What is Satyagraha

The Meaning of Satya Graha

“Satya” is the Sanskrit word for “Truth.” The word “Graha” means “holding to.” Satya Graha, commonly translated as “Truth Force,” is the name that Mahatma Gandhi gave to his movement of social change through nonviolence. Gandhi, born in India in 1869 and educated as a lawyer in England, first used civil disobedience to change race laws against Indians in South Africa. He later applied the same tactics to win Independence for India from British rule. He was assasinated in 1948. Martin Luther King Jr. remains Gandhi’s most outstanding heir; many of Gandhi’s Satya Graha strategies were used by Dr. King in his civil rights movment for racial equality and social justice.

Origin and Meaning of the term

Gandhi leading Salt Satyagraha, a notable example of Satyagraha

The term originated in a competition in the news-sheet Indian Opinion in South Africa in 1906. It was an adaptation by Gandhi of one of the entries in that competition. “Satyagraha” is a portmanteau of the Sanskrit words satya (meaning “truth”) and Agraha (“insistence”, or “holding firmly to”). For Gandhi, satyagraha went far beyond mere “passive resistance” and became strength in practising non-violent methods. In his words:

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.

In a letter in September 1935 to P.K. Rao, Servants of India Society, Gandhi disputed the proposition that his idea of Civil Disobedience was adapted from the writings of Thoreau.

“The statement that I had derived my idea of civil disobedience from the writings of Thoreau is wrong. The resistance to authority in South Africa was well advanced before I got the essay of Thoreau on civil disobedience. But the movement was then known as passive resistance. As it was incomplete I had coined the word satyagraha for the Gujarati readers. When I saw the title of Thoreau’s great essay, I began the use of his phrase to explain our struggle to the English readers. But I found that even civil disobedience failed to convey the full meaning of the struggle. I therefore adopted the phrase civil resistance. Non-violence was always an integral part of our struggle.”[6]

Gandhi described it as follows:

I have also called it love-force or soul-force. In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.

Contrast to “passive resistance”

Gandhi distinguished between satyagraha and passive resistance in the following letter:

“I have drawn the distinction between passive resistance as understood and practised in the West and satyagraha before I had evolved the doctrine of the latter to its full logical and spiritual extent. I often used “passive resistance” and “satyagraha” as synonymous terms: but as the doctrine of satyagraha developed, the expression “passive resistance” ceases even to be synonymous, as passive resistance has admitted of violence as in the case of suffragettes and has been universally acknowledged to be a weapon of the weak. Moreover, passive resistance does not necessarily involve complete adherence to truth under every circumstance. Therefore it is different from satyagraha in three essentials: Satyagraha is a weapon of the strong; it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatsoever; and it ever insists upon truth. I think I have now made the distinction perfectly clear.