From the central hall of the Indian Parliament to a statue at Union Square New York and the far flung corners of the world, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is loved and celebrated as an apostle of non-violence. Yet it is Gandhi’s little known work on what it means to be truly civilized that might be far more crucial to the future of our species.
The historical Gandhi, ‘Father of the Nation’, is a comforting figure who looks just right on portraits and in history books. But the civilizational Gandhi is a living presence who poses questions and challenges that are simultaneously annoying and urgent.
Even in his own lifetime Gandhi gained no popularity for saying that “civilization consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants.”
This seems absurd. We all know that the very survival of the global economic system depends on more people buying more and more stuff all the time – indefinitely. Gandhi propagated the exact opposite; for his views, he was dismissed as being an anti-machinery faddist. This was a misrepresentation that few outside academia and political activism cared about.
Until now. The multiple global crises – social inequity, financial turmoil and ecological imbalance – have made it imperative to revisit and pay close attention to Gandhi’s radical but more sustainable civilizational vision.
The crux of Gandhi’s concern was not the volume of how much we consume. Instead he worried about the absence of a moral framework – dharma or telos – to serve as the basis of our pursuit of wealth and pleasure. It is only natural to want good food, cloths, comforts and pleasures. But is this what gives meaning to our life? Isn’t it the development of our higher human faculties – a sense of duty, responsibility, love, compassion – that gives us an anchor and purpose thus enriching both individual lives and society as a whole?
This line of reasoning put Gandhi in direct opposition to those whose ideas and policies have given shape to the world we now live in – among them the epoch-shaping economist John Maynard Keynes. It was Keynes who, writing about the future in 1930, said that “For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not.”
This elevation of the baser human instincts to the status of virtues was, for Gandhi, the essence of the modern political economy. He also rejected the claim – made by communists and capitalists alike – that improving the material conditions of life is all important. Instead he argued that all efforts to improve the human condition are bound to fail unless they put ‘dharma’ above pursuit of ‘arth’ (wealth) and ‘kama’ (sensual pleasures).
What does this mean in practical terms? And how can this framework help us to grapple with contemporary economic and identity-related conflicts? Viewing contemporary reality through Gandhi’s lens empowers us to challenge and overturn this scepticism.
Firstly, Gandhi equates ‘dharma’ not with religion but a universal moral framework which enables us to identify our individual responsibilities to other human beings as well as to the rest of nature.
Secondly, Gandhi was absolutely clear that there has been endless exchange between Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and others, on the fundamental moral questions of life. By contrast, the ‘clash of civilizations’ perspective partitions civilizations and views them as being locked in perpetual or periodic conflict. Gandhi’s frame allows us to work with the over-lapping heritage of different cultures. This shifts the focus away from points of conflict to the points of consonance and the possibility of creative inter-dependence among different cultures and faiths.
Third, Gandhi would have debunked the current pyramid-shaped economy in favour of an economy of ‘oceanic circles.’ Instead of trying to ‘include’ those at the bottom of the pyramid, Gandhi invokes the image of oceanic circles in which ‘the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle but will give strength to all within and derive its strength from it.’ He also believed that ‘Trusteeship’ as a value system could replace both capitalism and communism because it made profit the means of business, not an end in itself.
In practical terms this vision is compatible with the basic values of democracy and markets based on fairness. This would mean a world of equal opportunity so that every working-age person can engage in sufficiently productive work instead of having to depend on doles. But this requires us to rethink the world’s dependence on mass production as an end in itself. The digital age, combined with decentralized renewable energy, lends itself to production by the masses in ways that was unimaginable in Gandhi’s time but might be Gandhian at its core.
It is possible that the alarm bells of an impending ecological crisis might accelerate some forms of Trusteeship across the world. British economist Nicholas Stern has called climate change the largest market failure in history. The basic assumption of free market theory was that everyone pursuing their self interest will result in optimum outcomes. But instead the planetary outcome has been neither ecologically sustainable nor socially equitable.
In this context it is vital to emphasize that Gandhi’s concept of Trusteeship was not just a moral value that placed demands on finer human qualities. It was also a mechanism based on a deep understanding of the interface between the human economy and nature’s eco-systems.
Gandhi’s disciple J.C. Kumarappa offered a counter to economic systems driven by the desire to accumulate more and more wealth. He called it an ‘Economy of Permanence,’ where the human economy is based on respect for the inter-dependence of all life. Kumarappa argued that without this there is no hope for a society worth living in. A variety of non-profit civic groups and innovative businesses have begun experimenting with the interface of ecology and business ethics – thus giving a contemporary form to the quest for an economy of permanence.
In 1930 Gandhi was asked by a British reporter what he thought of modern civilization. Gandhi replied: “it would be a good idea.” It is time to go beyond either venerating or denigrating Gandhi for finding that the modern is no civilization at all. It is far more fruitful to build upon contemporary strivings for the kind of modern which would be a good idea – one based on a happier marriage of spirit and matter, dharma and wealth.
Rajni Bakshi is the Gandhi Peace Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations based in Mumbai. This article is a précis of her larger paper, ‘Civilizational Gandhi.’
An edited version of this article was published by the Economic Times on October 2, 2012, here.
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