In the modern mechanistic and rationalistic society individual freedom stands for an abstract individualism. Here liberty means absence of every kind of social or traditional restraints. The modern portrayal of social systems as the sum of the interactions of autonomous individuals responding to their individual values ignores interconnections between people and nature. As Ashis Nandy says in Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias, ‘In an interdependent world, total autonomy for one means the reduction of the autonomy of others.’ A society will be but an abstract concept if we do not think in terms of the individuals who form it. An individual is equally an abstract entity without a society to live in.
Gandhi appreciated individual freedom and individual autonomy but his celebration of freedom is very different from the conventional liberal ones. Although Gandhi has been called “as one of the most revolutionary of individuals and one of the most individualistic of revolutionaries in the world today” he was against unrestricted individualism. (Nehru once declared he wanted revolution and Gandhi replied: “When your exuberance has subsided and your lungs are exhausted, you will come to me, if you are really serious about making a revolution.”) His individualism does not call for the inflation of the individual's ego. He recognized the importance of preserving social institutions that put limits on that ego. He encumbers agents with duties and assigns them responsibilities to lead a moral life and attend to the good of their community.
While it is the duty and responsibility of society to plan for the fullest possible development of the best in every individual, it is equally necessary that the individual render back unto society what he, in fact, owes to society. Thus there has to be a balancing of rights and obligations between the individuals and the society which they compose. Gandhi therefore gave the greatest importance to the flowering of the individual in a properly ordered society, and not merely to organization and systems. Man must learn he said, “to strike the mean between individual freedom and social restraint. Willing submission to social restraint for the sake of the well-being of the whole society, enriches both the individual and the society of which one is a member.' (Harijan, 27-5-1939)
Gandhi once said that if we are not careful, then seven “deadly sins” will destroy us. They are: a) Wealth Without Work; b) Pleasure Without Conscience; c) Knowledge Without Character; d) Commerce (Business) Without Morality (Ethics); e) Science Without Humanity; f) Religion Without Sacrifice; g) Politics Without Principle. All of them have to do with social and political conditions. We can see around us the result of the nations/people revelling in these “sins”. Gandhi thinks that modernity makes people 'morally numb 'because of their exclusive focus on production and consumption for satisfying their material needs.
In Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse describes two types of games people play during social interactions. Finite games are played within set rules, or boundaries, have a clear beginning and a clear end and are played for the purpose of ending the game and declaring a winner and a loser. Infinite games have no beginning and no end. Infinite players play with the rules and the boundaries of the game, not within them and it has no winners and losers. Infinite play is played for the sake of continued play. Carse describes infinite gamers as people who think beyond the artificial constructs of our lives (nations, societies, possessions, etc.)
To play the infinite game is to choose to play WITH the limitations imposed by the game rather than WITHIN these limitations. Infinite players expect to be surprised. “Surprise causes finite play to end; it is the reason for infinite play to continue.” A finite player is trained not only to anticipate every future possibility, but to control the future. “To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.” Because infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness. It is not an openness as in candor, but an openness as in vulnerability.
Gandhi was the quintessential infinite player. He regarded each interaction among humans and between humans and nature as one small part of an an infinite series of interactions. For the moderns, each such interaction is a finite one whose benefits have to be maximized in their favour. They are the familiar contests in everyday life in business and politics. Infinite players have little interest in such politics, since they are not concerned to find how much freedom is available within the given realities. They want to show how freely we have decided to place these particular boundaries around our finite play.
The gains in finite games are more in the short term but their costs are greater in the long term and remain hidden for quite a while. By the time these costs become visible, it is too late to do anything about them. Gandhi thinks that modernity does nothing to rein in the dark side of humans which always lurks beneath the surface even in best of human beings and this progressively reduces their ability to take care of their lives. He continually points out the long-term cost on various social goods when focus is on short-term gains by chasing abstract measures like growth, productivity and efficiency. As Kurt Vonnegut says, 'A sane person to an insane society must appear insane.'
Gandhi should not be interpreted literally but should be read hermetically. He frequently observed that his guiding principles were far more important than his specific proposals, and that others who shared the former might legitimately disagree with the latter. He constantly challenges modern assumptions that many take to be certain like the power of reason or the inevitability of progress. He does not offer final solutions that are frozen for all time but rather tries to enlarge the debate that many thought was already settled. He thinks that no solution can be accepted as final because all such solutions are capable of being abused necessitating continued struggle against whatever is the dominant ideology. As the British conservative Michael Joseph Oakeshott said, 'The conjunction of ruling and dreaming generates tyranny.'
Gandhi made a sharp distinction between the Dharma of the common man or the masses and that of the power elite. He said that although “primary virtues” can be cultivated by “the meanest of the human species,” the more austere ones were to be followed by the elite. The more power a person had the greater the demand that Gandhi made on him which is the opposite of what happens today. He said in Young India on 15-10-1931, 'It is good enough to talk of God whilst we are sitting here after a nice breakfast and looking forward to a nicer luncheon. But how am I to talk of God to the millions who have to go without two meals a day? To them God can only appear as bread and butter.'
If the idealism preached by Gandhi appear to be impracticable, it is because we fail to make a distinction between the two different sets of norms that Gandhi set for the masses and the elite. About the outlandishness of his ideas, he said in Harijan, 28-7-1946: 'I may be taunted with the retort that this is all Utopian and, therefore, not worth a single thought. If Euclid's point, though incapable of being drawn by human agency, has an imperishable value, my picture has its own for mankind to live. Let India live for this true picture, though never realizable in its completeness. We must have a proper picture of what we want, before we can have something approaching it.'
With Gandhi’s death India lost its strongest voice for intellectual autonomy who was less taken in by the intellectual fashions of the day than others. In an age when the spectre of mass control raises its head everywhere, he insisted that freedom and intellectual integrity were values worth defending even when faced with death. Toward the end of his tenure Nehru wrote: “When many years ago, most of us…..were participating in the struggle for freedom under the leadership of Gandhiji, we had that larger vision all the time — not only of freedom but of something more. There was a social objective, a vision of the future which we were going to build, and that gave us a certain vitality, a certain measure of a crusading spirit. Now most of us are perhaps lost….” In the introduction to a collection of essays by Ashis Nandy, Bonfire of Creeds, Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash write:
Venerated as the saintly Father of independent India, a new national state, Gandhi was summarily dismissed as a political thinker. It was assumed that he had no role to play in the development of the new state, busy ‘catching up’ in the global race defined and initiated by the industrial mode of production. The meaning and depth of Gandhi’s revolutionary ideas were either not understood or, worse, distorted and mutilated by India’s western-educated elites.
For that matter, his ideas were radically rejected even by those who called themselves his heirs and brain-children and were leading the new India towards its ‘tryst with destiny’. Few cared to see how and why Gandhi, looking ahead, sought to bypass the industrial revotion. They re-read Gandhi’s non-cooperation as a means of keeping them behind in the race set up by the western industrial project.
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