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.

Dr. Rogers’s method of treating the person who comes to him for help is not the usual way of most mental physicians, of asking questions and then giving advice. No, he just suggests that the patient start to tell his story and explain his difficulties. Dr. Rogers merely listens; makes no comments; tries never to judge whether by word, manner or tone of voice; offers no advice. Once in a while at a favorable moment he repeats something that the patient has just said, perhaps rephrasing it slightly. Suppose the patient is a boy with a very domineering father. The boy has told Dr. Rogers a number of instances of that sort of domestic tyranny he has experienced, and finally, overcome with emotion, the boy bursts out, “I hate my father!” Dr. Rogers might then calmly say, “You say that you have finally come to feel that you hate your father.” The boy feels relieved by his confession, but wants to justify his feeling and so talks on. Later there will be another moment in which Dr. Rogers repeats a statement by the boy, perhaps this time a happier statement. In this manner Dr. Rogers holds up a mirror, as it were, to the patient, and lets him see himself in substantially his own words, but uttered as an echo by another person. The mirror is the repetition of the patient’s own statement, reflected back to the patient without condemnation or approval or comment of any kind.

Dr. Rogers finds that by this means the patient comes to see himself objectively, and the patient then can make his own comparisons more coolly, and gradually sees how to find his way out of his difficulties. Dr. Rogers helps the patient thus to help himself. The first step has to be a change in the patient’s own picture of himself. This is an interesting example of the power of the self-regarding attitude.

I would like to suggest that among the many aspects of satyagraha, it may be regarded as a sort of mirror held up to the opponent by the satyagrahi, and that this would be true of both individual and mass satyagraha. Furthermore, such a mirror seems to help the violent opponent to “cure” himself for some of the same reasons that Dr. Rogers’s method helps his patients to cure themselves. Let me elaborate on this idea.

Biologically speaking, man is a single species. There are, of course, different races, nations, tribes, castes and religions, and different individuals, but the similarities between people are deeper, wider, stronger, more enduring and more important than the differences. There is first a biological unity among people of all kinds. A man of any race, nation, caste or religion may marry a woman of any other race, nation caste or religion and have children by her. Secondly, the young of human beings have a longer period of helplessness and learning than the young of any other species. This is what gives man his enormous power of learning. Thirdly, there is a physiological unity. We all have the same bone structure, nerves, blood circulation, lungs, heart and digestive organs. If any person of any race, nation, caste, or religion has an infected appendix, the surgeon operates exactly the same way regardless of any superficial differences. If an Eskimo gets typhoid fever, the physician treats him just the same way he treats a Negro who has typhoid fever. Fourthly, all people have some sort of language by means of which they cooperate and find meaning in life. All people have some sort of culture, some sort of dress; they use some sort of symbols, believe in some sort of myths, and base their lives on some sort of assumptions. All people, regardless of superficial differences, have emotions: love, anger, fear, respect, hope, etc. These emotions may be called forth by different sights, events, or actions, but all people, without exception, have emotions. All people have minds and use them. Their concepts, the contents of their minds, may differ, but thinking is common to all.

None of these considerations contradicts any belief as to the essential spiritual nature of mankind. But some people can see differing physical traits more easily than they can see spiritual unity.

Growing out of the elements of human unity, we find that man is a gregarious and social creature, and we are at all times aware of and sensitive to the attitudes of other people around us. This awareness is not lessened in times of conflict, but is then rather enhanced. We are always eager for the approval, if possible, from our fellowmen. Writ large, this is the reason for the enormous amount of time, thought and work devoted to propaganda by all governments. With the need for recognition comes the development within the past twenty years of “public relations” men employed by large corporations and even by universities, to make propaganda for their employers. In private life we adhere to the customs of clothing, speech, food and festivals of our own social group, race or nation in order to retain their approval or at least tolerance.

When a conflict between two groups develops and gains enough intensity so that one group employs violence and, let us suppose, the other group offers nonviolent civil resistance (satyagraha), the voluntary suffering of the satyagrahis is an appeal for recognition from all parties including the spectators, of the unity of all men. The suffering of the satyagrahis is, as it were, a mirror held up to the violent party, in which the violent ones come gradually to see themselves as violating that human unity and its implications. They see themselves as others see them. The attitude of the onlookers is another mirror. The satyagrahis do not shout at the violent party, “Now look at yourselves! We’ll make you realize how unjust you are, what villains you are!” No, there is no such coercion by the satyagrahis.

It is the very human nature of the violent attackers themselves that compels their attention to what happens before them. They cannot escape for long the recognition of their common human unity. They will try to escape from or hide themselves from that unity, but as long as they are alive they cannot dodge the fact that they are of the same species as the satyagrahis. Nor can they avoid the implications of that fact. The voluntary suffering of the satyagrahis is so unusual, so dramatic, so surprising, so wonder-provoking. Wonder naturally evokes curiosity and attention. And the desire of the violent party for approval of the onlookers draws attention to the contrast between the behavior of the violent opponents and the behavior of the satyagrahis. When the violent opponents see this contrast in the mirror, which the situation has provided, they begin to get a different opinion of themselves. Then they sense the disapproval of the onlookers, and wanting social approval, they begin to search for ways to save their faces and yet change their actions so as to win that approval. This process is now taking place in the Southern United States, in the civil rights movement. Righting an ancient wrong takes time. It took Gandhi twenty-eight years to win freedom for India, and it will take time for the correction of the racial injustices in the United States. But all social processes move faster now than fifteen years ago, so we live in high hope that the nonviolent resistance of the American Negroes will soon win their struggle.

All this suggests that satyagraha operates at a level deeper than nationality, politics, military power, book education or socio-economic ideology. It is a process working in the very elemental human nature of mankind as a biological species. As satyagraha becomes more widely employed, it will, partly by virtue of this capacity as a mirror, help in the development of man’s self-awareness and confidence in his own capacities.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We gratefully share this article with, a Creative Commons partner. The article was a contribution to the 1964 anthology Gandhi: His Relevance for Our Times, edited by G. Ramachandran.

“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