Mahatma Gandhi Community Forum

What is real Satyagraha?


Satyagraha can be best understood by the words of Ms. Helen Alvares, wife of Thomas Alvares, a Manglorean Catholic who once invited Mahatma Gandhi for a small tea party and served a short jail term for her participation in the freedom struggle in 1932 as directed by Mahatma. With the lasting inspiration for India's freedom, she changed her name to Alva Devi and gave her children Indian first names.


She had a distinction of being the first woman catholic to be jailed as freedom fighter. As her family moved on to Colombo, Srilanka, later, she became SriLanka's first woman Satyagrahi.


On her release from prison on December 26, 1932, Helen Alvares, alias Alva Devi, made a public speech articulating her views on Satyagraha.


"There seems to be such a misunderstanding of what Satyagraha is. Satyagraha is not a particular act. Satyagraha is not fasting, is not going to jail, is not breaking an iniquitous custom or an unjust law. It is none of these things. These things are an expression of Satyagraha only. Satyagraha is a state in which an individual sees clearly an aspect of truth, comes into harmony with it, and the self becomes identified and one with the truth. The acts by which Satyagraha becomes manifested, the expressions of Satyagraha, are as varied and manifold as the expression of God himself.


God is truth and truth is God – to the Satyagrahi. One has to be true to the truth which one sees clearly, and be as perfectly true to one's self which has to become identified with one and the truth, and be unconscious of everything else, of results, to be a true Satyagrahi. There seems to have been such a lot of whimpering and whining about police assaults and lot of other things by those who call themselves Satyagrahis. Frankly I cannot understand this. I cannot see how a Satyagrahi, inevitably impelled by self-expression of a living truth within him, can be conscious of these things, can complain about this or that or that or of this person or that person. Everything that the Satyagrahi meets on the path that he or she pursues cannot be matters for complaint or for crying over or making a fuss about. I want you all to think about what I have said and decide each for yourself what your self-expression as a Satyagrahi is…-

“…for God's sake remember that you can imitate more or less successfully most things, but you can never be an imitation Satyagrahi. You must each of you light the lamp within you. You are not a Satyagrahi when you follow the light of the lamp that burns within another".



Source: The Mangalorean Catholic Community – A Professional History / Directory, written by Dr. Michael Lobo.


I like this Alwa Devi's understanding of Satyagraha.


It pours light on the true nature of Satyagraha and brings its essence in simple words. It also reveals the soul-satyagraha connection which centers around the cause it undertook rather than looking at outer world interactions. Not many could understand this phenomenon going on in every satyagrahi, more specifically the soul-less state which needs a whole lot of material things and large force to demonstrate it. The "Self-expression", what Alwa Devi was pointing out, is different from "External Expression" what many protestors tend to focus upon these days.


Those adversaries who blame the soul force for its lameness and failure to awaken the soul-less state for the sake of justice, must realize the fact that the large gatherings and materialistic demonstrations too have the similar impact on the government machinery. While the former has become a truth force, the latter is becoming a ritual. Gandhi and his legacy constantly preach the state to follow the former through satyagraha and ahimsa. When it goes for the materialistic demonstration, the underlying cause gets twisted and the state is put on work to oversee the external expression, but not the "self-expression". But, one has to understand that to uphold democracy we need both the expressions.


Her views on imitation satyagrahi are rather an apprehension about falsifying the soul force within one’s self. Today, we see many picketers trying to conduct a non-violent protest through fasts, non-cooperation and the like methods of Gandhiji, and yet to find them selves lost as a true satyagrahi. Their expression of protest happens to be an imitated one instead of originating from a pure, self-instinct. The soul-force is like an engine which needs to be ignited by the self so as to work upon the opponents effectively. A borrowed expression is merely an exhibition.




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