By Sandhya Shyamsundar, WBNUJS, Kolkata.

Bhishma, in the Mahabharata, states that Dharma changes according to the needs of time and hence develops with society. However, it has certain permanent moral values like truth, compassion, self control and forgiveness which continue to exist. It is in this context that Dharma and its three branches hold relevance in the making of modern nationalist politics. Various eminent political figures have imbibed and showcased the essence of Dharma and its rules, in their political ideologies – Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha being the paramount.

Gandhian thought takes its source from the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita. Gandhi was a firm believer in traditional Indian values and an avowed experimenter of those values. From a deep and devout study of Hinduism, he held high the concepts of Truth, Non Violence, Karma and Dharma. Among these, the concept of truth is primary. Truth is what exists; it is reality; it is God– It is Dharma itself. This heavily influenced him in his method of resolving conflict, the method he termed as Satyagraha.

Etymologically, the term Satyagraha means passion for or, firmness in Truth. It is essentially an active form of resistance, a direct action. There are four main characteristics of Satyagraha – a.) Ahimsa or nonviolence , b.) Sadhana or the impersonal motive behind the act of resistance, c.) Abhaya or fearlessness and, d.) Its creative power. This is an attempt to chalk out the method in which Gandhi has imbibed and modified the branches of Dharma in the aforementioned characteristics of Satyagraha.


Gandhi’s Achara (righteous conduct) takes shape in the February, 1930 issue of Young India wherein he lays down the nine point code of conduct for every Satyagrahi. This code of conduct takes its essence from the principles of Ahimsa and Abhaya. According to Gandhi, a person should conduct himself through Ahimsa, implying that the person should be compassionate, merciful, tender, sympathetic and peaceful towards the opponent thus abstaining from anger and violence. He states that Ahimsa is the paramount of all Dharma. The Satyagrahi’s motto therefore is to influence the wrongdoer not by coercion, but by gentle persuasion yet firm appeal to the head and the heart. Thus, by being courteous and patient with those who do not see eye to eye, the Satyagrahi is successful in converting the wrongdoer. Gandhi also confirms that a Satyagrahi, on maintaining his conduct, should be fearless (Abhaya) in nature. The Satyagrahi should defy smilingly, without raising a finger and remain un-subdued morally, thereby making Satyagraha the weapon of the brave and strong, not of the timid and the weak. Hence, harbouring no anger, suffering the anger of the opponent, non retaliation and non submission to the assaults from the opponent are some of the forms of righteous conduct or Achara that Gandhi highlights in his philosophy of Satyagraha.

Gandhi diverts from the principle of Vyavahara (legal proceedings) as laid down in the Dharmashastras and states that the process of conflict resolution should not be through the appearance of a civil or criminal case in court. Rather, it should be through the process of conversion via Ahimsa and Abhaya . According to Gandhi, the true function of a lawyer is to unite parties riven asunder and not consciously or unconsciously, harbour and support untruths for the sake of their clients, which normally is the case. It is primarily this reason that motivates Gandhi to believe that the legal system, though unable to hold absolute truth, should nevertheless, hold to relative truth in the form of truthfulness. This is demonstrated by Gandhi himself who did not abandon his insistence on truth throughout his long career at the bar.

The principle of Prayaschitta (Penitence) is again modified in Gandhian philosophy. In the Dharmashastras, Prayaschitta relates to purging oneself from sin after committing a criminal or civil wrong and atoning for the same. Gandhi uses this principle as the Impersonal Motive, a moral power for removing injustice and transforming relationships. He states that one must discipline himself for a long time, purify himself, steel his determination, and purge himself of the last vestiges of immortality. He must impose on himself the five vows of Satya (Truth), Ahimsa (Non Violence), Asteya (abstaining from stealing), Aparigraha (Sacrificing Wordly Pleasures) and Brahmacharya (State of Celibacy). Gandhi observes, “Reason has to be strengthened by suffering and only suffering opens the eyes of the opponent through understanding.” This suffering materialises through forms of fasting, non cooperation (including strikes) and Civil Disobedience.

Thus, Satyagraha to him is a Sadhana which aims at spiritual, moral, social and political progress at the same time, and the rules of discipline associated with it i.e. self restraint and voluntary suffering constitute the Tapasya.

The aforementioned characteristics of Satyagraha make it an active process of social control emphasizing that Truth is the ultimate Dharma.

In a nutshell, it is evident that the concept of Dharma and its three branches which are so unique to Hinduism and the Indian Society still hold its relevance Gandhi’s ideology of Satyagraha. This is primarily due to the reason that Dharma is a relative concept; it changes with time and place. But certain basic values sustain infinitely. The branches of Dharma (Achara, Vyavahara, Prayaschitta) have been modified in Gandhian philosophy and have been adapted to suit the then prevalent conditions in Indian society during the Freedom Struggle. One may criticise this philosophy as idealistic and impractical for it can only be used as a means for fighting a dictatorship. However, Gandhi never intended to use his philosophy as a means of national defence against foreign aggression , it was rather construed as a way of life in itself – a process of social control – imbibing the true essence of Dharma as laid down in the scriptures and adapting it to the scenario in which India was at her peak in defining herself and her countrymen.