Satyagraha, Conflict-Transformation and a Sustainable Culture of Peace
Dr. Ravindra Kumar | 03 Apr 2008

Satyagraha, Its Birth and Power
People acquainted with the life and works of Mahatma Gandhi know that during
the last decade of the Nineteenth Century, he was drawn into South African
struggle because the domiciled Indian immigrants there suffered from many
political, economic and social injustices. He, therefore, engaged himself in
search of a method and technique of resistance to remove these inequities.
However, Gandhi also wished that this technique must operate within the
domain of fundamental moral principles.
Thus, the method of resistance that Mahatma Gandhi developed to end various
social, political and economic wrongs was first applied in South Africa
during the last decade of the Nineteenth Century and the first two decades
of the Twentieth Century. His campaigns for truth, justice and fairness
further evolved over time and were carried-out on a wider scale in India
between 1917 and 1942, from Champaran to Quit India Movement. Gandhi's
campaigns for justice were assigned many names, i.e., Passive Resistance,
Non-Cooperation, Civil Disobedience or the Salt Movement, etc. However,
Mahatma Gandhi was uncomfortable with those terms as they did not fully
convey the ethical, moral and spiritual aspects of his struggles.  He,
therefore, termed his methods Satyagraha, which means The Pursuit of Truth.
To Mahatma Gandhi it is a restless search for Truth and determination to
reach Truth.1
In practice, Satyagraha, that is also an Ahimsak fight [non-violent
struggle] of Mahatma Gandhi, is perhaps the most courageous and glorious
experiment ever made by a person in the entire human history.
Generally, Satyagraha can be legitimately offered by a person, who respects
the rule of law and otherwise obeys law. However, in fact, a Satyagrahi-a
person in search of truth-refuses to obey the law that he believes is wrong
and immoral. By refusing to obey such a law he paradoxically respects the
rule of law by accepting the extreme penalty set for the so-called offence.
In essence, a Satyagrahi respects the law, but offers non-cooperation in
regards to its evil elements only.
According to Mahatma Gandhi, Satyagraha should be based on the principles of
love, mutual cooperation and understanding-the foundation of existence and
progress. Because such a quest incorporates sincerity, respect and
restraint, Satyagraha requires utmost patience, the highest faith, and the
willingness to suffer great humiliation. On this path, all are brothers.
For, there is no place for ill-will or hatred in the search for Truth.
Furthermore, Satyagraha also rejects the idea of physical struggle, and it
should not be pre-planned; for to Mahatma Gandhi a struggle, which has been
previously planned, is not a righteous struggle.
"Satyragraha", in view of Mahatma Gandhi himself, "is a Dharmayuddha, one of
the most powerful methods of direct action 2; it is a force that [though]
works silently and apparently slowly [but] in reality, there is no force in
the world that is so direct or so swift in working; 3 it excludes every form
of violence, veiled or unveiled, and whether in thought, word of deed."4
A man with Satya [truth] and Ahimsa [non-violence] through Satyagraha can
bring the world to his feet, because he accepts and adopts Truth as a
principle as well as the way of life. And, definitely it was the power of
Satyagraha, on the basis of which Gandhi succeeded to get the Black Act and
Immigration Act abolished in South Africa; simultaneously, he became
successful in getting removed the provision of Pound-3 Tax imposed on each
and every Indian and other Asians there.
What Mahatma Gandhi claimed in respect of power and strength of Satyagraha
that again proved to be true in various Satyragrahas [non-violent
struggles], launched for the freedom of India under his own leadership, on
the strength of which he not only transformed India into a nation by uniting
people and that resulted in creating a will amongst his compatriots to live
together, which meant sharing weal and woe, but he also successfully lead
his countrymen to the door of freedom from centuries old slavery.
Ahimsa-the Means of Satyagraha
Ahimsa [non-violence], that is the opposite state of violence in toto, and
the source of all human values including love and cooperation, and one of
the two sides of that coin, of which Satya [truth] is the other side, is the
means of Satyagraha. Ahimsa [non-violence] and truth are intertwined, and
according to Mahatma Gandhi:
"It is impossible to disentangle and separate them. They are…rather of a
smooth unstamped metallic disk. Who can say which the obverse is and which
is the reverse? Nevertheless ahimsa is the means; truth is the end."5
One who is a Satyagrahi [a seeker of truth], he must be humble. Truth is not
denominational. It is neither yours nor mine. It knows no frontiers.
Therefore, "A Satyagrahi", as Mahatma Gandhi says, "exhausts all other means
before he resorts to Satyagraha."6 And:
"He will, therefore, constantly and continually approach the constituted
authority, he will appeal to public opinion, educate public opinion, state
his case calmly and coolly before everybody who wants to listen him and only
after he has exhausted all these avenues he will resort to Satyagraha. But
when he has found the impelling call of the inner voice within him and
launches out upon Satyagraha he has burnt his boats and there is no
Further, it is necessary for a Satyagrahi that in the pursuit of truth, he
must not admit violence against his opponent, but he must be weaned from
error by patience and sympathy; he should be ready for self-suffering and
must not wish of opponent's suffering.
Transformation of Conflict into Cooperation
Conflict, like cooperation, is inevitable in human society; it is but
natural in day-to-day practices. This has been true for thousands of years;
histories of ancient, medieval and contemporary periods are before us to
prove this fact. Why is this so? In spite of cooperation that operates fully
within the domain of Ahimsa [non-violence-an eternal value permanently
present in human nature, or supplemental to it], through the ages, due to
competition and jealousy [two temporary tendencies of man], selfishness,
appetites and passions develop in him. To satisfy his desires he wishes to
become master of others, which gives birth to the state of conflict at
different levels in social, political or economic spheres. The same things
apply in the context of a community, society or nation. A community, society
or nation is made of men, for what is true of a man is true of a community,
society or nation.
However it is cooperation that ultimately records victory over conflict-not
only in the life of an individual, but in the lives of communities,
societies and nations. In other words, conflicts are always transformed into
cooperation. If this were not so, the unprecedented growth of progress made
in various walks of life by man and his institutions would never have been
made possible.
It is said that in his primitive, undeveloped age, man was absolutely like a
wild animal.  He, along with others, wandered here and there. Men killed one
another to satisfy their appetite. Generally, they too became the victims of
wild animals. In such a state there was a question mark on their very
This state of affairs underwent a change. At the root of this change was
man's idea of the safety of his existence. Instead of killing and eating one
another, man began to kill and eat only animals. Even then, however, his
existence could not be assured.
As the ideas formulating in man's mind matured, the spirit of collectivity
consequently developed. Instead of wandering here and there, man decided to
inhabit one place. By doing so, men found themselves more secure from the
attacks of wild animals. If an animal or a group of animals attacked, the
group of men, dwelling at one place, could counter the attack collectively.
Therefore, it was definitely the spirit of cooperation that ensured their
collective safety and survival.
For some time this state of affairs continued. Then man's thinking further
developed to add a new dimension. Instead of killing wild animals to fill-up
his belly, man started domesticating them. This led man to achieve two chief
benefits of a unique nature. First: man received milk as nectar; and
second:  domestic animals proved helpful in agricultural work as well as
becoming the best means of transport.
Due to man's domestication of animals, and using them for agricultural and
other purposes, it was only natural that their killing decreased. Instead of
meat, agricultural products became man's main source of daily food. Many
other changes also took place in this regard, and if we want to be familiar
with them, we can analyze man's long historical journey. However, what I can
say in brief is that whatever final situation is before us today is due to
victory of cooperation over conflicts.
I have discussed above that in the process of ensuring mankind's existence,
progressive ideas arose in men's minds and, consequently, the spirit of
collectivity emerged in them.  I also talked of their dwelling together with
unity at a specific place instead of wandering here and there. Now, I want
to reiterate that it was also due to continuation of this very process of
development and change, due to victory of cooperation over conflicts that
clans, families, villages, towns, cities and major cities surcharged with
manifold facilities also became part and parcel of it.
The process of change that began when man first ensured the safety of his
existence continued as he joined in friendship with many animals through
their domestication.  Passing through this never-ending process of
development, man continued to advance further towards the achievement of his
goals. This confirms that despite temporary tendencies that give birth to
conflicts, cooperation under the patronage of non-violence is permanently
present in human nature, and neither in the absence of which men can live
united nor come within the domain of collectivity. Furthermore, if they did
not have collectivity in life, their existence would not have remained
intact, not to mention progress or the achievement of goals, for, as Mahatma
Gandhi rightly pointed out, "Mankind would have been self-destroyed ages
We were talking of victory of cooperation over conflicts, or transformation
of conflicts into cooperation. In this context, we should keep in mind that
morality, also one of the principal supplementary values of Ahimsa
[non-violence], and one of the three chief fundamentals of civilization 9,
has been present even in ancient times and throughout the ages in the social
behaviours of men. And as JB Kripalani rightly points out, in comparison to
political morality, social morality has been far more advanced, especially
inter-group morality 10, which plays an important role in the process of
transformation of conflicts into cooperation in social life. Even today, it
can be observed that irregardless of whether we follow the moral conducts or
violate them due to selfishness, passion or appetites, we ultimately
recognize the validity of social life and behaviours [which are based upon
mutual trust, or cooperation or Ahimsa-non-violence], praising those who
follow it and condemning those who do not.
In the political sphere the above state of affairs has been quite different.
Here, due to lack of morality, selfishness [including the wish for economic
gains], distrust and hatred make the situation more serious and complicated.
This leads not only to conflicts, but to severe violence as well as war,
where might alone is right, where the law of the jungle rules, where groups
and nations in their relations consider one another as political enemies.
None of them steps forward to sacrifice for the other, unlike the social
sphere, where on many occasions individuals are ready to sacrifice their own
But, if unlike the social sphere, there is a lack of morality in the
political field, can we not transform conflicts into cooperation? Can we not
create a culture of peace there?  Yes, we definitely can.
We know that in the entire human history, great men 11 have made efforts in
this direction. The prime example is Mahatma Gandhi, who, especially in the
Twentieth Century, called upon people to foster political and economic
fields with morality, so that all conflicts, whether local, national, or
international, could be transformed into cooperation and a healthy
atmosphere for a sustainable culture of peace is created. We are also aware
of the fact that Mahatma Gandhi was firm about the application of sincere
cooperation and non-violence in political and economic spheres, as well as
the social sphere. In this regard his views and practices are fully capable
to guide us even today. The powerfully unique and exemplary weapon of
Satyagraha as outlined by Gandhi, is more than relevant to end any kind of
injustice and create a sustainable culture of peace in these days of
globalization, where people of the world share their common interests and
come in close contact with one another, if it is applied honestly, according
to the need of time and space.
The Way to Create a Sustainable Culture of Peace
Mahatma Gandhi, influenced by the Vedic-Hindu doctrine that "All life is
one"12 and also the Christian concept that "we are members one of another"13
believed that human life and society are in a sense organic; that human
life, individual and group, social, economic and political cannot be divided
into separate and airtight compartments.14 He considered all creatures from
one and the same God, and made Him the basis of oneness by saying:
"Man should earnestly desire well-being of all God's creation and pray that
he might have the strength to do so. In desiring the well-being of all lies
his own welfare; he who desires only his own or his community's welfare is
selfish and it can never be well with him."15
What is good in social behaviours is also good in political and economic
relations; if morality and ethics are welfaristic in the social field then
they are equally welfaristic in other fields also. The problem has been that
we adopt a double standard when we apply Ahimsa [non-violence], or other
values supplementary to it, in the political field. At times like this we
definitely forget the concept of oneness, as mentioned above. We, knowingly
or unknowingly, also forget the message of Mahatma Gandhi, in which he
"You cannot divide life, social, economic, political and purely religious,
into watertight compartments. I do not know of any religion apart from human
activity. It provides a moral basis of all other activities, which they
would otherwise lack, reducing life to a maze of sound and fury signifying
We preferably try to solve problems related to social life through
non-violence and activities related to it; we try to take the course of
morality there, come ahead to cooperate, but in other fields, especially the
political field, we interact in a different way.  The situation becomes more
complicated and serious when a problem relates to international politics.
Then the parties involved resolve the issue through the use of violence or
even indulge in a war-like conflict and by doing so they forget that a
conflict or war has never accorded a permanent and peaceful solution to the
problem. Rather, conflicts that have been attempted to solve by the use of
violence create more conflicts of a complicated nature. The example of the
World War Second is particularly before us to prove this fact.
As I have said earlier, conflicts are inevitable in the day-to-day
behaviours or practices of human society or in different walks of life at
different levels, no matter if they are temporary in nature. But,
side-by-side, they demand resolution; or in other words, they demand their
transformation into cooperation. Taking it as necessary for human life, we
should accord them a solution in a noble way, and as I believe, the unique
character and way of Satyagraha as outlined by Mahatma Gandhi is the best
one, the application of which in political and economic fields cannot be
underestimated. As this very way is based upon principles, it involves a
largest interest of people; simultaneously, it can be a moral substitute to
Satyagraha in Democracy
Satyagraha, as one of the most powerful methods of direct action, is fully
capable in a democratic setting to restore freedom and seek justice at the
local and national level in social, political and economic spheres. In a
democracy people have full rights to aim for Satyagraha if justice is
denied, or individual as well as community freedom is snatched.  And steps
like Non-Cooperation and Civil Disobedience can be taken according to the
circumstances of time and space.
Satyagraha in International Sphere
But, as far as the question of application of Satyagraha in the
international sphere is concerned, in my opinion, it is possible through
certain steps, especially if Non-Cooperation, Boycott or Restriction is
enacted with extra care, sincerity and honesty.  Furthermore, these types of
steps call for bigger responsibilities. For example, if there emerges a
situation like that in Kuwait some years ago, the responsibility of the
international community becomes important. And it becomes even more
important when a group of compatriots such as in Burma [Myanmar] is bent on
snatching away the democratic rights of the people.
Today, not a single country in the world is in a position to maintain its
existence or to function in isolation, no matter how mighty it is. Countries
are so interdependent that to act united has become compulsory. In such a
state it is not possible even for a country whose dictators snatch the
people's freedom to ignore the international call. Through a collective
decision in the UNO the dictators of such a country may be first warned of a
Non-Violent Non-Cooperation and Boycott including Restrictions, and if there
is no success in these tactics then under the leadership of UNO further
steps can be taken according to conditions of time and space, keeping in
mind the safety and difficulties of innocent people.
Such types of actions are, in fact, under the domain of non-violence; they
are forward steps of Satyagraha, because there is no ill-will in it. For
Satyagraha means pursuit of Truth; it is the search for Truth and a
determination to reach Truth by means of Ahimsa [non-violence] that is the
only means to create a sustainable culture of peace. Hence, if it is applied
in the international sphere, its outcome will definitely be benevolent and