On the quest to find the lost Charkha

“I … claim for the Charkha the honour of being able to solve the problem of economic distress in a most natural, simple, inexpensive and business like manner….. It is the symbol of the nation’s prosperity and, therefore, freedom. It is a symbol not of commercial war but of commercial peace.”

There is no doubt that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi believed in a notion of self-prosperity, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and in one word, the concept of Swaraj. As is evident from the aforementioned words from a column in Young India, Gandhi deemed it necessary that the spinning wheel is preserved in a free India. The basic tenet of Gandhian economics, as it is known widely now, is regional self-sufficiency, or Gram Swaraj. For this, he believed that the traditional handicraft industry must be revived. The wheel being at the center of a network of cotton growers, carders, weavers, distributors, and users, was considered very rightly the “sun” of the “solar system” of the Gandhian Programme.

Charkha requires full bodily labor and hardly any skill. Any able-bodied man could be made prosperous by its regular (and rather mundane) use. The wheel, by its very design, is a rather direct conversion of manual energy and thus any exploitation of the process will directly affect us. This kind of machine one can instead call a tool. This is in contrast to the modern-day machine, which is a rather indirect conversion and thus, a rather indirect effect of our actions and exploitation. To put it clearly, we use our mind and theorize about understanding the natural laws so that we can exploit them in place of us, to fulfill our needs (and ours alone). So, we can say that the stress of Gandhi on Charkha over the industrial-era machines is primarily a distinction between a tool and a machine. 

Heidegger also makes a similar distinction when introducing his many neologies to describe our attitudes to different things in the world (as modes of being). Ready-to-hand (to fit into a meaningful network of purposes and functions) is differentiated from present-at-hand (to be given as an object to a theoretical gaze). One must note that while this distinction is made based on the attitude of the person operating the thing, in the above paragraph, the tool is contrasted from the machine based on the processes of energy conversions involved in the operation of the thing. One can very well say that Gandhi had both these views in his mind and not just one when he proclaimed the necessity of spinning to make the people self-sufficient and thus, able to survive on their own and also, in unison. 


Gandhi further goes on to say –
I do not know whether I am a Karmayogi or any other Yogi. I know that I cannot live without work. I crave to die with my hand at the spinning-wheel.”

Sadhguru describes Karma Yoga as – “To do something which does not mean anything to you but with total involvement is what breaks the karmic structure.” A tool by its involvement and a natural ready-to-hand attitude towards it, makes such a Yoga to arise. But a machine, due to the rather apparent unequal energy conservation, present-at-hand tendency, makes it almost impossible to achieve such a transcendent state. 

As we very well know, the Charkha has all but vanished 72 years after the death of the great visionary. It goes without saying that with him died the very dream as well. I claim here that a modern computer is indeed the Charkha of the 21st century. The eternal companion, the one worth dying with which was lost post World War II, was reborn as the paradigm-shifting, ground-breaking technology of the new age. But just as this revival hasn’t come easy, the associated transcendence doesn’t come easy as well. It is an ambiguous piece of metal ready to be molded into any desired shape. It is dubious to believe that we as a species have developed genetically to accept this technology as ready-to-hand but with some bit of knowledge of mathematics, language, and a bit of the power of habit, this can become as dear a companion as the man’s best friend. 

One often hears these days about the pros and cons of the things and items. But a little introspection can tell us that a thing as it is, doesn’t have any — it’s relative to us and really depends only on our perception and interpretation of them. Thus, what we really are saying when we say “pros and cons”, is how to match our expectations and our outlook about the thing in question in order to get the best experience. About a modern computer, as is very well known to anybody reading this digital information, it is merely a tool that performs whatever you want to do with it. It serves many purposes indeed – entertainment, knowledge-transfer, enabling scientific research, connecting people, etc. Most of all, it can in itself become a source of income as well. But its usage has become entirely subjective in comparison to a Charkha which was pretty much objective. If we look at it from this point of view, a Charkha would look even more enslaving than a computer. When Gandhiji said “we would become slaves”, he must have meant with regard to the ideology of capitalism that comes with a machine. But a modern-day computer is liberating and makes the man his own master and self-sufficient — in fact even more vividly than a past-day Charkha. 

Now, we must discuss the question of energy conversion with respect to a PC. Superficially, one can operate a computer as a commanding-interface but a basic computing knowledge I believe is extremely important. If one understands and considers the underlying computational time and space trade-offs and an essential bit of the architecture, only then will his/her involvement truly become sustainable (energy-wise). This is because what the machine performs is also realized by the man, at a higher level at least. Thus, any exploitation whatsoever will be kept in check not physically but mentally through the various considerations. Someone might say here that this could have been achieved in a cotton mill also, but then one must note that this is the reason there’s a “P” in front of the PC. Due to its subjective usage, the man is the master himself – the very epitome of self-sufficiency if controlled and as described above, also a possible sustainable solution. 

In India, in particular, computers failed to take such a position majorly due to educatio-economical reasons. It is widely considered that our former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi envisioned the IT revolution in India back in the 1980s and brought many considerable changes. In this rapidly-changing world, 40 years is a long long time. But it is quite evident that the dream is still very much a dream only – our villages and the common men are still empty-handed and are still on the quest to find their lost Charkhas. 

By- Kartik Sharma














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