The concepts of ‘Satyagraha’ and ‘fast’ deserve some reflections in the context of our times

The 34-year-old Swami Nigamanand died at Dehradun on June 14, 2011 after being on a fast from Feb.19 this year. He fasted expressing his protest against the illegal mining and stone crushing along the Ganga near Haridwar. He suffered, and died, for a public cause almost unnoticed by the media and the politicians.  It brought to my mind the story of Shatranj Ke Khiladi by Munshi Premchand. I would render into English one paragraph from his Hindi story:

Nawab Wazid Ali Shah was arrested, and the army was taking him to an unknown destination. There was not even a murmur in the town, no question of resorting to force (to save him). Not even a drop of blood had been shed. Oudh  was annexed to the East India Company Bahadur. Till this date no independent country is known to have embraced servitude so calmly. Not a drop of blood was shed to drench soil to protect the country’s independence. In such situations, how could servitude be avoided. The only thing that could be said about the Independence of such a country: “It is a wonder that it is free; no wonder if it loses it.”

I have written in bold what is relevant in the context of Nigmanad’s death. He passed away, almost unwept and unsung though he made a sacrifice for a great cause; and he would remain alive in our memory. No great society would allow its citizen to die fasting when he was doing so to promote our common cause. This can happen only when our system of governance suffers from gross ‘moral deficit’ and ‘democratic deficit’.

His death this way has made me reflect on the very concepts of ‘Satyagraha’ and ‘fast’ often being undertaken with the noblest motives.  I pray to every one who intends to go on a ‘satyagraha’ and a ‘fast’ to consider my ideas set forth in paragraphs hereinafter.

(a) Satygraha

Conceptually ‘satygraha’ does not require fasting, whether for some days or till l death. ‘Satya’ means fidelity to facts, and it also means, as Aapte’s Sanskrit Hindi Kosh says, ‘straight’ and ‘true’. Besides, it works for the welfare (kalyan) of all. The perception that leads people dedicating themselves to public cause is not controlled or distorted by self-interest, greed, lust, pre-conceived notions and stock-responses. The great Hindi Poet ‘Dinkar’ makes Bhishma tell the remorseful Yudhisthira, when the latter called on him in the battle-field of Kurukshetra, what the Lord Krishna had said in the Bhagavad-Gita:

सत्य ही भगवान ने उस दिन कहा.’मुख्य है कर्ता-हृदय की भावना
मुख्य है वह भाव , जीवन- युद्ध में भिन्न हम कितना रहे निज कर्म से

 (God Himself said this: what matters most is one’s attitudes to what one does. The most important point is how much detached one is from what one is doing.)

‘Aagraha’ in Sanskrit means ‘ persuasion made on firm conviction’. . The nature of ‘aagraha’ depends on the nature of ‘cause’ that is promoted. It can span from friendly persusion to a kranti. The great Bhishma of the Mahabharata had agonising moments, even whilst on his death-bed in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, that he did not muster courge to do what was right for him to do to prevent the War. His agony has been thus expressed by the poet ‘Dinkar’ in his epic ‘Kurukshetra’:

राज-द्रोह की ध्वजा उठाकर कहीं प्रचारा होता
न्याय-पक्ष लेकर दुर्योधना को ललकारा होता…….
भारत भूमि पड़ती न स्यात, संगर में आगे चल के

Besides, Satygraha can differ (a) when it is directed against one’s own fellow citizens; (b) when it is directed against a tyrant or an imperialist; and (c) when it is performed in a democratic society. In the case at (a) moral persuasion and wide inter-actions are needed so that others realize what is good for them, for their progeny, or for the whole eco-system ( we can call it ‘collective realization of everyone’s weal’: sakalkalyan): in the case (b) it is prudent to be strategic and prudent in deciding the appropriateness of the protocol of resistance, the spectrum of which might spread from strategic ‘lying low’ or a civil resistance turning into a civil disobedience, to an open resistance. When these methods are adopted to promote a public cause in a democratic society, appeals are: made simultaneously (i) to those who run the government to do its duty suggesting in no uncertain terms that if it fails, it would forfeit its moral, even legal, claims to seek people’s obedience, and (ii) to the people, who grant the government of the moment authority to wield public power, to exercise pressure on the government as permissible under the law, but if that fails then, of course in rarest of rare moments, the people can draw on their ultimate power as the political sovereign in a political society.

Vrata (fast)

 ‘Fast’ means the act of abstaining from, or eating very little, food, it also means ‘a period of such abstention or self-denial’. We can understand what ‘fast’ means in our Indian society better if we consider what ‘Upavaash’ means in Sanskrit. We Indians derive its meaning treating it an integral part of ‘vrata’ for self-purification, and for spiritual elevation. Upavaash has been explained most comprehensively in masterly terms in this fragment of Sanskrit verse:

उपावृतस्य पापेभ्यो वस्तु वासो गुणे सह
उपवासः स विज्ञेयः सर्वभोगविवर्जितः

[Upavaash is the way to live with good (virtue or ideals) getting rid of the sinful (wrongful) traits. In the process one should abstain from pleasures of senses (visaya).]

Its etymological meaning is : ‘to be with what is considered good’ (‘upa’ means ‘near’; and ‘vaash’ mean to ‘reside’. It suggests a constant pursuit for a noble cause for the weal of all. We know that this commitment for a common cause for general welfare is a ‘human-specific trait’. We know that ‘vrata’ does not mean one’s abstinence from food if that can jeopardize one’s health.

It is a distortion and ignorance to think that ‘fast unto death’ is sanctioned in our culture. . Drawing on the core ideas of the Bhagavad-Gita, Swami Ramsukhdas says in his Geeta-Prabodhni, that देखनेमें वस्तु मुख्य दिखती है. क्रिया गौण हे. पर वास्तवमें क्रिया-ही-क्रिया है, वस्तु है ही नहीं. सरीर तो केबल कर्म सामिग्री है.” (On observation, ‘matter’ appears of prime importance, and  action not that important. But Cosmos is nothing but ‘action’. Human body is just an instrument of action). None should lead one’s body to its death or destruction, as it is only an instrument for action (karma) in the cosmic kriya from the ambit of which no socio-cultural, or politico-economic things can ever go beyond.

Mahatma Gandhi as the role model examined

We have grown accustomed to think of ‘satyagraha’ and ‘fasting’ in the light of what Mahatma Gandhi did in course of our struggle for freedom. Gandhi has become a role-model for revolutionary action. But we should consider the contexts and time when he used these methods. . Besides, Gandhi had displayed great practical prudence; it may even be possible to say that he used his ‘satygraha’ and ‘fast’ as part of his political strategy. H.M. Seervai, in his Constitutionl Law (4th ed. Pp . 111-112) has a point when he says that “there is little doubt that Gandhi used non-violence as a political weapon…”.Gandhi fasted against ‘Communal Award’, to quote H.M. Seervai, “ that provided separate electorates and reservation of seats for minorities of which the Muslims and the Depressed Classes were the largest. Gandhi announced that if the Award was not changed as to the Depressed Classes (who were Hindus), he would fast unto death. Faced with this threat, several Hindu leaders started negotiations with Dr. Ambedkar, the leader of the Depressed Classes, which resulted in the “Poona Pact” which was accepted by the British Government. Under it, there was reservation of seats for the Depressed Classes, but with joint electorates. “. Gandhi’s fast succeeded because its effect was felt by our fellow countrymen which led the British Government to believe that their strategies to divide the Hindus could not work. But contrast this with happened after the ‘Quit India Movement’ that began in 1942. Mahatma Gandhi undertook a fast to mobilize public opinion and to put pressure on the British Government. . To say in the words of Seervai:

‘In February 1943, Gandhi informed the Viceroy that he would undertake a fast of three weeks for “self purification”. Government’s offer to release him during the fast was rejected by Gandhi, who said that in that event there would be no fast, and the Government of India refused to release him.’

That was the period when Sir Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister of England ( 1940-1945 ). He was a rabid imperialist hating India’s Freedom Movement, and had harboured spite for Gandhi and the Gandhian ways. The British Government had become extremely obdurate; perhaps wishing Gandhi’s suicide as that would have helped the British Government to hold on its imperial power on India. . Gandhi saw through the game, and decided to end his fast to live in order to fight for the cause of our nation. . He did not oblige the Government by acting the way Swami Nigamanand has done. When Gandhi exercised the technique of ‘satygraha’ and ‘fast’ to persuade his fellow Indians, he succeeded; but when he tried to use them against the brute imperialist Britain, he failed, and had to break his ‘fast’. Besides, it cannot be ruled out that Gandhi’s ultimate success was facilitated by the noxious and paralyzing embroilment of the United Kingdom in geopolitics and realpolitik of that time that had led to the World War II, and its pyrrhic victory, and the emergence of the United States. Besides, there is some point in what  Bertrand Russell said in his Autobiography:

“Certainly it has an important sphere; as against the British in India, Gandhi led to triumph. But it depends upon the existence of certain virtues in those against whom it is employed. …But the Nazis had no scruples in analogous situations..”

Let us not forget the realities of our days

We live at a time when it is foolish to expect milk of human kindness from our government. We are in the Realm of Darkness where the MNCs and their institutions rule. We know how ‘Democracy’ is being undermined; and circumstances have been created for the emergence and triumph of ‘Corporatocracy’. Market has kissed all our institutions with its commercial culture where virtues and vices are mere commodities for sale. Such a system becomes demonic, and its government becomes, in effect, ‘sponsored’. When things come to this pass, corruptions become endemic. This is the inevitable outcome when there emerges a clear unholy alliance between the vested interests and governments.


We must struggle to save our souls and our country. We have democratic rights to protest and resist. We are well within our rights to resort to ‘satyagraha’, Even ‘fasting’ can be used to move people, and to bring some public issue of great importance under public focus. But never think of a fast that harms health. Life must be preserved as the कर्म सामिग्री with which even the Satygraha can be carried on. The best environment for our common pursuit for a good cause is just a sustained constant pursuit trying to generate an ethos in which the words of the Rig-Veda become relevant:

समानो व आकूतिः समाना हृदयानि वः
समानमस्तु वो मनो यथा वः सुसहासतिं

               ‘Your purpose in pursuits should be common/ your mind should be in harmony with that of others./ Your heart should bleed for the weal of all / As this broadness alone will herald your welfare / and will strengthen the strength of your Union.’

My only purpose for scribbling these lines in this post at my Blog is to underscore the point that a fast unto death is unwise.  Life must be saved as the instrument (कर्म सामिग्री ) to work to perform one’s duty towards our nation. .

One thought on “The concepts of ‘Satyagraha’ and ‘fast’ deserve some reflections in the context of our times

  1. The writing is so thought provoking……not a single life should be wasted in this way……. hope it inspires team Anna too..

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