How Mahatma Gandhi used swaraj and satyagraha in India’s quest for freedom

Published : Oct 01, 2023 13:28 IST - 6 MINS READ

Mahatma Gandhi at Mani Bhavan, Bombay. Gandhi has been called a politician or a saint, but seldom has he been called a political theorist.

Mahatma Gandhi at Mani Bhavan, Bombay. Gandhi has been called a politician or a saint, but seldom has he been called a political theorist. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

On Gandhi’s birth anniversary, a look at how he understood the critical role traditional Indian language and symbols played in the national movement.

Dennis Dalton’s Indian Ideas of Freedom is an illuminating study of the lens through which freedom was perceived by thinkers such as Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo Ghose, Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, B.R. Ambedkar, M.N. Roy, and Jayaprakash Narayan. It examines how, for them, the pursuit of freedom was both individual and political; and how their ideas and arguments, drawing heavily on indigenous cultural resources, were far from imitative and thus distinct. In that, it explores their contribution to an intellectual tradition that braced an extraordinary nationalist movement.

Dalton’s reading of the extensive writings and speeches of these thinkers is critical but compassionate. This is an exemplary work about political thought for both scholars and those interested in history and politics.

On the occasion of Gandhi’s 154th birth anniversary on October 2, this excerpt from the chapter “Swaraj through Satyagraha” shows how he infused traditional symbolism into his concepts of “swaraj” and “satyagraha” to help revitalise the national movement.


Gandhi was neither a Moderate nor an Extremist; he was rather a towering figure who, with uncanny dexterity, fused the divergent traditions which he faced, and then formulated a language of his own through which he could communicate his ideas to the Indian people. Like a poet, he used his past with affection, drawing from the Indian classics old words—ahimsa, Karma Yoga, Ram Raj, Sarvodaya—and charging them with fresh meaning, until they became symbols of both the past and future. None of Gandhi’s terms, however, were infused with richer traditional Indian symbolism than the two key concepts of his thought, swaraj and satyagraha.

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No one remained more sensitive than Gandhi to the crucial role of traditional Indian language and symbols in the national movement. When the members of Congress proposed, for purposes of greater clarity, to substitute the word ‘independence’ for ‘swaraj’ in future resolutions, Gandhi countered:

“I defy anyone to give for independence a common Indian word intelligible to the masses. our goal at any rate may be known by an indigenous word understood by the three hundred millions. And we have such a word in swaraj, first used in the name of the nation by Dadabhai Naoroji. It is infinitely greater than and includes independence. It is a vital word. It has been sanctified by the noble sacrifices of thousands of Indians. It is a word which, if it has not penetrated the remotest corner of India, has at least got the largest currency of any similar word. It is a sacrilege to displace that word by a foreign importation of doubtful value.”

Gandhi liked the word ‘swaraj’ because it had traditional Indian roots, and he argued that because of this, it possessed a unique meaning quite different from that of ‘independence’. ‘The word swaraj is a sacred word, a Vedic word, meaning self-rule and self-restraint, and not freedom from all restraint which “independence” often means.’ Gandhi seldom missed an opportunity to evoke the religious symbolism explicit in the ideas of swaraj and satyagraha. ‘To the orthodox Hindus, I need not point out the sovereign efficacy of tapasya. And satyagraha is nothing but tapasya for Truth.’ And of swaraj, he remarked, ‘Government over self is the truest swaraj, it is synonymous with moksha or salvation …’

It seems paradoxical that while none of Gandhi’s ideas was more liberally endowed with traditional symbolism than swaraj and satyagraha, none were more thoroughly misunderstood, both by his party and his people. The Congress followed him, on the whole, for his political experience and insights; the masses revered him as a Mahatma. Gandhi wanted understanding and appreciation of his thoughts, and not reverence, either of a saint or a politician. Yet, he must bear some of the responsibility for losing his countrymen along the way. The sheer vagueness and contradiction recurrent throughout his writing made it easier to accept him as a saint than to fathom the challenge posed by his demanding beliefs.

Gandhi with Indian National Congress leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. While the Congress followed him, on the whole, for his political experience and insights; the masses revered him as a Mahatma.

Gandhi with Indian National Congress leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. While the Congress followed him, on the whole, for his political experience and insights; the masses revered him as a Mahatma. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

Gandhi saw no harm in self-contradiction: life was a series of experiments, and any principle might change if Truth so dictated. Truth, moreover, had a habit of positing extraordinarily high moral standards, and for those who had neither conducted the experiments nor acquired an unshakeable faith in the premises behind them, Gandhi’s ideas posed formidable demands. One might worship him from afar as a Mahatma; or, as the alternative which most Congressmen took, accept his judgements as ‘policy’ but not as a ‘creed’. Neither path was that of the satyagrahi, nor could either lead to what Gandhi called swaraj. Instead, each undermined Gandhi’s thought and message, for neither could give him support when the going became rough.

At the very end, when it was indeed the roughest, Gandhi stood, tragically, alone; he now fully realized his failure to persuade both the Congress leadership and the Indian people of the central meaning of his philosophy. ‘Intoxicated by my success in South Africa,’ he admitted in 1947, ‘I came to India. Here too the struggle bore fruit. But I have now realized that it was not based on non-violence of the brave. If I had known so then, I would not have launched the struggle.’ It is remarkable that an individual of Gandhi’s insight did not appreciate this sooner.


Gandhi has been called a politician or a saint, and both of these, and neither. One of his acquaintances in government said ‘amongst saints he is a statesman, and amongst statesmen, a saint’. But Gandhi has seldom been called a political theorist; indeed, on occasion, he has been dismissed as anything but that. Gandhi was a political activist who confronted practical problems and immediate social issues; he remained intensely involved, throughout most of his life, in the Indian Nationalist Movement, and he derived continuing strength and inspiration from the historical situation in which he found himself. He thought always in terms of ‘experiments with Truth’ rather than of constructing philosophical systems. But all this does not necessarily mean that Gandhi was not a political theorist.

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Indian Ideas of Freedom by Dennis Dalton.

Indian Ideas of Freedom by Dennis Dalton.

One day during the Partition riots, Gandhi, in search of sustenance, reaffirmed his own faith in the power of the idea. ‘One active thought,’ he said, ‘proceeding from the depths, in its nascent purity and endowed with all the undivided intensity of one’s being, can become dynamic and make history.’ The thought which emerged from the depths of Gandhi’s experience, and became ‘endowed with all the individual intensity of his being’ was the conception that he shared with Vivekananda and Aurobindo of the divine nature of man and of Truth, the Absolute, as the ground of all being.

Gandhi’s aim, swaraj, and his method, satyagraha, could not have been more deeply rooted in this view of human nature and the Absolute. The highest form of freedom was moral and spiritual in quality because man was essentially moral and spiritual; man became free when he realized this reality of his own self. Satyagraha, ‘holding fast to Truth’, was the way in which the individual might best make this discovery, and then reveal it to others.

Excerpted with permission of HarperCollins India from Indian Ideas of Freedom by Dennis Dalton.

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