A philosophy/lifestyle of passive resistance. Practiced by Mahatma Gandhi in 1919 and Martin Luther King in the 1960s. Both leaders knew that an aggressive, warlike resistance would prove futile and hurt their people more than it would help them.

Satyagraha is also the title of the second opera in Philip Glass' three part operatic trilogy on science, politics, and religion (Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten) The three acts of the opera are meant to invoke the beauty and intricacy of Ghandi's contiributions to our understanding of the politics of nonviolence, emphasizing especially his direct relationship with Leo Tolstoy, and his indirect relationship with Martin Luther King Jr.

Satyagraha is defined by Britannica.com as the "truth force"; "determined but nonviolent resistance"; "guiding philosophy for the Indian people in their fight against British imperialism." Satyagraha had also been defined as "passive resistance", until Gandhi made a clear distinction between the two terms in 1920:

"...passive resistance has admitted of violence as in the case of suffragettes and has been universally acknowledged to be a weapon of the weak. Moreover passive resistance does not necessarily involve complete adherence to the truth under every circumstance. Therefore it is different from satyagraha in three essentials:

Satyagraha is a weapon of the strong; it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatever; and it ever insists upon truth."

Gandhi discovered that at the core of satyagraha was self-suffering, and considered the two terms synonymous. He compared the application of satyagraha to the traditional Western application of "brute force". In satyagraha, the sufferer is the person who provokes the movement; he will protest, put himself in danger, submit to arrest, all in the pursuit of truth. He is trying to convert his opponent to his own side by peaceful means, knowingly placing himself in possibly mortal danger. Gandhi stated that struggles in the West are settled by brute force, the basis of which is hatred. The idea is not to convert the opponent, but to destroy him. Gandhi explained that in order to win a struggle with someone, you need to destroy the opposition; not the opponent himself. Always protest against an unfair act, but never against a person. It is essential to remember that the point of satyagraha is not to defeat anyone; when the practice works, both sides win. This is the basis of non-violent protesting.

The ideas of satyagraha were first put into practice in 1907 in civil disputes against the Government of South Africa, resulting in the reinstatement of citizenship rights for Indians which had previously been revoked. For the next 40 years Gandhi's practice of satyagraha was a success in ending labor and tax disputes, as well as aiding in the struggle against British rule. Gandhi continued the practice of satyagraha until his death in 1948. He had been fighting to bring Muslims and Hindus together, but was murdered by a Hindu fanatic who believed Gandhi to be traitorous to his own faith.

In 1930, Gandhi developed a code of discipline for volunteers who were new to satyagraha:

  • A satyagrahi, i.e., civil resister, will harbour no anger.
  • He will suffer the anger of the opponent.
  • In so doing he will put up with assaults from the opponent, never retaliate; but he will not submit, out of fear of punishment or the like, to any order given in anger.
  • When any person in authority seeks to arest a civil resister, he will voluntarily submit to the arrest, and he will not resist the attachment or removal of his own property, if any, when it is sought to be confiscated by authorities.
  • If a civil resister has any property in his possession as a trustee, he will refuse to surrender it, even though in defending it he might lose his life. He will, however, never retaliate.
  • Retaliation includes swearing and cursing.
  • Therefore a civil resister will never insult his opponent, and therefore also not take part in many of the newly coined cries which are contrary to the spirit of ahimsa.
  • A civil resister will not salute the Union Jack, nor will he insult it or officials, English or Indian.
  • In the course of the struggle if anyone insults an official or commits an assault upon him, a civil resister will protect such official or officials from the insult or attack even at the risk of his life.

The code of discipline was accompanied by a list of progressive steps to take in a satyagraha campaign:

Satyagraha is still practiced today as a form of nonviolent protesting, and has been adopted by activists in several countries. The term has been used to describe any form of active opposition to government, excluding acts of organized violence. Perhaps activists in countries like the United States who are participating in sit-ins, strikes and other non-reactionary forms of protest don't know about the changes that Gandhi accomplished by this practice. As with any teaching, Gandhi's ideas about satyagraha will continue to be studied and practiced in the coming future, and will be adapted and made to fit the lifestyles of modern individuals.

I'm including a quote from an essay written by Andre Brink in 1970, addressing the need for the utilization of Gandhi's teachings in the modern world:

If we evaluate, in the light of everything Gandhi represented... and agree on the need for urgent and radical change, we should be reminded by his example that change involves more than the destruction of what exists, more than the replacement of one system by another; it is a process directed inward as much as outward, to the self as much as to the other. It involves, in the words of a poem dear to the Mahatma, a movement from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to Light, from death to Deathlessness. What we need is to change the country into a better place to live in, and ourselves into people more worthy of living in it.


More Gandhi quotes on satyagraha:

  • 'The ideal of satyagraha is not meant for the select few- the saint and the seer only; it is meant for all.'
  • 'To lay down one's life for what one considers to be right is the very core of satyagraha.'
  • 'The sword of the satyagrahi is love, and the unshakable firmness that comes from it.'
  • 'The training of satyagraha is meant for all, irrespective of age or sex. The more important part of the training here is mental, not physical. There can be no compulsion in mental training.'
  • 'Satyagraha is always superior to armed resistance. This can only be effectively proved by demonstration, not by argument... Satyagraha can never be used to defend a wrong cause.'
  • 'Satyagraha is a process of educating public opinion such that it covers all the elements of society and in the end makes itself irresistible.'
  • 'The art of dying for satyagraha consists in facing death cheerfully in the performance of one's duty.'
  • 'A satyagrahi may never run away from danger, irrespective of whether he is alone or in the company of many. He will have fully performed his duty if he dies fighting.'
  • 'The immovable force of satyagraha- suffering without retaliation.'
  • 'Non-cooperation with evil is a sacred duty.'
  • 'In the dictionary of satyagraha there is no enemy.'

source: Gandhi on Non-Violence, ed. Thomas Merton, 1965.

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