The Satyagraha Movement

The Satyagraha Movement

The Satyagraha Movement is often referred to as Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence movement. To be clear, Gandhi’s historical actions took place through various movements, which can all be referred to as satyagraha-based, a term which Gandhi coined himself. As well, although these movements did encompass Gandhi’s beliefs of non-violence, the term satyagraha is actually an amalgamation of two Sanskrit words; satya, meaning truth, and agraha, which is the act of taking, seizing or holding (Hardiman 51). This notion of taking hold of the truth was the underlying basis of much of Gandhi’s quest of civil resistance throughout the early 20th century.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2nd, 1869 in the coastal town of Porbandar, which is within the modern Indian state of Gujarat (Parekh 1). His father and grandfather both held highly regarded political positions as chief administrators, despite the merchant caste status of the Gandhi family name. Mohandas Gandhi grew up within a rather diverse religious upbringing. Although his parents were both Vaisnavites, a sect characterized by expressing devotion towards the Hindu deity Visnu, his mother also belonged to a combined Hindu and Muslim sect called Pranami (Parekh 1). Mohandas Gandhi moved from western India to England in 1888 to study and train to become a lawyer, and when he was called to the Bar in 1891 he moved back to India to begin his legal career. However, his work in India did not seem to interest him much, so Gandhi readily accepted when offered a position as a lawyer in South Africa in 1893. The experiences during his prolonged stay in South Africa are integral for considering the changing course of action that Gandhi’s life would soon take.

Although there were many events and societal conditions that led to the emergence of the Satyagraha Movements, there are a few specific traumas that spurred the initial stages of Gandhi’s journey. On the travel from Durban to Pretoria within South Africa, although Gandhi had a ticket to be seated in the first class compartment, he was refused access to his rightful seat. This was a direct demonstration of racial tensions expressed by a passenger who did not want to ride within the same corridors as a ‘coloured man’. Gandhi held true to his rights in this instance and refused to leave until the police constable forced him out of first class (Gandhi 82). A similar trauma was encountered during the subsequent trip from Charlestown to Johannesburg aboard a stagecoach. Again, although Gandhi had purchased a ticket to be seated inside the coach, he was told by the stagecoach leader that he must sit outside next to the coachman. The racial injustice became too much, however, when the stagecoach leader decided he wanted to sit outside to smoke and demanded Gandhi take a seat on the footboards on a piece of dirty cloth. Gandhi resisted to accept such an insult and was beaten by the stagecoach leader until the cries of fellow passengers caused the assault to cease (Gandhi 84). These traumatic events upon his early travel within South Africa incited the initial basis of much of Gandhi’s life-long satyagraha philosophies, demonstrated through various historical movements.

Over the next few years in South Africa, the developments of Gandhi’s personal beliefs on political, social and spiritual ideals led to the emergence of his manifesto, Hind Swaraj, in 1909, and his Constructive Programme text (Hardiman 2). These works both outlined Gandhi’s view on the “degenerate status” of India and his thoughts on resolving this plight (Parekh 7). Hind Swaraj and the Constructive Programme were the initial vehicles in which Gandhi outlined his ideals regarding civil resistance through the concept of satyagraha. These works are seen as a major turning point in Gandhi’s life’s work and as the start of a series of events that would come to define his satyagraha journey. The radical nature of Gandhi’s philosophies caused a great deal of controversy and the Hind Swaraj was subsequently banned in India by the British (Hardiman 2).

Despite obvious controversy over the satyagraha philosophies presented by Gandhi, he forged onward with his civil resistance plans against the colonial rule of the British in India. His next notable successes include the confrontations with planters in Champaran in 1917, against the Kheda colonial tax bureaucracy in 1918 and against Indian mill bosses in Ahmedabad later that year (Hardiman 2). Triumph with such movements led to his leadership of his first national protest known as the Rowlatt Satyagraha in 1919, involving a cessation of work (hartal) and mass demonstrations taking place nation-wide. However, Gandhi called off the protest once it incurred widespread violence and other non-dharmic actions that were opposite to what Gandhi’s ideals of satyagraha were set out to be. Gaining control over the Indian National Congress in 1920, Gandhi then declared a new satyagraha that he referred to as the Non-Cooperation Movement. Involvement with this led to his arrest in March of 1922 and the commencement of a two-year incarceration (Wolpert 115). Further spiritual developments occurred during this time; Gandhi begun to take vows of silence and episodes of fasting, showing his utter devotion and passion towards his ideals of obtaining freedom for India through movements of satyagraha. After his release from prison, Gandhi continued to lead various well-known campaigns including the Salt Satyagraha in 1930, Civil Disobedience Movement during 1930-1934 and Quit India Movement of 1942 (Hardiman 2).

All these movements led by Gandhi characterize and demonstrate his ideals towards societal problems, whether spiritual, social or political, through methods of non-violence (ahimsa) with the underlying insistence on truth (satyagraha). The sources of his complex satyagraha syllabi are various, including Hindu influences such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita, as well as Leo Tolstoy’s Christianity-based book The Kingdom of God is Within You (Parel 118). Combined with Gandhi’s eclectic religious upbringing and personal passion to diversify his knowledge, a very specific and unique set of beliefs is encompassed by this notion of satyagraha. Although the aspect of non-violence in Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha could be attributed to influences from Jainism, it is widely believed that “Gandhi’s non-violence was, by contrast, rooted in altruism and compassion towards fellow humans” (Hardiman 58). From Hindu sources, Gandhi found exceptional power in the concept of dharma, and outlined its use through various aspects such as duty, religion and ethics (Parel 86). As well, his philosophies fought the Untouchability that is outlined within the caste system of the Hindu religion, causing Gandhi to once remark that “there is no warrant whatsoever in Hinduism for untouchability as it is practiced today” (Sharma 37). These sort of specific beliefs are all inclusive in Gandhi’s satyagraha way of life.

Although he was met with a large amount of criticism, violent resistance and incarcerations throughout his life, his movements did manage to make a direct impact throughout India. Most notably, this is true with the independence of India on August 15, 1947 (Parekh 23). However, although independence was achieved through satyagraha movements of truth and non-violence, Gandhi was continually followed by violence. He was persistent and insistent upon non-violent solutions and dharmic actions up to when he was assassinated during a prayer meeting on January 30th, 1948. The legacy of Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha movements of the early 20th century can be seen to permeate global society today. Gandhi’s campaigns of non-violence have been able to awaken a similar type of satyagraha-based passion in various leaders of civil rights movements throughout the world. Two prominent examples of successful satyagraha related campaigns were those led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, who both have cited a substantial influence from the philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi (Hardiman 257-283).
































Brock, Peter (1983) The Mahatma and Mother India: essays on Gandhi’s non-violence and nationalism. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House.

Gandhi, Mohandas (1927) An Autobiography; or, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Trans. Desai, Mahadev. (1976) Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House.

Green, Martin (1986) The Origins of Nonviolence: Tolstoy and Gandhi in their historical settings. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Hardiman, David (2003) Gandhi in His Time and Ours: the global legacy of his ideas. New York: Columbia University Press.

Parekh, Bhikhu (1997) Gandhi. New York: Oxford University Press.

Parel, Anthony (2006) Gandhi’s Philosophy and Quest for Harmony. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Prabhath, S.V. (2010) Gandhi Today. New Delhi: Serials Publications.

Rai, C. and Singh, D. (2000) Relevance of Gandhian Thought. Delhi: New Bharatiya Book Corporation.

Sharma, Arvind (2005) A New Curve in the Ganges: Mahatma Gandhi’s interpretation of Hinduism. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld Ltd.

Wolpert, Stanley (2002) Gandhi’s Passion. New York: Oxford University Press.



Related Research Topics:

Hinduism                                                                    Constructive Programme

Jainism                                                                       Non-cooperation Movement

Christianity                                                                 Indian Independence Movement

Indian National Congress                                        Salt Satyagraha

British colonialism                                                     Indian Class (varna)/Caste system

dharma Pranami religious sect

Ramayana                                                                   ahimsa

Bhagavad Gita Nelson Mandela

Mahabharata Martin Luther King Jr.



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Article written by Angie Davis (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.