Return to Sermons
Mohandas Gandhi was a believing Hindu who drew his religious principles primarily from the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita, which he believed was the most valuable religious text. He read it as a call to each of us to be a warrior who battles the darkness within our own heart, the darkness within the hearts of others, and the darkness within the heart of society that leads to social injustice. But he also drew inspiration from Buddhism and Jainism, including their doctrine of Ahimsa, non-violence towards all living beings. His was a living faith and from it grew his theory of Satyagraha—non-violent engagement.
Gandhi described Satyagraha in the following manner:
“The word Satya (Truth), is derived from Sat, which means being. And nothing is or exists in reality except Truth.”
M.K. Gandhi, Young India, July 30 1931
“Truth (Satya) implies love, and firmness (Agraha) engenders and therefore serve 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”.
M.K. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa
I have said in the past, as some of you may have said, that while Satyagraha worked against the British, it would not work against the likes of a Pol Pot, a Saddam Hussein or a Muammar Gaddhafi.
Gandhi would disagree with me on several counts and his challenge may hold lessons for me.
First, he would say that no person or group is distinctly different than other persons or groups and so Satyagraha would work with any person or group.
Second, Gandhi would challenge my criteria for judging whether Satyagraha works
Third, he would say that that the focus on whether or not Satyagraha “works” means that I have misunderstood what Satyagraha is.
Let us first speak about people and about the British. Among human beings, there is nothing inherently better or worse about the British than about any other people. Britaindid not build an empire or keep it for centuries by being kind to people.
From the Encyclopedia Britannica:
“In 1919 the British government of Indiaenacted the Rowlatt Acts, extending its World War I emergency powers to combat subversive activities. At Amritsar inPunjab, about 10,000 demonstrators unlawfully protesting these measures…”
I need to ask here how it is unlawful to protest.
“…about 10,000 demonstrators unlawfully protesting these measures confronted troops commanded by Brig. Gen. Reginald E.H. Dyer in an open space known as the Jallianwalla Bagh, which had only one exit…”
And here I must interject again: when the troops set up their line, they blocked the one available exit; no one could escape.
“The troops fired on the crowd, killing an estimated 379 and wounding about 1,200 according to one official report. The shooting was followed by the proclamation of martial law, public floggings, and other humiliations. The Hunter Commission condemned General Dyer in 1920, but the House of Lords praised his action, and a fund was raised in his honour.”
The British are not inherently better or worse than any other people; there is no reason to think that Satyagraha works better on the British than on anyone else.
But also, when one takes part in acts of Satyagraha, one is not just engaging the Pol Pots or the Saddam Husseins or the Gaddhafis of the world, one is engaging with the soldier or the police officer who is standing right in front of you. One is speaking to the mind, the heart, the soul of that soldier or police officer; without them, the Pol Pots of the world can do no harm.
If Satyagraha is viewed and judged as a tactic, it is misunderstood. If one were to use it as a tactic one could probably not sustain it over the long haul.
Satyagraha is not just a tactic; it is a way of life that is embedded in a religious and spiritual philosophy.
The Philosophy of Satyagraha comes from the religious philosophies of India which believed in the divine within: soul is housed within material body, but soul is divine, not material; soul is untouched by the material world around us; death is not the end, it is a transition to either another life, to union with the divine or to escape from the wheel of life.
I can be misled by the material world, I can become ensnared in it, in a sense, and forget or fail to see the divinity within myself.
Others can as well. Satyagraha assumes that people the world over are alike, that they all have the same basic moral code.
Having a divine nature that lives within the material world does not negate the existence of injustice in the world or the call to create justice in the world.
The actions of Satyagraha, to differentiate it from the philosophy of Satyagraha, that is, the actions of non-violent engagement, begin when we recognize a problem, an injustice.
Where do we begin in confronting that injustice? Do we probe our opponents’ weaknesses? Do we connect with potential allies? Do we mobilize cadres? Not if we follow Satyagraha.
Satyagraha begins with self assessment and self purification.
Am I ready for Satyagraha?
Have I recognized the divine nature within myself?
Can I enter into acts of Satyagraha with pure heart and mind;
Can I enter into Satyagraha with recognition that my opponents also have divinity within them;
Can I enter into it with no negative thoughts against my opponents;
Can I enter into it guaranteeing that I will have no negative thoughts towards them, will speak no negative words towards them, and will, if necessary, defend them even at the risk of my life?
If not, I am not ready to act and I need do more in the way of self assessment and self purification.
The view of human beings in Satyagraha has some similarity to the western liberal view that human beings are either inherently good or at least capable of being good.
The self assessment of Satyagraha includes freeing oneself from bondage. If I am among the victims of injustice, have I freed myself in my own mind? In the case of British rule in India, as long as the individual considers themself to be ruled by the British, they are not free. Once an individual is no longer ruled or dominated in their own heart or mind by someone else, then freedom from that domination is complete; and combined with the recognition that what happens in this life— loss of property, being put in jail, beatings, hunger, even death—when one recognizes that these things do not touch the soul, then that person is truly free.
So, recognize who you really are, the divinity within, and free yourself from fear in this world and free yourself from internal domination by any one.
I have said that Satyagraha will not “work”, will not succeed, against some people. Not only would Gandhi reject that statement, he would challenge my criteria of success.
Acts of Satyagraha should be viewed as a struggle for freedom detached from the fruits of action.
In the Baghavad-Gita Arjuna speaks with his charioteer, who reveals himself to be the god Krishna, and then reveals himself to be an avatar of the god Vishnu.
Some readings from the Baghavad Gita:
“You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities…”
“Be steadfast in yoga, O Arjuna, abandoning all attachment to success or failure. Such evenness of mind is called yoga.”
“One who is not disturbed in mind even amidst the threefold miseries or elated when there is happiness, and who is free from attachment, fear and anger, is called a sage of steady mind.”
“In the material world, one who is unaffected by whatever good or evil he may obtain, neither praising it nor despising it, is firmly fixed in perfect knowledge.”
Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty; for by working without attachment, one attains the Supreme.
Therefore, O Arjuna, surrendering all your works unto Me, with mind intent on Me, and without desire for gain and free from egoism and lethargy, fight.”
The actions of Satyagraha are not judged by what is achieved in the world, they are judged instead by action as duty, as offering to the divine, as a form of worship.
To carry out one’s duty, to do what is right or just, to do what one must regardless of worldly success or failure, that is a supreme and religious act.
Further, I believe Gandhi would say that the recognition of the divine within self means that Satyagraha has worked;
The recognition of the divine within one’s opponent means that Satyagraha has worked;
Freedom within the heart and mind from the domination, control or colonialism of another means that Satyagraha has worked.
If I have done my duty, if I have acted not out of self interest or for accomplishment, but have done what is right as an offering to the divine, then Satyagraha has worked regardless of its whether it succeeds in this world.
The use of Satyagraha is based in a deep faith.
It is based upon a faith in human beings, a faith in the nature inherent to human beings;
It is based, therefore, in a faith in what we would call liberal values;
It is based upon a faith in divine action in the world and in the human heart.
Can I hear the challenge of Gandhi to my set beliefs?
I now invite us all to participate in a ceremon, commemorating one of the acts of Gandhi.