Gandhi and Ecology


Gandhi and Ecology

by Purushottama Bilimoria, PhD

Gandhi was one of the twentieth century’s foremost savants who was influenced by Jaina ethics. The background was of course also the millennium-long development of ahimsa that crystallized in the Buddhist values of non-violence, generosity (dana), forbearance, loving-kindness (metta), and most significantly, compassion, (karuna) towards the other and toward all sentient beings, without exception. These values — or, if one likes, virtues — in Buddhism at least, are part of the larger morality conceptualized as sila (rightful path), with the aligned goal of boddhicitta (enlightenment, through the alleviation of suffering, of all beings).

The closest analogues to this kind of sentiment in the Western theories of pro-active emotions have been empathy, developed extensively by Edith Stein, and Sorge, in the thinking of Heidegger. Mahatma Gandhi observed that ‘Ahimsa was the philosophy of the strong. Only that person is capable of following the path of ahimsa, who has the strong desire and determination to purify his soul. This requires tremendous will power and moral courage. Weakness or ignorance of any sort is violence in itself.’

Gandhi became almost a household name the world-over towards the end of the last century, and his legacy continues into the current century. But the lean saintly-looking bespectacled son of India who ‘took on’ or confronted the British Empire with his sharp wit and prolific pen is less known for his environmental philosophy than for his ethics of non-violence and truth-force — whose uniqueness, nonetheless, and in addition to the vocabulary of contemporary moral philosophy and practical ethics, need no defence. However, just as leaders of non-violent civil rights and civil resistance movements across the globe attribute their inspiration to Gandhi’s strategies towards making the oppressor confront their own unjust practices, a number of leading environmental theorists and activists or movements alike in India and in different parts of the world defer to Gandhi’s insights and practices in the areas of ecology as well.

While much of what Gandhi said or wrote on ecology is of an anecdotal nature, it is by virtue of the ramifications of his outlook and criticism of structures antithetical to a healthy ecological life-world that his ideas have been taken further and developed or put to action in a number of different areas of environmental concerns. Gandhi’s importance as an environmental thinker may well be marked in a large measure in terms of the strategies and vistas that he opened up by his pursuits, both public and private, toward a sustained animal and environmental liberation struggle. The moral is that the principle of restraint, of measure and balance, should guide our interaction with nature. More than once, he suggested, that it is a matter of striking balances. Looked at another way, Gandhi’s environmental thinking is rooted in, and is part of, his larger philosophical and moral thinking.

The Mahatma (‘great soul’) was born Mohandas Karamachand in Porbandar in Saurashtra (now in the State of Gujarat) on 2nd 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 Gandhis were merchants (the purveyors of ‘gandhy-s’, ‘items of spicy or perfumed odour’, sugandhi), his family held high office in the sovereign province’s court and were devout Hindus also. 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 very much a substance within this reality.

Hence as in traditional wisdom, nature was not there merely for human use or a civilizational appendix but a presence, much like one’s own mother and nourishing nurse, that had to be respected. Gandhi’s nominal 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, the entire fabric of the Hindu bio-cosmology along 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 practice of vegetarianism, albeit on the moral grounding articulated by a neo-anarchist group led 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 took Gandhi further towards a complete break with Western civilization (symbolized in the march and habitat of modernity) toward self- and other-culture.

In South Africa, where he went to practice as an attorney around 1894, Gandhi withdrew from time to time to deepen his understanding of Tolstoy, the teachings of The Upanishads and of Quaker and the Gospels through his contacts with Trappists, Methodists and Jewish acquaintances. The young Gandhi also tried his hand at commune living by establishing experimental co-operatives, named Tolstoy and Phoenix Farms.

The influence of Ruskin’s treatise Unto This Last led Gandhi to write his own treatise on Sarvodaya which became the basis of the movement he launched upon his return to India in 1914, known by the same name, meaning ‘the welfare of all’, which was part of the larger program he envisioned for India (and other colonies within the Empire) of swadeshi or ‘self-sufficiency’ which he had already outlined in his 1908 treatise Hind Swaraj. Both these socio-ethical directives, as well as the moral stance on nonviolent resistance (ahimsa), were propelled by a common volitional determination he called satyagraha or ‘truth-force’ (seeking and being rooted firmly in non-violent truth, or truth as politics). Gandhi himself of course acknowledges the influence of the Jaina ethical precept of non-injury (which, as we noted, Buddhism and Hinduism also cherish, and which has its recognized parallel in the Golden Rule supplement of ‘turning the other cheek’ or ‘non-resistance’ as Tolstoy had christened this practice), with the difference that under Gandhi’s impetus this basically passive individual stance becomes a positively empowering, self-confidently active, and shared or collective experience, even political, that has an enormous potential of unleashing liberative but at times also coercive or pent-up indignant energies.

From these general articulations and stances, also sprang the more practical ideal of minimal or ‘reactionary’ economy and luddite manufacture skills, for which Gandhi adopted the humble spinning wheel (charkha) and weaving of yarns (khadi) gathered from cotton fields and small-scale farming. Gandhi also experimented extensively with what he called ‘earth treatments’ and ‘dietetics’ as a 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. Traditional methods of farming, husbandry, irrigation systems and the manufacture of manure utilizing cow dung, composting and similar primitive processes of recycling were being explored in the Ashrams that Gandhi helped set up in different regions.

Gandhi’s overall social and environmental philosophy, it must be said upon reflection, is based on what we as human beings need rather than what we want. Thus, as we saw, his early introduction to the teachings of Jainism, theosophists, Christian sermons, Ruskin and Tolstoy, and most significantly of the Bhagavad Gita, were to have profound impact on the development of Gandhi’s holistic thinking on humanity, nature and their ecological interrelation. Although Gandhi has not gone done in history as the staunchest avatar of the entire gamut of the subaltern, and he had barely scratched the surface of the real plight  of the ‘untouchables’ (he called them Harijans, who now call themselves Dalit), in contrast to the leadership of Baba Ambedkar, a Dalit himself, who operated on a more egalitarian and rights-based principle of justice. Nevertheless Gandhi’s deep concern for the disadvantaged, the poor and rural population (which comprised ninety percent of India’s habitation), created an ambience for an alternative social thinking that was at once far-sighted as it was local and immediate.

For inasmuch as Gandhi was acutely aware that the demands generated by the need to feed and sustain human life compounded with the growing industrialization of India, if not of the world at large, far outstripped the finite resources of nature. This might appear naïve and commonplace at the end of the 20th century, but such pronouncements were rare as they were heretical at the turn of the century. Gandhi was also concerned about the destruction under colonial and modernist designs of the existing infrastructures that at least, in more ways than one, had the potentials of keeping a community flourishing within ecologically-sensitive traditional patterns of subsistence, especially in the rural areas, than could be said of the in-coming Western alternatives based on a nature-blind technology and enslavement of human spirit and energies.

Again, 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 represented in the great epic of the Mahabharata (circa 100 BCE to 200BCE), where moral development proceeds through organizing and placing constraints on the otherwise presupposed 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, as outlined earlier, had generalized this principle to include all sentient creatures and bio-communities alike. Advanced Jaina monks and nuns will sweep their path to avoid harming insects including single-sense amoebic creatures such as bacteria and water-residing bugs.) Non-injury is a non-negotiable universal prescription. Gandhi relates this principle to the value that the Bhagavad Gita also places on the welfare of all beings in verse VI.29:

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.


– Bhagavad Gita

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 (dharma for karma’s sake), is taken by Gandhi and turned into a categorical normative and objective value: one does x because x is right and just from the position of the other. It might be said that this principle or value 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, are of anecdotal value – for example, his obsession with sanitation, health or hygiene of man and animals alike, safer human waste disposal systems, and insufferable cleanliness of both the body and the surrounding environ, have been meticulously noted in Gandhiana literature and in his own documented writings. Gandhi’s weakness, as many writers have pointed out, is that he did not compose a systematic treatise on this subject matter nor did he lead a major ecological campaign in the way that he instigated and led political campaigns, basic civil rights confrontations, or even the symbolic ‘Salt March’ for that matter (which was an act of nationalist defiance against British sovereign monopoly over access to sea-salt). The 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 that of Arne Naess, and other ‘deep ecology’ or paneco-theistic thinking in recent decades elsewhere but also in the subcontinent. Gandhi with his advocacy of sarvodaya and radical empowering of localized or microecono-culture 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 absoluteness of nonviolence and dharma.

Gandhi was also adamant about the need for a rigorous ethic of non-injury in our treatment of animals.

More passionately on active environmental renewal projects, Gandhi wrote in 1926 that for India the next step should not be destructive agriculture but the planting of plenty of fruit trees and other vegetation as these provide nourishment, stability in the soil, and attracts 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 agriculture production economics. Likewise Gandhi’s rather more prosaic and symbolic insistence on khadi spinning was instructive for the larger vision of avoiding factory-emitted pollution, desalination of soil through over-cultivation, and an unabashed dependence on raw materials produced through suffering caused on animals (e.g. silks and wool extractions). Gandhi’s advocacy of simple living through the principles of non-violence and holding steadfastly to truth challenges modern-day Hindus to reconsider their lifestyle engendered by the pressures of contemporary consumerism. They have had to consider whether social duty and the concept of adhikara (classical cognate for ‘rights’) can be expanded to include ecological community and whether the Hindu tradition can develop new modalities of caring for the earth.