Morality and Modernity


 In Hind Swaraj and “A Manifesto for a Re-appraisal and Reconstruction of Chinese Culture”, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Mao Zong San examine the relationship between traditional values and progress through the hallmark of modernity: scientific and technological advancement. However, their treatment of it is starkly different – to Gandhi, science and technology are disruptions to the traditional way of life. Modernity is viewed as a great evil that brings about abject misery and widespread moral corruption. Unlike Gandhi, Mao embraces modernity and the scientific and technological progress that it heralds. He envisions a synthesis of traditional cultural practices and modern scientific pursuits.

Although the authors recommend differing approaches towards modernity, they are ultimately working towards similar goals. Gandhi’s strongest objection to the proliferation of science and technology stems from the belief that they prevent individuals from attaining swaraj, which is the “mastery over [their] mind and [their] passions” (Gandhi, p.80). Despite his contrasting view, Mao also aims for a kind of self-rule, where the morality of individuals comes from an “understanding [that] is purely within oneself” (Mao, p. 463). The tension in their views lies in the fact that Gandhi believes morals can only flourish in an environment that more closely resembles the agrarian state of nature while Mao believes that scientific progress can enhance the spiritual life of the Chinese.

Firstly, Gandhi and Mao have opposing views on modernity because they evaluate the effects of science and technology very differently. In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi strongly castigates the revolutionary symbols of man’s progress for the harm they cause. The machine, which propels the “growth of the mill-industry” (Gandhi, p. 117), robs the common man of his freedom by enslaving him in “mills” (Gandhi, p. 117). Technology worsens the stratification of society as the poor labor away in shocking work conditions while factory owners “amassed wealth” (Gandhi, p. 117). Similarly, modern inventions such as railways, which are supposed to improve the standard of living by facilitating trade, actually function as “carriers of plague germs” (Gandhi, p. 62). The grand promises of modernity are undermined by the reality of misery, and Gandhi asserts that is because technology is a deviation from man’s natural state. “Artificial” (Gandhi, p. 119) methods of transport go against “Nature” (p. 119) by allowing man to bypass his natural limitations, for “Nature has not provided any way whereby [he] may reach a desired goal all of a sudden” (Gandhi, p. 120). Rather, Gandhi idealizes the lifestyle of “small villages” (Gandhi, p. 81) where people engage in the “agricultural occupation” (Gandhi, p. 81). He completely rejects modernity for a return to the primitive state of nature where people assume ownership of the land instead of being enslaved by machinery.

While the perceived detriments of modernity lead Gandhi to favor a traditional lifestyle, Mao does not draw such a sharp distinction between traditional practices and the scientific development of modern times. Mao begins from the position that science and technology are social goods that the Chinese civilization has pursued since ancient times. He cites various examples of historical attempts to develop “astronomical, mathematical and medical knowledge” (Mao, p. 469), and declares that ancient China actually “laid much emphasis” (Mao, p. 469) on scientific and technological advancement. Thus, Mao does not believe that the long-held traditions of China are antithetical to the scientific pursuits of modern China – in fact, he asserts that Chinese traditional culture contains the “seeds” of “science and technology” (Mao, p. 469). This nature-centric description of the modern’s relationship to the traditional illuminates the differences in Mao’s views. Unlike Gandhi, Mao sees science and technology as something organically nurtured from the traditional foundations set in ancient China. Modernity, then, is the “natural direction of progress” (Mao, p. 468), rather than a violent imposition. Its key difference from the traditional ways of the past lies in the openness to “[absorb]” “whatever is good” (Mao, p. 469), such as the “scientific spirit of the West” (Mao, p. 469). Modernity is the acknowledgement of traditional limitations to China’s scientific methods; so as to revive China’s strength in science and technology and succeed where ancient efforts were “destined to fail” (Mao, p. 470).

However, it would be mistaken to dismiss Gandhi’s opposition to modernity as a failure to recognize the economic and social benefits that Mao seems to accept without question. In his criticism of science and technology, Gandhi blames the fact that the “health of the people have suffered” (p. 119) on technologically advanced “locomotion” (p. 119). In his work, Gandhi often compares the technology-driven Western civilization to a “disease” (Gandhi, p. 52), but this attribution of poor physical health to modernity is partially metaphorical. For Gandhi, the ultimate consequence of modernity is spiritual decay, and he makes this explicit with the example of railways as “a distributing agency for the evil one” (Gandhi, p. 63). Beyond his view of railways as a tool for the wicked, Gandhi believes that technology corrupts people by allowing them to “make bodily welfare the object of life” (Gandhi, p. 49). “Steam engines” (Gandhi, p. 49) etc. allow people to “amass great wealth” (Gandhi, p. 49), and they are in turn enslaved by the “temptation of money” (Gandhi, p. 50). The greed that technology breeds is evident in his example of people who sell their “grain” (Gandhi, p. 62) to the “dearest markets” (Gandhi, p. 62) that offer the highest profits despite the prospect of “famine” (Gandhi, p. 62) for the poor. In fact, Gandhi even accuses the life-saving benefits of medical technology of “induce[ing] us to indulge” (Gandhi, p. 78) in vices by allowing us to escape the consequences. This artificial intervention by man prevents nature from “[doing] its work” (Gandhi, p. 77), and man does not feel the urgency to “acquire[d] mastery over [himself]” (Gandhi, p. 77).

Instead of a true civilization where all adhere to the “path of duty” (Gandhi, p. 80), the civilization of modernity feeds the preoccupation on material desires and distracts people from the spiritual quest of swaraj, or the ability to govern one’s own desires. The moral corruption of modernity has political implications for India as well because Gandhi believes that true Swaraj can occur only when it has been “experienced, by each one for himself” (Gandhi, p. 84). Furthermore, technological advancements facilitate commerce as goods can be transported swiftly, and Gandhi suggests that the people lost their political freedom because they were blinded by their desire for profit and “commerce” (Gandhi, p. 55). To Gandhi, moral swaraj and modernity are fundamentally irreconcilable, and India must make the difficult choice of renouncing the latter.

In contrast, Mao believes that modernity and morality are not mutually exclusive. He does not view modern civilization as the spiritual “disease” (Gandhi, p. 52) that must be cured. Instead, Mao believes that China’s traditional culture is “diseased” (Mao, p. 460) and the antidote can be found in modern scientific and technological reforms. Mao begins his treatise with an exploration of “hsin-hsin”, a traditional doctrine of morality that is at the “core of Chinese culture” (Mao, p. 464). He establishes an interdependent relationship between the moral cultivation of “hsin-hsin” and scientific development by noting that efforts to develop “water conservation and irrigation, agricultural development [and] medical research” (Mao, p. 470) in ancient times could not succeed without “the activity of ‘hsin-hsin’” (Mao, p. 470). In fact, unlike Gandhi, Mao does not believe that morality is the only goal for mankind, and he even acknowledges the necessity of a “temporary suspension” (Mao, p. 470) of the “moral consciousness” (Mao, p. 470) in order to adapt the objective Western model of scientific development to China. The self-realization of the intellect is equally important to our development as “moral beings” (Mao, p. 470). Failing to achieve the former can actually disadvantage our pursuit of morality because the “moral self” (Mao, p. 470) will lose the “benefit” (Mao, p. 470) of the intellect. Thus, Mao advocates the preservation of traditional moral doctrines like “hsin-hsin” (Mao, p. 464) alongside modern scientific and technological progress. Both enhance each other, and a “proper balance of the two elements” (Mao, p. 470) is characterized as a melodious “harmony” (Mao, p. 470) that allows man to fulfill his “supreme function” (Mao, p. 470) as a sentient being. This belief that modernity is an essential component for the elevation of mankind contradicts Gandhi’s view that India is being degraded and “ground down” (Gandhi, p. 57) under the “heel” (Gandhi, p. 57) of the modern civilization.

Despite their conflicting approaches towards modernity, the cherished ideals that the authors are working towards are strikingly similar. Mao describes the “hsin-hsin” doctrine as one where moral acts are “oriented towards the outward” (Mao, p. 463) while moral comprehension lies solely within the individual. Gandhi’s idea of swaraj, or self-mastery, similarly places a premium on individual agency. Both are also seen as foundations to human interconnectedness – while personal swaraj is a prerequisite for the unifying national force of Swaraj, the understanding of “hsin-hsin” will “comprise the nation and the entire universe” (Mao, p. 463). For Gandhi, this can only be achieved when man eliminates modern artifices that reinforce divisions and returns to an agrarian communal lifestyle closer to nature. In contrast, Mao dreams of blending in the best of modern and traditional elements to strengthen China.


Mao, Zong San. “A Manifesto for a Re-appraisal of Sinology and Reconstruction of Chinese Culture”. The Development of Neo-Confucian Thought. Vol. II. New York: Bookman Associations, 1962.

Gandhi, Mohandas K. Hind Swaraj . San Bernindo, CA: Pothi, 2013.


Categories: Philosophy

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