Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Hind Swaraj and Evolution of Mahatma Gandhi
Recently, while Anna Hazare was fasting against corruption, there was an unsavory confrontation between his activist followers and the parliamentarians and it sufficiently muddied our public life. A friend of mine wrote to me a mail pointing out that there was nothing wrong perhaps in slamming the parliamentarians, for even Mahatma Gandhi had called the British Parliament “a whore” and “a sterile woman that produces nothing” in his classic work “Hind Swaraj”. The logic was that if the great Mahatma could describe the institution of parliament in such derogatory words, there was nothing wrong in hitting out at the parliament or the parliamentarians.
It is a fact that Mahatma Gandhi did describe British Parliament in these words. However, somehow, I did not feel that my friend was quoting Gandhi correctly and in context. Quoting a great man in support of our arguments of today is a problem, for often what he said on that occasion was appropriate to that particular stage of his development. Great men evolve continuously. Today they are not what they were yesterday and what comes from them cannot be quoted as gospel truth. Further, people learn mostly from their experience of life and therefore they are often at frontiers in creating and recreating new universe of experience and meaning for the benefit of the humanity. Mahatma Gandhi said that the truth was his pole star and that he went wherever his pole star led him. But following the pole star is not a simple thing. There are often embarrassing discontinuities, singular points, false leads and sure setbacks. Should we not then take more precaution in quoting great men?
Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj in 1908 while he was returning to South Africa. Gopal Krishna Gokhale whom Gandhi regarded as his Guru found the book utterly detestable and described it as crudely written. Anybody who reads the book even today would agree with Mr. Gokhale. “Hind Swaraj” is not a commentary on the western political system; it is not a constructive argument that advances an acceptable alternative to our existence. Its canvas is much larger. It is a thoroughgoing and acidic criticism of the Modern Civilization. It negates everything with great force and vigor. Gandhi denied everything that we adore today. He denounced with special force modern health care, hospital systems, railways, technology, science and practically all modern institutions that go with our life.
But what is important, and what is not acknowledged is that the Mahatma gradually veered round, though very slowly and imperceptibly; and he substantially changed his position in course of time. He himself acknowledged such shifts in his opinions and did mention that in view of the dynamics of life, no one should quote him out of context. He also further said that if he is to be quoted at all, his latest views on the subject should be referred to. That is also perhaps a reason why he shuddered at the thought of being canonized by his followers and the laity!
Gandhi changed his views, at least in practice substantially since the publication of “The Hind Swaraj”; though his moral vision was largely defined by “The Hind Swaraj”. By mid nineteen twenties he was making concessions to some “genuinely good and friendly technologies and machines” such as Sewing Machine for example. His opposition to technology sprang mainly from fear of human beings being enslaved by the machine. He opposed it also on the ground that machine may replace man and bring upon large scale unemployment.
His opposition to railways had vanished too early and we can say at least this safely, that no Indian statesman traveled so much, so frequently and so easily across the breadth and the length of this country by railway as Gandhi did. Following Gokhale’s advice Gandhi traveled ceaselessly across the country for over a year, mainly by railway, after he had come to India from South Africa.
Thus Gandhi went on changing his views, but what is important is that he took responsibility for changed views. A Gandhi who would not, in early nineteen twenties, easily agree to the inter-caste marriage of his son, changed so much, that by late nineteen thirties he would attend marriages only if they were inter-caste marriages. Gandhi, who dominated his wife in the style of a typical traditional Hindu male chauvinist, increasingly regarded her friend in later life. In an age when women generally did not come out of the house, Kasturba used to sit along with him on dais in public life. Importantly, it was under Mahatma that the Indian women came out in large numbers in social and political movements and fought along with the men folk.
Gandhi may have called, in his youthful, forceful and rather nihilistic tone, the British Parliament “a whore” and “a sterile woman that produces nothing…”, and yet in 1933 he led the Indian delegation to England for the ‘Round Table Conference” to parley with the British Government and to demand from them Parliamentary System and Dominion Status for India. And again in the forties we see his enthusiasm for parliamentary system and the representative democracy.
But perhaps an important phase in his life, according to me, unfolded during his meaningful dialogue and close relationship with the young Jawaharlal Nehru. Although philosophically they were worlds apart, they were and remained very close to each other; they argued long and ardently, each trying to convert the other to his point of view. Gandhi came to issues from tradition; Cambridge educated Nehru was thoroughly modern. Gandhi suspected science and technology; Nehru considered science and technology as key to human progress. Gandhi glorified villages, simple life and primitive economy; Nehru was practical when it came to technology and economy. But they had a strong common bond in that they both strongly believed in basic human values, democracy, dignity of human beings and non-violence. Though nothing happened on the surface, Gandhi perhaps yielded sufficiently. And about Jawaharlal, we can only say that he had lost to Gandhi completely since the time Gandhi came in his life. Evolution of the Mahatma over the years and silent submission of Jawaharlal Nehru to the Mahatma are perhaps of one piece and form the most beautiful and engrossing poetry that flows alongside the story of our struggle for freedom.
Today “Hind Swaraj” appears a far cry and may serve as a moral vision and a youthful dream of a yet evolving great statesman and it can be used for a limited purpose of explaining the origin of Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas. Every thinker has a moral vision that is at once inchoate and primitive and this moral vision lies deeply rooted in his psyche. “Hind Swaraj” should not, I believe, be quoted in the context of a movement that is conducted in a democratic framework for its tone is sufficiently nihilistic.
Lastly, “Hind Swaraj” was written largely under the influence of Tolstoy and in a Tolstoyan language, the deliberate high language of the great preacher of humanity. Later on Gandhi came on his own; and in nineteen twenties, thirties and in forties he evolved uniquely in his own way through his own experience. And he left Tolstoy much behind.
I regard Gandhi as a great nihilist in the tradition of a motley collection of mainly western spiritual nihilists such as for example Tolstoy. But Gandhi was very shrewd in dealing with his innate nihilism. He said that he rejected all technology and all machine including his body that is also a machine of some sort. But as all mystics of all spiritual faiths--- Eastern, Western and mystics of all hues-----allow some tenability to the Body, (for without it the existence and the whole range of spiritual experience including Moksha is impossible) he also allowed in his own way, various physical forms such as technology, social relations and political organization for a bare minimum. This was a practical arrangement that served his purpose and his mission of spiritualizing politics and social life.
Incidentally, I feel that Tolstoy and Gandhi, the two great nihilists, evolved in their respective lives in opposite directions. Tolstoy started as a great and accomplished artist and an aesthete, working creatively with different themes and different colours. Perhaps, he could not control his innate nihilism and hence ended with an extreme vision that denied everything; so much so, that ultimately he rejected even his own creative works. Gandhi, on the other hand, started in a singular Tolstoyan vision and evolved over time and ended with an inclusive vision that accepted everything.