Gandhi, the British, Democracy and Communications

In re-reading these pieces, I was struck by how much the use of Charkha was seen by Gandhi as a form of resistance, as opposed to a form of truth-seeking (satyagraha) on its own.

I wonder how Gandhi would perceive the use of technology in a world where there wasn’t an obvious oppressor.  Would he see the use of Charkha as an inherently meditative, self-sufficient practice? Or, would he see value in labor-saving devices that allow human beings the freedom to pursue other, potentially spiritual, interests, as long as they were equitably distributed, and operated at the right scale?

Similarly, how would he perceive individual choice in such a world. In his time, British colonial rule provided an obvious foil – requiring collective action on a massive scale. How would his views play out in an independent India, or more precisely, in a nation of independent princely states, like the one Gandhi was supposedly in favor of reverting to?  Would Gandhi think that democracy is necessary, or would he agree with Plato’s notion of Philosopher Kinds, obviously with the right of the people to pursue their own satyagraha?

Finally, I am also intrigued by what Gandhi would have thought of communication and media technologies. On one hand, they have issues of scale and coercion. On the other hand, they allow us to understand perspectives and share experiences with others very different from ourselves. With his prolific efforts in writing and publishing, he must have had at least some thoughts on the matter.

2 thoughts on “Gandhi, the British, Democracy and Communications

  1. I’ll take on your last question.

    I agree that modern communication and media technology allow us to share experiences more widely than before. However, I do not agree that they allow us to truly understand other people’s perspectives. Exposure to sounds, sights, or writings from a land far away may give us the illusion of understanding that land and its people, but they are always experienced through the lens of our own perspective. As Gandhi writes:

    In reality there are as many religions as there are individuals;

    With respect to media, writing, and publishing, I do not think Gandhi would be too pleased with our newfound abilities to so easily publish content. As he states when he is lamenting modern “civilization” (and perhaps anticipating blogging and youtube?):

    Formerly, only a few men wrote valuable books. Now, anybody writes and prints anything he likes and poisons people’s minds.

    With respect to communications technology, I would argue that his views on the physical movements that are enabled by railways would apply equally to the virtual movements enabled through such communication technology. What he was after was not locomotion, but rather, connectedness. As he writes:

    I should, however, like to add that man is so made by nature as to require him to restrict his movements as far as his hands and feet will take him. If we did not rush about from place to place by means of railways and such other maddening conveniences, much of the confusion that arises would be obviated. Our difficulties are of our own creation. God set a limit to a man’s locomotive ambition in the construction of his body. Man immediately proceeded to discover means of overriding the limit. God gifted man with intellect that he might know his Maker. Man abused it so that he might forget his Maker. I am so constructed that I can only serve my immediate neighbours, but in my conceit I pretend to have discovered that I must with my body serve every individual in the Universe. In thus attempting the impossible, man comes in contact with different natures, different religions, and is utterly confounded. According to this reasoning, it must be apparent to you that railways are a most dangerous institution. Owing to them, man has gone further away from his Maker.

  2. I also wonder, in the modern context of no direct oppressor / occupier in India, what Gandhi would make of today’s West — specifically in light of diversity and multiculturalism. Much of the segregation Gandhi discusses is at least superficially absent in many parts of the West. Of course, there are still deep divides along racial, religious, and socioeconomic lines.

    With regard to your first question, I wonder if he would argue against efficiency and mechanization. I agree that they can enable free time and non-work pursuits — but often they just motivate more work, more focus, and higher productivity expectations (as we’ve discussed repeatedly in class).

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