There is dignity in weaving and spinning. That is what Mahatma Gandhi reiterated in 1920 in an article titled The Music of the Spinning-Wheel in his weekly paper, Young India.

He invoked two examples of weavers drawn from medieval Indian history – Aurangzeb and Kabir. The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, noted for his austerity, is believed to have made his own skull caps. Kabir, who Gandhi believed to be a “greater emperor”, was a weaver who immortalised the art in his poems.

Reacting favourably to Madan Mohan Malaviya’s efforts to persuade India’s maharajas and maharanis to spin yarn and use handlooms to weave cloth for the nation, Gandhi wrote:

“The queens of Europe before Europe was caught in Satan’s trap, spun yarn and considered it a noble calling. The very words – ‘spinster’ and ‘wife’, prove the ancient dignity of the art of spinning and weaving. ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman’ also reminds one of the same fact.”

Going by this, one can argue that Gandhi would not have contested the decision of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission to replace him in its annual calendar with a photograph of Prime Minister Narendra Modi spinning yarn using a charkha. But his vast body of writings around khadi and the charkha also suggest that he was not oblivious to the possible misuse of khadi by someone with shrewd political sense.

Charkha’s liberating potential

Gandhi minced no words in unweaving the socio-economic, political and spiritual layers of khadi. The charkha, predominantly a political weapon of the Swadeshi movement, had a solid socio-economic context. It was a socially-liberating instrument, as anyone, irrespective of caste, gender, age and status, could spin thread. At the same time, spinning on the crudest form of the charkha made of bamboo and a spindle required barely any literacy, technical skills or investment.

In fact the charkha “kept the villagers from idleness”. It also created work associated with spinning and weaving such as ginning, carding, warping, sizing or dyeing. It provided educated unemployed youths with an opportunity to shed their inflated self-importance by learning these technical skills from otherwise marginalised groups.

Gandhi estimated the liberating potential of the charkha on unique grounds. It included a intelligently thought-out basis too. The musical effect produced by the whirling sound of the charkha was part of his spiritual esthesis. He extolled the virtues of the charkha on various occasions by calling it annapurna (the giver of food and nourishment), Kamdhenu (a wish-fulfilling cow), yajna (a ritual sacrifice), an instrument for those aspiring to brahmacharya (celibacy), and the gateway to moksha (spiritual salvation). This drew a lot of flak from various quarters.

Taking note of many such criticisms, Gandhi wrote a long piece in Young India on May 16, 1926. In this article, titled Cobwebs of Ignorance, he said:

“That is just the sort of handicap under which the simple and straight movement of the spinning-wheel is labouring today. It is expected to fulfil conditions which no one ever claimed it to fulfil, and when it fails to do so, the blame is laid at its door rather than at the critic’s!”

Gandhi’s spiritual quest through the charkha attracted some philosophically profound interventions even from his admirers. Rabindranath Tagore was one of them.

Tagore’s essay titled The Cult of the Charkha appeared in September 1925, after rounds of correspondence between the two. Critiquing Gandhi’s position on the charkha, Tagore said:

“How often have any personal feelings of regard strongly urged me to accept at Mahatma Gandhi’s hands my enlistment as a follower of the charkha cult, but as often have my reason and conscience restrained me, lest I should be a party to the raising of the charkha to a higher place than is its due, thereby distracting attention from other more important factors in our task of all-round reconstruction.”

Earlier, in October 1921, Tagore had written a more critical essay on the issue, titled Call of Truth. But Gandhi’s conviction in the charkha was unshakable. Referring to Tagore’s essay even while he appreciated his criticism, Gandhi wrote an elaborate article in Young India on October 13, 1921, comparing the verses of the Bhagvad Gita with the role of the charkha.

He wrote:

“I have again and again appealed to reason, and let me assure him, that if happily the country has come to believe in the spinning-wheel as the giver of plenty, it has done so after laborious thinking, after great hesitation. I am not sure, that even now educated India has assimilated the truth underlying the charkha. He must not mistake the surface dirt for the substance underneath. Let him go deeper and see for himself whether the charkha has been accepted from blind faith or from reasoned necessity.”

Gandhi went on to urge Tagore to spin yarn by saying, “I do indeed ask the Poet and the page to spin the wheel as a sacrament.”

He also wrote to Tagore nine verses of the third chapter of the Bhagwad Gita to substantiate his assertions regarding the charkha. In the next issue of Young India Gandhi further elaborated on these verses, and the crux of that piece was: work is more excellent than idleness.

Gandhi believed that the charkha offered an interim yet instant solution to the idleness, unemployment and starvation prevailing in the country at that time.

‘The butter for bread’

Although his critics always pitted the charkha against the more organised and efficient production system of mills, in Gandhi’s understanding of economics, the charkha was never meant to compete with mills.

He wrote:

“I have not contemplated, much less advised, the abandonment of a single healthy, lifegiving industrial activity for the sake of hand-spinning. The entire foundation of the spinning-wheel rests on the fact that there are crores of semi-unemployed people in India. And I should admit that if there were none such, there would be no room for the spinning-wheel. But as a matter of fact everybody who has been to our villages knows that they have months of idleness which may prove their ruin. Even my appeal to the middle class people to spin for sacrifice is with reference to their spare hours. The spinning-wheel movement is destructive of no enterprise whatever. It is a life-giving activity. And that is why I have called it Annapurna or the butter for bread or the replenisher.”

Nevertheless, Gandhi was well aware of the fact that the moral high ground associated with khadi and the charkha might provide some people with an opportunity to misuse it in order to gaudily exhibit their self-righteousness. He cautioned against this tendency in the strongest words in an article published in the Gujarati weekly newspaper Navajivan on December 4, 1921:

“Wheat is sacred grain, but it is eaten by a sannyasi and also by a thief. Likewise, the wicked and the virtuous both may wear the sacred khadi…It is true that, in this period of transition, other virtues are attributed to khadi and hypocrites prosper in their hypocrisy by dressing themselves in khadi. This cannot go on for long.”

Gandhi cigarettes

Brand Gandhi has always been used and misused by both noble and vested interests. From restaurants to beer, and from pens to rubber chappals, his name has always been subjected to both strategic advantage and contempt. Gandhi, if he were alive today, would certainly not be amused to see how his name is being used for all sorts of political and business interests including khadi.

An interesting episode of his life helps us understand his thoughts on the issue. During the non-cooperation movement, Gandhi’s popularity soared so much so that a cigarette company launched Mahatma Gandhi cigarettes to encash on his fame.

Reacting to this, Gandhi wrote in Young India on January 12, 1921:

“Of all the abuses to which my name has been put, I know nothing so humiliating to me as the deliberate association of my name with cigarettes. A friend has sent me a label purporting to bear my portrait. The cigarettes are called ‘Mahatma Gandhi cigarettes’... No one has received my permission to associate my name with cigarettes. I should feel thankful if the unknown firm were to withdraw the labels from the market or if the public would refuse to buy packets bearing such labels.”

As times change, perhaps we need to demystify khadi to allow it to appeal to newer generations. To do so, we may have to disassociate it from the historical baggage of political freedom it once facilitated, and allow it to grow beyond its heritage status. The socio-economic and political values it once produced had a limited historical context, but the music, beauty, spirituality and self-dependence it offers is timeless indeed. Like truth and nonviolence, it has been around for long.

Gandhi was quick to take a leaf out of the lives of Aurangzeb and Kabir. Aurangzeb was an emperor, and as Gandhi said, Kabir was a “greater emperor”. Let the people decide who they choose. In the end, it is the ideas that survive, not the personalities.

Avyakta is an independent consultant, and also a contributing columnist for several online magazines. His twitter handle is @vishwamanushah.