Monday, June 13, 2005

Gandhi and Passive Resistance

Posted by AmishThrasher at 8:11 am
Mohandas Gandhi
Mohandas Gandhi:
Should we call his belief stystem
'passive resistance'?
While Mahatma Gandhi, lacking a better term, originally described himself (in English) as a form of passive resistance, he later disliked the term. My tutoral paper will look at why I believe Gandhi was justified in disliking the term, and then will look at ways in which we may be better able to describe Gandhi’s beliefs.

I wanted to start out by looking at the term ‘passive’ and find out the common English definition of it. The dictionary definition tells us passive means:

1. Inactive (which in turn means ‘Not active or lacking activity’)
2. Not resisting; submissive
3. Acted upon without acting in return(1)

As an aside, it is interesting to note how the English language, at some level, is constructed to suggest that those who don’t resort to violence are ‘passive’; implying the negative connotations listed above. Similarly, a case could be made that when we label a group, ideology, or action as supporting (or being an example of) ‘passive resistance’, we are using a term that, at a subconscious level (if not consciously), is linked with very value-laden and negative connotations, as shown above.

An argument could be put forward that, in ordinary discourse(2), “passive resistance” can be defined in simple verbal(3) terms as being any “physically nonviolent action”. And so, in the broadest possible sense, Satyagraha could be seen as passive resistance. But, at the same time, you would have to note that Satyagraha, while a form of passive resistance, is not a passive form of resistance. Gandhi himself noted that his techniques “…does not mean meek submission to the evil-doer… it means the putting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant.”(4)

I would like to point out, as we are dealing with definitions here, “There are three ways we might criticize a stipulative definition”(5)… one of which is “the definition may be obscure.”(6) And it seems difficult to get a more obscure definition of Satyagraha than “a form of passive resistance that is a form of resistance but is not passive.”(7) I suspect a train of thought along these lines – that passive resistance didn’t describe what he was doing, as well as Gandhi perhaps disliking cowardice, may have been what led to his later rejection of the term ‘passive resistance’.

Furthermore, according to the earlier definition, ‘passive’ means not being active, which in turn means:

1. Acting, working, etc.
2. Capable of acting, functioning, etc.
3. Causing motion or change
4. Lively, quick, etc.(8)

It seems that, between active and passive, active describes Satyagraha better than passive. This is because Satyagraha does involve an active seeking of the truth, and being active in the use of nonviolent techniques towards that end. In fact, Gandhi despised passive cowardice in the face of untruth and injustice; insisting “The path of true nonviolence requires much more courage than violence."(9)

Beyond situations where it is currently acting and working, Gandhi’s campaigns in South Africa and India showed how Satyagraha is capable of acting and functioning. In those cases it would be difficult to argue it didn’t cause motion or change. While often perhaps not as quick in impact as violence may be, Satyagraha remains largely a philosophy about acting in conflict, and working to resolve it while moving towards the Truth.

So how do we define or describe Satyagraha if not as ‘passive resistance’? ‘Active’ seems like a good place to start, but ‘active’ in what way?

The first and most obvious answer is ‘active in seeking the Truth’. And we should emphasize Truth in our definition for good reason: Gandhi’s famous quote is “for myself, God is Truth. But two years ago I went a step further and said that Truth is God."(10) In light of this, it seems essential that any definition of Satyagraha is Truth-centric, where Truth is accorded a sacred spot in the heart of Gandhi’s beliefs.

Another term I strongly believe should be used to describe the system of Gandhi’s beliefs are either ‘philosophy’ or ‘worldview’. More than merely suggesting nonviolent struggle as an alternative to war, or presenting us with a set of techniques to solve conflict (a course of action), Gandhi was presenting a life philosophy or way of viewing the world. Gandhi made a similar point himself, in stating “It is not like a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart and it must be an inseparable part of our being”. So where a good practitioner of ‘passive resistance’ could primarily concern themselves with resolving conflicts in a nonviolent manner (a course of action), would a good practitioner of Satyagraha claim the same as their primary concern? Or would a good practitioner of Satyagraha primarily concern themselves with seeking the (capital-T) Truth, and as a result of this concern themselves with resolving conflicts in a nonviolent manner? While a subtle difference, any good description or definition of Satyagraha should depict a world view rather than a course of action.

For this same reason, I doubt that an alternative definition like ‘civil disobedience’ would stand by itself. As with the case above, civil disobedience is a course of action; and at the very least would need to be modified to ‘civil disobedience worldview’ – but is this an apt definition? As mentioned earlier, Satyagraha is a world view centered on the search for Truth, and the search for truth does indeed have a strong civic or .social element; “The golden rule of conduct… is mutual toleration, seeing that we will never all think alike and we shall see Truth in fragment and from different angles of vision."(11) And Gandhi does himself advocate civil disobedience in some situations, but as a distinct tactic rather than a core belief – “When therefore the limit is reached he [sic] takes risks and conceives plans of active Satyagraha which may mean civil disobedience and the like. His patience is never exhausted to the point of giving up his creed.”(12)

For the reasons outlined above, I believe Gandhi was right in dismissing the term ‘passive resistance’. Instead, we see it as being active, a world view or life philosophy, civic, Truth-centric, and interested in peace. Any new definition of Satyagraha should ideally combine these elements.

1. Collins, “Collins Australian Pocket Dictionary”, Collins Press, Sydney, 1988, p. 616.
2. Phillips, Ross, and Oakley, Tim, “Reason and Argument”, p5.
3. ibid., 69.
4. Weber, Thomas, “Conflict Resolution and Ghandian Ethics”, Ghandi Peace Foundation, New Delhi, 1991, p 53.
5. Phillips, Ross, and Oakley, Tim, Op. Cit., p 71.
6. ibid.
7. Collins, op. cit, p 9.
8. Weber, Thomas, op.cit., p 59.
9. ibid., p 44.
10. ibid., p 51.
11. ibid., p 38.