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Satyāgraha

Satyāgraha (Skt., ‘truth force’). The power of truth without force or violence to change political and other circumstances. It was developed by M. K. Gāndhī, drawing on an association of sat with satya (‘truth’), and agrah (‘grasp firmly’). It puts together the power associated with tapas and the tradition of ahiṃsā, and is often equated with non-violence as such.

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satyagraha

sat·ya·gra·ha / səˈtyägrəhə; ˈsətyəˌgrəhə/ • n. a policy of passive political resistance, esp. that advocated by Mahatma Gandhi against British rule in India.

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Satyagraha

SATYAGRAHA

SATYAGRAHA Mahatma Gandhi developed his revolutionary method of nonviolent noncooperation during his years in South Africa, naming it satyagraha (hold fast to the truth). That "truth" (sat), ancient Rig Vedic Sanskrit for "the real," was a force in the realm of the "Shining Ones" (Devas), Rig Vedic gods whose magic powers could move the world. Gandhi equated sat to God and also to nonviolence, or love, as he defined ahimsa. Thus reaching back more than three thousand years to the roots of Indian civilization and his own Hindu faith, Mahatma ("Great Soul") Gandhi offered millions of his unarmed followers the symbols of divine strength and his own passionate yogic powers, launching a mass national revolution against the mightiest "satanic empire" of the modern world, the British Raj.

Though rooted in the past, and drawing upon Hindu religious mantras, Gandhi developed satyagraha as a practical technique or method of "action" against social evil, believing it should be universally effective in its power to combat cruel and violent forces of every kind. Tapasya (self-suffering) armed Gandhi with yogic strength to endure the most intense physical pain, including food and sleep deprivation, without flinching or fear. His personal struggle throughout life was to achieve perfect ahimsa in thought and deed, to "see God" through the truth, or sat, of all he did, freeing his "soul" (ātman) of all fruits of selfish action (karma) that led to rebirth, thus achieving his Hindu ideal goal of "liberation" (moksha). Every satyagraha that Gandhi launched began with prayers of self-purification. He often fasted as well, and he always reminded his followers that in cleansing their own hearts, bodies, and souls, they must pray for those against whom satyagraha was launched. He never hated any Boer or Englishman, nor thought of anyone as his enemy, feeling only sorrow and pity for those who lived in deluded realms of violence and falsehood. Before launching his most famous Salt March satyagraha in 1930, Gandhi wrote to Viceroy Lord Irwin, notifying him of his intention to break the "unjust" British monopoly on the sale of exorbitantly taxed salt by picking up free salt from the seashore. Gandhi saluted the viceroy, who would soon arrest him, as "Dear Friend." Nearer the end of his life, from his prison cell, he addressed Winston Churchill the same way.

Gandhi always gave clear notice of his specific demands or reasons for launching satyagraha. He offered those against whom his action would be launched ample opportunity to remove or rectify the offensive that triggered his action. The "cause" might be a "Black Act" of inherently harsh, or evil legislation, such as the poll tax demanded of every Indian in South Africa, or the cruel extension of martial "law" in India after the end of World War I, or inadequate wages for cotton mill workers in Ahmedabad, or for indigo farmers in Bihar, or exorbitant land revenue demands made in a year of failed rains and famine in Gujarat's Kheda District. There were times when Gandhi led mass national satyagraha movements, as he did in 1920 against the Rowlatt Acts, and in 1930 against the salt tax. At other times, satyagraha movements were "individual," as in 1940, when Gandhi sent his devoted disciple, Vinoba Bhave, out to be arrested upon his announced intention to break a British "gag order" against "any antiwar speech." Or Gandhi could turn the fiery powers of satyagraha against his own body, launching a fast "unto death" or fasting for a "limited period" that he announced before he stopped eating. His last "fast unto death," shortly before he was assassinated at the end of January 1948, was aimed at his two most powerful disciples, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who were reluctant to release British Raj funds owed to Pakistan in keeping with their promises prior to the 1947 partition. Gandhi also used that most passionate weapon of fasting in the personal satyagraha he launched against J. Ramsay MacDonald's "Communal Award" at the end of his London Round Table Conferences, in which MacDonald promised to reserve a special number of separate seats for India's "untouchables" on every expanded Council of British India under the new 1935 Constitution. Gandhi viewed that proposal as a lethal attack upon Hinduism and as Britain's meanest attempt to divide upper caste from lower caste Hindus in order more easily to rule over both. So he vowed to starve himself to death rather than quietly accept so nefarious an act. His fast melted the hearts of all who opposed him, or fought one another. Gandhi viewed that as proof positive of the blessed powers of ahimsa, its irresistible force. But such thaws rarely lasted much longer than it took Gandhi to leave his fasting bed and resume his regular routine.

Martin Luther King Jr. greatly admired Gandhi's satyagraha method, writing that "the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence, is one of the most potent weapons available to an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom." Despite Gandhi's singular successes in waging many passionate satyagrahas against tyranny and racism, he himself was the first to admit frankly that his lifelong "experiments with truth" had ultimately failed. It was less his "revolution," Gandhi well knew, that convinced the British to "quit India" half a decade after he had coined that mantra for his last mass satyagraha in August 1942, than their own depressed economy and post–World War II fatigue. No matter how hard he tried, moreover, he could not stop the slaughter of Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh refugees that left a million innocents dead following partition in mid-August 1947. Nor could he persuade his own former disciples, who ruled independent India, to stop fighting over Kashmir. "Today mine is a cry in the wilderness," Mahatma Gandhi cried on the eve of his assassination. "I yearn for heart friendship between Hindus, Sikh and Muslims. ..Today it is nonexistent." For many years he had labored to teach his followers pure "ahimsa of the strong," rejecting arms and war entirely, but as soon as India used its armed power against Pakistan in the war over Kashmir, he saw he was wrong. Sadly, Gandhi wrote that "Today we have a larger army..It is a tragedy and a shame. For so long we fought through the charkha (spinning wheel) and the moment we have power in our hands we forget it. Today we look up to the army" (Wolpert).

Stanley Wolpert

See alsoGandhi, Mahatma M. K. ; Pakistan and India

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bondurant, Joan V. Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Gandhi, Mahatma. Young India, 19191922. New York: Huebsch, 1924.

——. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, translated by Mahadev Desai. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957.

——. Satyagraha in South Africa, translated by V. G. Desai. 1928. Reprint, Stanford, Calif.: Academic Reprints, 1954.

Wolpert, Stanley. Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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