Mahatma of Sustainability

— Shashwat DC

“What is the message that you have for us?” implored the people attending his sabha. By then, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had transformed into a Mahatma (pious great soul) and everyone expected wise inspiring words from Bapu. Looking around to the people from Bengal, where he was touring, Gandhi had famously said, “My Life is My Message“. Am sure, at that moment, the people must have been confounded, unable to comprehend the true essence of what was told by the Mahatma. Yet, unbeknownst to them, Gandhi had not delivered a simple solution, but rather shutterstock_41044654showed the path to it. Just like those divine avatars do in those mythical Hindu stories.


Indeed, these five words encapsulated all the philosophy and theory that is there in Gandhism. Thus, if you are seeking a Gandhian solution to some problem or query, all you have to do is analyse, how Gandhi lived or reacted to it in his lifetime. And then, you would get the meaning of what he meant to let us know.

It was August 19, this year when we marked the Earth Overshoot Day. Simply stating, on this date humanity had exhausted nature’s budget (bio-capacity) for the year. For the rest of the year, we are running on an ecological deficit by drawing down local resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As per estimates, by Global Footprint Network, we already are consuming resources worth 1.5 Earths each year. We have moved beyond the sustainable capacity of the planet.

The prognosis for the future seems to be very bleak; we are heading to the very edge of the precipice with no chance of a return. Where do we look for answers? Who will come to guide us? If only there was a Gandhi..

Sustainable Gandhism?

Imagine, if the Mahatma lived among us today, and we could gather around him ask him for a solution.  I don’t think his answer would be any different from what he gave to those agog Bengalis eons back. To know Gandhi’s thoughts on sustainability or environmentalism, one has to study how he lived his life in consonance with the elements.

Back in the times of Gandhi, bio-capacity was never an issue. There was sufficient and more oil underneath the sea-bed, enough and more bauxite in the hills, coal mines were full, and there were sufficient and more trees to provide for everything from food to firewood. Environment did not need protection or championing like it does in our times.

Yet, Gandhi like a seer who could look into the future had a stark message for us; “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.” In his warning, he had laid down the solution to mankind; seek only what you need, pursue not what you desire. In fact, if you look at his life, it is a personification of this very ideal. Through his life, he barely met his needs, food just enough to meet his bodily requirement, clothes just enough to meet his social obligations, and so on. His life in that sense was an embodiment of the need and not greed virtue.

Harmony with Nature

mkgandhi1Gandhi was essentially a religious man, with strong beliefs. When he did not have answers to things, he looked at the scriptures for solution. And his guiding light on most things was the Bhagvad Gita. He imbued the message of temporality, and found the divine in everything around him. Little wonder, for him nature was not external to us, there was the element of cosmic in it. Hence, Gandhi was much against any sort of destruction, he was against the chopping of trees for firewood and strictly advised people to only collect the discarded one.

Gandhi was a strict vegetarian (written a book on the Moral Basis of Vegetarianism), who abhorred any meat-eating. In fact, he went a step further, and was equally against dairy products. The reason he was against cow’s (or buffalo) milk was because of the torture it endured for producing the milk. Since, the cows are forcefully impregnated to be in a prolonged lactating state, he spoke bluntly against the practice of drinking milk. The only exception he made was to drink goat’s milk, as the goat did not need to be impregnated or be feeding a young one, to produce milk.

And it was not merely cows and buffaloes that Gandhi felt sympathetic for. He had even extended the concept of Ahinsa to include animals in it, according to him the concept of ahinsa (non-violence) also encompassed animals, and any harm to even the tiniest creature was a sin, no less. One of his quotes confirms his belief, when he says that, “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Frugalism of self

There is this oft-repeated anecdote of how Sarojini Naidu had once quipped, that Gandhiji has no idea of how money is spent just so that he lives poor. While the veracity of the quote is not existent, one thing is pretty sure, Gandhi lived a frugal life. He owed no assets, and neither let any of his family hold any. Whatever gifts or monetary donations he received was donated to the national cause. The rights to all his publication was transferred to a trust, and owned by none. He wore entirely hand-woven and hand-sewn cloth made of Khadi. The material was a symbolism of swaraj and crusade against colonial imperialism. His dress was nothing more than loin cloth, earning him the disdain of Winston Churchill who referred to him as the Naked Fakir.

He used to walk extensively, even to great distances, and this habit was there right from the start. In the initial days, when he was a barrister in Mumbai, he used to walk from his home in Santacruz to the court in Bandra, a distance of around 10 kms each way. This practice came in handy when he called the Satyagraha against the Salt Act, a distance of some 400 kms in 24 days.

Gandhi’s philosophy endorses only drawing the very minimum for ones need, and indulgences are shunned. In an overtly material world that we live today, his frugalism can do a world of good for the limited resources that we have with us.

Mahatma of equality

Inspired by the Tolstoy Farm, Gandhi established a self-sustaining community (Ashram) first in South Africa and then in India. His Ashrams, were completely self-sustaining, growing their own food and conducting their limited transactions in a barter system. He firmly believed that the future of the nation belonged in development of the village economy, he used to refer to India as “a collection of 700,000 villages”. Creating small self-sustained communities is the best way to deal with the global displacement into unsustainable cities.shutterstock_142751107

Living in the times when untouchability was fairly rampant and common, Gandhi not only preached against it, but also practiced it. In his ashrams, everyone was equal, and menial work was not the burden of the lower-castes but borne by all. Thus his model worked well for humanity as well.

Synonymously Speaking

In the end, an honest examination of Gandhi’s message (his life) gives us an insight on his beliefs on environmentalism and sustainability. Live frugal, live in harmony, harm no one — neither being, nature or animal, and shun luxury so as long as your fellows cannot afford. The message of People and Planet (and a bit of profit) is at the very core of Gandhism. In that sense, the term sustainable Gandhism is a misnomer, because both stand for the same things. Saying it simply, if a person leads a life by Gandhian principles, he or she, can’t help but life in a sustainable manner.

Gandhi lived his life in consonance with nature, and in doing so, left us an example of how we should do the same. Now isn’t that what is the crying need of the hour?-

Leaving you with one of the most inspiring quotes from Gandhi, ‘Be the change, you want to see in the world‘.





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