Mahatma Gandhi spinning yarn, in the late 1920s (Wikimedia Commons)
  • Gandhi combined in the spinning wheel three components he valued most: respect for human component, technological transparency, decentralisation.

    Another symbol in the Gandhian proto-ecological worldview is the cow. He saw the emergence of cow protection in Indian religion as “one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution”.

The year was 1930. The United States chargé d’affaires in Sweden was sending a report about the Nobel Prize award ceremony to the US Secretary of State. One of the Nobel Prize recipients that year was an unusual man. Wearing a turban, he was the only non-white among “the sea of western faces”. The report by the US diplomat stated that “Sir Venkata Raman’s speech was a masterpiece of eloquence”, but he concluded that the British ambassador who was sitting near him should have been “less appreciative” because Sir C.V. Raman mentioned the congratulatory telegram which he had received from “his dearest friend who was now in jail”.

“The dearest friend” of Asia’s first physics Nobel laureate was a politician—Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. On the surface, it looks odd that Gandhi, someone often perceived not just as highly religious but also as a Luddite, should be “the dearest friend” of one of world’s most eminent scientists of that time.

But Gandhi’s opposition to industrial technology was not an unthinking one. He linked his opposition to prevailing forms of machinery to colonialism, centralisation and mass production.

For Gandhi, “the individual” had to be the “one supreme consideration” in designing any machinery. The purpose of machine usage was “the saving of individual labour” and not displacement of humanity. While he opposed technologies for centralised mass production, he strongly advocated decentralisation and localisation of production. As he wrote in Harijan on 11 November 1934, “When production and consumption both become localised, the temptation to speed up production, indefinitely and at any price, disappears.” Machinery, in his view, should help this localised production which he identified as being at the village level. “Therefore we have to concentrate on the village being self-contained, manufacturing mainly for use. Provided this character of the village industry is maintained, there would be no objection to villagers using even the modern machines and tools that they can make and can afford to use,” he argued in Harijan on 29 August 1936.

With remarkable insight, Gandhi associated the energy and capital-intensive forms of technology with the spread of colonisation. His vision contained the preamble for decentralised, transparent, alternative technologies adapted to the local conditions—very much like the localised organic adaptations seen in the biosphere.

An adept in using symbols, Gandhi zeroed in on the spinning wheel as a kind of logo for his approach to technology. For him, it was not the direct meaning of the spinning wheel alone that mattered. Gandhi combined in the spinning wheel three components he valued most: respect for human component, technological transparency, decentralisation.

It is another question how far his views were understood and taken forward by his followers who quickly converted the spinning wheel into a dead ritual, leading Rabindranath Tagore to admonish the movement as “`the cult of the spinning wheel”.

Gandhi’s vision of economics invariably led him to deal with the way natural resources were to be used by the economic system. He always compared natural processes to industrial processes. For example, he compared the body’s functioning with the machine. It was not the mechanical view of the body but rather a call to use the way the body functions as the basis for designing machines and systems.

Thus, writing in Harijan on 1 September 1940, he said that all industry necessitates violence and then pointed out that even the act of living needs a minimal violence. But, he went on to say, the aim should be to reduce the violence. Thus the Gandhian understanding of the machine is more through the process dynamics of life rather than the Cartesian framework. The spinning wheel, with the individual human component inseparable from its operation, thus became the symbol of the process-based technologies Gandhi envisioned.

The same quest for process technologies employed for human welfare led him to some of the pioneers of future eco-thinking. One such person was the polymath town planner, Patrick Geddes who was deeply influenced by Indic city planning and its organic links with what he called the “social religion”. Geddes was, in fact, appalled by the way most Indian National Congress leaders abandoned Indic systems and substituted them with the British style of living. It was here that Gandhi presented a promising alternative. In 1917, Geddes met Gandhi and gave him a copy of his famous Indore Report which aimed to adapt and update Indic urban planning rather than replacing it with British systems. Both men exchanged letters and they agreed on using religion as an important element in social evolution.

In 1944, another modern architect discovered the science of simplicity and diversity in the localised Indic traditions of constructing buildings—Laurie Baker. Baker, who became a sort of cult leader for appropriate building technology in India, later said that he believed Gandhi was the only leader who had constantly spoken about the building needs of India with common sense. He found Gandhi’s ideas even more pertinent many decades later than during Gandhi’s time.

One particular idea of Gandhi became the guiding principle for the development of alternative building technologies which Baker advocated and disseminated. In the words of Baker, that one idea was that “the ideal house in the ideal village would have to be built of materials, all of which should be found within a five-mile radius of that house.” Baker exclaimed, “What clearer explanations are there of what appropriate building technology means than this advice by Gandhiji!”

In a way, it is this localised evolution of technology for local populations, with villages as the nodal points and yet interlinked, is what makes the Gandhian vision of technology gel with the future. Hindu nationalist and Gandhian thinker Ram Swaroop pointed out that the Gandhian economic model foresees and necessitates decentralised technology for it to become relevant. As early as 1977, long before the terms “decentralisation” etc. became fashionable in technological circles, Swaroop stated that if we cannot evolve a decentralised form of technology, “Gandhian economics would remain a dreamy stuff, soothing to the ear and warming to the heart but ineffective and irrelevant”. However, “if an appropriate Third Technology were to be developed, it could be a great constructive force”.’

Today, with digital technology paving the way for more decentralisation and localised value addition as well as awareness of local diversity needs, Gandhian ideas which could have been dismissed as an utopian dream looks more real.

Decades after Gandhi, the bestselling book of the 1980s, The Third Wave, by eminent futurologist Alvin Toffler, named a section on what he called the “Third Wave Technologies” as “Gandhi with satellites”. Toffler quoted Indian solar technology pioneer, Jagdish Kapur, as declaring a need for the interaction between of the Gandhian vision of village republics and the latest technology available to humanity. “Such a practical combination,” Kapur told Toffler, “would, require a total transformation of the society, its symbols and values, its system of education, its incentives, the flow of its energy resources, its scientific and industrial research and a whole lot of other institutions.”

Another dynamic Gandhian thinker, Joseph Cornelius Kumarappa, was taking Gandhian principles to the realm of economics and village- level technologies. He spearheaded the need for biogas technologies and saw in them the ability to not only to meet the energy needs of the village but also that bio-manure derived from the biogas slurry would provide the needed nutrients for the rural agro-ecosystem.

Another symbol in the Gandhian proto-ecological worldview is the cow. Gandhi saw the emergence of cow protection in Indian religion as “one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution”. To him, it showed a new shift in defining the relation between humanity and the natural world. The Gandhian thinker, K.M. Munshi, who was the first agriculture minister of independent India, also saw the centrality of cow to the soil nutrient cycle. To him, they are “the primeval agents who enrich the soil—the nature’s great land transformers who supply organic matter which, after treatment, becomes nutrient matter of the greatest importance”. The vast cattle population maintained by “tradition, religious sentiment and economic needs” becomes an organic part of the earth to maintain the ecological cycle. Thus, along with the spinning wheel, the cow also became the symbol for the life-centred process technologies for the village- centred economies.

By placing the cow in the context of human evolution and the soil-nutrient cycle, Gandhian thought paved the way for an Indic school of ecological thinking. Thus, Gandhi not just provides decisive inputs to the current discourse on eco-technologies but also provides the framework for understanding the relation between humanity and nature in the context of the current ecological crisis.

Arnie Naess, who is considered as the father of deep ecology, was highly influenced by the Vedantic view of Gandhi, in which the fundamental unity of all life formed the basis of his non-violence. Since deep ecology is based on the inherent worth of life, Naess sees a strong common ground between it and the Gandhian formulation of non-violence based on Advaitic unity of all existence. Naess finds the following quote of Gandhi relevant: “I believe in Advaita, I believe in the essential unity of man and, for that matter, of all that lives. Therefore I believe that if one man gains spiritually, the whole world gains with him and, if one man fails, the whole world fails to that extent.” So Naess concludes that “when the ego vanishes, something else grows, that ingredient of the person that tends to identify itself with God, with humanity, all that lives”.

James Lovelock, one of the formulators of the Gaia hypothesis—that the planet behaves as a living organism— thinks that Gandhian equivalents in the realms of environmentalism would emerge from deep ecology.

In this context, we find that the Nehruvian-Gandhian narrative becomes vehemently disturbed by such Gandhi’s ecological views. This can be illustrated by the reaction of historian Ramachandra Guha, a Nehru admirer. He criticises both deep ecology and the place accorded to Gandhi in it by Naess. To begin with, Guha says that deep ecology is unsuited for and even harmful to India.

Naess himself had refuted this charge as stemming from a misinterpretation of deep ecology by Guha. Then Guha goes on to criticise deep ecology because in it the “complex and internally differentiated religious traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism—are lumped together as holding a view of nature believed to be quintessentially bio-centric.” After chiding deep ecologists for “persistent invocation of eastern philosophies as an antecedent in point of time but convergent in their structure with deep ecology”, he categorises Gandhi as “an intensely political, pragmatic, and Christian-influenced thinker” who has been accorded “a wholly undeserving place in the deep ecological pantheon” by Naess.

Proto-ecological and environmental seed thoughts in the Gandhian worldview have their roots anchored to a historically continuous Vedantic sub-stratum. The influence has been through the interpretation of Vedanta by Swami Vivekananda and the writings of Gurudev Tagore. Tagore in turn was highly influenced in this aspect by both Vivekananda and J.C. Bose. Professor David Gosling, who studies religion and its relation to environmentalism in India, says that Vivekananda, whose insistence on “the solidarity of the whole universe”, ranging from “the lowest worm that crawls…to the highest beings that ever lived”, might have formed the basis for an environmental ethic, had his main concern not been the removal of social inequality. Gosling further concedes that Vivekananda’s affirmative this-worldly ethic, which he expressed through the karma yoga of the Bhagavad Gita, exerted a strong influence on Gandhi. Professor Knut A. Jacobsen , a historian of religions, in the authoritative Encyclopaedia of Religion and Nature, considers Gandhi “more than anyone else the father of deep ecology”.

Apart from the Advaitic or non-dualist influence on Gandhi’s proto-environmental thoughts, the Vaishnavite influence also needs to be explored. The qualified non-dualist school of Sri Ramanuja treated all the world—animate as well as inanimate—as the body of the Godhead. The Vaishnavite influence in Gandhi’s thought and action in the field of social action has been well documented.

In this context, it is interesting to see Gandhi’s basic departure from the West’s socio-ecological worldview. Today we know that in ecology we are moving away from the pyramid models to more horizontal and dynamic webs. Gandhi envisioned this in human ecology as well. He substituted an oceanic circle for the pyramid and he expounded on this in Harijan on 28 July 1946:

“In this structure composed of innumerable villages, there will be ever-widening, never-ascending circles. Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom. But it will be an oceanic circle whose centre will be the individual always ready to perish for the village, the latter ready to perish for the circle of villages, till at last the whole becomes one life composed of individuals, never aggressive in their arrogance, but ever humble, sharing the majesty of the oceanic circle of which they are integral units. Therefore, the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle, but will give strength to all within and derive its own strength from it.”

Thus, Gandhi left us with a proto-ecological thinking whose possibilities expand with the evolution of decentralised technology. The Gandhian economic system at once necessitates decentralised localised technologies and evolves its latent possibilities with these technologies. It is no wonder, then, that Prafulla Chandra Roy, eminent chemist and the author of Hindu Chemistry, who was critical of Gandhi’s Khilafat movement, saw the spirit behind the charkha and placed it prominently in his premises; C.V. Raman conducted a Gandhi Memorial Lecture in his institute every year.

The author is Contributing Editor of Swarajya.

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