The Practice of Satyagraha

by M. K. Gandhi

Poster image courtesy

Editor’s Preface: Gandhi did not expound his philosophy of satyagraha in any organized way; there are scattered discussions, remarks and definitions throughout his work. Although there have been anthologies of some of these writings, such as Schocken Books’s, M. K. Gandhi Non-Violent Resistance (New York, 1961), the three extracts below from journals that Gandhi edited have not been anthologized. Please consult the note on the text at the end for an explanation of our editing procedure and acknowledgments. JG

[Extract One] The principles of satyagraha, as I know it today, constitute a gradual evolution. Satyagraha differs from Passive Resistance as the North Pole from the South. The latter has been conceived as a weapon of the weak and does not exclude the use of physical force or violence for the purpose of gaining one’s end, whereas satyagraha has been conceived as a weapon of the strongest and excludes the use of violence in any shape or form.

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Satyagraha as a Mirror

by Richard B. Gregg

Dustwrapper art, 1960 James Clarke & Co edition, courtesy

Editor’s Preface: Richard Gregg (1885-1974) is often credited with being the first American theorist of nonviolent civil resistance (satyagraha).  While a student at Harvard in the early 1920s he attended a guest lecture about Gandhi and Gandhi’s nonviolence theories. Upon graduating in 1925 he set sail for India, and lived for several years in various Gandhian ashrams. In 1934 he published the work he is best known for, The Power of Non-violence. The book was to have a great influence on Martin Luther King, Jr. and other of the civil rights leaders, and has remained an essential text in the study of nonviolence, and the influence of nonviolence on American politics. Gregg’s Wikipedia page deserves expanding, but has, nonetheless, some useful links. The Quaker website also has a brief biography. This article is dated c. 1963. Please see the note at the end for acknowledgments, and further textual details.  JG

On the faculty of the University of Wisconsin there is a psychiatrist, Dr. Carl R. Rogers, who has spent years giving counsel to those who are in personal emotional or mental trouble and cannot seem to solve their problems unaided. As a result of his professional experience he has come to believe that nobody will change his habits of thinking, feeling or acting until something happens to change his own picture or concept of himself. Other things being equal, for example, a student will give up preparing to become a journalist and begin to study for the law only when he can see himself as a practicing lawyer. A thief will abandon that way of life only if he can see himself as happier in a different way of life and know how he can attain it. For most people, the matter of self-regard is of primary importance.

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Satyagraha: The Art of Defying Oppression without Becoming Oppressors

by Devi Prasad

Gandhian civil resistance poster; courtesy

To begin with I shall discuss some of the commonly used terms in connection with nonviolent action against oppression, and which are often mistakenly understood to be the same as the Satyagraha practiced and advocated by Gandhi.  This is to try to point out the differences between the concepts these terms represent and how they are not quite the same as the concept of Satyagraha.  These terms are passive resistance, non-cooperation, direct action, civil disobedience and non-resistance. My aim is not to minimise, even to the slightest degree, the merits, uses and strength of these methods, but to point out that in contrast to any of them Satyagraha is a complete philosophy, as well as the technique of fundamental social change.  Whereas the philosophy of Satyagraha implies a holistic approach to both long term as well as immediate issues facing humankind, the practice of the above-mentioned concepts is, by definition, limited to particular situations without being necessarily related to other social or political problems.

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Book Review: Mary Elizabeth King, Gandhian Nonviolent Struggle and Untouchability in South India

by Sean Chabot

Dust jacket courtesy Oxford University Press;

In her preface to the 1965 edition of Conquest of Violence (see References at the end), Joan Bondurant makes a strong case for distinguishing nonviolent action as duragraha or Gandhian satyagraha. She argues that duragraha involves pressuring opponents based on a de facto prejudgment that they are wrong, through passive resistance, and through symbolic violence. In a later essay (posted previously here), she adds that it is a form of stubborn or willful resistance seeking to demonstrate that opponents are necessarily wrong; that resisters are inherently righteous; and that the purpose of nonviolent action is to gain predetermined objectives by winning battles with opponents. In contrast to satyagraha (i.e., firmness in seeking truth through the power of love), duragraha aims at gaining tangible concessions from power-holders in the short-term rather than transforming social relationships and creating in the long run alternative ways of life benefiting everyone,  especially the most oppressed. Bondurant emphasizes these distinctions, because she feels that most of the so-called Gandhian struggles during the 1960s are actually examples of duragraha, not satyagraha. In her eyes, this misunderstanding severely limits the political, ethical, and transformative potential of these struggles.

In the 1960s, Gene Sharp—the undisputed pioneer of nonviolent action and civil resistance studies—responded very differently to Gandhi’s legacy. Unlike Bondurant, Sharp invokes Gandhi to define nonviolent action as “a technique used to control, combat and destroy the opponent’s power by nonviolent means of wielding power”, without carefully conceptualizing satyagraha or considering how it diverges from duragraha (Sharp 1973: 4). By erasing these differences, and by focusing on conventional power politics instead of situational ethics, his The Politics of Nonviolent Action articulates a generic and simplistic understanding of nonviolent action that applies to many cases of unarmed resistance throughout history and across the world. In the process, he normalizes duragraha as a pragmatic and strategic form of nonviolence, thereby hollowing out Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha while continuing to use Gandhi’s name to popularize his own approach. Since the 1970s, Sharp has quickly become the most influential figure in the field, serving as mentor to fellow civil resistance authors like George Lakey, Peter Ackerman, Jack Duvall, Michael Randle, Howard Clark, April Carter, and of course Mary King.

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Gandhi’s Vision of Nonviolence, Holding Firm to Truth: The Street Spirit Interview with Jim Douglass, Part 4

by Terry Messman

Anti Iraq War protest, Washington, D.C., Sept. 15, 2007, courtesy

We chose to be in the sights of the weapons of our own troops. For a few days, we were just as vulnerable as the Iraqi people. Explosions were occurring all over the city from missile attacks by our fleet in the Gulf.” Jim Douglass

Street Spirit: Gandhi referred to campaigns of nonviolent resistance as “satyagraha” — holding firmly to truth. What are the essential steps in building satyagraha campaigns, both in Gandhi’s era and in our time?

Jim Douglass: The most basic thing is the commitment of the people who seek to engage in such a campaign. There would have never been satyagraha campaigns in Gandhi’s life if he hadn’t created communities out of which they could be waged. The ashrams in South Africa and later in India were the bases of his work. And even though the number of people living in community and taking vows of nonviolence was small, those people were totally freed to work together and to respond to the specific evils they focused on. As Gandhi always taught, you can’t take on everything in the world, so you focus by identifying a social evil, as for example we did in the Trident campaign.

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Acts of Resistance and Works of Mercy: The Street Spirit Interview with Jim Douglass, Part 3

by Terry Messman

The White Train transported nuclear weapons to military bases across the nation; photo by Chris Guenzler, courtesy

Street Spirit: The White Train campaign mobilized people in hundreds of far-flung communities to stand in nonviolent resistance along the tracks where nuclear weapons were transported. How did the White Train campaign get started?

Jim Douglass: Well, the White Train campaign began as the Tracks campaign at a time when we didn’t yet know there was a White Train. Shelley and I had been looking at a house for years next to the Trident base as a location that was analogous to the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, which was itself a piece of land 3.8 acres in size alongside the Trident base that we had bought as a community.

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Satyagraha Versus Duragraha: The Limits of Symbolic Violence

by Joan V. Bondurant

Jacket art courtesy Princeton University Press

Every leader who seeks to win a battle without violence and who presumes to precipitate a war against conventional attitudes and arrangements, however prejudiced they may be, would do well to probe the subtleties distinguishing satyagraha from other forms of action also claiming to be nonviolent. There are essential elements in Gandhian satyagraha which do not readily meet the eye. The readiness with which Gandhi’s name is invoked and the self-satisfaction with which leaders of movements throughout the world make reference to Gandhian methods are not always backed by an understanding of either the subtleties or the basic principles of satyagraha. It is important to pose a question and to state a challenge to those who believe that they know how a Gandhian movement is to be conducted. For nonviolence alone is weak, non-cooperation in itself could lead to defeat, and civil disobedience without creative action may end in alienation. How, then, does satyagraha differ from other approaches? This question can be explored by contrasting satyagraha with concepts of passive resistance defined by the Indian word duragraha.

Duragraha means prejudgment. Perhaps better than any other single word, it connotes the attributes of passive resistance. Duragraha may be said to be stubborn resistance in a cause, or willfulness. The distinctions between duragraha and satyagraha, when these words are used to designate concepts of direct social action, are to be found in each of the major facets of such action. (1) Let us examine: (a) the character of the objective for which the action is undertaken; (b) the process through which the objective is expected to be secured, and (c) the styles which characterize the respective approaches. Satyagraha and duragraha are compared below in each of these three aspects by considering their relative treatment of first, pressure and persuasion, and second, guilt and responsibility. Finally, we shall have a look at the meaning and limitations of symbolic violence.

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Gandhian Nonviolence and Passive Resistance

by Geoffrey Ostergaard

“Gandhi’s Salt March”; color woodblock print, 1931 by Kanu Desai; courtesy Golden Vista Press

Editor’s Preface: This previously unpublished essay is the text of a speech delivered by Geoffrey Ostergaard (1926-1990) 25 October, 1974 to the Muirhead Society, University of Birmingham (UK), and is another in our ongoing series of rediscoveries of important historical interpretations of Gandhian nonviolence. Ostergaard was one of Gandhi’s most intelligent critics, and we have posted other articles by him. Please see the notes at the end for further information about this text, biographical information about Ostergaard, links, etc. JG

Discussions of nonviolence tend, not unnaturally, to focus on the issue of the supposed merits, efficacy and justification of nonviolence when contrasted with violence. In this paper, however, I propose to pursue a different tack and I shall have little to say directly about the main issue. My object is to explicate the Gandhian concept of nonviolence and I think that this can best be done, not by contrasting nonviolence with violence but by distinguishing two kinds of nonviolence. My thesis, in short, is that nonviolence presents to the world two faces which are often confused with each other but which need to be distinguished if we are to appraise correctly Gandhi’s contribution to the subject.

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The Practical Application of Nonviolence

by Reginald Reynolds

Editor’s Preface: Reginald Reynolds (1905-1958) was a British journalist and general secretary of the London based No More War Movement (1933-37). He was a friend and supporter of Gandhi, and a staunch critic of British imperialism in India, which he articulated in his controversial The White Sahibs in India [1937], and also in Why India [1942]. During WWII he was a conscientious objector, and served in a mobile hospital unit. Reynolds was a great admirer of the American Quaker preacher, John Woolman, whose works he edited for a new English edition, and whom he cites below. See the notes at the end for archival references, and further information. This is the unpublished text of a speech delivered by Reynolds at the seventh triennial WRI conference, Braunschweig, Germany, in July of 1951. JG

Reginald Reynolds c. 1930; courtesy

“There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” These words, which were first brought to my attention in a letter received recently, and which I have since seen in an article, have been ringing in my mind ever since I arrived at this conference, and frankly what I am going to say to you now is merely the possibly confused reflections which have been going on in my mind since I read these words.

To me they express, in the most terse and epigrammatic manner, a philosophy, which I have been evolving myself over a period of years. “There is no way to peace, peace is the way”, and I believe that pacifism, as I understand the word, is an attempt to realize, in terms of life, the meaning of that simple epigram.

We are asked continually by non-pacifists, whether we hope, by our methods and by our movement, to prevent war. I don’t know what answer you give – I always say “of course we hope, but we do not expect.” And we do not base our belief in nonviolence on any calculation regarding the possibility of stopping war by a method of war resistance.

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The Basic Principles of Satyagraha

by Ravindra Varma

Satyagraha logo courtesy

The first half of the 20th century witnessed a series of spectacular and thrilling nonviolent struggles led by Gandhi.  These struggles demonstrated the power of nonviolent action. Gandhi overcame scepticism and ridicule, and established the efficacy, viability and superiority of nonviolent methods of action. He made people aware of the power that lay latent within them. He applied and experimented with nonviolence on an unprecedented scale involving millions of people, inspiring them to embark on militant and revolutionary actions for a host of issues.

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“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi