As we remember Mahatma Gandhi on his one hundred and fiftieth birth anniversary, the first word that comes to mind is peace. But what is peace? The word, like justice or equity, is complex and means different things to different people. At the very least, it is absence of disturbance or violence. On a more positive side, it is harmony and collaboration among different sections of society towards a common goal. However it is defined, Mahatma Gandhi is considered an apostle of peace who led India to independence through non-violent resistance.
Gandhi had tested out his ideas with success in S. Africa and he applied what he had learnt there on his return to India on January 9, 1915. Of course, it was not a mechanical application but a continuously evolving process. However, these ideas did not come in vacuum. Gandhi used Satyagraha or demand based on truth, to protest when in 1906, the Transvaal government promulgated a new Act compelling the registration of the colony’s Indian and Chinese population. At a mass protest meeting held in Johannesburg on 11th September 1906, Gandhi adopted Satyagraha or non-violent protest for the first time. He urged Indians to defy the new law and to suffer the punishment for doing so. The community adopted the plan and in the seven years that followed, thousands of Indians were jailed, flogged or shot for striking, refusing to register, burning their registration cards or for engaging in other forms of non-violent resistance.
Sri Aurobindo and Preparation for Gandhi
Some ground had been already prepared for Gandhi’s ideas to fructify before he returned from South Africa. As Kireet Joshi points out , on his return from England, Sri Aurobindo, then twenty years old had the courage to offer a scathing criticism of Congress for their positions and cravings for ineffective and minor reforms. Some of the first words he wrote were articles called “New Lamps for Old” in Indu Prakash. He said,
Our appeal, the appeal of every high-souled and self-respecting nation, ought not to be to the opinion of the Anglo-Indians, no, nor yet to the British sense of justice, but to our own reviving sense of manhood, to our own sincere fellow-feeling — so far as it can be called sincere with the silent and suffering people of India. I am sure that eventually the nobler part of us will prevail, that when we no longer obey the dictates of a veiled self-interest, but return to the profession of a large and genuine patriotism, when we cease to hanker after the soiled crumbs which England may cast to us from her table then it will be to that sense of manhood, to that sincere fellow-feeling that we shall finally and forcibly appeal. 
It was during the three years in which Shri Aurobindo edited the daily Bande Mataram, that the basic programmes of the struggle for the freedom of India were visualized socially or educationally, and empowered for their ultimate enfoldment leading to their victorious fulfilment during the next forty years. This was a done through a series of articles that Sri Aurobindo wrote in the daily particularly from April 11 to April 23, 1907.
Sri Aurobindo rejected the idea of dominion status and wanted complete freedom which would make India and Britain equal nations. This alone, for him, was Swaraj. He also enunciated the programmes of boycott and non-cooperation together with Swadeshi and a nationalist education to be formulated through a National Council for Education. He advocated reaching out to the masses and proceeded to do so through Bande Mataram. The impact, as he himself points out, was electrical:
In the enthusiasm that swept surging everywhere with the cry of Bande Mataram ringing on all sides men felt it glorious to be alive and dare and act together and hope; the old apathy and timidity was broken and a force created which nothing could destroy and which rose again and again in wave after wave till it carried India to the beginning of a complete victory. 
In these articles Sri Aurobindo first enunciated three possible ways of fighting for independence. One was petitioning, which the Congress had been doing. This, however, was an unprecedented way and could not succeed. The second was self development that the Congress was at that time advocating. Self development whether industrially, socially or educationally, Sri Aurobindo convincingly argued was not possible unless there was a control authority that could bring out the best thought and energy of the country or the majority of its citizens. But there was no such authority in India nor had anyone tried to develop it. The consequence was that while there had been much talk of enlightenment and national regeneration, but instead of national progress there was national confusion and weakness. That was because there was no central authority to lead the people towards development. The third is organized resistance to the existing form of government. This could be passive or active, defensive or aggressive. Here is where Sri Aurobindo’s path diverged from that of Gandhi.
The object of organized resistance said Sri Aurobindo, could be the vindication of national liberty, or to substitute one form of government for another, or to remove particular objectionable features in the existing system without any entire or radical alteration of the whole, or it could be simply to redress particular grievances. Passive resistance, said Sri Aurobindo, was the only affective means available at the time. The other alternative was actual armed revolt, by which the organized strength of the nation could be gathered around a powerful central authority and guided by the principle of self development and self help, it could wrest control of national life from an alien bureaucracy to eventually replace it by a self-governed India, liberated from foreign rule. Organised national resistance had three courses open to it. It could make administration impossible by organized passive resistance. The second was to make administration impossible by organized aggressive resistance through an implacable campaign of assassinations, rioting, strikes and agrarian uprisings. The third was armed revolt. The choice had to be determined by the circumstances of servitude and looking at the conditions in India, he felt, the most suitable weapon seemed to be passive resistance. He recognized that peaceful resistance was less bold and aggressive than the other methods but it called for heroism of its own kind and the participation of people was more because it required universal endurance and suffering. 
The essential difference Sri Aurobindo pointed out, between active and passive resistance was that the aggressive resister attempted to cause positive harm to the government while the passive resister abstained from doing something that would help the government. The object, however in both cases, was the same - to force the hand of the government; only the line of attack is different. Passive resistance took the form of boycott as in refusing to purchase foreign goods making the further exploitation of Indian economy impossible. This makes it clear that self development and passive resistance are connected as foreign goods have then to be replaced by goods made in India. Further, passive resistance was not just ignoring the alien bureaucracy but to have nothing to do with it either by giving it assistance or by acquiescing to it. Hence, petitioning he felt, had to be replaced by boycott. 
Sri Aurobindo then went on to elaborate on three necessities that make passive resistance possible. One, passive resistance both at the individual level and en masse, should always be prepared to break an unjust coercive law and take the legal consequences. For the same reason, the people must be prepared to disobey an unjust or coercive executive order whether general or in particular, and third, they must be willing to boycott those guilty of disobedience to the national will. He recognized that an individual is apt to be weak or selfish and unless he is sure that the mass will not tolerate individual treachery he, after the initial enthusiasm, will fall prey to his weakness or selfishness to the detriment of his community. This is an important psychological insight. 
In a major deviation from what Gandhi was to advocate later, Sri Aurobindo said that there were limits to passive resistance.  The moment violent or coercive methods were used on passive resisters, passive resistance must cease and active resistance becomes a duty. If, for instance, the executive chooses to disperse a meeting through violent means, active resistance becomes the right to self defence as long as it does not exceed the violence that is needed for defence. This shows that Sri Aurobindo was realistic enough to understand and it was easier to speak of love than to love. Love that drives out hate is a divine quality of which only one man in a thousand is capable of. However, politics is concerned with masses and not with individuals. To ask masses to act as saints, rise to the heights of divine love and practise it in relation to their adversaries or oppressors, is to ignore human nature. Aggression he said, was unjust only when unprovoked and violence was unrighteous when used for unrighteous ends. It would be a barren philosophy said Sri Aurobindo, if non-violent passive resistance is applied as a mechanical rule to be followed whatever may be the circumstance or if an attempt was made to fit all human life into it. 
Gandhi’s Enunciation of Satyagraha
Gandhi first enunciated his theory and practise of passive resistance in Indian Opinion which he published from South Africa for about eleven years. He called it Satyagraha or Truth Force.  Tolstoy called it Soul Force or Love Force. Carried out to its utmost limit, this force is independent of any pecuniary or material inducement and certainly of violence even in its elementary form. Violence, he said, was the negation of this spiritual force as it could only be cultivated by those who would entirely eschew violence. It is a force that could be used by individuals as well as by communities in political as well as domestic affairs. For him, it was universally applicable, and that was a proof of its invincibility. It could be used by men, women and children. It was also untrue to say, he explained, that it was an instrument of the weak as long as they were not capable of meeting violence with violence. In fact he emphatically declared that it was impossible for the weak to apply this force. Only those who realise that there is something in man which is superior to brute nature and that the latter always yields to the former that he can be an effective passive resister.
According to Gandhi, this soul force was to violence and therefore to all tyranny and injustice, what light is to darkness. At the substratum of politics lies the immutable maxim that governance of people is only possible so long they consent either consciously or subconsciously to be governed. As an example he took the Asiatic Act of 1907 of the Transvaal. The people did not want to be governed by it and this became such a mighty force that it had to go. 
Two courses were open--violence or to suffer the penalties prescribed under the Act and exhibit the soul force for as long as it took for the governors and the law makers to sympathetically accept the point of view of the people’s demands. It took a long time he said for them to succeed because the passive resistance offered was not complete. All passive resisters did not understand the value of the force and many did not refrain from violence through conviction. Others were passive resisters only in name and came to the movement with mixed motives. Even while engaged in the struggle, they would have resorted to violence but for the most vigilant supervision. This, according to Gandhi, prolonged the struggle as he felt that the soul force in its purest form would bring instant relief. The use of this force required the adoption of poverty in the sense that passive resisters had to be indifferent to whether they had the means to feed or clothe themselves A perfect passive resister had to be almost a perfect man. It required prolonged training of the individual soul and people cannot become perfect passive resisters all of a sudden. It elevated and ennobled them to become better human beings and hence, the greater the spirit of passive resistance, the better the people.
For Gandhi, this soul force was a force which, if it became universal would revolutionise social ideals and do away with, despotism and militarises. If even a few Indians, he thought, had learned from the struggle at Transvaal to become as perfect as possible passive resisters they would not only serve themselves but also humanity at large. He wanted every child to be educated to know truth, love and the powers latent in the soul. A child has to be taught very early that in the struggle of life he or she can conquer hate by love, untruth by truth and violence by self-suffering.
However, while Gandhi began by calling his movement in S. Africa, passive resistance, he was uneasy about the name. Hence a prize was announced in the Indian Opinion to one who could suggest a more appropriate name. The principles of passive resistance had already been explained in the Indian Opinion. The name suggested by Maganlal Gandhi was “Sadagraha” to connote truth that implies love, and firmness that is a synonym for force. Gandhi modified it to bring it even closer to his concept of passive resistance and thus was born the term “Satyagraha”. 
Gandhi was careful to distinguish Satyagraha from passive resistance and pointed to the great and fundamental difference between the two. Passive resistance was associated with the suffragists who were seen as danger to person and property. This was not true of passive resisters and so they were not credited with the courage of the suffragists. Also passive resistance was seen to be the instrument of the weak and Gandhi felt that the power of suggestion is such that a person becomes what he believes. If passive resisters continued to believe and also let others believe that they are weak, they would never become strong and at the earliest opportunity, they would give up. On the other hand if they believed in their strength they would become strong and in turn their resistance would become strong so that they would never think of giving up.
Again, there was no scope for love in passive resistance while there was no scope for hatred in Satyagraha. In passive resistance there was room for the use of arms when suitable occasions arose, whereas in satyagraha, the use of force was forbidden even in the most favourable circumstances. Passive resistance is offered to those who have ceased to be dear and become an object of hatred. The intention of the passive resister is to injure the other party whereas a satyagrahi is willing to undergo any hardship and suffering but has not the remotest intention of injuring the other. 
So what was this soul force?  Scattered in Gandhi’s writings are statements that define it and give its characteristics. “Non-Violence” for Gandhi, in its dynamic condition meant conscious suffering. It did not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it meant putting one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, he felt, it was possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save his honour, his religion, his soul, and lay the foundation for that empire’s fall or its regeneration. At its best it is not the ancient Indian ”law of self sacrifice”. Gandhi laid great store by suffering. “Suffering” for him was “the law of human beings; war is the law of the jungle. But suffering is infinitely more powerful than the law of the jungle for converting the opponent and opening his ears, which are otherwise shut, to the voice of reasons.” However, reason alone is not enough as its appeal is only to the head. The heart also has to be moved and this can only be done through suffering that “opens up the inner understanding in man.”
On his return to India, Gandhi often talked of the establishment of Ram Rajya where there would be justice for all, fearlessness as taught by the Bhagwad Gita and the power of love. “If the world believes in the existence of the soul, “ he had said in an address delivered before the members of the Emerson Club and Hampstead Branch of the Peace and Arbitration Society in London, “it must be recognized that soul force better than body force; it is the sacred principle which moves mountains.” 
Gandhi laid down strict canons of moral discipline for the satyagrahi. He must have an unshakable faith in god to be able to bear calmly the atrocities perpetrated on him by authorities having superior force of violence at their command. He must not hanker after fame and wealth. He must obey the leader of the satyagraha unit. He should practise brahmcharya and be absolutely fearless and firm in his resolve. He must have patience, single-minded purposefulness and must not be swayed from the path of duty by anger or any other passion. Satyagraha can never be resorted to for personal gains. It is a process of love and the appeal is to the heart and not to the sense of fear of the wrong doer. It is a process of personal purification. The sense of purity that Gandhi brought into political thought was his unique contribution to both thought and action. It gave as much importance to means as to ends. 
Satyagraha as propounded by Gandhi had a wide range. In its mild form it is non-cooperation with the wrong doer. In its strong and extreme form, it is civil disobedience of the laws of the state. It can be individual or mass disobedience. In the case of mass civil disobedience, it must be voluntary and spontaneous. However, for this to happen, the masses have to be rigorously trained. According to Gandhi, complete civil disobedience which implies refusing any and every order of the state can be a very powerful instrument. It can even be more dangerous than armed rebellion because the suffering of the innocent has a stupendous power. It brings to the scrutiny of public gaze the evils of an autocratic state and thus even a despotic political order can be brought down. Then there is fasting, which Gandhi saw as the highest expression of prayer of a pure and loving heart. It is a means of resisting injustice and converting the evil-doer. For this a living faith in God is indispensable. It has no room for lack of faith, anger, impatience or selfishness as these make the fast violent.  Gandhi said “….in addition to truth and non-violence, satyagrahi should have the confidence that God will grant him the necessary strength and that, if there is the slightest impurity in the fast, he will not hesitate to renounce it at once. Infinite patience, firm resolve, single-mindedness of purpose, and perfect calm must of necessity be there. But since it is impossible for a person to develop all these qualities at once, no one who has not devoted himself to following the laws of ahimsa should undertake satyagraha fast.” 
Did Satyagraha Work
The question now arises how well did satyagraha work? Even before this question is explored, it is astonishing to find Gandhi actually supporting the war effort and actively recruiting from India during the First World War. Gandhi was homeward bound and hoped to spend some time in England before reaching India when war broke out. When he landed in England, he called a meeting of Indians to raise an ambulance unit. The argument that the war provided an opportunity to India in its struggle for independence did not impress him. He was out of touch with the Indian political scam and did not realize the full extent of the suffering of the people of India and felt that loyalty was the duty of the citizen at the time of British need. There were faults in the British system or individual officers but he thought that these could be remedied through love.
However, when he landed in India he found himself isolated from mainstream politics as the most loyal but powerful or those with vested interests supported the British. In the Congress too, he was isolated as the Moderates found his methods of satyagraha extra-constitutional and the extremists disapproved of his loyalty to the British during the First World war. Ironically, the votary of satyagraha found himself travelling the villages of Gujarat often on foot or on bullock carts to recruit soldiers for war. However, at the same time he was not oblivious to injustice. In 1917, he took up the cause of farmers against the European planters in Champaran, led the agitation of textile workers against mill owners in Ahmedabad and in the following year he agitated for reduction of land tax in Kaira district where crops had suffered for paucity of rains. After the war came the Sedition Committee Report in which the government proposed to introduce legislation to further curb civil liberties. Gandhi had been alone among the national leaders in his support to the British during the war and he felt cheated by this. This catapulted him into the fight against injustice.
But eventually Gandhi died a disillusioned man and felt irrelevant as independence came to India. He did not want the partition of India but was powerless to prevent it. In his last days he would say “I was once a big man in India. No one listens to me today. I am a very small person…Mine is a cry in the wilderness”  He realized that he had become more of a nuisance than an inspiring presence to those very people who had looked to him for guidance during the independence struggle. Speaking on his only birthday in independent India on Oct. 2, 1947, he said openly:
This is a day for me to mourn. I am surprised, indeed ashamed, that I am still alive. I am the same person whom crores of people obeyed the moment he asked for something to be done. No one listens to me today. I say, ’do this’ and they answer back, ‘no won’t’…the desire to live for 125 years has left me… I am entering 79 today and even that pricks me. 
A few days later he asked the audience to join him in his day and night prayer to God to lift him from the earth. What caused him so much anguish? The answer came from Gandhi himself when he said, “Whatever is happening in India today that could make me happy?” It is to Gandhi’s credit that once the partition became inevitable, he was statesman enough to accept it gracefully and do his best in the changed circumstances. However, he was to be further disillusioned. Savage violence erupted on the eve of independence. It forced him to a tragic admission; that the freedom struggle had not been a unique non-violent struggle that he and the whole world had believed it to be. If it had been what he had believed it to be, How could such violence erupt after decades of non-violence? From where had it come? The answer came to Gandhi:
Ahimsa never goes along with the weak. It (the non-violence of the weak) should, therefore, be called not ahimsa but passive resistance…Passive resistance is a preparation for active armed resistance. The result is that the violence that had filled people’s hearts has abruptly come out. 
What was worse, it was the violence of the cowards and not of the brave. “We”, he lamented, “have become such rogues that we have started fearing one another.”
As Sudhir Chandra analyses this disillusionment of Gandhi with the non-violence of the freedom movement and with his own people has implications for contemporary India. The people had only abjured violence because they realized the futility of armed resistance against the might of Britain. Once freedom had been achieved, they had no use for it. “Today people say,” remarked Gandhi, “that Gandhi cannot show the way. We must assume arms for self-defence…..No one had at that time taught us to manufacture the atom bomb. Had we possessed that knowledge we could have used it to finish off the English.” 
However, for Gandhi, non-violence was his dharma and he adhered to it till the end. “I may have gone bankrupt,” he said, “but ahimsa can never be bankrupt…Violence can only be effectively met by non-violence.” Retaliatory violence only leads to ever-renewing circles of violence. Like a “skekhchilli,” to use the word Gandhi used to describe himself at this time, he rushed from one spot to another trying to quell the mad violence that had overtaken the country. 
In the week preceding independence he left for Noakhali but was detained in Calcutta (now Kolkata) where communal violence had erupted. He had to undertake a fast unto death and the effect was instantaneous. There were rich tributes paid to Gandhi both by Lord Mountbatten and by C. Rajgopalachari for Gandhi’s moral strength and authority but, as Satish Chandra, points out what halted the violence, needs further analysis.
When leading public figures came to persuade Gandhi to end his fast, he laid down three conditions. First, that they must promise him that communal violence would never again recur in Calcutta. Second, they must assure him that peace had returned to Calcutta because of change of heart which alone could prevent a recurrence of violence. And third, he asked the Hindus to give their word that they would die to prevent any injury to any minority person rather than report failure to contain violence. He wanted these assurances from them in writing. This these people found it hard to promise but they also could not let Gandhi die. Eventually they gave their promise but it was to no avail as violence broke out a fortnight later. For four months Gandhi kept appealing to people’s reason but in vain. 
So was Sri Aurobindo right when he said: “Purification can come by the transformation of the impulse of violence… Gandhi’s position is that he does not care to remove violence from others; he wants to observe non-violence himself.”  And Gandhi himself realised that had not succeeded in transforming the masses. They had only used passive resistance as a strategy and had not practised ahimsa the way he understood it. He died a disillusioned man in spite of all his sacrifices and all his sacrifices and all that he had achieved. In fact Sri Aurobindo analyzed Gandhi’s non-violence in some detail:
I believe Gandhi does not know what actually happens to the man’s nature when he takes to Satyagraha or non-violence. He thinks that men get purified by it. But when men suffer, or subject themselves to voluntary suffering, what happens is that their vital being gets strengthened. These movements affect the vital being only and not any other part. Now when you cannot oppose the force that oppresses, you say that you will suffer. That suffering is vital and it gives strength. When the man who has thus suffered gets power he becomes a worse oppressor….
What one can do is to transform the spirit of violence. But in this practice of Satyagraha it is not transformed. When you insist on such a one-sided principle, what happens is that cant, hypocrisy and dishonesty get in and there is no purification at all. Purification can come by the transfoemation of the impulse of violence. 
“Passive resistance,” felt Sri Aurobindo, only made people strong and with that strength they began to persecute others with a vengeance. He found satyagraha itself a form of violence. He said, “That is one of the violences of the Satyagrahi that he does not care for the pressure which he brings on others. It is not non-violence-it is not “Ahimsa”. True Ahimsa is a state of mind and does not consist in physical or external action or in avoidance of action. Any pressure in the inner being is a breach of Ahimsa.
For instance, when Gandhi fasted in the Ahmedabad mill-hands’ strike to settle the question between mill- owners and workers, there was a kind of violence towards others. The mill-owners did not want to be responsible for his death and so they gave way, without of course, being convinced of his position. It is a kind of violence on them. But as soon as they found the situation normal they reverted to their old ideas The same thing happened in South Africa. He got some concessions there by passive resistance and when he came back to India it became worse than before. 
Gandhi’s ahimsa not only failed with the masses but other disillusionments were to follow. As Mahesh Chandra Dwivedi points out,  when Nehru following the idea of transformation, tried to get China to change its heart through Panchsheel he was to be humiliated in war by it. Similarly Nehru could not solve the problem of Kashmir by idealistically referring it to the United Nations and left a festering wound. On the other hand firm handling and threat to use force solved many problems like those of Hyderabad, Goa and Sikkim.
What has happened in contemporary India? Everywhere there are strikes, gheraos, dharnas and more often than not, they take a violent turn. They are undertaken in pursuit of money, government jobs, or in pursuit of power. There is no satyagraha in the majority of them. It is “duragrah”. Being a student of Mahabharata it usually reminds me of Vyas’ anguished cry at the end of the war when with uplifted arms he says that Wealth and Desire can be obtained and fulfilled through dharma but no one listens and no one, he knows will ever listen to him. That is the very nature of the world. Hence darkness will come over and over again. But Gandhi’s philosophy of ahimsa, which to him was truth and love towards all must remain at least an aspirational ideal otherwise humanity is doomed. Gandhi seems so forgotten in our values and actions today that we are in danger of fulfilling Einstein’s prophecy about Gandhi: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” 
- Kireet Joshi, “Sri Aurobindo and Nationalism,” Speech given on 30th April 2002, at the National Council of Education, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, for the inauguration of a project on Sri Aurobindo and Nationalism.
- Sri Aurobindo, “New Lamps for Old- II” Bande Mataram, 21st August, 1893.
- Cited by Kireet Joshi, “Sri Aurobindo and Nationalism.”
- Sri Aurobindo, “The Doctrine of Passive Resistance: Conclusions,” Bande Mataram, 23rd April, 1907.
- Sri Aurobindo, “The Doctrine of Passive Resistance: Its Necessity,” Bande Mataram, 13th April, 1907.
- Sri Aurobindo, “The Doctrine of Passive Resistance: Its Limits,” Bande Mataram, 20th April, 1907.
- Debashri Banerjee, “Sri Aurobindo’s Thesis on Resistance Passive or Active,” European Academic Research, Vol. I, Issue 5, August 2013.
- Sri Aurobindo, “The Doctrine of Passive Resistance: Its Limits,”
- “The Theory and Practice of Passive Resistance,”
See also, “Gandhi explains ‘satyagraha,’
- “Gandhi’s Plea for the Soul,”
See also, “Gandhi’s views on Non-violence,
- Arpana Ramchiary, “Gandhian Concept of Truth and Non-violence,” Journal of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 18, Issue 4, Nov.-Dec.2013, pp.67-69.
- Ramananda Choudhurie, “Gandhian Philosophy of Satyagraha,”
- The Bases of Satyagraha in Gandhi’s Philosophy, mideast.critstudies.calarts.edu
- Cited by Sudhir Chandra, “The Impossible Possibility of Non-violence,”
See also, Stanley Wolpert, Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, Oxford, New York : OUP, 2011, Chapter 1.
- Cited by Sudhir Chandra, “Gandhi:Rethinking the Possibility of Non-violence,”
- Cited by Sudhir Chandra, “Rethinking the Possibility of Non-violence”
- Sri Aurobindo, “Gandhi’s Ahimsa,” July 23rd 1923
- Mahesh Chandra Dewedy, “Gandhian Culture of Politics and its Post Independence Evaluation,”
- Albert Einstein on Gandhi’s 70th birthday.