Presented by: M.P.Mathai
Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj challenged me to re-examine everything I believed in; it did shake and dismantle my civilisational moorings. The first thing that struck me deep when I first read the book was the definition Gandhi gave to swaraj, swaraj as self-control. For Gandhi self-control meant control of all the physical and psychological constituents of the individual. In other words it suggests attaining mastery over one’s mind and senses. Thus, swaraj becomes self-mastery; in fact, it is nothing short of self-mastery. Gandhi takes it beyond and suggests that it is a kind of inner illumination and is thus conducive to self-realisation. These are, obviously, the inner dimensions of swaraj.
Of course, Gandhi was aware of and shared the popular (political) meaning of swaraj as home-rule i.e., self-government. The second half of the title of the book attests to it. But he was of the opinion that sans the inner/personal swaraj of individual citizens, political swaraj would be a mirage, and sometimes even counter- productive. He also argued that political swaraj was directly proportional to personal swaraj. His logic was simple. As he believed in the oneness of life one person’s swaraj would naturally contribute to the swaraj of others and thus the personal and the political would converge and become indivisible. So, in the Gandhian paradigm there is no dichotomy or contradiction between the personal and the political. In the absence of inner equilibrium (read self-control) there cannot be external or outer balance. (This, of course, is a great lesson in political theory, but least understood and cunningly ignored by politicians.)
For Gandhi the individual who has attained or sincerely tries to attain such self-mastery (and inner illumination) is a satyagrahi, though in the Hind Swaraj he uses the term ‘passive resister’ for satyagrahi. (According to Gandhi Socrates and Jesus were satyagrahis.) The similarity between Gandhi’s satyagrahi and Gita’s sthitaprajnah (person of steadfast /balanced wisdom) is especially noteworthy. Gandhi suggested that those who wanted to become a passive resister or satyagrahi, should observe perfect chastity, adopt poverty, follow truth, and cultivate fearlessness. We must note that while suggesting these disciplines/observances Gandhi was very cautious, modest and realistic. Note his words: “After a great deal of experience it seems to me that those who want to become passive resisters for the service of the country have to observe perfect chastity, adopt poverty, follow truth, and cultivate fearlessness”.(H.S.p.73.) All the expressions in this statement are suggestive and significant. He speaks on the basis of experience; it was experience that convinced him of the need and efficacy of the observances mentioned. He says quite modestly: ‘it seems to me’; it is not purported to be an absolute statement. These observances are meant to equip the passive resister to become capable of serving one’s country properly and not to enable him/her for just self-realisation. Note that service is the motto.
It is obvious that swaraj is the result of sadhana, persistent perseverance. Gandhi knew that human mind is the abode of conflicting emotions and impulses and that human beings were capable of both selfishness and selflessness. According to him, human nature is a mixture of both good and evil; there is the divine and the brute in man. But Gandhi is of the firm conviction that human nature is essentially, basically, good and nonviolent. He believed that every human being is endowed with the potential to realise the divine within oneself. It is here that the sadhana he felt essential for the attainment of swaraj both in its individual and collective sense becomes relevant.
Gandhi believed that only that civilisation is true which helped human beings to attain swaraj. Recall his definition of civilisation: “Civilisation is that mode of conduct which pointed out to man the path of duty. Performance of duty and observance of morality are convertible terms. To observe morality is to attain mastery over our mind and passions. So doing, we know ourselves.” In other words, true civilisation must promote the higher and nobler inclinations and emotions in the human self and help human beings to develop morally and spiritually towards swaraj. The civilisation which distracted human beings from this goal of self mastery and self illumination (i.e., swaraj) was dangerous and therefore, to be shunned, argued Gandhi. According to him, modern western civilisation ignored the higher and nobler dimensions of the human person and tried only to strengthen the lower and baser emotions like sensual gratification and selfishness. This civilisation, grounded in the values of greed, competition, self-aggrandisement, and hedonism would neither add an inch to the moral growth of the human individuals nor help them to attain self-control which is the master-key to swaraj.
To understand Gandhi’s meaning of swaraj is not difficult; but internalising the values it sets forth and translating them into practice are truly problematic and challenging.
The major forces that obstruct a person’s advance towards swaraj are internal, though external factors also do create formidable barriers. And therefore, from the Gandhian perspective, the struggle for swaraj is fundamentally internal/personal. There exists a brute within every human self exerting its pulls and pressures continually and quite forcefully and to tame it is the major challenge confronting one who aspires for swaraj. There are negative emotions like anger, hate, the will to harm and hurt, and even to kill. There is the will to power, to dominate and control, to conquer and subdue, to avenge and annihilate. The question is how to subdue and overcome such negative impulses which are sometimes felt to be overwhelming and uncontrollable? The four observances that Gandhi proposed in Hind Swaraj – observe chastity, adopt poverty, follow truth and cultivate fearlessness -- are crucial in empowering a person both in combating the baser impulses and emotions and achieving self-control. Later, when he started the Ashram experiment the observances were increased to eleven vows, well-known as ekadasa vrtas. No doubt, the practice of the above observances is extremely difficult; but it is not impossible. This has been borne out, not only by Gandhi, but by many ordinary people, so-called.
Gandhi and his Ashram community adopted the vows on the basis of a consensus and followed them accordingly. However, it is obvious that there might have been differences both in the perception and the practice of the vows by the inmates of the Ashram. For Gandhi “to do at any cost something that one ought to do constituted a vow” but he was never a literalist. He clarified to the reluctant and the perplexed that taking a vow did not mean that one was able to observe it from the very beginning; it only meant a constant and honest effort in thought, word and deed with a view to its fulfilment. This is, certainly, a reassuring invitation to any one who would like to try to attain self-control leading to swaraj. It allows sufficient elbow-room for one to experiment, commit mistakes, learn from and correct them. At least I felt so, and started my personal ascesis.
It is in this context that I would like add a personal note based on my experiments and experiences. I will give two examples.
I was prone to intense and almost explosive anger, the firework of the brute within. Gandhi and Hind Swaraj challenged me here. I realised that unless I learned to control my anger neither will I be able to be a good teacher (the vocation I chose for myself) nor a public servant nor will I advance even an inch toward swaraj and nonviolence. My first staggering steps toward swaraj and nonviolence, therefore, should comprise of a well-thought out plan for anger management. I was told that Gandhi had advised one of his grandsons, who too had anger problem, to maintain an Anger Journal and write a detailed and candid account of the day’s anger episodes, obviously for subsequent reading and correctional reflection. No doubt, this is a very effective method. I decided to fight my anger and I did it adopting different techniques. One of my successful techniques was what I would call ‘replacement’. For me replacement in anger management is the act of replacing the offender with a person I love most. When I imagine that the offender is my younger brother or my best friend, I experience a transformation; I feel positive changes occurring in my body chemistry, and anger, which could be one of the most dehumanising of emotions, subsides and vanishes fast. The brute is brought down to its feet; I (re)gain control over myself. I feel reassured and confident and capable of forgiving. This method, I believe, is in tune with the spirit of the observance suggested by Gandhi in Hind Swaraj and it has stood me in good stead.
The second one relates to simplicity which is synonymous with Gandhian poverty. (It is important to reiterate here that Gandhi never extolled poverty; in fact he launched poverty alleviation programmes as he believed that poverty was demeaning and dehumanising. It is equally important to understand the basic difference between inherited or imposed poverty and voluntary poverty) It is easy to grasp how difficult it is to practice simplicity in the contemporary culture whose hall mark is conspicuous consumption. But today there is a growing awareness of the crucial significance of simplicity even in the highly industrialised countries of the west, though this awareness is mostly confined to the cognitive level and does not get translated into practice. I could grasp from Hind Swaraj that simplicity is not a mere virtue to be upheld by morally inclined persons, but an essential part of one’s whole way of living and looking at things. In other words, it has to become a constituent of one’s world-view, particularly its praxis.
Gandhi, as a practical idealist knew how difficult the practice of simplicity would be. People may not be able to bring about changes in their consumption pattern and life style all of a sudden. So, later, he gave a practical suggestion that people should attempt voluntary and progressive reduction of wants, leading to simplicity. There shall be no external compulsion; compulsion shall be from within oneself. This is obviously what ‘voluntary’ signifies. And reduction of material things and gadgets need not be too drastic or sweeping; one has to cope with it and it requires time for this. That was why Gandhi suggested ‘progressive reduction’.
This has been my lodestar in guiding my life style. One of my down to earth practices in terms of buying is to ask a final question before taking the final decision to buy any article: Do I really need it? Can I do without it? I buy only if the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’. I do not claim to have arrived any where near Gandhian simplicity. I confess that I possess superfluous articles; but the joy and sense of fulfilment I derive from the attempt to limit my wants and reduce my needs and thus curtail my consumption is a reward in itself.
I have similar positive experiences particularly in matters relating to the observances of the control of the palate, sarvadharma samsbhav, swadeshi and fearlessness. Inspired primarily by Gandhi’s experiments in dietetics and his views on modern medicine I became a vegetarian by choice and started regulating my diet on the basis of the suggestions he gave in his famous monograph Key to Health. And when treatment becomes necessary Naturopathy is my first choice. Gandhi’s critique of parliamentary democracy strengthened and hastened my resolve to give up power-centred parliamentary politics and to engage in people-centred politics and mobilisation which alone will empower the common people and help them in attaining real swaraj. (In the area of politics and voluntary work I consider Jaya Prakash Narayan’s monograph From Socialism to Sarvodaya as a sequel to Hind Swaraj.) The insights on education I acquired from Hind Swaraj have served me as the moral and intellectual anchor in my career as a teacher. The theory of history introduced by Gandhi (in Chapter xvii) has helped me in acquiring a peace/nonviolence perspective and a peoples’ perspective of history; it has also helped in conceptualising an alternative historiography, although I am not a historian in any sense.
In short, I can vouch that Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj is one of the three books that have influenced me most, the other two being the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita.
A word as an epilogue also seems to be in place here. Hind Swaraj may appear to some as all war and no peace; particularly a no- holds-barred war on modernity. Some have characterised it as very conservative book as it extols, in glowing terms, the foundational values of ancient Indian civilisation. This is the result of an inappropriate reading. Gandhi never accepted anything uncritically. He was critical of both modernity and tradition. Remember that Gandhi had requested us to read the book through his eyes and if we do so the whole image would change. Gandhi used to be a flexible person, and open to human frailties; he always provided enough space for compromises without diluting the core principles. So there is obviously no need to be inhibited or repulsed by the views expounded in the book. As Gandhi pointed out they should be taken as the ideal towards which one can progress.