Origins of Satyagraha

Gandhi experimented with Satyagraha and gave it a definitive form during his fight for Indian rights in South Africa. He stood firmly by his conscience and fought for justice by appealing to the God within everyone. His tools were simple – ‘Truth and Non-Violence.’

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Gandhi on his Salt Satyagraha with his followers, March 1930
“In the dictionary of Satyagraha, there is no enemy.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Last Updated on April 10, 2021

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) – Lawyer, Politician

In 1893 a 23-year-old Gandhi was struggling to find meaningful work in India.

Gandhi had completed his law education in London and yet was nervous presenting his case in front of the Bombay judges. He had to be content with drafting petitions and memorials. It was during this difficult period he was offered a job from a leading Indian merchant, Dada Abdullah in Durban, South Africa.

The job prospect was an enticing one. Dada Abdullah required his services only for a year. He would pay £105 and take care of all expenses. The work was elementary—to assist the merchant’s British lawyer in translating and interpreting documents in Gujrati.

During his stay in London for his law studies (1888-1891), Gandhi had a very respectful and warm relationship with the British people. He made many friends. He was actively involved in the Vegetarian Society and elected to its committee. The editor Joseph Oldfield even shared rooms with him.

When Gandhi arrived in South Africa, he was in for a shock. He experienced first-hand racial discrimination by the ruling British. Two days after he arrived in Durban (in Natal), he was asked to remove his Turban in the magistrate court.

During his train journey from Durban to Pretoria, the conductor pushed him out from the first-class train compartment. He sat alone in Maritzburg station in the cold, shivering, humiliated, and confused.

The second leg of the journey from Charleston to Johannesburg was on a stagecoach. He was not allowed to sit inside with the white passengers and had to sit beside the driver.

Later, when the coachman wanted some fresh air, he asked Gandhi to sit down on the footboard over dirty sackcloth. When he refused, the coachman boxed his ears and tried to force him off the train.

These experiences can jolt any human being. For Gandhi, they raised more important questions. Don’t the Indians have dignity and rights? Why this prejudice? What does the law say about this? Who is at fault? If this law is incorrect, can we change it for the right cause?

Natal’s population comprised close to 400,000 native Africans. The European and Indian populations were roughly the same, around 50,000 each. Of the Indian population, only 5000 belonged to the trading community. Rest were indentured laborers who were in service or whose contract had expired and had continued to make a living there.

Gandhi sent petitions after petitions to influential people. These petitions pleaded to stop the passage of bills aimed to deprive the Indians of their rights. Gandhi made it clear that the local laws were racially biased.

The Imperial Government tried to mediate, but the local government continued to pass laws by removing the explicit racial clauses, yet keeping them very effective in their original intent.

This was the case with the Franchise Amendment Bill. It was passed in 1896 barring Indians from voting. In 1895, the Indian Immigration Bill was introduced which aimed at levying a £3 annual tax on expired-indentured laborers.

In 1896, Gandhi published The Green Pamphlet, a summary of the grievances of the Indians in South Africa. Gandhi himself promoted the book during his trip to India and sought help from leading Indian nationalists. Gandhi laid bare the discriminatory and racial environment in South Africa –

The man in the street hates him, curses him, spits upon him, and often pushes him off the foot-path.

“The real canker that is eating into the very vitals of the community”, “these parasites”, “wily, wretched semi-barbarous Asiatics”

“A thing black and lean and a long way from clean, which they call the accursed Hindoo”

“He is chock-full of vice and he lives upon rice. I heartily cuss the Hindoo”

He is “Ramysamy”. He is “Mr. Samy”. He is “Mr. Coolie”. He is “the black man”.

Gandhi returned to Durban via the SS Courtland in 1897. The Europeans accused him of bringing an army of Indians to swarm their country. There was a threat to his life. Even after taking precautions, a mob assaulted him upon landing. They kicked and beat him, and Gandhi’s head was severely injured. His life was saved by the police Superintendent’s wife who rescued him from the mob.

Gandhi refused to prosecute his assailants. He realized the problem was deeper. The solution was to bring the two communities together through trust and respect.

Indian traders in Natal were more efficient and hence could sell goods for less. They had a good customer base and made handsome profits. The Dealers Licenses Act was enforced in 1897. The Act empowered licensing offices to deny a license to Asian merchants and traders.

The reasons for denying the licenses included unsanitary premises and not keeping books in a European language.

The Act was disgustingly racial, and was introduced to protect the European traders. The decision of the licensing officer would not be subject to any court of law. Officers could deny licenses having no valid reasons!

Gandhi defended the traders who lost their licenses in court. He voiced their concerns and the misgivings of the law. The magistrates upheld their decisions on the grounds that they were there to interpret the law, and not to change it, even if it was racial and unjust. The courts throughout the province failed miserably to take any action at challenging the law and the European interests prevailed.

Conscience is vital in the teachings of Gandhi. Suffering stirs the conscience of the oppressor.

In 1903 Gandhi moved to Johannesburg. Here he had ample opportunities to expand his religious learning. He was a born Hindu and worked for Muslim merchants. He mingled with Christians and Jews and attended Theosophical teachings. The five moral principles of Jainism attracted him the most—Ahimsa (Non-Violence), Satya (Truth), Asteya (Non-Stealing), Brahmacharya (Celibacy), Aparigraha (Non-Possession)—as a means to attain moksha or liberation.

Gandhi’s Jain mentor, Shrimad Rajchandra, had already inspired in him the value of each of these moral tenets. Gandhi also found supporting examples and reasoning in the teachings of all religions.

The Bhagvad Gita, the Sermon on the Mount, and Tolstoy’s ‘Kingdom of God’, all gravitate towards non-violence and universal love. The fundamental guiding values are—perform one’s duties through selfless and righteous actions, act according to one’s conscience, and love all human beings. To get closer to God, act like God!

Gandhi now had the blueprints of the soul’s destination to God, the shortest route, yet the toughest one.

In 1904 Gandhi established a settlement farm in Phoenix. It was inspired by John Ruskin’s book, Unto This Last. Gandhi wanted to experiment with simple living based on working with one’s hands and living off the produce of the land. In 1906 he took the vow of Brahmacharya, another step in his intended direction.

Ahimsa and Satya are the two toughest principles to follow. But Gandhi was ready for the challenge. He embraced the battleground and moved forward with his two moral weapons. He would stick to them, even if it cost his life.

Fighting for Indian rights, Gandhi had appealed to those who held authority to bring about change – the local government, the Imperial government, and the courts. When they failed, he had no alternative but to appeal to the supreme authority. Gandhi turned to God.

For Gandhi, God is omnipresent. God is Truth. This God resides in every soul, every human being. To appeal to this God is to uphold Truth. To struggle for truth is to struggle for God.

Gandhi not only laid the definitive principle of his movement, he supplanted it with finer details. He instructed his followers not to engage in any violent activity. A total abeyance from aggression was mandatory.

Gandhi taught pride in suffering and courage in the face of adversity.


“Every man has to obey the voice of his own conscience, and be his own master, and seek the Kingdom of God from within. For him, there is no government that can control him without his sanction.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

Conscience is vital in the teachings of Gandhi. Suffering stirs the conscience of the oppressor. The oppressor faces a moral dilemma. He sees the Truth revealed by the suffering. The force of Truth (Satyagraha) puts pressure on his moral barometer and tips the balance to the side of love and Truth. The result—He moves by his own choice to make amends.

Gandhi practiced and developed his Satyagraha in South Africa for over 7 years, from 1906 to 1913. He fought primarily against four discriminatory legislation. First was the 1906-1908 Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act, which required all Indians to register with their fingerprints. Second was the 1907 Transvaal Immigration Restriction Act, which restricted Indians from other provinces to enter Transvaal. Third was a Supreme court decision which failed to recognize marriages as per Indian customs. Finally, the Satyagraha campaign fought against the £3 tax on ex-Indentured laborers.

Gandhi voiced the grievances and suffering of the South African Indians to the world. This influenced lawmakers to set up an inquiry commission and rectify their mistakes. The Indian Relief Act was passed in 1914, accepting the Indian demands.

It is evident that throughout his life, Gandhi operated on a higher moral plane. Trusting his reasoning and his faith in God, he clung to it amidst all challenges.

“My faith in God and truth (two convertible terms) is almost invincible.”

Further Reading