I read Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj when I was 34. I should have read it when I was 17. But at that impressionable age, given the prevailing urban political fashions of the day, I was instead handed The Communist Manifesto. Importantly, nobody ever asked me to read Hind Swaraj. I just chanced upon it, after my thorough disillusionment with the profession of economists.
It is only much later that I realised something curious about these two influential books. Marx’s text, being a paean to historical progress, is a book with a past; Hind Swaraj, while seeming to hark back to some glorious, ancient Indian past is, upon close reading, a volume with a future. It takes a while to understand this paradox.
In an era increasingly shaped by remorseless climate change, Marx’s book has to survive the rapidly mounting ecological evidence of the cultural decadence and possibly terminal decline of global industrial society. This is a civilisational crisis of modernity itself; it is not just about the ecocidal miasma of capitalism. Moreover, technological prowess notwithstanding, the continued frequency and intensity of wars over the past century and a half, no less than the growing barbarism of the present-day world show just how perilously mistaken the ideology of progress is when taken beyond the limited domain of a specific form of technology.
The paradox resolves itself when we realise that, as thinkers, Gandhi and Marx belong to two utterly contrasting cultural cosmologies of time. As a 19th century European materialist, Marx (occasional Hegelian nuances notwithstanding) is Newtonian in his conception of time as linear and unidirectional. As an Indian rooted in a different tradition of metaphysics altogether, time is decisively cyclical for Gandhi.
For Gandhi, unlike for Marx, past, present and future recur in a never-ending cycle across time. The good has to be actively lived and fought for in every age of history. There may be no final denouement to the eternal tussle in the human heart between good and evil. The Communist Manifesto looks forward to a future utopia in which the contradictions of human society would be fully resolved, once and for all, in a world liberated from alienation by the inevitable advances of a spectacular technology. For Marx, technology represents a force for the ultimate good of humanity. For Gandhi, technology as “the chief symbol of modern civilisation”, represents “a great sin.” Many have looked upon Gandhi as a thinker irrelevant to the modern world and the future of humanity for precisely this denunciation.
The implications of the different cosmologies of time stretch further. They inevitably inform the ethics shaping the political actions which spring from the two world views. Hind Swaraj is devoted to a search for harmony in and through thought and action in the present life of humanity. The enemy is not to be hated, but to be provoked to goodness through the practical art of ethics, ahimsa and satyagraha being its foundations. The cherished future cannot be reached for with the aid of means often at odds with the desired goals of humanity. Because they precede them historically, the means shape the ends reached. A non-violent society can only emerge through the means of the actual practice of ahimsa.
For Marx, this is not true. “Violence is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one”. The ultimate failure of every modern political revolution since the 18th century is testimony to the power of violent means in shaping the course of history. In today’s world, it is precisely the perverse political mobilisation of mass resentments which explains the rise of competing mobs and troll armies and the decisive failure of democracies to protect human freedom. Gandhi would not stoke resentments for political ends. He would instead address the causes of the resentments directly, thereby tackling structural injustices.
It is another strange paradox that the more violent the world becomes, the more relevant do some of Gandhi’s ideas. In Hind Swaraj Gandhi, elevating the significance of what he refers to as “soul force”, mocks the political common sense of modernity and explains with characteristic simplicity: “History, as we know it, is a record of the wars of the world…and if this were all that had happened in the world, it would have been ended long ago. If the story of the universe had commenced with wars, not a man would have been found alive today…the greatest and most unimpeachable evidence of the success of this force is to be found in the fact that, in spite of the wars of the world, it still lives on.”
We may find it difficult to see the plain and simple truth of this point of view. Could this be because our minds are perhaps too conditioned by the historical record? The history books speak of war far more obviously than the peace they almost take for granted. If one reviews the reporting habits of global mass media today, it is equally obvious that the audio-visual sensations of conflict and war sell much more readily than the vapid boredom of social peace and harmony. This may be the reason for our blindness to the obvious. In Hind Swaraj Gandhi elaborates on the ubiquity of ‘soul-force’ and how readily it goes unnoticed by the world. He would be happy to concur with the French historian Jules Michelet, when he wrote “History always tells us how we die. It never tells us how we live.”
In Hind Swaraj Gandhi offers in simple language what might be described as a yug-sankat-bodh (a vision for an age of crisis), a philosophical catechism to interpret the shared, perilous predicament of modern humanity. He also shows a way to act in concert to bring the long, modern catastrophe to an end, opening the way towards an ecological way of life which would take into account the hopes and needs of not only every child, woman, and man, but of all living beings on earth. The practice of ahimsa is germane to this goal.
One may disagree with many of Gandhi’s proposals in Hind Swaraj. His language too may offend some readers. Yet, as a document with lasting relevance to the future of humanity, it is indispensable. It has to be discussed and debated the world over. It is much more than just a pamphlet in the cause of India’s independence from two centuries of British colonial rule. It is nothing less than a manifesto of civilisational recovery and renewal. Its vision is relevant not just to India but to the whole of the modern world, still dominated by the mighty West. Read in conjunction with Rabindranath Tagore’s last testament, his 1941 discourse ‘Crisis in Civilisation’, Hind Swaraj offers a stirring critique of modern life and proposes a path beyond and around it.
The shameful irony is that perhaps the most important and accessible book written by the supposed ‘Father of the Nation’ is still not read in most schools and colleges around the country. In fact, there may be more institutions abroad where the text is studied. On his 150th anniversary, we may ask why this is the case.
The writer is a faculty member of Ashoka University and co-author of “Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India” and “Prithvi Manthan.
Syndicate: The Billion Press
-By Aseem Shrivastava