Gandhi on Modernity
“I think it is a very good idea.”
– Mohandas K. Gandhi
(when asked what he thought of Western Civilization)
Purushottama Bilimoria, PhD
Gandhi strongly resisted the equation of modernization and westernization.
Much as Gandhi admired aspects of Western modernity — its scientific temper, its pragmatism, efficient organization, and civil liberties, for example — he considered it a fundamentally violent and destructive form of life. One could argue, as I try to in my essay, that Gandhi offered an alternative and non-Western form of modernity, that embodied a different set of values and ideals, which blended what he considered to be the best of both Indian tradition and modernity.
It is a mistake to regard Gandhi as a staunch traditionalist as he often is described. This characterization overlooks the fact that Gandhi was quite critical of many aspects of Hindu tradition, from caste and untouchability to its seeming lack of concern for questions of social and economic justice. By the same token, modernity for Gandhi did not imply the wholesale rejection of tradition. This tension between tradition and modernity is evident, for example, in the evolution of Gandhi’s views about technology. From the wholesale rejection of modern technology that is prominent in Hind Swaraj (1909), we see him moving toward an approbation of what is nowadays called ‘appropriate technology,’ that is, technology adapted to human scale and to the needs and resources of a particular people.
Hence his fascination with the sewing machine.
Sri Aurobindo also resisted the equation of modernization and westernization. Sri Aurobindo was educated at Cambridge in the Western intellectual tradition and discovered his own tradition and its riches only on his return to India. In his mature thought one finds an interesting fusion of a version of Advaita Vedanta given an evolutionary turn with a philosophy of history that sees the world as fully real.
Like Hegel’s Absolute, Aurobindo’s Brahman manifests itself in progressively evolving shapes of reality, which include evolving forms of human consciousness. The motor of this evolution is not, however, as in Hegel’s case a historical dialectic, but rather different forms of spiritual consciousness which have earthly instantiations. Aurobindo like Gandhi rejects the materialism and reductive naturalism of the West, although unlike Gandhi he espouses a philosophy of history delineating emergent forms of historical consciousness.
In an interesting essay, ‘Indian Thought: Between Tradition and Modernity,’ J. N. Mohanty argues that public, though non-academic philosophers like Tagore, Gandhi, and Sri Aurobindo have managed a synthesis of the traditional and the modern while remaining deeply rooted in tradition. In Gandhi’s case this traditionalism embraces the world of the Gita, his own eclectic version of Vedanta, and the devotional ideas of medieval Hindu saints. In Aurobindo, as just pointed out, the primary influence is that of the religious philosophy of the Vedas and The Upanishads. Tagore too, while being remarkably open to Western thought, remained deeply rooted in Upanishadic mysticism. And yet in spite of the traditionalism of all three thinkers, their influence on modern India and the world at large has been considerable.