Satyagraha [suht-yuh-gruh-huh] is a term coined by Mahatma Gandhi to describe his particular philosophy and practice within the broader overall category generally known as nonviolent resistance or civil resistance. It loosely translates as ‘insistence on truth’ (Sanskrit: ‘satya’ ‘truth’; ‘agraha’ ‘polite insistence,’ or ‘holding firmly to’) or ‘truth force.’

He deployed satyagraha in the Indian independence movement and also during his earlier struggles in South Africa for Indian rights. Satyagraha theory influenced Nelson Mandela’s struggle in South Africa under apartheid, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaigns during the Civil Rights Movement in the US, and many other social justice and similar movements. Someone who practices satyagraha is a ‘satyagrahi.’

The term originated in a competition in the news-sheet ‘Indian Opinion’ in South Africa in 1906. It was an adaptation by Gandhi of one of the entries in that competition. ‘Satya’ is derived from the word ‘sat,’ which means ‘being.’ Nothing is or exists in reality except Truth. In the context of satyagraha, Truth therefore includes Truth in speech, as opposed to falsehood; what is real, as opposed to nonexistent (‘asat’); and good as opposed to evil, or bad. This was critical to Gandhi’s understanding of and faith in nonviolence: ‘The world rests upon the bedrock of satya or truth. Asatya, meaning untruth, also means nonexistent, and satya or truth also means that which is. If untruth does not so much as 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.’ For Gandhi, satyagraha went far beyond mere ‘passive resistance’ and became strength in practicing non-violent methods. In his words: ‘Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence, and gave up the use of the phrase ‘passive resistance,’ in connection with it, so much so that even in English writing we often avoided it and used instead the word ‘satyagraha’ itself or some other equivalent English phrase.’

In September 1935, a letter to P.K. Rao, ‘Servants of India Society,’ Gandhi disputed the proposition that his idea of Civil Disobedience was adapted from the writings of Thoreau: ‘The resistance to authority in South Africa was well advanced before I got the essay of Thoreau on civil disobedience. But the movement was then known as passive resistance. As it was incomplete, I had coined the word satyagraha for the Gujarati readers. When I saw the title of Thoreau’s great essay, I began the use of his phrase to explain our struggle to the English readers. But I found that even civil disobedience failed to convey the full meaning of the struggle. I therefore adopted the phrase civil resistance. Non-violence was always an integral part of our struggle.’

Gandhi described it as follows: ‘I have also called it love-force or soul-force. In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.’ Civil disobedience and non-cooperation as practiced under Satyagraha are based on the ‘law of suffering,’ a doctrine that the endurance of suffering is a means to an end. This end usually implies a moral upliftment or progress of an individual or society. Therefore, non-cooperation in Satyagraha is in fact a means to secure the cooperation of the opponent consistently with truth and justice.

He distinguished between satyagraha and passive resistance in the following letter: ‘I have drawn the distinction between passive resistance as understood and practiced in the West and satyagraha before I had evolved the doctrine of the latter to its full logical and spiritual extent. I often used ‘passive resistance’ and ‘satyagraha’ as synonymous terms: but as the doctrine of satyagraha developed, the expression ‘passive resistance’ ceases even to be synonymous, as passive resistance has admitted of violence as in the case of the suffragettes and has been universally acknowledged to be a weapon of the weak. Moreover, passive resistance does not necessarily involve complete adherence to truth under every circumstance. Therefore it is different from satyagraha in three essentials: Satyagraha is a weapon of the strong; it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatsoever; and it ever insists upon truth. I think I have now made the distinction perfectly clear.’

It is important to note the intrinsic connection between ‘ahimsa’ (‘compassion’ or ‘not to injure’) and satyagraha. Satyagraha is sometimes used to refer to the whole principle of nonviolence, where it is essentially the same as ahimsa, and sometimes used in a ‘marked’ meaning to refer specifically to direct action that is largely obstructive, for example in the form of civil disobedience. Gandhi says: ‘It is perhaps clear from the foregoing, that without ahimsa it is not possible to seek and find Truth. Ahimsa and Truth are so intertwined that it is practically impossible to disentangle and separate them. They are like the two sides of a coin, or rather of a smooth unstamped metallic disk. Nevertheless, ahimsa is the means; Truth is the end. Means to be means must always be within our reach, and so ahimsa is our supreme duty.’

Assessing the extent to which Gandhi’s ideas of satyagraha were or were not successful in the Indian independence struggle is a complex task. Judith Brown has suggested that ‘this is a political strategy and technique which, for its outcomes, depends of historical specificities.’ The view taken by Gandhi differs from the idea that the goal in any conflict is necessarily to defeat the opponent or frustrate the opponent’s objectives, or to meet one’s own objectives despite the efforts of the opponent to obstruct these. In satyagraha, by contrast, ‘The Satyagrahi’s object is to convert, not to coerce, the wrong-doer.’ The opponent must be converted, at least as far as to stop obstructing the just end, for this cooperation to take place. There are cases, to be sure, when an opponent, e.g. a dictator, has to be unseated and one cannot wait to convert him. The satyagrahi would count this a partial success.

The theory of satyagraha sees means and ends as inseparable. The means used to obtain an end are wrapped up in and attached to that end. Therefore, it is contradictory to try to use unjust means to obtain justice or to try to use violence to obtain peace. As Gandhi wrote: ‘They say, ‘means are, after all, means’. I would say, ‘means are, after all, everything.’ As the means so the end…’ He used an example to explain this: ‘If I want to deprive you of your watch, I shall certainly have to fight for it; if I want to buy your watch, I shall have to pay for it; and if I want a gift, I shall have to plead for it; and, according to the means I employ, the watch is stolen property, my own property, or a donation.’ Gandhi rejected the idea that injustice should, or even could, be fought against ‘by any means necessary’ – if you use violent, coercive, unjust means, whatever ends you produce will necessarily embed that injustice. To those who preached violence and called nonviolent actionists cowards, he replied: ‘I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence….I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honor than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor….But I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment.’

The essence of Satyagraha is that it seeks to eliminate antagonisms without harming the antagonists themselves, as opposed to violent resistance, which is meant to cause harm to the antagonist. A Satyagrahi therefore does not seek to end or destroy the relationship with the antagonist, but instead seeks to transform or ‘purify’ it to a higher level. A euphemism sometimes used for Satyagraha is that it is a ‘silent force’ or a ‘soul force’ (a term also used by Martin Luther King Jr. during his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech). It arms the individual with moral power rather than physical power. Satyagraha is also termed a ‘universal force,’ as it essentially ‘makes no distinction between kinsmen and strangers, young and old, man and woman, friend and foe.’ Gandhi contrasted satyagraha (‘holding on to truth’) with ‘duragraha’ (‘holding on by force’), as in protest meant more to harass than enlighten opponents. He wrote: ‘There must be no impatience, no barbarity, no insolence, no undue pressure. If we want to cultivate a true spirit of democracy, we cannot afford to be intolerant. Intolerance betrays want of faith in one’s cause.’

When using satyagraha in a large-scale political conflict involving civil disobedience, Gandhi believed that the satyagrahis must undergo training to ensure discipline. He wrote that it is ‘only when people have proved their active loyalty by obeying the many laws of the State that they acquire the right of Civil Disobedience.’ He therefore made part of the discipline that satyagrahis: appreciate the other laws of the State and obey them voluntarily; tolerate these laws, even when they are inconvenient; and be willing to undergo suffering, loss of property, and to endure the suffering that might be inflicted on family and friends. This obedience has to be not merely grudging, but extraordinary: ‘…an honest, respectable man will not suddenly take to stealing whether there is a law against stealing or not, but this very man will not feel any remorse for failure to observe the rule about carrying headlights on bicycles after dark…. But he would observe any obligatory rule of this kind, if only to escape the inconvenience of facing a prosecution for a breach of the rule. Such compliance is not, however, the willing and spontaneous obedience that is required of a Satyagrahi.’

Gandhi envisioned satyagraha as not only a tactic to be used in acute political struggle, but as a universal solvent for injustice and harm. He felt that it was equally applicable to large-scale political struggle and to one-on-one interpersonal conflicts and that it should be taught to everyone. He founded the Sabarmati Ashram to teach satyagraha. He asked satyagrahis to follow the following principles (Yamas described in Yoga Sutra): Nonviolence (ahimsa); Truth (including honesty, but also living fully in accord with and in devotion to that which is true); Not stealing; Chastity (brahmacharya, including sexual chastity, but also the subordination of other sensual desires to the primary devotion to truth); Non-possession (not the same as poverty); Body-labor or bread-labor; Control of the palate; Fearlessness; Equal respect for all religions; and Economic strategy such as boycott of exported goods (swadeshi).

Gandhi proposed a series of rules for satyagrahis to follow in a resistance campaign: harbor no anger; suffer the anger of the opponent; never retaliate to assaults or punishment (but do not submit, out of fear of punishment or assault, to an order given in anger); voluntarily submit to arrest or confiscation of your own property; if you are a trustee of property, defend that property (non-violently) from confiscation with your life; do not curse or swear; do not insult the opponent; neither salute nor insult the flag of your opponent or your opponent’s leaders; and if anyone attempts to insult or assault your opponent, defend your opponent (non-violently) with your life. He gave several rules for political prisoners: behave courteously and obey prison regulations (except any that are contrary to self-respect); do not ask for special favorable treatment; and do not fast in an attempt to gain conveniences whose deprivation does not involve any injury to your self-respect.


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