Dr. D. Jeevan Kumar
Sudheendra Kulkarni, ‘Music of the Spinning Wheel:
Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age’,
Amaryllis Publications, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 725.
Of all the great figures of the 20th century, Gandhi has perhaps best stood the test of time. In the aftermath of a century of unprecedented mass violence, many see in him the prophet of the only possible future for mankind, a future without hatred, greed and lust for power. Interest in Gandhi’s thought and actions is on the increase, and his message to the world appears uniquely relevant. He remains however, in many ways, an enigma.
The one aspect of Gandhian thought that is most enigmatic is his outlook towards science, technology and industrialization. Gandhi’s views on industrialization did not commend themselves to the Indian intelligentsia. To many of his eminent contemporaries, Gandhian economics seemed a throwback to primitiveness; to a utopian pre-industrial position which was untenable in the modern world.
But was Gandhi really opposed to industrialization and to modern science and technology? Did he, with his unusual ideas on development, seek to take India back in time, to the ‘dark medieval age’, as some of his critics claim? Or was he a visionary who not only foretold moral degradation and the looming crisis in development, but also showed an alternative path of development that is both pro-people and protective of the environment? Was he utopian in his insistence that science, economics and ethics must go together, or was his insistence a warning that the world has ignored at its peril? Would he have shunned the Internet, arguably the greatest technological invention of mankind, or embraced it? What would he have said about nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and other breathtaking promises of science and technology in the twenty-first century?
States the author of the book under review: “The more I dug into this subject, the more convinced I became that Gandhi was far from being an opponent of modern science and technology. On the contrary, by redefining development, the Gandhian vision seeks to relocate that place of science and its practical uses in the overall terrain of human affairs where it can promote mankind’s holistic progress, and not be used for exploitation and violence.”
The purpose of this book is not merely to dynamite the mountain of misconception on this score that survives even six decades after Gandhi’s death. It is not merely to demonstrate that the moral symbolism of khadi and charkha has an abiding relevance for the twenty-first century. Rather, it is also to postulate that the Internet – and all other digital-era technologies supported by it – have the potential to realize the kernel of what Gandhi had been envisioning to achieve through the spinning wheel: a new, nonviolent, inter-dependent, cooperative, sustainable and morally guided world order.
The future world shaped by digital technologies could well validate and actualize the fundamental philosophy of the spinning wheel. This possibility has arisen because the socio-economic and political conditions that gave rise to the use of science and technology in the pre-Internet era for the domination and disempowerment of large masses of people, are speedily changing in the age of the Internet. A new networked global community is emerging in which the Internet and digital technologies are providing intellectual and practical tools to the common people to change social, political and economic structures.
Indeed, as far as the transformative power of the digital-age technologies is concerned, mankind has so far seen only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The twenty-first century will bring a tsunami of changes that will transform the material aspects of our world beyond recognition at all levels – global, national and local.
These technology-driven changes, the book argues, will prove Gandhi right. “For they will mean transition from globalization to glocalisation; from centralization to decentralization; from power and prosperity in the hands of a few to many; from prosperity defined purely in material terms to that which gives primacy to the richness of culture and ethical values; from unhealthy competition to healthy cooperation; from an exploitative attitude towards nature and its resources to an attitude of harmonious co-living. The disconnect between economics and ethics, which the world has experienced for the past several centuries with the onset of colonialism and the mad race to conquer distant markets, will be substantially reduced. Old technologies gave birth to this exploitative order. New technologies, if used wisely, will dig its grave. Several forms of large-scale violence, such as wars between nation-states, will become a thing of the past. Isn’t this what khadi and the spinning wheel of Gandhi’s conception stood for?”
The principal learning from Gandhi’s charkha movement is that technology must empower the common man and that it should be a binding force for society to pursue a lofty goal. Both of these are true for the Internet. Anyone can connect to it freely.
Anyone can benefit from, and contribute to, the ocean of information and knowledge contained in it. In the process, the Internet has also become a new uniting power on a planetary scale by bringing individuals, groups, countries and cultures together in virtual as well as real spaces. Indeed, it is mid-wifing the birth of altogether new communities cutting across physical, racial, religious, economic and cultural barriers. Thus, it has become more than a technology of empowerment; it has become an ally and a catalyst in human evolution.
As Jean-Francois Noubel, says, ‘We are currently witnessing the evolution from localized collective intelligence to global collective intelligence’.
This can have a profound impact on the nature of economic, social, political and governance organizations in the future. Today’s large organizations, which are the products of the industrial revolution, colonialism, capitalism, communism and variants of these, work mostly on the predatory instincts of self-survival, control, conquest or elimination of the adversary, disrespect for the environment and lip service to human dignity. Violence in some form or the other is hard-wired into the functioning of many of these organizations. In contrast, the Internet has been slowly spawning new kinds of collectivities which promote Gandhian values such as cooperation, mutual trust and caring, sharing of resources and collective growth.
The author introduces a caveat here by affirming that the Internet has the potential to realize the ideals that Gandhi associated with the charkha. However, whether its potential is substantially realized in the coming decades or not depends on the wisdom content of a number of other socio-political factors.
Actualization of the enormous potential of the Internet to promote nonviolent and sustainable development depends on the morally self-restrained conduct of individuals and institutions. Hence this book also contains philosophical speculation about the future of information technology, based on some prescient thoughts of Gandhi himself on Satyagrahaand Swaraj. In the Gandhian conception, Satya (Truth) also defines the moral and ontological dimension of life, and is not merely the true-false matrix that drives scientific research in the material world.
Similarly, swaraj means a lot more than political ‘freedom’ for a nation. It essentially means enlightened and ethically guided self-governance, in which the ‘self’ stands as much for the individual as for the other concentric social institutions in what Gandhi describes as the ‘Oceanic Circle’. This Oceanic Circle is circumscribed by the infinite Cosmic Self – God Himself, who, according to Gandhi, is a synonym for Truth. In Vedantic terms, it represents a non-hierarchical order starting from identifying the self with the individual being at the lowest end to the Universal Being at the highest. In other words, an individual or a nation can be said to have attained swaraj only if their conduct is in alignment with the canons of truth. Similarly, satyagraha (insistence for truth or truth force) of the Mahatma’s conception was not merely a tactic or a method of protest, as it has unfortunately been reduced to today. Clinging to truth had to be a way of life in every human activity in every era of history.
A clarification on the title of the book would be in order. Gandhi’s quest for truth and nonviolence was also a quest for harmony. And the most universal language of harmony is music. He frequently uses the term ‘music of the spinning wheel’ in his writings on thecharkha and khadi.
All of us netizens around the world have to ask ourselves: How can we experience the music of harmony within ourselves when we work on the Internet? And how can we spread, and actualize, the message of harmony through our work.
This book is not the work of idle academic curiosity about an iconic figure of yesteryears. It is a call to action and service, based on the author’s reflections on what Gandhi means to India and the world, today and tomorrow. Our country, in particular, needs to rediscover the relevance of his teachings, if it is not to commit the follies of its own past and, also, if it is not to repeat the follies of the West. In Gandhi’s teachings, we find the right guidance to reunite our divided society and also our fractured subcontinent. In his teachings, we find the right principles to reform our economic and political systems, both of which are today mired in deepening corruption. In his teachings, we find that a new and harmonious Man-Nature relationship, which is now badly ruptured to the detriment of both, can indeed be created with the right use of modern technologies. Finally, his teachings are also a call, as described in this book, for human beings to become ‘more than human’ by ascending the God-ward evolutionary path.
‘Music of the Spinning Wheel’ presents Mahatma Gandhi’s life and mission in an altogether new and integral light, through the prism of the perils and possibilities of the Internet Age. Perhaps for the first time in Gandhian literature, this book discovers a correlation between the amazing potential of the Internet and the moral message of the spinning wheel. It also highlights the abiding relevance of Gandhian thought and ideas – from economics to education, from nature cure to environment protection, from sex to women’s empowerment, and from politics to peacemaking and peace-building.
Supported by an original and incisive exploration, the book argues that the Internet, and the many digital technologies spawned by it, has the potential to actualize the Mahatma’s ideals. In the process, the book also dynamites the widespread misconception that Gandhi was against modern science and technology. After surveying modern science’s journey, the book makes an optimistic prediction: “The marriage of modern technologies with swarajya and satyagraha, understood in the Gandhian sense, will shape tomorrow’s just and non-violent world.”
However, the author also places a cautionary caveat: “The Internet’s potential to inaugurate a new phase in human evolution can be realized only if the world’s affairs, and also our individual lives, are radically re-ordered along a strong ethical axis. Hence the book’s inspiring call to denizens of the digital world to become ‘Internet Satyagrahis’.
‘Music of the Spinning Wheel’ is indeed a meticulously researched re-projection of Mahatma Gandhi as a techno-savvy seer for India and the world. The author deserves to be complimented for undertaking a voluminous exercise that runs into as many as 725 pages – without, at any point, appearing to bore the reader. The possible monotony that could arise when going through the volume is relieved by cartoons, caricatures, sketches and photographs. The book should be made compulsory reading in courses of Gandhian Studies, both in India and across the world. The book should also stimulate a meaningful discussion, through seminars and workshops, on the major ideas expressed in it.
Dr. D. Jeevan Kumar
Professor of Political Science, and
Director, Centre for Gandhian Studies
Bangalore University, Bangalore-560056