The Force of the Spirit
By Gabriel Blanchard
The Satyagraha or "spiritual force" of Gandhi continues to reverberate around the globe.
In 1869, when Mohandas (later called Mahatma or “Great-soul”) Gandhi was born, India was the pride and glory of the British Empire. In 1948, when he died, it was one of the first and most successful in delivering itself from the yoke of European colonialism; today, India holds the status of a world power. This revolution was largely the work of this single man, employing a tactic often dismissed as useless both before and, more curiously, since his time: nonviolent resistance. This was embedded in a thoroughgoing philosophy of peace and simplicity combined with unwavering will, which Gandhi referred to by the ancient Sanskrit word Satyagraha, meaning “the force of the soul” or “the force of truth.”
Gandhi took a degree in law in London in 1891, and spent several years in South Africa shortly afterwards. It was there that his ideas about universal human equality, the injustices and excesses of the Empire, and the technique of nonviolent resistance began to form. At first, Gandhi had considered himself a loyal subject of Queen Victoria, a Briton first and an Indian second. But in colonial South Africa, both social and legal discrimination against Africans and resident Asians (particularly Indians and Chinese) roused his anger; early efforts to earn respect through displays of loyalty were derided by the white British.
He eventually began to advocate Satyagraha, which included a refusal to comply with any law or command that transgressed human dignity, along with a calm acceptance of the consequences of the refusal. Turning his attention to India, he wrote a book titled Hind Swaraj or “Indian Self-Rule” in 1909 (which was promptly banned as seditious by the British government). In it, he argued that violent means always do harm and never offer more than partial and temporary gains; he did not altogether condemn violence, but insisted that love and pity for one’s opponents were not only nobler but more effective than violence, never did harm, and were suited to genuine inner strength. As he put it, “Wherein is courage required? In blowing others to pieces from behind a cannon, or, with smiling face, to approach a cannon and be blown to pieces?” and, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Gandhi resolutely believed that moral and spiritual force were more powerful than the force of arms. He took this combination of philosophy and praxis with him back to his native country in 1915.
Gandhi’s influences were many. He was a devout Hindu all his life, and treasured the Bhagavad Gītā in particular; despite, or because of, this, he also had a high respect for other religions, taking an interest in Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity. His ideals of nonviolence were developed from ancient Hindu roots, but he also cited the Sermon on the Mount as a major influence. He wanted an independent India to be pluralist, as it was multiethnic and multilingual, and was deeply disappointed by the partition of the former colonial territory on Hindu-Islamic lines (leading to the creation of Pakistan and, eventually, Bangladesh). He was also noteworthy for calling for the emancipation and equality of women in Indian society, and for his bitter criticism of the caste system, especially the indignities it imposed on the Untouchables.
In India, he continued to agitate for home rule, which infuriated Winston Churchill. He was jailed multiple times by colonial authorities for his demonstrations, all of which were resolutely nonviolent—retaliation and even self-defense were strictly forbidden to practitioners of Satyagraha. His tactics consistently partly in symbolic gestures, such as peacefully marching into areas the authorities had banned him from entering or observing grueling public fasts; other tactics Gandhi used were more pragmatic, such as boycotting foreign goods in favor of native ones and urging his followers to do the same. He was especially well-known for urging every Indian to spend time every day weaving khadi rather than purchase British textiles—so much so that the flag adopted by the Indian National Congress in 1931 and retained until formal independence from Great Britain featured a spinning wheel in the center.
In 1947, Swaraj, self-rule, finally came to India. The next year, Gandhi was assassinated by an extreme Hindu nationalist, who held him responsible for Muslim violence against Hindus. More than a million people joined his funeral procession, which was over five miles long.
Gandhi is regarded to this day as the father of the country. His influence has made itself felt far beyond the Indian subcontinent. In the US, the civil rights movement under Dr. King and much of the anti-war movement in the 1960s and 1970s was directly influenced by Gandhi’s techniques and philosophy, while in South Africa, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu both drew on Gandhi’s work, in his own country and theirs, in fighting the racist system of apartheid. His ideas may also have played a role in the Soviet Union’s collapse; Solzhenitsyn’s resistance to the KGB followed a similar pattern, as did that of Lech Wałęsa, leader of the Solidarity movement in Communist Poland. The Dalai Lama has also spoken highly of Gandhi and his ideals, in the tension surrounding the relationship between Tibet and the Chinese government. In the current political and sometimes overtly physical strife of our own nation, we might do well to see whether Gandhi’s demanding concept of Satyagraha has something to offer us.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.