(This article was originally published on 22.07.19, and has been re-published on the occasion of Gandhi ji’s 150th birth anniversary.)
(This is Part II of a two-part series by Sudheendra Kulkarni on Gandhi’s connection with science and technology. You can read Part I here.)
Isaac Asimov, the celebrated science-fiction writer, once famously lamented: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” This, however, raises some important questions — is the function of science to produce knowledge that isn’t guided by wisdom?
Is science only about exploration and explanation of lower-order truths — whats and hows — or should it also be guided by ‘truth’ that incorporates ethics and the defining purpose of human existence — whys and why nots?
Such questions become even more relevant when one considers the views on science offered by the person who conducted arguably the most comprehensive ‘experiments with truth’ — Mahatma Gandhi. The father of our nation was a man of deep wisdom. Even today, he continues to be relevant on most challenges that India and the world face. Paradoxically, many Indians, judging his ‘outdated’ thoughts on the most decisive parameter that distinguishes the 21st century from the previous centuries — modern science and technology — believe that he belongs in the past, and not the present or the future.
Gandhi’s Views On Industrialisation
This view was popular even when Gandhi was alive. According to the historian BR Nanda, one of the greatest interpreters of Gandhian philosophy, “Gandhi’s views on industrialisation did not earn praise among the Indian intelligentsia and his colleagues in the Congress leadership. To many of his eminent contemporaries like — scientists, economists, industrialists, radicals, socialists, communists — Gandhian economics seemed to be a throwback to primitiveness; to a utopian pre-industrial position which was untenable in the modern world.”
This is hardly surprising.
Given his attire, his insistence on the use of charkha-spun khadi, his advocacy of natural cures, and his efforts to popularise village industries, Gandhi looked resistant to modernity.
Nevertheless, a deeper study of the totality of his views on life reveals that he was far ahead of his time even on the subject of science and technology.
Gandhian Economics & Symbolism of the Charkha
A lot of ignorance about Gandhi stems from his use of the spinning wheel as the mascot of his philosophy and praxis. The Mahatma chose the charkha as the carrier of a political, economic, cultural, and spiritual messages. He chose the simplest of things to convey the most profound of ideas in a manner that was intelligible and inspirational for millions.
The spinning wheel was a symbol of protest against foreign rule. Coupled with his saintly identity, it succeeded in mobilising the common masses like never before in the history of India’s freedom struggle.
In the economic sense, it conveyed the need for a simple and self-reliant technology that even the poorest of the poor could use and benefit from. Mass employment through production by the masses was a central tenet in Gandhian economics. By encouraging the rich to spin the charkha and use khadi, Gandhi highlighted his vision of an egalitarian society based on a culture of solidarity. Lastly, using it as a tool of both work and meditation simultaneously, he propagated a spiritual lesson — that labour should be harmonised with the service of society, prayer, and self-purification in a single activity to end a man’s condition of alienation (a seminal idea in Marxism).
Gandhi On ‘Virtuous’ & ‘Sinful’ Use Of Science
All truths in life are timeless (chirantan), whereas others are relative to time and space (kaal-saapeksh). Naturally, some political and economic aspects of the Gandhian message embedded in the spinning wheel are no longer relevant. Indeed, Gandhi himself was never fixated on the charkha as a permanent propagator of his vision of a future with non-exploitative economic and social order. He wrote on numerous occasions that he would be the first person to replace the spinning wheel if science and technology produced a better substitute; specifically, a machine that could help the entire humanity by aiding sustainable and morally-guided development.
The touchstone of everything he supported or opposed was whether it was in conformity with the universal and eternal principles of Satya (truth) and Ahimsa (non-violence), adherence to which was necessary for creating a better future for humanity.
He opposed atomic weapons because, according to him, their development was “a sinful use of science”. However, where the use of science reduced human misery and helped the poor by enhancing their health, happiness, and knowledge, his support was astonishingly enthusiastic. This is evident, for instance, from one of his iconic photographs that shows him studying leprosy germs through a microscope at his Sevagram Ashram, where he treated leprosy patients.
In fact, he had converted his ashrams into R&D centres where he and his colleagues conducted research on health, nutrition, sanitation, education, agriculture, village industries, and women’s empowerment.
Gandhi’s Interest In Astronomy & Views On ‘Romance’
Similarly, during his prison term in Yerawada (Pune), his nontrivial interest in the study of stars prompted him to borrow two large-sized telescopes from a wealthy follower in Bombay.
He got the permission of prison authorities to install them in front of his cell. After reading on the subject, he even conjectured the possibility of humans landing on distant planets.
“Every free minute I get, I devote myself to astronomy,” he wrote.
Gandhi once visited the Tata Steel plant in Jamshedpur in 1925 as a “friend of the Tatas”. According to the notes kept by Mahadev Desai, his trusted secretary and soulmate, he felt that “the noble enterprise and extraordinary industrial genius of the late Jamsetji Tata” possessed “the character of a romance”.
Everything can be turned into a science or a romance if there is a scientific or a romantic spirit behind it.Mahatma Gandhi
Romance for him, a practitioner of Brahmacharya (abstention from sex being a narrow meaning of the term), was the abiding love of humanity — especially, love of the suffering millions, in whom he saw Daridra Narayan or God Himself.
Gandhi Would Surely Have Been An Enthusiastic Champion Of The Internet
In 1940, when his devout but outspoken young follower, Dr Rammanohar Lohia, asked him to clarify his views on industrialisation, Gandhi stated, “I do visualise electricity, ship-building, iron works, machine-making, and the like existing side by side with village handicrafts.”
In a letter to Jawaharlal Nehru on 5 October 1945, Gandhi candidly mentioned the “difference of outlook between us”, but added: “While I admire modern science, I find that it is the old, looked at in the true light of modern science, which should be re-clothed and refashioned aright…[a] number of things will have to be organised on a large scale…It is possible to envisage railways, post and telegraph offices, etc. ... I do not know what things there will be or will not be. Nor am I bothered about it. If I can make sure of the essential thing, other things will follow in due course.”
His reference to ‘telegraph’ is highly significant. It was the most modern, machine-enabled, near-instantaneous, and long-distance communication system at the time. In many ways, it was a precursor to the Internet — a point persuasively made by Tom Standage in his book The Victorian Internet.
Since Gandhi extensively used what was the extant state-of-the-art online communication technology in the early part of the twentieth century, he would surely have been an enthusiastic champion and user of the Internet.
Is the Internet the substitute to the spinning wheel that he was looking for? Can it be seen, metaphorically, as an avatar of the charkha? I have explored this question in my book Music of the Spinning Wheel: Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age.
(The author was an aide to former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He has recently founded ‘Forum for a New South Asia’, which advocates India-Pakistan-China cooperation. He welcomes comments at email@example.com. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)