Gandhi: Satyagraha

The Indian, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869 – 1948), was a Hindu who followed in Jesus’ way.  Louis Fischer, in his book Gandhi, says of Gandhi’s early years in London studying law:

He already had traversed ‘the Sahara of atheism’ and emerged thirsting for religion. . . . He preferred Hinduism.  [He read the Bible and] he reveled in the Prophets, Psalms, and Ecclesiastes.  He found the New Testament more interesting [than the Old Testament], and the Sermon on the Mount ‘went straight to my heart.’  ‘. . . resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the left also. . . . Blessed are the meek. . . . Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you. . . . Agree with thine adversary quickly.’ . . . These words delighted him.  They reminded him of the Bhagavad-Gita [‘Celestial Song’], the sacred book of the Hindus.

The Mahatma’s secretary stated, “every moment of Gandhi’s life is a conscious effort to live the message of the Gita.”  Gandhi called it his ‘spiritual reference book.’  Mahatma, the title which came to be prefixed to his name by others, means “great soul”.  His Mahatma-like calm was not a natural characteristic of Gandhi.  He developed it with much practice, patience, and forgiveness.

In South Africa, where he practiced law following his legal education in England, his wife since they were thirteen joined him.  Their relationship was very stormy.  Gandhi had a violent nature.  Recognizing these deficiencies, he worked diligently to correct them.

In South Africa he noted British prejudice  against the Indians who lived there.  Indians were excluded from the mainstream of that society.  Out of that experience, Gandhi developed his principle for revolutionary action.  Satyagraha, Gandhi wrote,

is the vindication of truth not by infliction of suffering on the opponent but on one’s self.  Satyagraha [Soul Force] assumes a constant beneficent interaction between contestants with a view to their ultimate reconciliation.  Violence, insults, and superheated propaganda obstruct this end.

Satyagraha reverses the eye-for-an-eye policy which escalates into a whirlwind of revenge and counter-revenge, offensive and counteroffensive.  It returns good for evil until the evildoer tires of evil.  Not even death was to be feared.

Death is the appointed end of all life.  To die by the hand of a brother, rather than by disease or in such other way, cannot be for me a matter of sorrow.  And if, even in such a case, I am free from the thought of anger or hatred against my assailant, I know that it will redound to my eternal welfare, and even the assailant will alter on realizing my perfect innocence.

Beaten and jailed repeatedly in South Africa, but empowered by Satyagraha, Gandhi was successful in removing the “social taint” of the Indian there.  In response to that success, Professor Gilbert Murray of Oxford wrote in 1914 a tribute to Gandhi in Hibbert Journal:

Be careful in dealing with a man who cares nothing for sensual pleasures, nothing for comfort or praise or promotion, but is simply determined to do what he believes is right.  He is a dangerous and uncomfortable enemy because his body which you can always conquer gives you so little purchase over his soul.

Following his success in resisting British exclusionary practices against Indians in South Africa, Gandhi returned to his native India, which was also ruled by the British.  His concern for Indian independence long preceded his English legal training.  While in London, he talked of independence, not merely political independence.  Indian nationalists whom he had met in London derided his preoccupation with the ethical and social future of a free India.  Gandhi responded, “If you believe that because Italians rule Italy the Italian nation is happy you are groping in darkness.”  He looked beyond political structures and restraints to social and individual liberation.

Upon his return to India from Africa, Gandhi taught,

If we act justly India will be free sooner.  You will see, too, that if we shun every Englishman as an enemy, Home Rule will be delayed.  But if we are just to them, we shall receive their support.

He taught that freedom requires a firm foundation:  “Our salvation can come only through the farmer.  Neither the lawyers, nor the doctors, nor the rich landlords are going to secure it.”

Gandhi believed in the vitality of ideas that respond to changing circumstances.  He was therefore not only independent in thought, but unpredictable as well.  “Do I contradict myself?” he asked.  Quoting another writer, he responded to his own question, “Consistency is a hobgoblin.”

My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statement on a given question, but to be consistent with the truth as it may present itself to me at a given moment.  The result is that I have grown from truth to truth. . . .

That courage to speak the truth and to act upon it in the face of opposition from those with vested interests and power, requires courage and the capacity to suffer.  Gandhi spoke of that capacity as he read the Indian Satyagrahis to a Christian gathering in India:

Stand ye calm and resolute

Like a forest close and mute,

With folded arms and looks which are

Weapons of unvanquished war.

. . . .

And if then the tyrants dare,

Let them ride among you there,

Slash, and stab, and maim and hew, –

What they like, that let them do.

With folded arms and steady eyes,

And little fear, and less surprise,

Look upon them as they slay,

Till their rage has died away.

The Indian lawyers in the freedom movement asked the help of Charles Freer Andrews, an English pacifist missionary who had become a disciple of Gandhi.  Andrews agreed but Gandhi objected:

You think that in this unequal fight it would be helpful to have an Englishman on our side.  This shows the weakness of your heart.  The cause is just and you must rely on yourselves to win the battle.

It was this same sentiment, I suspect, with a sense of duty under the law, which inhibited Lincoln from granting complete emancipation.  The people would themselves have to pass the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  Likewise, James Meredith, the first black student to be enrolled at Southern Mississippi University, on June 8, 1991 said on National Public Radio that if Blacks want liberation, it will not come from the liberals.  Liberals subtly enslave Blacks.  Blacks must liberate themselves, he said.

Gandhi had hoped that India’s participation with Britain in the First World War would earn Britain’s respect for India’s desire for home rule.  But the prior oppression and use of India’s resources for British self-advantage continued under the Rowlatt Acts in 1919.  Gandhi proposed a Satyagraha campaign to resist the Rowlatt Act’s limitations on civil liberties.  He obtained only 600 signed Satyagraha pledges in Bombay, and onlookers derided his effort.  But Gandhi had won with fewer in South Africa, and he persisted.

Even such a mighty government as the Government of India will have to yield if we are true to our pledge.  [It] is an attempt to introduce the religious spirit into politics.  We may no longer believe in the doctrine of ‘tit for tat’; we may not meet hatred with hatred, violence with violence, evil with evil. . . . Return good for evil. . . . Nothing is impossible.

The action met with great success, but it was accompanied by violence.  When violence continued, on April 18, 1919 Gandhi called off the Satyagraha campaign.  He told the country it was an “Himalayan miscalculation” on his part.  He was not concerned about “losing face” by admitting his error.  When some suggested that he might lose moral authority if he admitted his mistakes, he responded, “Moral authority is never retained by attempting to hold on to it.  It comes without seeking and is retained without effort.”  Later he wrote in his autobiography, “It is only when one sees one’s own mistakes with a convex lens, and does just the reverse in the case of others that one is able to arrive at a just relative estimate of the two.”

Gandhi undertook another campaign in Bardoli, but when mobs retaliated against police brutality by killing 22 policemen, he suspended the campaign and prohibited any defiance of the government anywhere in India.  When others called upon him to accept violence as a necessary part of a campaign for freedom, Gandhi responded,

Let the opponent glory in our humiliation or so-called defeat.  It is better to be charged with cowardice and weakness than to be guilty of denial of our oath and to sin against God.  It is a million times better to appear untrue before the world than to be untrue to ourselves.

Having called off the campaign, he warned against violence against the state, but he urged faithful resistance to governmental injustices.  In his weekly, Young India, on March 9, 1922, entitled “If I am arrested,” he wrote

Rivers of blood shed by the government cannot frighten me, but I should be deeply pained even if the people did so much as abuse the government for my sake or in my name.  It would be disgracing me if the people lost their equilibrium on my arrest.

Lord Reading perceived that Gandhi was politically vulnerable, and he arrested Gandhi.  Gandhi was charged with preaching seditioAfter the government read the indictment against him, and the Advocate-General had stated the case, Gandhi responded,

I am here . . . to invite and cheerfully submit to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.

He explained his actions:

I fought for co-operation and working the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms. . . . [But] I came reluctantly to the conclusion that the British connection had made India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically. . . . She has become so that she has little power of resisting famines.

Although he recognized that some of the British made regulations which they genuinely believed were helping India,

they do not know that a subtle but effective system of terrorism and an organized display of force on the one hand, and the deprivation of all powers of retaliation and self-defense on the other, have emasculated the people and induced in them the habit of simulation.

This was the liberal self-serving self-delusion of which James Meredith later spoke.  Gandhi therefore considered it “an honor to be disaffected,” and he told Justice Broomfield that it was his duty to impose the highest penalty.

Justice Broomfield apparently greatly respected Gandhi, and perhaps even had some sympathy for his actions.  But a judge, empowered by the law and a servant of the law, is bound by the law as it is, not by the law as he wishes it to be.  Louis Fischer reports that Justice Broomfield bowed to Gandhi and pronounced sentence:

The law is no respecter of persons.  Nevertheless it will be impossible to ignore the fact that you are in a different category from any person I have ever tried or am likely to have to try.  It would be impossible to ignore the fact that, in the eyes of millions of your countrymen, you are a great patriot and a great leader.  Even those who differed from you in politics look upon you as a man of high ideals and of noble and even saintly life.

 The judge then proceeded to sentence Gandhi to six years in prison.  Before he finished he noted that if on appeal the sentence was reduced, there would be no one happier than he.   Gandhi smiled as he was taken to jail.

Gandhi spent twenty-two months in jail.  While there, he suffered appendicitis and was released early because of complications which followed the appendectomy.  By the time he was released, the freedom movement had fallen apart.  Gandhi withdrew from the political arena, but he worked patiently, and just as fervently, for spiritual freedom of India’s people.  He wrote to his friend, Charles F. Andrews, “My belief is that the instant India is purified, India becomes free, and not a moment earlier.”

He drew out spiritual reform of the people with the fast.  He said, “I fasted to reform those who loved me. . . . You cannot fast against a tyrant.”  He never fasted to pry an advantage from the British government; his fasts were always directed to spiritual growth of his own people.  And a fast had to be unselfish.  “I can fast against my father to cure him of a vice, but I may not in order to get from him an inheritance.”  The spiritual growth that was needed at the moment was mutual respect and tolerance of the devotees of different religions: the Hindus and the Moslems.  Before they could be free, they had to learn to love each other and to trust each other.

Gandhi believed that good always has its own reward.  That belief enabled him to proceed where he could not see the way.  It gave him a sense of security in a field of disorientation.  That is the power of faith.  That is what empowered Abram to leave kin to wander in the hope of something yet to be; it was that faith that lead the Israelites from the security of slavery to wander in the wilderness in the hope God would provide.  There are no assurances of success when one strikes out in faith upon a vital principle of truth.  There is only the vision which is revealed to the eye of faith.

In the 1920’s Gandhi became known as Mahatma.  People began to worship him, and many claimed to be healed by him.  To those who made such claims, Gandhi responded, “It is not I but God who made you whole.”  As Jesus did before him, Gandhi resisted worship.  He wrote, “I am no Mahatma.  My Mahatmaship is worthless.”

Gandhi also resisted the chasm between the educated and the uneducated in India, warning the intellectuals that if they did not support his khadi policy “educated India will cut itself off from the only visible and tangible tie that binds them to the masses.”  He taught that independence would be realized through productive work.  He suggested spinning: “The spinning wheel was presented to the nation for giving occupation to the millions who had at least four months of the year, nothing to do.”

“To a people famishing and idle,” he wrote, “the only acceptable form in which God can dare appear is work and promise of food as wages.”  Poverty led to “moral degradation.”  On the other hand, he noted, “I observed almost invariably that the greater the possession of riches, the greater was their moral turpitude.”  He then quoted Jesus, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”  He told the rich to give up some of their riches to the poor.  And he judged material advances by their moral and spiritual effect on human beings.  Gandhi loved the teachings of Jesus, and it was said that he kept the well worn passages of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount beside his bed.

In the political realm, Gandhi reacted to the Russian Revolution, and rejected what on its Marxist surface appeared to be respect for the common laborer:

Bolshevism is the necessary result of modern materialistic civilization.  Its insensate worship of matter has given rise to a school which has been brought up to look upon materialistic advancement as the goal of life and which has lost touch with the final things in life. . . . I prophesy that if we disobey the law of the final supremacy of spirit over matter, of liberty and love over brute force, in a few years’ time we shall have Bolshevism rampant in this land which was once so holy.

Strength of spirit must grow with the growth of bureaucratic, economic, and scientific power, Gandhi said; otherwise mankind will be beaten into a robot slave.  Charlie Chapman admired Gandhi, and met him on one of Gandhi’s later visits to England.

When it seemed that his political leadership to independence had died, Gandhi faithfully taught his people how to care, how to be spiritually free, and how to suffer.  He said their hearts had to be prepared for freedom.   When they were ready, he resumed civil disobedience and Satyagraha.

Gandhi planned a march on the Dharsana Salt Works, in opposition to the salt tax.  It was a march which confronted physical force without resistance in kind; it was a more effective resistance of the spirit.  Gandhi was arrested before the march, and Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, the poet, took leadership of the march.  She told the two thousand five hundred volunteers that they would be beaten, “but you must not resist; you must not even raise a hand or ward off a blow.”

Webb Miller, a correspondent for the United Press described the scene:

In complete silence the Gandhi men drew up and halted a hundred yards from the stockade.  A picked column advanced from the crowd, waded the ditches, and approached the barbed-wire stockade. . . .

Suddenly, upon command, scores of native policemen rushed upon the advancing marchers and rained blows on their heads with their steel-shod lathis.    Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows.  They went down like ten-pins.  From where I stood I heard the sickening whack of the clubs on unprotected skulls.   The waiting crowd of marchers groaned and sucked in their breath in sympathetic pain at every blow.  Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing with fractured skulls or broken shoulders. . .

The survivors, without breaking ranks, silently and doggedly marched on until struck down.

Mr. Miller described the successive waives of marchers approaching their doom.

Although everyone knew that within a few minutes he would be beaten down, perhaps killed, I could detect no sign of wavering or fear.  They marched steadily, with heads up, without the encouragement of music or cheering or any possibility that they might escape injury or death.  The police rushed out and methodically and mechanically beat down the second column.  There was no fight, no struggle, the marchers simply walked forward until struck down.

. . . Hour after hour stretcher-bearers carried back a stream of inert, bleeding men.

The march, and the violence against it, continued for several days.  India was still a colony, but she was now free.  Rabindranath Tagore told the Manchester Guardian of May 17, 1930,

Europe has completely lost her former moral prestige in Asia.  She is no longer regarded as the champion throughout the world of fair dealing and the exponent of high principle, but as the upholder of Western race supremacy and the exploiter of those outside her own borders.

Louis Fischer said of the Salt March,

When the Indians allowed themselves to be beaten with batons and rifle butts and did not cringe they showed that England was powerless and India invincible.  The rest was merely a matter of time.

The British government was embarrassed by the brutality.  The Indians did not desire the result of martyrdom, but they chose to stand up for the justice they desired, and to take the certain consequences of that action.  India finally had the attention of Britain.  Britain attempted to placate them with A Round Table Conference in London in late November, 1930. But it came to nothing.  The Indians who attended were appointed by the Viceroy.  The Congress, India’s only popular political organization, was excluded.

A second Round Table Conference was planned, and the Congress was asked to send delegates.  But their leaders were in jail.  Lord Irwin freed them so they could attend.  Gandhi and twenty other leaders attended in London.  Gandhi came to negotiate on equal terms, one nation with another.  Winston Churchill was abhorrent of the scene, describing Gandhi as

the nauseating and humiliating spectacle of this one-time Inner Temple lawyer, now seditious fakir, striding half-naked upon the steps of the Viceroy’s palace, there to negotiate and parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.

The Conference concluded with Gandhi and Viceroy Irwin signing “The Delhi Pact” of March 5, 1931.  It called for the end of civil disobedience, the release of prisoners, and salt manufacture on the sea-coast.  Congress would attend the next Round Table Conference in London.  But independence was not part of the pact.  Some Indians criticized Gandhi for failing to obtain some concrete representation of independence.  But Gandhi was satisfied.  He had established a new relationship with Britain.  The pact, for him, was not an end, but a means.  Seventeen years later India had her independence.

Louis Fischer said of Gandhi, “Emphasis on means gave Gandhi a broad perspective, patience, and equanimity.  He could wait for dividends as long as the business operated on the right kind of principle.”

That principle was Truth.  The word “satya” means “truth,” and it derives from “sat” which means “to be.”  As the Hebrew word for the future imperfect form of the verb “to be” was used for the Hebrew concept of God, so “sat” also denotes God.  The juxtaposition of these meanings yields their connection: “Truth is God.”

At one point Gandhi attempted to prove the existence of God, with some limited success, as he perceived it:

It is possible to reason out the existence of God to a limited extent.  There is an orderliness in the Universe, there is an unalterable law governing everything and every being that exists or lives.  It is not a blind law, for no blind law can govern the conduct of human beings. . . . That law then which governs all life is God. . . . I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever dying, there is underlying all that change a living Power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and re-creates. That informing Power or spirit is God. . . . In the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists.  Hence I gather that God is Life, Truth, and Love.  He is Love.  He is the supreme God.

Gandhi concluded that faith transcends reason.

If we could solve all the mysteries of the Universe, we would  be co-equal with God.  Every drop of ocean shares its glory but is not the ocean.

Likewise, although man partakes in the nature of God, man is not God, and cannot fully know God.  Even to have knowledge of the mysteries of the Universe does not acquire the power of those mysteries.  And so he advised,

The safest course is to believe in the moral government of the world and therefore in the supremacy of the moral law, the law of truth and love. . . .

And of God’s will operating in his life, he said,

I have no special revelation of God’s will.  He reveals Himself daily to every human being, but we shut our ears to the ‘still small voice.’ . . . God never appears to you in person but in action.

Gandhi loved Jesus. “I am a Christian and a Hindu and a Moslem and a Jew,” Gandhi said.  “He, a Hindu, was the world’s most Christ-like person,” commented Dr. E. Stanley Jones, a prominent American missionary who came to know Gandhi from his many years of missionary work in India.  He said of Gandhi,

One of the most Christlike men in history was not called a Christian at all. . . . God uses many instruments, and He may have used Mahatma Gandhi to Christianize unchristian Christianity.

Gandhi had, while in South Africa, considered Christianity.  But, he wrote,

If then I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, ‘Oh, yes, I am a Christian.’ . . . But negatively I can tell you that much of what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount.  And please mark my words.  I am not speaking at the present moment of the Christian conduct.  I am speaking of the Christian belief, of Christianity as it is understood in the West.

Gandhi believed that Paul contributed much to that distortion.  In 1946 he said,

Paul was not a Jew, he was a Greek, he had an oratorical mind, a dialectical mind, and he distorted Jesus.  Jesus possessed a great force, the love force, but Christianity became disfigured when it went to the West. It became the religion of kings.

“Perhaps he will not succeed,” Tagore early wrote of Gandhi.  “Perhaps he will fail as the Buddha failed and as Christ failed to wean men from their iniquities, but he will always be remembered as one who made his life a lesson for all ages to come.”  And by reason of that commitment he spent 2,089 days in Indian jails and 249 days in South African prisons.  But he made of those prisons a temple, and by the sanctification of suffering for truth, India became free.

Gandhi’s life became another example of the incarnation of God’s loving action in the world.  A prayer which he had written, and which has come to have great meaning to this writer follows:

Conquer Untruth by Truth

I am a man of peace, I believe in peace.

But I do not want peace at any price.

I do not want the peace that you find in stone.

I do not want the peace that you find

In the grave; but I do want that peace

Which you find embedded in the human breast,

Which is exposed to the whole world

But which is protected from all harm

By the Power of the Almighty God.

Let then our act every morning be

To make the following resolve for the day:

I shall not fear anyone on earth.

I shall fear only God.

I shall not bear ill will towards anyone.

I shall not submit to injustice from anyone.

I shall conquer untruth by Truth.

And in resisting untruth I shall endure all suffering.



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