Gandhi at 150: He believed in natural self-rule

Gandhi spoke of Sarvodaya, which refers not to “the greatest good of the greatest number”, but to the awakening and well-being of one and all

By Aseem Shrivastava
Last Updated: Tuesday 01 October 2019
Gandhi and Rabindranath understood that freedom is spiritual and ecological potential of humanity. Illustration: Tarique Aziz

Suppose we went to a farmer’s home and took over his field, after duly locking him up in his home-stead. We are powerful. He is powerless. We may imagine ourselves to be free, as for instance, powerful nations do in the modern world. But is domination the same as freedom? Is either side, in truth, free? Would we not worry as to what the farmer might do to us, once he breaks free of his bonds?

The farmer has lost his physical liberty and we have lost our psychological one. Freedom is lost on all sides because of the central fact of domination. Freedom, in contrast to liberty, reveals itself to be a singularly additive phenomenon. My power may come at the expense of your power. My freedom unequivocally does not. It grows with your freedom.

Rabindranath Tagore grasped this idea with consummate ease. In a poorly-read series of lectures called Sadhana, Rabindranath writes that just as “the mother reveals herself in the service of her children, so our true freedom is not the freedom from action but freedom in action, which can only be attained in the work of love.”

Democracies surely have nothing to do with love in public matters—one reason among several why it is hazardous to translate swaraj as “democracy”. In this connection, it is worth remembering that in Hind Swaraj, Gandhi mothballs parliaments as “emblems of slavery”.

This brings us to the spiritual essence of swaraj. On the face of it, swaraj is understood in individual terms as sovereignty over oneself. In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi envisages swaraj as “self-rule”. However, both Gandhi and Rabindranath are clear that such self-rule is not crudely reducible to the struggle for national liberation that constituted anti-colonial movements like the Indian freedom struggle.

Much more than the mere overthrow of imperial power is involved. Self-rule is a political and psychological byproduct of the spiritual practice of selfless service to the community. Gandhi spoke of Sarvodaya which refers not to “the greatest good of the greatest number”, but to the awakening and well-being of one and all.

Gandhi and Rabindranath are unique in having both understood that freedom is, at once, a spiritual and an ecological potential of humanity, unlike liberty which is a political phenomenon.

In this, their thought is to be seen as a universe apart from modern notions of freedom in which nature plays no part whatsoever, except as a helpless bystander in the stormy political dramas of humanity.

Rabindranath emphasises that the proximate presence of the natural world is essential to the realisation of the possibility of human freedom. If this fact is set aside, the structural ecological alienation which undergirds global modernity will predictably precipitate conditions which will rob humanity of any freedom.

Gandhi’s primary objection was less to British rule in India than to the relentless juggernaut of modernity that colonialism had ushered in India.

“India is being ground down,” he wrote in Hind Swaraj, “not under the English heel, but under that of modern civilisation. It is groaning under the monster’s terrible weight. There is yet time to escape it, but every day makes it more and more difficult.” Gandhi warned about the future possibility of “English rule without the Englishman”. “It would be folly to assume that an Indian Rockefeller would be better than the American Rockefeller.

Impoverished India can become free, but it will be hard for any India made rich through immorality to regain its freedom… Money renders a man helpless.” Such seemingly counter-intuitive wisdom goes entirely contrary to the forces guiding our world today, when what one might think of as “American rule without the Americans” is almost a global norm.

It is a restless world in which corpocracy (the corporate totalitarianism of surveillance capitalism) wears the mask of democracy, of which little is left beyond the competing mobs of bullies and sycophants, drooling over auctioned offices. All this makes the lives and thought of Gandhi and Rabindranath more relevant today than ever before.

It is the fusion of their visions with which we may begin to draw the early outlines of Prakritik Swaraj (natural self-rule), which may prove to be a survival ecological imperative, not just for India but for all humanity.

The author is with Ashoka University, New Delhi

This article is part of Down To Earth's print edition dated October 1-15, 2019

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