Gandhi Against Modernity – by Rex Ambler

This essay first appeared in ‘Gandhi and the Contemporary World’, edited by Antony Copley and George Paxton, published by the Indo-British Historical Society in 1997.

Gandhi wrote only one book, strictly speaking: Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule. He wanted to clarify what he meant by swaraj, a word that had come to mean a number of different things in the Indian political scene of that time (1909). Was it ‘self-rule’ in the sense that the Irish were then seeking it, a take-over of political power? Or was it something more profound and personal?

Gandhi approached these questions by asking another, what was it that Indians specifically needed to be liberated from? He came to the conclusion that it was not British rule as such, but something deeper and more pervasive. It was modern civilization. This was a relatively new and somewhat shocking idea in an Indian context, and Gandhi clearly needed to justify it. But his justification of the claim was, if anything, more shocking than the claim itself. He argued that modern civilization, as presented in the West and more specifically in Britain, was an evil force that was entirely opposed to the true interests of human beings, thus

‘The tendency of… the western civilization is to propagate immorality’(1)

The very things it boasts of, its medicine, its legal system, its parliamentary democracy, are in fact destructive and degrading: far from establishing health and justice, they perpetuate immoral practice and deprive people of the self-knowledge and self-sufficiency to cope with the problems that face them.

‘Hospitals are institutions for propagating sin’ (2) lawyers have ‘enslaved India’ (3) ‘That which you consider to be the Mother of Parliaments is like a sterile woman and a prostitute’ (4)

And so with every practice and institution that can claim to be modern.

This wholescale condemnation dismayed many of his friends and admirers. His own political guru, Ghokale, according to Mahadev Desai, ‘thought it so crude and hastily conceived that he prophesied that Gandhiji himself would destroy it after spending a year in India’ (5) But Gandhiji didn’t. On the contrary, he publicly reaffirmed its ideas on many occasions afterwards, even as late as 1945, 36 years on, when he said,

‘I withdraw nothing except one word of it, and that in deference to a lady friend’ (6)

the friend in question being Annie Besant.

What was going on? Why this vehement attack? And what exactly was he trying to say? Gandhi was not normally given to such vehement condemnation. He was usually balanced, judicious, ready to see the good in those things which he opposed. And in this particular case we may think he had particular reason to appreciate the civilization in which he himself had trained as a lawyer, learned to think through his philosophy (with the aid of such thinkers as Tolstoy, Ruskin and Thoreau) and discovered the power of organized campaigns for achieving justice (from such as Bradlaugh and Besant). Was he being entirely honest? Or had he taken on more than he could properly comprehend?

It could easily be argued that Gandhi had two lines of thought which are essentially quite different, and only tenuously related. There is the shrewd thinking of the lawyer and politician on the one hand, and the idealistic and faddish thinking of the religious seeker on the other. Both appear in Hind Swaraj, it could be said, which explains its muddle and extremism. He is shrewd about tactics and PR, but hopelessly idealistic and simplistic about history and civilization, where unfortunately he allows his religious and moral intensity to colour his judgments about the condition of the world.

But this won’t do. it helps us to dispose of (what for us in the west may be) the difficult side of Gandhi, but it fails to come to terms with Gandhi’s own account of his intention. It may be that the dualism of our own (modern western) thinking prevents us from seeing how politics and spirituality, analysis and morality can be woven into a whole.

Look at the context to start with. He was returning from London on a leisurely sea trip with two disappointments on his mind: the failure to win support from the British government for the Indian cause in South Africa, and the new threat of violence in the Indian Home Rule movement. He wrote a letter the following year (1910) to a Mr Wybergh of the Transvaal Legislative Assembly to explain why he had written the book in the way he had.

‘The choice lay between allowing the readers of Indian Opinion (for whom it was originally intended), anxious though they were for guidance, to drift away in the matter of the insane violence that is now going on in India, or giving them, no matter how humble, a lead that they were asking for. The only way I saw of mitigating violence was the one sketched in the pamphlet”. (7)

He knew that violence would not have achieved what these youthful anarchists had in mind and which Gandhi largely had in mind too. The British were too powerful to be removed in this way, as Gandhi had been learning from his contacts in London with the Irish Home Rule movement. But how could Indians be persuaded to struggle without the violence that would surely let them down? And what precisely would they have to be struggling for? India was not South Africa with its very obvious injustice. It is evident that in setting himself to write such a book Gandhi had a difficult and sensitive task in hand.

Gandhi contrived his book as a dialogue between himself as ‘editor’ (of Indian Opinion) and the youthful but misguided revolutionary as ‘reader’, reflecting, he later claimed, the actual conversations he had in London that year (9). He pointed out to his anarchist partner, among other things, the contradiction in using the weapons of the British to eject the British. Means and ends were not so easily separable. It was also naive to suppose that in getting rid of the British they would have got rid of the problems that had dogged them for 300 years.

The oppression was not simply political: it was also, and more fundamentally, economic and ideological. If these youthful nationalists wanted to serve the true interests of India they should first identify her real enemy, which was not the British rule in India, but the civilization that the British had brought with them and had begun to impose on the nation. He wrote some two months later in Indian Opinion:

‘We saw in Hind Swaraj, that it is not so much from British rule that we have to save ourselves as from Western civilization.’ (10)

This might at first appear to to have increased what was already a near impossible task, but as Gandhi presented it the task was made easier. For Indians already had their own economic order, morality and culture — their own civilization in fact. So to oppose western civilization quite vigorously, as Gandhi did here, was, at the very least, tactically prudent.

It was also therapeutic, given the despondency and weakness of the Indian masses. This is evident from the continual emphasis in the book on the need for Indians to recover their moral strength and to find Swaraj for themselves. It is clarified by a letter he wrote to his friend and co-worker, Henry Polak, just before writing the book:

‘If you agree with me, it will be your duty to tell the revolutionaries and everybody else that the freedom they want, or they think they want, is not to be obtained by killing people or doing violence, but by setting themselves right, and by becoming and remaining truly Indian. Then the British rulers will be servants and not masters. They will be trustees and not tyrants, and they will live in perfect peace with the whole of the inhabitants of India. The future, therefore, lies not with the British race, but with the Indians themselves, and if they have sufficient self-abnegation and abstemiousness, they can make themselves free this very moment’ (11)

If we think of Hind Swaraj in these therapeutic terms, as helping Indians to ‘set themselves right’, we can see it as an psychological exercise in confidence building: it would be aimed, negatively, at liberating his fellow countrymen from paranoia (in relation to the British), a collective inferiority complex, and over-dependency; and it would be aimed, positively, at enhancing their self-confidence, maturity of outlook and freedom of thought and action. Swaraj could be defined precisely as personal freedom and maturity.

‘We can see that if we become free, India is free. And in this thought you have a definition of Swaraj. It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves. It is, therefore, in the palm of our hands’ (12)

In that respect Gandhi’s therapy is very close to Freud’s, which was being developed at the same time. But Gandhi’s depended on a polarisation of good and bad that would have given Freud some qualms. Indian civilization was not only better than the English, it was ‘far superior to yours’, he tells the English (13) it is ‘unquestionably the best’ (14) ‘not to be beaten in the world’ (15) and, indeed, ‘has nothing to learn from anybody else’ (16).The polarization is sharpened in his preface to the English translation of 1910:

‘The British government in India constitutes a struggle between the Modern Civilization, which is the Kingdom of Satan, and the Ancient Civilization, which is the Kingdom of God. The one is the God of War, the other is the God of Love’ (17)

Is this delusion of grandeur, a compensation for a sense of powerlessness? Again,

‘Control over the mind is alone necessary, and when that is attained, man is free like the king of the forest and his very glance withers the enemy” ( 18 )

Freud has cited ‘the withering glance’ as an example of a self-deception designed to make up for feelings of weakness. But perhaps in the context of Gandhi’s concern the compensation was part of the process of therapy that would end in a well-grounded self-confidence which was capable also of appreciating others. Gandhi gives a hint of this longer-term goal in his address to the English:

‘Only on condition of our demands being fully satisfied may you remain in India; and if you remain under those conditions, we shall learn several things from you and you will learn many from us. So doing we shall benefit each other and the world’ (19)

Polarization of good and bad also helped the actual struggle against the British, since it gave motivation to fight and at the same time gave some justification for the use of the very unorthodox weapons Gandhi had tried and tested in South Africa. Nonviolent resistance needed to be seen as worthy and powerful if it was to be effective in practice: it could not be a mere technique.

At this point the politics and the spirituality coincide exactly: the effectiveness of the political movement for Indian independence, relying on those resources that were peculiar to India and in which India had an advantage, depended precisely on spiritual values which enabled them to look beyond the politically expedient. For Gandhi himself, after all, Swaraj was always more than a political objective, though, as he admitted himself, he had little success in persuading others about this. He wrote of the book in 1921:

‘I would warn the reader against thinking that I am today aiming at the swaraj described therein. I know that India is not ripe for it. It may seem an impertinence to say so. But such is my conviction. I am individually working for the self-rule pictured therein. But today my corporate activity is undoubtedly devoted to the attainment of parliamentary Swaraj in accordance with the wishes of the people of India’ (20)

The commitment to both personal self-rule and political independence was not a conflict for Gandhi, however, since the two belonged together, and the one grew out of the other. Struggling for political freedom with nonviolent means would develop spiritual aspirations as well. His problem was only that India was not yet ‘ripe’.

Part of the intention of Hind Swaraj, then, was to develop the spiritual awareness of his Indian readers so that they would not judge their situation in narrowly pragmatic or material terms. This in turn required a further criticism of the West since, on his understanding, it had rejected spiritual values in everything but matters of private life, Its tendency was all the other way, towards purely material welfare, and even then with the very crude notion that more material things meant greater human welfare. As he summarizes his view elsewhere,

‘Western civilization is material, frankly material. It assures progress by the progress of matter – railways, conquest of disease, conquest of the air. These are the triumphs of civilization according to Western measure. No one says, “Now the people are more truthful or more humble” (21)

In addition to the politician, therapist and tactician in Hind Swaraj we also hear the prophet. He is outraged by what modernity has done to the world, in unemployment, tedium and war. It has a rhetoric of justice and equality, and some individuals who live up to these deals, but its basic dynamic ensures that these things cannot be achieved. On the contrary, its primary commitment to money through control of the market (‘Money is their God’(22)) ensures that large numbers of people are kept in poverty. Its primary relation to India is also precisely that. The English

‘hold whatever dominions they have for the sake of their commerce…. They wish to convert the whole world into a vast market for their goods,’ (23)

This perspective helps us to see more precisely what he understands by modern civilization. He is thinking of the way of life that came into being with capitalism and the industrial revolution. He is not thinking of the culture of the west in general, much of which of course he admired and even drew upon in the elaboration of his critique. It is modernity as such that worries him. And it worries him because of its devastating effect on human beings. This welcome refinement of the argument was made clearer in a speech of 1925:

‘Do not for one moment consider that I condemn all that is Western. For the time being I am dealing with the predominant character of modern civilization, do not call it Western civilization, and the predominant character of modern civilization is the exploitation of the weaker races of the earth’ (24)

He therefore wants to ask moral questions of it. ‘Is the world any the better for those quick instruments of locomotion?’, for example. ‘How do these instruments advance man’s spiritual progress? ‘Do they not in the last resort hamper it? And is there any limit to man’s ambition?… And what is all this worry and fateful hurry for? To what end?’ (25) It is therefore on moral criteria that he finally condemns it. ‘The key to understanding Hind Swaraj’, he wrote in the 1914 preface, ‘lies in the idea that worldy pursuits should give way to ethical living’ (26). He demands that ethics be given the first consideration in public life, not the last. In this he followed some western critics, like Tolstoy, Ruskin and Emerson (27).

There was also an Indian ingredient to the critique: the idea that ‘commitment to material progress was an intoxication, a moha (as in Arjuna’s account of Krishna’s state of mind in the Gita (28)), or an illusion, maya. This in fact seems to provide the backbone to his reasoning. Note the crucial passage in the section on ‘Civilization’:

‘Those who are intoxicated by modern civilization are not likely to write against it. Their care will be to find out facts and arguments in support of it, and this they do unconsciously, believing it to be true. A man, while he is dreaming, believes in his dream; he is undeceived only when he is awakened from his sleep’ (29)

Perhaps some of the vehemence of Gandhi’s language was intended to shake people out of a sleep, out of a state of intoxication. For only by seeing the truth, behind the glamorous illusion, would they be able to resist its hold on them. Gandhi wrote to Maganlal at about this time,

‘Modern tyranny is a trap of temptation and therefore does greater mischief’ (30)

Gandhi’s talk, like that of a guru, was to help his disciples to wake up. When they did so they would naturally do the right thing. Part of the (potential) subtlety of this analysis is that it saved Gandhi from writing off the English as morally despicable. His attitude is rather that of sadness and pity.

‘They rather deserve our sympathy. They are a shrewd nation and I therefore believe that they will cast off the evil. They are enterprising and industrious, and their mode of thought is not inherently immoral. Neither are they bad at heart. I therefore respect them’ (31)

The polarization is aimed at civilization, not people, which provides another important reason for not resorting to violence. It also provides the basis of Gandhi’s boundless optimism, which can envisage not only the liberation of India from the illusions of this world, but also, through India, the liberation of the world!

However, it was not so important for Gandhi that this vision would ever be real ized. It seemed to he enough that it was possible, for it then motivated the struggle to realize it and set the horizon for one’s individual quest for liberation.

Even so, we might still wish to conclude, after considering this rationale of Gandhi, that he was caught in the trap of his own utopianism (32). He can oppose modern civilization so totally only because he can seriously believe that its idealistic alternative is possible and feasible. But, it might be said, since the alternative is constructed on the basis of a purely spiritual understanding of the human and historical situation it cannot even begin to be feasible. (Gandhi’s jibe about ‘merely material’ civilization might he redirected to him as ‘merely spiritual’).

Further, because he judged western civilization on the basis of its worst effects he was bound to judge it a total failure. In a revealing comment towards the end of Hind Swaraj he said: ‘I cannot recall a single good point in connection with machinery’ (p.96), not even the ship he was sailing on at the time, or the glasses he was wearing when he wrote those words.

This is an example of the psychological polarization I spoke of earlier, which was as much a part of his personal mind-set as it was of the political and cultural struggle he led in India. In its original context of struggle, as I hope I have shown, it was justifiable and relevant (33). Away from that context it is less secure: we need to introduce again categories of ambiguity and compromise which recognize that our ideals for society cannot be embodied in the world in a pure and unsullied form. But I am aware, in suggesting this, that I am reintroducing categories of analysis which are distinctly western, which admit of a tension, if not an opposition, between the worldly and the spiritual, the political and the personal. Our thinking in the west has undoubtedly been chastened by the modern experience of both astonishing success and appalling failure.

The question remains, however, whether the society Gandhi envisaged was, and is, ultimately possible, and whether modern society as he knew it was, and is, unsustainable. If the answer to both is affirmative, then it would make sense after all to oppose modern society in the name of something that can genuinely transcend it.

Notes and References

1. Hind Swaraj (hereafter HS), Navajivan Press, Ahmeclabad, rev.ed. 1939, p. 63.
2. HS, p.59
3. HS, p.54
4. HS, p.31
5. Desai’ s preface to HS, p.14
6. HS, p.14
7. Letter to Mr. Wybergh, May 10, 1910, in The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, (hereafter Writings) ed. Raghavan Iyer, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986, vol I, pp.297f.
8. See the discussion of this background in Chandran Devanesan, The Making of the Mahatma, Orient Longmans, New Delhi, 1969, pp.364-376
9. HS, p.18
10. Writings, I, p.333
11. Writings, I, p.295
12. HS, p.65
13. HS, p.99
14. HS, p.64
15. HS, p.60
16. HS, p.61
17. Writings, I, p.272
18. HS, p.82
19. HS, pp. 100f.
20. Writings, I, p.279
21. In an interview for The Friend, 11 December 1931, reprinted in Writings, 1, 328.
22. HS, p.40
23. HS, p.40f
24. Speech to Meccano Club, Calcutta, 1925, in Writings, I, p345. On the later ‘refinement’ of his thinking on civilization see Madhuri Wadwa, Gandhi between Tradition and Modernity, Deep and Deep Publications, New Delhi, 1991, pp.65f. 89f.
25. An interview of 1926, in Writings, I, pp.281f.
26. Writings, I, p.27
27. Cf. the 1910 preface in Writings, I, pp.271f.
28. I owe this insight to Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi’s Political Philosophy, Macmillan, London, 1989, pp.16f.
29. HS,p.34.
30. A letter to Maganlal Gandhi, 2 April 1910, in Writings, T, P.3,17. Cf. the Calcutta speech referred to: ‘The glamour of European civilization does not dazzle us. Scratch beneath the surface and you will find there very little to choose’, Writings, I, p.345.
31. HS, p.38
32. Cf. Judith Brown, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope, Yale UP, Newhaven and London,
33. Cf. Chandran Devanesan, The Making of the Mahatma, Orient Longmans, New Delhi, 1969, ch 6.

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