Mahatma Gandhi in a letter dated May 18, 1911 advised his nephew and disciple Maganlal Gandhi to read Jonathan Swift’s masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels (1726) again and again. One may wonder why Gandhi, then a civil rights activist residing in South Africa, would recommend a satire, later read primarily as a child fable, to his twenty-eight-year old close associate Maganlal. In Gandhi’s letters, the effusive praise for Swift, an Irish author and priest, is a refrain, for in Gulliver’s Travels he found an ‘effective condemnation’ of modern civilization and colonial modernity. Though Gandhi’s worldview was forged by several authors like Ruskin, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Marx, and others, Swift was the only one, who like Gandhi, directly suffered and stood up to British colonialism. His fascination with Swift’s quasi-travelogue allows us to revisit and unearth not only the similarities between the Indian saint and the Irish priest but also its relevance in contemporary times.
It is self-evident that modern civilization is characterized by industrialization, imperialism, rationalism, individualism, and promotion of a scientific culture. Jonathan Swift’s views on colonialism, modernity, science and governance sans ethics appear to have immensely influenced Gandhi during his formative years in South Africa (1893-1914).
Swift and Gandhi both were incisive critics of colonialism; both perceived the achievements of modernity and the Enlightenment sceptically; they both acknowledged the role of religion in shaping their viewpoints. They thought of rationalism as a false and destructive doctrine. They also shared the double burden of being both victims as well as beneficiaries of colonial modernity. Initially, during his stay in England as a law student, a young Gandhi lived like an Englishman, wore a suit, kept a silver-headed cane and took lessons in dancing and violin. When he reached South Africa as a young barrister in 1893, he thought of himself ‘as a Briton first and an Indian Second,’ writes Arthur Herman in his book Gandhi and Churchill (2008). But soon the cultural pride that Gandhi drew on his English education and way of life began to fade away after undergoing racial discrimination, when he was thrown off the first class compartment of the train at Pietermaritzburg.
Though as a white man, Swift did not have to undergo any kind of racial discrimination yet Ireland was brutally subjugated by England in every possible way. Swift, despite his Irish identity, initially thought of himself as an Englishman and constantly sought favour from the British establishment. To please the British Queen, he even wrote a pamphlet A Tale of a Tub (1704), an allegory on various branches of Christianity. To his utmost surprise, the satirical representation of the English Church infuriated Queen Anne so much that all his chances of promotion within the English Church ended forever. What Pietermaritzburg did to Gandhi, A Tale of a Tub did to Swift, making him painfully aware of his colonized identity.
This publishing debacle has been humorously fictionalised in Gulliver’s Travels, where Swift briefly recasts himself as Gulliver and the British Queen as the queen of the imaginary island Lilliput. On the one hand, Swift’s pamphlet scandalized the queen, and on the other, his fictional creation Gulliver had to face the wrath of the queen of Lilliput for extinguishing the palace fire by urinating on it. There are several parallels between Swift’s gradual disenchantment with his English lineage and Gandhi’s disillusionment with a borrowed English identity.
Swift satirises the colonization of Ireland in the Book III of Gulliver’s Travels, with reference to a flying island called Laputa. The given island, a fictional representation of England, symbolizes a totalitarian state, which is totally divorced from its subjects, and chooses to govern its subjects scientifically, and not morally. Governance without morality invariably leads to an authoritarian state. The self-absorbed Laputan King and his entourage may be disconnected from the real world but they are quick enough to crush any rebellion by ensuring the universal destruction of the dissenting subjects.
Swift examines the dire consequences of divorcing science and governance from morality and the immediate concerns of the masses. The scientists of the island are so absorbed in their unproductive pursuits like extracting sunshine out of cucumber, or reducing human excrement to its original food that they cannot address even their practical needs of speaking and listening. They hire a domestic servant who tells them when to listen or to speak. Their bizarre and illogical experiments lead to large swathes of barren land and impoverished masses.
Swift, as a satirist and master of irony, takes his critique of abstract science to an extreme, and enables the readers to easily comprehend the absurd ways of a totalitarian state. It was this impoverished and shallow morality of modern civilization and colonial state that Gandhi denounced in Hind Swaraj (1909) as fundamentally rotten. Gandhi calls modern civilization ‘Satanic’, ‘a Black Age,’ for it primarily focuses on securing bodily comforts but fails miserably even in doing so. He unambiguously and plainly rejects the imperialist, exploitative, materialistic, individualistic and violent side of the machine driven age as directionless and purposeless. Though the idea that an abstract science and philosophy in an absolutist state may lead to unspeakable violence originated in the eighteenth century Europe, it became a harsh reality for Indians during the heyday of colonialism. This Swiftian narrative became a recurring metaphor in Gandhi’s oeuvre.
The inner paradox of modernity is more palpable than ever today, when India, on the one hand, has emerged as the third largest economy, and on the other, it ranks abysmally low in the World Happiness Index (133rd) and the Human Development Index (130th). To understand the catastrophic outcome of the abuse of science and reason in contemporary times, it makes good sense to follow Gandhi’s advice –and revisit Gulliver’s Travels.