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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 41, October 2, 2010

Mahatma Gandhi and Modern Civilisation

Wednesday 6 October 2010, by Upasana Pandey


In his own way, Gandhi had been a critic of modern civilisation. He criticised almost each and every aspect of modern civilisation. Whether it was the machine, profession of doctors lawyers or various political structures like State/Parliament, Gandhi could never confirm his appreciation of these signifiers of modernity. This shows that to some extent for Gandhi everything was wrong with modern civilisation. However, interestingly Gandhi’s life was highly influenced by these modern metaphors. I mean he was an excellent physician. From time to time like a doctor he did experiments with his body. He wrote very seriously on diets. And he discovered many indigenous medicines for Kasturba and the people around him.

Similarly, though he wrote extensively that modern political institutions were hardly worth to be called so as they cared neither for people’s participation nor for their political empowerment, Parliaments were like talking shops, modern political institutions were not only misusing public money, but also misled people’s aspirations, Gandhi never advocated total regregation of politics from political institutions. He very much understood the perpetual need for political institutions. Hence, if Ramrajya was an ideal, then Swaraj was the second best option for Gandhi.

Again, one can see that even being critical of the railways Gandhi travelled frequently by trains. Gandhi never said that he was against machines or technologies. He wrote that he had problem with the craze behind these.1 And he used charkha, a kind of machine, as a tool for salvation. Therefore, one has to be patient enough to get an answer to the question: why did Gandhi criticise modernity? Why did he condemn modernity? It may seem a very simple and straightforeword question, but to get a satisfactory answer one has to unfold various hidden perspectives which may not be directly related to the discourse that follows but indirectly the analysis may enrich our vision.

We all know that modernity is different from pre-modernity on various grounds. I would like to confine myself only with two important aspects of modernity: first, the nature of modern machines, and secondly, the tendency of functional specialisation. Let us take the first one, the nature of machines in the modern era.

Modern society is called a mechanical society but it does not mean that machines were not there in the pre-modern era. A cursory glance at the history of human civilisation shows that in every era, human beings had been using certain types of machines. But, of course, the nature of pre-modern machines was totally different from that of the modern machines. Previously machines were indigenous in nature. They were invented just to fulfil requirements of the communities. Production took place exactly according to the requirements. Those indigenous machines were self-sufficient in nature. Therefore, there was no scope for competition and subsequent corruption. Machines were discovered to fulfil society’s need rather than to satisfy an individual’s greed.

But, after the industrial and technological revolution of eighteenth century, these machines were coming up in a more sophisticated manner. Modern machines are designed to fulfil global needs. We have the universal nature of machines in the modern era. I mean these modern machines are devised in such a way that they can function anywhere throughout the globe. Irrespective of the limited local natural resources they can produce anything upto any amount. They are invented to serve the globe rather than a specific community. Consequently they are producing at the mass level. And while distributing these products the producers are getting enough chance for deception. Mass production is responsible for hegemony and subsequent domination. Enriched economies are producing commodities at enormous scale and using the Third World countries as their market, which often results in the reduction of the indigenous economy of the developing countries. Not only this, the nature of these machines is highly individual-oriented. Modern men can use these technologies for their own personal pleasure and luxury. Therefore these machines are enhancing hedonistic life-styles. The whole scenario of human life gets changed or becomes mechanised in modernity. For Gandhi, the mechanisation or fetishism of technology was closely tied up with the phenomenon of industrialism, another apparently self-propelling and endless process of creating larger and larger industries with no other purpose than to produce cheap consumer goods and maximise profit. He argued that since modern economic life followed an inexorable momentum of its own, it reduced men to its helpless and passive victim and represented a new form of slavery, more comfortable and invidious and hence more dangerous than the earlier ones.

The capitalist hunt for profits led to mechanisation and industrialism. For Gandhi, machines relieved drudgery, created leisure, increased efficiency. Their use must therefore be guided by a well-considered moral theory indicating how the new men should live, spend their free time and relate to one another. Since modern economy lacked such a theory and was only propelled by the search for profit, it mechanised production without any regard for its wider moral and cultural consequences. Hence, in the modern era the increasing use of machinery and technology led to unemployment in very large measure. In his famous book Hind Swaraj, Gandhi wrote:

Today machinery merely helps a few to ride on the back of millions. The impetus behind it all is not the philanthropy to save labour, but greed. It is against this constitution of things that I am fighting with all my might … the supreme consideration is man. The machine should not tend to atrophy the limbs of man.2

Men are replaced by machines and thus there is a great scarcity of work. And consequently we are facing the problem of corruption and immorality in economy. Gandhi intended to provide the minimum basic needs to each and every one. If the machine can do so than it is to be accepted; otherwise it should be regarded as a curse for the society.

Whether it is machine or anything else, the ultimate objective of every need or deed must always be to get freedom, freedom from our own blemishes, and freedom from our own flaws and imperfections. And Gandhi assumes that even machines must help us in this direction of getting freedom. He says:

Ideally, I would rule out all machinery, even as I would reject this body, which is not helped to salvation, and seek the liberation of the soul. From that point of view I would reject all machinery, but machines will remain because, like the body, they are inevitable. The body itself, as I told you, is the purest piece of mechanism; but if it is a hindrance to the highlight fights of the soul, it has to be rejected.3

Actually, the ideal society about which Gandhi is discussing, is the society where the individual is of supreme consideration and all the other aspects of the society, either machine, industry, production or distribution, evolve around him. That is why he said that healthy soul and body along with healthy relations would be the basic tenets of Swaraj. For Gandhi, science is equal to spirituality; both should mean the same thing. One is more concerned with the outer aspect of the world and the other with the inner aspect, and both combined will give us the whole world in ourselves. So, science and spirituality should combine and that was the only way to liberate not only India but the whole world and there can be kingdom of Heaven on this earth; otherwise, if science goes with violence both would destroy the whole world.

It shows that Gandhi was in favour of controlled and balanced development founded on humanity and morality. But, a body-centric or materialist view of man attributed two basic properties to him, namely, ‘selfishness’ and an ‘infinite multiplicity of wants and regarded them as natural and legitimate’.4

MODERN man spends most of his energy in trying to steady himself in a holistic and unsteady environment. He has neither the inclination nor the ability to slow down the tempo of his life, relax, compose himself, and reflect on his pattern of life and nurture the inner springs of energy. He lives outside himself and exhausts himself physically and spiritually. Predictably he needs to depend on such ultimately debilitating sources of instant energy and intoxicating spirits, tea and coffee, in order to constantly whip him into action. Inwardly empty and frightened to be alone with himself, he is always busy, turning to one activity after another, easily bored and feverishly looking for new sources of amusement. Gandhi thought that modern civilisation had a depressing air of ‘futility’ and ‘madness’ about it and was likely to destroy itself before long.5 So long as we act as machines, there can be no question of morality. If we want to call an action moral, it should have been done consciously and as a matter of duty.6 Gandhi’s philosophy emphasises the importance of morality and dignity of man. He accepts the utility of machines, but not at the cost of human beings. For Gandhi, man is of supreme consideration and he must be accepted as such.

A proper civilisation placed man at its centre and measured its greatness in terms of its ability to produce men and women possessing such distinctively human powers as self-determination, autonomy, self-knowledge, self-discipline and social cooperation. Modern civilisation did the opposite. By encouraging them to subject their powers to large organisations run by experts, it rendered men passive, helpless and heteronomous.

Further, modern society is a functionally specialised society. For structuralists like Talcott Parsons and Ralf Dahrendorf, modernisation refers to a change from relatively undifferentiated to increasingly differentiated social forms attended by ever more complex specialisations and functional interdependence. In terms of its role it envisions a shift from ascribed, functionally diffused and particularistic roles to specific achievement-oriented and universal roles.

Parsons identifies four ‘evolutionary universals’ as fundamental to the structure of a modern society: bureaucratic organisations, money and markets, a universalistic legal system, and democratic association in both government and private spheres. These developments in effect are believed to lead to the “increasing generalised adaptive capacity of societies”, which, in turn, is regarded as a measure of modernisation.7

Ralf Dahrendorf defines modernity on similar grounds and says:
Modernity is differentiation at workplace... It is most significant in the sphere of labour, where there appear a great number of specialised, narrowly defined occupations and professions, requiring diverse skills, competences and training. But it is also pronounced in the sphere of consumption, where the staggering variety of options or ‘life-chances’ faces every potential consumer. Both raise tremendously the scope of choices, in education, occupational carrier and life-style.8

These reflections from two renowned social scientists explain that modernity has given birth to an intelligent and smart life-style. Modern society is an expert society. Functional specialisation is a prominent feature of modern civilisation. Functions have been strictly defined and like the Platonic Ideal State nobody dares to tread into the periphery of the other’s job. Everyone has been trained in a specific way. Doctors cannot even imagine their worth outside hospitals. Similar is the case with lawyers, academicians, politicians, spiritual teachers and others. Modern men are very circumscribed men. Their rationality has become an instrument of their self-degradation.

GANDHI’S problem with modern civilisation lies here. He is not criticising either doctors or lawyers, though apparently it appears so. But Gandhi had a problem with the narrow and limited nature of these professions. These professions have become limited because of the craze behind functional specialisation of the modern age. And we are all aware of the fundamental fact that functional specialisation is not only restricting our chances of becoming versatile but also paralysing the whole societal set-up. I mean modern society is the most dependent society and so is the modern man. The modern expert man can perform only one function at a time in which he has been trained. His rationality is confining him only within his own sphere of activity. He cannot even think of looking beyond that defined area of his instrumental interest. That is why Herbert Marcuse9 says modern society is a one-dimensional society; Jurgen Habermas10 calls it as ill-legitimised society. Modernity increases our dependency on others. And Gandhi is conscious of self-sufficiency and self-dependency.

Let us have a complete discourse in Gandhi’s terms about what the medical profession and other modern professions are doing. Gandhi says ideally medical science should aim at two things. First, it should help people to acquire a greater understanding and control of their bodies by explaining to them the causes and axiology of their ailments, how to represent them and that they are integrally related to their ways of life. Second, since the body is not an inert machine but a living organism with its own rhythm and built-in intelligence, medical science should mobilise its internal resources and wisely activate them where necessary by external help. Modern medicine did neither.

In Gandhi’s words,

doctors have almost unhinged us. Sometimes I think that quacks are better than highly qualified doctors. Let us consider this: the business of a doctor is to take care of the body, or, properly speaking, not even that. Their business is really to rid the body of diseases that may afflict it. How do these diseases arise? Surely by our negligence or indulgence. I overeat, I have indigestion, I go to a doctor, he gives me medicine. I am cured. I overeat again, I take his pills again. Had I not taken the pills in the first instance, I would have suffered the punishment deserved by me and I would not have overeaten again. The doctor intervened and helped me to indulge myself. My body thereby certainly felt more at ease; but my mind was weakened. A continuance of a course of medicine must, therefore, result in loss of control over the mind.11

Modern medicines are making man a dependent being. And Gandhi wants to liberate man. He said:

I have indulged in vice, I contract a disease, a doctor cures me, the odds are that I shall repeat the vice. Had the doctor not intervened, nature would have done its work, and I would have acquired mastery over myself, would have been freed from vice and would have become happy.12

Gandhi wants to illustrate that the doctor’s intention is to save the body but the ultimate aim was to save even the soul along with the body. But the whole modern structural set-up is restricting us. Bhikhu Parekh, one of the famous Gandhian scholars, says that modern civilisation was also involved in an egregious amount of violence against nature, which was largely seen as man’s propensity to do with it what he liked. Its resources were ruthlessly exploited and its rhythm and balance disturbed, and animals were freely killed or tortured for food, sport, fancy clothes and medical experiments. In Gandhi’s view, violence ‘oozed from every pore’ of modern society and had so much become a way of life that the modern man could not cope with his relations with himself or other men without translating them into the military language of conflict, struggle, mastery, subjugation, domination, victory and defeat. Deeply rooted in violence man felt suffocated in its absence. Medical science also showed little respect for the integrity of the body and was suffused with the spirit of violence characteristic of modern civilisation. It did not see the aliment as the overworked and indisciplined body’s plea for rest and discipline, but rather as an unacceptable interference with its hectic routine, requiring an immediate and effective response. The body was not allowed to cope with illness at its own pace and by means of its own judiciously activated resources; instead its sluggish rhythm was aggressively manipulated by bombarding it with powerful chemical agents which ended up doing it grave long-term harm. Like the other forms of violence, medical violence too was subjected to an inflationary spiral. Once the ‘enemies’ invading the body developed ‘defences’ against one set of drugs, more potent ones were invented doing yet greater violence to it and to the animals on whom they were first tried out. The poor body became a battlefield where powerful armies fought out a deadly contest in which it was itself often the first casualty.13

Modern medical science is representing a severe form of violence. European doctors are the worst of all. For the sake of a mistaken care of the human body, they kill annually thousands of animals. They practice dissection. No religion sanctions this. All say that it is not necessary to take so many lives for the sake of our bodies.14

IT’S not only with the medical profession but the same situation is there other professions too. Whether it is lawyers, academicians, politicians they all are suffering from the same tendency. They all are seeing life in parts. They don’t have any methodology through which they can cultivate a coherent or complementary way of living. They are all living within their own boxes and they dare not to come out of these boxes. Gandhi had a problem with this limited thinking pattern. It does not mean that he is not looking for the specialised knowledge system but his expert knowledge is connecting one stream with another. As he says, politics without morality does not have any meaning to him. Justice without ethics means nothing to him. Modern legal systems are intended to make the judicial institution just but they do not do anything for developing a just individual or just social behaviour.15

Therefore, Gandhi says the profession of law teaches immorality: it is exposed to temptation from which few are saved.16 Lawyers are also men, and there is something good in every man. Whenever instances of lawyers having done good can be brought forward, it will be found that the good is due to them as men rather than as lawyers.17

For Gandhi the institution of law is only an external institution to settle the dispute but the ultimate aim is to change the heart. Thus, for family and community feeling we have to extend our love and trust and forgiveness to farther domains. The modern legal system has done little to develop and mobilise man’s moral sensibilities and capacities for reflection and introspection. Instead, it requires him to transfer them to a central agency telling him how to run his life and conduct his relations with others, including his own neighbours, wife, ex-wife and children.

Gandhi found it surprising that the modern man, who talked so much about his self-respect and dignity, did not find all this deeply humiliating. Thus, Gandhi said that the profession of lawyers and doctors are corrupting the moral and human influences in modern society. And, he added, while criticising these professions, the point that what he was raising was not something original. In fact, even Western writers have used stronger terms regarding both lawyers and doctors. One writer had linked the whole modern system to the Upas tree. Its branches are represented by parasitical professions, including those of law and medicine, and over the trunk has been raised the axe of true religion. Immorality is the root of the tree.

The main problem with modernism is its critical reliance on rationality. It is said that modern civilisation is a rational civilisation and this is the most important aspect of the modern scientific society, because science has the power even to control nature and natural disasters and consequently men can lead their life in their own way. Day by day the importance of rationality has become so prominent that it is over-shadowing all other aspects of life. Gandhi had a problem with this domineering rational tendency of modernity. He said:

rationalism is a hideous monster when it claims for itself omnipotence. Attribution of omnipotence to reason is as bad a piece of idolatry as is worship of stock and stone believing it to be God. I plead not for the suppression of reason, but [an appreciation of its inherent limits].18

Gandhi assumes that reason is not the only faculty through which you get knowledge; intuition, love, forgiveness etc. are also the instruments of knowledge. Though for modern rationalists all these aspects of human personality do not play any role as far as knowledge (the instrumental one) is concerned, Gandhi in contrast thought that role of emotions, which we gained through experience, have their own importance. Ronald J. Terchek writes:

Our love, trust, forgiveness and generosity do not flow primarily from reason. Indeed, for some rationalists these feelings may be misplaced; but not for Gandhi. He sees these dispositions and actions that flow from them embodying the best in human beings. He also knows that the opposition of these dispositions is not always reason. When love and trust is involved, the choice is not invariably between them and reason but between love and hate or trust and suspicion. To assume that reason should always be the arbiter is to misunderstand both its strengths and limitations. Reason can speak to an impulse to love, for example, but after a while reason is exhausted and has nothing more to say. We love or we do not. Gandhi wants to unite love, trust and forgiveness from calculation and join them to the developmental capacities of everyone.19

For Gandhi, a watertight compartmentalisation is not at all possible between the mind and heart, rationality and morality etc. According to him, rationality can prove untrue, but truth is beyond these kinds of mental exercises. In fact, an individual’s comprehensive personality depends on both rationality and intuition. Thus, we should not accept only one aspect as a whole, as that would be a partial perspective. In Gandhi’s words,

I have come to the conclusion that if you want something really important to be done, you not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also. The appeal of reason is more important to the head.20

GANDHI was not against reason or rationality at all but his was a critique of the domineering and hegemonic nature of modern instrumental rationality. This modern hegemonic rationality has captured different aspects of modern life-style and Gandhi tried to criticise each of these one by one.

Modern machines and the kind of the functions these machines perform have developed another problematic feature of modern society, that is, universalism. Universalism is a trend where all people are thinking in a similar direction. All are living a similar kind of life-style and they cannot keep their individuality, their uniqueness alive as it will not be welcomed. Universalism not only kills an individual’s initiative to do something new in a different manner, but it also enhances the tendency of centralisation and hegemony. And modern bureaucratic structures and political institutions like Parliament and State are some of the means which zealously try to be universal. For Gandhi, universalism is a violent philosophy perpetuated by the capitalists across the globe.

Gandhi was against any form of centralised tendency or universalism. He raised his voice for Swaraj and swadeshi. For Gandhi, the highly centralised and bureaucratic modern state represents violence in a concentrated and organised form. The individual has a soul, but as the state is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned away from violence to which it owns its very existence.21 Accordingly, modern states are structured in such a way that they encourage exploitation and violence discouraging the importance of the individual and his/her local recognitions. That is why Gandhi used to say that the state dehumanised its citizens in more or less the same way as the medical, legal and other modern institutions. It had a vested institutional interest in monopolising all initiative and fostering a state-centred political culture. The more its citizens became ‘addicted’ to it and the more they felt helpless without it, the safer it felt. Accordingly, it systematically nurtured the illusion that the problems of society were too complex and intractable to be solved by ordinary citizens acting individually or collectively, and was best left to the state and its official agencies. It felt threatened by active and independent-minded citizens determined to participate in the conduct of their affairs and worried lest they should be morally compromised by what it did in their name. It therefore, denied them access to vital information and opportunities for political participation, and discouraged independent and vibrant local communities capable of challenging its decision.22

A well-known Gandhian philosopher, Gopinath Dhawan, writes in this context that Gandhi sincerely believed that the state represented an organisation based on force. It manifested its coercive power through compulsion and exploitation of individuals in society. Gandhi decried any action of individuals in the state which was immoral, since in his scheme of thinking every action was judged by the touchstone of ethical priority. He argued that “no action which is not voluntary can be called moral…if we want to call an action moral, it should have been done consciously and as a matter of duty”.23

Gandhi wanted to persuade the politicians to accept the institution of state and power not as an end in itself but as an instrument. Accordingly, the state shall be regarded as a servant of the society and all its deeds should be guided by the sense of duty. Gandhi looked upon an increase in the power of the state with the greatest fear, because although while apparently doing well by minimising exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress.24

Destroying individuality means exploitation leading to violence. Therefore, to avoid violence and to ensure maximum flowering of the human personality, decentralisation of political power must become an end of a progressive and welfare-oriented society.25 For Gandhi, politics should be treated only as means. The state should try to decentralise its power. As much power a state will disperse, that much non-violent it will become. According to Gandhi, rights are not to be claimed but these are a kind of social value through which the individual will move on to the path of self-realisation. And in Gandhi’s account, if an individual is embedded with moral and human values, then automatically
s/he will achieve rights to actualise his/her humanitarian deeds. Then the importance of the institution of the state as a law providing institution would automatically wither away. There is then a state of enlightened anarchy. In such a state sovereignty vests in everyone who is his own ruler. He governs himself in a manner that he represents the freedom of his neighbours and in all such activity there is no political power because there is no state.26 But a single trait of all these features is not found in the modern state.

In Ramrajya there is not any notion of state at all. Swaraj, the second best option, is to be obtained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority. This Swaraj would be of each and every individual, whosoever is residing there inside the state by accepting the importance of differences of caste, community, society and the different cultural and historical backgrounds. Because these are some factors through which an individual gets his/her recognition. Thus, Gandhi criticised the universalistic tendency of modernism. As per Ronald J. Terchek,

Gandhi sees the universalising impulse of modernity as inhospitable of plurality. In its search for general rules, modern reason seeks to identify relevant verities and discards superfluous one what remains outside of the realm of the verifiable is unimportant to the enterprise replicated with the same result by distant, neutral strangers.27

GANDHI suspects that though modernity accepts universality of thought and way of living, it does not accept the absolute power or ultimate truth which is really universal in nature. It shows that for modernity only those facets are universal which can be proved by reason. And rationally those universal norms can be applied throughout the world. Gandhi says the notion of rational universalism or instrumental universalism is continuously corrupting the influences of human life and human values in modern days. The logico-enlightened universalist modern society is not only discouraging traditional values, but also defining the meaning of the term rationalism and universalism in a very restricted and limited sense. What we are getting from modern science is that only those happenings are “truth” which can be proved by the scientists through their fixed rationalistic mathematical equation. Contrary to these, for Gandhi, the nature of truth is very much dynamic. One truth or argument can be truthful for one person at a particular space and time, but it would be totally untrue for a person who is residing at a different place. If science can evolve a methodology where different truths can be amalgamated then the science would be more relative and more moral. But there is no space for ‘difference’ in modern science. For Gandhi, modern science is wholly inadequate to serve as the epistemological arbiter of how the discrete parts should be joined together.28

The universalising impulse of modernity threatens diversity as well as enervates the quest for moral judgments, and it does this with its emphasis on procedures that require an element of detachment and indifference. Such modern claims represent the antithesis of everything.29

Gandhi fears that such an outlook dilutes not only traditional morality but also common sense and reason, and ultimately self. Hence, Hannah Arendt argues that science has taught us not to trust our sense and reason. She is particularly troubled with the claim that the faculty of reasoning can only happen to be the same in everybody.30

Gandhi acknowledges that truth can be absolute or universal in nature but the moment an individual attempts to regulate his/her life, he/she has to pass through many experiences, which cannot be predefined and forecast by any branch of modern science. For Gandhi, since these life experiences are different for each one, truth would be different for everyone. Therefore, he accepts the ‘relative nature’ of truth. Gandhi says: truth was moral unified, unchanging, and transcendental. It was not an object of critical inquiry or physical speculation. It could only be found in the experience of one’s life, by unflinching practice of moral living. It could never be correctly expressed within the terms of rational theoretical discourse; its only true expression was lyrical and poetic.31 Gandhi illustrates beautifully two types of truth, that is, relative truth and absolute truth.32

Though in Gandhi’s philosophy relativity of truth is important, this relativity has an ultimate aim, that is, to achieve the absolute truth. This relativity of truth is essential to realise absoluteness of truth. Differences are fundamental and cannot be avoided. Relativity is universal and cannot be ignored. Particularity is natural and it must not be overlooked. The beauty of unity lies in diversity. We must accept this universal truth that all that happen in this phenomenal world are highly relative in nature. They have different causes. And every cause produces further cause; thus they are relative in nature. For Gandhi, relative truth is important and one must move forward through this relative truth. But Gandhi never speaks about complete relativism or subjectivism. Instead, he says that no one knows truth absolutely. No one knows non-violence absolutely. It means in Gandhi relativity or particularity or difference is valued, but not relativism or particularism, which absolutises it. The only access to the absolute is through the relative approach. Relativity is a means to achieve the Absolute end.

GANDHI was highly influenced by the theory of advaita (non-duality). Interpreting Gandhi in this context, Ronald J. Terchek says in Gandhi’s view, plurality simultaneously requires distinctiveness and unity, individual integrity and cooperation. In fact Gandhi never tries to accept any partial perspective whether it is the advaita of metaphysics or logico-materialism of the modern-day scientific knowledge. He wants a comprehensive or balanced perspective of science, society and spirituality.

Another problematic feature which the modern machine and the so-called specialised expert society has evolved is abstract individualism. The modern individual is facilitated with mechanical power. Though this power is responsible for his degradation, modern men have crossed every limitation to be technically advanced. They can go to any extent to fulfil their greed even at the cost of the urgent societal need. There is no limitation as such. Even if too much reliance on machines on their part is having its side effects, that is, loneliness, aloofness, schizophrenia, alienation etc. these never cause any hindrance to the virtual advancement of modern men.33

Gandhi had a problem with this modern model of development. He appreciated individual freedom and individual autonomy but in his own unique way. He asks: if the individual ceases to count what is left of a society? Individual freedom alone can make man voluntarily surrender himself completely to the service of society. If it is wrested from him he becomes akin to automation and the society is ruined; no society can possibly be built on a denial of individual freedom.34

Gandhi claims that the individual is the one to enjoy supreme consideration.35 However, it turns out that his celebration of freedom is very different from the conventional liberal ones. He encumbers agents with duties, assigning them responsibilities to lead a moral life and attend to the good of their community.36 Moreover, he champions those at the periphery, emphasising the basic rights of untouchables, women, the unemployed and others who have been the objects of domination, exploitation and humiliation. The idea of the rights he has in mind; however, these are not exhausted with the usual list of liberal rights but he seeks to secure the rights of individuals to meet their basic needs in dignity. Gandhi also departs from standard expressions of rights when he holds that freedom should not be taken to mean that an individual should be left alone to make their way in the world. Rather, he wants them to have the freedom to cultivate love and service which, he believes, are the best features of human nature.

We have all experienced that unrestricted individualism is the law of the beast, of the jungle. We have to learn to draw a line between individual freedom and social restraint. Willing submission to social restraint for the sake of the well-being of the whole society enriches both the individual and the society of which one is a member.37

But in the modern mechanistic and rationalistic society individual freedom stands for an abstract individualism. Here liberty means absence of every kind of social or traditional restraints. The individual’s happiness is not complementary but contradictory to social development. The harsh reality is that in this highly mechanised and industrialised society, an individual is also becoming a commodity. In Gandhi’s words,

Our purpose to life today becomes increasingly mechanical. Our main aim is to produce things, and in the process of this idolatry of things we transform ourselves into commodities. People are treated as numbers. The question here is not whether they are treated nicely and are well fed (things too can be treated nicely): the question is whether people are things or living beings. People love mechanical gadgets more than living beings. The approach to man is intellectual-abstract. One is interested in people as objects, in their common properties, in the statistical rules of mass behaviour, not in living individuals.38

IN Gandhi’s critique of individualism there is no dichotomy between the individual and society. In his ideal state of Ramrajya, both the individual and society are developing on parallel lines. Both are interdependent, intermingled and comple-mentary. Cooperation instead of competition is the fundamental law in Gandhi’s Ramrajya.

Gandhi believes in non-duality and says:

I do not believe…..that an individual may gain spiritually and those who surround him suffer. I believe in advaita (non-duality), I believe in the essential unity of man and for that matter of all that lives. Therefore, I believe that if one man gain spiritually, the whole world gains with him and if one man falls, the whole world falls to that extent.39

Gandhi’s ideas towards collectivism and egalitarianism are eloquently expressed in the following words:

A drop torn from the Ocean perishes without doing any good. If it remains a part of the Ocean, it shares the glory of carrying on its bosom a fleet of mighty ships.40

In Gandhi’s philosophy individual and society are not different and contradictory but essentially complementary to each other. The mutual development of both will serve the purpose in the real sense of the term.

Hence, a careful analysis of the problem reveals that so long as the nature of modern machines and the tendency of functional specialisation are not going to change, we cannot realise Gandhi’s philosophy. Critics may argue here that modern society has different objectives, and accordingly modernity is bound to develop. We cannot ignore higher level of demands; we cannot ignore higher level of services required in a geographically huge modern world order. And in order to fulfil these demands we are essentially required to be highly specialised in every sphere of our activities. Modern machines have been invented to fulfil these requisites.

Critics may also argue that in every era we live with some value-system. These values usually become ‘values-of-the-era’ or ‘yug-dharma’. If in the pre-modern era togetherness and cooperation were the normative principles, then in the modern era, for fulfilment of the extensive needs competition has become a new modern value. So, the value keeps changing and there isn’t any problem in their changing nature but despite their changing nature there are some universal values which are beyond such restriction of time and space. And these values are called Human values. Human values are the pre-requisite of any society; whether it is the pre-modern era, modern era, postmodern era or beyond that, we are compelled to live with these human values. It doesn’t matter whether we are working with machines or worshipping God, humanity must never be killed. And it is not only humanity; rather we must try to preserve the whole cosmology. Whatever Gandhi said against modern civilisation was an attempt to glorify humanity, truth, non-violence, and to set some cosmological values for us.


1. Replying to the question whether he was against all machinery Gandhi said: “How can I be when I know that even this body is a most delicate piece of machinery? The spinning wheel is a machine; a little toothpick is a machine. What I object to is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such. The craze is for what they call labour-saving machinery. Men go on ‘saving labour’ till thousand are without work and thrown on the open streets to die of starvation. I want to save time and labour not for a fraction of mankind but for all. I want the concentration of wealth, not in the hand of a few, but in the hands of all. Today machinery merely helps a few, but in the backs of millions. The impetus behind it all is not the philanthropy to save labour, but greed. It is against this constitution of things that I am fighting with all might… the supreme consideration is man. The machine should not tend to atrophy the limbs of man.”

[M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, Ahmedabad, Navjivan Publishing House, 1998, pp. 7-8]

2. M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, Ahmedabad, Navjivan Publishing House, 1998, pp. 7-8.

3. See, M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, p. 9.

4. Raghvan Iyer, The Moral and Political Writings Mahatma Gandhi, Oxford, Clarendon Press, vol. 11, 1987, p. 328.

5. Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: A Critical Examination, London, The Macmillan Press, 1998, p. 25.

6. Gopinath Dhawan, The Political Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, Ahmedabad, Navjivan Publication, 1948, p. 282.

7. Talcott Parsons, ‘Evolutionary Universals’ In Society’, American Sociological Review, June 29, 1964, pp. 339-57.

8. Ralf Dahrendorf, Life Chances, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1979.

9. See, Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, London, Rutledge, 1964.

10. Jurgen Habermas, ‘Modernity: An Incomplete Project’ in H. Foster (ed.), Postmodern Culture, Cambridge, Pluto Press, 1985, pp. 8-15.

11. Hind Swaraj, p. 53.

12. Ibid., p. 53.

13. Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: A Critical Examination, p. 27.

14. Hind Swaraj, p. 53.

15. In the Rawlsian system of justice as fairness, direct attention is bestowed almost exclusively on ‘just institution’ rather than focusing on ‘just societies’ that may try to rely on both effective institution and on actual behavior features. See Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice, Allen Lane Penguin: USA, 2009, p. 67.

16. Hind Swaraj, p. 80.

17. Hind Swaraj, p. 50.

18. Young India, June 27, 1939.

19. Ronald J. Terchek, Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy, p. 80.

20. Young India, 3-11-1913.

21. The Modern India Review, 1935, p. 413.

22. Bhikhu Parekh, p. 28.

23. Gopinath Dhawan, The Political Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, Ahmedabad, Navjivan Publications, 1946, p. 282.

24. Modern India Review, October 1935, p. 143.

25. Gopinath Dhawan, The Political Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, p. 323.

26. Young India, 26-3-1937.

27. Ronald J. Terchek, Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy, p. 90.

28. Ibid., p. 91.

29. Ibid., p. 91.

30. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1958, p. 277.

31. Partha Chaterjee, Nationalist Thought and The Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 97.

32. Though, for Gandhi the ‘absolute truth’ is the ultimate truth, he used to say: “As long as I have not realised this Absolute Truth, so long must I hold by the Relative truth as I have conceived it. That relative truth must, meanwhile, be my beacon, my shield and buckler.”

[M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or The Story of my Experiment With Truth, p. XI (Introduction)]

33. See, Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom, London, Rinehart & Co. Inc., 1941.
See, Erich Fromm, The Fear of Freedom, London, Rutledge & Paul, 1950.

34. Harijan, 1-02-1924.

35. Young India, 13-11-1924.

36. “And one discovery I have made is that there is no distribution whatever between individual growth and corporate growth, that corporate growth is therefore entirely dependent on individual growth and hence that beautiful proverb in the English language that “a chain is no stronger than weakest link in it.” [Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, 1934, p. 505]

37. Harijan, 27-05-1939.

38. Erich Fromm, The Heart of Man, Harter Row, New York, 1964, p. 57.

39. Young India, 4-12-1912, p. 398.

40. Harijan, 23-3-1947, p. 78.

Dr Upasana Pandey is an Assistant Professor, Vasanta College for Women (Krishnamurti Foundation of India), Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi.

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