Gandhiji on Classical India and Western Culture

Gandhiji on Classical India and Western Culture


Date:- 30th January 2000 & 30th January 2001.

Place:- Gandhi National Memorial, Agakhan Palace, Nagar Road,

Pune –411006


(1) The great teachers and seers of our classical Indian civilization do have a common deep comprehensive scientific understanding of human life, although they do have different metaphysical views some of which may conflict with the present scientific world-view. Gandhiji’s thoughts on various problems of various aspects of human life do provide a systematic understanding of human life, which is essentially the same as the understanding of human life of our great ancient teachers and seers, although he has not written any comprehensive theoretical treatise on human life.

Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj (1908) is a radical critique of modern western civilization from the view point of his understanding of classical Indian civilization, which he accepts with deep rational conviction to be a civilization of Truth, i.e. the true ultimate goal of life. Here he argues that modern Western civilization is essentially an irreligious civilization of lust for luxuries and pleasures; its tendency is to propagate immorality, it fails to see that a life of religious perfection is eternally the best form of human life; it also fails to see that a life of real happiness and contentment consists not in the multiplication of wants, but in the deliberate and voluntary restriction of wants. But Indian civilization explicitly accepts the supremacy of morality in every sphere of life and religious perfection to be the ultimate goal of human life; it explicitly teaches us to attain ethical mastery over our mind and passions and accepts the laws of abstention from avarice and contentment to be eternal ethical laws.

Unlike for the votaries of modern western civilization, for Gandhiji unselfish ethical life of love constitutes the essence of religious life and non-violence constitutes the root of ethics. Unlike them he explicitly accepts that religious knowledge as well as ethical knowledge is essentially empirical scientific knowledge. We can do experiment with Truth and non-violence and acquire first-hand scientific knowledge about the deeper aspects of selfless ethical life of love through leading an unselfish ethical life of love and making constant effort to grow spiritually higher and higher and trying to understand it rationally. For him to realize God is to realize Truth which is essentially the same as to realize a perfect selfless ethical life of love. It was his firm conviction that “the man who discovered for us the Law of Love was a far greater scientist than any of our modern scientists.” He writes, “Modern science is replete with illustrations of seemingly impossible having become possible within living memory. But the victories of physical science would be nothing against the victory of the Science of Life, which is summed up in Love which is the Law of our Being.” Thus Gandhiji is the apostle of the scientific religious life of our age.

Unlike in our ancient Indian civilization, today under the spell of the modern western view that the study of ethics is not a scientific study, study of ethics has been excluded from our educational curricula from 1ststandard to postgraduate level. Gandhiji would certainly condemn it. It is his firm conviction that study of ethics should be introduced from the very beginning of our educational curricula. According to him ethics is the practical science of building good character and good society. “A child before it begins to write its alphabet and to gain worldly knowledge, should know what the soul is, what truth is, what love is …. A child should learn that, in the struggle of life, it has to conquer hate by love, untruth by truth, and violence by self-suffering.” “In ancient times there were no restriction on education. It was not controlled by the state but was solely in the hands of the Brahmans who shaped the system of education solely with an eye to the welfare of the people. It was based on restraint and Brahmacharya. It was due to such a system of education that Indian civilization had outlived so many vicissitudes through thousands of years, while such ancient civilizations as those of Greece, Rome ad Egypt had become extinct.”

Contrary to the popular belief, Gandhiji is not against machinery as such. But he is certainly against replacement of body-labour by machine-work, but not against making physical work joyful with the help of the machines. It is his firm belief that compulsory obedience to the law of body-labour breeds poverty, disease and discontent, but willing obedience to it must bring contentment and health. He would certainly oppose uncompromisingly the present western form of development, which has caused disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species and causing greater and greater damage to the natural system, which sustains life and health, but he would not be against development based on the principle of non-violence. He is not against pursuit of wealth and pleasure within the boundary of ethics.

Unlike the ideal society of the modern western civilization, the Gandhian ideal society’s core essentially consists of villages with a rational ethical culture of Truth and non-violence, self-contained with reference to their vital necessities where people deliberately and voluntarily lead simple life of exhilarating and life-giving body-labour in an atmosphere of natural purity and natural beauty.

Gandhiji accepts that our tradition has many evils such as castism, gender-injustice, etc., and considers it to be our supreme duty to make systematic effort to root out them as soon as it is possible. No votary of Indian civilization as described by him would mistake them for our civilization, but what he has described as emblems of modern western civilization are accepted as such by its votaries. Modern western civilization violates many traditional ethical laws such as universal non-violence, non-slavery to passions and senses, abstention from avarice, contentment, external and internal purity, body-labour, non-adultery, etc., which all great religions accept to be eternal ethical laws; it does not even recognize many of them to be ethical laws at all.

Gandhiji supports neither a blind rejection of the modern western civilization nor a blind acceptance of our Indian civilization. He writes: “There is nothing to prevent me from profiting by the light that may come from the west. Only I must take care that I am not overpowered by the glamour of the west. I must not mistake the glamour for the light.”