The Birth of 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…This then was the genesis of the movement which came to be known as Satyagraha, and of the word used as a designation for it. — Mohandas K. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa. 
After a long and introspective journey for Truth, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi originated a philosophy of non-violence and non-cooperation to counter social injustice and civil rights abuses in South Africa and in India. Decades later, civil rights movements used techniques patterned after Gandhi’s philosophy to address social injustice and civil rights abuses around the world.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869 in the Western Indian principality of Porbandar. He was the youngest of four children of Karamchand Gandhi, who was the Diwan (chief minister) of Porbandar, and Putibai. Putibai was Karamchand’s fourth wife and was extremely religious.
The outstanding impression of my mother was one of saintliness. She was deeply religious. She would not think of taking her meals without her daily prayers. Going to Haveli—the Vaishnava temple—was one of her daily duties…She would take the hardest vows and keep them without flinching. Illness was no excuse for relaxing them.  His mother’s faith and strict adherence to vows would have a significant influence throughout Gandhi’s life.
He describes himself as a mediocre student, and a shy child but honest child. Between primary school and the age of twelve Gandhi writes that he does not remember ever having told a lie, ‘either to my teachers or to my schoolmates.’ 
At thirteen young Mohandas was married to Kasturbai. Writing about this many years later he is extremely frank about the whole affair. It was only due to the months of preparation that he became aware of the ‘upcoming event. I do not think it meant to me anything more than the prospect of good clothes to wear, drum beating, marriage processions, rich dinners, and a strange girl to play with.’ 
As a teenager Gandhi recounts instances of being influenced by friends and engaging in activity for which he would later be ashamed–eating meat, smoking and stealing to buy cigarettes, even going to a brothel. He writes, however, that he was so ‘tongue tied’ with the prostitute that she promptly threw him out of the bedroom before the transaction was even begun. 
Gandhi was born into the Vaishnava faith, a major form of Hinduism.  He did however gain exposure to other religions through his father’s friends—Musalmans [Muslims], Parsis and Christians. As a child he grew to have a ‘tolerance’ for other faiths, except Christianity. He developed a ‘dislike’ for Christianity because of Christian missionaries ‘pouring abuse on Hindus and their gods’ and ‘rumours of Christians eating meat and drinking liquor.’  At this time he claimed no ‘living faith in God’. However, a sense of morality ‘took deep root’ in him. He writes that ‘morality is the basis of things, and that truth is the substance of all morality’. Also, a Gujarati poem made an impression; it’s precept of returning good for evil became a guiding principle 
Struggling with his college studies, and believing that future career prospects would be improved with a law degree from England, Gandhi jumped at the chance of studying there. His mother, however, expressed concern for her youngest son drifting away from his faith in England, and was reluctant to see him go. It was not until he vowed not to touch wine, women or meat, that she gave her permission.
In England Gandhi embarked on what would become a lifelong pursuit of his ‘experiments’. In London his experiments in dietetics included the elimination of sweets, condiments, tea and coffee. The over-riding result of these experiments was the realization that ‘the real seat of taste was not the tongue but the mind.’  Another experiment in dietetics, namely adopting a vegetarian diet, was driven by the vow to his mother. While initially difficult the strict adherence to the vow produced an ‘inward relish distinctly more healthy, delicate, and permanent.’  Filled with this new appreciation for vegetarianism Gandhi started a vegetarian club. The club was Gandhi’s first foray into organizing.
During his second year in London Gandhi came into the company of Theosophists who discussed several religious texts with him. Notable was the Song Celestial, an English translation of the Hindu divine poem, the Bhagavadgita, or more commonly known as the Gita. It made an immediate impression on Gandhi, he writes:
‘The book struck me as one of priceless worth. The impression has ever since been growing on me, with the result that I regard it today as the book par excellence for the knowledge of Truth.’ 
At about the same time he encountered a Christian who was a vegetarian and who did not drink alcohol. He encouraged Gandhi to read the Bible. While parts of the Old Testament were difficult to get through, the New Testament was not. In particular the Sermon on the Mount went ‘straight to [his] heart…The verses “But I say to unto you, that ye resist not evil but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn unto him the other also. And if any man takes thy coat, let him have thy cloak, too.’ The passage reminded him of the Gita and delighted him ‘beyond measure.’ 
It was during his stay in England that Gandhi expresses the beginnings of a faith in God that went beyond mere ‘religious knowledge’. For instance he writes of an incident, where he escaped the very real sexual temptation presented before him, as the work of God ‘saving him’ from the encounter. The idea of God saving him from dire situations would play an extremely important role in the person he would become.
Many years after the encounter he writes:
‘On all occasions of trial He has saved me… [i]n all my trials—of a spiritual nature, as a lawyer, in conducting institutions and in politics, I can only say God saved me. When every hope is gone, “when helpers fall and comforts flee”, I find that help arrives somehow, from I know not where. Supplication, worship, prayer are no superstition; they are acts more real than acts of eating, drinking, sitting, or walking. It is no exaggeration to say that they alone are real, all else is unreal.’ 
On June 10th of 1891, Gandhi was called to the Bar. He enrolled in the High Court the following day, and sailed back to India on the 12th.
Upon returning, Gandhi started his practice in Bombay. His first case was a miserable failure. It was in a ‘Small Cases’ Court and Gandhi was charged with representing the defendant. When the time came for cross-examining the plaintiff he was so petrified that he was unable to ask a single question.
After this initial, devastating experience, he made a living drafting petitions and memorials. At about this time, Gandhi was asked by his brother, who was a mentor to him, to assist on a legal matter. Gandhi was asked to use what he refers to as a ‘trifling acquaintance’ with a Political Agent  to obtain an advantage on his brother’s behalf. Reluctantly, Gandhi did so only to be unceremoniously thrown out of the Agent’s office. This proved to be another lesson for Gandhi, which he would utilize later in life. Of the lesson learned he writes: ‘”Never again shall I place myself in such a false position, never again shall I try to exploit friendship in this way,” said I to myself, and since then I have never been guilty of a breach of that determination. This shock changed the course of my life.’ 
The episode poisoned the professional atmosphere in the local legal community for Gandhi. At about this time an Indian firm in South Africa afforded Gandhi an opportunity to work on a case for a year there. He was tempted by the offer: a chance to see a new country, new acquaintances, a fee of £105, all expenses paid, a first class return fare—and most of all, an opportunity to leave India. However he would hardly be going there as a barrister, he says, but more of a servant. Nonetheless the opportunity was too much to pass up. In April of 1893 Gandhi set sail for South Africa.
Two days after arriving at the coastal South African city of Durban, Gandhi was sitting in a courtroom wearing a turban. The magistrate asked him to remove it, which he refused to do and left the court. Gandhi wrote a letter to the press about the incident which sparked local discussion in the papers.
About a week after arriving in Durban, Gandhi was asked to travel the 333 miles (536 km) northwest, to Pretoria. He was tasked with meeting with the firm’s lawyer and to prepare for the case. Armed with a first class ticket, Gandhi boarded the train. En route he was unceremoniously removed from the first class cabin, and ordered to use the ‘van compartment’. After refusing to do so, he was put off the train in the city of Pietermaritzburg, more commonly known as Maritzburg. The train continued on its way and Gandhi was left shivering in the train station.
In the train station that night, Gandhi considered his plight:
‘Should I fight for my rights, or go back to India, or should I go on to Pretoria without minding the insults and return to India after finishing the case? It would be cowardice to run back to India without fulfilling my obligation. The hardship to which I was subjected was superficial—only a symptom of the deep disease of colour prejudice. I should try, if possible, to root out the disease and suffer hardships in the process. Redress for wrongs I should seek only to the extent that would be necessary for the removal of colour prejudice.’ 
The following day he wired his firm and contacted the General Manager of the Railway and reported the incident. He caught the next train that night and continued on his journey. To get to his destination required him travelling by stage-coach as well. Though he had a valid ticket the coachman refused to let him travel inside with the white passengers, and forced him to sit outside next to the driver. The coachman took Gandhi’s seat inside with the passengers. After a time however the coachman chose to smoke. He ordered Gandhi to remove himself from the seat next to the driver and be seated on the floorboard, so that he, the coachman, could sit next to the driver. Gandhi protested. He writes:
‘[T]he man came down upon me and began heavily to box my ears. He seized me by the arm and tried to drag me down. I clung to the brass rails of the coachbox and was determined to keep my hold even at the risk of breaking my wristbones. The passengers were witnessing the scene—the man swearing at me, dragging and belabouring me and I remaining still. He was strong and I was weak.’  The beating stopped only after the passengers, taking pity on the young Indian, implored the coachman to do so.
At the next stop, Gandhi informed the ‘agent of the Coach Company’ of the incident, and sought assurances that he would be accorded a place inside the coach for the remainder of the journey.
In Pretoria, he related the story to his hosts. He then expressed a ‘desire to study the condition of the Indians there.’
With the help of the preeminent leader in the Indian populace in Pretoria, he convened a meeting to present to them a picture of their condition in the Transvaal. At the meeting Gandhi delivered the first public speech in his life. He touched on truthfulness in business, unsanitary habits when compared to the English, and the necessity of ‘forgetting all distinctions among Indians, particularly religious distinctions.’ 
The meeting was a success. At its conclusion Gandhi suggested the formation of an association to make representations to the authorities concerned in respect of the hardships of the Indian settlers’, and offered as much of his time and resources as was possible. In addition those in attendance decided to hold ongoing meetings, once a week or once a month. The net result of this, Gandhi writes, ‘was that there was now no Indian in Pretoria that I did not know, or whose condition I was not acquainted with.’ He adds that his stay in Pretoria enabled him to make a ‘deep study of the social, economic, and political condition of the Indians in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.’ This study was to be of ‘invaluable’ service in the future. 
The case for which Gandhi originally went to South Africa dragged on, and fees for both plaintiff and defense mounted. Gandhi convinced both parties to settle the suit. An arbitrator was called and Gandhi’s client won.
Indian Franchise Bill
The case completed successfully, Gandhi prepared to return to India. A farewell party was planned for him in Durban. While leafing through the newspapers the day of the party he happened to glance through the newspapers and learned that the Natal Legislative Assembly was considering a bill to deprive Indians of the right to elect members of the Assembly. “This is the first nail in our coffin,” Gandhi told his hosts.
Gandhi asked, why did the young Indians who were born there not organize and fight for their rights? His host replied: ‘”They never come to us, and to tell you the truth, we care less to recognize them. Being Christians, they are under the thumb of the white clergymen, who in their turn are subject to the Government.”’ 
Furthermore the host doubted the value of the (voting) franchise in the first place, but, nonetheless, enquired of Gandhi what he thought should be done. For the other guests however there was no doubt as to what should be done. One said to Gandhi: ‘”You cancel your passage by this boat, stay here a month longer and we will fight as you direct us.”’  After Gandhi agreed to remain to fight the Bill, the farewell party was turned into a ‘working committee’. Gandhi started working on the campaign, declining a fee for services, but received a promise that all expenses incurred would be met.
Gandhi organized opposition to the Bill. Together with his colleagues he enlisted many Indians for the effort, from many sectors of the Indian population. He writes: ‘[A]ll distinctions such as high and low, small and great, master and servant, Hindus, Musalmans, Parsis, Christians, Gujaratis, Madrasis, Sindhis, etc. were forgotten.’ 
A petition was drawn up and ultimately 10,000 signatures were obtained. A thousand copies of the document were printed and distributed. He also sent copies to all of the ‘newspapers and publicists’ that he knew.
The petition gained international notice. Foreign newspapers such as The Times of India and the London Times also supported their claim. But the real benefit of the petition was that ‘[i]t acquainted the Indian public for the first time with conditions in Natal.’ 
So successful was the organizational efforts that it became evident that Gandhi’s talents were needed in Natal, and he agreed to remain after the month for which he had originally agreed to stay had expired.
He insisted on separating what he calls his ‘public work’, i.e. work on behalf of the community, from his work as a barrister. He therefore arranged to conduct his public work for free, but would charge for his private legal practice. He insisted on being guaranteed a minimum of £300 per year. Members of his community agreed to his requests and Gandhi agreed to remain in South Africa.
After initial attempts by the Law Society in Natal to stop him, Gandhi was admitted to the Bar. Before taking the oath, Gandhi was once again asked to remove his turban. This time he did so, to the chagrin of his colleagues. But he describes his reasoning this way: ‘[A]ll my life…the very insistence on truth has taught me to appreciate the beauty of compromise. I saw in later life that this spirit was an essential part of Satyagraha. It has often meant endangering my life and incurring the displeasure of friends. But truth is hard as adamant and tender as a blossom.’  This latest confrontation garnered more publicity for Gandhi throughout South Africa.
The organizational efforts to stop the passage of the Indian franchise bill identified the need to establish a permanent organization to address similar grievances. As a result the Natal Indian Congress was born in 1894  There were three overriding features of the Congress: first, financial transparency; second, utilizing the services of colonial-born educated Indians and to represent their needs and grievances, when required; last, ‘propaganda’, in effect, publicity. This entailed ‘acquainting the English in South Africa and England and people in India with the real state of things in Natal. The activities of the Congress resulted in acquiring many friends in South Africa and throughout India. ’ 
While Gandhi would make several trips back to his native country, he made South Africa his home until 1914. During that time he would make numerous contributions to improve the plight of Indians in that country.
His desire was to become a voice not only for the Indian merchant class and educated Indians, but for all Indians, regardless of their position in society. He relates the case of a Tamil man, an indentured labourer, whose position was virtually that of a slave. The man had been severely beaten by his master. He showed up at Gandhi’s office in tattered clothes, two broken teeth, and bleeding. Gandhi was able to secure the removal of the man from his employment. This one story spread throughout the ranks of the indentured population not only in Natal but all the way back to India as well. 
Gandhi achieved many notable accomplishments in South Africa, too numerous to mention here. However here are a few of note.
In 1904 the journal, Indian Opinion was launched. Though Gandhi was not the editor he was responsible for the ‘editorial columns’. It also became a financial challenge for Gandhi, who had to sink his personal finances into the paper every month. He writes, of Indian Opinion:
‘Week after week I poured out my soul in its columns, and expounded the principles and practice of Satyagraha as I understood it. During ten years, that is, until 1914, excepting the intervals of my enforced rest in prison, there was hardly an issue of Indian Opinion without an article from me. I cannot recall a word in those articles set down without thought or deliberation, or a word of conscious exaggeration, or anything merely to please. Indeed the journal became for me training in self-restraint, and for friends a medium through which to keep in touch with my thoughts. The critic found very little to which he could object. In fact the tone of Indian Opinion compelled the critic to put a curb on his own pen. Satyagraha would probably have been impossible without Indian Opinion. The readers looked forward to it for a trustworthy account of the Satyagraha campaign, as also of the real condition of Indians in South Africa.’ 
Indian Opinion also provides insights on the power of the press.
‘In the very first month of Indian Opinion, I realized that the sole aim of journalism should be service. The newspaper press is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countrysides and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy. If the control is from without, it proves more poisonous than want of control. It can be profitable only when exercised from within. If this line of reasoning is correct, how many of the journals in the world would stand the test? But who would stop those that are useless? And who should be the judge? The useful and the useless must, like good and evil, generally go on together, and man must make the choice.’ 
On one occasion Gandhi was asked to represent a group of ‘coolies’. The word ‘coolie’ had become associated with the South African equivalent of ‘untouchables’ or pariahs. A local municipality in Johannesburg sought to dispossess the ‘coolies’ of their property and destroy their location, on the grounds of unsanitary conditions, conditions for which, according to Gandhi, the very municipalities were responsible for maintaining. The residents, who had leased the lands, argued that they were entitled to compensation for the loss of their homes. He agreed to take the case for a retainer from each claimant, and additional compensation from an award, if any. Half of his retainer, he told them, would be set aside for building a hospital or similar situation for the poor. 
By the end of the case Gandhi had won all but one of the approximately seventy cases. However, while waiting to be relocated, the ‘residents’ suffered an attack of the ‘black plague’, also called the pneumonic plague. Gandhi became the de facto mediator between the poor Indians and the authorities and secured a vacant house for the care of the sick. Both he and his staff personally care for them. He also wrote a letter to the press blaming the Municipality for the outbreak. With Gandhi’s intervention the authorities arranged for the locations to be vacated, and the residents moved to a farm near Johannesburg, where they were awarded temporary accommodation in tents. Their former disease-ridden homes were then burned to the ground.
Gandhi writes that his work during the black plague enhanced his stature with the poor Indians, and ‘increased his business and…responsibility.’ 
The letter he had written to the press at the start of the outbreak had caught the eye of Henry Polak, the editor of a Johannesburg newspaper, The Critic.  At the same time, Gandhi received word from Pretoria that Indian Opinion was facing severe financial difficulties. As he boarded the train for Pretoria Henry Polak handed him a copy of Unto This Last, a collection of essays on economics and capitalism by the writer and art critic, John Ruskin. 
It’s not an understatement to say that the book changed Gandhi’s life. He writes:
‘The book was impossible to lay aside once I had begun it. It gripped me. Johannesburg to Durban was a twenty-four hours’ journey. The train reached there in the evening. I could not get any sleep that night. I determined to change my life in accordance with the ideals of the book. [The book] brought about an instantaneous and practical transformation in my life.’ 
The book prompted Gandhi and his colleagues to purchase two pieces of land, twenty acres and eighty acres, side by side, outside of Durban in 1904. The twenty acre lot became the Phoenix Settlement. Here Indian Opinion would be printed. Everyone would be paid the same wage, £3 per month, irrespective of their nationality. Emphasis would be placed on a simple life. They ground their own flour for unleavened bread. No one was exempt from contributing–even cleaning the latrines–including his own children. He writes:
‘The municipal sweeper removed the night-soil, but we personally attended to the cleaning of the closet, instead of asking or expecting the servant to do it. This proved a good training for the children. The result was that none of my sons developed any aversion for scavenger’s work, and they naturally got a good grounding in general sanitation.’ 
The Phoenix Settlement was not without controversy however. His children did not receive a formal education. ‘I will not say that I was indifferent to their literary education, but I certainly did not hesitate to sacrifice it. My sons have therefore some reason for a grievance against me. Indeed they have occasionally given expression to it, and I must plead guilty to a certain extent.’ 
The Phoenix Settlement seems to indicate a fundamental change in Gandhi’s worldview. Up until then his activities appear to be based primarily on righting social wrongs, ignited by the humiliations he suffered his first week in South Africa. The Phoenix Settlement ushered in an entire lifestyle change and a number of beliefs and practices that would define the remainder of his life.
In a passage of introspection Gandhi makes a clear distinction between his basic human nature–exemplified by an inability to treat human beings differently based on their backgrounds–and virtues he tried to cultivate. In essence his inability to be prejudiced based on whether people are ‘relatives or strangers, countrymen or foreigners, white and coloured, Hindus and Indians of other faiths’ was due to his very nature. On the other hand virtues such as ahimsa (non-violence), bramcharya (celibacy), aparigraha (non-possession) and others required a continuous effort to cultivate. 
His basic nature, his life experiences, together with the virtues which he worked unceasingly to cultivate, finally came together in the philosophy that has become synonymous with Gandhi, Satyagraha.
A fundamental aspect of Satyagraha is the virtue of brahmacharya.
Of brahmacharya, Gandhi writes:
‘[A]nyone aspiring to serve humanity with his whole soul could not do without it.’ To truly serve humanity one could live after the ‘flesh and the spirit’. The virtue not only became an issue of ‘the flesh’ but of overall self-restraint—and self-restraint not only of physical actions, but of thought as well. ‘A true Brahmchari will not even dream of satisfying the fleshly appetite, and until he is in that condition he has a great deal of ground to cover.’ Moreover, he argues, the extent of self-restraint that is required for service is not possible without God’s grace. ‘Without complete surrender to His grace, complete mastery over thought is impossible. This is the teaching of every great book of religion, and I am realizing the truth of it every moment of my striving after that perfect brahmacharya.’ 
Of Satyagraha, Gandhi writes: ‘The principle called Satyagraha came into being before that name was invented. Indeed when it was born, I myself could not say what it was. In Gujarati…we used the English phrase ‘passive resistance’ to describe it. When in a meeting of Europeans I found that the term ‘passive resistance’ was too narrowly construed, that it was supposed to be a weapon of the weak, that it could be characterized by hatred, and that it could finally manifest itself as violence, I had to demur to all these statements and explain the real nature of the Indian movement. It was clear that a new word must be coined by the Indians to designate their struggle.’
Stymied in finding a name himself, Gandhi ‘offered a ‘nominal prize’ through Indian Opinion to the reader who made the best suggestion on the subject.’ The winner was a word whose English translation was Truth and Firmness. Gandhi further modified it to Satyagraha. 
Here is a succinct definition of Satyagraha. ‘According to this philosophy, satyagrahis—practitioners of satyagraha—achieve correct insight into the real nature of an evil situation by observing a nonviolence of the mind, by seeking truth in a spirit of peace and love, and by undergoing a rigorous process of self-scrutiny. In so doing, the satyagrahi encounters truth in the absolute. By refusing to submit to the wrong or to cooperate with it in any way, the satyagrahi asserts that truth. Throughout the confrontation with evil, the satyagrahi must adhere to nonviolence, for to employ violence would be to lose correct insight.’ 
Gandhi makes clear that Satyagraha is not just a political movement. It is a state of living based on purity and truth. And this purity and truth can only be achieved through the grace of God. The long spiritual and political journey described in The Story of My Experiments with Truth, culminates in Satyagraha. . The ideas of returning evil with good—obtained from the Sermon on the Mount, The Gita, Unto This Last, Tolstoy’s treatise The Kingdom of God is Within You. The self-restraint brought about by restrictions in diet, in celibacy and fasting. The ability to see people as people, without distinction, as was necessary in representing the ‘coolies’ and the Tamil servant, a life of simplicity as was practiced in the Phoenix Settlement, all culminated in Satyagraha.
Satyagraha, utilizing non-violent means to counter injustice, would be employed to counter human rights abuses and bring about social change for Indians in both South Africa and India in the decades to follow. It would become an indispensable tool for the creation of an Independent India.
There are obviously critics to the philosophy. Notably, as the Britannica definition suggests, many with whom a Satyagrahi may interact will not share his or her high moral and ethical standards. As Gandhi become acutely aware in India, in the years after the birth of Satyagraha, many who had suffered for decades under the boot of oppression were impatient with further sacrifice and self-restraint—spiritual or otherwise.
© Weldon Turner, 2016. All Rights Reserved.
Next month: Gandhi’s Experiments with Truth – Part 2: Satyagraha in Action.
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