The Difficulty of Gandhi’s Philosophy

Photo: Margaret Bourke-White

Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha or “Firmness in Truth”, which is a fancy name for letting the world know about the atrocities targeted at you by boldly enduring them (although it has a much deeper meaning), has been widely criticized for its insanity. However, as insane and cruel (although this is not the right word to mention here, but this is how its results are perceived) this concept may appear, you cannot claim that it doesn’t work.

Violence and vengeance are so tempting. As a matter of fact, whenever an act of violence is inflicted upon you, vengeance is the first thing on your mind. Societies around the world, East and West alike, take pride in vengeance and it is seen as a symbol of might and strength, while abstinence from it is seen as a sign of weakness. Probably, that is why Satyagraha has been widely rejected as practiced by Gandhi, but not completely.

Now to get to the point why talking about it is even required. Believe it or not, the concept in theory is as relevant today as it has ever been and will always be. In fact, I would go as far as saying that it has been used prominently in history. The concept could play a vital role in forming public opinion, the impact of which is enhanced in the modern times of advanced communication, at least as compared to the period during which Gandhi was alive.

However, whatever plays a great role in forming positive public opinion can equally be vital in the formation of negative public opinion. This is a vital aspect to Satyagraha ignoring which completely destroys its utility. Utility, I say, because the pragmatic world needs a practical use for something. Obviously for Gandhi it was the way of living, more like worship, but not everyone can be expected to be as devoted to this unorthodox concept, which may appear bizarre to many.

In order to practice Satyagraha and in order to use it for what it is meant for, it is indispensable to remain consistent. Once you take this path, you will lose all that you have achieved if you divert from it, or in other words, if you resort to violence. And that is the greatest difficulty of Gandhi’s Philosophy, so much so that even the most ardent of his followers, which are becoming an extinct breed of people, find it a hard pill to swallow. Let us examine the practical Satyagraha just for the sake of understanding this post and having some fun.

But before that, it is important to explain that non-violence or Ahimsa is the fundamental requirement to Satyagraha, which is primarily why it is such a difficult concept.

Person A is Person B’s best friend. Person B happened to rape and kill Person A’s wife. This obviously put an end to their friendship. During the trial of the case, the court finds insufficient evidence that Person B is guilty. However, Person A is convinced that Person B committed the crime. Nevertheless, Person B is acquitted. Person A has a few choices to make now.

a) He could go and kill Person A in the good old fashioned way, especially if the death of Person B is the main aim of the court trial.

b) He could plead to a higher court to review the verdict hoping for the death sentence for Person B.

c) He could plead to a higher court to review the verdict and forgive Person A if the court’s verdict decrees a death sentence for Person’s B.

d) He could simply ignore the courts, no longer pursue criminal prosecution, be at peace with it and forgive Person A.

First of all, it is extremely difficult to think from the perspective of Person A who has suffered a traumatic loss. However, suppose that he is a person practicing Satyagraha, and to make things even more relevant to the point of the post, suppose that he is a person who holds a high public office with both Person A and B recognized widely in public and the case is followed vigorously by the media.

Now a word about the society these persons live in. They do not have to live in a society that believes in Satyagraha, let alone the thought of practicing it. However, let us suppose that it is a liberal society that considers rape and murder a grave crime, yet believes in the sanctity of life and generally disapproves of capital punishment even if it doesn’t mind it being used as punishment for such crimes.

Now such a society, or any society for that matter, will have sympathy for Person A. However, they would expect Person A not to resort to option A, which is taking the initiative of killing Person B, even if some of them may think that Person B deserves that. They would consider option B the right of Person A and if Person A is able to successfully pull off option C, it would do wonders for creating the right image of Person A. Whereas, option D may offer solace on a personal level, but would not have any use whatsoever in the given scenario.

However, there is another point to it. The puritan Gandhi followers, if any around at all, or at least those who are familiar with it in theory and that of Gandhi’s personality, could object that using Satyagraha for gaining public sympathy and popularity is against the very spirit of it and the concept must be practiced in itself without the thought of achieving such vile aims.

While that sounds correct, you must not forget that Gandhi advocated Satyagraha as a way of fighting tyranny, oppression and violence. It sounds like an insane and almost a suicidal strategy but it could work if practiced with devotion. Therefore, the idea of using Satyagraha for building a better public image is not wrong at all and as a matter of fact, Gandhi had been doing so himself all along.

However, the major, and perhaps the only difficulty and hurdle to the practice of this philosophy and way of living is the temptation to violence. The concept of Satyagraha seems almost contrary to the human nature, as humans have a violent instinct. The concept offers a peaceful and non-violent alternative to vengeance and further violence to resolve violent disputes, but in the end many would question if it is realistic.

It has its limitations, yes, but you can extract its essence for application if not use it the way Gandhi advocated and practiced it.

That’s how you would find it in history.

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