Educational Resources

To Shankarlal on 'Ideas About Satyagraha'

September 2, 1917


You want to know my ideas about Satyagraha.
Here they are in brief:

The English phrase "passive resistance" does not suggest the power I wish to write about; "Satyagraha" is the right word. Satyagraha is soul-force, as opposed to armed strength. Since it is essentially an ethical weapon, only men inclined to the ethical way of life can use it wisely. Pralhad, Mirabai, and others were Satyagrahis. At the time of the Morocco fighting, the Arabs were under fire from French guns. The Arabs were fighting, as they believed, solely for their religion. Reckless of their lives, they advanced running towards the French guns with cries of "Ya Allah".2 Here, there was no scope at all for fighting back to kill. The French gunners refused to fire on these Arabs and, throwing up their caps, ran to embrace these brave Arabs with shouts of joy. This is an example of Satyagraha and the success it can achieve. The Arabs were not Satyagrahis by deliberate choice. They got ready to face death under pressure of a strong impulse, and had no love in their hearts. A Satyagrahi bears no ill-will, does not lay down his life in anger, but refuses rather to submit to his "enemy" or oppressor because he has the strength himself to suffer. He should, therefore, have a courageous spirit and a forgiving and compassionate nature. Imam Hussan and Hussain3 were merely two boys. They felt that an injustice had been done to them. When called upon to surrender, they refused. They knew at the time that this would mean death for them. If, however, they were to submit to injustice, they would disgrace their manhood and betray their religion. In these circumstances, they yielded to the embrace of death. The heads of these fine young men rolled on the battlefield. In my view, Islam did not attain its greatness by the power of the sword but entirely through the self-immolation of its fakirs. It is soldier-like to allow oneself to be cut down by a sword, not to use the sword on another. When he comes to realize that he is guilty of murder, the killer, if he has been in the wrong, will feel sorry forever afterwards. The victim, even if he had acted wrongly in courting death. Satyagraha is the way of non-violence. it is, therefore, justified, indeed it is the right course, at all times and all places. The power of arms is violence and condemned as such in all religions. Even those who advocate the use of arms put various limits on it. There are no limits on Satyagraha, or rather, none except those placed by the Satyagrahi's capacity for tapascharya,4 for voluntary suffering.

Obviously, it is irrelevant to raise issues about the legality of such Satyagraha. it is for the Satyagrahi to decide. Observes may judge Satyagraha after event. The world's displeasure will not deter a Satyagrahi. Whether or not Satyagraha should be started is not decided by any mathematical rule. A man who believes that Satyagraha may be started only after weighing oneself of the certainty of victory, may be a shrewd enough politician or an intelligent man, but he is no Satyagrahi. A Satyagrahi acts spontaneously.

Satyagraha and arms have both been in use from time immemorial. We find them praised in the extant scriptures. They are the expressions, one of the daivi sampad5 and the other of the asuri sampad.6 We believe that in former times in India the daivi sampad was much the stronger of the two. Even today that is the ideal we cherish. Europe provides the most striking example of the predominance of the asuri sampad.

Both these forms of strength are preferable to weakness to what we know by the rather plain but much apter word 'cowardice'. Without either, Swaraj or genuine popular awakening is impossible. Swaraj achieved otherwise than through resort to one or the other will not be true Swaraj. Such Swaraj can have no effect on the people. Popular awakening cannot be brought about without strength, without manliness. Let the leaders say what they like and the Government strive its utmost, unless they had we, all of us, strengthen the forces of Satyagraha, the methods of violence are bound automatically to gain ascendancy. They are like weeds which grow wild in any soil. The crop of Satyagraha requires willingness to exert oneself or a venturesome spirit by way of manure. Just as, moreover, the seedlings are likely to be lost among the weeds of violence keep growing unless we keep the land free of them by tapascharya and, with compassion, pluck out those which have already grown. We can, with the help of Satyagraha win over those young men who have been driven to desperation and anger by what they think to be the tyranny of the Government and utilize their courage and their mettlesome spirit, their capacity for suffering, to strengthen the daivi sampad of Satyagraha. It is therefore very much to be desired that Satyagraha is propagated as quickly as it can be. This is in the interest both of the rulers and the ruled. The Satyagrahi desires to harass neither the Government nor anyone else. He takes no step without the fullest deliberation. He is never arrogant. Consequently, he will keep away from 'boycott' but he always firm in the vow of Swadeshi as a matter of duty. He fears God alone, so that no other power can intimidate him. He will never, out of fear of punishment, leave a duty undone.

I need hardly say now that it is our duty to resort to Satyagraha to secure the release of the learned Annie Besant and her co-workers. Whether we approve of every or any action of hers is another question. I, for one, certainly do not approve of some of them; all the same, her incarceration by the Government is a great mistake and an act of injustice. I know, of course, that the Government has acted according to its lights. What can the people do to express their outraged feelings? Petitions, etc., are good enough when one's suffering is bearable. When it is unbearable, there is no remedy but Satyagraha. Only when people find it unbearable will they, and only those who find it unbearable will, devote their all, body, mind and possessions, to securing the release of Annie Besant. This will be a powerful expression of popular feeling. It is my unshakable faith that before so great a self-sacrifice even the power of an emperor will give way. People may certainly restrain their feelings in view of the forthcoming visit of Mr. Montague. That will be an expression of faith in his sense of justice. If she is not released, however, before his arrival, it will be our duty to resort to Satyagraha. We do not want to provoke the Government or put difficulties in its way. By resorting to Satyagraha, we reveal the intensity of our injured feelings and thereby serve the Government.

  • Shankarlal Ghelabhai Banker - A renowned Constructive Workers and Labour Leader of the Gandhian School of thought; Gandhiji's associate for many years.
  • Oh God!
  • Sons of Ali by his wife Fatima, daughter of the Prophet. They refused to acknowledge the authority of Yazid (Caliph, 680-3). Hussain revolted against him, but was defeated and killed at Karbala.
  • The practice of penance
  • Godlike equipment
  • Demoniac equipment (vide Bhagvad Gita, XVI, 3-4)