Gandhi's reading of John Ruskin’s Unto this Last made him “determined to change my life”, influencing his concept of “soul-force” as a substitute for physical force. He learnt from it that “the good of the individual is contained in the good of all . . . the lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s. . . a life of labor, ie, the life of a tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.” After his return to India, he used his philosophy of work to undermine the caste hierarchy that undermined manual labor in various social practices. He tried to re-legitimize the manual and the unclean and delegitimize the Brahminic and the clean. Ashis Nandy writes in Bonfire of Creeds:
I remember anthropologist Surajit Sinha once saying that while Rabindranath Tagore wanted to turn all Indians into Brahmans, Gandhi sought to turn them into Shudras. This can be read as an indictment of Gandhi; it can be read as a homage.
And every Indian social thinker and activist has to make his or her choice some time or the other; for to say glibly that one must in the long run abolish both the categories is to fight in the short run for the Brahminic world-view. Exactly as to work for the future removal of poverty without touching the super rich in the present is to collaborate with the latter.
A year after his return he asked a group of students, ‘…I consider that a barber’s profession is just as good as the profession of medicine’. At that time, a barber’s profession was meant for untouchables and the medical profession provided entry into the ranks of the Westernized elite so Gandhi’s statement would have been incredible for the students. He further stated that only when these ideas are clearly understood ‘and not until then, you may come into politics’. Indians, according to him had not developed its scientist-engineers like in the west because:
We are apt to think lightly of the village crafts because we have divorced educational from manual training. Manual work has been regarded as something inferior, and owing to the wretched distortion of the varna, we came to regard spinners and weavers and carpenters and shoemakers as belonging to the inferior castes and the proletariat.
We have had no Comptons and Hargreaves because of this vicious system of considering the crafts as something inferior divorced from the skilled. If they had been regarded as callings having an independent status of their own equal to the status that learning enjoyed, we should have had great inventors from among our craftsmen.
Gandhi was anxious that those engaged in physical labor should not be looked down upon and their place should be considered equal to those engaged in intellectual pursuits. He thought that it is the wide gulf between manual and intellectual labor that is the cause of poverty and inequality in society. Gandhi said that the labor test would be far superior to that either of literacy or property for a person to take part in government. He held that voters could not become pawns in the hands of politicians by becoming self-reliant through this principle. He held that this would enable people to have the capacity to resist authority and prevent the formation of a small class of exploiting rulers and a large class of exploited subjects.
It was not that Gandhi held intellectual labor in low esteem. He even says at one place that he would allow those with greater intellect to earn more. But he believed that all should perform manual labor, irrespective of their professions, so that the load of physical labor was not borne unfairly by some and a sense of identification was created with the hardships of others. Spinning and khadi must be seen in this context. While for the poor, it provided some additional income during the off-season, for others it was a form of sacrifice.
But the pragmatic in Gandhi had been overwhelmed by the idealist in pursuit of an egalitarian, just society which is why there are contradictions in Gandhi’s argument. He asserts that professionals should not expect payment for their work, but at the same time, he was willing to allow those with greater intellect to earn more.
The importance of using ones hands also informed his views on science. In a speech he delivered to a group of college students in Trivandrum in March 1925, Gandhi said that he appreciated the urge that led scientists to conduct basic research, to do ‘science for the sake of science’. But he worried that scientists and science students in India came overwhelmingly from the middle class (and upper castes), and hence knew only to use their minds and not their hands. His own view was that it would be ‘utterly impossible for a boy to understand the secrets of science or the pleasures and the delights that scientific pursuits can give, if that boy is not prepared to use his hands, to tuck up his sleeves and labor like an ordinary laborer in the streets’. For only if one’s ‘hands go hand in hand with your heads’, could one properly place science in the service of humanity.
Without an understanding of practical needs as developed through such labor, scientific research was unlikely to benefit the masses. In Young India of September 1, 1921, Gandhi wrote, “Our children should not be so taught as to despise labor. It is a sad thing that our school boys look upon manual labor with disfavor, if not contempt.” With this view he exhorted the science students to work with their hands, as science was one of the few things that involved accuracy of thought and accuracy of handling. Gandhi's critique of education, both modern and traditional, was based on the place of manual and crafts work in its overall scheme. He was convinced that:
The utterly false idea that intelligence can be developed only through book reading should give place to the truth that the quickest development of the mind can be achieved by artisan's work being learnt in a scientific manner. True development of the mind commences immediately the apprentice is taught at every step why a particular manipulation of the hand or a tool is required (Harijan, 9-I-37, 386).
The demands that he made were revolutionary and required profound changes in thinking about work, caste, religion and politics. Following his critique of traditions from the standpoint of a believer, he argues that the stagnation in matters of science was inevitable if the practice of untouchability persisted. He said, 'We look down upon those who do manual work. Had we assigned to craftsmen and artisans a place of dignity in society, like other countries we too would have produced many scientists and engineers
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