10/02/2013 06:20 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Hind Swaraj: Mahatma Gandhi's Timeless Manifesto for "Self-Rule"

My earliest memories of Mahatma Gandhi involve confusion about his divinity. My parents, being from a generation that grew up in the last days of British rule, garlanded Gandhiji's portrait dutifully each year. I thought it meant he was a god too, like Shiva, or Vishnu. Then, when I was about eight, our school took us en masse to watch a special morning show documentary. Seeing Gandhi walk, and laugh, somehow made him seem more human, though no less a hero. Yet, for all the Gandhi-reverence we learned in our schools and culture, it seems to me an incredible loss that I did not ever get a chance to read his book Hind Swaraj anywhere in the course of my school or college education. Now that I teach it in some of my classes, I realize what an important work this is and how relevant it is any liberal arts curriculum.

Admittedly, one requires some academic preparation (or just life) before appreciating Gandhi's thought. Yet, the fact that we learned little about his own thinking beyond some catch-phrases in our childhood seems regrettable. Perhaps as a result, today we find so many of our own meanings written over Gandhi that we have hardly begun, outside academic and activist circles perhaps, to respectfully recognize how he saw the world. In bits and pieces, like the bumper stickers his words sometimes adorn, we have gathered together an image of the man; the Mahatma, the new age icon, the peaceful activist, the father of the nation, and in innumerable Indian movies a betrayed portrait in corrupt government offices. More recently, we have seen the rise of a Gandhi-bashing cult too. Mere children denounce him as a traitor, to some identity-group or the other. Bizarre internet memes, such as those that followed the Great Soul controversy two years ago, presume to call him a fraud (when even the author of that book made no such claims). But the fact remains that we still rejoice when a movie like Lage Raho Munnabhai celebrates him in a contemporary Bollywood idiom, and learn much when new books are written about him.

While many disciplines are exploring Gandhian thought today, the most useful task for educators in general would be to rediscover the one work that comes close to a manifesto from Gandhi. Biographies inspire, but the words of a man who has not yet reached the peak of his calling, and yet has seen enough of the world already to make a statement about it, is a useful indication of the depth of the mind that would guide the life. In its context, Hind Swaraj may have been written as a response to a militant, or at least a conventionally political vision of independence espoused by young radical Indians that Gandhi encountered while visiting England. Gandhi wrote it, feverishly, on the ship SS Kildonan Castle while returning from England in November 1909 (I say "feverishly," because he supposedly used his left hand to write when the right ached and could work no more).

Despite its seemingly simple form of a dialogue between "a reader" and "an editor," it is a tremendous vision of a world going wrong as we watched (and for the mythically minded, one cannot help think of Krishna and Arjuna on their battlefield, too, while reading parts of it). One hundred years later, much of what he has said still seems relevant; from the dangers of mass transportation to the harm done by a medical philosophy that treated only symptoms and not the causes of illness. At the very least, as a media student, I am struck by his criticism that "today, anyone can abuse his fellow by means of a letter for one penny." Clearly, the price for spreading hate has not suffered from inflation at all in the last century.

At a time when many young, modern Indians were becoming enchanted by the new promises of modernity and modern technologies (and in particular, the promise of the gun as a method for fighting for freedom), Gandhi cautioned us against the cost, environmental, social, and ethical, that would come with them.

Hind Swaraj is not however a mere call to return to some mythical past, though it is an eloquent critique of modernity. Critiquing modernity often makes us defensive, like the character of the "reader" in the dialogue. In fact, seen only in parts, Gandhi's position in Hind Swaraj might seem old-fashioned, traditionalist, eccentric, even. It fits into an image the modern mind has made for him; as a leader who did his part to mobilize the masses but then had no place with his naïve anti-modern views. It is not easy to grasp Gandhi's critique of modernity because the world-story we have grown up with for the past two generations too easily dismisses his argument. Yet, for all the superior claims, of an academic, political, or just un-civil nature, against Gandhi's relevance, the fact remains that he named the world we were all heading into as profoundly unnatural, undemocratic, and of course, unsustainable. To gain the ability to name the world itself as wrong is a great skill; unfortunately, only extremists and the real eccentrics today seem to be able to do it successfully.

What we need now therefore, more than ever, is for the half a billion Indian children and youth growing up two generations after Gandhi (and their cohorts around the world), to learn that skill too. They see it in their movies anyway, like the Matrix, and yearn for something to fill the world-story they want to reject. Yet, to bring that sensibility into their own lives is something their conventional education hardly prepares them to do. Reading Hind Swaraj, and understanding the mind of Gandhi will be one way to learn to do it. The most important insight from this book is after all, that swaraj was not about merely replacing one government with another. True swaraj was about learning to rule over one's own mind, a goal that a media-saturated generation needs to pursue diligently. The world honors Mahatma Gandhi on his birthday each year. But the real honor, to him, and to the dignity he saw in all of us, would be to commit to learning more about how he saw the world, and for that Hind Swaraj is simply unsurpassed as a guide. I hope more of us get a chance to read it in our schools and colleges now than in the past. Its ideas for political transformation may seem impractical today at a material level (which government would lead its country back to peaceful self-sufficient villages?) but its insight that political change has to be begin with spiritual change, with "mastery over one's self," is profoundly true even now. Read it, and you will find something you felt you always knew being profoundly affirmed. It is a song of hope for humanity in the face of a world going tremendously wrong. It is, ultimately, an anthem for what Gandhi calls the "religion that underlies all religions."