and private level. The principles of
Gandhi’s Philosophy at the public level include; Truth, Ahimsa, Trusteeship
and Constructive Action/Programme. While at private level we have; Respect,
Understanding, Appreciation and acceptance.
Philosophy of Nonviolence at Public level
Essential principles at public level are: -
imperfect translation of the Sanskrit satya. The meaning of truth is,
of course obvious. It must be noted that truth has many sides and is ever
changing. What appears true today may not be true tomorrow, or what appears
true to us may not be same for others. We must develop the ability to look
at everything from different perspectives. However, we have to aim at the
absolute truth, which Gandhi identifies with God. Aiming at this absolute
truth implies numerous experiments with the truth, which Gandhi applied at
This is nonviolence in thought, word and deed. Far from meaning mere peacefulness
or the absence of overt violence, Gandhi understood it to denote active
love. It is used at public level to bring about positive changes. We should
therefore aim at an A+ grade in our perception of nonviolence.
For Gandhi,violence is inherent in our present economic, social and
industrial systems. He therefore aims at bringing a change through the
application of his concept of Trusteeship. Trusteeship according to Bader
means “Having faith and confidence in a process of taking responsibility for
assets and social values and administering their rightful and creative usage
for benefit of others now and in the coming ages.”11
objective is to create nonviolent and nonexploitative relationships. Gandhi
believes that the concepts of possession and private property were sources
of violence. All wealth belongs to all people. He recognizes that the
concept of ownership cannot wither easily and that the rich cannot be easily
persuaded to share their wealth. He therefore invites those people who
consider themselves today as owners to act as trustees; that is, owners, not
in their own right, but owners in the right of those whom they have
exploited. This principle seeks to destroy not the capitalists, but
capitalism. Trusteeship provides a means of attaining an egalitarian
society. The basis of this socialism is economic equality.
Trusteeship is strongly based on participatory democracy. It is a “fraternal
partnership between all factors of production with the aim of achieving
larger social benefit rather that working toward a narrow economic objective
such as profit.”12
Trusteeship is the natural corollary to constructive action/programme.
4) Constructive Programme:
Gandhi devoted himself to the social, economic and spiritual regeneration of
the country and felt this would be achieved by the efforts of the people
themselves. Gandhi therefore emphasized on what he had originally conceived
as “spiritual socialism”, the positive counterpart of noncooperation and
civil disobedience and eventually called the constructive program.
To win independence, Gandhi felt the only truthful and nonviolent way
would be through the constructive action. Gandhi therefore feels that the
constructive programme may more otherwise and more fittingly be called
“Construction of Poorna Swaraj or complete independence by the
truthful and nonviolent means.”13
It means getting involved in finding constructive solutions to problems. We
usually ward our responsibilities on someone else’s shoulders, usually
government’s shoulders. Yet they have serious consequences.
constructive programme was the greatest means to economic development for a
poor country like India. Mahatma Gandhi feels strongly that the constructive
programme is another form of Satyagraha, which could bring about a
nonviolent agrarian revolution. The following are the various constructive
programmes listed by Gandhi:
Unity of religious communities, Removal of untouchability, Prohibition,
Khadi, Other Village Industries, Village Sanitation, News of Basic
Sanitation, Adult Education, Upliftment of Women, Education in health
Hygiene, Provincial Languages, Propagation of Rastra Basha (National
Language), Promotion of Economic Equality, Kisans (peasants), Labour,
Adivasis, Lepers, Students. The Constructive Programme gave “Content to the
Satyagraha framework and applied Gandhian principles in the Indian
Gandhi’s Philosophy of Nonviolence at the Private Level
According to Hector Ayala, true Gandhian peace has to come “through the
proper understanding and practice of nonviolence based on the four
principles of nonviolence at personal level which includes respect,
understanding acceptance and appreciation”. 15 If we learn to
build good relationships based on the four cardinal principles, then
conflict will be minimized. They all go to make the world more peaceful.
The essential principles here include:
1) Respect: This
is a behaviour and attitude, which reflect one’s ability to see the worth
and value in people, situations and institutions. When there is no respect
between people, conflict arises and leads to violence. Gandhi therefore
advocated fearlessly for the dignity of the human person. Gandhian
Nonviolence teaches us to respect ourselves and others and all of creation
if this respect is cultivated at personal level, we will be open to respect
different cultures and belief systems.
This is reached when we learn who
we are and what our role in creation is. In our arrogance, we believe that
humans are not part of nature. We are therefore prone to destroying our
habitat and cannot expect to survive for very long. By understanding
ourselves, and our reactions to life’s events, we can become better able to
make changes we wish to see; with this knowledge, which does not always come
easily, we can map our response to life. Gandhi advocated for understanding
and dialogue. When well practiced at personal level, the philosophy of
nonviolence will help to foster dialogue.
This is the first step to tolerance. Acceptance does not necessarily equate
to approval. However, it is a conscious decision to see value and inherent
worth of others. One needs a level of humility to cultivate acceptance. This
is attained when we accept differences, Physical and philosophical between
human beings. When these differences begin to melt away then we accept each
other as human beings and can dispense with the label that keep people apart.
This is the recognition of the value and worth of all living creatures
having the ability to see goodness by learning to focus on the good, in
people rather than on the bad even with some difficulty, to see God in all
of life. Appreciation is a by-product of nonviolence. It implies developing
an ability to recognise the value and worth in other human beings.
Philosophy of Nonviolence in Politics
Gandhi’s experiments with truth led him to sample many political approaches.
These can be examined by measuring it against two trends in western
political thinking: Anarchism and Conservatism. On one hand, Gandhi strove
to conserve many things like his religious convictions, local languages,
etc. However, his infusion of his Satyagraha from which he developed his
concepts of trusteeship and Constructive programme sees him deviating from
some of his hereditary traditions, like untouchability.
In Gandhi too, we may find some elements of anarchical thought. He strove for
the “greatest good of all”. He believed this could be realized only;
and stateless democracy of autonomous village communities based on
nonviolence instead of coercion, on service instead of exploitation, on
renunciation instead of acquisitiveness and on the largest measure of local
and individual initiative instead of centralization. 16It is
not easy to just refer to Gandhi’s political ideas as just conservative or
anarchist. The former label is rightly dismissed as doing injustice to the
important elements of rationalism, radicalism and individualism on Gandhi.
The latter makes central those references to a future ideal society, which
for Gandhi were peripheral to his preoccupation with present means. Attempts
to place Gandhi in the Development of political theory have led to an
insight into Gandhi’s Dialectics.
Gandhian Dialectic is understood side-by-side Hegel and Marx’s. In Hegel,
there is insistence on the objective absolute and on the inexorable march of
History. For Marx, both the direction and structure of conflict is
predetermined. Gandhi lays emphasis on the very process by which conflict
is to be resolved. The Hegelian dialectic is a system of logic describing
inherent natural processes. Marxian dialectic is a method by which both the
direction and the structure of conflict are predetermined. Gandhian
dialectic describes a process of a technique of action to any situation of
human conflict, a process essentially creative and inherently constructive.
Gandhi, in his dialectics, is preoccupied with the problem of means and
ends. In his Satyagraha, he propounds the nonduality of means and ends. The
means precede the ends in time but there can be no question of moral
priority. Truth is inseparable from nonviolence and the method of achieving
and clinging to the truth is nonviolence. Gandhi has referred to nonviolence
as being both the end and the means. Shortly before his death, Gandhi
commented in a prayer speech in New Delhi that “means and ends are
problem of means and ends has been a very central issue in political
philosophy. The schools really concerned with these are Marxism and Liberal
democratic theory. Gandhi’s Philosophy of nonviolence supercedes these
schools because of this convertibility of means and ends. The dialectic
implicit in the Gandhian method of Satyagraha is not dependent upon Gandhi’s
metaphysical assumptions, nor upon his Hindu based theology. It could
operate in Non-Hindu societies as it did among the Muslim Pathans in the
North West frontier province.
The Place of Civil Disobedience in Gandhi’s Political Philosophy
The two crucial points in Gandhi’s Politics are those of obedience to the
law and the employment of Force. He was much concerned with the duty of the
citizen in the imperfect states of the world. He cooperated with the
Government but never condoned laws that disregarded the human person. In his
Famous letter to the Viceroy, Inaugurating the Noncooperation Movement in
1921, Gandhi confessed openly that “From a staunch loyalist and cooperator,
I have become an uncompromising, disaffectionist and noncooperator”18In
Gandhian Satyagraha Civil disobedience is justified. One should disobey such
laws as are in themselves bad and obedience to which should be inconsistent
with one’s self respect. One should disobey Laws of state that lack moral
turpitude. He warns however that: Disobedience to the civil must be sincere,
respectful, restrained, never defiant, must be based upon some well
understood principle, must not be capricious and above all must have no
ill-will or hatred behind it19
1. SISIR SANYAL, Gandhian Concept For The 21st Century
2. W. J. STAROSTA and A. G. CHAUDHERY, “I Can’t Wait 40 or 400 Years:
Gandhian Satyagraha East and West”, in International Philosophical
Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, Isssue no. 130, June 1993, 118.
3. M.K. GANDHI, Letter To American Friends, August 3rd
Mahatma, Life Of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi,
Tendulak D. G. (ed.),
Bombay; Navajivan Trust, 1953, 177.
4. M.K. GANDHI, Young India, 1919-1922,
New York, Viking, 1924, 222.
5. G. SESHACHARI, Gandhi and The American Scene: An Intellectual History
Bombay, Nachikata Publication, 1969, 90.
6. The Vrata is a pledge that is undertaken for spiritual reasons. One
example is Gandhi’s mauan-vrata (not speaking) one day per week. Another
example of vrata is Gandhi’s use of fasting. Tapas (Tapas-Sanyasa) is a
tradition of Sacrifice. E.g. the burning of foreign cloth as a sacrifice to
the fire god Agni.
7. R. R. DIKAWAR, Satyagraha: Its Techniques and History,
Hindkitabs, 1946, 82.
8. U. CLOSE, “Gandhi: The Prophet Who Sways India”, in The New York Times
Jan. 1930, 3.
9. W. J. STAROSTA and A. G. CHAUDHERY, International Philosophical
10. J. BONDURANT, Conquest Of Violence, The Gandhian Philosophy of
Los Angeles; University of California Press, 1965, 172.
11. G. BADER, “Gandhi On Trusteeship: A Transforming Ethic” in, World
Business Academy Perspectives,
Barret Korhler Publishers, Vol. 9, No
41, 1995, 1.
12. J. D. SETHI, The Awakening Journal,
Sevak Sangh (ed.), Vol. 1,
No. 2, Nov. 1978, 2.
13. M. K. GANDHI, Constructive Programme, Its Meaning And Place,
Ahmedabad; The Navajivan Trust, 1991, 7.
14. J. BONDURANT, The Conquest Of Violence,
15. H. AYALA, Basic Steps towards a Nonviolent Lifestyle,
K. Gandhi Institute For Nonviolence, 1998, v.
16. G. N.
DHAWAN, The Political Philosophy Of Mahatma Gandhi,
Bombay; Popular Books Depot, 1946, 3.
17. M. K. GANDHI, Delhi Diary; Prayer Speeches From 10-9-1947 to
Ahmedabad; Navajivan Trust, 1948, 58.
18. NIRMAL KUMAR BOSE, Selections From Gandhi
, Ahmedabad, Navajivan
Publishing House, 1948, 142.
19. Gandhi, MM, 64, http://www.mkgandhi-sarvodaya.org/amabrothers/chap04.htm,
Quoted by RAJENDRA PRASAD, Correspondence and select documents
17, New Delhi, Centenary Publications, 1991, 312.