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KHADI : Gandhian Critique of Modernity

Prof. Vinay Kumar Kantha

In his dress and demeanour Gandhi almost belongs to the ascetic tradition of the East. Not only in his choice of such and image, but in the essential making of his philosophy and politics, he took recourse to an innovative set of words and symbols. In deed as a mass leader he had an uncanny knack for creating and using symbols and like most popular symbols, In deed as a mass leader he had an uncanny knack for creating and using symbols, Khadi has a complex and different appellation. Gandhi sought to convey multiple messages through Khadi, arguable the focal one among them was a critique of modernity. Khadi was apt symbol of long Indian tradition on the one hand and a critique of modern western Civilization on the other hand. In relation to three important concepts, which form the very core of modernity in India again Khadi, has been used as a critique. These three concepts are nationalism, industrialism and western education.

“Khadi and Indian Tradition,” Indians have not only been weavers, but even exporters of cotton fabric since time immemorial. Historians have found clear evidence of Harappans supplying cotton textiles to Sumerians around four millennia back in the past. In the more recent history, British themselves imported huge quantities of clothes from India, before they introduced a colonial pattern of made. At the time of arrival of the British in India, next to cultivation weaving was the commonest economic exploitation by the British themselves imported huge quantities of clothes form India, before they introduced a colonial pattern of made. At the time of arrival of the British in India, next to cultivation weaving was the activity in the Indian country side. The saga of the economic exploitation British is replete with reference to the decline of cotton weavers. That the theme of hand –woven fabric, that is, Khadi was brought up and invested with new meaning by Gandhi was nothing but natural. In fact weaving has been a common metaphor, even in the spiritual discourse of many saints and philosophers, the most notable among than was Kabir, himself a weaver. His poetry is replete with reference to warp and woof or the mechanism of weaving. One of his many oft quoted songs is “Jheeni, Jheeni rebeenee chadria “Kabir expresses the spiritual endeavour of man through the metaphor of weaving. While not exactly forsaking the spiritual content, Gandhi reinvented the mundane human endeavor, no less complex through. Innumerable songs were composed during the years of freedom struggle or afterwards how Gandhi will or did drive out the British with the help of his charka. It became symbol of freedom struggle. “Livery of freedom” as Nehru described Khadi which was however also a means of economic regeneration of the village and much more. Gandhi declared, “My Swadeshi chiefly centers around the hand – spun Khadar and extends to every thing that can be and is produced in India.

(Collected works, XXVI_279)

Khadi As a critique of Modern Civilization

Many o f us recall with relish the famous remark of Gandhi on western civilization being yet ‘a good idea’ He in deed had a deep suspicion of the material progress in the west and further, of the whole concept of modernity’. He identified the real enemy of the Indian people not as the British themselves but as their modern civilization. In the preface to the English edition of his seminal work Hindi civilization, which is the Kingdom of God. The one is the God of War, the other is the God of War, My countrymen, therefore believe that they should adopt modern civilization to drive out the English. Hind Swaraj has been written in order to show that they are following a suicide policy, and that, if they would but revert to their own glorious civilization either the English would adopt the latter and become Indianized or find their occupation in India gone.

(CW X: p 189).


Khadi was reversion to that ‘glorious civilization’ as “The sun of the village solar system”.

(Mahatma Tendulkar 4-4)


Among the borrowings from the modern west, uncritically accepted by the western educated intelligentsia, two crucial ones are the idea of nation state and modern industrialization. Gandhi had a different concept of both. Further down, he rejected the very system of education that made educated Indians modern.

Nationalism with a Difference:

In his interesting book the illegitimacy of Nationalism’. Ashis Nandy compares Tagore and Gandhi respect of their position on nationalism in the following words:

“Both recognized the need for a ‘national’ ideology of India as a means of cultural survival and both recognized that, for the same reason, India would either have to make a break with the post-medieval western concept of nationalism or give the concept a new ‘content’. As a result of Tagore, nationalism.” (Italics mine) (p.2) Interestingly, Tagore who was no great votary of Khadi though, used it as metaphor in an article on Nationalism written in 1917:

“Before the nation came to rule over us (under British colonial rule) we had other government which were foreign, and these like all government, had some elements of ‘the machine in them. But he difference between them and the government by the Nation is like the difference between the handloom and the powerloom. In the products of the hand- loom the magic of man’s living fingers finds its expression, and its hum harmonizes with the music of life. But the power- loom is relentlessly lifeless and accurate and monotonous in its production.

While Tagore’s critique has a poetic flavour and a streak of romanticism. Gandhi’s critique as well as proposed alternatives is more robust and real, albert, idealistic. Gandhi asserted that “violent nationalism, otherwise known as imperialism, is the curse, non-violent nationalism is a necessary condition of corporate or civilized life”.

(CW-XXV-p.369)


He saw Indian freedom movement as ‘India’s contribution to peace.” Gandhi defined his version of nationalism in terms of Swadeshi and Swaraj. He declared that his ‘Swaraj is to keep intact the genius of our civilization.

(MM-32)


This is extended to include the principles of love and ‘freedom for the meanest of the countrymen’ on the other. Both of these ere linked with the cause of Khadi, which was part of our long tradition as also the need of the poor.

He exhorted his fellow beings to spin and weave Khadi. “I would ask you to come in Khadi, for Khadi links you with the fallen and the down trodden.” Khadi epitomized the noble spirit of truthfulness and purity He averred that ‘Khadi had been conceived as the foundation and the image of ahimsa, Areal Khadi wearer will not utter an untruth. A real Khadi-wearer will harbour no violence, no deceit, no impurity.

(T-4-217)


Against mechanistic and aggressive concept of nationalism in the west, Gandhi proposed a concept of People’s Swaraj based on truth and non- violence for which Khadi was an apt symbol. Moreover, this symbol also linked the concept of Swaraj with the concern for the poor- the last man and village, the supported bastion of backwardness. Prior Gandhi, the nationalist leaders had acquiesced in by an large to a western concept of nationalism; Gandhi not only critiqued that but provided an alternative concept, more deeply rooted in the tradition and encompassing all Indians, rich and poor alike, He gave a moral perspective to the national movement for which a set of new symbols were created by him, Khadi Ramraj, and Satyagraha he was designing a new framework of ideology more appropriate for the teeming millions of India, eighty five percent of them residing in the country side. His critique was not merely, an alternative ideology, it was a plan of mass action that he visualized was again not merely a political programme but a social and economic agenda, to quote one of his sentences: “Khadi service, village service and the Harijans service are one in reality, thought three in name".

(T-4-7)

An Alternative Frame Work of Economics :

True economics, according to Gandhi, ‘never militates against the highest ethical standard, just as all true ethics to be worth its name must at the same time be also good economics’.

(Harijan 1.10.37)


He was critical of pursuit of materialism which was the characteristic of the advancement of the west. He was generally opposed to machines and centralization of production and favored on the contrary a life of labour for everyone in the society, succinctly contained in his concept of bread labour. He believed in the ideal of economic self- sufficiency of the villages. He describes his idea of an ideal socio- economic order in the following words:

“Independence must begin at the bottom, Thus every village will be a republic or Panchayat having full powers.

In this structure composed of innumerable village there will be ever widening, never ascending circles. Life will not be pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom. But it will be an oceanic circles whose centre will be 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 parts.

In this there is no room for machines that would displace human labour and that would concentrate power in a few hands. Labour has a unique place in a cultural human family. Every machine that helps every individual has a place.

Khadi is evidently the centre piece of the strategy for such an economic utopia. It not only means compulsion of labour through spinning but a very decentralized mode of production contributing to the possibility of a self-sufficient rural economy. It is both a value system in it self and defines an alternative framework of economy. He writes clearly that ‘Khadi mentality means decentralization of the production and distribution of the production and distribution of the necessaries of life’.

(Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, 1968)


In this years of with – drawal from active politics from 1924, Gandhi devoted himself to the propagation of Khadi turning it into a cult, as a strategy of nation building ‘from the bottom up’ He suggested a ‘Khadi franchise’ for the organization and even ‘envisaged a ‘yarn currency’.

(B. R. Nanda, Mahatma Gandhi p.148)


B. R. Nanda comments ‘that Gandh’s almost emotional attachment to the spinning wheel should have baffled both the British and Western educated town – bred Indians, educated town-bred Indians, is not surprising’ for ‘they were both unable, the former form lack of will, the latter from lack of ignorance, to grasp the incredible poverty of Indian village. Even Tagore, otherwise an admirer of Mahatma ,feared that spinning wheel that spinning wheel and the economic stagnation it implied will cause a ‘death – like sameness in the country.’ Gandhi reply was loud and clear:

“I didn’t want the poet to forsake his music, the farmer his plough, the lawyer his brief, and the doctor his lancet. They are to spin only thirty minutes every day as sacrifice. I have every day as sacrifice. I have in deed asked the famishing man and woman, who is idle for work whatsoever to spin for a living and the half-starved farmer to spin during his income.”

Gandhi’s appeal surely had a moral ground and further he would make spinning wheel the centre of his scheme of rural reconstruction building up anti-malaria campaigns, improvement in sanitation, settlement of village disputes, conservation and breeding of cattle and hundred of other beneficent activities required for the resuscitation o f the village. He proposed that ‘Khadi is the sun of the village solar system.’

It is well-known that Ruskin’s book Unto This Last had and indelible imprint on his mind. Behind the whole Khadi campaign, it was this last man who was always in Gandhi’s mind. On the other side, he opposed the tendency of ever increasing consumption and multiplication of wants. The self-abnegation and asceticism of Gandhi’s economic prescription has often been criticized as too idealistic and taken to the extremes Even if it is true, now environmentalists are veering round to almost a similar position. Excessive consumption may not be sustainable and may result in depletion of the limited resources on the earth. Sidestepping this debate, it may benoted that the Khadi – centered scheme for rural development was typical of Gandhian economic framework, rather, its core principal.

Not with standing misgivings about the feasibility of his economic ideas, in the first ten years of it s existence the. The all India Spinners Association had extended it activities to 5300 villages and provided employment to 220,000 spinners 20,000 weavers and 20,000 carders and disbursed more than two crores of rupees in Indian villages. Gandhi, of course, knew the limitations of his efforts in the context of the magnitude of the problem. He decided to settle in a village, named, Segaon near Wardha, which was later renamed as Sevagram. Soon Sevagram became a centre of Gandhian Scheme of village welfare and several institution All Indian Village Industries welfare and several institutions started there including All Indian Village Industries. The Association set up a school for training village workers and published it own periodical, Gram Udyog patrika. Hindustani Talimi Sangh was the other institution which experimented on Gandhi’s ideas of education. Basic Education as Critique of Modernity.

Education was arguably the most important arena for the introduction of modernity in India. Designed as it was by the colonial masters, besides remaining generally divorced from India tradition, it was also oblivious to the needs and problems of the teeming millions in the countryside. Gandhi’s basic education scheme was primarily a system of rural education and handicraft constituted the medium of instruction. Spinning and weaving was again Gandhi’s preference among the crafts and so his entire pedagogy and educational philosophy was intermeshed with his khadi based approach to life.

From his earliest days in Indian public life Gandhi was critical of the Western system of education for much of what it stood for in his opinion. A sample of his critique can be read below:

“The system of education at present in vogue is wholly unsuited to India’s needs, is a bad copy of the Western model and it has by reason of the medium of instruction being a foreign language sapped the energy of the youths who had passed through our schools and colleges and has produced an army of clerks and office-seekers. It has dried up all originality, impoverished the vernaculars and has deprived the masses of the benefit of higher knowledge which would otherwise have percolated through the intercourse of the education classes with them. The system has resulted in creating a gulf between educated India and the masses. It has stimulated the brain but starved the spirit for want o f a religious basis for education and emaciated the body for want of training in handicrafts. It has criminally neglected the greatest need of agricultural training worth the name….”

Judith Brown has rightly observed, it is difficult to appreciate quite how radical and abrasive Gandhi would have sounded to educated Indians as he castigated their educational training and their values and told them they were traitors to their mother land by being willing ‘victims’ of the current system’ (1989, 107). Despite their opposition to British rule, most their nationalists did not reject the British rule, most other nationalists did not reject the British system of education outright, since they viewed it as a means by which India could became a materially advance nation. But form the beginning of his career Gandhi thought differently.

Alongside Champaran Satyagraha, his earliest foray into local politics, he launched his experiment in education. In November 1917 the first school was opened in Barharwa just a week after. The experiment grew mature and eventually in 1937 after Wardha Conference fully developed was announced, although system was announced although it was indeed a modified version of Gandhi’s won scheme of education. Even in June 1921, writing in Young India he had outlined his views with a great deal of clarity:

“I can see nothing wrong in the children, from the very threshold of their education, paying for it in work. The simplest handicraft, suitable for all, required for the whole of India undoubtedly spinning along with the previous processes. If we introduced this in our educational institutions, we should fulfill three purposes. If we introduced this in our educational institutions, we should fulfill three purpose: make education self – supporting, train the bodies of the children as well as their minds and pave the way for a complete boycott of foreign yarn and cloth. Moreover, the children thus equipped will become self-reliant and independent.

(CW 20:20)


It would be erroneous to think that Gandhi rejected ideas form the modern west in to or that remained un influenced altogether. It may be pertinent to not that he viewed his life as ‘experiments with truth’, ostensibly a tribute to science, to which he was sufficiently exposed as a student. Although he claimed that he was what he was ‘in spite of western education’, he didn’t insulate himself from the western influence. Of course, he was both selective and innovative when it came to borrowing from the west. Two persons who deeply influenced him were John Ruskin and Leo Tolstoy, but neither in deed was a typical representative of ‘modernity’. They themselves were critics of modern civilization.

As Tolstoy saw it the false supposition of modern thinkers such as Renan, Strauss, Comte, Spencer and Marx was the human betterment effected ‘not by moral efforts of individual men towards recognition, elucidation, and profession of truth, but by a gradual alteration of the general external conditions of life.’ They believe that ‘the chief activity of man who wishes to serve society and improve the condition of mankind should be directed not to the elucidation and profession of truth, but to the amelioration of external political, social, and above all, economic conditions… Let all those external conditions be realised’, responds Tostoy, ‘the position of humanity will not be bettered’.

Gandhi read a number of other nineteenth century of western civilization including Thomas Carlyle (1979-1881), Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) and Robert Sherard (1861-1943). A list of such works forms appendix of Hind Swaraj.

In one of his works Bhikhu Parekh has neatly analysed the synthesis of East & West that can be noticed in Gandhi’s Thought: (Gandhi) took over the concept of ahimsa (non-violence) from the Indian Traditions, especially the Jain. But the found it negative and passive and reinterpreted it in the light of the activist and socially oriented Christian concept, yielded the novel idea of an active and positive but detached and non emotive love. (parekh 1997,35).

Noted educationist Krishna Kumar too highlights his indebtedness to western thought in his scheme of education. He observes that if it were possible to read his plan as a anonymous text in the history of world education, one would conveniently classify it in the tradition of (the) western radical humanists.

Khadi was not exactly a simple economic activity confined to the rural households, it was an active socially –oriented campaign, a drill for the shoulders of national movement and an occasion for creating a social dialogue in a hierarchical society. Khadi was a doubt a critique of the typical western modern civilization based on industrialism, materialism. And yet it shares many a feature of the radical humanist tradition in the west, while remaining firmly rooted in the indigenous tradition. Gandhi himself started his position with regard to influences in a picturesque manner. He declared that he did not want his windows to be stuffed and wanted free air to blow about from all sides. He simply added that he would not like to be swept off his feet.