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.

For the past thirty years, I have been preaching and practicing satyagraha. The term was coined by me in South Africa [in 1906] to express the force that the Indians there used for full eight years, and it was coined in order to distinguish it from the movement then going on in the United Kingdom and South Africa under the name of Passive Resistance.

On the political field, the struggle on behalf of the people mostly consists in opposing error in the shape of unjust laws. When you have failed to bring the error home to the law-giver by way of petitions and the like, the only remedy open to you, if you do not wish to submit to error, is to compel him by physical force to yield to you or [in satyagraha] by suffering in your own person by inviting the penalty for the breach of the law. Hence satyagraha largely appears to the public as Civil Disobedience or Civil Resistance. It is civil in the sense that it is not criminal.

A law-breaker breaks the law surreptitiously and tries to avoid the penalty; not so the satyagrahi [civil resister]. He ever obeys the laws of the state to which he belongs, not out of fear of the sanctions, but because he considers them to be good for the welfare of society. But there come occasions, generally rare, when he considers certain laws to be so unjust as to render obedience to them a dishonour. He then openly and civilly breaks them and quietly suffers the penalty for their breach. And in order to register his protest against the action of the lawgivers, it is open to him to withdraw his co-operation from the state by disobeying such other laws whose breach does not involve moral turpitude.

In my opinion, the beauty and efficacy of satyagraha are so great and the doctrine so simple that it can be preached even to children. It was preached by me to thousands of men, women and children commonly called indentured Indians with excellent results.

The spirit of non-violence necessarily leads to humility . . . Non-cooperation is not a movement of brag, bluster, or bluff. It is a test of our sincerity. It requires solid and silent self-sacrifice. It challenges our honesty and our capacity for national work. It is a movement that aims at translating ideas into action. And the more we do, the more we find that much more must be done than we had expected. And this thought of our imperfection must make us humble.

Non-cooperation strives to compel attention and to set an example not by violence, but by unobtrusive humility. He [the satyagrahi] allows his solid action to speak for his creed. His strength lies in his reliance upon the correctness of his position. And the conviction of it grows most in his opponent when he least interposes his speech between his action and his opponent. Speech, especially when it is haughty, betrays want of confidence and it makes one’s opponent sceptical about the reality of the act itself. Humility therefore is the key to quick success. I hope that every non-cooperationist will recognize the necessity of being humble and self-restrained. [The preceding extract is from Young India, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, Vol. I; pp. 65-66]

◊   ◊   ◊

[Extract Two] Popular imagination has pictured satyagraha as purely and simply civil disobedience, if not in some cases even criminal disobedience. The latter is the very opposite of satyagraha. The former, i.e. civil disobedience, is undoubtedly an important branch but by no means always the main part of satyagraha. Today, for instance, on the question of Rowlatt legislation civil disobedience has gone into the background. As satyagraha is being brought into play on a large scale in the political field for the first time, it is an experimental stage. I am therefore ever making new discoveries. And my error in trying to let civil disobedience take the people by storm, appears to me to be Himalayan because of the discovery I have made, namely, that he only is able and attains the right to offer civil disobedience who has known how to offer voluntary and deliberate obedience to the laws of the state in which he is living. It is only after one has voluntarily obeyed such laws a thousand times that an occasion rightly comes to him civilly to disobey certain laws. Nor is it necessary for voluntary obedience that the laws to be obeyed must be good.

There are many unjust laws, which a good citizen obeys so long as they do not hurt his self-respect or the moral being, and when I look back upon my life, I cannot recall a single occasion when I have obeyed a law whether of society or the state because of the fear of punishment. I have obeyed bad laws of the society as well as of the state, believing that it was good for me and the state or the society to which I belonged to do so, and I feel that having regularly and in a disciplined manner done so, the call for disobedience to a law of society came when I went to England in 1888, and to a law of the state in South Africa when the Asiatic Registration Act [was passed by the Transvaal Government. I have therefore] come to the conclusion that civil disobedience, if it has to be renewed, shall be offered in the first instance only by me as being the fittest to do so, and the duty of fellow satyagrahis will be to assimilate for the time being the first essential just mentioned of civil disobedience.  [This second extract is from Young India, Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, Vol. III, pp. 42, 55]

◊   ◊   ◊

[Extract Three] I am sorry that I find a nervous fear among some Hindus and Mohammedans that I am undermining their faith, and that I am even doing irreparable harm to India by my uncompromising preaching of non-violence. They seem almost to imply that violence is their creed. I touch a tender spot if I talk about extreme non-violence in their presence. They confound me with texts from the Mahabharata and the Koran eulogising or permitting violence. Of the Mahabharata I can write without restraint, but the most devote Mohammedan will not, I hope, deny me the privilege of understanding the message of the Prophet.

I make bold to say that violence is the creed of no religion.

I make bold to say that violence is the creed of no religion and that, whereas non-violence in most cases is obligatory in all, violence is merely permissible. But I have not put before India the final form of non-violence. The non-violence that I have preached from Congress [Party] platforms is non-violence as a policy. But even policies require honest adherence in thought, word and deed. If I believe that honesty is the best policy, surely whilst I so believe, I must be honest in thought, word and deed; otherwise I become an impostor. Non-violence being a policy means that it can upon due notice be given up when it proves unsuccessful or ineffective. But simple morality demands that, whilst a particular policy is pursued, it must be pursued with all one’s heart. It is simple policy to march along a certain route, but the soldier who marches with an unsteady step along that route is liable to be summarily dismissed.

I become therefore incredulous when people talk to me sceptically about non-violence or are seized with fright at the very mention of the word non-violence. If they do not believe in the expedient of non-violence, they must denounce it but not claim to believe in the expedient when their heart resists it.

The reader will believe me when I say that I have the capacity for killing a fly. But I do not believe in killing even flies. Now suppose I joined an expedition for fly killing as an expedient. Will I not be expected, before being permitted to join the expedition, to use all the available engines of destruction, whilst I remained in the army of fly-killers? If those who are in Congress and the Khilafat [pan-Islamic political protest movement] committees will perceive this simple truth, we shall certainly either finish the struggle this year to a successful end, or be so sick of non-violence as to give up the pretension and set about devising some other programme.

I hold that Swami Shraddhanandji [Hindu reformer and educationist] has been needlessly criticised for the proposition he intended to move. His argument is absolutely honest. He thinks that we, as a body, do not really believe in non-violence even as a policy. Therefore, we shall never fulfil the programme of non-violence. Therefore, he says, let us go to the councils and get what crumbs we may. He was trying to show the unreality of the position of those who believe in the policy with their lips, whereas they are looking forward to violence for final deliverance . . .

I have little doubt that those who nurse violence in their bosoms will find no benefit from the lip-profession of non-violence. I urge, therefore, with all the vehemence at my command, that those who do not believe in non-violence should secede from the Congress [Party] . . . Let there be no manner of doubt that Swaraj [Indian independence from British rule] established by non-violent means will be different in kind from that established by armed rebellion. Police and punishments there will be, even under such Swaraj. But there would be no room for brutalities such as we witness today both on the part of the people and the Government. And those, whether they call themselves Hindus or Mussulmans, who do not fully believe in the policy of non-violence, should abandon both non-co-operation and non-violence.

I am positive that neither in the Koran nor in the Mahabharata is there any sanction for and approval of the triumph of violence. Though there is repulsion enough in Nature, she lives by attraction. Mutual love enables Nature to persist. Man does not live by destruction. Self-love compels regard for others. Nations cohere because there is mutual regard among the individuals composing them. Some day we must extend the national law to the universe, even as we have extended the family law to form nations – a larger family.

Even as a Mussulman or a Hindu, believing in violence, applies the creed of non-violence in his family, so are both called upon without question to apply the policy of non-violence in their mutual relations and in their relation to other races and classes, not excluding Englishmen. Those who do not believe in this policy and do not wish to live up to it in full, retard the movement by remaining in it.

Non-violence is complete innocence.

When a person claims to be non-violent, he is expected not to be angry with one who has injured him. He will not wish him harm; he will wish him well; he will not swear at him; he will not cause him any physical hurt. He will put up with all the injury to which he is subjected by the wrong-doer. Thus non-violence is complete innocence. Complete non-violence is complete absence of ill-will against all that lives. It therefore embraces even subhuman life, not excluding noxious insects or beasts. They have not been created to feed our destructive propensities. If we only knew the mind of the Creator, we should find their proper place in His creation. Non-violence is therefore in its active form good will towards all life. It is pure Love. I read it in the Hindu scriptures, in the Bible, in the Koran.

Non-violence is a perfect state. It is a goal towards which all mankind moves naturally though unconsciously. Man does not become divine when he personifies innocence in himself. Only then does he become truly man. In our present state, we are partly men and partly beasts and in our ignorance and even arrogance say that we truly fulfil the purpose of our species when we deliver blow for blow and develop the measure of anger required for the purpose. We pretend to believe that retaliation is the law of our being, whereas in every scripture we find that retaliation is nowhere obligatory but only permissible. It is restraint that is obligatory. Retaliation is indulgence requiring elaborate regulating. Restraint is the law of our being. For highest perfection is unattainable without highest restraint. Suffering is thus the badge of the human tribe.

The Law of Complete Love is the law of my being. Each time I fail, my effort shall be all the more determined for my failure. I know my own limitations only too well. I know that any such attempt is foredoomed to failure. To expect a whole mass of men and women to obey that law all at once is not to know its working . . . A drop of water must yield to the analyst the same results as a lake full. The nature of my non-violence towards my brother cannot be different from that of my non-violence to the universe. When I extend the love for my brother to the whole universe, it must still satisfy the same test.

Our non-violence need not be of the strong, but it has to be of the truthful. We must not intend harm to the English or to our co-operating countrymen, if and whilst we claim to be non-violent. But the majority of us have intended harm, and we have refrained from doing it because of our weakness or under the ignorant belief that mere refraining from physical hurt amounted to a due fulfilment of our pledge. Our pledge of non-violence excludes the possibility of future retaliation. Some of us seem unfortunately to have merely postponed the date of revenge . . . [This third extract is from Young India 9 March 1922, pp. 34-35]

A NOTE ON THE TEXT: We have provided explanations for some names and terms, and in one instance added explanatory text, in square [] brackets. The ellipses indicate deleted text having mostly to do with Indian politics of the 1930s. We are grateful to for cooperating in providing us access to these texts.

“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