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Tag Archives: gandhi

I am approaching the end of this book; the ideas are becoming more familiar and sticking in my mind.

I want to write about purification. Gandhi insists that Satyagrahis must be purified in order to do their work. I was confused and perhaps put-off by this phraseology at first. Purification is all too often a hidden form of self-abuse, a means of asserting a power structure and creating submission. Making weak people not know that they are weak by giving them a badge of honor for causing themselves pain in the name of a cause.

Based on his generally sound way of thinking in other matters, I was sure that this is not what Gandhi would allow to happen with his injunction on purification, so I was simply confused as to the meaning of the word as he used it.

I think I’ve got it now. He is being very practical. What he means by purification, in the context of Satyagraha, is the lack of any attachments or distractions that would prevent you from focusing on the task at hand. It’s that simple – though, of course, infinitely difficult. For example, Gandhi remarks that his appeal to the Viceroy of India was a lapse in faith during a particular period of fasting; he had grown minutely impatient with a fast he was undergoing and had convinced himself that an appeal to the Viceroy would bring about his cause. In reviewing this action, he decides that he should have just continued with the fast and not made any complaints.

As mystical and perhaps alien as fasting might appear to you, to Gandhi it was a very practical tool that required certain restrictions, and he realized that he broke one of them. His purification was the training that allowed him to be aware of these intricacies. Within his system of action, any lapse of awareness of these intricacies means failure. Hence, purification.

I trust this is beginning to make sense to my readers. It’s a confusing topic, but I like the idea behind this; I am happy to find a way of understanding a tradition that is murkily understood and being able to explain it in more concrete, practical tool. I think that was Gandhi’s genius – his ability to turn the abstract and vague into the real and incisive. I am convinced that this feat is not very well known among my peers, because they tend not to believe that anything garbed in exotic mysticism – something so much abused in our culture – can have any practical value.

As a final note, I am now on the look out for an objective biography or analysis of Gandhi’s work, so I can get a counter-perspective. A fierce critique would be great. However, so far the only criticism of Gandhi I have found has fallen into two categories:

  1. from Jews, who criticized his insistence on non-violence as a solution to the holocaust and
  2. ad hominem criticism that tries to prove he is not the saint everyone thinks he is.

Both of these have their value; they’re just not interesting to me at the moment. I want to read an objective study on the effectiveness and consequences of Satyagraha on the Indian Swaraj movement, maybe with a little biography. If anyone has any recommendations, please let me know.


I want to flesh out the picture I’ve been painting of Gandhi by pointing out that, although he urges Satyagrahis not to resist arrest – this does not mean that they are not to show any form of resistance when dealing with the police. Naturally, he urges people to resist harassment and brutality by not complying with whatever it is the police are trying to get them to do. For example, during the salt protest of 1930, the police often attempted to seize contraband salt forcefully from the protesters, and Gandhi praised them for sitting on the ground and clinging to their bags of salt with four limbs as the police tried to take them away. That Gandhi urges resistance in this situation and not during an arrest, is that, in his belief, making arrests is a civil, responsible way to enforce a law while attacking or making threats is a form of what he calls “Goonda Raj,” i.e, rule by thugs. This distinction makes perfect sense to me.

Sadly, this once again leads me to wonder: what can people today do similarly, when faced with injustices? I have only seen little of the Occupy Wall Street protests, my immediate modern example, and it seems that they responded quite well to the police. That’s not really an issue: the protests were/are non-violent in action (though perhaps violent in word and thought – though I’m not going to get into that now). The problem once again is: what is it that they were not participating in? I feel that’s the issue. Non-violent confrontation cannot go anywhere without demands. OWS made an attempt to put together demands, but it was handled more like an after-thought than the core of the protests. I feel that such things need to occur before anyone stands on the pavement, otherwise either the cause is lost or it will erupt into violence.

One quick note this time. There is a lot to absorb in Satyagraha, but I am taking it in slowly (around 2 chapters per day), and the ideas are beginning to stick a little bit.

1. Revisiting a point I made in my last post about Gandhi, it still impresses me how often Gandhi says that non-violence is something a practitioner should die for. The process does not work if you are not laying your life on the line. Otherwise it cannot be taken seriously, and you are not truly committed.

This also applies to arrests and imprisonment. According to Gandhi, a Satyagrahi is not to complain or resist arrest in any way. This seems entirely counter-intuitive to our current conception of non-violent resistance – which seems to largely consist of provoking people until the police arrive, so you can “resist” the police. That’s not what Gandhi’s idea of resistance is about. What a Satyagrahi resists is participation in an unjust system: you are supposed to be demonstrating that you would rather make large sacrifices than cooperate in a government or other organization that uses violence to enforce an unjust set of circumstances. For example, unfair taxation; an occupation of an entire nation by a colonial power; slavery; things like that. You demonstrate your non-participation by giving things up: your privileges, honors, posts and – scary thought these days – your jobs, to convince the offenders that you will not submit to any system that does not fit your morals.

This is not how Occupy Wall Street is (was? is it still going?) operating – or really any modern protest I’ve seen recently, including the protests against SOPA/PIPA. Interestingly, Maddox, of “The Best Page in the Universe” and “Alphabet of Manliness” fame, has offered a plan for action against SOPA that seems to be the closest to Gandhi’s principles. It’s not quite there, as he is essentially suggesting that corporations that support SOPA/PIPA should be punished with boycotts – and punishment is explicitly excluded from Satyagraha – but he is the only person I have yet heard who has insisted that protests are meaningless without personal sacrifice. If there are more, please comment and let me know.

This brings up the question: what kinds of non-violent sacrifices can we make that would really change how our government and society at large work?

I’m currently reading Dover Press’s printing of an old collection of Gandhi’s newspapers articles. It’s titled “Non-violent Resistance (Satyagraha)”, and you can find it here.

Anyway, rather than treat this as a book review, I thought I’d periodically share my notes on what I’m learning from the book.

I began reading the book largely because of the Occupy Wall Street Protests. I wanted to learn for myself, from a respected practitioner, what non-violent protests are truly supposed to be about. Granted that, until I finish the book, the contents of these notes are not to be taken as any kind of prescription for modern times. I am merely going to set down ideas that strike me as being particularly insightful or essential. It will be equal parts for my own personal clarification and memory and to share with all of you out there. So I begin.

0. Satyagraha means “grasping the truth.” Taking this as symbolic for all of Gandhi’s teachings on non-violence, it means the focus is not on attacking or disrupting the unjust directly but on holding on to what is true. It is something positive, rather than negative.

1. Gandhi does not advocate non-violence in all situations. In what I have read so far, he insists that using violence for political gains is ineffective and unjust. He explicitly writes that using violence for self-defense in emergency situations (he describes an assassination attempt) is perfectly acceptable. I have not read his opinion on war; my assumption is that he is against it.

2. Gandhi makes a distinction between non-violent protest and passive-resistance. He believes that passive-resistance refers to concession; to being non-violent because any attempt at violence would be defeated. He considers this to be participating in the violence by fearing it. He conceives of non-violent protest as something active – something planned and executed to gain something; not as a means of avoiding the offending party’s violence.

3. Everywhere is the word discipline. Discipline, discipline, discipline. He writes that actions of non-violent resistance that are not grounded in strict discipline and disorganization are mere criminal acts. He believes that non-payment of taxes is, theoretically, an acceptable and helpful tool in resisting an unjust government, but at one point he dissuades people from using it, because he does not feel that the people of India are sufficiently trained in the discipline of non-violence to not join it too easily.  He rather urges political leaders to spend more time planning and training their people than to rush into actions with severe consequences.

4. Non-violence must be total and completely thorough to be effective. Violence is not just physical violence, but also hateful speech, implicit participation in power structures that support violence or injustice, and any kind of punitive behavior. On the latter: he points out that staging boycotts against one party (e.g., the British Empire) is punitive rather than productive and therefore has no part in non-violent protest. Simply to reject is harmful. One must take up residence in what is true and helpful for one’s self. The protest, the resistance, is the rejection of any attempt to deny them that.

5. The most obviously “non-violent” part of non-violent resistance has to do with police action. Gandhi insists that non-violent protesters must not resist or complain about police action, arrest or imprisonment. It is a much bolder statement to willingly and cordially go to prison as the result of not-participating in unjust circumstances than it is to complain about the police. This could mean accepting injury and death as a consequence.

6. Gandhi says a non-violent protester must be willing to sacrifice his or her life for the cause.

7. Over and over gain, Gandhi writes that government is not anything bad in itself; it is only bad when it acts unjustly. To me, this portrays government more than ever as a machine that must be made to serve its people – not as a fundamental bugbear or source of strife. Part of keeping the machine running well is making sure that the people could live without it – at least for a short while – if they needed it. It would be good to think of it as an essential convenience in human life – a simple machine like a hammer, a wheel, a rope. Though you could live without one if, somehow, it became too much of a problem for you – it would probably be very stressful to do so for a long time.

That’ll be it for now. More to come.