The Origins of Satyagraha

Paulo J.S. Bittencourt

[Read this article by Professor Bittencourt to understand the origins, philosophy, ideal and magnitude of the concept of satyagraha.]

The motto of uncompromising fidelity to the truth constitutes the criterion par excellence that Gandhi adopted in choosing the events narrated by himself about his own life. In his autobiography, My life and my experiences with the truth, the Mahatma sees, like Jesus of Nazareth, his own life trajectory embodied in the unstoppable search for truth.

On the other hand, like Jesus of Nazareth before Pilate, Gandhi does not categorically define at any time, unless I am mistaken, what he himself understands as truth.

Could this be a question whose answer could never be expressed in conceptual terms?

Almost everything in Gandhi seems to indicate yes. Not that there wasn’t an answer. But perhaps that record could never transpose what I would call a “descriptive phenomenology” of lived experience. Hence any notion of truth could only be expressed, from the Gandhian perspective, in “biographical” terms. However, contrary to what we might suppose, unconditional fidelity to the truth, always based on the path of non-aggression, would never lead to passive inaction in the face of the offender. Quite the contrary. The ideal of “satyagraha” would support maximum resistance to organized tyranny, which, for Gandhi, the British empire would inevitably come to embody.

Even before the name was invented, the principle (or spirit) of “satyagraha” emerged from the 21-year period in which Gandhi remained in South Africa, until 1914, when he became notable as a defender of the Indian community. “When [the principle] was born, I myself couldn’t say what it was about. In Gujarat, we used the English expression ‘passive resistance’ to describe it. When in a meeting of Europeans I discovered that the term ‘passive resistance’ was interpreted in a very narrow way, and considered a weapon of the weak, characterized by hatred, and that could finally manifest itself through violence, I had to challenge all these concepts and explain the real nature of the Indian movement. It was clear that the Indians needed to coin a new word to describe their struggle.”

The initial form of the name was then created by Maganlal Gandhi, son of the Mahatma, who coined the word “sadagraha” (“sat”: truth; “agraha”: firmness), and, to make it clearer, his father would soon come to change it to “satyagraha”. From then on, the form of the term would become common in Gujarat as the designation of the unique fighting strategy that achieved India’s independence in 1947.

Faithful to the maxim that one should be the change one wants to see brought about in the world, Gandhi conceived the process of seeking “satyagraha” as a sacred struggle, a radical process of self-purification and self-control of all human passions, which included from dietary habits, which would evolve into recurrent fasting practices and uncompromising vegetarianism, to, in his case, sexual abstinence through the vow of “brahmacharya”. [“My life is based on disciplinary resolutions,” he would say on one occasion.] “Satyagrahi,” for Gandhi, was essentially an instrument of truth, and was committed to nonviolence. It would therefore be impossible to propose a “satyagraha” of the masses, unless its foundations were observed in thoughts, words and actions. This conception led him to deeply disagree with the supporters of the resistance movement for whom it would be unfeasible to renounce violence. “I was firmly convinced that those who wanted to lead the people to satyagraha should be able to keep people within the limits of non-violence expected of them.” “Recourse to incivility would spoil the ‘satyagraha’ like a drop of arsenic in milk. (…) Experience has taught me that civility is the most difficult part of ‘satyagraha’. Civility here does not mean mere kindness and courteous speech, but intrinsic amiability and the sincere desire to do good to one’s opponent.”

This is where the indissoluble union emerges, for Gandhi, between ethics and law, since any agent who wants to adapt to the practice of civil disobedience “must be completely willing to respectfully obey the laws of the State.” On the other hand, obedience to laws out of fear of the penalty that one will suffer when violating them will never involve a moral principle, because “an honest and respected man will not suddenly start stealing, whether there is a law against theft or not.” The submission that underlies the act of complying with a rule to escape the inconvenience of facing prosecution for breaking it cannot, therefore, be the spontaneous desire for obedience that is required of a “satyagrahi”. “A ‘satyagrahi’ obeys the laws of society intelligently and of his / her own free will, because he/she considers it a sacred duty. It is only when a person scrupulously obeys the laws that he is in a position to judge which of them are good and just, and which are unjust and perverse.”

The practice of “satyagraha”, therefore, needs to consciously deal with necessary limitations that facilitate the expansion of the right to civil disobedience to certain laws, in well-defined circumstances. Nevertheless, expecting those engaged in civil disobedience to always and fully understand the deeper implications of such a principle may be “a miscalculation the size of the Himalayas.” And, in fact, with this expression Gandhi would refer to the frustration of his own expectations due to the violent excesses occasionally perpetrated by the Indian movement opposing British rule.

But the “satyagraha” strategy would also incorporate the tactic of “non-cooperation” in the face of imperial dominance. “Refusing to cooperate”, Gandhi would say with discursive tones of the most classic political liberalism, “is an inalienable right of the people”. “We are (…) entitled not to cooperate with the government in the event of treason.”

And although one can strongly notice the presence of Western-inspired components in Gandhi’s ideals, such as the legal and political notions of the rule of law, among others, it was in the religious traditions of India that the Mahatma seems to have laid down the main ethical foundations. of your actions and your thoughts. In this sense, his uncompromising defense of the Truth constitutes an act of faith. “My experience has convinced me that there is no God but Truth.”

His deep hope has always been to bring faith in the Truth and “ahimsa” to those who are hesitant. On this journey of glimpses, when his conclusions could hardly be seen as definitive, his effort consisted of describing the truth as it presented itself to him. Thus, the only means for realizing the Truth is “ahimsa”, since “a perfect understanding of the Truth can only result from the complete perception of ‘ahimsa’.” I presume that basic principles of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, such as a certain spiritually cosmic monism and the interdependence between all beings and things, underpinned the love that Gandhi urged us to have for the most insignificant creature like ourselves. It is, therefore, the “sine qua non” condition for contemplation, face to face, of the Spirit of universal Truth that permeates everything. On the other hand, identification with everything that lives is impossible without mental self-purification through discipline and the practice of austerities in all aspects of life, an arduous and steep path. Freedom from passions in thoughts, words and actions, results, according to Gandhi, in the suspension of the obstacles that prevent the realization of Truth and our essentially peaceful nature. Such obstacles are the opposing and dual currents of attachment and hatred, of attraction and repulsion.

It is, therefore, about reducing oneself to zero, because “as long as the human being does not place himself, by free and spontaneous will, as the last of all creatures, there is no salvation for him. ‘ahimsa’ is the maximum limit of humility”, the “loom” that operates on the “distaff” of truth. And in this weave the artisan is willing, if necessary, to imprint even the tones of suffering on the raw material of truth, especially if he is convinced that sustaining the superiority of this law will mean sacrificing his own life.

Now, that craftsman was Mahatma Gandhi.


Professor Paulo Bittencourt is a brilliant professor of Ancient and Medieval History at the Universidade Federal da Fronteira Sul UFFS [Erechim Campus], Brazil. He contributes articles regularly, and is a columnist in periodicals too. He has several books to his credit. He is an ardent student of Vedanta.