Hind Swaraj and Other Writings

Mahatma Gandhi

Book cover

As with Martin Luther King, I found it very interesting to read Gandhi in his own words. Although he originally wrote Hind Swaraj in Gujarati, he also translated it into English himself.

In this short book (written in the form of a dialogue), Gandhi takes up the issue of swaraj, or “self rule.” At the time he was writing, Indians talked about swaraj as the expulsion of the British colonial government and the establishment of an Indian government. Gandhi, however, takes issue with this definition, and defines swaraj in a more metaphysical way, to mean self-government in the sense of an individual living rightly. His main assertion is that if the Indians overthrow the British and establish self-government “in their image,” it won’t really be a beneficial change. (I guess he would be very disappointed today.)

Gandhi is extremely critical of modern civilization in this book, including machinery, medicine, and courts of law. Interestingly, he draws mostly on British and American critics of modernity such as Ruskin and Thoreau rather than Indian thinkers. He also draws on religious thought, including Christianity and Islam as well as Hinduism. There is no escaping the fact that Gandhi is an extremist, and he can even come across as quite unfriendly, particularly in the chapters on doctors and lawyers. (He basically says that doctors and lawyers are immoral and eroding society.) In reading these sections, I think it’s important to bear in mind that Gandhi is drawing a sharp line between individuals and the roles they play in society. Thus, he is not saying that all lawyers are bad people, but rather, by playing the role of “lawyer,” people hurt society. There is no identification between the individual and the profession. Even with this caveat, it’s still a pretty extreme position–but Gandhi was a pretty extreme guy.

In contrast to the Jane Jacobs book that I just read, I thought the dialogue format worked well here. The dialogue in HS is much more like one of Plato’s. There are only two voices, “Editor” and “Reader.” Editor is the Socratic figure who espouses Gandhi’s positions, and Reader is the interlocutor who voices conventional wisdom and learns from Editor. It certainly seems contrived, but then again, verisimilitude is not the point. The simplicity of the format clarifies Gandhi’s arguments.

I am sympathetic to Gandhi’s argument to a certain degree. I definitely agree with his position that a moral society has to be founded on individual morality. I agree to some extent with his critique of modern society (which is largely founded on Ruskin). But I do see it in a somewhat more moderate way, through the lens of Yoder and Berkhof: “modern society” (including things like the law, medicine, the capitalist economy, and machinery) as a set of Powers that are not inherently evil, but that are evil to the extent that they claim ultimate allegiance. A good society would not be one in which these things were done away with, but one in which they were properly ordered and did not make claims of ultimate value.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars