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10-08-2015, 23:10

Gandhi’s Vision

Indian society looks increasingly Western in form, if not in content. As in a number of other Asian and African societies, the distinction between traditional and modern, or native and westernized, sometimes seems to be a simple dichotomy between rural and urban. The major cities appear modern and westernized, but the villages have changed little since precolonial days. Yet traditional practices appear to be more resilient in India than in many other societies, and the result is often a synthesis rather than a clash between conflicting institutions and values. Unlike China, India has not rejected its past but merely adjusted it to meet the needs of the present. Clothing styles in the streets, where the sari and dhoti continue to be popular; religious practices in the temples; and social relationships in the home all testify to the importance of tradition in India. One disadvantage of the eclectic approach, which seeks to blend the old and the new rather than choosing one over the other, is that sometimes contrasting traditions cannot be reconciled. In India: A Wounded Civilization, V. S. Naipaul (b. 1932), a West Indian of Indian descent, charged that Mahatma Gandhi’s glorification of poverty and the simple Indian village was an obstacle to efforts to overcome the poverty, ignorance, and degradation of India’s past and build a prosperous modern society. Gandhi’s vision of a spiritual India, Naipaul complained, was a balm for defeatism and an excuse for failure. Certainly, India faces a difficult dilemma. Some problems are undoubtedly a consequence of the colonial era, but the British cannot be blamed for all of the country’s economic and social ills. To build a democratic, prosperous society, the Indian people must discard many of their traditional convictions and customs. Belief in karma and inherent caste distinctions are incompatible with the democratic belief in equality before the law. These traditional beliefs also undercut the work ethic and the modern sentiment of nationalism. So long as Indians accept their fate as predetermined, they will find it difficult to change their environment and create a new society. Yet their traditional beliefs provide a measure of identity and solace often lacking in other societies, where such traditional spiritual underpinnings have eroded. Destroying India’s traditional means of coping with a disagreeable reality without changing that reality would be cruel indeed.