Mahatma Gandhi: Civilization, Morality, and Indian Home Rule

International discourse for generations echoed the notion that the West would, through its development, improve the harrowing conditions within “primitive” countries — an excuse to conquer and exploit undeveloped nations. Mahatma Gandhi held a starkly different conception of British civilization, however, painting the English instead as those needing to be saved from conditions “worse than that of beasts…[their souls] enslaved by temptations of money and of the luxuries that money can buy.” His Hind Swaraj is a profound rejection of Western cultural superiority, of capitalism and socioeconomic inequality, and of the bubonic materialism plaguing all corners of the world. Through his critique of Western civilization, Gandhi first argues that an obsession with bodily comforts corrodes, rather than improves, the conditions of those living within the Western world. Next, he asserts that the developments of Western civilization pose grave threats — in the form railways, law, and medicine — to the framework of Indian society, propagating greed, corruption, and impoverishment. Finally, he concludes that because Western civilization and Indian morality are diametrically opposed, it is imperative to achieve decolonization and, through nonviolent disobedience, install a self-deterministic Indian nation.

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Primarily, Gandhi paints Western civilization as a breeding ground for greed and corruption, marked by an obsessive care of the body, rather than a care of the self. In England for instance — the birthplace of industrial civilization — he notes that it was better houses, clothing, and vehicles that defined one’s personal identity, an existence “taking note neither of morality nor of religion.” In the acquisition of unparalleled wealth and luxury, the consumers of Western civilization subjected themselves to “work, at the risk of their lives, at the most dangerous occupations,” slaves to their own unquenchable desires. As Gandhi concedes, Western civilization made it possible to “fly through the air in trains at the rate of four hundred and more miles per day.” Yet simultaneously, it “[ate] into the vitals of the English nation,” exposing humanity to an unparalleled capacity for destruction that — in the name of technological innovation — produced the means to end “thousands of lives by one man working behind a gun from a hill.” This was the true basis of Gandhi’s critique of Western civilization, that it was a losing wager, a dangerous enterprise that, in seeking to increase bodily comforts, “[failed] miserably even in doing so.” Yet in its wake, civilization both separated man from moral duty, and provided him with the technology to spread his newfound immorality, a cancer that metastasized in England, and began spreading to India. It was in light of this graveness that Gandhi outlined the dangers of developments like railways, law, and medicine, in order to show the ease in which Western civilization could infiltrate India’s socio-political infrastructure.

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For centuries, British companies exploited India’s natural resources, generating massive profits and forming economic monopolies in diverse markets. These monopolies, to dominate supply and fix prices, required access to all paths of distribution within India, a feat accomplished through railway expansion. It was precisely this development that toughened Britain’s hold over India and allowed private corporations unfettered economic sway to consolidate political power. Furthermore, the internal tensions they amplified among different Indian populations allowed railways to paint British regimes as essential to regional stability. If men did not “rush about from place to place through railways,” and obeyed the locomotive limits of their natural physiology, much of the tribalism that arose from the sudden interaction between different peoples would have been obviated. Railways “[were] a most dangerous institution” to Gandhi, squarely because, by attempting to solve issues of convenience, they produced profound intergenerational consequences (e.g. social tension, disease, inequality) that kept India fragmented and primed for British occupation.  

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Furthermore, the greed and corruption of Western civilization threatened even the highest echelons of Indian society, particularly law and medicine. Lawyers, for instance, degraded India from within its own legal institutions, and their courts and services were necessary conditions for British governmental occupation. While courts and lawyers were established to reform policy in response to rapid civilization, these legal establishments instead became battlegrounds for the consolidation of power, further accentuating “Hindu-Muslim dissensions, …[sucking] the blood of the poor of India,” and multiplying legal disputes. Civilization then, threatened even India’s premier ethical institutions, because lawyers could no longer champion civic justice when their moral obligations were supplanted by a popular culture of desire. But even more disastrous for Indian society were the “irreligious” transgressions of medical practitioners who, according to Gandhi, created a society “deprived of self-control,” and hid below a nefarious cocktail of drugs the consequences of human wrongdoing. Ultimately, both professions aimed to meet the demands of civilization (crime and disease). Nevertheless, doctors and lawyers personified a Western culture of self-indulgence that was incompatible with Indian society, steering India away from integrity and good faith, and detonating the nation from within.

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When considering both his general critique of civilization, as well as the apparent threats of technological development, critics argue that Gandhi makes “‘a fundamental philosophical error’ by presupposing that we must consider as morally evil any development which may be misused,” even though in and of themselves, objects or professions do not have ethical obligations or capacities. Railways, for example, solely facilitate the transportation of people and goods. Doctors prescribe medicine to heal somatic ailments, and legal codes operationalize societal expectations. At the core, these developments are just things, devoid of ulterior motives or morality, mere reflections of their progenitors; thus, if they are “fundamentally misused… the moral evil is in the man who misuses [them],” not in the mechanisms themselves. By this account, Gandhi, much like the doctors he criticizes, aims to treat the symptoms of civilization instead of the underlying disease. Through decolonization, he would eliminate the apparent means for carrying out nefarious actions, but would not eradicate humanity’s innate propensity for immorality, as atrocities exist in even the most desolate regions.

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Gandhi, however, would argue that he has made no philosophical error at all. Because even if evil is the condition of man instead of his inventions, the developments of British civilization nonetheless provided more efficient avenues of unleashing said evil onto a “pure” Indian culture that held ethics and introspection in highest regard. While the “tendency of the Indian civilization [was] to elevate the moral being, that of the Western civilization [was] to propagate immorality.” It is precisely in this way that Gandhi links his critique of Western civilization to an installment of Indian home rule, by arguing that even if Western developments and professions were not heinous in and of themselves, they nonetheless represented a value system of greed and desire that was wholly antagonistic to Indian culture. Ultimately, these developments illuminated how Western civilization “accentuate[d] the evil nature of man,” degrading subordinate groups of people and embedding in multifarious ways a Eurocentric conception of civilization that was asymmetrical to notions of personal ethics and spirituality. As Gandhi makes clear, the only way to restore India to its moral height was to dismantle the ethically corrosive Western civilization, to establish Indian sovereignty and self-determinism, and to achieve those goals on a platform of pacifism, in which the means justify the ends. That is to say, if India was to reclaim its moral character, it must do so through ethical tactics, establishing reform through nonviolent disobedience rather than bloodshed.

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Ultimately, through his critique of Western civilization, Gandhi paints England as a highly advanced, yet deeply troubled society that propagated widespread injustice and devastation in pursuit of bodily desire. To illuminate the clear and present danger that this civilization posed to Indian ideology, he further argues that both technological and social advancements promoted Indian fragmentation, political marginalization, and unapologetic self-indulgence. While critics argue that Gandhi’s critique was founded on errors in philosophical reasoning, as developments of civilization could not by their very nature have moral character, Gandhi nonetheless concludes that these dangerous advancements represented Western aims that were inhospitable to Indian interests. As such, he stressed the importance of decolonizing India and, through nonviolent disobedience, installing a self-deterministic Indian nation. Through such measures, the people of India could restore “true civilization” within their borders, a society predicated on the “performance of duty and [the] observance of morality,” — mastery over the mind and passions. Additionally, they would entrench within their restored culture a deference for introspection and spirituality, a world in which true happiness was derived not from material objects or social distinction, but instead from “a proper use of [one’s] hands and feet.” Ultimately, Gandhi regards civilization in much the same way that an engineer analyzes a building; developed too high, on shaky foundations, and even the most elaborately embellished structures crumble in submission to laws of nature; but built low to the ground, on tried and true foundations, and even the most unpretentious structures last for millennia.

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