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Mainstream, VOL L, No 41, September 29, 2012

Men, Machines and Mahatma

Tuesday 2 October 2012, by Upasana Pandey


[On the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s one hundred and fortythird birth anniversary on October 2, 2012, we are carrying the following article and reproducing N.C.’s piece that appeared in Mainstream (October 1, 1994) and an article by Mohit Sen that was published in this journal’s Gandhi birth centenary issue]

(October 4, 1969).

Machines have always been an essential instrument of human life. It is almost impossible for men to imagine life without an active presence of machines. Whatever the work we are doing or wherever we are living; life becomes helpless in the absence of machines. It is true that without machines men cannot exist even for the fraction of a second. Machines are unavoidable and inevitable in human existence; that is why replying to the question whether he was against all machinery, Gandhiji 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.”1 Machines were not problematic for Gandhi.

Factually, we do assume that machines were discovered by men during reformation or the renaissance movement; but ironically, it is not wrong to say that machines are with us since the day we took birth on this earth. To some extent they were present even before our existence. Our existence precedes the existence of machines. But we do accept that various mechanical laws and technologies in their advanced forms were discovered by men during the renaissance period.

Modern mechanical civilisation emerged with various ambitious objectives. One among those was to make man free from bondages: natural as well as social. Enslavement of men in front of natural disaster was assumed as a kind of bondage. The scientific revolution came with the assumption that helplessness of men in front of nature would be resolved by advanced techniques. It was assumed that the unpredicted nature of “the nature” would no more cause any trouble in the free movement of men and all natural happenings would come under human control.
Similarly, on the social ground we supposed that machines were more capable. They would produce goods at mass level. Mass production will eliminate social scarcity. Production on a large scale will serve the people at large and various techniques to control nature will make us stronger and confident. We will have a rational and egalitarian society and in such a society man will get more time to excel in his creativity. His relations with fellow beings will also be strengthened. Everyone will get more time for the self as well as for society.

These were those objectives with which the modern mechanical society emerged, but unfortunately we have experienced that none of these objectives was realised in the actual sense. It is not only that we could not fulfil these objectives but new problems have also emerged. Violence has increased, social relationships are getting distorted, faith on systems and our own self are under question-mark, and sensitive beings are rapidly turning into instrumental-beings. The modern mechanical society is struggling with these new problems. And nobody knows why machines could not fulfil all those expectations which we had with them. Where are the problems?

For Gandhi, the supreme consideration is man. The machine should not tend to atrophy the limbs of man.2 And we are experiencing how these days machines are destroying our mental, physical and spiritual faculties. How we have become helpless in front of these machines. How these machines have control over all our activities. Once Gandhiji said: “I would reject this body (which is a delicate piece of machine), which is not helpful to salvation, and seek the absolute liberation of soul.” For Gandhi, machines can never be problematic. It is the user of the machine. It is the system. And it is the socio-political environment which are corrupting influences.

Interestingly, liberal democracy and mechanical revolution both emerged simultaneously along with the market strategy. However, they are moving in different directions. Where liberal democracy is looking for availability of rational choices, mechanical advancements have synchronised our choices within certain brand names and companies’ products. Where in liberal democracy we are welcoming differences —differences of opinion, differences of choices, differences of identity—machines are not reacting to different persons differently because machines are following uniform commands only in binary language. Even very sophisticated machines cannot handle contradictory commands at the same time. And markets are also discouraging different outlooks. Through identical production markets are maintaining uniformity across the globe. Moreover, the capital intensive nature of machines makes capitalists richer and poor poorer. In spite of all these contradictions, surprisingly we allowed these three elements and modern life to become another name of money, market and machines.

In the mechanically advanced liberal demo-cratic world order we have developed a new form of consumerism. Earlier we used to buy consumer goods or consumer items; these days we want the whole system to consume. Consumption is not just consumption but conspicuous consumption.3 And conspicuous consumption requires immense resources and energy. A person must earn money and leisure time to obtain material goods and show them off. The effort required to do this often demands the denial of pleasure. Consumption, then, is not natural—something we automatically inherit from nature—but cultural. The consumption, display and use of objects take place on the basis of cultural codes that demand we conform by ceaselessly buying into the latest fads and trends.

Market-oriented liberal democracy and hi-tech automobile machines have produced a virtual society which has challenged all previous inclinations. In this virtual social order, each individual occupies a position. This position is called a multidimensional social space. This is the virtual social space which he or she is developing through hi-tech social networking.

Although our experiences with economic capitalism are not new but these days we have social capitalists and this social capital induces the value of social networks, which produce or reproduce inequality. These social networks are producing very complex as well as autonomous political, social, economic, educational fields. In such a society we eventually develop a sense of the game, or a practical reason or a way of division of the world of culture, of mannerisms, of tastes and so on. Through these games the individual develops a space and legitimate social form of domination. This is not only dangerous but also pathetic for the individual who becomes part of all these unknowingly. The individual has no other choice but to accept these to survive. Despite of the apparent freedom of choice, despite of equality of opportunity; privileged or dominant classes are still preserving their position.

Social capital is much more hazardous. Although capitalism is wrong in any form but when it comes into social relations, life becomes helpless because the exploiter is not visible. Not only this, we don’t even have any exact mechanism to resolve the problem because the seeds of the problem have now been injected into our relations through hi-tech market forces. The sense of insecurity has increased. We have become almost insensitive towards our social affairs and natural environment.


The objective of a liberal democracy has been how to maintain a conducive life. But in such a mechanical world order it seems peace, security and justice have become the discourse of yesterday. We have learnt how to live within certain choices. Compromise is the only way. To accept injustice and not to revolt against the wrong deeds of the government has become the order of the day. But this is very dangerous. It is dangerous not only for the structures but also for the individuals. To get symbolic prestige4 people are bound to accept all possible illegal means. We are becoming morally, socially, politically as well as psychologically weak. Love, sympathy, togetherness, compassion, sociability all have diluted the ‘subject-being’ into an ‘object-being’ day-by-day. Naxalism, cross-border intrusion and terrorism etc. are nothing but offshoots of this hi-tech social order. Natural disasters, hunger, incurable and rare diseases, corruption all are the outcome of the mechanical system.5

In 1941, Herbert Marcuse6 said that auto-mobile machines will bring such a type of barbarism which will corrupt livelihood and constructivity. We have seen how the nature of machines and society both are changing. Auto-mobile machines have produced ‘wired-beings’ and ‘electric-society’. The late twentieth century is nothing if not essentially electric. We cannot imagine our life without the Internet, ATM and other services. We cannot survive if we don’t have some essential sophisticated automobile machines like electric cooker, air-conditioners, mobiles, laptops, i-pods, etc. Earlier we had spiritual relations, in modern society the nature of relationships got mechanised and now in the postmodern society our relationships are becoming virtual and symbolic. Social networ-king and other channels of communications are helping us to develop such a tie-up amongst us. The whole scenario gets changed and in such a changed scenario where Marx’s theses have lost their relevance, it becomes essential to re-examine Gandhiji’s critique of machines with a fresh look.
Both Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi wrote against the modern mechanical and industrial civilisation.7 But the grounds for their attacks were different. Karl Marx had a problem with the mechanical civilisation due to its capitalist and exploitative nature. For Marx, it is machines which are enhancing the tendency of accumu-lation of money in the hands of have groups and subsequent exploitation of the have-not-groups. Karl Marx assumed that industrial and mechanical aspects of life are responsible for the huge gap between the haves and have-nots. But, the Marxist critique of the modern industrial civilisation is too limited. It seems as if machines will change their exploitative nature in a proletarian society, Marx will have no problem with either machines or the industrial society. But the way machines are changing their nature, the nature of exploitation and capitalism are also changing. Instead of simple economic or political capitalism, now we have complex economy and symbolic/virtual capitals. In the postmodern era we have virtual terrorism and virtual exploitation.


What to do and where to go? To whom to ask for possible solutions? Long back while writing Hind Swaraj and other works Gandhiji raised all these issues and he gave us three messages to follow: first to know our need and to limit our greed, second to be aware about our body and mind, and third to have swaraj, that is, an adequate and self-reliant socio-political system. All these three rudiments are missing in these days’ highly mechanical and liberal democratic world order.
Gandhiji wrote wonderfully about how and why our ancestors set a limit to our indulgences. He pointed out: “They saw that happiness was largely a mental condition. A man is not necessarily happy because he is rich or unhappy because he is poor. The rich are often seen to be unhappy, the poor to be happy. Millions will always remain poor. Observing all this, our ancestors dissuaded us from luxuries and pleasures”.8

For Gandhi, “We have managed the same kind of plough as existed thousands of years ago, we have retained the same kind of the cottages that we had in former times and our indigenous education remains the same as before. We had no system of life-corroding competition. Each followed his own occupation or trade and charged a regulation wage.”9 It was not that we did not know to how to invent the machinery, but our forefathers knew that if we set our hearts after such things, we would become slaves and lose our moral fibre. They, therefore, after due deliberation, decided that we should only do what we could with our hands and feet. They saw that our real happiness and health consisted in a proper use of our hands and feet.

Not only in the matter of rejection of unnece-ssary use of machinery and acceptance of handiworks, but in so many other areas limits were placed by our ancestors. Gandhiji informed us that our ancestors suggested that happiness lay not in big cities but in small villages. Comparatively it is easy to manage a small locale. Whether it is health-care or sanitation or availability of resources, everything is easily manageable inside a small village. Hence one finds satisfaction in a small village.

Our intelligent ancestors realised that political power should always work under the strong clench of moral guidance. Thus they set a limit on political power. The swords of kings were treated inferior to the swords of ethics. We in our ancient times were familiar with courts and lawyers. We had doctors. But none of them were treated superior to the individuals. These professions of vakils and vaids did not rob the people; they were considered as people’s dependents.

For Gandhi, if we could advance ourselves within these limits, happiness and satisfaction will come in the real sense. For the meaning of advancement is to be aware of our body, mind and spirit. To be independent means to keep the mind and body under moral limits. To be developed or civilised means to be moral and altruistic as Indian civilisation teaches us at length since the ages. Advancement means to be non-violent, truthful, just and peace-loving.

But in between the triangle of money, market and machines men are becoming impatient and intolerant day-by-day. Structural violence (violence in family, religious institutions, universities etc.) and negative-peace (the peace which we have achieved under various compulsions) are more dangerous than direct war. In such a situation the relevance of Gandhiji’s views has increased. Gandhiji looked at and analysed suffering in this world in great depth. He had a profound analysis of war. Philosophically Gandhiji is very interesting and more relevant for the philosophers of the contemporary world. Gandhiji broadens and deepens the whole subject matter of non-violence. There are various kinds of violence, namely, physical, philosophical, technical, mental, emotional, economic, environmental, cultural, structural, institutional, educational so on and so forth. Gandhiji emphasised all these. He also discussed economic violence in the terrain of violence. Economic inequality is also a kind of violence for Gandhi. Hence, in his Swaraj the first focus was given on the poor. For Gandhi, real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused.10

Gandhiji said we cannot use immoral means for achieving moral ends. He saw a spiritual power in this world. This power is invisible but it unites us. Though it identifies difference, but it develops a kindness, a warmth and togetherness amongst us. It brings oneness amongst us. To feel this warmth and togetherness, the practice of non-violence may help us a lot. Where violence distorts relationship, non-violence teaches us how to develop it, how to continue it and how to enrich it. Where violence disturbs the peace-making process, non-violence tells us how to sustain real peace and friendship.

Dialectics is important as it paves the way for progress. Differences are fundamental and cannot be ignored. Relativity is universal and it must not be avoided. Particularity is natural and it should not be questioned. The beauty of unity lies in diversity. Soul-force, truth-force, and non-violence develop this sense of togetherness. It enriches the sense of toleration. It tells us that we are different from each other and differences should be celebrated. Contrary to all these, the modern mechanical liberal democracy restricts our identity, our rationality.11 Its various institutions have never been so humane in accepting differences. Rather, we have always been demanding how to minimise differences, how to resolve differences. The laws of nations, various institutional arrangements are orienting towards flatness, lifelessness or dullness. Certainly, this tendency will result in clashes, conflicts and tension. Mechanical democracy can’t see our uniqueness as human beings. Hence, we are suffering.

Gandhiji could see our uniqueness. For him, the individual must be given the supreme consideration. “If 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 automation and society is ruined. No society can possibly be built on a denial of individual freedom. It is contrary to the very nature of man.”12 Gandhiji was very conscious of the individual’s develop-ment. Whatever we are doing, whether it is using machines or anything else, the individual’s personality must always be given dignity or respect, as development is to strengthen an individual’s self-sufficiency.

Swaraj of Gandhiji’s dream is yet to come. But, the more we are indulging in lust, the more we are realising Gandhiji’s relevance. It is only Gandhiji who could dream the future with courage, hope and aspiration.

1. M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1998, pp. 8-9.
2. M. K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule,p. 8.
3. Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Tran. Charles Levin, Telo Press, St. Louis, 1981.
4. Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, used these terms for understanding the subject within objective structures.
5. Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1990.
6. Herbert Marcuse, Reason and Revolution, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1968.
7. Madhu Dandavate, Marx and Gandhi, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1977.
8. M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, p. 55.
9. M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, p. 55.
10. M.K. Gandhi, India of My Dreams, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 2001.
11. Alfred Cobban accepted that advent of the popular system of democracy has made the life of people ‘dull’ in its own way.
12. Harijan, 1-2-1942.

Dr Upasana Pandey is an Assistant Professor in Political Science, Vasanta College for Women (KFI), BHU, Varanasi. She can be contacted at

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