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English to Hindi: THE IMPORTANCE OF ‘SWA’ AND SELF PURIFICATION IN GANDHI’S HIND SWARAJ
Source text - English THE IMPORTANCE OF ‘SWA’ AND SELF PURIFICATION IN GANDHI’S HIND
Gandhi’s seminal text Hind Swaraj or Indian Home rule is considered as one of the best critique
of modernity providing possible alternatives to modern civilization. Using the dialectic method,
the text was originally written in Gujarati in 1909 (later translated in English by Gandhi himself
in 1910) while Gandhi was on a voyage from Britain to South Africa. Written a century ago, the
text remains relevant even today because it raises serious questions and provides answers to the
problems of contemporary Indian and global society. The text is written with a civilizational
approach which is normative and value centric combined with cosmological and historical time.
The text is written with particular purposes which are ideological and political. Ideologically, it
is the manifestation of views on non-violence, colonialism and modern civilization while
politically it puts forward a vision for future India. Hind Swaraj is an ontological work dealing
with the nature of being. As Gandhi’s swaraj is understood as self-rule, it is important to
understand what is the nature of the ‘self’ that should rule us. Gandhi treats the ‘swa’ with
meticulous attention. The prefix ‘swa’ is used copiously by Gandhi in his writings- swaraj,
swadeshi, swadharma, swaroop and swadhyaya are some of the examples. ‘Swa’ or one’s own,
or more particularly, what is proper to the own, is a central concern for Gandhi on which the
edifice of his views on politics and society stands. By focusing on the proper nature of ‘swa’,
Gandhi seeks to address the question of what is the proper nature of rule for India (Skaria, 2013,
p. 79). This chapter deals with the question of ‘swa’ or the self, particularly self-purification. While
talking about self-purification in Hind Swaraj, few questions become compelling- what does
Gandhi understand by self and self-purification? Can individuals practice non-violence without
self-purification? Can individuals be Satyagrahis without self-purification? Is social reform
possible without self-purification? Can we attain Swaraj without self-purification? How can
self-purification play an important role, if any, in resolving the problems of modern technocraticsociety? This chapter is an attempt to understand the self and importance of self-purification in
Conception of the Self and Modern civilisation
To Gandhi self consists of two parts: self as ‘atman’ and self as ‘dehin’. Self as atman is
everlasting, immortal, eternal and spiritual while self as dehin connotes body, senses, and mind
(Chimni, 2012, p. 1163). Hence, Gandhian construction of self is both earthly and spiritual and
unites the two worlds. Gandhi perceived the final goal of the self to be self-realisation whereby
each must follow the dharma which means right conduct in day to day life. This notion of ideal
self is taken from Gita and narrated as a man of steady mind and steady wisdom who strives to
attain inner Swaraj (Chimni, 2012, p. 1163). Gandhi equates self with truth, God and reality, and
this is interchangeably used with non-violence. In this regard Gandhi repeatedly expresses his
conviction that entire purpose of life is self realization which is equivalent to realization of truth.
It is observed that Gandhi uses self in diverse ways, including the truth, individual’s inner self,
the social relational self and the universal, unifying, absolute self (Allen, 2011, pp. 166–167). More importantly, according to Gandhi, ideal self is a necessary condition to achieve enduring
just social and political institutions. In other words, just institutions can be established if
individuals control their desires and endeavor to attain self knowledge (Chimni, 2012, p.1163).
Gandhi argued that creation of just institutions cannot be performed by modern civilization
because modern civilization has made people materialistic. They have no time for higher pursuits
which can only be attained by the atman. Gandhi explains modern civilization as: “it’s true test
lies in the fact that people living in it make bodily welfare the object of life” (Parel, 1997, p. 35). Modern civilization promotes bodily happiness (Gandhi, 2015, p. 54). In other words, it can be
said that people in modern civilization are indulged in material world and bodily comfort. Hence
the quest of civilization is to seek and provide bodily comfort which hinders inner self to develop
because of its emphasis on outer self. People in modern civilization have no time for higher
pursuit which can only be attained through the atman. A body perishes and gives unreal
happiness. This is the reason why Gandhi characterized modern civilization as ‘irreligious’, a
‘satanic civilization and a ‘black age’. For him religion is not denominational but the truth which
is the basis of all the religions (Suhrud, 2013, p. 16). Modern civilisation violates the basic
features of a true civilization. In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi puts forward a different understanding of the term civilisation in the following manner: “Civilization is that mode of conduct which points
out to man the path of duty. Performance of duty and observation of morality are convertible
terms. To observe morality is to attain mastery over mind and our passion. So doing, we know
ourselves. The Gujarati language word equivalent for civilization means ‘good conduct’”
(Gandhi, 2015, p. 82).
In the original Gujarati language in which hind swaraj was written, Gandhi used the word
‘sudharo’ for civilisation; ‘su’ means good and ‘dharo’ means way of life. Here Gandhi is
developing an Indian understanding of the concept of civilization. Belsare’s Gujarati-English
dictionary defined sudharo as (a) reformation, (b) civilization (c) setting to right, correcting (d)
improvement. In other words, Gandhi is trying to provide an Indian version of the concept of
civilization. Controlling the material desire and curbing excessive technology is important
components of ‘good way of life’ (Hardiman, 2003, p. 69). For Gandhi, the more one gets the
more one wants; one’s mind always remains unsatisfied. Therefore, Gandhi talks about setting
limits to our desires for materialism. For him happiness doesn’t lie in external power and glory,
but to an individual who believe that life is worthy only in touch of transcendent or in search of it
(Gavaskar, 2009, p.18).
Modern civilization has failed to inculcate ethical or spiritual self which is responsible for
creating phenomena such as colonialism. Colonialism in a very simple sense originated to extract
wealth of other nations to enhance the bodily comfort. As B. S. Chimni argued, the capability of
imperial regimes to look within was destroyed. Gandhi reached to the conclusion that India is
being ground down, not under the English heel, but under that of modern civilization which is
turning away from god (Chimni, 2012, p. 1164).
Above all we should not value competition as a central value that drives progress. Gandhi argued
that pre-colonial India had followed uncompetitive means for livelihood. This allowed for the
elevation of morality (Hardiman, 2003, p. 69). Gandhi says that western civilization is based on
self indulgence whereas the Indian one is based on self control and self reliant (Dhareshwar,
2010, p. 54). As Gandhi argued “the more we indulge our passion, the more unbridled they
become. Our ancestors, therefore, set a limit to our indulgence. They saw that happiness is
largely a mental condition. The rich often seen to be unhappy, the poor to be happy. Millions willalways remain poor. Observing all this our ancestors dissuaded us from luxury and pleasure”
(Gandhi, 2015, p. 82).
The modern civilization’s preponderance of the body over the soul results into self interest and
unrestrained self indulgence. Self interest creates insensitivity towards other human beings
whereas self indulgence prompts more and more production and consumption of goods.
Consequently, it also supplements the use of machinery and makes it more important. As a
result, human beings have reduced to a new form of slavery. Enlightened self interest and
rationality of which the modern society was characterized led to selfishness and immorality. The
exploitation of fellow individual and community became the founding stone of modern
civilization. European imperialism is a prominent example of such exploitation (Chadda, 2012,
While describing true civilization Gandhi used the term duty also to convey that it means service
to humanity. Gandhi believed that ‘real rights are a result of performance of duty’ (Gandhi, 2015,
p. 93). As Chimni (2012, p. 1165) argues, duties for Gandhi had two dimensions deeply
embedded in the understanding of swaraj which are self-knowledge and self-rule. In recent years,
Foucault like Gandhi emphasized gaining access to the truth always requires transformative work
on the soul (Chimni, 2012, p. 1165). He further argued that in order to reach the truth people
bring necessary changes through search, practice and experience. Whereas Gandhi went a step
further and established his mass politics with the relationship of the self which is politics of
liberation through performance of duties to human kind. It can be considered as a relationship
between work on the self and work on the world.
Machinery which represents the modern civilization, according to Gandhi is a great sin (Gandhi,
2015, p. 117) because it hinders establishing relationship with the self. Machinery hereby means
technology. (Chimni, 2012, p. 1166). Gandhi argued that “a snake bite is a lesser poison than
these two (one is machinery and other is sexual vice), because the former merely destroys the
body but the later destroy body, mind, and soul (Gandhi, 2015, p. 118). It is so because
machinery gives advantage to non-self over self and more importantly destroys the non-self.
Here non-self means nature and the social order. Also, machinery establishes exploitative
relationship between self and the non-self. Gandhi was not against machinery or technology
which does not replace or exploit human labor.Gandhi believed that modern technology destroys the relationship with the self as its
advancement establishes the false belief that the control of the external environment enhances
human freedom and the acquiring the self knowledge. Thus, it gives primacy to the non-self over
the self. Gandhi identified that “where there is machinery there are large cities and where there
are large cities there are trams-cars and railways’ (Gandhi, 2015, p. 120). For Gandhi the large
city hinders self knowledge as it is home of abstraction and disembodied world (Chimni, 2012, p.
1166). As Modern civilization is based on speed and is always on the move, it results in
upsetting individual relationship with her environment and creating a sense of losing her identity
in the process. Consequently, it results into loss of sentiments of good will and mutual concern
(Chadda, 2008, p. 94). For Gandhi, a true civilization not only generates the possibility of self knowledge or knowing
ourselves, it is what makes swaraj possible. For Gandhi, ‘modern civilization’ erases the proper
‘swa’; hence the form of sovereignty found in modern civilisation cannot be swaraj. It is swaraj
when we learn to rule ourselves (Gandhi, 2015, p. 86 ). Self knowledge is something without
which, Gandhi has firm faith, swaraj cannot be attained. Only those who know themselves are
capable of learning to rule. Swaraj in a simple sense means rule over oneself not the rule of one’s
own kind. Only those who have attained mastery over their mind and passions, Gandhi argued,
and in so doing attain self knowledge, are capable of swaraj (Suhrud, 2013, p. 16). Gandhi
argued that “the swaraj that I wish to picture is such that, after we have once realized it, we shall
endeavor to the end of our life time to persuade others to do likewise. But such swaraj has to be
experienced, by each one for himself” (Gandhi, 2015, p. 86).
The primacy of ethical and spiritual self in Gandhi’s thought is one of the primary pillars in his
critique of modern civilization. It was a desire to understand the meaning of ‘being’ that
compelled Gandhi to interrogate modern civilization. With due interrogation of modern
civilization, Gandhi reached to the conclusion that India is a true civilization. He argued that “I
believe that the civilization India has evolved is not to be beaten in the world” (Gandhi, 2015, p.
81). Further he argued “a nation with the constitution like this is fitter to teach others than to
learn from others. This nation had courts, lawyers, and doctors, but they were all within bounds.
Everybody knew that these professions were not particularly superior: moreover, these vakils
and vaids did not rob people. They were considered people’s dependent not masters” (Gandhi, p.2015, p. 83). In the preface to the March 1910 English translation of his works, Gandhi tells us
that he wants to motivate Indians so that they reject modern civilization with its violent methods
and if they would “but revert to their own glorious civilisation” they would achieve self rule and
true independence of swaraj (Allen, 2011, p. 134). Satyagraha and Self
The political tools developed by Gandhi were rooted in his understanding of self and his spiritual
beliefs. His experiments with the spiritual self contributed to developing his strategies in the
political and social spheres. Gandhi believed that private morals had public consequences. An
individual’s personal self-indulgence or self-restraint influenced her ability to act disinterestedly
in public matters. As Rudolph and Rudolph (2006, p. 209) point out, Gandhi’s thoughts reflect
the influence of traditional Hindu thought which emphasizes on ethical rather than institutional
limits, internal rather than external restraints to ensure public spirit in those who wield power.
Gandhi developed the unique method of satyagraha during his political struggles in South Africa.
He defined satyagrah as “a method of securing rights by personal suffering; it is the reverse of
resistance by arms” (Gandhi, 2015, p. 69). Satyagraha is based on the idea that a man’s claim to
be just and to command others depends on his ability of self-rule. An individual who has
mastered herself had the moral power to follow the righteous path and goal in public domain. A
satyagrahi must “observe perfect chastity, adopt poverty, follow truth and cultivate fearlessness”
(Gandhi, 2015, p. 107). For Gandhi, attaining the state of desirelessness is essential to become a
satyagrahi. Gandhi is influenced by Bhagwad Gita’s message of nishkama karma. An individual
can become a true satyagrahi only when she purifies herself by getting rid of materialistic desires
and sensory pleasures. Being free from bodily desires makes an individual selfless and fearless.
She attains a state of freedom from fear whether it is related to possessions, bodily injuries or
death. It is this freed self that, Gandhi argues, is the agent with the capacity of self-rule. A
satyagrahi thus must be capable of self-control and self-sacrifice. Gandhi argues that those who
are mentally weak and guided by animal passions cannot engage with the method of satyagraha.
He believed that through the practice of ascetism, he can influence the external environment.
Rudolph and Rudolph (2006, pp. 214–215) examine the influences on Gandhi that helped
formulate his ideas on satyagraha; Maharaja Harishchandra’s tale of self-suffering to honourduty and pursue truth, Prahlad as a model of non-violence, and Gandhi’s mother’s self-sacrifice
and self-suffering in performing her duties towards his ailing father, were some such influences.
An enlightened self guided by her conscience, pursues what is right and true. Gandhi further
argues that an individual who is free from fear and hatred does not require violence as a means to
pursue the truthful and rightful cause. For Gandhi, “brahmacharya here does not mean merely
physical self-control. It means much more. It means complete control over all the senses. Thus,
an impure thought is a breach of brahmacharya…” (as cited in Rudolph & Rudolph, 2006, P.
211). Self-control meant not only control of the carnal self but also a complete renunciation of
hatred, anger and aggression. The satyagrahi must not only transcend the fear of bodily harm but
also a readiness to suffer without feeling the desire to inflict bodily harm in reciprocity. It
requires a complete renunciation of violence in both action and thought. The notion of soul force
is central to understanding the concept of Satyagraha. A satyagrahi uses soul force or truth force
or the force of love. Violence is a result of negative attachment to one’s object of hate (Gavaskar,
2009, p. 16). Thus, the use of violence shows the inability to attain the state of non-attachment. A
satyagrahi maintains the state of non-attachment and selflessness in day to day life by performing
his duty towards the community and through “technologies of self” fashioned by Gandhi such as
ashram life, fasts, sanitation and nursing (Gavaskar, 2009, p. 16). Mahesh Gavaskar (2009, p. 15) argues that Gandhi believed that man is innately good by nature.
The force of love or truth is the natural guide of human interactions. The satyagrahi is, thus, open
to engaging and entering in dialogue with the adversary. Gandhi sees satyagraha as an Indian
mode of struggle which provides an alternative to the West’s violent civilization (Geetha, 2013,
p. 191). Gandhi’s unique technique of satyagraha provides peaceful methods of protest: non-
cooperation and civil disobedience. It is very relevant in the contemporary times as reflected in
numerous movements such as the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare, the Nirbhaya
movement, the Chipko movement and the Apiko movement. His methods are routinely resorted
to by the civil society to protest against unjust acts and unjust laws of the state.
Self-Purification and Social Reforms
The significance that Gandhi attached to self-purification can also be seen in the indispensable
association that he made between self-purification and social reforms. Unlike the socialreformers of the 19th and 20th century who believed that social reforms depended on a modern,
colonial state banning a social practice, Gandhi emphasized that self-purification is the only
means to effectuate social reforms. Nigam (2009, p. 42) argues that through the emphasis on
internal change, Gandhi is underlining on the subjectivity and agency of people while negating
the agency of the state to bring social reform. This is another dimension of self-rule by the
individuals whereby social reform is not made a jurisdiction of the state; Gandhi sees the state as
an external agency imposed on the self. Self-purification for social reforms necessitated large
scale mobilisation of people and public debates which required political platforms. Thus, self-
purification, social reforms and politics are interwoven according to Gandhi (Nigam, 2009, p.
42). Gandhi’s approach to social reforms is in sharp contrast to that of B. R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar
held the modern, rational state as an agent that could mandate social reforms through firm laws.
However, his experience of resistance to the Hindu Code Bill made him realise the frailty of a
modern state in ensuring fraternity and equality in society. The state could not authorize
compassion. Thus, he embraced the path of dhamma (the right path) under the guiding light of
Buddhism. As V. Geetha (2013, p. 193) points out, Ambedkar’s later writings reflects on the
need to lead a life based on ‘maitri’ or kindness. The shift in Ambedkar’s approach reflects the
significance of Gandhian emphasis on religious ethics and values as a source of compassion and
empathy. Gandhi’s emphasis on self-purification for social reforms is very significant as evinced
by the inefficacy of state laws to bring about social reforms. The numerous instances of dowry
deaths, bride burning, honour killings, atrocities on dalits reflect the need for change from below
for reforming regressive social practices.
Contradictions in Gandhi’s Ideas on Self
I) Caste and Untouchability
Gandhi’s idea of swaraj is based on the freedom of self from inner slavery. Unless people break
the shackles of inner slavery of their beliefs that denude them of self-respect, a society cannot be
liberated. Gandhi however does not address the enslavement of people by caste inequalities. The
caste system by ascribing a spiritually impure status to the dalits, denies any scope of self-
purification for them. Gandhi supports the varna system. According to Gandhi, “Varna means
Translation - Hindi https://docs.google.com/document/d/1B0WPDa-8Fp3nhooO3ITsACZsPCOpBmroFQVZjmFhPj8/edit?usp=drivesdk
Bachelor's degree - Delhi University
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