Articles —


Mahatma Gandhi was a seeker after truth. And, he pursued his seeking within the all-encompassing fold of the sanatana dharma, the timeless discipline, which the Indians believe is inherent in creation. His seeking and the discipline of his pursuit thus place him amongst the great divine personages of Indian tradition, whose life and teachings transcend the constraints of time and space, and remain perpetually relevant for mankind, though especially so for the Indians.

Ordinary Indians began to look upon Mahatma Gandhi as a divine personage as soon as he arrived in India on January 9, 1915, at the age of 45, after having spent long years in South Africa struggling for the preservation of the basic human dignity of Indians there. He spent almost the whole of 1915 visiting different parts of the country and trying to comprehend the condition of India. During these visits he was everywhere given a reverential welcome. On January 17, within eight days of his arrival, he visited Rajkot, in his native Saurashtra, and the people there insisted on pulling his carriage themselves, as they would for a divine personage. During the next few months there were reports from places as far as Ahmedabad, Calcutta, Rangoon and Madras of people unharnessing horses from his carriage and drawing it themselves.1

At all these places he was often addressed as the Mahatma, the great soul, the realised one. It seems the epithet was first used by the people in Saurashtra; soon he was being addressed thus almost everywhere, even in Gurukul Kangri, near Hardwar, the renowned centre of pilgrimage and learning on the banks of Ganga in the north of India.2 While at Hardwar, Mahatma Gandhi, greatly concerned with the condition of India and like a true follower of sanatana dharma, imposed upon himself a high penance. On April 10, he took a vow that while in India, he would not eat more than five things in 24 hours and he would take no meal after sunset. Only water was excluded from the five things, but spices like cardamom and the like were included, and nut and its oil were to be counted as one article.3

Ordinary people who saw Mahatma Gandhi in person were certainly struck by his transparent divinity. But, even those who read deeply into his writings are often left with the distinct impression of having come across some great divine personage of the Indian tradition. Several years ago I had the good fortune of meeting Prof. K. Swaminathan, the self-effacing and industrious professor who spent a large part of his life editing the writings and speeches of Mahatma Gandhi into the monumental collection of his works that runs into a hundred volumes. Reminiscing about this work, Prof. Swaminathan said that while delving into the writings and speeches of the Mahatma, he was often reminded of Hanuman, the vanara god of unmeasured physical strength, who though first amongst the wise, jnaninamagraganyam, yet prided himself in being the unquestioning servant of Sri Rama.4 Later, I happened to visit a temple in Sitamarhi, the birthplace of Sri Sita, and found that the ordinary people of India had the same understanding of the Mahatma as that of the great professor. In the temple hall, opposite the main deity, Sri Rama with Sita and Lakshmana, they had put a statue of Hanuman on one pillar and of Mahatma Gandhi on the other, both of them standing in the posture of a humble devotee and servant, which is so characteristic of Hanuman.

Recalling the name of Sri Hanuman in the context of Mahatma Gandhi seems particularly significant, because like Hanuman, Mahatma Gandhi sought truth as a humble and unquestioningly devoted servant of sanatana dharma. Mahatma Gandhi was not interested merely in the abstractions of sanatana dharma, he was not devoted to jnana, knowledge, alone; he was equally devoted to the preservation and glory of the institutional framework through which sanatana dharma manifests in the Indian society and civilisation. Jagadguru Sankaracharya Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, the revered Paramacharya, who is widely acknowledged to have been amongst the greatest saints of our times, and an unrivalled authority on dharma, noticed this devotion of Mahatma Gandhi to the entirety of sanatana dharma. Reviewing the state of dharma and the efforts to reform it during the British period, the Paramacharya wrote:5

Raja Rammohun Roy, the first in the field [of reform], being the founder of the Brahmo Samaj, saw no virtue in Hinduism other than the monotheistic philosophy of Brahman inculcated in the Upanishads. He condemned as weeds all other aspects of traditional Hinduism including Vedic karmanushthanas, idol worship, varna by birth and avataratatva. His was a time when the Christian missionaries in Bengal, with the nucleus of their educational institutions, the Presidency College, Calcutta, were rapidly weaning away educated Hindus from the religion of their forefathers. At that critical juncture, the Brahmo Samaj did yeoman service to Hinduism by averting the calamity. Yet it had to disown almost all the features of Hinduism that formed the basis of attack by the missionaries of alien faith.

Then came the Arya Samaj founded by Dayananda Saraswati in a somewhat different context. Hindus in north-west India were scattered among the aggressive Moslem majority and any reform there had to proceed on the lines of augmenting their numbers. The Muhammadans too had their ceremonials. But the principal target of their attack on Hinduism was idolatory. So the Arya Samaj was an unconscious improvement upon the previous Brahmo Samaj in as much as it did not disown Vedic rituals or Karma Kanda but laid much stress upon it. They condemned varna by birth, as it stood in the way of augmentation of the Hindu population. They condemned idolatry also as being the most fiercely attacked feature of Hinduism by the Muslims. The main feature of the movement was converting Muslims to Vedic Karma Kanda.

Then came the Ramakrishna Mission headed by Vivekananda. That movement was a further improvement upon the Arya Samaj. It did not discard avataratatva and idolatry as weeds. By that time Hinduism had gained enough strength to withstand the attacks by alien faiths on the important features of traditional Hinduism, that is, avataratva, Idol worship, yoga sastra, mantra sastra, etc. which it did not disown like the other earlier movements. Yet it did not identify completely with traditional Hinduism and passed stray dissenting opinions on some features of it. Varna based on birth was not so clearly accepted by them as by Gandhiji in Young India.

In the meantime the Theosophical Society manned by foreigners, professing Indian faiths, came into the religious arena of India. They were, in practice, at variance with the traditional Hindu religion: they were propagating some ultra-Hindu doctrines through their teachings. For instance, while Hinduism taught that varna based on birth related only to the body, Theosophy held that souls too had by nature some fixed varnas. However, these two movements were in their own way instrumental in stopping the rapid conversion of Hindu students to Christianity in South India.

From the time Gandhiji came into the arena, he augmented his political movements by his spiritual researches and devotion. Almost all the features of Hinduism that were discarded as weeds by the previous reform movements were clearly explained as being of indispensable utility. Even restrictions as regards marriage and dining among hereditary varnas were not disregarded by him. But his times were such that rules of untouchability laid down by our religion were being exploited by the British, the Christian missionaries and the Muslim politicals to serve their own selfish ends. It was in such an atmosphere that Gandhiji condemned it. Barring his views on untouchability, and a few such other points, his views on Ramanama, Ramayana, varna dharma, ahara niyama and the definition of God are such that the most faithful Hindu cannot but profit spiritually by digesting them.

The Parmacharya goes on to quote extensively and approvingly from Gandhiji’s writings in Young India, the paper that Mahatma Gandhi ran from 1919 to 1932, on the fundamental principles of sanatana dharma. We have quoted the Paramacharya at length to give some idea of the atmosphere in which Mahatma Gandhi arrived in India and the immense courage he needed to forcefully assert, at that time, the truth of not only the principles, but also the institutional arrangements of sanatana dharma.

Mahatma Gandhi in his speeches and writings since rather early in his public life had repeatedly attempted to define the basic tenets of sanatana dharma as he saw them. In a series of four lectures delivered in March 1905 at the Masonic Lodge in Johannesburg on the subject, Mahatma Gandhi assessed the contribution of the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj and Theosophy in almost the same terms as presented by the Paramacharya above. Almost echoing the Paramacharya, he said, “today we see few Hindus embracing Christianity in spite of the fact that the Christians are ruling over a vast kingdom. Nevertheless, Christianity has had a very considerable influence on Hinduism. Christian priests imparted education of a high order and pointed out some of the glaring defects in Hinduism, with the result that there arose among the Hindus other great teachers who, like Kabir, began to teach the Hindus what was good in Christianity and appealed to them to remove these defects. To this category belonged Raja Ram Mohan Rai, Devendra Nath Tagore and Keshab Chandra Sen. In Western India we had Dayanand Saraswati. And the numerous reform associations like the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj that have sprung up in India today are doubtless the result of Christian influence.  6

For his definition of the basic tenets of sanatana dharma, we turn to a later article that he wrote following his visit to Madras and other places in south India during the latter half of September 1921. It was during this visit to the heartland of Hindu orthodoxy, that Mahatma Gandhi took upon himself the further penance of wearing only a loincloth to cover his body. In a speech at Madurai on September 22, Mahatma Gandhi took the vow “to discard at least up to the 31st of October my topi and vest and to content myself with only a loincloth and a chaddar whenever found necessary for protection of my body.” 7 The single loincloth became the regular dress of Mahatma Gandhi from then onwards, and thus he came to resemble even more a traditional Indian man of religion and divinity.

During this visit to south India, Mahatma Gandhi repeatedly asserted his claim to being a sanatani Hindu and perhaps meditated much on the meaning of being a follower of sanatana dharma. Immediately following the visit, he wrote an article in the Young India of October 6 defining his conception of a sanatani Hindu. The definition he gave then surpasses his usual succinctness and simplicity of language. He wrote:8

I call myself a sanatani Hindu, because,

1. I believe in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas and all that goes by the name of Hindu scriptures, and therefore in avataras and rebirth,
2. I believe in the varnashrama dharma in a sense in my opinion strictly Vedic but not in its present popular and crude sense,
3. I believe in the protection of the cow in its much larger sense than the popular,
4. I do not disbelieve in idol-worship.

It is this unqualified acceptance of the conceptual basis, the institutional framework and even the behavioural patterns of sanatana Hinduism that is at the core of Mahatma Gandhi’s life and work. It is this acceptance which makes him and his thought perpetually relevant to India. And, since sanatana dharma establishes the ideal form of man’s relation with other created beings and with the universe as a whole, Mahatma Gandhi’s thought remains relevant to all people of the world who seek to live in harmony amongst themselves and with nature.

Having arisen from and been moulded by sanatana dharma, Gandhiji’s thought and work is all encompassing, it covers all aspects of life. In the following we shall take for detailed discussion a few facets which seem especially important today for the world, and particularly so for India.


Like all other aspects of life, the political and social organisation of society in India is supposed to be governed by sanatana dharma. Society in the Indian conception is an organic formation composed of myriad groupings of people that emerge spontaneously around a locality, a profession, a kinship community, or a religious faith. These groupings work according to dharma that inheres in them. The king or the state in this conception is constituted to protect and preserve the dharma of these diverse groupings, to guarantee the harmonious functioning of these organic groupings of the society according to their own inherent laws. The state does not lay down the law; it only protects the law, the dharma, that is inborn to society, that already exits.9 It is the understanding of sanatana dharma that all aspects of creation have their inborn dharma, their inherent harmony and balance; the state that preserves this inborn dharma in all organs of society is what in Indian is known as swaraj.

Mahatma Gandhi while leading the struggle of the Indian people for independence from the British rule repeatedly emphasised that his ultimate aim was not merely the overthrow of alien rule, but the establishment of swaraj in India. Even before finally arriving in India in 1915 to plunge into the national struggle for freedom, he wrote a small but seminal book by the name of Hind Swaraj to set down his conception of swaraj and the means he proposed to employ to achieve it.10 Hind Swaraj was published in 1909 and has been reprinted several times since. Below, we shall have occasion to refer to several of the precepts of this book. But, for giving a glimpse of Mahatma Gandhi’s conception of swaraj, we turn to the beautiful and evocative picture of his dreamed polity of “oceanic circles” that he drew in 1946, when independence for India was just around the corner. Offering a “broad but comprehensive picture of the Independent India of [his] own conception” for the benefit of the Congressmen who “in general certainly [did] not know the kind of independence they want”, he wrote:11

Independence of India should mean independence of the whole of India Independence must mean that of the people of India, not of those who are today ruling over them. The rulers should depend on the will of those who are under their heels. Thus, they have to be the servants of the people, ready to do their will.

Independence must begin at the bottom. Thus, every village will be a republic or panchayat having full powers. It follows, therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world. It will be trained and prepared to perish in the attempt to defend itself against any onslaught from without. Thus, ultimately individual is the unit. This does not exclude dependence on and willing help from neighbours or from the world. It will be free and voluntary play of forces. Such a society is necessarily highly cultured in which every man and woman knows what he or she wants and, what is more, knows that no one should want anything that others cannot have with equal labour.

This society must naturally be based on truth and non-violence which, in my opinion, are not possible without a living belief in God, meaning a self-existent, all-knowing living Force which inheres every other force known to the world and which depends on none and which will live when all other forces may conceivably perish or cease to act. I am unable to account for my life without belief in this all-embracing living Light.

In this structure composed of innumerable villages, there will be ever-widening, never ascending circles. Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom. But it will be an oceanic circle whose centre will be the individual always ready to perish for the village, the latter ready to perish for the circle of villages, till at last the whole becomes one life composed of individuals, never aggressive in their arrogance but ever humble, sharing the majesty of the oceanic circle of which they are integral units.

Therefore the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle but will give strength to all within and derive its own strength from it. I may be taunted with the retort that this is all Utopian and, therefore, not worth a single thought. If Euclid’s point, though incapable of being drawn by human agency, has an imperishable value, my picture has its own for mankind to live. Let India live for this true picture, though never realizable in its completeness. We must have a proper picture of what we want, before we can have something approaching it. If there ever is to be a republic of every village in India, then I claim verity for my picture in which the last is equal to the first or, in other words, no one is the first and none the last.

In this picture every religion has its full and equal place. We are all leaves of a majestic tree whose trunk cannot be shaken off its roots which are deep down in the bowels of the earth. The mightiest wind cannot move it.

Mahatma Gandhi was, as he admits, drawing a deliberately Utopian picture of a society of selfless men deeply seeped in the sanatana principle of seeing divine dignity and therefore equality in all creation. He wanted to place a high ideal before the soon to be independent India. But his vision of an India composed of “the oceanic circles” consisting of the individual and his self-sustained locality at the centre and expanding into ever widening circles to create larger and larger structures that draw their sustenance and legitimacy from the locality is by no means Utopian. There is evidence to show that Indian polity before the arrival of the British was in fact based on locality-republics that coalesced to create and provide for the regional and larger structures of the polity.

We happen to know in some detail about the functioning of about 2000 localities in the late eighteenth century in the region around Madras in south India. This region, referred to as the Jaghire in the early British records and later constituted as the Chengalpattu district, was one of the first parts of the country to come under British subjugation. Before setting up new administrative arrangements in the area, the British tried to investigate the structures that already existed there. The investigations involved an intensive survey of all aspects of life covering almost all localities of the region. The records of the survey, conducted between 1767 to 1774, are available both in the original Tamil accounts written on palm-leafs and in the English summaries prepared for the British administrators in India and their principals in London.12

The polity described in these records is indeed like the “oceanic circles” polity of Mahatma Gandhi’s conception. The localities of the region functioned like autonomous republics that budgeted and provided for the administrative, military, economic, cultural and educational services for the locality and also for the larger polity of the region around it.

The main instrument of political and economic organisation in these localities comprised of an elaborate system of allocating shares in the produce of the locality for a variety of functions and beneficiaries. The survey records list about a hundred distinct services and institutions for which shares were taken out from the produce of different localities, and on an average, each of the localities took out shares for about thirty of these. The beneficiaries of such shares included cultural institutions and functionaries like temples, mathams and chatrams, scholars and teachers, musicians and dancers; economic services like irrigation and measurement of corn; and administrative services like registry and militia. Some of these institutions and services were entirely local; the village temple, or the barber and washerman, functioned for and received shares from a single locality or at most from a neighbouring group of two or three. Others like the great temples, the high scholars, the regional registrars, and the more important of the militia leaders functioned at a level that extended far beyond the locality. Several of these regional institutions and functionaries received shares from hundreds of localities in the region.

The shares that the various institutions and functionaries received were not merely nominal. On the average about 30 percent of the produce of a locality was taken out through such sharing. The shares of different services and institutions were such as would provide for their proper maintenance and upkeep. The arrangement was in fact akin to the budgeting mechanism of a state; through such sharing the locality allocated resources for different functions essential to it, as well as provided for the larger polity of the region around it. The locality within itself was thus indeed the state that arranged and provided for its internal cultural, political, economic and administrative functions. And, at levels of polity beyond itself, the locality was not only the basic constituent unit, but also the constituting authority. By setting aside shares for the trans-locality institutions and services, the localities together provided for and created the larger levels of polity. Such was the polity that had functioned in India from times immemorial. Mahatma Gandhi while presenting his vision of the “oceanic circles” polity in 1946 on the eve of independence was only reminding India of her own practices before the disruption caused by alien rule.

Besides the allocation of shares from the produce of the land discussed above, the Chengalpattu localities also practised another kind of sharing. This consisted in assignment of revenue from parts of the cultivated lands to essentially the same set of institutions and services that received shares in the produce. Such assignments, called manyams, were very common. Almost a quarter of the cultivated lands in the region was classified as manyam lands. But since about one-third of the produce of a locality was already taken out as shares of different institutions and functionaries, the fraction of the produce that the lands paid as revenue could not have been very significant. And therefore, unlike the share in the produce, this share in the revenue was probably of no great economic value to the recipient.

The manyam arrangements, it seems, were constituted to give effect to another important aspect of the polity. To have a share in the right to receive revenue is to share in sovereignty; and sharing of sovereignty amongst many is a cherished ideal of the classical Indian polity based on sanatana dharma. These arrangements of sharing the produce and the revenue in the Chengalpattu polity covered all institutions and all households, except those of the direct producers of wealth – the cultivators, the traders and the weavers. The producers of wealth, and especially the cultivators, of course, provided for themselves and for all others, and thus were sovereign in their own.

Such wide dispersal of sovereignty is natural and essential in a polity constructed on the principle of organic units and groupings functioning according to their inherent dharma. In such a polity every individual, every household, every locality and every other grouping of the people partakes of the sovereignty; every household and grouping has the sovereign right to decide what is right and what is wrong according to its own inborn laws. From this right to discriminate between right and wrong follows the duty to refuse to obey commands that are perceived to be wrong, are against the dharma of the group or household concerned – a duty from which Mahatma Gandhi derived his concept of satyagraha.


The duty and the right of every constituent unit of the society to defend its dharma against illegitimate commands of even a legitimately installed king or state is what Mahatma Gandhi called variously as passive resistance, civil disobedience and satyagraha, insistence on truth. These were the celebrated instruments of political self-assertion that Mahatma Gandhi perfected during his experience in South Africa, and so effectively used to awaken the Indian people and lead them to independence. However, Mahatma Gandhi did not invent these concepts. These followed directly from the conception of swaraj founded in sanatana dharma that India had always cherished and practised.

Mahatma Gandhi insisted that India had always been a nation of passive resisters, and that “the nation at large has generally used passive resistance in all departments of life”. Defining the concept of passive resistance, for which he used the term satyagraha in the original Gujarati, in Hind Swaraj, he wrote:13

The real meaning of the statement that we are a law-abiding nation is that we are passive resisters. When we do not like certain laws, we do not break the heads of the law-givers but we suffer and do not submit to the laws. That we should obey laws whether good or bad is a new-fangled notion. There was no such thing in the former days. The people disregarded those laws they did not like and suffered the penalties for their breach. It is contrary to our manhood if we obey laws repugnant to our conscience. Such teaching is opposed to religion and means slavery. If the Government to ask us to go without any clothing, should we do so If I were a passive resister, I would say to them that I would have nothing to do with their law. But we have so forgotten ourselves and become so compliant that we do not mind any degrading law.

The fact is that, in India, the nation at large has generally used passive resistance in all departments of life. We cease to co-operate with our rulers when they displease us. This is passive resistance.

I remember an instance when, in a small principality, the villagers were offended by some command issued by the prince. The former immediately began vacating the village. The prince became nervous, apologised to his subjects and withdrew the command. Many such instances can be found in India. Real Home Rule is possible only where passive resistance is the guiding force of the people. Any other rule is foreign rule.

Classical Indian texts of polity recommend even stronger means than passive resistance against kings who deviate from dharma. The Mahabharata, in an oft-quoted passage defining the duties of the people against a delinquent king says:14

A king who does not protect the people, who imposes oppressive exactions upon them, who extinguishes the opportunities of livelihood, and who does not lead, such a king is indeed kali. The people should surround and kill such a cruel king. Having given his promise to protect the people, a king who does not protect, he indeed should be killed by the people as a sick and mad dog.

No wonder that the early British observers were surprised to notice that the kings in India often seemed to be afraid of their subjects.15 The kind of strong measures recommended in the above passage of Mahabharata were probably rarely employed. But passive resistance, it seems, remained part of the day-to-day political functioning of the country at least up to early nineteenth century. It was normal for the people to refuse to obey commands that they perceived to be against custom and usage, to organise collective public demonstrations of their unhappiness with such commands, and ultimately to collectively quit the principality where such commands prevailed.

Mahatma Gandhi in the passage from Hind Swaraj quoted above mentions an instance of passive resistance from his personal knowledge. There are records of many such instances that continued to occur sporadically throughout the nineteenth century. There is a particularly well-documented instance of a rather intense civil disobedience action that began in the city of Varanai in the present state of Uttar Pradesh and spread to several towns in Bihar and West Bengal during 1810-11.16

The events concerned the institution of a tax on houses by the British East India Company. The tax was enacted through Regulation XV of October 6, 1810. The first steps to promulgate and implement the Regulation in Varanasi were initiated in the middle of December. By December 25, the Acting Magistrate at Varanasi was reporting that “a very serious situation has been excited among all ranks and descriptions of the city by the promulgation of Regulation XV, 1810. … The people are extremely clamorous; they have shut up their shops, abandoned their usual occupations, and assembled in multitudes with a view to extort from me an immediate compliance with their demands. ” On December 28, the Acting Magistrate was addressing another communication to the Government conveying the urgency of the situation and emphasising the generality and determination of the protest:17

An oath was administered throughout the city, both among the Hindoos and the Mahommedans, enjoining all classes to neglect their respective occupations until I should consent to direct the Collector to remove the assessors and give a positive assurance that the tax should be abolished. It was expected that the outcry and distress occasioned by this general conspiracy would extort from me the concessions they required. The Lohars, the Mistrees, the Jolahirs, the Hujams, the Druzees, the Kahars, the Bearers, every class of workmen engaged unanimously in this conspiracy, and it was carried to such an extent that on the 26th, the dead bodies were actually cast neglected into the Ganges, because the proper people could not be prevailed upon to administer the customary rites. These several classes of people, attended by multitudes of other ranks and descriptions have collected at a place in the vicinity of the city, from whence they declare nothing but force shall remove them, unless I consent to yield the point for which they are contending.

The protest continued for about two months during which thousands of people remained assembled in the open fields, exposing themselves to the harsh north-Indian winter. At the end they withdrew to their houses with a sullen indifference towards an authority that did not understand the time-honoured rules of interaction between the rulers and the people. The people of Varanasi repeatedly tried to make the British administrators aware of these rules. In the final petition they addressed to the Governor-General of the British East India Company on February 7, 1811, they especially emphasised that their protest was in consonance with the “manner and custom in this country from time immemorial” and that such protest in no way constituted a “disturbance”, as the British administrators tended to describe it. Their formulation in this context needs to be quoted in full:18

As a number of persons continued for some time assembled together to complain, Government conceived that there was disturbance, and so it was declared in the proclamation of the 13th of January, 1811. Sire, if an order be passed relating particularly to one individual, and other persons combine to support him, it might in that case be denominated a disturbance. As the introduction of the tax affected every individual of every class, every one presented himself to obtain justice. Thousands of men and women, all the old and infirm, Brahmins, devotees and Pundits, who have no occupation but prayer and penance, abandoned their houses and were among them. None were armed, even with a stick. The manner and custom in this country from time immemorial is this: that, whenever any act affecting every one generally is committed by the Government, the poor, the aged, the infirm, the women all forsake their families and their homes, expose themselves to the inclemency of the seasons and to other kinds of inconveniences, and make known their affliction and distress, that the Government, which is more considerate than our parents, may observe their condition and extend indulgences to its subjects. Besides this, when the Brahmins in general are involved in distress, it is incumbent on all Hindoos to abstain from receiving sustenance, and anyone who presumes to deviate from this custom must incur general opprobrium. If your petitioners, by assembling together in this manner, can be considered to have created a disturbance, it is our misfortune.

The people also insisted that their objection to the tax was not so much against the economic burden imposed by the tax, but against the nature of the tax. They were agitated because they believed that a tax on houses was against the customary law, against dharma as it were, and an encroachment upon their sovereign privileges. In the petition of February 7, 1811, quoted above, they wrote:19

 in the Shera and Sahster, together with the customs of Hindostan houses are reckoned one of the principal necessaries of life, and are not accounted disposable property. Even creditors cannot claim them from us in satisfaction of their dues; and in this country, in the times of Mohamedan and Hindoo princes, houses were never rendered liable to contribution for the service of the state hence it is that under the English Government, in the sale of estates to realize the public revenue, the houses of landholders are exempted.

By this time the British authorities had begun to form some appreciation of the sentiments of the people. The Acting Magistrate in his letter forwarding the final petition of the people to the Government wrote:20

… I feel it my duty, however, to state generally for the information of the Government, what I believe to be the real sentiments of the people. I believe the objection which they entertain against the measure in question is pointed exclusively at the nature and principle of the tax, and not in the least at the rate of assessment by which it will be realised. The inhabitants of this city appear to consider it an innovation, which, according to the laws and usages of the country, they imagine no government has the right to introduce; and that unless they protest against, the tax will be speedily increased, and the principle of it extended so as to affect everything which they call their own. Under the circumstances, I fear, they will not easily reconcile themselves to the measure. To declare the assessment permanently limited to the rate established by the Regulation, would of course be satisfactory to them; yet the general repugnance is to the tax itself, and while the inhabitants at large profess themselves disposed to submit to any tax, however oppressive, if established according to the usage of the country, they appear to think it a hardship to be compelled to contribute a sum, however inconsiderable, in any mode to which they are unaccustomed.

A historian of these events, Heitler, comes to the conclusion that the house-tax was not only perceived as an innovation inconsistent with the custom and usage of the country, it was also seen as an encroachment into the autonomous domain of what he calls the mohalla (urban locality) Government. The mohalla Government, and other locality and caste level organisations of the people, especially the caste panchayats were actively involved in the organisation of the protest. According to an observer of the time, the protest gathering was not a disorderly mob, but a highly organised assembly functioning under the government, as it were, of the diverse inborn organic units of the society, especially the caste panchayats:21

Instead of appearing like a tumultuous and disorderly mob, the vast multitudes came forth in a state of perfect organisation: each caste trade and profession occupied a distinct spot on the ground, and was regulated in all its acts by the orders of its own panchayat, who invariably punished all instances of misconduct or disobedience on the part of its members. The state of things continued for more than a month; and whilst the authority of the British Government was, in a manner, suspended, the influence of the panchayat was sufficient to maintain great order and tranquillity.

The protest was thus not merely a conflict between the people and their rulers, but between state-like organs of the society that were sovereign within their own domains and an alien government that tended to claim exclusive sovereignty in all domains and extinguish all other sovereignties.

We have recounted these events at some length, because these illustrate almost all aspects of the Indian concept of swaraj, constituted of organic groupings of the people functioning according to their own inborn dharma, and partaking of sovereignty that always remains widely dispersed in the society. The events also graphically illustrate the Indian insistence on the right and duty to offer resistance when some organ of the society attempts to violate dharma, encroach upon the sovereignty of others, and thus threaten swaraj. The events are particularly important for showing in such detail and intensity that both the concept and practice of swaraj and satyagraha had remained vibrantly alive amongst the Indian people even as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Mahatma Gandhi’s thought and work is in reviving the memory of swaraj and satyagraha amongst the Indian people, and giving them the courage and organisational strength to begin practising these timeless concepts of Indian polity once again. This also is the aspect of Mahatma Gandhi’s thought and work that remains greatly relevant for India as well as the rest of the world even today.

During the fifty years since Mahatma Gandhi’s departure from this world, the strength and reach of centralised bureaucracies and markets has everywhere increased enormously. With the rapid improvement and spread of the technologies of communication and gathering of information, these centralising institutions today are in a position to intervene and direct all aspects of an individual’s life. Notwithstanding the ritual obeisance being paid to the concept of individual liberty, the individual today is forced to surrender his discrimination, his sense of right and wrong, to the centralising and faceless systems. And, the natural groupings and communities that form the bedrock of an individual’s freedom of discrimination and action are losing all relevance. In this atmosphere individuals and their communities all over the world are more and more going to need the concepts of swaraj and satyagraha to retain and win back some space for the exercise of their sovereign discrimination and autonomous functioning.

This aspect of Mahatma Gandhi’s thought and work is even more relevant for India today. Though India won her freedom from alien rule by offering large-scale satyagraha for achieving swaraj, yet the state that India created after independence had little in common with the ideal of swaraj. It is an irony of history that an independence struggle fought under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi for the re-establishment of the Indian ideal of swaraj, resulted in a constituent assembly that took it to be its task to create a constitution that would eliminate all traces of the traditional Indian ways of functioning from the public life of India. The constituent assembly therefore chose to retain the colonial structures that centralised all discrimination and initiative in the alien institutions of bureaucracy and judiciary, and left no space for the organic groupings of the society.

In India the localities and communities that traditionally shared in sovereignty and formed the basic constituent units of swaraj were more thoroughly emasculated than in almost any other part of the world. Because, for the colonial administration establishment of sovereignty over India meant mainly the subduing, disbanding and dispersing of these constituent units, that claimed shares in sovereignty.

But, local and community level groupings of people, even when not endowed with sovereignty as they were in India prior to the British, are essential for the smooth and effective functioning of any society. Centralised bureaucracies may boast of great discrimination, foresight and authority, but they generally are unable to deliver much at the ground level without the initiative and participation of the local communities. Since in India the localities and communities have been so thoroughly emasculated, Indian society at the ground level seems to have lost all initiative. Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas of swaraj and satyagraha therefore remain as urgently relevant to India today as they were in 1915 when he arrived in India to help her regain her dignity and freedom.

When India recovers her ideal of swaraj and begins to function once again according to the principles that she has followed for ages and that Mahatma Gandhi revived so recently, she shall present an example that the modern world may profitably emulate to free itself of the dehumanising yoke of centralising bureaucracies and markets. This is why Mahatma Gandhi had always believed that freedom for India would open the path of freedom for the world.


In Gandhi Smriti, Birla House, New Delhi and at several other places associated with the memory of Mahatma Gandhi there is displayed a talisman given by Gandhiji to his countrymen. It reads:

I will give you a talisman. 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 whom you have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it Will it restore him to control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?

Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.

This striving to care for the last one, to create a polity that would take into account and provide for the “the poorest and the weakest”, formed the polestar of Mahatma Gandhi’s thought and action. He returned to it again and again, and he was willing to sacrifice almost everything else for this one aim. Swaraj for him meant nothing if it could not ensure that everyone unto the last was fed, clothed and housed in dignity. And, the first task of independent India for him was to quickly provide for the dignified fulfilment of the basic needs of everyone. Speaking to students from Santiniketan in April 7, 1947, barely months before the departure of the British from India, he said:22

In the end I would only say that under swarjya efforts should be made for providing everyone at least with a square meal, enough clothing to cover himself and a house to live in. At present while some have utensils of gold and silver, others have not even pots of clay – some have garments of silk and brocade whereas others have not even enough clothing to cover their nakedness.

Mahatma Gandhi at that time was staying in a Bhangi colony, a habitation of scavengers. Towards the latter part of his life he more and more preferred to live amongst the poorest and the lowest. His insistence on caring for the deprived and the depressed was in some ways similar to the ideas of Tolstoy and Ruskin, and in general to the socialist ideal. But for him such caring was also part of the Indian tradition; it was the essence of Ramarajya, the reign of the ideal king, Sri Rama, which defines the ideal of good times for the Indians. And Ramarajya was, of course, dharmarajya, a reign based securely in the precepts of sanatana dharma.

For Mahatma Gandhi swarajya, dharmarajya and Ramarajya were synonymous. He used the three terms interchangeably, and the essence of all three for him was in securing peace and plenty for all, including the last person. Thus in 1936 we hear him praying that it may be given to the Maharaja of Mysore to approach more and more to Ramarajya in Mysore and emphasising that “in olden days, Ramarajya meant a government in which everyone in the country, including the lowest ryot, had peace and plenty.”23

In defining Ramarajya as the era of peace and plenty for all, Mahatma Gandhi was closely following the classical Indian understanding. At the very beginning of Srimad Valmikiyaramayana, the great epic narrating the story of Sri Rama, Ramarajya is described as the age when:

There is happiness and cheer all around. All are contented. All are well-nourished. All follow dharma. All are in good health. All are without disease. And, all are free from fear and hunger.

Prahrishtamudito lokastushtah pushtah sudharmikah
niramayo hyarogasca durbhikshabhayavarjitah24And to ensure that all partake of such plenty and peace, the king is enjoined to take special care of the poor and the weak. In this context the Mahabharata advises the king thus:Always arrange for the welfare and the livelihood of those who have no resources, those who have no one to look after them, those who are afflicted by old age, and those who have lost their husbands.25Wiping away tears from the faces of the destitute, the orphans and the old, and spreading cheer amongst all this is known as the dharma of the king.26

Taking care of the destitute and the weak, the king in fact becomes the “the strength of the weak and the orphaned, the eyes of those who cannot see and the legs of those who cannot walk.”27 Such is the Ramarajya that Mahatma Gandhi was trying to revive.

While calling upon India to cherish and revive her tradition of caring for all and ensuring dignified plenty and peace for even the poorest and the weakest, Mahatma Gandhi repeatedly emphasised two further aspects of the Indian understanding of Ramarajya. First, that such taking care of the poor and the weak was not the responsibility of the king alone; all resourceful people in the society shared in the responsibility. In the verses quoted above and elsewhere in classical Indian literature, references to the king in such contexts obviously include all grahsthas, all responsible householders. Secondly, such caring for the Indians was not a matter of charity or personal benevolence; it was a matter of dharma, of proper behaviour according to the order of things. In an article in the Navajivan of March 22, 1931, Mahatma Gandhi offered a particularly succinct exposition of these two aspects of his conception of Ramarajya:28

Satyagraha is an attempt to make the possible real. Truth implies justice. A just administration implies an era of truth or swaraj, dharmaraj, Ramarajya or the people’s raj (democracy). Under such a government the ruler would be the protector and friend of his subjects. Between his way of life and that of the poorest of his subjects, there would not be such a gulf as there is today. There would be an appropriate similarity between the king’s palace and the hut of his subject. The difference between the needs of the two would be slight. Both would enjoy pure air and water. The subjects would get sufficient food. The ruler would give up eating fifty-six different kinds of delicacies and be satisfied with only six. If the poor use utensils made of wood or mud, the ruler may well use utensils made of such metals as brass. For the ruler who wants to use utensils of gold and silver must be robbing his subjects. The poor should be able to obtain sufficient clothing. Let the king have more clothes, but let the difference be not such as to cause envy. The children of both should be studying in the same primary school. The ruler should become a senior member of the family of the poor. If he does anything for the good of the poor, he should not regard it as a favour that he has conferred upon them. Benevolence has no place in dharma. It is the dharma of the ruler to serve his subjects. What has been said in regard to the ruler applies to all wealthy persons; likewise it is the dharma of the poor not to bear malice towards the rich. 

Early British records indicate that the kings of India indeed followed the ideal desired by Mahatma Gandhi above. They maintained a lifestyle similar to that of their subjects; their personal expenses were often rather frugal, while they spent liberally on feeding and otherwise caring for the needy.29 However, what is of particular relevance for our present purposes is Gandhiji’s assertion that such caring for the subjects arose not from benevolence, but dharma.

According to the Indian understanding, the universe is a great cycle of give and take between different aspects of creation. Whatever is earned or produced by man is in fact taken from other aspects of creation and it may rightfully be consumed only after returning the shares of all, only after propitiating and fulfilling all other parts of creation. Consuming for oneself without having thus propitiated others is indeed stealing. Brahman, the creator, while initiating this great cycle of the universe enjoins upon human beings to keep it moving through yajna, disciplined action that propitiates and fulfils all aspects of creation. The one who does not keep this cycle of mutual dependence – the dharma chakra, as it is often referred to – moving is a sinner immersed merely in the pleasures of the senses. The living of such a one is a waste.

The imperative of caring and providing for the poor and the weak flows from this essential understanding about the universe. The foregoing paragraph is a free paraphrase of verses 10-16 of the third chapter of Srimadbhagavad Gita, also known simply as the Gita. All classical Indian literature, the vedas, the upanishads, the itihasas and the puranas, present the same understanding of the universe in diverse ways and forms.30 The Gita’s exposition is however probably the simplest. It is therefore not surprising that Mahatma Gandhi used to persistently refer his listeners, and especially young students, to these verses of the Gita. Particularly during his visit to south India in August-September 1927, he took these verses of the Gita as the text of his speeches. During this visit, he spoke in several cities and towns, and almost everywhere he referred to these verses as forming the core of the Gita. Below, we quote from a speech he gave to the students of the Hindu High School at Madras on September 4, 1927:31

Those of you who know Sanskrit should tomorrow, if possible today, buy the Gita – and I understand you can get the book for a very small price – and begin to study the book. Have private Gita classes for yourselves. Those of you who do not know Sanskrit should study Sanskrit only for the sake of the Gita. If you have not got that much facility, then you should read Gita written in English or Tamil, if there is a Tamil translation of it. I tell you that it contains treasures of knowledge of which you have no conception whatsoever. I suggest to you that at first you may begin to read the third chapter of the Gita. You will find there the gospel of selfless work expounded in a most convincing manner. Selfless work there is described characteristically by one beautiful word called yajna. If you will read the book with my eyes you will find charkha also described there. There is one passage which says that “He who eats without serving, without yajna, is a thief (III.12).”

The association of the charkha, the spinning wheel, with the wheel of creation, with the great cycle of mutual give and take described in theses verses of the Gita is indeed interesting. For Gandhiji believed that charkha by empowering the poorest and the weakest of the Indians would restore dharma, would set the cycle of give and take moving again.

It is not a mere coincidence that the Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, whom we have referred to earlier in the first section, reminded the Indians, on the day of Independence, of the same verses of the Gita, the same cycle of creation, that Mahatma Gandhi had made into his mantra for the attainment of swaraj. And the Paramacharya saw the cycle of creation, the Chakra of God, as he called it, reflected in the wheel of Ashoka that is placed in the centre of the Indian flag. In his blessings to the people of India on the 15th August 1947, the Paramacharya said:32

On the occasion of our Bharath attaining Independence, all the people of this ancient land should pray to God with sincerity.  It is praiseworthy that by good fortune our flag bears in its centre the Chakra of God who is himself Dharma incarnate. Also, the Chakra connects us with the tenets of emperor Ashoka known as Devanampriya. It also involves us with the spiritual precepts handed down to us by God Himself in the Bhagavad Gita. As Bhagwan has declared in the sixteenth sloka of the third chapter of the Gita, His words, ‘Evam pravarthitham chakram’, aptly shine today in the form of the wheel. Our independence which begins with the high ideals of emperor Ashoka, may grant us the rare fruits of dharma, wealth, happiness and salvation.  Let us pray to God that our country may prosper, that famine is relieved, that the people may live in harmony

The Ramarajya that Mahatma Gandhi struggled for and wanted to re-establish in India was based on such fundamental understanding of the universe and of the relations between its different aspects. In this understanding, which is also the foundation of sanatana dharma, all have a share in the creation, and all have a responsibility to ensure that no part of creation is deprived of its proper share, that ‘no one is forced to suffer from hunger and disease, or from the extremes of heat and cold’, as Apastamba Dharmasutra puts it.33 The imperative to care and provide for everyone covers within its fold not only all human beings, but also all animals, birds and ants.

Mahatma Gandhi saw in the Indian veneration for the cow a symbolic acceptance of this sanatana imperative to care and provide for all creation. In the article on the discipline of a sanatani Hindu that we have quoted in the first section, he explained the position of the cow in Hinduism thus:34

The central fact of Hinduism however is cow-protection. Cow-protection to me is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution. It takes the human being beyond his species. The cow to me means the entire sub-human world. Man through the cow is enjoined to realize his identity with all that lives. Why the cow was selected for apotheosis is obvious to me. The cow was in India the best companion. She was the giver of plenty. Not only did she give milk, but she also made agriculture possible. The cow is a poem of pity. One reads pity in the gentle animal. She is a mother to millions of Indian mankind. Protection of the cow means protection of the whole dumb creation of God. The ancient seer, whoever he was, began with the cow. The appeal of the lower order of creation is all the more forcible because it is speechless. Cow-protection is the gift of Hinduism to the world. And Hinduism will live so long as there are Hindus to protect the cow.

The establishment of Ramarajya or Dharmarajya, where all – including what Mahatma Gandhi calls the “dumb creation of God” symbolised in the cow – are provided for and all receive their proper share in the universe remains an unfulfilled dream. In the world today, there are large numbers who have to go without sufficient food and clothing, and without a roof over their heads. Even in the materially wealthy parts of the world many are forced to roam the streets, begging for food and shelter and often failing to receive it. According to the Indian understanding such a situation is intolerable. This is the situation of yugakshaya, the end of times. It is only when the current cycle of creation is about to end, when the world has moved far away from the ideal of Ramarajya, that “people are reduced to the selling of food”, and even “those who seek are refused food, water and shelter and are thus seen lying around on the roads”.35

The situation of India in this regard is perhaps worse than that of most other countries of the world. A considerable proportion of the Indian people today fail to get two square meals a day, a majority of the Indian children are malnourished, a preponderant majority of the pregnant women are anaemic. The availability of food per capita in India today is such that for many people death from starvation is barely kept off the door. The situation is almost equally bad in the matter of water, clothing and shelter.

Where men are barely fed animals can hardly fair better. In the land that proudly made the humble cow the symbol of her civilisation, and serving the cow a fundamental precept of her religion, there is today little food available for animals. As the men and children, so do the cows and calves, roam the streets of India in a state of hunger, thirst and sickness.

India has not followed the discipline of caring and providing for all that the sanatana dharma teaches her and that Mahatma Gandhi sought to revive. India in fifty years of her independence has not been able to take the first step towards Ramarajya, that of ensuring an abundance of food for all. This aspect of Mahatma Gandhi’s thought and work therefore remains urgently relevant.

India needs to recall the Talisman that Mahatma Gandhi gave her, begin thinking once again of the poorest and the weakest, and begin organising her polity and economy so as to fulfil the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter for all. India gave the ideal of Ramarajya to the world. It is primarily her responsibility to begin realising the ideal. But, the ideal is relevant for the whole world. When India reverts to the discipline and begins establishing Ramarajya for her people, she shall once again be able to teach the world that peace and plenty for all is the fundamental condition of existence, that the hunger of even one human being or any other creature destroys dharma, and thus the whole world. Therefore, if the world is to be, it must be a world based on the ideal of Ramarajya. Mahatma Gandhi certainly believed thus.


Discussing the question concerning technology and machinery in Hind Swaraj, the little yet exhaustive book that he wrote early in his life, in 1910, and that presents perhaps the most authentic and precise exposition of Mahatma Gandhi’s way of thinking, Mahatma Gandhi wrote:36

It is machinery that has impoverished India. It is difficult to measure the harm that Manchester has done to us. It is because of Manchester that Indian handicraft has all but disappeared.

… …

Machinery has begun to desolate Europe. Ruination is now knocking at the English gates. Machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilisation; it represents a great sin.

The workers in the mills of Bombay have become slaves. The condition of the women working in the mills is shocking. When there were no mills, these women were not starving. If the machinery craze grows in our country, it will become an unhappy land. It may be considered a heresy, but I am bound to say that it were better for us to send money to Manchester and to use flimsy Manchester cloth then to multiply mills in India. By using Manchester cloth we only waste our money; but by reproducing Manchester in India, we shall keep our money at the price of our blood, because our very moral being will be sapped, and I call in support of my statement the very mill-hands as witnesses.

Writing about the railways, the Mahatma used even stronger language:37

It must be manifest to you that, but for the railways, the English could not have such a hold on India as they have. The railways, too, have spread the bubonic plague. Without them the masses could not move from place to place. They are the carriers of plague germs. Formerly, we had natural segregation. Railways have also increased the frequency of famines because, owing to facility of means of locomotion, people sell out their grain and it is sent to the dearest markets. People become careless and so the pressure of famine increases. Railways accentuate the evil nature of man. Bad men fulfil their evil designs with greater rapidity. The holy places of India have become unholy. Formerly, people went to these places with very great difficulty. Generally, therefore, only the real devotees visited such places. Nowadays rogues visit them to practice their roguery.

… …

Good travels at a snail’s pace – it can, therefore, have little to do with the railways. Those who want to do good are not selfish, they are not in a hurry, they know that to impregnate people with good requires a long time. But evil has wings. To build a house takes time. Its destruction takes none. So the railways can become a distributing agency for the evil one only. It may be a debatable matter whether railways spread famines, but it is beyond dispute that they propagate evil.

In the early parts of the twentieth century, the disruption of social and economic life of India caused by the large scale imports of machine made English goods, especially the mill-made cloth, and the spread of railways could be seen all around India. Such disruption and dislocation had begun when the British acquired control of parts of India in the latter half of eighteenth century. The process was however highly accelerated with the arrival of Railways in the 1850’s and consequent opening of the interior markets to the imported goods. The visible and widespread disruption and destitution of India was probably what gave a bitter edge to Mahatma Gandhi’s rejection of industrial scale machinery and technology.

Mahatma Gandhi fashioned his rejection of imported products of industrial machinery into a means of the awakening and emancipation of India. The swadeshi movement, involving boycott of imported machine-made goods, and adoption of goods produced in the neighbourhood – employing the resources, labour and skills of the neighbourhood – became under him a movement of both political protest and economic reconstruction of India.

Mahatma Gandhi’s views on technology and machinery thus had a basis in the political and economic condition of India. But, his rejection of technology and machinery went far beyond the immediate condition of India. It was, as we shall see shortly, anchored much deeper, in the essential understanding of the universe and man’s role and place in it as enshrined in the sanatana dharma. That is why in the passages quoted above, we hear him invoking terms like ‘great sin’, ‘evil’ and ‘unholy’, while referring to machinery and railways. At another place in Hind Swaraj, he formulated the argument in explicitly ethical terms:38

The more we indulge our passions the more unbridled they become. Our ancestors, therefore, set a limit to our indulgences. …It was not that we did not know how to invent 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 kings and their swords were inferior to the sword of ethics, and they, therefore, held the sovereigns of the earth to be inferior to the Rishis and the Fakirs. A nation with a constitution like that is fitter to teach others than to learn from others. This nation had courts, lawyers and doctors, but they were all within bounds. Everybody knew that these professions were not particularly superior; moreover, these vakils and vaids did not rob people; they were considered people’s dependents, not their masters. …

All civilisations other than the modern-West have harboured such ambivalence about technology and machinery, as well as about the men of ‘technological’ professions. They have worried that complex mechanical contraptions might make man go against the grain of nature, might carry him astray from the right path towards evil and ruin. Needham, the modern historian of classical Chinese science and society, quotes, in this context, a passage from a third century B.C. Chinese text, Chuang Tzu. The passage, a representative of similar passages found in several other Chinese texts of diverse periods, reads:39

Tzu-Kung had been wandering in the south in Chhu, and was returning to Chin. As he passed a place north of the Han (river), he saw an old man working in a garden. Having dug his channels, he kept on going down into a well, and returning with water in a large jar. This caused him much expenditure of strength for very small results. Tzu-Kung said to him, ‘There is a contrivance (chieh) by mans of which a hundred plots of ground may be irrigated in one day. Little effort will accomplish much. Would you, Sir, not like to try it?’ The farmer looked up at him and said, ‘How does it work?’ Tzu-Kung said, ‘It is a lever made of wood, heavy behind and light in front. It raises water quickly so that it comes flowing into a ditch gurgling in a steady foaming stream. Its name is the swape (kao).’ The farmer’s face suddenly changed and he laughed, ‘I have heard from my master’, he said, ‘that those who have cunning devices use cunning in their affairs, and that those who use cunning in their affairs have cunning hearts. Such cunning means the loss of pure simplicity. Such a loss leads to restlessness of the spirit, and with such men the Tao will not dwell. I knew all about (the swape), but I would be ashamed to use it.’

Civilisations other than the modern-West were ambivalent not about technological contraptions, they harboured similar ambivalence about what may be called ‘technical’ knowledge, knowledge that seeks to look behind things, to lay bare nature and her workings, as it were. Needham, in the context quoted above, collects several instances of such ambivalence from the Chinese texts. We shall, however, quote a parable of Hosso Buddhism narrated by Yukio Mishima in his Spring Snow. In the novel it is attributed to the Abbess of the Gesshu Temple on the outskirts of Nara:40

“You remember the story is set in Tang China. A man named Yuan Hsaio was on his way to the famous Mount Kaoyu to study the teaching of Buddha. When night fell, he happened to be beside a cemetery, so he lay down to sleep among the burial mounds. Then in the middle of the night he awoke with a terrible thirst. Stretching out his hand, he scooped up some water from a hole by his side. As he dozed off again, he thought to himself that never had water tasted so pure, so fresh and cold. But when morning came, he saw what he had drunk from in the dark. Incredible though it seemed, what had tasted so delicious was water that had collected in a human skull. He retched and was sick. Yet this experience taught something to Yuan Hsaio. He realized that as long as conscious desire is at work, it will permit distinctions to exist. But if one can suppress it, these distinctions dissolve and one can be as content with a skull as with anything else.

“But what interests me is this: once Yuan Hsaio had been thus enlightened, could he drink that water again, secure in the knowledge that it was pure and delicious? ….

The last comment is not by the Abbess, but by Honda, the rationalistic friend of the protagonist of the novel. The Abbess of the Gesshu Temple tells the parable to introduce her listeners to the doctrine of Yuishiki, the doctrine that all existence is based on subjective awareness. But it also is a parable of the ambivalence about knowledge that goes behind the visible reality and reveals the inner working of nature. And that is how Yukio Mishima seems to read it.

The Panchatantra, the Indian treasure-book of niti stories – stories told to teach the ways of the wise – tells a similar story that counterpoises vidya, knowledge of the sastras, or what we have called technical knowledge, against buddhi, the discriminating intellect, the intellect that differentiates between right and wrong. The parable reads thus:41

Once upon a time, there lived, in a city, four Brahmana boys. They were all close friends. Three of them were highly learned in the sastras, but had little discrimination. The fourth was well endowed with buddhi, the discriminating intellect, but had no interest in the sastras.

Once, the four of them decided thus, ‘What use is learning, vidya, if it is not employed to earn riches by travelling to foreign lands and gratifying the kings? Let us therefore travel to the eastern countries to seek wealth.’

Having decided thus, they set out on their journey. When they had gone some distance, the eldest said, ‘Look, the fourth amongst us lacks learning. He has buddhi but no vidya. One can hardly gain favour of the kings with only buddhi and without any vidya. I shall share no part of the wealth that I earn with him. Let him go home.’

The second Brahmana boy agreed with the eldest, and said to the one without learning, ‘O! Subuddhi, the one with the discriminating intellect, you should better go home, since you have no vidya, no learning.’

At this, the third Brahmana boy said, ‘This is not right. We have played together since early childhood. Our fourth friend should accompany us, and receive an equal share in whatever we earn.

‘Because it is said that that wealth is not worth acquiring, which, like the daughter-in-law of a family, is limited to a single person and is not available for the enjoyment of all.

‘It is also said that the small-minded alone keep calculating who belongs amongst them and who is an outsider. For the large hearted the whole world indeed forms their family: ayam nijah paro veti ganana laghuchetasam, udaracharitanantu vasudhaiva kutumbakam.

‘Therefore, let the fourth one amongst us also come along.’

Thus the four of them continued their journey. On the way, in a deep forest, they chanced upon some bones. Seeing these, one of them said, ‘Let us put the learning we have acquired to a test. Here are the bones of some dead creature. Let us bring it back to life by the power of our vidya. I shall begin by putting these bones together.’

Saying thus the first Brahmana boy assembled the bones with great enthusiasm, the second provided the skeleton with flesh and blood and covered it with skin, and the third began to infuse life into it.

Before the creature could be brought to life, Subudhhi, the one with the discriminating intellect but without learning, stopped the third one, saying, ‘Please wait. What you are creating is a lion. If you give it life, it shall kill us all.’

On being thus obstructed in the practice of his vidya, the third Brahmana boy, retorted, ‘Shame upon you! You fool! I shall not let my vidya, my learning, go waste?’

At this Subuddhi said, ‘Then please wait a moment, while I climb a tree.’

As Subuddhi climbed up the tree, the third scholar breathed life into the lion. And the lion immediately killed all the three. Later, Subuddhi climbed down the tree and went home.

That is why it is said that buddhi, the discriminating intellect, is better than vidya, mere technical learning. The learned devoid of the discriminating intellect are destroyed, like the Brahmanas who brought the dead lion to life: varam buddhirna sa vidya vidyaya buddhiruttama, buddhihina vinasyanti yatha te singhakarkah.

Mahatma Gandhi’s rejection of machinery and technology was in continuation with such traditions of scepticism and ambivalence about technological contraptions and technical knowledge. In India this scepticism and ambivalence is rooted in the fundamental understanding of sanatana dharma that this world is a manifestation of Brahman, the creator Himself; and as such it is certainly beyond human comprehension or manipulation. Because, the world is a manifestation of the divine, it has its own autonomous way, its own inborn discipline and harmony. It is the duty of man to try and learn of the ways of the world so as to ensure that his actions do not violate this inherent discipline, the inborn dharma of the world. But it is hardly given to him to comprehend the dharma of the world in its entirety or to presume to change the world to serve his ends. Technological contraptions and technical knowledge smack of just such presumptuousness about knowing the ways of the world and putting the world to the service of man. Hence, the scepticism and ambivalence about such knowledge and contraptions.

This conception of the world as an autonomous entity infused with the divine and thus having its own autonomous and sacrosanct ways has been perhaps most fully worked out in the Indian tradition. The Indians have a special term, rita, for this inborn balance and harmony of the world, for its autonomous ways. But, the Chinese probably have a similar understanding of the world in their concept of li.42 We know less about other great civilisations of the world, but it seems that similar conception of natural harmony and balance beyond the reach of man prevailed in all civilisations other than the modern West.

Scepticism and ambivalence about technological contraptions and technical knowledge arising out of this understanding of the autonomous ways of the world did not mean that these civilisations were devoid of science and technology. On the other hand, India and China are known to have been the most advanced civilisations of the world, in all aspects including science and technology, until the modern times. These two civilisations had, much before the onset of western modernity, accumulated an enormous body of knowledge about the phenomena of health and disease; generated voluminous information about the therapeutic properties of materials and their classification; and comprehended diverse phenomena of nature from the perspective of health and disease. They had intensively studied the phenomena of the skies, understood and evolved rigorous mathematical techniques for comprehending the motion of heavenly bodies, and learned to reckon epoch and time on earth on the basis of such motion. They had rigorously studied the phenomena of language and the problems associated with systematic communication and interpretation. They had evolved highly competent techniques of irrigation. They had studied soils and plants, and learned to practise the most efficient agricultural techniques. They had explored the mineral wealth of the earth, and evolved sophisticated techniques of metallurgy and metalworking. They had also studied and developed to a high level the technologies of spinning, weaving and dyeing; of construction; of manufacturing various kinds of materials; and of numerous other activities that man carries out to live well in the world. Other spatially and temporally less extensive and lesser-known civilisations must have also developed and applied similarly high levels of scientific and technological knowledge; though we happen to know less about them.

However, the sciences and technologies these civilisations practised were qualitatively different from the science and technology of the modern West. Science in these civilisations was carried out not with the urge to control and alter nature, but with the intention to learn of the ways of nature so as to ensure that human actions do not violate her essential balance and harmony. The scepticism and ambivalence that we have discussed above informed their practise of science and technology at a fundamental level. Their sciences had an attitude of humility. They believed that truth always resided in the world in all its complexity, and their theories were mere devices to help man comprehend the world to order his life such as not to violate its inherent truth. Their technological interventions were marked by a strong sense of restraint. They were intended to make man follow the way of nature, rather than transcend it.43

Science and technology that has arisen from the modern Western civilisation is the product of an attitude that looks upon nature as an adversary, whose secrets man must unravel in order to control and conquer it. This attitude of carrying out an adversarial questioning of nature has indeed led to spectacular results, especially during the last one hundred years or so. Man’s ability to intervene in the phenomena of nature and to put nature at his service has advanced enormously. But, this scientific and technological capability has also given rise to an urgent fear of human intervention causing irrevocable disruption of the balance and harmony of various aspects of nature and irreversible erosion of natural capabilities to sustain and support socially and biologically diverse forms of life on earth. There is now in the world a deep sense of concern about the sustainability of the human enterprise based on modern science and technology.

To address such concerns meaningfully, man shall have to recover the scepticism and ambivalence about technological contraptions and technical knowledge that formed part of the traditions of civilisations other than the modern West, and that Mahatma Gandhi revived in India so forcefully. Man shall have to learn once again to approach the world with a sense of respect for its inborn autonomous ways. And, he shall have to once again acquire the humility in his theories and restraint in his practice that comes naturally from such respectful attitude towards the world.

Mahatma Gandhi’s life and thought can be of immense help in helping man recover respect for the sanctity of the world, humility towards human knowledge and restraint in human action. And, the need for recovering such respect, humility and restraint is certainly more urgent today than it was during the times when Mahatma Gandhi lived.

We have discussed several aspects of Mahatma Gandhi’s thought and action, and indicated how these remain relevant in the modern times. All these aspects of his thought, as we have tried to emphasise, arise from the anchorage Mahatma Gandhi had in the sanatana dharma. In sanatana dharma, India has been taught the truth about Brahman’s creation and the way of living properly in this world that is not only imbued with divinity but is in fact a manifestation of the divine. Mahatma Gandhi arrived in India at a time when India had lost faith in this fundamental truth of her heritage and forgotten herself. He restored the faith of India in sanatana dharma and brought her back to the right path. And India, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, not only recovered hope for herself; she became a source of hope for the rest of the world. After Mahatma Gandhi, India has once again strayed from the path. It is primarily for India and Indians now to be true to the Mahatma, to recover their faith and return to the path of sanatana dharma. By being thus true to herself, India shall also be true to the world and fulfil her destined role. This is the lesson that Mahatma Gandhi has taught India. And, his lesson remains perpetually relevant.

J. K. Bajaj
Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai
June 2000


1 See, Gandhi 1915-1948, A Detailed Chronology, Compiled by C. D. Dalal, Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi, 1971. Also, see, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 13, The Publications Division, Government of India, New Delhi. These have been published in a hundred volumes, the first of which appeared in 1958 and the last in 1994.

2 See, Dharampal, Bharatiya Chitta Manas and Kala, tr. By J. K. Bajaj, Centre for Policy Studies, Madras, 1993; p.14.

3 Gandhi 1915-1948, A Detailed Chronology, cited above.

4 Professor Swaminathan in the Santhanam Memorial Lecture delivered at Madras on 23.8.1984 attributed this insight to Ramana Maharshi, who had once commented: “They say that Hanuman is chiranjeevi (immortal). It does not mean that a certain monkey goes on living for ever and ever. It means that there will always be on earth someone who serves Rama as your Gandhi does now.”

5 Bhavan’s Journal, June 3, 1956; reprinted Vol. XXI, No.16, March 2, 1975, p.45-48.

6 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, cited above, Vol. 4, p.408.

7 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, cited above, Vol. 21, p.181.

8 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, cited above, Vol. 21, p.246.

9 For a more detailed discussion of the Indian conception of the state and society, see, J. K. Bajaj, “Society Has Its Reasons Too”, in J. K. Bajaj (ed.), Ayodhya and the Future India, Centre for Policy Studies, Madras, 1993; especially p.15-20. Also, see, S. Gurumurthy, “The Inclusive and the Exclusive”, in the same book, p.150-180. For a revealing analysis of the “natural law” as it prevailed in the classical Chinese society as against the “positive human law” of the West, see, Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. 2, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p.518-583.

10 M. K. Gandhi, “Hind Swaraj”, in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, cited above, Vol. 10, p.6-68.

11 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, cited above, Vol. 85, p.32-33.

12 Discussion below about the eighteenth century polity of Chengalpattu is based on work in progress at the Centre for Policy Studies, Madras. Summary records of the survey in English are available in the Tamilnadu State Archives at Madras, and the original accounts in Tamil are lodged in the Department of Palmleaf Manuscripts, Tamil University, Thanjavur. A preliminary compilation and analysis of the data may be seen in J. K. Bajaj and M. D. Srinivas, “Indian Economy and Polity in the Eighteenth Century, The Chengalpattu Survey: 1767-74” in Indian Economy and Polity, Centre for Policy Studies, Madras, 1995, p.63-84.

13 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, cited above, Vol. 10, p.49,51

14 Mahabharata, Anushasana Parva, 61.32-33. The translation here is from J. K. Bajaj and M. D. Srinivas, Annam Bahu Kurvita: Recollecting the Indian Discipline of Growing and Sharing Food in Plenty, Centre for Policy Studies, Madras, 1996, p.130. See the chapter “Provider of the Unprovided”, p.106-130, for a detailed exposition of the classical Indian position on the role and place of the king.

15 James Mill, Evidence to the House of Commons Committee, House of Commons Papers, 1831-32, Vol. XIV, p.6-7.

16 See, Dharampal, Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition, Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan, Varanasi, 1971. Also, see, Richard Heitler, The Varanasi House Tax Hartal of 1810-11, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 1971, p.239-257. The former reproduces original documents concerning the events in Varanasi and other towns.

17 Quoted from Dharapal, 1971, cited above, p.6.

18 Quoted from Richard Heitler, 1971, cited above, p.249-250. This petition is not found in the collection of original documents in Dharampal, 1971, cited above, though extracts from the petition are quoted in the Introduction, see, p.XXXII.

19 Quoted from Richard Heitler, 1971, cited above, p.253.

20 Quoted from Dharapal, 1971, cited above, p.37.

21 The testimony of Erskine in Selections of Papers from the Records of the East India House Relative to the Revenue, Police, Civil and Criminal Justice, Under the Company’s Government of India, Vol. II, p. 89. Quoted from Heitler, 1971, cited above, p.246.

22 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, cited above, Vol. 87, p.230.

23 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, cited above, Vol. 62, p.468.

24 Srimadavalmikiya Ramayana, Balakanda, I.90.

25 Mahabharata, Santi Parva, 86.24.

26 Mahabharata, Santi Parva, 91.38.

27 Padma Purana, 1.37.88.

28 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, cited above, Vol. 45, p.328. (Emphasis added).

29 See, Dharampal, Some Aspects of Earlier Indian Society and Polity and Their Relevance to the Present, New Quest, Pune, n.d., p.28-29. Also, see, J. K. Bajaj and M. D. Srinivas, Annam Bahu Kurvita, cited earlier, p.181-185 and p.195.

30 For a detailed exegesis of Indian classical literature on the imperative of sharing and caring for others, see, J. K. Bajaj and M. D. Srinivas, Annam Bahu Kurvita, Madras 1996, cited above. The Sanskrit verses and their translations in this section follow the rendering there.

31 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, cited above, Vol. 34, p.458.

32 The Sage of Kanchi, Madras 1991, p.143-44.

33 Apastamba Dharmasutra, 2.25.11.

34 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, cited above, Vol. 21, p.248.

35 Mahabharata, Vanaparva, 83-84.

36 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, cited above, Vol. 10, p.57-58.

37 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, cited above, Vol. 10, p.26-27.

38 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, cited above, Vol. 10, p.37-38.

39 Quoted from Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. 2, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p. 124.

40 Yukio Mishima, Spring Snow, translated from the Japanese by Micahel Gallagher, Pocket Books, New York, 1973, p.27-28.

41 Panchatantra, edited with Hindi translation by Sudhakar Malaviya, Chowkhamba, Varanasi, 1993, p.734-737. English translation by the author.

42 For an exposition of the concept of li, see, Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. 2, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, chapter 18, especially, p.557-562.

43 For a somewhat more detailed analysis of these issue, see, J. K. Bajaj, “Francis Bacon, the First Philosopher of Modern Science: A Non-Western View” in Ashis Nandy (Ed.), Science, Hegemony and Violence: A Requiem for Modernity, United Nations University, Tokyo, 1988, reprint, Oxford India Paperback, 1990, p.24-67.