Human civilization seems to have reached its peak in the 21st century- all impossibilities of previous centuries are becoming possibilities day by day. In this era of science and technology, we can remain updated about the recent happenings of the world through our smartphones, can listen to the Prime Minister’s address and also can interact with him. We can travel overseas in a single day, more food grains can be produced through hybridization, and even a mother can expect a baby without sexual intercourse.
In the same era of technology, when the human community is busy in planning to develop human civilization on Mars; in India, thousands of migrant workers walked thousands of miles to reach their homes; died on their way; got run over by a train; and a mother even delivered a baby on the roadside, took a one hour rest and began to walk again. Is this a civilization?
What is the main reason behind this problem? While reading ‘Hind Swaraj’ of the Mahatma amid the lockdown, these questions came to my mind.
Mahatma Gandhi was critical to the ‘modern’ civilization, education, railways, doctors, lawyers etc. In his manifesto ‘Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule’, Gandhi argued that machinery represents a great sin (Chapter-19). The modern civilization, in spite of its possibilities, creates more harm to the human community. Although his views regarding machinery had changed between 1919 to 1947 because of the positive aspects like time and labour saving, he also warned against the negative aspects of it [Anthony J Parel as cited in Rudolf C Heredia. (1999). Economic and Political Weekly.34(24)].
Standing at a place immersed in science and technology, we cannot say ‘no’ to machinery, but the role of machinery in the human community, as well as nature, should be examined. Our earth is going through a critical situation, the level of pollution is increasing, the ozone layer is depleting, bonfires rushed Amazon and Australia, and presently a virus named Covid-19 has affected millions of people.
Is our modern civilization not responsible for it? According to Gandhiji, the root of all problems related to modern civilization is the absence of morality and religion (Hind Swaraj, Chapter- 6). Without the knowledge of morality, the same instrument that may be used to cure a patient may be used to kill him. ‘Modern’ education (i.e. the western kind of education) neither teaches us morality nor gives importance to character building.
Gandhi mentioned about the seven deadly sins among which pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality and science without humanity are also described as dangerous.
The issues of conscience, character, morality or humanity are debatable, but there are some eternal principles of life that are accepted universally and suggested by all religious scriptures to perform as human beings, like – service to others, respect others as himself, harmony with nature, use of conscience, purification of the evil practices etc. Does the modern education system teach us these principles?
In this period of lockdown, all are in a hurry to end their syllabus rather than helping the needy people; and most importantly, there is a lack of introspection regarding the reasons behind these disasters. Institutions are moving towards an online mode of classes neglecting the poor people’s ability to afford it (interestingly, they are the majority), resulting in vehement injustice towards the Right to Education of the majority. How to then observe morality?
Can the observance of morality protect the world from ascertained destruction? Gandhi suggested that by attainment of mastery over our mind and our passions, morality can be observed. We have to limit our satisfaction and indulgences. People should ethically judge their aspirations and interests. Duty is intimately linked with morality. By performing duty only, we can achieve true civilization.
For Gandhi, “civilization is that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty. Performance of duty and observance of morality are convertible terms.” (Hind Swaraj, Chapter- 13). Are we performing our duties for the benefit of the greater human community and for the sustenance of nature? Are we performing our duties towards the mother Earth? We should avoid such works which would cause greater harm to the human community as well as nature, though these may be seen as steps towards modernity in near future.
People have to fight with the sword of ethics in the war of saving our Mother Earth. The destruction caused by Covid-19 urges human community to reform the so-called ‘civilization’. Gandhian ideas can be a pathway in this regard. Professor Gita Dharampal in an article published in ‘The Indian Express’ (April 20, 2020) urged the Gandhian principles of Swadeshi, Swachhata and Sarvodaya as our guidelines.
The government of India is campaigning the Swachh Bharat Mission to make people aware about health and hygiene. In this critical situation also, only maintenance of hygiene can save us. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the nation on May 12, urged the people to move towards ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ (self-sufficient India) which can be related to Swadeshi of Gandhi. In this model, will the Indian people and the small and cottage industries get their prominent place as dreamt by Gandhi?
To achieve the goal of self-reliant India, Gram Swaraj should be a model. What would the position of Sarvodaya (progress of all) be in Atmanirbhar Bharat that also should be noticed in future? Leaders have to keep in mind the ‘talisman‘ of ‘Gandhi which aims at the benefit of the poorest and the weakest.
Gandhi’s talisman urges the people, “Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man (woman) whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him (her)….. In other words, will it lead to swaraj (freedom) for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?.”
Most of all, understanding the meaning of swaraj explained by Gandhi will eternally benefit the human community. Swaraj has two interrelated meanings- self-rule and self-government. Without self-rule, self-government cannot become a success. So, we should learn to rule ourselves. We should not repeat the ‘vices’ we did in the past. We should do our duties in a broader sense which include not only our day to day needs and selfish interests but also the needs and demands of the world and the larger environment. Self-rule would thus mean mastery over ourselves, not over nature and other human beings.