Means and ends are what seeds are to trees

Satyagraha in its moment of conception is a covenant, a covenant of the self with God and of the self with the embodied person

Means and ends are what seeds are to trees
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Tridip Suhrud

The day was September 11, 1906. The Jewish-owned Empire theatre in Johannesburg was packed from floor to ceiling with men of Asiatic origin. Men, because there was not a single woman in that audience. They had come together to declare their opposition to the Asiatic Registration Act or the Black Act, which required every man, woman and child of eight years or upwards of Asiatic origin to submit to registration by providing prints of all ten fingers; failure to register was an offence under the law and the defaulter could be punished with deportation. Always a keen observer of his audience, Gandhi thought he read ‘in every face the expectation of something strange to be done or to happen.’

The meeting of September 11 had been called to frame the communities’ possible response to the Ordinance. Abdul Gani, Chairman of the Transvaal British Indian Association, presided. The meeting was expected to pass several resolutions, the most significant of which was the fourth Resolution by which “The Indians solemnly determined not to submit to the Ordinance in the event of its becoming law in the teeth of their opposition and to further all the penalties to such non- submission.” Gandhi was to confess later that he had not understood all the implications of the resolution he had helped to frame.

The resolution was duly proposed, seconded and supported by various speakers. Among the speakers was Sheth Haji Habib, an old and experienced resident of South Africa. Deeply moved, he invoked Khuda. He used two terms, ‘Khuda Kasam’ (an oath taken in the name of God) and ‘Khuda’ as ‘hazar nazar’ (within the presence of God and with God as witness.) When Sheth Haji Habib came to the solemn declaration, Gandhi was “at once startled and put on my guard. Only then did I fully realise my responsibility and the responsibility of the community.” Gandhi was aware that it was part of public life all over the world to pass resolutions which were either amended or were not observed by all concerned.

Gandhi seized the moment, as he was to do time and again, intervened in the meeting and clarified the true nature of the proposed manner of passing the resolution. “To pledge ourselves to take an oath in the name of that God with him as witness is not something to be trifled with. If having taken such an oath, we violate our pledge, we are guilty before God and man.” He ended the long intervention on a personal note. He spoke of his personal responsibility. “I am fully conscious of my responsibility in the matter. It is possible that a majority of those present here may take the pledge in a fit of enthusiasm or indignation but may weaken under the ordeal, and only a handful maybe left to force the final test. Even then there is only one course open to someone like me, to die but not to submit to the law. It is quite unlikely but even if everyone else flinched leaving me alone to face the music, I am confident that I would never violate my pledge.”

This long reminder of the defining moment is to remember that Satyagraha in its moment of conception is a covenant, a covenant of the self with God and of the self with the embodied person, if they can be thought of as distinct from one another. This element of pledge would become a central feature of Gandhi’s thought and practice of Satyagraha. The other characteristic of Satyagraha is that it is a mode of suffering. Suffering requires a witness, a being that would bear witness to, provide testimony of suffering. Of course, the final act of bearing witness is that of God. He recognises the suffering of human heart pining for Truth as none else. But, it is equally possible for us, the embodied beings to bear witness to both suffering and Truth. The suffering of Satyagraha requires both those acts of bearing witness.


A satyagrahi therefore, must recognise the goodness of others, especially of those whose actions are sought to be opposed and transformed through the act of Satyagraha. It requires a conception of human nature which accords to the others however evil, capacity to recognise good, virtue, suffering and truth. This is why Gandhi called Satyagraha as love force. Love as the way in which Christ lived, suffered and gave up his life for us. Satyagraha is also predicated upon a conception of means and ends that is unique to Gandhi in modern times. Gandhi likened means and ends to seed and tree, “there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree.” Satyagraha also presupposes another relationship between the means and ends and that is of purity of both. Satyagraha requires both pure means and pure ends, the purity of ends does not justify the use of impure means. Means brings us to the satyagrahi.

Means and ends are linked by the practices of the Satyagrahi. The question what are pure means can be answered in two ways. First posits the Satyagrahi at the centre. Pure means are those which are employed by a person cleansed through a process of self-purification. The other answer could be that pure means are non-violent means. The quest for ahimsa is central to the pursuit of truth and hence for Satyagraha. Gandhi approaches the question of pure means from both these routes. Gandhi described Satyagraha as a Sarvadhari, which means both, in all directions, all sided, and something that everyone can bear, or carry. It affects both the parties, those who wield it and on those it is wielded. But this does not mean that Satyagraha requires no preparation.

Gandhi lists several attributes in the discussion on Satyagraha in Hind Swaraj. Courage, freedom from fear (abhaya), adoption of poverty (aparigraha), asteya – non stealing), steadfastness to truth, and Brahmacharya. These would later develop into Gandhi’s Ekadesh Vrata, the eleven vows. These taken together constitute what Gandhi called his ‘Experiments with Truth’. This ever wakefulness, he hoped would allow him to hear the call of truth as distinct from voice of untruth.

The Ashram, or a community of men of religion as he described it, is founded on the principle of Ekadash Vrata. Gandhi believed that the true ideal of a satyagrahi is a sthitpragnya; who performs all actions with purity of heart and mind; unattached to both the actions and fruits thereof. He claimed that the first glimpses of satyagraha had come to him not on 11 September 1906 in that fateful meeting at the Empire theatre in Johannesburg but way back in 1899 when he read the Gita for the first time with his Theosophist friends.

He wrote; “It is certainly the Bhagvad Gita’s intention that one should go on working without the attachment to the fruits of work. I deduced the principle of satyagraha from this. He who is free from such attachment will not kill the enemy but rather sacrifice himself...As far back as 1889, when I had my first contact with the Gita, it gave me a hint of satyagraha, and as I read more and more, the hint developed into a full revelation of satyagraha.” This allowed Gandhi to expand the notion of Brahmacharya itself. He began with restricted sense of chastity and celibacy to include observance in thought, word and deed. But it is only when he began to recognise the deeper and fundamental relationship that Brahmacharya shared with Satyagraha , ahimsa and Swaraj that Gandhi could go to the root of the term Brahmacharya, charya, that is conducted, adopted in search of Brahman, that is truth, is Brahmacharya. In this we have a measure of Gandhiji’s quest. His quest is to know himself, to attain moksha, to see God face to face. In order to fulfil this quest, he must strive to be sthitpragnya, he must be an ashramite, a satyagrahi and a seeker after swaraj. He said; “If we can achieve self-realization through fasting and spinning, then self-realization necessarily implies swaraj.”

This he hoped would allow him and his fellow ashramites to attain the perfect ideal of sthitpragnya because; “when it is night for all other beings, the disciplined soul is awake.” This was the ideal for himself and the ashram. He said; “Let us pray that we shall see light when all around us there is darkness...we should thus be ready to take upon ourselves the burden of the whole world, but we can bear that burden only if we mean by it doing tapascharya on behalf of the whole world, we shall then see light where others see nothing but darkness.”

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Published: 28 Sep 2019, 9:30 AM