Gandhi, Chaplin, and the Symbol of Non-Violence

When Charlie Chaplin met Gandhi…sounds like the beginning of a joke. But in fact they did meet, in London, in 1931. Here you see Chaplin (seated, dark suit) next to Gandhi (seated, Gandhi).

Black and white photograph of M K Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Charlie Chaplin, and others.

The conversation included Gandhi explaining to Chaplin that his use and promotion of the charkha (traditional Indian spinning wheel, used for spinning cotton) wasn’t a rejection of more recent technologies – Luddite, we’d probably say these days – but rather a rejection of the exploitative system that those technologies were then serving.

Which, to be fair, is also how the actual Luddites looked at it. They didn’t object to labour-saving machinery. They objected to the idea that labour-saving was interpreted by employers to mean not “the machine does more, so now workers don’t have to work quite so hard” but rather “the machine does more, so we can work fewer people just as hard as before (and it’s not our business if the rest of them starve)”.

If you were a factory owner who bought labour-saving machinery, and saw to it that your employees also reaped some of the benefit, the Luddites had no beef with you. It was the people who saw technology as a way to make more money regardless of the human cost who were in trouble if the Luddites came visiting. Or, to be precise, their fancy new machinery was in trouble, the Luddites being much keener on smashing up machinery than people.

Black and white drawing of two men with sledgehammers attacking weaving machinery.

I’m sure Gandhi would have approved of that – though not of their threats of violence and on at least one occasion, actual lethal violence, albeit against someone vowing bloody violence against them (“I’ll ride up to my saddle in Luddite blood.”).

For Gandhi, the spinning wheel was a symbol of non-violence. It wasn’t the Luddite “I’ll smash your fancy machines if you’re going to be greedy” but more a “I don’t need your fancy machines; I’ve got my own simple machine which will do just fine for me and mine.”

It’s a much less violent way of refusing to participate in an unfair system, though admittedly both received a violent response: 12,000 troops were deployed to crush the Luddites – more than Britain sent to some wars – and only the Good Lord knows how many troops were deployed against the non-violent Indian independence movement.

Gandhi said that “Nonviolence is the first article of my faith. It is also the last article of my creed.” It seems to me very valuable to have a tangible symbol of what is most important to you, your worldview, your ethos. Particularly when that tangible symbol is something you use or interact with every day, and something that contributes in a practical way to the furtherance of your life aims.

A card bearing a painted image of Gandhi spinning cotton in prison. Above the image are the words "Mahatma Gandhi In Jail" and below it the words "Concentrate on Charkha and Swadeshi".

Do you have such a symbol in your daily life? If not, what might it be?

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