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.

The struggles that Gandhi led or inspired spanned a period of nearly five decades. It is impossible to describe or even review each of these struggles. Nor is it perhaps necessary to do so since most or all of these struggles are well known and perhaps familiar in detail to those who have studied his life and work. What I will attempt to do therefore is to look at the basic ideas, techniques and forms of action that were evolved and used in these struggles.

Gandhi described the form of nonviolent struggle that he forged and used as Satyagraha. He defined Satyagraha as insistence on the Truth, holding to the Truth, and dependence on the force inherent in Truth. He often referred to it as Truth Force and therefore Love Force. He did not claim that he was the first Satyagrahi in the world. Truth and Nonviolence were as old as the hills. Although Satyagraha was a new word, the concept was as old as time. He often cited the names of many who, according to him, had resorted to the methods of Satyagraha: Christ, Thoreau, Tolstoy, and the author(s) of the Bhagavad Gita.

The term Satyagraha was coined in South Africa in 1906, because Gandhi felt that the term in use, “Passive Resistance,” did not present a correct or full description of the method that he was employing. To him Satyagraha did not mean merely to abstain from physical violence, but it was the positive use of the power of love and non-cooperation in the active transformation of minds, institutions and societies.

It would be wrong to say that it was in South Africa that Gandhi first used the method, which was later christened Satyagraha. He says that the first time he used this method of resistance or defiance was when he decided not to yield to the wishes of the elders of his community, forbidding him from going to the U.K. to qualify for the Bar. He could not agree; politely declined to oblige; declined to submit and declared his intention to act in defiance, offered to bear the consequences, with no ill-will, and with deference. There was no ill-will but also no recognition of authority, no fear of sanction.

In South Africa Gandhi did not start with mass struggles. There were many occasions when the personal choice to reconcile with injustice, discrimination, integrity, denial of human rights or to resist/revolt confronted him. He decided that it was unworthy of a human being to surrender in the field of battle. One had to fight and pay the price for one’s values. It was only later, after he read about the Government’s intention to introduce further restrictions on the franchise and rights of the Indians, under the proposed Asiatic Bill, that he decided to stay on in South Africa and organize the people to resist the Bill. The call to the people and the commitment to struggle lay in his exhortation to the meeting. If you acquiesce, if you do not resist, you will be digging the grave of the aspirations of the Indian community for equality.

Gandhi wanted them to discover the duty to resist, and pay the price for what they valued. He believed that the ultimate solution lay in removing prejudice, in transforming the mind of the rulers. He believed that this could not be done through force of arms. In fact, he says that the use of force never occurred to him. The basic beliefs that emerged and evolved in his mind during the ensuing struggle in South Africa were:

  1. A force behind the status quo sustains the status quo, and will be deployed to defend the status quo.
  2. Those who want to alter, dismantle or replace the status quo will have to depend on some countervailing force to resist the onslaught of the status quo, to overcome it, and to provide the basis on which a new order could be established and sustained.
  3. Any conflict therefore boils down to a confrontation or combative engagement of these forces.
  4. The parity or superiority of these forces does not depend solely on the degree of one kind of force, but also on the ability to deploy other forms of force in a commensurate and requisite degree.
  5. If one succeeds in overcoming the force used in defence of the status quo, but does not succeed in transforming the beliefs on which the status quo is based and that uphold the status quo, the duration of the resultant victory will have to depend on ensuring the continuing superiority of the physical force at the command of the protesters. This leads to an endless dependence on force, an endless competition in accumulating and deploying destructive power. The results of a revolution cannot endure unless there is a change in beliefs, opinions and values, or a reconciliation of views that is sealed by consent.
  6. The test of victory is the transformation of the mentality sustaining the status quo.
  7. The force used should, therefore, be one that leads to a transformation of hearts and minds.
  8. Annihilation of the adversary or a reign of terror cannot achieve this transformation.
  9. The force that one uses must be one that promotes introspection, that leads to a change of mind.
  10. The attempt to transform is based on a belief in the distinction between evil and the evil-doer.
  11. The attempt to transform the mind or institutions cannot afford to ignore the law of cause and effect, and therefore the relation between ends and means.
  12. Differences arise because of the nature of the human mind, inertia, ignorance, fallacious methods, perceptions of self-interest, propensity for aggrandisement, the ego and so forth.
  13. What is the process by which we can convince each other or establish Truth or the justice of claim?  Gandhi believed in the scientific method of:
    • accumulation and presentation of evidence;
    • review of the logical processes employed for arriving at a conclusion;
    • joint examination of these processes and evidence;
    • replaying that tape by which one has arrived at a conclusion so that one may detect the point where divergence commenced;
    • investigating whether the refusal to see evidence and logic is the result of ego-centric attitudes and perceptions and if it is found that this is what leads to intransigence, then
    • divesting oneself of ego-based considerations that have only a limited place within the unalterable paradigm of interdependence that rules humanity;
    • reassuring the “adversary” that the effort is not to deny his needs and interests, while promoting introspection in the adversary through love and the readiness to suffer (voluntary suffering).
  14. In spite of all these efforts on one’s part, one may not be able to dissolve intransigence on the other side. Such a situation where all efforts of persuasion seem to have failed would demand Direct Action.
  15. Direct Action is the deployment of some kind of force.
  16. The nonviolent Direct Action of Satyagraha is different from that of Passive Resistance. It is active, intense and can be fierce.
  17. At that point the superiority of the force that the Satyagrahi can command becomes very important.
  18. The force available to humankind is not merely physical force that it shares with the animal, nor even the augmented force that it can muster because of its intellect – by way of arms and weapons, but it includes the force of the mind and spiritual force that touches the heart and conscience. There are gross forces and subtle forces that the human being has access to. Gandhi believed that the highest force at the command of the human being was the force of the mind and spirit. He had no hesitation to say “the subtler the force the more powerful it is.” Subtle force can overcome obstructions; it can move with a speed faster than light. It has more enduring impact and can melt egocentric attitudes.
  19. This subtle force is the force that is inherent in Truth, or Love. Gandhi believed that this force was mightier than the force of the atom bomb.
  20. But if one wants to deploy this force, one has to become an effective medium or conduit for this force through the removal of whatever obstructs the flow of this force. Satyagraha uses this force, and to be a Satyagrahi one has to become a conduit for this truth force.
  21. Gandhi was so sure of the power of this force that he said his purpose in life was to demonstrate that the mightiest material force could be made to bend before this spiritual force (or force of the spirit).  The question then is how to employ this force or enable people to use this force in their struggle for social justice and to build a new society? The ultimate objective of the Satyagrahi, or the social revolutionary, is transformation through the promotion of introspection and the immediate objective is that of paralyzing injustice through non-cooperation. The process then involves:
    • making people conscious of the nature of the injustice, the cause of the injustice;
    • the respective responsibilities of oneself, others, and institutions;
    • creating belief in one’s ability and duty to resist;
    • enabling people to realize that acquiescence is cooperation, that one has the duty and the power to resist both as an individual and a member of an organised group which is affected;
    • realising that this power lies with us, and has to be employed to paralyse an evil system.

The first step in overcoming evil or an evil system is non-cooperation with evil. It is as much a moral imperative as a tactical necessity.

This non-cooperation is based on the withdrawal of the recognition of the authority to rule or enforce its values and fiats. It is the repudiation of the legitimacy claimed by the authority. This non-cooperation can be total or partial, and can be the basis of Civil Disobedience. Civil Disobedience too can be selective or total. To Gandhi, Civil Disobedience is the inherent right of a citizen. He dare not give it up without ceasing to be a man. Civil Disobedience is never followed up by anarchy, Criminal Disobedience can lead to it. Every state puts down criminal disobedience by force. It perishes if it does not.

But to put down Civil Disobedience is to attempt to imprison conscience. It can be aimed at paralysing and substituting an impugned system to make it wither through non-recognition, non-cooperation, Civil Disobedience, creation of substitutes or parallel centres of authority and action, and/or finally taking over all the functions exercised by the impugned authority, and all the stocks that it held in the name of the people since the former rulers had become usurpers, on the withdrawal of the recognition.

Nonviolent non-cooperation and Civil Disobedience can be effective only if operational conditions are controlled to prevent the outbreak of violence, and loss of control by the leadership of a struggle. Gandhi firmly believed that two antagonistic forces could not work to supplement each other. That is, one’s attempt is not merely to paralyse or create anarchy, but to transform and shape a substitute. The techniques or means of struggle that Gandhi employed therefore included:

  • Surveys to marshal evidence and establish Truth Petitions
  • Demonstrations
  • Meetings and marches
  • Open declarations: pledges or vows
  • Picketing: strikes or work stoppages
  • Defying prohibitory orders
  • Defying bans on manufacture and sale of goods
  • No-Tax campaigns
  • Civil Disobedience
  • Fasting

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ravindra Varma is a former Union Minister for Labour and Parliamentary Affairs, Government of India; founding Chairman of the Institute of Gandhian Studies; Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, and Chairman, Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi. With thanks to and courtesy of

“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