Understanding Gandhi's vision of Swadeshi

- By Siby K. Joseph*


Satyagraha and swadeshi are fundamental in Gandhi's philosophy of life. According to Gandhi, the whole gamut of man's activities constitutes an indivisible whole. Life cannot be segregated into watertight compartments like social, economic, political, religious and so on. So the ideas and concepts he developed in the course of his relentless experiments with truth was an attempt to integrate the various aspects of life. The concept of swadeshi was not an exception. It was not merely an economic doctrine. In fact the concept of swadeshi covered all aspects of the human life. Gandhi's vision of swadeshi is a universal concept even though he propounded it in the context of India's struggle for freedom. He used swadeshi as a means to achieve India's swaraj. India's struggle for freedom was a source of inspiration for many non-violent struggles in different parts of the globe. Swaraj through swadeshi is a principle of universal application and it can be emulated by people in their struggle for freedom. It was one of the eleven vows Gandhi prescribed for a satygraha way of life. In this paper an attempt has been made to understand Gandhi's concept of swadeshi and its manifestation in important facets of human life. Swadeshi as a generic concept covers almost every aspect of human life, all his ideas, concepts, methods and programmes. However, the scope of the present paper has been limited to areas such as economic, political, social, religious, and educational and health. Firstly, we will analyse Gandhi's vision of swadeshi.

Gandhi's vision of Swadeshi

Gandhi described swadeshi as 'law of laws'1 ingrained in the basic nature of human being. It is a universal law. Like nature's law it needs no enacting. It is self-acting one. When one neglects or disobeys it due to ignorance or other reasons, the law takes its own course to restore to the original position like the laws of nature. The necessity for the inclusion of swadeshi as a vow is due to the fact that the people have forgotten this law; to use Gandhi's own words, the law is sunk into oblivion. A person by temperament following this law need not follow it as a vow, that is, a rare thing. According to Gandhi swadeshi in its ultimate and spiritual sense stands for the final emancipation of the soul from her earthly bondage. Therefore, a votary of swadeshi has to identify oneself with the entire creation in the ultimate quest to emancipate the soul from the physical body, as it stands in the way of realising oneness with all life. This identification is possible only by performing the primary duty, that is, the service of one's immediate neighbour. In outward appearance, it may look as exclusion or disservice to others, i.e., the rest of humanity. Pure service can never result in disservice to the far away person. In swadeshi there is no distinction between one's own and other people. With the temptation of serving the whole world, if one fails to perform the duty towards the immediate neighbours, it is a clear violation of the very principle of swadeshi. The very first step of serving the world starts with the immediate neighbour. Service to the nearest individual is service to the Universe. According to Gandhi, swadharma in Gita interpreted in terms of one's physical environment gives us the Law of Swadeshi. Gandhi quotes Gita "It is best to die performing one's own duty or Swadharma. Paradharma, or another's duty, is fraught with danger."2 Further Gandhi explains: "What the Gita says with regard to swadharma equally applies to swadeshi also, for swadeshi is swadharma applied to one's immediate environment."3 The law of swadeshi demands that one should not take more than required to discharge the legitimate obligations towards the family. In swadeshi there is no space for selfishness and hatred. It is the highest form of altruism and acme of universal service in the Gandhian scheme. In the light of the above understanding and after much thinking and reflection, Gandhi defined swadeshi as the "spirit in us which restricts us to the use and services of our immediate, to the exclusion of the more remote."4 This definition is perhaps the best explanation of his concept.

Economic dimension of Swadeshi

Let us first look at the implications of swadeshi in the field of economics. Gandhi was convinced that the deep poverty prevailing among masses was mainly due to the ruinous departure from the path of swadeshi in the economic and industrial life. Gandhi advocated that one who follows the spirit of swadeshi should use only things that are produced by our immediate neighbours and serve those industries by making them efficient, and strengthen them in areas where they are found deficient. During the time of India's struggle for independence Gandhi realised that the economic salvation of India consists in encouraging and reviving indigenous industries. Gandhi found khadi as the necessary and most important corollary of the principle of swadeshi in its practical application to society. Khadi fulfils the kind of service envisaged in swadeshi. Gandhi himself asked the question:"What is the kind of service... the teeming millions of India most need at the present time, that can be easily understood and appreciated by all, that is easy to perform and will at the same time enable the crores of our semi-starved countrymen to live?'5 He found the answer, that it was universalising khadi or spinning wheel which fulfill these conditions. For him, khadi is the Sun of the village solar system. The various industries are the planets which can support khadi. Khadi mentality means decentralisation of production and distribution of the necessities of life. Gandhi advocated the concept of swadeshi in the spirit of universal love and service. A votary of swadeshi will give preference to local products even if they are of inferior grade or dearer in price than things manufactured elsewhere and try to remedy the defects of local manufacturers. Gandhi warned the votary of swadeshi against making it a fetish. "To reject foreign manufactures merely because they are foreign, and to go on wasting national time and money in the promotion in one's country of manufactures for which it is not suited, would be criminal folly, and a negation of the swadeshi spirit. A true votary of swadeshi will never harbour ill-will towards the foreigner: he will not be actuated by antagonism towards anybody on earth. Swadeshism is not a cult of hatred. It is a doctrine of selfless service that has its roots in the purest ahimsa, i.e. Love".6 In the swadeshi economic order there will be healthy exchange of products and not cut-throat competition through the play of market forces. Gandhi explains this ideal situation in the following words: "If we follow the swadeshi doctrine, it would be your duty and mine to find out neighbours who can supply our wants and to teach them to supply them where they do not know how to proceed, assuming that there are neighbours who are in want of healthy occupation. Then every village of India will almost be a self-supporting and selfcontained unit, exchanging only such necessary commodities with other villages where they are not locally producible."7 In such an economic system there will be an organic relationship between production, distribution and consumption.

Political dimension of Swadeshi

The application of swadeshi in politics calls for the revival of the indigenous institutions and strengthening them to overcome some of its defects. Gandhi pleaded the need for internal governance (swaraj) as early as 1909 in his noted booklet Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule. He wanted to empower the people through political self governance. His vision of decentralized political system was Panchayati Raj by which the innumerable villages of India were governed. He succinctly describes it as follows: "The government of the village will be conducted by the Panchayat of five persons annually elected by the adult villagers, male and female, possessing minimum prescribed qualifications. Since there will be no system of punishment in the accepted sense, this Panchayat will be the legislature, judiciary and executive combined to operate for its year of office. Here there is perfect democracy based upon individual freedom. The individual is the architect of his own government. The law of non-violence rules him and his government. He and his village are able to defy the might of a world."8 Gandhi further outlined his vision of village swaraj by introducing the concept of oceanic circle in opposition to pyramidical structure of society, placing individual at the centre of the society. "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 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."9

Social dimension of Swadeshi

Applying the spirit of swadeshi in the context of Indian social structure, Gandhi initially accepted the institution of Varna associated with it. He welcomed the four-fold division of the society purely based on duties performed by different sections of people. Gandhi considered all professions as equally important. He made an earnest attempt to overcome the defects of the caste system by discarding certain obnoxious practices which he considered as historical accretion, which was not the integral part of original system. He vehemently opposed the prevailing caste system based on birth and the social status attached to it. That was the reason why he launched one of the most relentless battles against the curse of untouchablity which was a part and parcel of the caste system in India. Gandhi looked at the scourge of untouchablity as a blot on Hinduism. He was so much convinced that he did not even hesitate to take up cudgels on the behalf of untouchables against the upper caste Hindu orthodoxy. In the process so much animosity was created among orthodox upper caste and several attempts were made to eliminate him. Unmindful of the risks involved, he stuck to the position till the end of his life. He totally identified with the untouchables and their uplift became his primary concern. Similarly he was deeply concerned about the problems and plight of the vulnerable sections of the society viz., Dalits , women, tribals, lepers and so on. He believed that true swaraj can be attained only by uplifting these deprived sections of the society. Gandhi included the uplift of these sections in his 18 point Constructive Programme. It was primarily drawn taking into account the social realities of our country. Gandhi's Constructive Programme aimed at reconstruction of society through voluntary and participatory social action. In a sense the constructive work plays the role of civil society/NGOs. Gandhi looked upon Constructive Programme as a 'truthful and nonviolent way of winning Poorna Swaraj'.10

Swadeshi in Religion

To follow the spirit of Gandhi's swadeshi in the field of religion one has to restrict to the ancestral religion. It calls for the use of one's immediate religious surroundings. It is the duty of a person to serve one's own religion by purging its defects, if necessary, in order to purify and keep it pure. There is no need to renounce one's religion because of imperfections in it and embrace another. On the contrary one should try to enrich one's own religion by drawing the best from other religions. However Gandhi was not against true conversion and he differentiated it from proselytization. According to Gandhi conversion in the sense of self purification, self realisation is the crying need of the hour. His attitude was not of patronising toleration but developing the spirit of fellowship. His veneration for other faiths was the same as that of his own faith. He believed in the fundamental equality of all religions, what he called Sarvadharma Samabhava. Gandhi's swadeshi approach to religion has great significance in the context of growing communal divide and religious fundamentalism in India and other parts of the globe. This approach is essential to promote harmony among the followers of various faiths and preserving the composite culture of a country like India.

Swadeshi in Education

One of the major areas in which Gandhi applied his swadeshi ideal was the field of education. For him education was meant for all-round development of personality and not purely as a means for earning one's livelihood. In Hind Swaraj he rejected the British educational system prevailing in India. His primary objection against British educational system was that it was primarily meant for 'enslaving' the people of India. It was his firm conviction that the prevailing system of education does not serve the requirements of the country in any form or shape. He believed that education has to be rooted in the culture and traditions of the country. Education through a medium of foreign language put undue stress upon the nerves of the children and they become foreigners in their own country. They are completely cut off from the realities of life. He placed before the nation an alternative system of education called Nai Talim or Basic education. He defined education as follows: "By Education, I mean, an all-round drawing out of the best in child and man-body, mind and spirit. Literacy is not the end of education nor even the beginning. It is only one of the means whereby man and woman can be educated. Literacy in itself is no education. I would therefore begin the child's education by teaching it a useful handicraft and enabling it to produce from the moment it begins its training."11 In his scheme the craft was the pivot and centre of all educational activities. Through the medium of craft he correlated all other subjects to the central craft. It was a self sufficient and self supporting system of education meant for children above the age of seven which was meant to be free and compulsory. He placed before the nation alternative institutions like Gujarat Vidyapith, Kashi Vidyapith and others during the struggle for independence. Later he broadened his concept of basic education and looked upon education as a lifelong process starting from cradle to grave.

Swadeshi in Health Care

Gandhi's prescription for health was an application of principle of swadeshi .i.e. to live according to the laws of nature. He strongly opposed the modern medical system in his seminal work Hind swaraj. He went even to the extent of describing hospitals as "institutions for propagating sin."12 He rejected the modern medical system primarily on the ground that it is purely curative and not preventive. He advocated a new system of medical care wherein one follows the laws of nature with regard to diet, physical exercise, hygiene and sanitation and a new life style based on self restraint. He advocated the system of nature cure to prevent the diseases rather than finding a purely drug based cure for them. In this he underlined the centrality of proper use of earth, water, air sunlight and ether. He primarily emphasised a holistic approach to health care where it will primarily be governed by disciplined way of life. It is also notable that health care was one of his passions since his South African days. He experimented with different kinds of nature cure including the inexpensive and nutritious food which people could easily avail. Not only that, he was instrumental in establishing a nature cure centre at Urulikanchan near Pune and even started practicing nature cure. In fact during the last years of life a new dimension to nature cure practice was added in the form of Ram nam. It must be made clear that for him Ram nam was not like an ordinary mantra to be chanted. It was a part of his spiritual sadhana based on his firm belief that a man with total internal purity would not fall sick or even he would require no medicine other than Ram nam. Here Ram stands for one of the names of God and one can freely choose any other name of God which appeals to him. That was the reason he refused to take medicine in the fag end of his life including the Noakhali mission. Ram nam was nothing but a spiritual means for self purification thereby eliminating all possibilities of illness by keeping the body pure.


It is obvious from the above analysis that swadeshi is key for basic understanding of the edifice of Gandhi's philosophy of life. He successfully demonstrated that the swadeshi spirit could be integrated in every walk of our national life. What is more, he did not stop only at conceptual level of swadeshi. He suggested concrete institutional set up in most of the areas of his concern. As stated earlier for Gandhi life was holistic and indivisible and hence he presented an integrated plan covering virtually all aspects of human life. And that is the most distinctive nature of his thought which could really become a guiding principle for human resurgence. In fact he went beyond it and underlines the oneness of entire creations including the sentient and non-sentient beings. It is real pity that independent India failed to grasp the revolutionary nature of his thought and discarded them in the very initial years of freedom. Now it is more than clear that sooner or later, India, even the world, would have to take to Gandhian path to meet the challenges effectively. If not, it will be totally going against the law of universe which aeons ago ours ancestors called rita.

Notes and References:

  1. M. K. Gandhi, From Yervada Mandir (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 2007) p. 35
  2. Ibid. p. 36
  3. Ibid.
  4. R. K. Prabhu and U.R. Rao, (ed.), The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1996), p. 410.
  5. M. K. Gandhi, From Yeravada Mandir, op. cit., p. 37.
  6. Ibid, p. 38.
  7. R. K. Prabhu and U. R. Rao (ed.), op. cit., p. 411
  8. M. K. Gandhi, Panchayat Raj (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1996) pp. 11-12.
  9. Ibid. p. 9
  10. See the foreword written by Gandhi on November13,1945. M. K. Gandhi, Constructive Programme, (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 2005), p. 3
  11. Harijan, July 31, 1937
  12. M. K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 2004), p. 51

Courtesy: 'Continuing Relevance of Swadeshi