Was Gandhi the progenitor of environmental ideas in the country? The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. He was an environmentalist if we discern the implications of his social, political, and economic ideas on the environment. Many environmental movements in India have drawn inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi. He cannot be called an environmentalist if we do a mechanical content analysis of his statements based on the present understanding of environmental issues since words like ‘environment’ and ‘ecology’ do not appear in his Collected Works. The Encyclopaedia of Human Ecology edited by Julia R Miller and others did not have an entry on Gandhi in their otherwise impressive list. This article seeks to look at the implications of his ideas for an ecologically sound system of living.
Environmental consciousness is a phenomenon that gained momentum only in the last five decades or so. But it is implicit in worldviews, traditions, culture, religion, and folklore. Ecology is a subject that seeks to understand the relationship between living organisms and their environment. Human ecology visualizes human beings and their environment as constituting an integrated whole. The Western tendency to compartmentalize everything into different categories does not agree with the ecological perspective. Gandhi saw everything in an interrelated way. In his writings, we find elements of economics, politics, and sociology suffused with an interconnectedness informed by ethics. Gandhi said: ‘I believe in Advaita (non-duality), I believe in the essential unity of man and, for that matter, of all that lives.’ J C Kumarappa, Gandhi’s economist, who developed his ecological views in a clearer fashion, said: ‘In the traditional archives of knowledge, religion, sociology, and economy have all been reserved their separate and exclusive spheres. Man has been divided into various watertight compartments. The left hand is not to know what the right-hand does. Nature does not recognize such divisions. She deals with all life as a whole.’
A human ecology perspective is thus holistic. Gandhi did not recognize separate rules for separate spheres of human life but saw all spheres in an integrated manner. The issues currently discussed under the label of the environment were not prominent during his lifetime. However, his description of the modern (industrial) civilization as a ‘seven-day wonder’ contains a prognosis and a warning. Gandhi had anticipated most of the environmental problems that we face today. He envisaged an ecological or basic needs model centered on the limitation of wants in contrast to the modern civilization that promoted material welfare and profit motive. Gandhi said: ‘A certain degree of physical harmony and comfort is necessary, but above a certain level it becomes a hindrance instead of help. Therefore, the idea of creating an unlimited number of wants and satisfying them seems to be a delusion and a snare.’ According to him, a man who multiplies his daily wants cannot achieve the goal of plain living and high thinking. He warned against the perils of industrialization. He said: ‘God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.’
Jainism influenced Gandhi. Jainism looks at nature as a living entity and exhorts human beings to continually purify themselves by respecting the diverse life forms. Hinduism also looks at nature and all life forms with equal reverence. Rabindranath Tagore represented nature in his poems and works. Shanti Niketan, the institution that he founded, was another example of nature-friendly study and living.
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