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Non-Violent Resistance And Social Transformation: II. Swaraj and Sarvodaya



Swaraj in its fullest sense is perfect freedom from all bondage and, for Gandhi, it could be equated with moksha or liberation. But, like that knowledge which can be gained even as one becomes increasingly aware of the scope of one's ignorance, swaraj is attainable by degrees so long as its achievements are measured honestly against ideals. This is possible because swaraj on the individual level involves perforce self-awareness and conscious choice. Only fearlessness permits the satyagrahi to substitute intelligent and responsible choice for the illusion of choosing, to become actor rather than reactor. "Swaraj" Gandhi once wrote, "is the abandonment of the fear of death." 1 Swaraj is vitally connected with the capacity for dispassionate self-assessment, ceaseless self-purification, continuous self- restraint, progressive self-realization, and growing swadeshi or self-reliance. Gandhi's metaphysical presuppositions, together with his long experience amongst unlettered peasants, convinced him that moral advancement and social rejuvenation were interdependent, and that individual and national evolution could be furthered simultaneously.

Owing to the necessary connection between individual and national swaraj, self-rule is incompatible with every form of exploitation. For Gandhi, common sense dictated that "when you demand swaraj, you do not want swaraj for yourself alone, but for your neighbour, too".2 Swaraj which is the hallmark of the free individual is the basis for communitarian swaraj, which in turn lays the foundation for national swaraj, which could, in its turn, in a world dedicated to satya and ahimsa, become the basis of global swaraj, a universal Ramaradya or Golden Age. Whilst there is a logical order of priority within the process of attaining swaraj, the inherent exploitation of dependence within a pyramidal hierarchy can be countered by the increased interdependence generated through swadeshi. Since self-rule suggests self-reliance, each unit in this expanding circle must stand on its own moral worth and lend strength to the others. The vampirical spectre of centralized government must give way to a decentralized confederation of village republics.

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.3

Gandhi viewed the struggle for independence, or national swaraj, from the broader perspective of ideal swaraj. He was hardly interested in independence for its own sake. Only through national self-rule, he believed, India could become an active champion of international cooperation and global interdependence. Enslaving millions, the British Raj had prevented them from making a vital contribution to the universal swaraj of humanity. Gandhi flatly rejected any continuance of alien rule on the ground that it was demoralizing to the ruled. The oppressed had to endure indirect complicity with imperial iniquity, whilst seeing their own legitimate aspirations persistently frustrated. At the same time, however, Gandhi could not set great store by political independence alone; authentic swaraj, he felt, could originate only at the individual and village level. Just as individual swaraj involves a constant process of self-purification, so national swaraj requires national self-purification – the removal of social abuses, the elimination of economic exploitation, the transcendence of religious differences, the inauguration of spiritual rebirth, the radical reconstruction of internal structures, and the comprehensive reform of an entire social system. Whilst castigating imperial rule, Gandhi also identified the weaknesses that Indians themselves would have to overcome in order to realize true swaraj.

Swadeshi, self-reliance, was for Gandhi an integral component of swaraj. Just as satya and ahimsa can be taken as absolute values, although ahimsa is logically dependent upon satya, so swadeshi follows logically from swaraj. Swaraj can be derived from satya (for self-rule is the expression of the intrinsic truth of the individual) and swadeshi can be derived from ahimsa (for complete non-violence requires full self-reliance). As a validating principle swaraj is prior to swadeshi, though in daily practice swadeshi provides the measure of realized swaraj. If swaraj is the individual and national goal, swadeshi is collective strength. By "self-reliance", Gandhi did not intend to suggest any romantic notion of "rugged individualism", but rather an active force only partially captured in phrases like "self-help" and "self-dependence". He preferred the English term "self-reliance" because it suggests an effort to do what one can for oneself, whilst leaving plenty of room for mutual assistance. Ultimately, Gandhi could see no real distinction between ethical self-transformation and working for the welfare of all.

The freedom of the satyagrahi is reflected in the collapse of an exaggerated contrast between selfishness and altruism, which is based upon attavada, "the dire heresy of separateness". In the selfless service (anasakti yoga) enjoined by the Bhagavad Gita, serving the needs of others is commensurate with nurturing the essential nature of the self. This religious standpoint can be translated into an economic programme: produce as much as possible for local consumption, and barter the rest for necessities. Gandhi was willing to go as far as needed to obtain essential goods, but no farther than was strictly required. Consumer economics not only encouraged mass poverty; it was also a social disease. Thus swadeshi could be rendered "patriotism" in a political, and "dharma" in a moral, context. Fusing these contexts, Gandhi revealed new dimensions in both. "Swadeshi is service, and if we understand its nature we shall simultaneously benefit ourselves, our families, our country and the world."4 In the protracted struggle for swaraj, Gandhi continually sought to give emphasis to the principle of swadeshi through his insistence upon the Constructive Programme, the revitalization of panchayats, the development of indigenous institutions of new education or nai talim, and the emergence of village industries through the use of the spinning wheel or charkha. Though willing to defend each of these programmes on its own merits, he consistently held that Indian swaraj could have no lasting foundation without the systematic application of swadeshi.

As with the principle of non-violence, each proposed application of swadeshi should be examined in relation to the principle of satya or truth. Such judgements are amenable to self- correction as long as one is ready to engage in daily self- examination and mental purgation. Specific means of attaining swadeshi must likewise be assessed in terms of their fidelity to the ideal of swaraj, authentic freedom. The pursuit of swaraj through swadeshi, like the pursuit of satya through ahimsa, is a matter of individual judgement based upon appeals to conscience and experience. The attainment of swaraj through swadeshi cannot come about if some areas of life are considered irrelevant. Gandhi rejected the division of life into separate and discrete compartments, and continually sought open-textured approaches that honoured the interdependence of different modes and means to a single long-term goal.

Gandhi's concept of satya, with ahimsa as the means, gave rise to his complex doctrine of satyagraha; his concept of ahimsa, with satya as the common goal, enabled him to develop the doctrine of sarvodaya or non-violent socialism. Self-dependence, when rightly understood and embodied, becomes the crucial lever for non- violent social transformation. "Self-dependence is a necessary ideal so long as and to the extent that it is an aid to one's self- respect and spiritual discipline."5 It is not an end in itself, for those who become responsible through moral and spiritual renewal become the quickeners who can awaken a new impulse in the hidden depths of social life. Though he had no detailed plan for social transformation, Gandhi cherished the ideal of Ramaradya at the heart of his political vision, and firmly believed that ahimsa would eventually win global acceptance as a universal criterion of civilized life. This conviction, coupled with his faith in the magical power of millions striving in a common cause, gave him a clear, if intuitive, sense of direction.

Sarvodaya was predicated upon the diffusion of power, yoked to a firm recognition of the moral priority of social virtue over sectional interest. Competition must make way for concord. To be effective, this shift in social and political perspective must be understood as a spiritual requirement in a civilized world, a revolutionary enterprise which would eventually benefit all humanity. As a macrocosm of the individual seeker, society as a whole must come to renounce everything not supported by the concept of mutual responsibility. In practical terms, therefore, pioneering witnesses to truth and non-violence are obliged to teach through example the necessity of shifting the axis of social life from an aggressive emphasis on rights to an active concern with obligations. They must exemplify a spirit of fellowship that has nothing to do with levelling up or down, since each person's dharma is unique to himself. They must also renounce the material and psychological exploitation that causes poverty. The votaries of sarvodaya need not repudiate the innovativeness of the technological age, but they must shun soulless mechanization and trivial gadgetry.

The production, preservation and distribution of goods may be likened to the circulation of blood in the body. Generally, "the concentration of blood at one spot is harmful to the body and, similarly, concentration of wealth at one place proves to be the nation's undoing".6 Employing this organic metaphor, Gandhi envisaged a radical reformulation of the elusive conception of collective welfare. Unlike utilitarians, he was unwilling to accept the principle of the greatest good of the greatest number. Instead he pleaded for a more synergistic conception of collective welfare, wherein the suffering of the least and the lowest inevitably interacts with the supposed well-being of the most prosperous so as to negate completely the alleged social value of such prosperity. He saw collective social welfare as a chain no stronger than its weakest link. At the same time, he held that the contributions of individuals to social welfare were not restricted in principle by their intellectual, economic, social or political status, although, to be sure, the possession of enough resources could help individuals move beyond greed and engage in service. Gandhi favoured the development of a true science of economics, based upon the principle of sarvodaya and directed towards an intelligent regulation of the flow of wealth. He defined the health of this flow in terms of justice, and proposed as a criterion for justice in economic exchange the principle that "a just wage for a worker will be that which will secure him the same labour, when he needs it, as he has put in for us today".7

Rejecting every form of exploitation and viewing all human beings as equal sacrificers for the welfare of all, Gandhi sought to lay the basis for a redistribution of wealth that would be consistent with the sacrificial moral order (rita) of the cosmos. However inequitable the distribution of material and mental resources among human beings, he believed that men and women could act as trustees, rather than as owners, of their resources, and could thus consider themselves as the partners of all their fellows in society. He had no objection to a large measure of society's wealth flowing through the hands of individuals, but he warned that this involved a moral temptation and a spiritual trial which would require a deliberate vow of non-possession and a self-conscious adoption of the principle of trusteeship. He advised every individual to weigh his circumstances in the court of conscience according to the criteria of truth and non-violence and the obligations of sarvodaya. Such a radical redefinition of both the means and the ends of production could serve as the basis of a fundamental reform of society.

Through a revolutionary change in attitudes towards consumption, wealth and work, the votary of sarvodaya could reverse the rising tide of personal expectations and mitigate the misery of poverty. Gandhi did not believe that the intelligentsia and their theories were capable of raising the lot of the toiling masses; all too often, indeed, the lives of privileged classes and even armchair revolutionaries were based upon cultivated hypocrisy. Gandhi therefore advised political workers to immerse themselves in the Constructive Programme, to engage in "bread labour", and to sacrifice their comforts wholeheartedly in the service of daridranarayan, God in the form of the poor.

If only individuals would incarnate the principles of sarvodaya, he knew they would find innumerable opportunities for service in the performance of svadharma. Anyone may nurture the spirit of yajna or sacrifice in his own immediate sphere of obligation. For Gandhi, the path of universal service involves a non-violent socialism devoid of scapegoats and rooted in a sense of mutual trust between all classes of society. Sarvodaya or non- violent socialism requires neither inevitable class war nor violent expropriation of property in the name of social welfare. Capitalism, socialism and communism, insisted Gandhi, are alike pervaded by violence and based upon a rigid assumption of human selfishness. He could commend the Marxian ideal of non-possession of property, but he could not accept Marx's narrow interpretations of human life and history. Nor was he willing to accept the proposition that a few revolutionary cadres could enduringly and beneficently transform the social order by politicizing the masses and polarizing them against any set of designated oppressors.

Instead of doctrinal isms or dogmas about historical inevitability, Gandhi addressed himself to the individual integration of precept and practice. He spoke of socialism of the heart and the soul. And he was inwardly sure that the capacity of individuals to contribute to social amelioration is a direct function of their spiritual strength and moral authority, achieved through sacrificial action (anasakti yoga).

Even as members of the individual body are equal, so are the members of society. That is socialism. In it the prince and the peasant, the wealthy and the poor, the employer and the employee are all on the same level. In terms of religion there is no duality in socialism. It is all unity.... This socialism is as pure as crystal. It, there-fore, requires crystal-like means to achieve it. Impure means result in an impure end.8

Gandhi was deeply concerned with the entrenched tendency of State power to degenerate into active violence, but he was equally concerned lest human beings repudiate their humanity and lose their souls through abdicating individual moral responsibility for the sake of the Leviathan. The onus of responsibility for human life and universal welfare lies with the conscience of individuals, and it is a dangerous delusion to suppose that a human being can relinquish any portion of this responsibility in the name of social contract or legal sovereignty, tacit consent or rule of law. Nor can any moral agent give unconditional consent, for any reason, to the general body of laws, pronouncements and programmes of any political institution. The freedom of the individual to serve universal welfare (sarvodaya) must be perpetually preserved in principle against all the claims of State authority. Only thus may society be forever assured of the regenerating influence of truth- force. The ultimate political ideal for Gandhi was

a state of enlightened anarchy in which each person will become his own ruler. He will conduct himself in such a way that his behaviour will not hamper the well-being of his neighbours. In an ideal State there will be no political institution and therefore no political power.9

Though such a stateless society seems a remote ideal in a world of institutionalized violence, authentic progress along these lines depends upon the private and potent resolves of men and women of courageous compassion and calm determination who search within themselves for the seeds of wisdom and strength.

Euclid has defined a straight line as having no breadth, but no one has yet succeeded in drawing such a line and no one ever will. Still we can progress in geometry only by postulating such a line. This is true of every ideal.... The only way is for those who believe in it to set the example.10

To acknowledge the continual relevance of pioneers such as Gandhi is to awaken the potential for growth in oneself. Once the inward source of strength is touched, the long journey of individual and social regeneration may begin. Faith can repeatedly triumph over fear, never more so than in times of trial.

The Lark flew up in the morning bright,
And sang and balanced on sunny wings,
And this was its song: "I see the light,
I look on a world of beautiful things,
But flying and singing everywhere
In vain have I sought to find the air!"


Hermes, May 1988
by Raghavan Iyer


1 M.K. Gandhi, "The Fear of Death", Young India, Oct. 13, 1921; reprinted in The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, by Raghavan Iyer, ed., Clarendon (Oxford, 1986-1987), vol. 3, p. 235 (hereafter cited as MPWMG).

2 M.K. Gandhi, "Speech at Meeting of Village Workers, Nagpur", Harijan, Mar. 1, 1935; MPWMG, vol. 3, p. 262.

3 M.K. Gandhi, "Independence", Harijan, July 28, 1946; MPWMG, Vol. 3, p. 232.

4 M.K. Gandhi, "Swadeshi v. Foreign", Navajivan, June 19, 1927, MPWMG, vol. 3 p. 365.

5 M.K. Gandhi, "Our Helplessness", Young India, Mar. 21, 1929; MPWMG, vol. 3, p. 228.

6 M.K. Gandhi, "Sarvodaya", Indian Opinion, June 20, 1908; MPWMG, vol. 3, p. 421.

7 M.K. Gandhi, "Sarvodaya", Indian Opinion, July 4, 1908; MPWMG, vol. 3, p. 426.

8 M.K. Gandhi, "Who Is A Socialist?", Harijan, July 13, 1947; MPWMG, Vol. 3, pp. 591-592.

9 M.K. Gandhi, "Enlightened Anarchy – A Political Ideal", Sarvodaya, Jan. 1939; MPWMG, vol. 3, p. 602.

10 M.K. Gandhi, "Congress Ministries and Ahimsa", Harijan, Sept. 15,1946; MPWMG, vol.3, p.606.

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