Gandhi’s Satyagraha

Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha has many applications to the interests of eremitism.

But Satyagraha must be understood in the intrinsic sense that Gandhi himself conceived of it — he first coined the word and the idea in South Africa, later applying it to the situation in India. Even Gandhi himself went beyond its activist component in configuring his concept.

Satyagraha has been variously understood, as even Gandhi himself realized. It was identified as passive resistance and as non-violent resistance. Gandhi objected to the notion of passivity and its connotation of weakness and a lack of conscious effort. Similarly, the idea of resistance suggested an element of aggressiveness that contradicted non-violence. Gandhi preferred “non-cooperation” because it was both conscious effort and a sense of disengagement from evil that was to be achieved through spiritual and moral force, an inner force cultivated by the individual.

The concept of civil disobedience Gandhi derived in part from Thoreau; the articulation of non-violence was derived in part from Tolstoy. Gandhi’s synthesis with Hindu thought — also influenced by the Christian Gospels, Jainism, and Buddhism — was the application of what he called “soul-force” or “truth-force.” (The Sanskrit word sat means “truth”.) Gandhi believed that the fullest expression of Satyagraha was capable of revolutionizing society, let alone the individual, as an essential ethics.

Carried out to its utmost, Satyagraha is independent of pecuniary or other material assistance, certainly, even in its elementary form, of physical force or violence. Indeed, violence is the negation of this great spiritual force, which can only be cultivated or wielded by those who will entirely eschew violence. … Only those who realize that there is something in man which is superior to the brute nature in him … can effectively be Satyagrahas.

This minimal (to the perennial view) renunciation of violence represents the first renunciation of both society’s ways and the ways of human instinct. But Gandhi goes much further.

The use of this force requires the adoption of poverty, in the sense that we must be indifferent whether we have the wherewithal to feed or clothe ourselves.

This passage is reminiscent of the Gospel injunction about not worrying how we are to clothe ourselves or what we are to eat, witnessing the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. For Gandhi, as for the historical Jesus, the goal of the sages’ work is to tap the spiritual power of community and a trust in like-minded others to assist and ally themselves together in mutual aid. Historically, the ancient monasteries of all creeds have maintained this principle as a structural foundation. Secular ideologies professing the same or similar goals have often fallen short because of the lack of a spiritual element in their structure, and in the minds of adherents. To extend a spiritual mindset to the laity and the masses, ambitious as such a project was, reflected Gandhi’s pure-hearted application of the goals of the historical Jesus, a goal ironically at odds with institutional Christianity, as he so often (but politely) pointed out.

Gandhi identified eleven vows for those who would reside at his Sabarmati ashram as representative Satyagrahi:

  • Truth
  • non-violence
  • non-possession
  • chastity
  • fearlessness
  • control of the palate
  • Non-stealing
  • bread-labor
  • religious equality
  • anti-untouchability
  • swadeshi (use of locally-produced)

Gandhi conceives of Truth as primary among the virtues, its pursuit representing not abstract knowledge or philosophizing but truthfulness in every aspect of life, such that one’s life is an emblem of what it would mean to follow God — whatever God is considered by the individual. Always the individual is engaged to pursue this truth in every dimension of daily life. Everything falls into place once this effort is foremost, realized by what the Bhagavad Gita calls abhyasa (single-mindedness) and vairagya (indifference to all other interests in life). Gandhi does not want an ability to reason so much as an adherence to a path that, once in practice, yields individual fruits on many varying kinds, depending on personality and potential.

The pursuit of Truth, in setting all behaviors right, may involve self-suffering. Gandhi calls these tapas, literally “austerities,” historical undergone voluntarily by those who would become more spiritual. Hence the pursuit of truth means anticipating self-discipline, even to the point of suffering. By anticipating suffering, the individual can prepare to meet it with strength and selflessness.

“The pursuit of Truth is true bhakti (devotion),” wrote Gandhi. Although the Hindu path of devotion is usually distinguished from other forms — jnana (intellectual), kriya and hatha (yoga), karma (selfless work), raja (synthesis), bhakti is ususally identified with outer devotion in chant, rites, and external practices such as puja, prayer, and worship. But Gandhi here takes this externality of traditional bhakti and seeks to transform it to an externality of ethical strength and moral fortitude exemplified by the actions of Satyagraha. Thus, perhaps, the attitude of devotion in the Satyagraha was the new synthesis traditionally reserved to the intellectual brahmins. Like Gandhi’s condemnation of untouchability — a most direct confrontation with the old traditions of Hinduism and Indian society — the new notion of Satyagraha was a revolutionary one.

Finally, Gandhi identifies the path of daily life lived in the pursuit of Truth with the virtue of refraining from violence or ahimsa (doing no harm). Where ahimsa may have originated in the restraint of ancient animal sacrifice, and adopted the Jain view of non-violence to sentient beings, Gandhi characteristically went beyond.

Ahimsa is not the crude thing it has been made to appear. Not to hurt any living thing is no doubt a part of ahimsa. But it is its least expression. The principle of ahimsa is hurt by every evil thought, by undue haste, by lying, by hatred, by wishing ill to anybody. It is also violated by our holding on to what the world needs. … Satyagraha excludes the use of violence in any shape or form, whether in thought, speech, or deed.

“What the world needs” should be studied in order to distinguish for ourselves what is really needful.

The other aspects of what Gandhi expected of a Satyagraha are not unusual in considering religious and ascetic groups and individuals. That they should have a high level of self-discipline in body, mind, and spirit for lay people was a striking concept. But the scale of expectation was not entirely dependent on private actions. Gandhi’s directives concerning social action — fasting, picketing, visiting jails, confronting violence, etc. — were unprecedented, as was the soul-force driving his activism. Wrote Gandhi: “I am making an experiment in ahimsa on a scale perhaps unknown in history.”

It is for the aspirant to simplicity and wisdom to find the essential points in Gandhi’s beliefs and practices that can be applied to the life path. In our modern era, the traditional directives combine with others to have new relevance, such as non-possession, labor, and use of what is locally produced (localvore).