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SATYAGRAHA March 3, 2008

Posted by wmmbb in Peace.

Previously, I commented that I did not intuitively or easily see the connection between seeking truth and the pursuit of nonviolence. This is the connection that Gandhi made, in part arising from his direct experience of confronting violence, from Hindu thought and perhaps other sources. For example, his mother who was a major influence, had been influenced by Jainism.
(This Wikipedia article, I have just linked, has a different, but not necessarily inconsistent take:

Mahatma Gandhi was deeply influenced (particularly through the guidance of Shrimad Rajchandra) by Jain tenets such as peaceful, protective living and honesty, and made them an integral part of his own philosophy.)

Gandhi writes:

Ahimsa and Truth are so intertwined that it is practically impossible to disentangle and separate them. They are like the two sides of a coin, or rather of a smooth unstamped metallic are like the two sides of a coin, or rather of a smooth unstamped metallic disc. Who can say, which is the obverse, and which is the reverse? Nevertheless ahimsa is the means; Truth is the end. Means to be means or later. When once we have grasped this point, final victory is beyond question. Whatever difficulties we encounter, whatever apparent reverses we sustain, we may not give up the quest for Truth which alone is, being God Himself.

(M.K.Gandhi, Hindu Dharma (Ahmedabad:Navijivan Publishing House, 1958, p.224-225)

To explain these terms Stephen Murphy notes:

The twin cardinal principles of Gandhi’s thought are truth and nonviolence. It should be remembered that the English word “truth” is an imperfect translation of the Sanskrit, “satya”, and “nonviolence”, an even more imperfect translation of “ahimsa”. Derived from “sat” – “that which exists” – “satya“contains a dimension of meaning not usually associated by English speakers with the word “truth”. There are other variations, too, which we need not go into here. For Gandhi, truth is the relative truth of truthfulness in word and deed, and the absolute truth – the Ultimate Reality. This ultimate truth is God (as God is also Truth) and morality – the moral laws and code – its basis. Ahimsa, far from meaning mere peacefulness or the absence of overt violence, is understood by Gandhi to denote active love – the pole opposite of violence, or “himsa“, in every sense. The ultimate station Gandhi assigns nonviolence stems from two main points. First, if according to the Divine Reality all life is one, then all violence committed towards another is violence towards oneself, towards the collective, whole self, and thus “self”-destructive and counter to the universal law of life, which is love. Second, Gandhi believed that ahimsa is the most powerful force in existence. Had himsa been superior to ahimsa, humankind would long ago have succeeded in destroying itself. The human race certainly could not have progressed as far as it has, even if universal justice remains far off the horizon. From both viewpoints, nonviolence or love is regarded as the highest law of humankind.

As surprising as it no doubt sounds, Gandhi disliked most not violence, but cowardice and apathy. The eminent peace researcher Johan Galtung has correctly observed that Gandhi preferred first, nonviolent resistance, second, violence in a just cause, and third, meaning least of all, apathy. In general, however, it is held that immoral means, such as violence, cannot produce moral ends, as means are themselves ends or ends in the making.

Paul McKenna describes Gandhi as the soldier of nonviolence:

Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi’s longtime friend and colleague, said: “Gandhi never tired of talking about means and ends and of laying stress on the importance of the means… The normal approach … thinks in terms of ends only, and because means are forgotten, the ends aimed at escape one… Conflicts are, therefore, seldom resolved. The wrong methods pursued in dealing with them lead to further conflict.”

The Gandhian call for freedom and justice is really an effort to name, to challenge and to unmask social un-Truths-to make them visible to all. The discipline of satyagraha is designed to bring to the surface that principle of Truth or Love that Gandhi believed lurks beneath society’s conflicts and divisions. But this is no small task. To actively resist the societal forces of un-Truth and to make the Truth visible is tantamount to risking suffering, injury and even death.

. . . There are those who argue that Gandhi’s approach to conflict resolution amounts to a masochistic and passive surrender to the gratuitously violent excesses of the enemy. This is certainly not how Gandhi understood it: “Nonviolence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering. It does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means putting one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant.”. . . Between 1917 and 1948 hundreds of group satyagraha actions were conducted in India. These focused on the struggle for Indian self-rule and a number of other social issues. In strictly Gandhian terms, however, the ultimate goal of these activities was not to win a political campaign, but to service Truth. Gandhian nonviolence is about the triumph of Truth, not the triumph of power.

“Gandhi does not envisage a tactical nonviolence confined to one area of life or to an isolated moment. His nonviolence is a creed which embraces all of life in a consistent and logical network of obligations… Genuine nonviolence means not only non-cooperation with glaring social evils, but also the renunciation o f benefits and privileges that are implicitly guaranteed by forces which conscience cannot accept.”

For Nathuram Godse, truth and nonviolence were mere slogans, “which he paraded ostentatiously before the country”. Nathuram Godse did not get the fact that Gandhi had experimented with truth to with an inch of his life on several occasions. Truth has to be pursued in a detached way. Truth includes perception of racism and other forms of inbuilt oppression, which puts Gandhi in a different place than those who claim as long as I do the right thing, my social context is irrelevant. Therefore, there is the interrelatedness of means and ends, means are ends in the making, which represented a critique of Marxism.

These principles were as Gandhi said, “as old as the hills”. Understanding “satyagraha” is fundamental to understanding, if not accepting, the practice of nonviolence, which has a direct relevance to current conflicts, not least that in Palestine.



1. gandhi - March 3, 2008

To actively resist the societal forces of un-Truth and to make the Truth visible is tantamount to risking suffering, injury and even death.


2. wmmbb - March 3, 2008

Thanks gandhi.

I was going to make an additional comment to the effect that Gandhi had a comprehensive understanding of violence in all its variations, as illustrated in “My Experiments with Truth”. Johan Gultung and Kenneth Boudling have come along later and added concepts such as “structural violence” and “integrative power”.

To me this illustrates the role, and effectiveness, of paradigms. We perceive, or fail to perceive, meaning in terms of our understanding or paradigm. To illustrate this point consider the implicit role of light in perception. Without light we could not see. But if you are like me, and perhaps many others, the experiments and discoveries concerning the nature of light, starting with the measurement of the speed of light and continuing with the development of Quantum Theory, have not sunk into intuitive and ready understanding. Before that development, it had to be understood that we see with reflected light.

(The achievements of nineteenth century science in electricity and radio waves, not to mention evolution, were pretty amazing and were a precondition for the technological developments of the twentieth century.)

3. Webmaster - Translations - March 3, 2008

Satyaagraha means insistence on truth in every aspect of life which includes physical & metaphysical areas. The aim is to achieve & maintain the truth & absolute truth in life.

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