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This is the third in a series of posts on Asha Achuthan's Rewiring Bodies project. In this post, Asha looks at the Tagore-Gandhi debates on technology to throw some light on the question of whether there was a nationalist alternative to the technology offered by the West.

'Pandit Nehru wants industrialization because he thinks that, if it is socialized, it would be free from the evils of capitalism. My own view is that evils are inherent in industrialism, and no amount of socialization can eradicate them.'
'Instead of welcoming machinery as a boon, we should look upon it as an evil.'
"Division of labour there will necessarily be, but it will be a division into various species of body labour and not a division into intellectual labour to be confined to one class and body labour to be confined to another class."
But where am I among the crowd, pushed from behind, pressed from all sides? And what is this noise about me? If it is a song, then my own sitar can catch the tune and I join in the chorus, for I am a singer. But if it is a shout, then my voice is wrecked and I am lost in bewilderment. I have been trying all these days to find in it a melody, straining my ear, but the idea of non-cooperation with its mighty volume of sound does not sing to me, its congregated menace of negations shouts. And I say to myself, “If you cannot keep step with your countrymen at this great crisis of their history, never say that you are right and the rest of them wrong; only give up your role as a soldier, go back to your corner as a poet, be ready to accept popular derision and disgrace.
(Tagore 1921: Chatterjee 56)


The Tagore-Gandhi debates – as a window on the contestations between the ambivalent 'modern' somewhat removed from the mainstream of nationalist politics, and the recalcitrant 'pastoral' within the same stream – perhaps give a better idea of the responses to modernity and science than the Nehru-Gandhi dialogues or the former's reading of the latter's philosophy. In a series of letters exchanged between 1929 and 1933, and earlier, in debates conducted in the pages of Young India and Modern Review, Gandhi and Tagore spoke to each other of rural reconstruction, of the possibilities and limits of handicraft industries and the charkha programme, of the discourse of science as opposed to that of religiosity. Although a lot of the dialogue between them is neither direct nor addressing the other’s concerns fully, both had blueprints for rural programmes of self-sufficiency; both were opposed to heavy technology, both were opposed to state views on education. For both thinkers, the anti-colonial struggle was symbolised in the protest against foreign cloth, heavy technology, or government-sponsored education. This protest, in the form of the call for swaraj, differed in nuance in Tagore and Gandhi, but essentially it signified a moral freedom from the West, a dignity of human labour, a protection of the intellect from colonization. Swaraj would involve, for both, a reconstruction of life – the moral as well as the material.

For both, the moral and the material were inextricably linked; the difference seems to be in the stress on attaining material freedom through the moral in Tagore, and on attaining moral freedom through material activity in Gandhi’s thought. Nowhere was this more evident than in the different systems of schooling, both outside the state-sponsored system, that Gandhi and Tagore set up, in Wardha and Santiniketan respectively. Both had different and powerful analyses of the hegemony of western science, and consequently different views on the nature of oppositional practice. A point Akeel Bilgrami has noted about Gandhi’s thought may be true of both thinkers here, namely, the integrity of their thought, the difficulty of picking strands of it regarding particular issues, or of separating their political impulses from their epistemological ones. Let us, for our purposes, however, force such an initial strand, and take up the programme/metaphor of the charkha as 'cottage machine'[1] to look at the debate around development and technology that ensued around it between the two thinkers.

For Gandhi, the charkha programme was a symbol for rural cooperation – a 'non-co-operation … neither with the English, nor with the West [but] with the system the English have established' (1921, ‘The Great Sentinel’, addressed to Tagore). That system indicated the broad sweep of Western materialism, expressed in hugely consumptive desires, and for Gandhi, the charkha stood for a rejection of this exchange value for use value – self-sufficiency. Gandhi’s early proposals around spinning the charkha offered an alternative programme of rural construction, particularly the exercise of self-sufficiency. These were followed up in 1921 in the laying down of 'indispensable conditions for swaraj' (188-9). Later, he stood firm through Tagore’s qualified scepticism and other critiques, moving from the larger programme to charkha as spiritual metaphor; 'To the perplexed', he said that 'I do regard the spinning-wheel as a gateway to my spiritual salvation, but I recommend it to others only as a powerful weapon for the attainment of swaraj and the amelioration of the economic condition of the country' (Gandhi Collected Works vol. 30, 450-1, 1958, quoted in Chatterjee 1986: 108). In response to the poet’s chagrin at the requirement of all to spin, 'I do indeed ask the poet and the sage to spin the wheel as a sacrament. ... The call of the spinning wheel is the ... call of love. And love is swaraj. The spinning wheel will 'curb the mind' when the time is spent on necessary physical labour can be said to do so. ... I do want growth ... but I want all these for the soul. ... A plea for the spinning wheel is a plea for recognising the dignity of labour.' 88-9. That growth of the soul, that spiritual salvation, the actual realisation of swaraj, meant for Gandhi the rejection of the ‘system’ – the moral force that made it irrelevant. That system included the railways and hospitals, which, however, Gandhi was not 'aiming at destroying … though [he] would certainly welcome their natural destruction … Still less … [was he] trying to destroy all machinery and mills' (Gandhi Young India 26 January 1921, 33, Chatterjee).[2] For he made the conventional acknowledgement that '[m]achinery has its place; it has come to stay. But it must not be allowed to displace the necessary human labour ... I would welcome every improvement in the cottage machine but I know that it is criminal to displace the hand labour by the introduction of power-driven spindles unless one is at the same time ready to give millions of farmers some other occupation in their homes' (Gandhi 1925, 'The Poet and the charkha', Young India, 5 November, Chatterjee 125).

Was Tagore too as clearly opposed to heavy technology? The yantra danava is a recurring theme in his poetry, and even at the time of his critique of Gandhi’s charkha programme, he was writing, in plays like Mukta Dhara and Rakta Karabi, searing critiques of the effects of technology on people’s lives.[3] As far as the rejection of the West went, also, he was with Gandhi, holding him up as the 'Mahatma [who], frail in body and devoid of material resources, should call up the immense power of the meek …' ('Tagore’s reflections on non-cooperation and cooperation, Modern Review, May 1921, Chatterjee 55), and reminding his readers that 'I have seen the West; I covet not the unholy feast, in which she revels every moment, growing more and more bloated and red and dangerously delirious …' (ibid, 55-9). His was not the mode of Non-Cooperation, however, for this movement, with its 'noise', its particular strategems that instrumentalised, made 'barren and untrue' the spirit of the Mahatma’s words, failed to provide for him the ‘melody’ he needed.[4] On the yantra itself, Tagore clearly had ambivalent views, for on other occasions in his poetry he offers what might be homage – yantra namah.[5]

While the withering critique of railways, doctors and lawyers in Hind Swaraj exemplifies at least the early Gandhi’s views on these symbols of modernity and the need for their unconditional rejection,[6] Tagore reacted again and again to such a view, particularly to the moral element shoring it up, complaining, for instance, about the principles of the charkha programme - 'economics is bundled out and a fictitious moral dictum dragged in its place' (Tagore, ‘The Call of Truth’). While being opposed to heavy technology, Tagore refused to accede to the “magical formula that foreign cloth is impure” (Tagore, ‘The Call of Truth’). 'Swaraj,' he says, 'is not concerned with our apparel only - it cannot be established on cheap clothing; its foundation is in the mind ... in no country in the world is the building up of swaraj completed ... the root of such bondage is always within the mind. ... A mere statement, in lieu of argument, will never do. ... We have enough of magic in the country ... That is exactly why I am so anxious to re-instate reason on its throne.' [Chatterjee 82].

What, then, of his critique of Western materialism? 'You know that I do not believe in the material civilisation of the West just as I do not believe in the physical body to be the highest truth in man. But I still less believe in the destruction of the physical body, and the ignoring of the material necessities of life. What is needed is establishment of harmony between the physical and spiritual nature of man, maintaining of balance between the foundation and superstructure. I believe in the true meeting of the East and the West. Love is the ultimate truth of soul. We should do all we can, not to outrage that truth, to carry its banner against all opposition. The idea of non-cooperation unnecessarily hurts that truth. It is not our heart fire but the fire that burns out our hearth and home.' ('Tagore’s reflections on non-cooperation and cooperation', Modern Review, May 1921, Chatterjee 59)

In this sense, there was an affinity between Tagore and Nehru – with respect to desirable national attitudes to faith, unreason, or imperialist policy. For Tagore, swaraj was, as he wrote to Gandhi, 'maya, … like a mist, that will vanish leaving no stain on the radiance of the Eternal. However we may delude ourselves with the phrases learnt from the West, Swaraj is not our objective.' (Tagore 1921:)[7]

On the ability of the charkha to bring about rural reconstruction, Tagore avers – 'The discussion, so far, has proceeded on the assumption that the large-scale production of homespun thread and cloth will result in the alleviation of the country's poverty. ... My complaint is, that by the promulgation of this confusion between swaraj and charkha, the mind of the country is being distracted from swaraj.' [Chatterjee 118]. 'One thing is certain, that the all-embracing poverty which has overwhelmed our country cannot be removed by working with our hands to the neglect of science. … If a great union is to be achieved, its field must be great likewise ... the religion of economics is where we should above all try to bring about this union of ours.' [Chatterjee 104-6-7]. What Tagore perceived as happening in the charkha programme, on the other hand, was the 'raising of the charkha to a higher place than is its due, thereby distracting attention from other more important factors in our task of all-round reconstruction.' [Chatterjee 112].

Tagore had other problems with charkha and its being tied to swaraj. For one, the ‘cult’ of the charkha would not work for swaraj because it is an “external achievement”, apart from being a call to obedience that only recalled slavery in its worst form.[8] For another, the isolationism enshrined in the act of rejecting foreign cloth only seemed to bring back the “sin of untouchability” in the guise of the charkha versus ‘impure’ foreign cloth. Further, and here Tagore raises his most eloquent objection, his failure to see a difference between the charkha and the high machine that introduces repetitive activity, boredom, and alienation in human labour. “Humanity”, he says, “has ever been beset with the grave problem, how to rescue the large majority of the people from being reduced to the stage of machines. ...” [Chatterjee 104-5]. The discovery of the wheel signified, for Tagore, “[t]he facility of motion … given to inert matter [which] enabled it to bear much of man’s burden … [and t]his was but right, for Matter is the true shudra; while with his dual existence in body and mind, Man is a dwija. … Thus, whether in the shape of the spinning wheel, or the potter’s wheel or the wheel of a vehicle, the wheel has rescued innumerable men from the shudra’s estate …” (“The Cult of the Charkha”, Modern Review, September 1925, Chatterjee 104). In such a scenario, it may be argued that “spinning is … a creative act. But that is not so; for, by turning its wheel man merely becomes an appendage of the charkha; that is to say, he but does himself what a machine might have done: he converts his living energy into a dead turning movement. ... The machine is solitary ... likewise alone is the man ... for the thread produced by his charkha is not for him a thread of necessary relationship with others ... He becomes a machine, isolated, companionless” (ibid). And why is this? Tagore refers back, here, to the discus of Vishnu which signifies the “process of movement, the ever active power seeking fulfilment. … Man has [therefore] not yet come to the end of the power of the revolving wheel. So if we are taught that in the pristine charkha we have exhausted all the means of spinning thread, we shall not gain the favour of Vishnu … If we are wilfully blind to the grand vision of whirling forces, which science has revealed, the charkha will cease to have any message for us.” (Chatterjee 104) Therefore we must realise that “swaraj will advance, not propelled by the mechanical revolution of the charkha, but taken by the organic processes of its own living growth” [Chatterjee 121].

Tagore refers, again and again in his polemic, to the dynamicity inherent both in the truth of Vishnu, and in the progress of science, as against the dead burden of “rites and ceremonials” that have produced in “India’s people” the habit of relying on external agencies rather than on the self. The charkha embodies for Tagore such an external object, static. Is he then subsuming the wheel and its dynamicity in the discourse of science? A careful reading of Tagore’s polemic seems to suggest that his point is rather in examining the nature of material activity and making the connection, through dynamicity, without which neither science nor the charkha might have any value.

There were other differences. Tagore recognized that for Gandhi, productive manual work, such as that embodied in the charkha, was the "prime means of intellectual training" (Harijan, 18 sep 1937). The sort of oneness that such collective occupational activity may create for Gandhi, however, fails to move Tagore, for whom the act is a performance of sameness and stagnation. Charkha, he says, in one of his many tirades against the programme, is “a befogged reliance on … narrow paths as the sole means of gaining a vast realisation.” [Chatterjee 114]. As such, the philosophy of swaraj as it was being enacted, along with the programme of Non-cooperation and rejection of the West, only produced an isolation, a soliloquous discourse, a “struggle to alienate our heart and mind from those of the West … [that could only be] an attempt at spiritual suicide … India has ever declared”, he said, “that Unity is Truth, and separateness is maya. This unity … is that which comprehends all and therefore can never be reached through the path of negation … Therefore my one prayer is: let India stand for the cooperation of all peoples of the world. The spirit of rejection finds its support in the consciousness of separateness, the spirit of acceptance in the consciousness of unity” (Tagore’s reflections on non-cooperation and cooperation, Modern Review, May 1921, Chatterjee 62). More disturbing for him was the violence enshrined in the principle of Non-cooperation. “The idea of non-cooperation is political asceticism. ... It has at its back a fierce joy of annihilation which at best is asceticism, and at its worst is that orgy of frightfulness in which the human nature, losing faith in the basic reality of normal life, finds a disinterested delight in an unmeaning devastation ... [non-cooperation] in its passive moral form is asceticism and in its active moral form is violence. ... The desert is as much a form of himsa (malignance) as is the raging sea in storms, they both are against life” (Tagore’s reflections on non-cooperation and cooperation, Modern Review, May 1921, Chatterjee 57-8). Tagore was, perhaps, making a stronger critique, here, of the violence embedded in political collectivities, and the moral questions contained in non-violence as a practice.[9]

Gandhi responded to the polemic in several ways. At pains to explain to the poet the relevance of the charkha, he reminded the latter, in some exhaustion, that “I do not draw a sharp distinction ... between ethics and economics.” [Chatterjee 90]. Elsewhere he clarifies in no uncertain terms – “I am always reminded of one thing which the well-known British economist Adam Smith has said … he has described some economic laws as universal and absolute. Then he has described certain situations which may be an obstacle to the operation of these laws. These disturbing factors are the human nature, the human temperament or altruism inherent in it. Now, the economics of khadi is just opposite of it. Benevolence which is inherent in human nature is the very foundation of the economics of khadi. What Adam Smith has described as pure economic activity based merely on the calculations of profit and loss is a selfish attitude and it is an obstacle to the development of khadi; and it is the function of a champion of khadi to counteract this tendency.” (Chatterjee 81) Further, “… I have asked no one to abandon his calling, but on the contrary to adorn it by giving every day only thirty minutes to spinning as sacrifice for the whole nation. … The Poet thinks that the charkha is calculated to bring about a deathlike sameness in the nation and thus imagining he would shun it if he could. The truth is that the charkha is intended to realise the essential and living oneness of interest among India’s myriads … All I say is that there is a sameness, identity or oneness behind the multiplicity and variety. And so do I hold that behind a variety of occupations there is an indispensable sameness also of occupation” (Gandhi 1925, “The Poet and the charkha”, 124).

Does that involve a separation from the world, an isolationist discourse? Perhaps not … for “the message of Non-cooperation, Non-violence and swadeshi, is a message to the world ...[through] Non-cooperation [which] is a retirement within ourselves … [for i]n my humble opinion, rejection is as much an ideal as the acceptance of a thing. It is as necessary to reject untruth as it is to accept truth. ... I make bold to say that mukti (emancipation) is as much a negative state as nirvana. ... I therefore think that the Poet has been unnecessarily alarmed at the negative aspect of Non-cooperation. We had lost the power of saying 'no'.” [Chatterjee 66-7]. (“The Poet’s anxiety”. Young India, 1 June 1921). As to the rest of the world, “I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any ... Mine is not the religion of the prison house. It has room for the least among God’s creation. But it is proof against insolence, pride of race, religion or colour”[ Chatterjee 64]. (“The Poet’s anxiety”. Young India, 1 June 1921).

Elsewhere, in response to alternative positions like that of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya, who believed the absence of cultural attributes had resulted in India’s subjugation by the British, Gandhi spoke, rather, of the disjuncture between the prevailing politics and the morality of the community that had resulted in the same. Chatterjee presents the moment of Gandhi in nationalist politics as the moment of manoeuvre, proposing that Gandhi’s critique of civil society and representative democracy emerges through his reworking of the relationship between the moral and the political. Without going in to the merits of Chatterjee’s formulation here, we could try to understand this separation that Gandhi makes, in order to better understand his accompanying take not only on the value of science, but on a necessary relationship between its use and the morality of the community.

Again and again, in response to industrialisation, in response to the work of doctors of medicine, in response to “much that goes under the name of modern civilisation” (quoted in Chatterjee 1986: 80), Gandhi reacts. “I overeat, I have indigestion, I go to the doctor, he gives me medicine, I am cured. I overeat again, I take his pills again. Had I not taken the pills in the first instance, I would have suffered the punishment deserved by me and I would not have overeaten again. The doctor intervened and helped me to indulge myself” (Chatterjee 84). And so with history, and so with the law, all of which are the record of visible illness rather than of the truth. In Gandhi’s world, it would seem that “[t]rue knowledge [which] gives a moral standing and moral strength” (Chatterjee 119), can be the only basis for any politics. To that extent, Non-cooperation or satyagraha, as “intense political activity” rather than passive resistance, but in the form of a negation of the existing political frameworks, was born. The “disobedience” here was not only of the British administration, but of existing modalities of resistance. The positive content of the programme was that of rural construction through khadi and the charkha programme, which for Gandhi would be the true method of non-violent swaraj. This too, however, needed the abdication of the state from responsibility. The collectivity that Tagore found so suspect in this regard was for Gandhi an experiment in the modalities of non-violent mass resistance. And to Tagore’s eloquent argument against the charkha on account of its staticity, what more eloquent answer than this – “It is a charge against India that her people are so uncivilized, ignorant and stolid, that it is not possible to induce them to adopt any changes. It is a charge really against our merit. What we have tested and found true on the anvil of experience, we dare not change” (Chatterjee 96).

How does this otherwise rich polemic help us to understand positions on science and technology? Is Gandhi a pastoral philosopher or a peasant intellectual proposing a separate epistemic realm from that of the West? Can he be labelled a Luddite? Is he caught, like the European Romantics were, in the dilemma between Reason and Morality? Or is he making a fundamental distinction between truth and the knowledge encompassed in disciplines like science and history, suggesting that truth cannot but strike elsewhere from knowledge? While the answers to each of these may be difficult, while individual examples for each of these arguments may be found in Gandhi if not seen as part of the integral picture, and while any attempt to intellectualise his thought may be doomed from the start, I might perhaps attempt to say that there is, here, a critique of existing knowledge systems, of which scientific knowledge is one, that calls for a fundamentally new theory of knowledge, a theory of knowledge inextricably linked with morality, rather than a choice of alternate system from the ‘West’ or any other.


In the next post, coming in a few days from now, we will see how a peculiar conflation of these positions alongwith shifts in Marxist thinking in India helped to produce the classical responses to technology that then pervaded feminist thinking and other paradigmatic frameworks on thinking gender and technology.




[1] (Gandhi 1925, “The Poet and the charkha”, 125).

[2] Gandhi’s critique of these articles of faith of the scientific world, then, couched as it was in moral language, was clearly outside the thematic of nationalist politics, and more an attitude of selfness. While Nehru, for different reasons, had ambivalent responses to nationalism as an ideology, his responses were within the ambit of Enlightenment critiques of nationalism – a position Gandhi was clearly out of.

[3] Mukta Dhara – Free Current – on the question of construction of a large dam as symbolizing ‘man’s’ desire to control nature, or Rakta Karabi – Red Oleander – the story of a cruel king who lives behind an iron curtain while his subjects, working under terrible conditions in underground mines, suffer untold cruelties meted out by him, speak of displacement, the facelessness of technology, of power, of dehumanizing impulses in technology.

[4] Probably the sentiment Tagore experienced when he expressed his abhorrence of an instrumentalist view of satyagraha which he felt was being used as a “political gamble [while] their minds [continued to be] corroded by untruth …” Tagore’s ‘Call of Truth’, Modern Review.

[5] I am grateful to Prasanta Chakravarty for this useful insight.

[6] So that Romain Rolland calls Hind Swaraj 'the negation of Progress and also of European science.' [Chatterjee 1986: 85]

[7] This, from a Tagore who consistently held an anti-statist position, on the grounds that unlike in Europe, the State was never a central entity in the life of the Indian nation, and that further, in the present time, i.e. in British India, the state is external to society, rather than a part of it. “Our fight” as he puts it, “is a spiritual fight … to emancipate Man from the meshes … [of] these organisations of National Egoism … We have no word for Nation in our language. When we borrow this word from other people, it never fits us. For we are to make our league with Narayan …” (Tagore’s reflections on non-cooperation and cooperation, Modern Review, May 1921).

[8] Those for whom authority is needed instead of reason, will invariably accept despotism in place of freedom. ... [Chatterjee 82].

[9] Tagore draws parallels with his reading of the negativity of Buddhism to make his point – “Brahma-vidya (the cult of Brahma, the Infinite Being) in India has for its object mukti, emancipation, while Buddhism has nirvana, extinction. It may be argued that both have the same idea in different names. But names represent attitudes of mind, emphasize particular aspects of truth. Mukti draws our attention to the positive, and nirvana to the negative side of truth.

Buddha kept silence all through his teachings about the truth of the Om,  the everlasting yes, his implication being that by the negative path of destroying the self we naturally reach that truth. Therefore he emphasized the fact of dukkha (misery) which had to be avoided and the Brahma-vidya emphasized the fact of ananda, joy, which had to be attained. … Therefore, the idea of life’s training was different in the Vedic period from that of the Buddhistic. … The abnormal type of asceticism to which Buddhism gave rise in India reveled in celibacy and mutilation of life in all different forms …” (Tagore’s reflections on non-cooperation and cooperation, Modern Review, May 1921, Chatterjee 57). A significant difference in Tagore’s and Gandhi’s approach to the ‘moral’ seems to be in evidence here – while for the former it is a need for creativity that will be stifled by subjection to any constraint like collective action without the conviction of the reasoning intellect – be it ritual or any other “unreasoned creed” (The Call of Truth), for Gandhi, it was about self-denial – “Our civilization, our culture, our swaraj depend not upon multiplying our wants – self-indulgence, but upon restricting our wants – self-denial” (“The Conditions of swaraj”, Young India, 23 February 1921, Chatterjee 189). More than a simple separation of reason-unreason between the two thinkers as some commentators have made out, this may be read as a comment on the political that was reiterated by Tagore again in his repeated references to the separation between truth and the “barren stratagems of the political”, and moreover, the violence constitutive of the latter. In that respect, Gandhi’s later frustrations, and stepping away, from the movement, may suggest a greater overlap between their positions.

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