Hind Swarāj - MK Gandhi
This is going to be a long book review as while writing on Hind Swarāj I decided to deal also with Gandhi at some length. But I’ve tried my best, and failed miserably, to keep this review aligned to its proper breadth.
When this lockdown began, I felt something akin to the relief one feels when one falls sick with exhaustion after a long period of hyperactivity. Any person who considers himself to be normal would, nowadays, feel normal because this is a normal time; and, this normalcy could not have given me a better occasion to go through Mahatma’s Hind Swarāj.
Hind Swarāj is Gandhi’s seminal work. It is also a work which he himself translated from Gujarati into English: no other work of his, not even the Autobiography, enjoys this distinction. It is precisely here that we find the seed of Gandhian thought.
Gandhi’s Hind Swarāj is preoccupied with an uncompromising critique and rejection of modern Western civilization. It is a devastating and uncannily contemporary critique. But criticising modern civilization is not something on which Gandhi can have an exclusive claim. Many contemporaries of Gandhi took up this challenge to interrogate into the standing of modern civilization. But theirs is not as penetrable as Gandhi’s which may be either due to lack of understanding or absence of conviction. Most of contemporary critiques, denunciations and even rejections of the modern Western civilization, as we may notice, remain within the framework of the pseudo-metaphysics on which modern civilization is founded. This is as much true of thinkers like Martin Heidegger as it is of Theodore Roszak or Albert Camus. Alternatives to contemporary Western civilization are always sought within its own basic thought-system. The notion of ‘alternative’ is thereby reduced to that of a ‘variant’ i.e. instead of providing us an alternative to modern Western civilization, which can be nothing but our Dharmic Tradition from which we have been displaced, these thinkers carve out their own models of civilization which is no more than an another version of the same criticised one. This is like moving from one darkness to another.
Gandhi’s critic of modern Western civilization is based on his explosive stance which we are able to sense directly since its inception. His one and only concern was Truth to which he demanded absolute commitment.
If we talk about the composition of Hind Swarāj, it is nothing less than heroic. Gandhiji took 10 days (13 to 22 November 1909) to complete this work while he was on the ship named Kildonan Castle on his return trip from England to South Africa. He wrote this work with an astounding pace. He was so headstrong and persistent in his writing that when his right hand got tired, he continued with his left. 40 out of his 275 manuscript pages were written by his left hand. The book is written for a wide range of audience but in a reductionist fashion we can say that it was written mainly for native Britishers and Indians and also for them who were residing at each other’s places.
Now his intension of writing this book should be made clear. He himself does so in the Foreword to the text,
“Just as one cannot help speaking out when one’s heart is full, so also I had been unable to restrain myself from writing the book since my heart was full.”
The book consists of 20 chapters and is written in the form of a platonic dialogue.
Now let us head straight away into the text and delve with some of his main ideas which he has sought to put before the readers.
At the outset, he makes very clear that there is no impassable barrier between East and West. We think so only because of modernity. There is no such thing as Western or European civilisation, but there is a modern civilisation which is purely material. He also does not treat all Europeans alike. Europeans who are not touched by modern civilisation or far better able to mix with the Indians, he is hopeful, than the offspring of that civilisation. Gandhi also shudders us with one of his most eye-opening claims in the entire book. He says that it is not the British people who are ruling India, but it is modern civilisation - through its railways, telegraphs, telephones and other such inventions. According to him,
“The English have not taken India; we have given it to them. … Who assisted the Company’s officers? Who was tempted at the sight of their silver? Who bought their goods? History testifies that we did all this. In order to become rich all at once, we welcomed the Company’s officers with open arms. We assisted them.”
For Gandhi, truly, Britishers were there, initially, in India only for their commercial purposes. He takes recourse to Napoleon who describes them as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’. But it was only our inner cravings which created space for them to exploit us brutally and consequently capturing our entire political structure. Gandhi believes that Bombay, Culcutta and the other chief cities of India are the real plague spots. He is certain that if British rule were replaced tomorrow by Indian rule based on modern methods, India would be no better. Indians would then become only a second or fifth addition of Europe and America! East and West, for him, can only and really meet when the West has thrown overboard modern civilisation almost in its entirety. They can also seemingly meet when the East has also adopted modern civilisation. But that meeting would be an armed truce. He is very clear that it is simply impertinence for any man, or any body of men, to contemplate reform of the whole world. To attempt to do so by means of highly artificial and speedy locomotion is to attempt the impossible. He disparages all modern material comforts. Increase of material comforts, it may be generally laid down, does not in any way whatsoever conduce to moral growth. He ridicules modern medical science and its related institutions – more particularly, hospitals. Medical science is the concentrated essence of black magic. Quackery is infinitely preferable to what passes for high medical skill. His deplorable attitude is for a very genuine reason. He asserts that the entire modern medical science focuses on the curative aspect of the disease not on its preventive aspect. As a result, similar diseases recur again and again to the same person. Hospitals are the instruments of the devil. They perpetuate vice, misery and degradation, and real slavery. You may clearly sense the eruption of his accumulated grudge which is absolutely fine. If there were no hospitals, he writes, for venereal diseases, or even for consumptives, we should have less consumption and sexual violence among us. He also paves the right course of path for us. India’s salvation, he avows, consists in unlearning what she has learnt during the past fifty years. The railways, telegraphs, hospitals, lawyers, doctors and such like have all to go. The so-called upper classes will have to learn to live the simple peasant life, knowing it to be a lifegiving true happiness. Indians should wear no machine-made clothing, whether it comes out of European or Indian mills. Herein lies the true meaning of Swadeshi. Swadeshi is using what is your own. It is not using something which is not your own even if it is manufactured inside your own territory. On this basis, the swadeshi of Patanjali is highly questionable. On the same track, the complete Make in India model is also highly objectionable. Both are simply trying to manufacture in India what is not our own in the name of swadeshi. There was true wisdom, he recalls, in the sages of old having so regulated society as to limit the material condition of the people. Therein lies salvation. He also centres his focus over the system of government in England and considers it undesirable and unworthy of copying by us. As far as his disgraceful comment, which is word by word accurate, over the British Parliamentarian System is concerned, it goes like this,
“… The condition of England at present is pitiable. I pray to God that India may never be in that plight. That which you (the Reader) consider to be the Mother of Parliaments is like a sterile woman and a prostitute. Both these are harsh terms, but exactly fit the case. That Parliament has not yet of its own accord done a single good thing, hence I have compared it to a sterile woman. The natural condition of that Parliament is such that, without outside pressure, it can do nothing. It is like a prostitute because it is under the control of ministers who change from time to time. Today it is under Mr Asquith, tomorrow it may be under Mr Balfour. …. Let us examine it a little more closely. The best men are supposed to be elected by the people. The members serve without pay and, therefore, it must be assumed, only for the public weal. The electors are considered to be educated, and, therefore, we should assume that they would not generally make mistakes in their choice. Such a Parliament should not need the spur of petitions or any other pressure. Its work should be so smooth that its effects would be more apparent day by day. But, as a matter of fact, it is generally acknowledged that the members are hypocritical and selfish. Each things of his own little interest. It is fear that is the guiding motive. What is done today may be undone tomorrow. It is not possible to recall a single instance in which finality can be predicted for its work. When the greatest questions are debated, its members have been seen to stretch themselves and to doze. Sometimes the members talk away until the listeners are disgusted. Carlyle has called it the ‘talking stop of the world’. Members vote for their party without a thought. Their so-called discipline blinds them to it. If any member, by way of exception, gives an independent vote, he is considered a renegade. If the money and the time wasted by the Parliament were interested to a few good men, the English nation would be occupying today a much higher platform. The Parliament is simply a costly toy of the nation. These views are by no means peculiar to me. Some great English thinkers have expressed them. One of the members of that Parliament recently said that a true Christian could not become a member of it. Another said that it was a baby. And, if it has remained a baby after an existence of seven hundred years, when will it outgrow its babyhood?”
Woah! do we have any questions now or are we simply obstinate not to listen any truth which is being said to us? We are halfway and the ride still is left.
He condemns machinery which is the chief symbol of modern civilisation and according to him represents a great sin. He, here again, blames us for letting the mills of Manchester bloom upon our own misery because it was we who wore Manchester cloth and that is why Manchester wove it. Over the question of how one has to deal with and exorcise the Raj, he propounds his concept of passive resistance, which also forms one of the pillars of his political thought, and, which according to Gandhi, can be followed only by those who can observe perfect chastity, adopt poverty, follow truth and cultivate fearlessness. He also belittles the modern education system which, according to him, is nothing but knowledge of letters. It is merely an instrument which may well be used or abused. The same instrument that may be used to cure a patient may be used to take his life. The same applies to this very system of modern education. He even dealt with the hot-question of Hindu-Muslim unity. His stand is very clear on this issue,
“If two brothers want to live in peace, is it possible for a third party to separate them? If they were to listen to evil counsels, we would consider them to be foolish. Similarly, we Hindus and Mahomedans would have to blame or folly rather than the English, if we allowed them to put us asunder.”
Till now the ride is smooth, although, unabsorbable. But it is now when the problem of dyspepsia occurs. He lays down an updated conception of Dharma which is and should be the cause of concern for any traditionalist. Dharma, traditionally and simply, is regarded as a system of duty and obligation based on śastra-pramāṅa which is unquestionably infallible and out of the purview of baseless logic. Gandhi refined, as he puts, this conception of Dharma and qualifies it with the concepts of democratic citizenship, liberty, equality, fraternity and mutual assistance. This is where we see the birth of Gandhian Civic Humanism. He also takes recourse to Gītā and Rāmāyaṅa to validate his arguments albeit in his self-constructed fashion. He also talks about the rule of Rāmarājya and he is also adamant with respect to the welfare of others.
It is here that we are able to find some inconsistencies in his thought. He supplements Dharma with modern concepts which inevitably leads to contradictions. Modern Dharma is no more Dharma. Both are like two banks of river that can never ever meet. His position on varṅāśrama, which is integral and intertwined to Dharma, is also ambiguous which we are able to perceive more clearly in his another work - India of My Dreams. We shall leave it here for now and shall discuss it some other time.
Nevertheless, one staunch conclusion which we are in a position to derive from this work is that Gandhi, no doubt, provides us with a breakthrough as far as the present civilisational crisis is concerned but as far as his Dhārmika positioning is taken into account, we can never consider him a trustworthy religious or Dhārmika teacher in orthodox traditional sense. It must be admitted that Gandhi‘s thought is not wholly free from sentimentalism, that it does not always conform to traditional thinking and that it contains some rather serious deviations; it is maintained, at the same time, that Gandhian thinking remains essentially traditional both because his rejection of modernity is total, and, also more fundamentally, because his central principles are never modified at the theoretical level. Thus, in order to understand Gandhi, one must have a deeper understanding of the grey area which unfurls itself throughout his thinking. You can never classify Gandhi, or for that matter any serious thinker, in pure black-and-white.
Hind Swarāj is a radical credo stated in a straightforward manner. Its chiliastic telos comes through unmistakably. It is certainly significant that later in life Rāmarājya was to be Gandhi’s favourite name for his vision of a normal social order. A serious glance at his work will show that as a crusader for his chiliastic vision the true aim of Gandhi’s life and thinking was to bring about metanoia: that is, to develop a state of affairs in which more and more people are in their right minds. Gandhian thinking cannot be studied and understood in isolation from the tradition in which it belongs. One has to go beyond Gandhi’s oeuvre, and plumb deeper and deeper into his life-and-thinking in an endeavour to reach the centre of Gandhian thinking, that is, the centre from which Gandhi starts and to which he returns. This means that our study of Gandhi must include a serious study of the Indian tradition (Hindu, Jain and Buddhist) and of contemporary traditional thinkers like Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, Gopinath Kaviraj, René Guénon, Isak Dinesen, Simone Weil, Frithjof Schuon and Marco Pallis. Gandhi strove to discover a centre wholly beyond the modern Western civilisation. This centre is what has usually been called the “Primordial Tradition”.
For his work he not only received comments from his contemporaries like Leo Tolstóy, Romain Roland, Jawaharlal Nehru and Chakravarti Rajagopalachari ‘Rajaji’ but also from the intellectuals of succeeding generations like Margaret Chatterjee, Erik Erikson, Dennis Dalton and George Catlin. Catlin went even further by comparing Gandhi’s Hind Swarāj to St. Ignatius of Loyola’s The Spiritual Exercise. This comparison although would have embarrassed Gandhi but still requires special attention. Just as in the chapters of Gospel Jesus announced his messianic mission, Catlin continues, Gandhi in his Hind Swarāj announced his own life-mission.
In a nutshell, at last, we arrive at two conclusions. One, Gandhi provides us with a strong civilisational alternative but does not lay down any clear traditional road ahead; and two, embracing Gandhism in its entirety will tempt you nothing but to experiment perpetually with your own life and ideas. But still we can hardly doubt Gandhi’s integrity which is validated by one of his own sayings,
“But I can tell you this - that I am surer of His existence than of the fact that you and I are sitting in this room. I can also testify that I can live without air and water, but not without Him. You may pluck out my eyes, but that will not kill me. You may chop off my nose, but that will not kill me. But blast my belief in God and I am dead.”