Deconstructing Gandhian Satyagraha
by Radha Rajan on 01 Jul 2009 10 Comments

[This chapter deals exhaustively with Gandhi’s satyagraha – the satyagraha in South Africa, its philosophical basis, the urgency to resuscitate Gandhian Satyagraha now, how satyagraha put Gandhi beyond the pale of all criticism, the contrast between Aurobindo’s passive resistance and the non-truth of Gandhi’s satyagraha, and demonstrates how ahimsa does not belong in the domain of politics – Author]
The non-truth of Satyagraha 

Gandhi’s Satyagraha has no precedent in Hindu tradition or history as a weapon in any war to re-establish dharma. We have to agree with Gandhi that Satyagraha is not for the weak; but it was a method which only individuals or small, homogenous groups could practice when confronting a more powerful enemy. What is more, this method of shaming the adversary may be effective in battle only and only if the cultural or religious symbolism of Satyagraha finds resonance with the enemy’s own moral universe, and thus compels him to concede, back down, or retreat. Gandhi’s Satyagraha must therefore be analyzed as a tool of engagement from two angles – Gandhi in South Africa, and Gandhi in India against the British government. 

Mahatma Gandhi makes the following core submissions on Satyagraha in Hind Swaraj and in the following English idiom:
- Satyagraha is ‘passive resistance’ or ‘ahimsa’
- Passive resistance is ‘soul force’
- Soul force is ‘love’
- Only ‘soul force’ is the defining characteristic of Hinduism
- Equates force with violence and intentionally stigmatizes and de-legitimizes force
- Asserts that force which is the same as violence, is un-Hindu  

‘Satyagraha’ is best translated as ‘force of truth.’ Gandhi made the unconvincing but unchallenged leap of equating ‘force of truth’ with ‘ahimsa’ [1] whereas in Hindu dharma and in Hinduism’s classical texts and Bhashyas, truth (satya) and ahimsa (non-injury) are two distinct concepts. Satya is nirguna, [2] which means it is beyond the capacity of the human intellect to describe or define it.  Satya is satya. Gandhi’s equating of satya with ahimsa was unjustified, and equating both with God, un-Hindu; equating force with violence and ahimsa with love or soul-force was doubly flawed thinking. 

The force of love is the same as the force of the soul or truth [3] 

The force implied in this may be described as love-force, soul-force, or more popularly but less accurately, passive resistance [4]  

He compounded the chaos by insisting that ‘self-suffering’, akin to Christian self-mortification, was an integral component of Satyagraha:
The function of violence is to obtain reform by external means; the function of passive resistance, that is soul-force, is to obtain it by growth from within; which, in its turn, is obtained by self-suffering, self-purification [5] 

The Gandhian error which is the root factor for continuing Hindu disempowerment is the equating of satya with ahimsa and force with violence. Force involves the exercise of power or authority in right or appropriate measure to achieve or enforce dharma, which includes adherence to an accepted/appropriate code of conduct, justice and/or rule of law, which at times may involve loss of life and property. Violence, on the other hand, connotes both misuse and abuse of physical power and State power for self-serving ends, resulting in needless bloodletting, and destruction and/or loss of life and property. In Hindu ethos, such violence is castigated as adharmic, even asuric. 

The permanent removal of the offender of dharma by use of force is effected with the precision of a surgeon wielding a scalpel: dispassionately, precisely, and as a necessary measure. Durga slaying Mahishaasura, Srikrishna destroying Putana and Kamsa, Srikrishna beheading Shishupala, Bhima killing Jarasandha, Arjuna eliminating Karna and Jayadrata, and Srirama executing Ravana, are examples of the rightful use of force to destroy evil.

Gandhi in his treatise on Satyagraha ignored the compelling arguments for use of force and advocated Christian non-violence and love, on the basis of a flawed reading of the Bible and a faulty understanding of its central character, Jesus Christ. Contrast Gandhi’s un-Hindu rejection of the use of force with Aurobindo:
Justice and righteousness are the atmosphere of political morality; but the justice and righteousness of a fighter, not of the priest. Aggression is unjust only when unprovoked; violence, unrighteous when used wantonly for unrighteous ends. It is a barren philosophy which applies a mechanical rule to all actions, or takes a word and tries to fit all human life into it.

The sword of the warrior is as necessary to the fulfillment of justice and righteousness as the holiness of the saint. Ramdas is not complete without Shivaji. To maintain justice and prevent the strong from despoiling, and the weak from being oppressed, is the function for which the kshatriya is created. ‘Therefore’, says Srikrishna in the Mahabharata, ‘God created battle and armour, the sword, the bow and the dagger’ [6] 

Aurobindo’s advocacy of force and articulation of kshatriya dharma is in line with Hindu tradition of statecraft as exemplified by Kautilya’s Arthasastra. Gandhi’s absolutism on non-violence contrasts sharply with Kautilya’s exhortations on the use of force, and it is pertinent that notwithstanding the motivated propaganda about Kautilya’s ‘evil genius’, the Arthasastra is addressed to the dharmic king. Nor was Kautilya unique in prescribing the use of force or State power; he cited earlier opinions while explaining his own views:

The means of ensuring the pursuit of philosophy, the three Vedas and economics is the Rod (wielded by the king); its administration constitutes the science of politics, having for its purpose the acquisition of (things) not possessed, the preservation of (things) possessed, the augmentation of (things) preserved and the bestowal of (things) augmented on a worthy recipient. On it is dependent the orderly maintenance of worldly life. Therefore, the king, seeking the orderly maintenance of worldly life, should ever hold the Rod lifted up (to strike).

For there is no such means for the subjugation of beings as the Rod, say the (ancient) teachers.

No, says Kautilya.

For the king, severe with the Rod, becomes a source of terror to beings. The king mild with the Rod is despised. The king just with the Rod is honoured (emphasis added)

For, the Rod used after full consideration, endows the subjects with spiritual good, material well-being and pleasures of the senses. Used unjustly, whether in passion or in anger, or in contempt, it enrages even forest anchorites, how much more then the householders?

If not used at all, it gives rise to the law of the fishes. For the stronger swallows the weak in the absence of the wielder of the Rod. Protected by him, he prevails [7] 

Gandhi’s choice of English words and an alien idiom must be placed in the context of the education he received and the fact that he was not a scholar of Hindu texts with knowledge of precise words to be used for specific concepts. English words like ‘soul force’, ‘love’ and ‘passive resistance’ denote Christian ideals, and while Christians may claim (incorrectly, in view of the Crusades, colonialism and the slave trade) that these are the defining features of their faith, the fact that they have no equivalents in Sanskrit denotes that they do not define or describe dharma, much less rajadharma, which belongs to the realms of state, state power and statecraft.

1] “Truth itself is God, and non-violence is just a synonym for truth” (Speech at prayer meeting, Bombay, held at Rungta House,  March 13, 1946, CWMG, vol. 90, page 75.
2] Literally, ‘without attributes’. ‘Nir-‘, without, ‘Guna’ – attributes’ .
3] HS, Chapter XVII, Passive Resistance, page 89.
4] HS, Chapter XVI, Brute Force, page 85.
5] HS, Gandhi’s reply to Wybergh, May 10, 1910, page 146.
6] Aurobindo’s treatise on passive resistance, The Morality of Boycott, vol. 1, pp 127-8
7] TKA, Part II, Section 1 (contd.), ‘Establishing the necessity of Economics, and the Science of Politics’) – Sutras 3-15

Excerpted from
Eclipse of the Hindu Nation: Gandhi and his freedom struggle
Radha Rajan
New Age Publishers (P) Ltd., Delhi, 2009
Price: Rs 495/-
ISBN 81- 7819 - 068- 0
The book may be ordered from the publishers at
or at 011-2649 3326/ 27/ 28 

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