Clarifying Gandhi #2: the Machine and the Village

One of the big areas of confusion about Gandhi, are his views on technology and machines, and how they relate to his ideals. This angle on Gandhi, like the food-chain, finds building-blocks with duty, varna (social ordering), trusteeship, his vows of non-possession and non-stealing, education, and much more. Indeed, to paraphrase one of our great American sages, John Muiri, it is difficult to pull out a single subject in Gandhi’s thought, without finding that it is hitched to everything else.

For Gandhi, his views on machines were guided by his certainty that:

“God of truth and justice can never create distinctions of high and low among His own children.”ii

At age 55, Gandhi returned to India in 1915, after nearly 27 years abroad in UK and South Africa. Industrialization had dawned heavily in the western nations, noisily processing the spoils of resources and labor from the colonies. His two community experiments in South Africa had shown him the value of communal living in pursuit of high ideals, bodily labor for the common good, simplicity, austerity, and a close relationship with Nature.

MKG head only 60's

He spent a year in political silence, traveling all around India, observing conditions. In his day, 90% of the population lived rurallyiii, today the statistics say 70% .iv Villagers, for the most part, were in deplorable poverty. He felt great anguish, and sought through every means he could muster, for the rest of his life, to improve their lot. He knew, that the India of his dreams could never thrive, unless the welfare of the masses, and therefore village life, was priority #1.

Seeking to carry India’s elite with him, for it was they who would make themselves leaders of the new nation, Gandhi hammered out a new vision for India’s progress. The birth of a great nation, filled with village republics, humming productively with cottage industries, localized economies, that supplied the nations material needs; civic minded and informed inhabitants, well-nourished, versed not only in letters, but also music, arts, Nature Cure, social sanitation; with leisure time for individual development – re-creation. It was an India that was true to its own genius, not one in useless and sorry imitation of the West. He told the young elite:

“I know that man cannot live without industry. Therefore I cannot be opposed to industrialization. But I have a great concern about introducing machine industry. The machine produces much too fast, and brings with it a sort of economic system which I cannot grasp. I do not want to accept something when I see its evil effects which outweigh whatever good it brings with it. I want the dumb millions of our land to be healthy and happy and I want them to grow spiritually. As yet, for this purpose we do not need the machine. There are many, too many idle hands…

“There are two schools of thought current in the world. One wants to divide the world into cities and the other into villages. The village civilization and the city civilization are totally different things. One depends on machinery and industrialization and the other on handicrafts. We have given preference to the latter.”v

It was a contradictory image from what young, English-educated India was trained to desire. Urban life, for a few, was opulent, elite, western-oriented, and lived off the toils of the village, without adequate renumeration of any kind. Rural life was seen as a pit of in-sanitation, human ignorance, material poverty, and social rigidity. Over a hundred years of British style education, made young, elite, India view their rural brethren as primitive, and the life of the farmer, as dirty.

Remarkably, in 33 years, Gandhi succeeded: the necessity of rural reform was recognized and taken up in earnest by thousands of sincere co-workers. With the assistance of the independent Congress Party, he placed a vision of his ideals for genuine nation building into nearly every corner and hamlet of India. He called his vision – “Gram Swaraj” (Village Self-Rule). He gained the cooperation, enthusiastic support, and goodwill of the masses. They were ready to help usher in a new dawn in India, that would include their interests as well.

Gandhi captured the universal heart thrumming in the masses of India's poor

Gandhi captured the universal heart thrumming in the masses of India’s poor

His personal vows of non-possession, his love of simplicity, his austerity, and his outspoken warnings of the dangers the masses of India would face if industrialization came to India, caused him to be regarded as anti-machine and anti-tech by the elite. The misunderstanding was news to him. His secretary, Pyarelal, recorded one conversation with Gandhi, then, age 55.

“Are you against all machinery, Bapuji?”

“How can I be when I know that even this body is a most delicate piece of machinery? The spinning wheel itself is a machine, a little toothpick is a machine. What I object to is the craze for machinery, not machinery as such. The craze is for what they call labor-saving machinery. Men go on `saving labor’ till thousands are without work and thrown on the open streets to die of starvation. I want to save time and labor, not for a fraction of mankind, but for all. I want the concentration of wealth, not in the hands of a few, but in the hands of all. Today machinery merely helps a few to ride on the backs of millions. The impetus behind it all is not the philanthropy to save labor, but greed. It is against this constitution of things that I am fighting with all my might.”vi

In his blue-print for the new nation which he strove mightily to imprint upon India’s psyche, the role of technology, machinery, and mass production would be for the service of society, for unleashing the potentials of the individual, enhancing creativity, over idleness:

“The supreme consideration is [the hu-]man. The machine should not tend to make atrophied the limbs of man. For instance, I would make intelligent exceptions. Take the case of the Singer Sewing Machine. It is one of the few useful things ever invented and there is a romance about the device itself. Singer saw his wife laboring over the tedious process of sewing and seaming with her own hands and simply out of love for her he devised the sewing machine, in order to save her from unnecessary labor. He, however, saved not only her labor but also the labor of everyone who could purchase a sewing machine.”vii (Age 55.)

In the modernization of the village, he saw that the usage of industrial works would need to be shifted from a capitalist perspective to that of a trusteeshipviii, from industry which lived for individual profit and amassing, to industry that seeks to serve rural village life. He championed early attempts at economic Cooperatives, in essence, he conceived of a business structure akin to today’s “social business” or “benefit corporation”:

“I do visualize electricity, ship-building, iron-works, machine-making and the like existing side by side with village handicrafts. But the order of dependence will be reversed. Hitherto the industrialization has been so planned as to destroy the villages and village-crafts. In the State of the future, it will sub-serve the village and their crafts.”ix (Age 70)

He was to stress again and again:“Scientific truths and discoveries should first of all cease to be mere instruments of greed… – I am aiming not at eradication of all machinery but limitation.”x(Age 55.)

Yet, he knew that the new Indian State would leave its ideals, led by those educated for the British Raj, faced also with the temptations and baser instincts of power and greed. Members of the dominant political party—the Indian National Congress, which initially took much inspiration and guidance from Gandhi, and gained popularity from him, wanted the Big Machine in India. At age 70, Gandhi wrote to the nation through his newspaper:

“Pandit Nehru [India’s first Prime Minister] wants industrialization because he thinks that, if it is socialized, it would be free from the evils of capitalism. My own view is that the evils are inherent in industrialism, and no amount of socialism can eradicate them.”xi

Gandhi began to vehemently oppose the the western model of industrialization, struggling to help the elite understand:

“I have been opposed to it, not from today, but even before 1908 when I was in South Africa

surrounded by machines. Their onward march had not only not impressed me but had repelled me. It then dawned on me that to suppress and exploit the millions, the machine was the device par excellence, it had no place in man’s [people’s] economy, if, as social units, all men were to be equal.xii(Age 76.)

Gandhi saw the tide swelling in, a tide which is now well over our heads in the US, as we live with 20% unemployedxiii, homes foreclosed, dependents, neighbors and communities afflicted, with nature stripped and destroyed world-wide, by corporations that seek profit – above any and all human or environmental considerations.

Never has history known before or since, such a massive flower of human awakening, that Gandhi’s village work represented. As political power and position became secured, there was a blatant rejection by India’s elite and leadership of Gandhi’s ideals, his careful nurturing of village economics that would sustain life, in favor of the very models that had destroyed India in the first place, only with Indian masters, instead of British.

This, in retrospect, is perhaps one of the most historically criminal acts; the education received at the hands of the British Raj had blinded the elite. Gandhi’s name and ideals were political fodder for over 30 years. Power secured, they were thrown away. He is only a token “Father of the Nation”. We can all see the condition of India todayxiv. Had power followed through in carrying out the vision and plan he so carefully nurtured, by example, India would have paved the way for a more just governance for our species, we would have been on the trajectory to world peace.

It was Gandhi’s love for all human beings, his desire for social justice that enable him to understand the duty of the state and industry, their roles in supporting human life and creating a just economic system. It has been said that “God created villages, man made cities.” In applying these ideas to our strapped times today, we find gentle solutions, that we naturally turn towards, that work.

From: Sarvodaya Mandal, Mumbai, India

From: Sarvodaya Mandal, Mumbai, India

P.K. Willey



i“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” John Muir.  My First Summer in the Sierra , 1911, page 110.

iiTendulkar, D.G.(1920). Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Vol.3 : 221.. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi.

iii1911 Census on population by towns and villages.

ivThe Hindu. (July 15, 2011). About 70 per cent Indians live in rural areas: Census report. As seen Aug 19, 2014.

vGandhi, M.K., Vyas, H.M.~(compiler) (1962). Village Swaraj: 22. Navajivan, Ahmedabad.

vi Gandhi, M.K. (1924). Young India: November 13.

vii Gandhi, M.K. (1924). Young India: November 13.

viiiTrusteeship – to be expounded upon.

ix Gandhi, M.K. (1940). Harijan: January 17.

x Gandhi, M.K. (1924). Young India: November 13.

xi Gandhi, M.K. (1940). Harijan: September 29.

xii Gandhi, M.K. (1946). Harijan: August 25.

xiii Durden, T. (2014) The Real Unemployment Rate: In 20% Of American Families, Everyone Is Unemployed. As seen Aug. 21, 2014.

xivNelson, D. (2013). India has one third of world’s poorest, says World Bank. As seen August 21, 2014.

Also Published in: King, T. (Editor & Publisher). (2014). Neighbors. September – October. No. 130. Clarifying Gandhi: The Machine and the Village. pps. 14-15, 36-37.

PK Willey

PK Willey, Ph.D., is an American, a Gandhian scholar, author and entrepreneur, who has delved deeply into Gandhi's Earth Ethics. Willey seeks to enhance philosophical discourse around the world where globalization has altered ethical values, particularly in the USA. Willey finds Gandhi's ideas, thoughts, and example, to be invaluable in this effort. Currently, besides numerous articles and book projects,Willey is developing a new framework for qualitative research that employs Earth Ethics, guided by a Gandhian compass and Weibust's Transformative Paradigm.

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