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July 27, 2006

Hind Swaraj - Its Relevance Today

The quintessence of Gandhi’s thinking was contained in his little booklet “Hind Swaraj”. Its import is so revolutionary, so different from what most of us are used to, that a real paradigm shift is a basic pre-requisite to grasping what he had in mind. As Gandhi himself explained, anyone who wants to understand Hind Swaraj has to view the world “with my eyes”. That is why even close followers and admirers of his, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, just could not stomach what he had said in Hind Swaraj.

The most important thing that Gandhi conveyed through this booklet is a meaning to Swaraj which is totally removed from the political context in which we normally understand this concept. He looked at the root meaning of the word Swaraj = Swa+Raj, that is apne ooper raj. As he declared in his booklet

“Real home rule is self-rule or self-control.”

In other words, for him Swaraj stood for our taking control of ourselves, freeing ourselves from the slavery to the mind and its desires As he emphazied, the way to it is the awakening of the soul-force or love-force which frees us from the ‘I’-ness of the mind. Thus, his concept of Swaraj is very different from, in many ways diametrically opposite to, the ‘independence’ that we celebrate on every 15th Aug. He explains this by having his imaginary “Reader” spell out the concept of independence in the political sense of the term and then goes on to give his reaction:

“You have drawn the picture well. In effect it means this: that we want English rule without the Englishman. You want the tiger’s nature, but not the tiger; that is to say, you would make India English. .. That is not the Swaraj I want.”

Later in the booklet he explains the place of the English in his concept of independent India:

“It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves… But such Swaraj has to be experienced, by each one for himself… Now you can see that it is not necessary for us to have as our goal the expulsion of the English. If the English become Indianized, we can accommodate them. If they wish to remain in India along with their civilization, there is no room for them.”

By ‘Indianized’ here he meant becoming Indian not in the cultural sense, but in the civilizational sense. As he put it,

” Civilization, in the real sense of the term [meaning to be civilized] consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary restriction, of wants. This alone promotes real happiness and contentment, and increases the capacity for service.”

Therefore, he explained, “I bear no enimity towards the English but I do towards their civilization”. Once, while in England, when he was asked “What do you think of Western civilization?” he answered with a wonderful combination of brevity and humour “I think it would be a good idea”!

Thus, his Hind Swaraj is primarily a call for us to eschew the temptations that modern civilization offers us. It is based on a rejection of the value framework that forms its basis – wherein success, progress and development are measured in purely material terms. For instance, while our educational institutions teach us how to become better engineers, better doctors, better accountants etc, there is no course on how to become better human beings. This was his basic quarrel with modern civilization:

“This civilization makes note neither of morality nor of religion. Its votaries calmly state that their business is not to teach religion. Some even consider it to be a superstitious growth. Others put on the cloak of religion, and prate about morality. But, after twenty years’ experience, I have come to the conclusion that immorality is often taught in the name of morality… Civilization seeks to increase bodily comforts, and it fails miserably even in doing so.”

Here he makes the interesting and important distinction between religion as understood these days and true religion, what he terms “the religion that underlies all religions”, which teaches us the awakening of the soul-force latent within each of us. He regards this awakening as the only way to real Swaraj, which each of us can strive towards irrespective of the political climate in which we find ourselves. It is our failure to do so that Gandhi blames for our political slavery as well:

“Our greatest enemy is not the foreigner, nor anyone else. Our enemies are we ourselves, that is, our own desires”…..”The English have not taken India, we have given it to them… They came to our country originally for purposes of trade…They had not the slightest intention at the time of establishing a kingdom…Who assisted the Company’s officers? Who was tempted at the sight of their silver? Who bought their goods? History testifies that we did all this. In order to become rich all at once we welcomed the Company’s officers with open arms.”

It is this attempt to become “rich all at once” that forms the core of modern life today, and which Gandhi regarded as the prime obstacle to real Swaraj. But he was also non-violent enough not to impose this goal on other Indians who did not share his views. As he explained in his introduction to the 1921 edition of his booklet:

“The booklet is a severe condemnation of ‘modern civilization’. It was written in 1908. My conviction is deeper today then ever. I feel that if India will discard ‘modern civilization’, she can only gain by doing so.
“ But 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… 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.”

This explains why Gandhi chose Nehru as his political successor even though the latter was aghast at the wordings and message of Hind Swaraj. Gandhi knew that India was not ready for his message and vision, only for Nehru’s.

That was sixty years ago. Is the situation any different today? Is India any more ‘ripe’ to receive Gandhi’s message?

On the face of it, no. We have plunged headlong into globalization and the market-oriented economy. Even more than in Nehru’s days, money and material growth and industrial production are being worshipped as the only way out of our problems. That our appreciation of Gandhi is confined to symbols is evident when, for instance, we name the biggest streets in our cities as M.G.Road, and then carry out the most ungandhian activities on it, or when we print his photos on our 500 rupee notes and then use those very notes for the most ungandhian transactions. While we may celebrate his birthday as a national holiday and praise him in our speeches and functions and newspapers, deep down we feel that in the present era of technology and modernization, rapid development and globalization, his ideas are outmoded and unsuitable for our needs. In other words, Gandhi may be a hero of our past, but has no place in our future.

And yet, simultaneously, there is also a slow awakening – at least amongst a limited circle of concerned citizens - to the wisdom contained in his ideas. This is the result of a growing realization that our present way of living is leading us headlong into disaster. Where ever development has made rapid strides, it has been accompanied by environmental problems, social stratification and stress, water scarcities, soil depletion, air pollution and traffic nightmares – Bangalore and China being two shining examples of how badly we foul our very nest which we are trying to convert into heaven through technological progress.

Gandhi had predicted all this a full hundred years ago. Interestingly, his predictions included an environmental crisis. How did he manage to do that at a time when no one had heard of words and concepts like ecology, sustainability and bio-diversity conservation? The secret lies in his awakening of the soul-force, a faculty each one of us possesses, but has not developed. It is the method by which we can rise above the concept of the ‘other’ and experience the world as an undivided whole. This is the route to true spirituality or religion, and it is also the route to true ecology, for then we see the interconnectedness of all the species, nay, of all living beings, with one another. Gandhi could see with his own eyes how modern science and technology was violating this supreme Law that governs the entire universe, and the consequences that will follow. That is why he insisted that to grasp the message of Hind Swaraj one has to see the world “through my eyes”.

He was not, as is commonly imagined, against science and technology. On the contrary, he favoured science in its true essence – the uninhibited pursuit of truth and reality, rather than just blindly following a ‘scientific method’ that had evolved through experiments at the physical level. He predicted that a new science of the future would take into account the realities of the spiritual dimensions and the resulting technologies would be very different from what we witness today – promoting rather destroying ecology, healing the earth and its wounds, and thus having a healing touch on the human psyche too. As he put it:

“Modern science is replete with illustrations of the seemingly impossible having become possible within living memory. But the victories of physical science would be nothing against the victory of the Science of Life, which is summed up in Love which is the Law of our Being.”

But for the above vision to be translated into practice, we need to reverse the following five trends which have become necessary corollaries to our notions of what development is all about:

- Urbanization
- Heavy industrialization
- Commercialization
- Monetization
- Militarization

Unless and until we discard our attachment to the above five as necessary indicators of ‘progress’, we cannot implement Gandhi’s notion of Swaraj at a societal level. But we can still do so at the individual level.

Posted by ananthu at 6:10 PM

Most Important Know-How

These days, everyone talks about environmental damage and the need to preserve the ecology. This was not the case 50 or 100 years back. But there were a few honourable exceptions. Way back in 1910, reacting to an earthquake that shook Paris, Gandhi had blamed it on our foolish efforts to try to conquer nature, and had predicted that nature would strike back, leading to the kind of problems we are facing today. In the 1960s, one of Keynes’ foremost students, E.F.Schumacher, a well-known economist, broke ranks with the establishment and began to echo what Gandhi had been saying. In 1966, he predicted the oil crisis that later shook the world in the 70s, and also pioneered the appropriate technology movement.

Schumacher soon became a very respected figure in international circles, and was once invited by the multinational companies to talk to them on ways that they can ‘supply know-how to the poor’, a subject in which he was regarded as an expert. Because of his stature, his talk was attended by the CEOs of all these big companies. They thought he would talk to them about various appropriate technology ideas, and suggest ways in which they can help the poor. But he shocked them by instead talking to them about a know-how which they can learn from the poor people of the poor countries. He called it the ‘know-how of survival’. He predicted that because of the way we live, a stage will come when the things that we take for granted – oil, LPG, electricity, water, vegetables and grains, even clean air – will become scarce commodities. At that time, those who are used to the modern way of living will find it impossible to survive. What we have learnt in our colleges and universities– our engineering skills, our financial acumen, our surgical expertise etc. – will not help us to compensate for the lack of these elementary essentials of life. But those who have remained outside the purview of modern civilization will not be adversely affected, they already know how to survive without the amenities that city people have grown used to.

“When the crunch comes,” said Schumacher,” New York and Moscow will not survive, Bomaby may or may not survive, but the poor people of rural India will survive.”

The Kaigal project of the Krishnamurti Foundation is an example of how our youngsters can be taught these elementary survival skills which are an integral part of India’s glorious tradition, which until recently were so well-known amongst our simple, rural folks, but alien to the city people. It is not actually difficult to live without airconditioners, TV sets, and coca cola. In fact, life can be great fun, and our health actually improves if we learn to do so. Most important, we become independent of the BWSSB, the BMTC, the KEB, the supply lines to our markets, and don’t have to fret and fume every time shortages in water, electricity and food articles are reported in our newspapers. It is the most important skill our youngsters can learn, something that will come in very useful to them when the crunch comes, and this crunch is bound to come within their lifetime.

Posted by ananthu at 6:01 PM

Development and Success - Is a New Perspective Desirable?

Is it desirable that we re-examine our notions of development, progress and success?

To illustrate what I am trying to get at, let me take the example of Bangalore. For the last 15 years, I have been volunteering for Navadarshanam, which operates from a small village, not too far from Bangalore. Therefore, I have had a chance to watch Bangalore grow from a medium-sized city to the most prominent IT center in the world. It has been fascinating to note the changes that accompanied this growth. Bangalore’s citizens have become much richer, a vast variety of new goods and services is available, its skyline is becoming prominent, its traffic is becoming chaotic, its population is skyrocketing, its crime rate is increasing, its residents are no longer the easy-going, helpful people they used to be. These are changes that accompany any modern development effort, and are well known. The positive changes, especially the ones relating to increased income and availability of goods and services, are seen as a justification for the negative ones – and there are many well-meaning efforts to alleviate the suffering caused by the latter.

But in all this, we seem to forget one fundamental point: our aim in development, progress and success is to make us happier. Are we really becoming happier, or more tense and insecure, as a result of ‘development’ at the societal level, and ‘success’ at the individual level?

The above question is often dismissed as of no consequence because happiness is seen as a subjective, non-quantifiable entity – something difficult to measure, unlike GNP or income, and hence impossible to make as the criterion for our decisions. Therefore, let me raise a question that is fundamental even from the angle of material well-being:

Has development made it easier to access the most crucial physical needs of the human being – viz., air, water and food?

Let me start with air. To revert to the example of Bangalore - until 1965-70, the weather was so lovely that homes were never designed for ceiling fans, and the quality of the air available was so invigorating that doctors would recommend a holiday here for their patients suffering from COPD, TB and similar ailments. By 1990, fans had become a necessity, but the air was still fresh and invigorating. Now, many hanker for air-conditioning, and the level of pollution rivals that of Mexico City, Bangkok and Tokyo. I have a friend who stayed till recently in Acropolis, an apartment complex in the Koramangala area of Bangalore. This complex is very well-built (meaning, a lot of cement has been used, and it has facilities such as club house, swimming pool, etc), and each apartment is currently priced at well over a crore. But he decided to leave it for an interesting reason – the smoke that bellows from the cars that drive into the shopping mall built in the adjoining area was making it difficult for him to breathe. Others in the apartment complex are taking care of this problem by shutting themselves up in their air-conditioned rooms, but my friend did not want to do that, so he quit.

The water situation, though not so apparent, is actually even more alarming. Bangalore is now dotted with new multi-storied apartment complexes in different localities. Where is the water supply to come for each of these posh buildings? Ask anyone, and the standard answer is: ‘Cauvery’. The government has announced grandiose plans to divert Cauvery water to different localities in the city through the laying of an elaborate (though very costly) system of pipelines, and is levying a special charge on each residential unit in the city to fund this scheme. It all looks wonderful on paper, but everyone seems to forget that Cauvery does not have an endless supply of water, and what it has is now being fought over bitterly by the farmers of Mandya in Karnataka and Tanjore in TN. Thanks to ‘modern’ methods of agriculture, these farmers now need more and more water just to survive, and so are willing to go to any lengths - even dramatic suicides - in order to lay their claims on the limited water from Cauvery. Are they going to allow rich Bangaloreans to appropriate this claim? Will they really sit back and watch their crops go dry while the Cauvery water passes through their land in huge pipes? Or, are we going to be left with apartments in Bangalore that have all modern amenities including fancy bathroom fittings, but no water?

In the earlier days, Bangalore had no water problem – some homes had open wells, many others had borewells, and the municipality was in a position to supply water in plenty to those who did not. Now, most of these wells have dried up – and ‘development’ is directly responsible for this. The old lakes have been ‘reclaimed’ for ‘useful’ purposes (e.g., the Bangalore Bus Terminus has been built by filling up a magnificent lake that existed in the center of the city), excessive cementing has led to lack of recharging by rainwater, and, most important, use of ‘modern’ farming techniques has resulted in a rapidly falling water table.

If ‘modern’ farming practices had really resulted in solving our food problem, then at least there was some justification for the overuse of water in our farms. But this has not really happened – despite the statistics that point to increased production. Yes, it is true that the per acre yield shows a dramatic increase when modern techniques are used. But if we look at the amount of foodgrains that are lost in storage and transportation, and add to it those that get deliberately destroyed because the farmer finds it uneconomical to harvest his produce (because of steep price drops that always invariably accompany a bumper crop), the increase in production is not all that useful. And let us not forget that this increase is accompanied by a massive loss of soil humus – all modern agricultural practices are at the cost of the health of the soil, and so effectively we are eating up the basic capital that forms our good earth.

The land all around Navadarshanam is owned by traditional farmers, each having between one and ten acres. For centuries, they have grown their own basic food needs and survived on this land. In monetary terms, they have been classified as ‘very poor’ (on account of very low per capita income), but their basic needs were well met from their land holdings. Over the last 30-40 years, however, they have been gradually switching to ‘modern’ methods of farming, and thereby tied themselves to the outside economy. Many (though not all) of them now grow cash crops, take them to Bangalore for sale, and buy their requirements (even food) from the money they so earn. This does give them more cash, and so our statistics show their living standards have improved. But there is a very big catch. If their crop fails, they are of course doomed, especially because of the loan they have taken for buying fertilizers and pesticides. But even if they have a bumper crop, they often end up losers as the price of their produce also falls drastically. The net result is that sometimes a farmer having as much as ten acres of land finds he cannot get enough to eat, a situation that did not exist earlier except in years of severe drought.

In fact, farming – except on a very large scale – is becoming an increasingly uneconomical proposition. Almost without exception, our neighbouring farmers are all wanting to sell their land and move to ‘greener pastures’ (!) in the city. This trend portends ill for city dwellers too, for soon food supply will be controlled by a small coterie of people who own large tracts of farmland. The easy availability of vegetables and grains, taken for granted by all those who are living in the cities and belong to the middle and upper income brackets, will become a thing of the past.

The above problems may not seem obvious now, but as intellectuals and concerned citizens, I believe it is our duty to anticipate the future and prepare for it.

Having given these questions deep thought, we at Navadarshanam believe the only way out is for us to reverse the following five trends which form the core of modern development:

- Unchecked urbanization, including mushrooming metropolises and a disappearing farming community.
- Massive heavy industrialization, especially of the capital-intensive variety
- Total centralization, especially of power and decision-making, with the ordinary citizen, whether farmer or worker or voter, a helpless spectator to the horrors he is witnessing.
- Complete monetization, not only of all goods and services but even of the earth’s eco-systems and basic human values.
- Rampant militarization, both at government and non-government (including terrorist) levels.

But to move away from these trends requires a re-definition of development and success to include the non-material side of life. We at Navadarshanam are trying to do so in our small way. As part of this effort, we are looking into:

• Ways of restoring life to degraded land.

• Ways of growing food items with least amount of watering, tilling, and weeding, and with no chemicals and pesticides.

• Ways of generating energy locally, using sun, gobar gas, charcoal, bio-diesel etc.

• Ways of building homes that use minimum amount of cement and steel and maximum amount of locally available labour and material.

But such a new way of living is feasible only if it is accompanied by a new way of thinking – wherein our goal in life is not producing and consuming more and more, but is related to something deeper and greater. As Gandhi had put it, we need to ‘limit our material wants so that our religious [spiritual] growth can become illimitable’.

Let me end with what J. R. D. Tata said at the function in Bombay after he was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1992: “An American economist has predicted that in the next century India will be an economic superpower. I don't want India to be an economic superpower. I want India to be a happy country”.

Posted by ananthu at 5:58 PM