Mahatma Gandhi

the next step should not be destructive agriculture but the planting of plenty of fruit trees and other vegetation.1

Although Gandhi has become a household name, the lean, saintly looking bespectacled son of India who took on the British Empire with his sharp wit and prolific pen is better known for his ethics of non-violence and truth-force than for his environmental philosophy. However, just as leaders of non-violent civil rights movements across the globe attribute their inspiration to Gandhi's strategy of making the oppressors confront their own unjust practices, leading environmental theorists and activists in India and other parts of the world defer to Gandhi's insights and practices in the area of ecology as well. While much of what Gandhi said or wrote on ecology is of an anecdotal nature, his criticism of structures antithetical to a healthy ecological life-world ramified into ideas which developed and were put into action in different areas of environmental concern. Gandhi's importance as an environmental thinker may be marked in terms of the strategies and vistas opened up by his pursuits, both public and private, towards a sustained animal and environmental liberation struggle. Looked at another way, Gandhi's environmental thinking is rooted in his larger philosophical and moral thinking.

The Mahatma ('great soul') was born Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in Porbandar, now in the State of Gujarat, on 2 October 1869. As a child he had learned to appreciate the beauty of the coastal region washed by the Arabian seas and surrounded by temples, churches and mosques. Although by caste the Gandhis were merchants, his family held high office in the sovereign province's court and were devout Hindus. Very early on he came to the realization that morality is an inexorable part of the objective reality he preferred to call Truth rather than God, and that nature was a substance within this reality. Hence, as in traditional wisdom, nature was not there merely for human use or as an appendix to civilization but was a presence, much like one's nourishing nurse, to be respected. Gandhi's Hindu background taught him about the basic elements that constituted the physical and material world, namely, earth, water, fire, ether and space, which he saw ritually invoked in home worship (puja) as well as in meditational practices. Indeed, Hindu biocosmology, with its large pantheon of gods and goddesses, appeared to share these elemental constituents in varying measures and permutations.

During his education in England, Gandhi rediscovered the virtues of his family's vegetarianism, albeit on the moral grounding articulated by Henry Salt, and inspired by Shelley, Thoreau, Whitman and Ruskin. At the same time Gandhi sought out theosophists who initiated him into a non-ritual moral reading of the Bhagavad Gita; this instilled humanitarian ideals that were to take Gandhi further towards a complete break with Western civilization. In South Africa, where he went to practise as an attorney, Gandhi withdrew from time to time to deepen his understanding of Tolstoy, the Upanishads, Quakerism, the Gospels through contacts with Trappists, Methodists and Jewish acquaintances. He also tried his hand at living in a commune. The influence of Ruskin's

Unto This Last led Gandhi to write his own treatise on Sarvodaya ('welfare for all') which became the basis of the movement of the same name which he launched upon his return to India in 1914. It was part of the larger programme he envisioned for India of swadeshi or 'self-sufficiency' and had outlined in the 1908 treatise Hind Sawaraj. Both socio-ethical directives, as well as that of non-violent resistance (ahimsa), were propelled by a common volitional determination he called 'satyagraha' or 'truth-force'. Gandhi acknowledges the influence of the Jaina ethical precept of non-injury (which Buddhism and Hinduism also heed and which has its parallel in the Golden Rule of 'turning the other cheek' or 'non-resistance', as Tolstoy had christened this practice). Under Gandhi's impetus, however, this basically passive and individual stance becomes a positively empowering and collective experience with enormous potential for unleashing liberative but, at times, also coercive and indignant energies.2

From these general articulations and stances, also sprang the more practical ideal of minimal or 'reactionary' economy and Luddite manufacturing skills, such as the humble spinning wheel (charkha) and weaving of yarns (khadi), and small-scale farming. Gandhi also experimented extensively with 'earth treatments' and 'dietetics' as means of healing and rejuvenation that did not depend on chemical-based medicines and toxic pollutants. Personal ecology for him was the basis for social and environmental ecologies as well.3 Traditional methods of farming, husbandry, and irrigation were explored in the Ashrams which Gandhi helped set up in different regions.

Gandhi's overall social and environmental philosophy is based on what human beings need rather than what they want. His early introduction to the teachings of Jains, theosophists, Christian sermons, Ruskin and Tolstoy, and most significantly the Bhagavad Gita, were to have profound impact on the development of Gandhi's holistic thinking on humanity, nature and their ecological interrelation. His deep concern for the disadvantaged, the poor and rural population created an ambience for an alternative social thinking that was at once far-sighted, local and immediate. For Gandhi was acutely aware that the demands generated by the need to feed and sustain human life, compounded by the growing industrialization of India, far outstripped the finite resources of nature. This might nowadays appear naïve or commonplace, but such pronouncements were as rare as they were heretical a century ago. Gandhi was also concerned about the destruction, under colonial and modernist designs, of the existing infrastructures which had more potential for keeping a community flourishing within ecologically-sensitive traditional patterns of subsistence, especially in the rural areas, than did the incoming Western alternatives based on nature-blind technology and the enslavement of human spirit and energies.

Perhaps the moral principle for which Gandhi is best known is that of active non-violence, derived from the traditional moral restraint of not injuring another being. The most refined expression of this value is in the great epic of the Mahabharata, (c.100 BCE to 200 CE), where moral development proceeds through placing constraints on the liberties, desires and acquisitiveness endemic to human life. One's action is judged in terms of consequences and the impact it is likely to have on another. Jainas had generalized this principle to include all sentient creatures and biocommunities alike. Advanced Jaina monks and nuns will sweep their path to avoid harming insects and even bacteria. Non-injury is a non-negotiable universal prescription. Gandhi relates this principle to the value that the Bhagavad Gita places on the welfare of all beings:

The one whose self is disciplined by yoga Sees the self abiding in every being And sees every being in the self; He sees the same in all beings.4

The transcendence of the self from constricting human conditions of desire and attachment and the prudential ethic of not causing injury to other beings for fear of attracting more karma into one's soul is turned by Gandhi into a categorical value: one does X because X is right and it is also just from the position of the other.

This principle, more than anything else, becomes the foundation-stone for Gandhi's approach to environmental ethics. Much that can be gleaned from Gandhi's own practices, as noted earlier, is of anecdotal value. His obsession with the hygiene of man and animals alike—safer waste disposal systems and cleanliness of both the body and the surrounding environs—have been meticulously noted in the Gandhiana literature and his own writings. Gandhi's weakness, as many writers have pointed out, is that he did not compose a systematic treatise on this subject, nor did he lead a major ecological campaign in the way that he did political campaigns, such as the symbolic 'Salt March', an act of nationalist defiance against the British monopoly over access to sea-salt. His impact, nevertheless, has been tremendous, and Gandhi's visions, if not his words, have certainly left traces in the great works on ecological thinking, especially those of Arne Naess and other 'deep ecology' or pan-ecotheistic thinking in recent decades. Gandhi, with his advocacy of sarvodaya and radical empowerment of localized or microeconoculture, was a forerunner of the avant-garde movements nowadays associated with 'deep ecology' and the Greens. But Gandhi went further in some respects with his emphasis on the aboluteness of non-violence and dharma.

Gandhi was also adamant about the need for a rigorous ethic of non-injury in our treatment of animals.5 On active environmental renewal projects, Gandhi wrote in 1926 that for India the next step should not be destructive agriculture but the planting of fruit trees and other vegetation as these provide nourishment, stability in the soil, and attract rainfall as well as provide fodder for the insect and animal world. The implications of such simple ecological wisdom have only just begun to dawn on a tech-fested agricultural economics. Likewise Gandhi's symbolic insistence on khadi spinning was instructive for avoidance of factory-emitted pollution, desalination of soil through over-cultivation and dependence on raw materials produced through suffering caused on animals (e.g. silk and wool). Gandhi's advocacy of simple living through the principles of non-violence and holding steadfastly to truth challenge modern-day Hindus to reconsider their lifestyle engendered by pressures of contemporary consumerism. They have had to consider whether social duty can be expanded to include ecological community and whether the Hindu tradition can develop new modalities of caring for the earth.6 Can dharma be re-interpreted in earth-friendly terms to meet the challenges of modern post-industrial 'civilization'?

Gandhian activists have attempted to deal with just these challenges. Sarvodaya has increasingly become a basis for a number of asarkari or NGO groups across India. Inspired by Gandhi and especially his wife-partner Kasturba's dedicated sarvodaya seva or service ideal, these groups regularly travel to remote villages to teach women and youth the virtues and simple practices of hygiene and earth-care. Rural development and alternative technology programmes have been helping villagers to construct chulas or smokeless ovens, mudbrick dwellings, and to utilize non-toxic organic fertilizers. Schools and colleges have been established to explore and promote safe ecological practices. Tribal groups have been encouraged to preserve the wild bushland, to curtail excessive use of wood for cooking, and to develop a technology for dealing with local conditions while resisting the technologies and wares brought in by profit-driven urban and corporate enterprises. Gandhians have not been unanimous on a complete biospheric egalitarianism, and most have come to accept small-scale 'soft' technology supplemented heavily with hand-crafting and local cottage industries.7

Active in northern regions of the subcontinent is Sunderlal Bahuguna, best known for his spectacular Himalayan campaign, known as the Chipko ('Hug the Trees') Movement, aimed at resisting environmental destruction, particularly by governmental agencies and corporate interests which, in exploiting the hill regions, leads inexorably to irreparable deforestation.8 Bahuguna is also a great believer in locally renewable 'sustainable economy'; hence, he has been one of the leading critics of India's current policy of economic liberalization which has allowed the influx of multinational companies and unilateral concessions on produce and plant variety rights forced upon India by WTO treaties.

Another scene which has been drawing world-wide attention where similar non-violent resistance tactics have been used to raise awareness of environmental concerns is the Narmada Bacho Andolan in southern Gujarat. Environmentalists led by the veteran Medha Patkar have ceaselessly argued that the 3,200 dams planned on the Narmada and tributary rivers would cause immense damage to surrounding land mass which would also lead to the dislocation of 2,500 families in nearly 60 villages of tribal people who have lived along the river basins and maintained a healthy eco-community for countless generations. The Gandhian spirit lives on. There are numerous other grassroots groups and movements that invoke traditional wisdom and practical ethics in their expression of resistance to and concerns for radical transformations of the local environment. The supply of safer drinking water to rural areas, conserving rain water and utilizing dead water from hydro-electric dams, have become joint initiatives of NGOs, religious leaders and some State governments as well (e.g. the southern taluks around Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh).

The Bhopal incident in 1984 where the ill-maintained Union Carbide chemical plant unleashed thousands of tons of poisonous chemical fumes into the atmosphere, killing and disabling thousands of people, perhaps highlighted a particular kind of challenge facing Gandhian environmentalists. The challenges of industrialization, modernity, globalization and a rapidly expanding liberal economy present Gandhians with a very different set of circumstances and contexts from those that Gandhi could have foreseen. These call for quite different sorts of responses on the environmental front, and they can only be forthcoming case by case. Still, there are a number of Gandhian followers who are prepared to 'risk their all' in order to meet these challenges for the sake of non-violent truth and to bring greater welfare to all beings on the planet Earth.


1 Letter to Kaka Kaleklar, 1926, quoted in I.Harris, Gandhians in Contemporary India: The Vision and the Visionaries, Lewiston, NY: Edward Mellon, p. 274, 1998.

2 Joan V.Bondurant, Conquests of Violence, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.

3 An Autobiography, p. 271.

4 The Teaching of the Gita, VI.29.

5 Gandhi, My Socialism, Ahmedabad: Navajivan, pp. 34-5, 1959.

6 Christopher Key Chapple, 'Hinduism, Jainism and Ecology', Earth Ethics, Fall, pp. 16-18, 1998.

7 P.Bilimoria, 'Indian Religious Traditions', in D.E.Cooper and J.A. Palmer (eds), Spirit of the Environment: Religion, Value and Environmental Concern, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 1-14, p. 12, 1998.

See also in this book

Buddha, Naess, Ruskin, Tagore

Gandhi's major writings

An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1957.

Collected Works of Gandhi, 90 vols, New Delhi: Ministry of Information and

Broadcasting, India, 1958-94. The Essential Gandhi, ed. L.Fischer, New York: Vintage Books, 1962. The Teaching of the Gita, Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1962.

Further reading

Bilimoria, P. and McCulloch, J., Environmental Ethics, Victoria: Deakin University, 1992.

Brown, Judith, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

Chapple, C.K., Nonviolence to Animals, Earth, and Self in Asian Thought, Albany,

NY: State University of New York Press, 1994. Joshi, Nandini, Development Without Destruction, Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1992. Macy, Joanna, Dharma and Development: Religion as Resource in the Sarvodaya Self-Help Movement, West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, 1983.

Naess, Arne, Gandhi and the Nuclear Age, trans. A.Hannay, Totowa, NJ:

Bedminster Press, 1965. Weber, Thomas, Hugging the Trees: The Story of the Chipko Movement, Delhi: Viking Press, 1988.

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