44. Gandhi explains ‘satyagraha’

M K. Gandhi introduced a new weapon in the Indians' campaign for justice. That weapon, satyagraha, was the culmination of a profound development in Gandhi himself. The reason why satyagrahafound favour among the Indians was that it marshalled their inner most resources, and thereby gave them the dignity which their legal disabilities sought to deny. ‘Satyagraha is soul force pure and simple”¦' and that is the way they understood it. It was not weapon of the weak. Source: Gandhi: Satyagraha in South Africa, Nayajivan, Ahmedabad, 1928, pp. 109-15.

... None of us knew what name to give to our movement. I then used the term 'passive resistance' in describing it. I did not quite understand the implication of 'passive resistance' as I called it. I only knew that some new principle had come into being. As the struggle advanced, the phrase 'passive resistance' gave rise to confusion and it appeared shameful to permit this great struggle to be known only by an English name. Again, that foreign phrase could hardly pass as current coin among the community. A small prize was therefore announced in Indian Opinion to be awarded to the reader who invented the best designation for our struggle. We thus received a number of suggestions. The meaning of the struggle had been then fully discussed in Indian Opinion and the competitors for the prize had fairly sufficient material to serve as a basis for their exploration. Shri Maganlal Gandhi was one of the competitors and he suggested the word 'sadagraha', meaning 'firmness in a good cause'. I liked word, but it did not fully represent the whole idea I wished it to connote. I therefore corrected it to 'satyagraha'. Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha)engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement 'satyagraha', that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence, and gave up the use of the phrase 'passive resistance' in connection with it, so much so that even in English writing we often avoided it and used instead the word 'satyagraha' itself or some other equivalent English phrase. This then was the genesis of the movement which came to be known as satyagraha, and of the word used designation for it. Before we proceed any further with our history we shall do well to grasp the differences between passive resistance and satyagraha, which is the subject of our next chapter.


As the movement advanced, Englishmen too began to watch it with interest. Although the English newspapers in the Transvaal generally wrote in support of the Europeans and of the Black Act, they willingly published contributions from well-known Indians. They also published Indian representations to government in full or at least a summary of these, sometimes sent their reporters to important meetings of the Indians, and when such was not the case made room for the brief reports we sent them.

These amenities were of course very useful to the community, but by and by some leading Europeans came to take interest in the movement as it progressed. One of these was Mr. Hosken, one of the magnates of Johannesburg. He had always been free from colour prejudice but his interest in the question deepened after the starting of satyagraha. The Europeans of Germiston, which is something like a suburb of Johannesburg, expressed a desire to hear me. A meeting was held, and introducing me and the movement I stood for to the audience, Mr. Hosken observed, “The Transvaal Indians have recourse to passive resistance when all other means of securing redress proved to be of no avail. They do not enjoy the franchise. Numerically, they are only a few. They are weak and have no arms. Therefore they have taken to passive resistance which is a weapon of the weak.’ These observations took me by surprise, and the speech which I was going to make took an altogether different complexion in consequence. In contradicting Mr. Hosken, I defined our passive resistance as 'soul force'. I saw at this meeting that a use of the phrase ‘passive resistance' was apt to give rise to terrible misunderstanding. I will try to distinguish between passive resistance and soul force by amplifying the argument which I made before that meeting so as to make things clearer.

I have no idea when the phrase 'passive resistance' was first used in English and by whom. But among the English people, whenever a small minority did not approve of some obnoxious piece of legislation, instead of rising in rebellion they took the passive or milder step of not submitting to the law and inviting the penalties of such non-submission upon their heads. When the British Parliament passed the Education Act some years ago, the Nonconformists offered passive resistance under the leadership of Dr. Clifford. The great movement of the English women for the vote was also known as passive resistance. It was in view of these two cases that Mr. Hosken described passive resistance as a weapon of the weak or the voteless. Dr. Clifford and his friends had the vote, but as they were in a minority in the Parliament, they could not prevent the passage of the Education Act. That is to say, they were weak in numbers. Not that they were averse to the use of arms for the attainment of their aims, but they had no hope of succeeding by force of arms. And in a well-regulated state, recourse to arms every now and then in order to secure popular rights would defeat its own purpose. Again some of the Nonconformists would generally object to taking up arms even if it was a practical proposition. The suffragists had no franchise rights. They were weak in numbers as well as in physical force. Thus their case lent colour to Mr. Hosken's observations. The suffragist movement did not eschew the use of physical force. Some suffragists fired buildings and even assaulted men. I do not think they ever intended to kill any one. But they did intend to thrash people when an opportunity occurred, and even thus to make things hot for them. .

But brute force had absolutely no place in the Indian movement in any circumstance, and the reader will see, as we proceed, that no matter how badly they suffered, the satyagrahisnever used physical force, and that too although there were occasions when they were in a position to use it effectively. Again, although the Indians had no franchise and were weak, these considerations had nothing to do with the organization of satyagraha. This is not to say, that the Indians would have taken to satyagrahaeven if they had possessed arms or the franchise. Probably there would not have been any scope for satyagrahaif they had the franchise. If they had arms, the opposite party would have thought twice before antagonizing them. One can therefore understand, that people who possess arms would have fewer occasions for offering satyagraha. My point is that I can definitely assert that in planning the Indian movement there never was the slightest thought given to the possibility or otherwise of offering armed resistance. Satyagrahais soul force pure and simple, and whenever and to whatever extent there is room for the use of arms or physical force or brute force, there and to that extent is there so much less possibility for soul force. These are purely antagonistic forces in my view, and I had full realisation of this antagonism even at the time of the advent of satyagraha.

We will not stop here to consider whether these views are right or wrong. We are only concerned to note the distinction between passive resistance and satyagraha, and we have seen that there is a great and fundamental difference between the two. If without understanding this, those who call themselves either passive resisters or satyagrahisbelieve both to be one and the same thing, there would be injustice to both, leading to untoward consequences. The result of our using the phrase 'passive resistance' in South Africa was, not that people admired us by ascribing to us the bravery and the selfsacrifice of the suffragists, but we were mistaken to be a danger to person and property which the suffragists were, and even a generous friend like Mr. Hosken imagined us to be weak. The power of suggestion is such that a man at last becomes what he believes himself to be. If we continue to believe ourselves and let others believe, that we are weak and helpless and therefore offer passive resistance, our resistance would never make us strong, and at the earliest opportunity we would give up passive resistance as a weapon of the weak. On the other hand if we are satyagrahisand offer satyagraha, believing us to be strong, two clear consequences result from it. Fostering the idea of strength, we grow stronger and stronger every day. With the increase in our strength, our satyagrahatoo becomes more effective and we would never be casting about for an opportunity to give it up. Again, while there is no scope for love in passive resistance, on the other hand not only has hatred no place in satyagrahabut is a positive breach of its ruling principle. While in passive resistance there is a scope for the use of arms when a suitable occasion arrives, in satyagrahaphysical force is forbidden even in the most favourable circumstances. Passive resistance is often looked upon as a preparation for the use force while Satyagraha can never be utilized as such. Passive resistance may be offered side by side with the use of arms. Satyagrahaand brute force, being each a negation of the other, can never go together. Satyagrahamay be offered to one's nearest and dearest; passive resistance can never be offered to them unless of course they have ceased to be dear and become an object of hatred to us. In passive resistance there is always present an idea of harassing the other party and there is a simultaneous readiness to undergo any hardship entailed upon us by such activity; while in satyagrahathere is not the remotest idea of injuring the opponent. Satyagrahapostulates the conquest of the adversary by suffering in one's own person.

These are the distinctions between the two forces. But I do not wish suggest that the merits or, if you like, the defects of passive resistance thus enumerated are to be seen in every movement which passes by that name. But it can be shown that these defects have been noticed in many cases of passive resistance. Jesus Christ indeed has been acclaimed as the prince of passive resisters but I submit in that case passive resistance must mean satyagrahaand satyagrahaalone. There are not many cases in history of passive resistance in that sense. One of these is that of the Doukhobors of Russia cited by Tolstoy. The phrase passive resistance was not employed to denote the patient suffering of oppression by thousands of devout Christians in the early days of Christianity. I would therefore class them as satyagrahis. And if their conduct be described as passive resistance, passive resistance becomes synonymous with satyagraha. It has been my object in the present chapter to show that satyagrahais essentially different from what people generally mean in English by the phrase 'passive resistance'.

While enumerating the characteristics of passive resistance, I had to sound note of warning in order to avoid injustice being done to those who had recourse to it. It is also necessary to point out that I do not claim for people calling themselves satyagrahisall the merits which I have described as being characteristic of satyagraha. I am not unaware of the fact that many a satyagrahiso-called is an utter stranger to them. Many suppose satyagrahato be a weapon of the weak. Others have said that it is a preparation for armed resistance. But I must repeat once more that it has not been my object to describe satyagrahisas they are but to set forth the implications of satyagrahaand the characteristics of satyagrahisas they ought to be.

In a word, we had to invent a new term clearly to denote the movement of the Indians in the Transvaal and to prevent its being confused with passive resistance generally so-called. I have tried to show in the present chapter the various principles which were then held to be a part and parcel of the connotation of that term.

A Documentary History of South african Indians