Mahatma Gandhi not only gave India its freedom but also gave the world and us a new perspective on nonviolence and sustainable living. His teachings and experiments are more valid today than ever before, especially when we are trying to find solutions to worldwide greed, corruption, violence and a consumerist lifestyle that is putting a very heavy burden on the world's resources.
Through the ages, India has time and again given to the world a new way of thinking - Buddhism, Jainism, Yogic system, Sikhism, for example. Gandhiji's message of nonviolence, spirituality, and sustainable living is a continuation of that long tradition.
Gandhiji's contribution to sustainable development was twofold. Firstly, his experiments in simple living and high thinking. He believed that with simple living the resources of planet earth can sustain us comfortably; his famous saying that earth provides us enough for our needs but not for our greed is extremely apt today. Secondly, we have a lot to learn from his insistence on all-inclusive growth of society.
Gandhiji was a highly evolved and spiritual human being. To him spirituality came first. Other things like politics, public life and so on were by-products of his spirituality. Gandhiji's experiments on simple and sustainable living followed his own spiritual progress.
"[H]is famous saying that earth provides us enough for our needs but not for our greed is extremely apt today."
He also realised from an early age the importance of a great body and mind. In this he was following the tenets of the ancient Yogic system which stresses on a healthy body and a powerful mind. Thus all his experiments on food, brahmacharya (celibacy) and fasting came from this belief. Besides he also realized that to fight a powerful enemy like Britain, he had to make his body-temple extremely powerful so that it could sustain long fights. This meant that it had to need minimum comforts and external inputs. Gandhiji showed that with simple living he could produce the highest quality of thought. To my mind this was an ultimate example of sustainable living.
The spirit of the Bhagavad Gita's Karma Yoga guided him in his endeavours and he considered it as his duty to help his countrymen and fellow beings. There are many instances of people who saw his glowing skin, aura, and felt the presence of his personality whenever they met him. That is only possible for a Yogi of very high order.
Possessed with a great body and a powerful mind he also became fearless and it is this quality of fearlessness which made him blaze new trails and produce novel political strategies like nonviolence, Satyagraha, etc. Time and again he showed his fearlessness by dealing with the British on equal terms. In the 1920s and 30s, during the height of the Raj, such a behaviour of a subject in front of his colonial masters was unique and provided a quantum jump in raising the consciousness of Indians and others around the world.
This quality of fearlessness together with his belief in the Gita's message made him a firm believer in the power of will and hard work and never in any astrologers, palmists etc.
When the brain becomes very powerful it also becomes sensitive to its surroundings. This is the genesis of nonviolence as this makes all life sacred.
Gandhiji as the pujari (priest) of nonviolence applied it to everything, including industrialisation. He rightly thought the industrialisation of 1920s to be a violent system with heavy machinery, very inefficient energy- and material-conversion technologies and no concern for the environment. Intuitively he revolted against those systems and felt that a simple life (with few needs) and with items of daily use sourced from locally available materials was nonviolent and in tune with nature.
Not being a student of science or engineering he could not express his feelings in a scientific way but often spoke of his dream village that he envisioned as self-sufficient and with its inhabitants living in harmony with nature.
I am sure if he were alive today he would have felt that his dream village could have taken shape with the availability of internet connectivity, desktop manufacturing (also called 3D printing or additive manufacturing) and small renewable energy power packs. His dream of giving employment and a decent life to the rural population may become possible with the availability of these energy-efficient and high-tech systems.
"As a spiritual being and a visionary Gandhiji was far ahead of his times. For example, he was an energy conservator par excellence. "
As a spiritual being and a visionary Gandhiji was far ahead of his times. For example, he was an energy conservator par excellence. He lived in his ashrams without electricity or any modern amenities. His insistence on use of self/human labour for the majority of needs was legendary and was usually frowned upon by his closest colleagues who thought it was anti-progress. Nevertheless, with the development of sophisticated man-machine interface technologies like free play radios, human powered electricity producing units for laptops, cell phones etc, the use of self/human labour may be able to solve the twin problems of obesity and energy!
Gandhiji believed in all-inclusive growth and felt that India can only become a great nation when its teeming and impoverished rural masses become better off. He therefore focused on rural development for the last 30 years of his life and felt intuitively that future of India is in decentralised rural development. This vision which he stated in the 1920s is even more valid today after almost 100 years.
For example, it is a sad state of affairs that even 63 years after independence around 60% of our rural population lives in primitive conditions. They have hardly any electricity; they cook on primitive chulhas which create tremendous indoor air pollution (which causes 1 million deaths a year according to some estimates); and have no clean drinking water. Their lives are in darkness and somehow modern technology has not touched them. Until and unless scientists, technologists and decision-makers improve the rural populace's quality of life, India will not join the ranks of developed nations.
In order for this to happen, creation of wealth and employment should take place in rural areas. I believe this is possible when agriculture provides both energy and food security for India in an economically viable manner. It is land that provides the wealth of the country - a message that Gandhiji always gave regarding rural development.
Lessons for future
Every citizen of this earth aspires to a decent lifestyle. I believe such a lifestyle is possible with much less energy than is consumed by an average US citizen. For example, in the US the per capita energy consumption is 300 GJ/yr, whereas in India it is a low of 25 GJ/yr. If every citizen of India has the consumerist lifestyle of Americans then all the resources of earth will only be sufficient for this nation alone.
"[T]he mantra of development should be spirituality with high technology. Both allow us to reduce our greed for resources and live in harmony with nature - something that Gandhiji preached intuitively..."
I feel energy consumption of 50-70 GJ/person/yr or one-fifth that of the US can provide a a decent and emotionally satisfying lifestyle. This type of energy consumption will put much less pressure on the earth's resources, besides reducing substantially the environmental pollution. However, it can only happen if each one of us becomes spiritual and follow the Gandhian maxim of "simple living and high thinking".
Once our basic needs are satisfied, all of us long for a meaningful existence. I believe that the whole purpose of our lives is to increase personal and societal infrastructure. Personal infrastructure includes our health, happiness and general well-being. By improving our personal "infrastructure" through spirituality, we become better human beings and it helps in our emotional growth and evolution. By giving back to society so that its "infrastructure" increases we help in humankind's evolution. Both these activities when carried out simultaneously, can give us great joy and satisfaction - a message that Gandhiji gave through his actual work and experiments.
Thus the mantra of development should be spirituality with high technology. Both these things allow us to reduce our greed for resources and live in harmony with nature - something that Gandhiji preached intuitively all his life.