What Is Swaraj?

The concept of swaraj, or self-rule, was developed during the Indian freedom struggle. In his book Hind Swaraj (1909), Gandhi sought to clarify that the meaning behind swaraj was much more than simply "wanting [systems of] English rule without the Englishman; the tiger's nature but not the tiger." The crux of his argument centered on the belief that the socio-spiritual underpinnings of British political, economic, bureaucratic, legal, military, and educational institutions were inherently unjust, exploitative and alienating. As Pinto explicates, "The principal theme of Hind Swaraj is the moral inadequacy of western civilization, especially its industrialism, as the model for free India." Gandhi was particularly critical of the deeply embedded principles of 'might is right' and 'survival of the fittest'.

On another level, the call for swaraj represents a genuine attempt to regain control of the 'self' - our self-respect, self-responsibility, and capacities for self-realization - from institutions of dehumanization. As Gandhi states, "It is swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves." The real goal of the freedom struggle was not only to secure political azadi (independence) from Britain, but rather to gain true swaraj (liberation and self-rule).

Gandhi wanted all those who believed in swaraj: (1) to reject and wholly uproot the British raj (rule) from within themselves and their communities; and, (2) to regenerate new reference points, systems, and structures that enable individual and collective self-development. This regeneration was to grow from the strengths, perspectives, wisdom and experiences of people living in village India, rather than from cities in Britain, America, and even in India for that matter. Understanding the real 'Self', and its relation to communities and society, is critical to the project of attaining swaraj.

How is this relevant for us today?  We feel that South Asia (along with the rest of the world) is experiencing a tremendous crisis, one overwhelming in its scale and pace of growth.  While it is easy to get caught up in the symptoms of this crisis (the brutal violence, the enormous inequities, the extinction of cultures and languages, the degradation of the environment), it is equally, if not more, important to understand its roots.  We must creatively analyze the content and the consequences of our current economic, political, social, and educational systems, without reverting to a romanticized past of so-called untouched or pristine traditions.

From these critical reflections, we must generate new spaces, systems, and processes - based on moral and holistic visions of human potential and human progress - which can lead us out of the global self-destruction which engulfs us. Throughout it all, we must consider and negotiate our own roles, while asking ourselves how we are either working for solutions or contributing to making the crisis worse. Thus, today, we recognize Gandhi's concept of swaraj integral to three parallel action-reflection agendas for the 21st century: 

  1. Decolonization of the Mind: Understanding the Roots of the Crisis Before Us
  2. Revaluation and Critical Traditionalism: We Have to Learn from the Past, but We Can't Go Back
  3. Creative Regeneration: Growing New Ways Forward