Book Review: 'Hind Swaraj' by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Pratik Kumar

A defense of Indian civilization with sharp attack on machinery led western civilization, this book is an intellectual leaven in the debate on eastern versus western Weltanschauung on different aspects of civilization; tilted more towards the orient

Name: Hind Swaraj

Author: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Publication: Rajpal Publishing

Pages: 84

If one asks any Indian layman about Gandhi in South Africa, most chances are that she will tell about his forced eviction at Pietermaritzburg railway station. Perhaps, this incident is something which dwells in the minds of most of the Indians as the turning point which pushed him in the arena of civil resistance, ultimately providing a new outlook to the world on different subjects in a way we call- Gandhian outlook. I would humbly like to place a general caveat here, for the reader, after getting through this book and other reading materials on him: A single incident didn't form this outlook. Rather, it was developed through a deep rooted contemplation that acted as a muse for his endeavours while he was in India with several other noteworthy incidents. Whether it’s the concept of swaraj, non-violence, noble path of application of soul force in pursuit of aim; Gandhi forays into political writing (though not only political) with this book, defending all these values against the popular narratives through its nicely crafted chapters, mind boggling examples, and an insight on a large number of issues. In a nutshell, Hind Swaraj rightly assembles the bits and pieces of a vision of self- reliance with Indic perspective.

This book can be divided into three major areas where it deals in its respective chapters. Firstly, it sheds light on the political situation of India and England in the introductory chapters. A separate chapter has also been given for comparing the situation in Italy and India as to why revolutionary methods on the same lines aren’t useful in India. Secondly, a wide description has been provided on the pathetic social condition of the erstwhile Indian state. Here, many aspects of the society have been discussed in a critical manner, whose parallel account can be traced in his both books – ‘India of my dreams’- and in parts in his autobiography- ‘My Experiments with Truth’. Lastly, a gripping moral and philosophical narrative has been set out in different chapters and, at portions, in all of them. Here, one must not forget that the perspective set out in this book was in a nascent stage at that time (as it was first published in 1908 when he didn’t enter into the activist life in India). Therefore, it’s not surprising at all when in the opening preface itself, he acknowledges that his ideas and way of thinking on fiery issues are not infallible. It is needless to say that this is a hallmark feature in nearly all of his writings, which is recently appreciated by even his grandson Rajamohan Gandhi himself, in his book titled “Why Gandhi still matters”.

For those, who are a social history enthusiast of colonial India, it comes up as a perfect recipe for understanding the same. Divided into 20 chapters, in the form of a conversation between a reader and editor, it examines the relevance and necessity of various popular notions about modern civilization. At one time, he has even questioned the need for railways, attacking it as a disease carrier. Therefore, it is needless to say how relevant and fresh his thinking has remained in time.

Moving on from that, as it is said, the idea of swaraj remains incomplete, if not talked with his unique and distinct understanding of this concept- especially in the social & cultural milieu. His astonishing observation and contemplatory skills keep flashing in mind when one goes through this book. To advance his arguments, he has cited the works of various writers and thinkers of western world. However, the question arises on the lack of his own intellectual depth- about things he attacks and defends. This is glaringly manifest when he attacks more and defends less without plausible and compelling reasons- something which is in abundance in writings of Ambedkar. Expressing the language of what Burke once said on the futility of use of force, “ terror is not always the effect of force and its application doesn’t ends the necessity of subduing again”, he has thoroughly rejected the idea of brute force for the struggle in different chapters in different context and ways. At this point of time, this seems an idealistic concept as things have undergone significant moulding in course of time.

Again, coming to the caveat in introductory para, mentioning of an important event is important to show how Gandhi’s thought process accompanied different stark realities of Indian civilization with its inherent strength. In 1917, Rajkumar Shukla and Gandhi went to the house of Rajendra Prasad in Patna, where the cook refused to let Gandhi in, because of his caste. Now after reading this piece of work in the backdrop of such incidents, he leaves an imprint in his writing that despite such things, despite flaws in her social institutions; his belief in the social virtues of India remains intact. It can be easily looked in the book at different places when he praises the beauty of its tolerance. Whether it’s the praise of “old guards” in erstwhile Congress or a defense of Indian social culture in its civilizational aspect, it would not be wrong to say that his stance is of a “rational conservative”, while presenting his belief system. In a time, when a call is moving from different strata about his ideas; whether he was a reformer or status quoist, Gandhi’s views leads towards the road of harmony instead of conflict. His focus on stability with meek advocacy of national introspection for a larger goal of self-reliance is visible, which should be reviewed in these times.

It would be unfair to talk about Gandhi without discussing morality (read religious morality) in it. It is not the constitutional morality as what Ambedkar has presented as a distinct alternative to it, taking inspiration from western notions. In two of its chapters, he has fused the concepts of professionalism for doctors and lawyers (the noble ones in that era). Going through these remarks by him, if one examines the tone used by him, he develops a fine example of the use of modest yet firm stand on the critical issues in public life. Keeping this in mind, it would not be an exaggeration to say that a few scholars rightly term Hind Swaraj as the cornerstone for Gandhian school- for its unique thrust- on those issues which were considered negligible in erstwhile British India as normal state of affairs

Different in its approach, style and not to mention the vision, Hind Swaraj serves as the keyhole to an entire conception of a civilization built on Indic cultural roots. Also as a text carrying insightful thinking on off-the-track issues, it stands apart in the seminal works by different authors, due to its clear and precise messages. A defense of Indian civilization with sharp attack on machinery led western civilization, this book is an intellectual leaven in the debate on eastern versus western Weltanschauung on different aspects of civilization; tilted more towards the orient. It is a classy defense of Indian heritage and culture which is yet to receive its share in the global order. There are just a handful of such works and truer testament to this thought than this Tour de force by him.

The author is a LLB student in National Law University, Lucknow and an intern at Academics4nation.


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