Gandhian concept of Non-violent society: A modern perspective

- By P.I. Devaraj & Syamala K.*

The WORLD TODAY is dominated by greed and competition, speed and restlessness, pollution, poverty and starvation, exploitation, ecological destruction, war and violence. The standard of living of the people has risen with multiple amenities for a comfortable living. But despite extra ordinary progress in the fields of science & technology, there are ample signs of a sick human society. As a result of the degradation of man, culture and society many serious problems have arisen. If democracy is to survive and if science has to be utilized for maintaining the stability of society, if peace and security of the people is to be ensured we have to work hard and steady.

A healthy and harmonized society can exist only when its members imbibe some moral and ethical values. Only such values can ensure mutual aid and co-operation. Only when the people internalize ethical and moral values in their lives and actually practice them in their day-to-day lives they can build a healthy and progressive human society. In order to attain this we have to bring about certain changes in human nature and attitudes. For the reconstruction of society, its social, economic, political and religious institutions, value systems and tradition which breed violence should be removed and replaced by new ones. As stated by Dr. Sampooran Singh, “we are often caught in an acquisitive culture which consists of ambition, comparing, competing and acquiring. This is called psychological aggressiveness. This is actually a subtle violence which has led to making the whole human race in to a civilized violent community. Violence benumbs the sensitivity and this makes our understanding of life poorer. No wonder, man has emerged as a violent species. Mahatma Gandhi foresaw this situation and one of his major intentions while he wrote 'Hind Swaraj' was to teach the Indians that 'modern western civilization' with the above said consequences posed a greater threat to them and to humanity than did colonialism. He said that "I would ask you to read Hind Swaraj with my eyes.... and see therein the chapter on how to make India non-violent. You cannot built non-violence on a factory civilization..."

Why Gandhian Ideals?

In order to understand the problems of any given society it is necessary to examine its culture and philosophical sub-structure. If India has to transform itself into a restructured society, the values and ideals which are to form the basis of that society should be rooted deep in its own soil. At the same time, it should remain always alert and open to the changes taking place around. They are to be related to our culture and social structure and bring our ancient heritage to the new generation. In order to reconstruct the present society into a harmonious and healthy one, Gandhiji had insisted on the practice of certain values like non-violence, truth, simplicity, altruism, compassion, which are all rooted in Indian tradition. All we have to do is to reinterpret them according to the needs of the society today. They have universal application and will never become outdated. In modern society wealth and economics in the sense of the science of wealth are given precedence over almost all other values. Modern materialistic civilization based on industrialism leads to multiplication of man's wants and desires so much so that he is never contented; he continues to be greedy. We can say that Gandhian theory is a relevant blueprint for the healthy development of human society based on ethical and spiritual values.

Individual and Society

Gandhi was very clear about his programme of social reconstruction. He insisted that the growth of the individual and that of society were interdependent and the individual and society had to grow together. Individual excellence for preparing oneself continually to the service of society, according to him, depends on how an individual merges into society for the common good of one and all. Remaking of man involves resetting the goal of his life and bringing about a transformation in motivations, attitudes, aptitudes, beliefs and thus in the entire gamut of his personality. This transformation is possible only through practicing truth and non-violence in all aspects of life. When a man accepts truth and non-violence as his creed, it becomes a dynamic force and no hurdle would be strong enough to check his way towards development. Gandhi in his scheme kept people at the center and all his programmes and policies were designed to ensure the full participation of people enabling them to develop the capacities in them to work as members of one inter related community. However, Gandhi was of the opinion that a moral man and an immoral society cannot co-exist in harmony. The reciprocity of relations between man and society was well recognized by Gandhi. Man is not man without society. He is the soul of any society and society must provide opportunities for his development. Where either fails, the other has a duty to resist non-violently. Moral resistance through non-violence must be the guiding principle to regulate the relationship between individual and society. Gandhi viewed the evolution of human civilization as a steady progress towards non-violence. The way he wanted to reconstruct society into a non-violent one was through revolutionizing the values by which that society lived. This change in values should be reflected in all aspects of the society's life and it included the minimization of the use of machines so as to free man from the evils of industrialisation. Gandhi also insisted upon man's harmony with nature and his economic self- sufficiency. So he advocated programmes like khadi, small scale industries, hand spinning etc. He called upon human kind to reconstruct human society on the rocky foundations of truth and non-violence?

Industrialization - a Challenge to Non-violent Society

It is true that industrialization has led to an enormous development of productive forces, making human life prosperous and comfortable. But the offshoots of industrialization are materialism, consumerism, urbanism and competitive economy. The effect of all these factors is that the moral and ethical values necessary to regulate human life are marginalized and they have come to occupy only a secondary place in the lives of individuals and society. Industrialization, in the course of its progress, has transformed human life - its institutions and value system and has generated social and moral problems that mankind finds almost impossible to tackle. Industrialism and materialism inevitably lead to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few and thereby divide the society into two - one of a few rich and the other of the many poor. This is could be identified as the root cause of war, violence and conflicts in the society. The research and development of science and technology are directed to satisfying the greed for economic gains. This has led to the invention of deadly weapons of mass destruction. Industrialization of the western kind, according to Gandhi, was a curse for mankind as it depended entirely on exploitation. His view was that "any plan which exploits the raw materials of a country and neglects the potentially more powerful manpower is lopsided and can never tend to establish human equality”. As stated by Gandhi, "I cannot recall a single good point in connection with machinery. Books can be written to demonstrate its evils." Thus the germs of self- destruction are inherent in it. IT revolution has gone a step further. This phase of industrialization has produced a replica of man itself called robot, which possess artificial intelligence, artificial memory and huge physical power to handle any difficult task. This marks the process of dehumanization of man which was started by factory system reaching its culmination at the IT Phase. Hence the reconstruction of society without resorting to large scale industries and the so-called advanced technology is to be viewed seriously. Gandhi foresaw this. In his programme for social reconstruction he took care to avoid these dangers and ensured the gradual progress of both individuals and society as a whole to the heights of truth and non-violence. It is a new society which represents all the elements of progressive modern society minus large scale industries and technology. However, it does not mean that Gandhiji was totally against all kinds of machinery and industrialsation. He supported some essential big industries maintained by the state and village industries. His objection against large scale industries was that they are exploitative of man. They produced unemployment and hence are violative of the spirit of Sarvodaya. Gandhi recognized that machinery has a place in the economy of his concept. He says "what I object to is the 'craze' for machinery, not machinery as such". Machine in itself may not be bad, but the fault lies with man who has made indiscriminate use of it and produced disastrous consequences. Gandhi had no objection to advanced technology if poverty and unemployment could be eradicated through it and its benefits are made available to all. According to him honest humanitarian consideration and not greed should be the motivating force. If greed was replaced by love, then exploitation will vanish.

The Charka or the Spinning Wheel

Gandhiji was against mass production because it did not promote human development. The artificial increase in wants has made mass production a necessity of modern life. As Gandhi emphatically stated, "I would categorically state my conviction that the mania for mass production is responsible for the world's crisis". It carries with it the danger of dividing the society into classes. Gandhiji pleaded for the spinning wheel which replaces the spirit of exploitation dominant in mass production by the spirit of service. He did not advocate even the universalisation of charka, which would lead to mass production in one place. The Charka according to Gandhiji would eradicate the poverty of millions by providing the instrument for earning their livelihood in their own homes with dignity and self- reliance in a most natural and simple way, without much cost, and thereby save them from starvation.

Human life and Nature

It is well-known that Gandhiji led a simple life. This simplicity was born out of his belief and conviction that the earth's resources are limited and human beings also should limit their wants. Gandhiji's insistence on the non-violent way of life has an ecological dimension to it. He was convinced that he should share his life not only with people but also with the other levels of existence like animals, birds, trees and plants. Life is to be one of the mutual sharing and not of exploitation. Gandhi settled in Sevagram village in central India in order to live the life of sharing and mutual aid and thereby demonstrated to the world at large that the future lies in the human beings living in tune with eco-system in small communities.

From the above discussion it must be clear that the most important aspects of Gandhiji's concept of non-violent society involve a relationship between individual and society? Due to the development of science and technology and impact of industrialization man has deviated from the Gandhian ideals. Hence terrorism, war, fundamentalism, inter - group conflicts, communalism, crime etc are increasing in today's world. Only by adhering to Gandhian ideals of non-violent social order, we can solve the various problems and ills with which the contemporary world is infected. The chief characteristics of Gandhian theory of social reconstruction through non-violent means may be summarised as,

  1. This theory is an integrated one. It integrates remaking of man and reconstruction of society into one stream as the individual cannot be divorced from society and, in turn, society to be what its individuals are. It is based on the principle of advaita that all human life is one.
  2. This theory treats human life as an indivisible whole and no sharp line can be drawn between its different compartments, between its ethical, political and economic aspects
  3. A unique characteristic that make this theory different from other theories of social reconstruction is that it is not merely visionary. It provides instruments and methods for putting that vision into practice.
  4. Gandhian theory of social reconstruction is based on the firm conviction that the future society of the world will be and must be based on non-violence which is the law of human species

Thus Gandhian theory provides new vision and space for the people to live sustainably, to share Nature's resources equitably, to live without violence, fear, oppression or alienation, in spiritual harmony and peace. To realize the significance of Gandhian approach we must distinguish between what is difficult, yet, possible and what is easy and expedient but not desirable, as a solution in the long run. If we realize the immensity of the problems and are earnest in working out real solution, Gandhi can certainly show us the way the direction.

Source: Gandhi Marg, Vol. 31, No. 1, April-June 2009.

* P.I. DEVARAJ, Co-ordinator Center for Gandhian Studies, Lecturer in Philosophy Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit
* SYAMALA K., Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit