Gandhiji on Development, Environment, Morality and Spirituality

Gandhiji on Development, Environment, Morality and Spirituality


Date:- 30th January 2005

Place:- Gandhi National Memorial, Agakhan Palace, Nagar Road, Pune –411006



Gandhiji’s understanding of human life is essentially the same as the understanding of human life of the great teachers and seers of our classical Indian civilization. He sees clearly that, although they have differences in the realm of metaphysics, they have in common a deep scientific understanding of human life, which is essentially true. According to him “religious life”, “spiritual life” and “selfless ethical life of love” essentially mean the same, and pursuit of Truth, i.e. of ethical perfection, is the ultimate goal of life and pursuit of non-violence, i.e. of selfless ethical life of universal love, is its means.


Contrary to the widely accepted belief, Gandhiji is not against machinery or development as such. He is certainly not against study or research in human or natural sciences. He would not be against the use of machinery for development within the limits of ethics. But he is certainly against the replacement of body-labor by machine-work, but not against making physical work more joyful with the help of machines-work: it is his firm conviction that willing obedience to the law of body-labor brings contentment and health. He would certainly not approve the present culture of development of modern western civilization which has caused disappearance of tens of thousands of plant and animal species and continues to cause greater and greater violence to our life-sustaining natural systems, (in the form of causing pollution of air, water, land, global warming, depletion of ozone lair and non-renewable natural resources, etc.) which has devastating implications for our future generations as well as for the entire life world in the long run. He would not support a culture of development, which consumes natural resources for luxuries faster than the earth can replace them and which produces harmful wastes, which cannot be converted into harmless or useful material. He was once asked if he expected independent India to attain the same standard of living as Britain. Gandhiji replied, “It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve this prosperity. How many planets will a country like India require! ” He firmly believes that nature has enough to meet our needs, but not to meet our greed.


He is not against factory production by using sophisticated machines if it is necessary for the benefit of the people. “Do I seek to destroy the mill industry, I have often been asked…. I want the mill industry to prosper- only I do not want it to prosper at the expense of the country. On the contrary, if the interests of the country demand that the industry should go, I should let it go without the slightest compunction.” ( N.K. Bose Ed. Selections from Gandhi, p.68.) But he would prefer such factories to be nationalized, although he firmly believes that any capitalist like any other human being could transform his life into a life of enlightened ethical goodness and use his wealth to meet what he reasonably requires for his personal needs and act as a trustee for the remainder to be used for the society.


He did not want to taboo every thing above and beyond the bare necessities but they must come after the essential needs of the poor are satisfied. Although Gandhiji’s ideal life is an enlightened unselfish ethical life of plain living and high thinking, it is absolutely voluntary. He would not approve anyone to be forced to lead a simple life unless in some situation it is a moral requirement. No villager should be deprived of against his will to pursue a luxurious urban life within the limits of morality, which would not be possible without providing all equal opportunity for education and work.


Gandhiji would never approve the present out-and-out consumerist market culture of cut throat competition for getting more and more wealth even beyond one’s genuine needs, which is essentially born of greediness and envy and spreading, like wild fire globally almost without any hindrance. He clearly sees: “Man’s happiness really lies in contentment. He who is discontented, however much he possesses, becomes a slave to his desires…..  The incessant search for material comforts and their multiplication is an evil. I make bold to say that the Europeans will have to remodel their outlook, if they are not to perish under the weight of the comforts to which they are becoming slaves. A time is coming when those who are in mad rush today of multiplying their wants, will retrace their steps and say; what we have done?…. A certain degree of physical harmony and comfort is necessary, but above a certain level it becomes hindrance instead of help. Therefore the ideal of creating an unlimited number of wants and satisfying them seems to be a delusion and snare.” (T.N. Khoshoo, Mahatma Gandhi: An Apostle of Applied Human Ecology, pp.668-69.) “I do not believe that multiplication of wants and machinery contrived to supply them is taking the world a single step nearer to its goal…. I whole-heartedly detest this mad desire to destroy distance and time, to increase animal appetites and go to the ends of the earth in search of their satisfaction. If modern civilization stands for all this, and I have understood it to do so, I call it Satanic.” ( M.K. Gandhi, The Voice of Truth, pp.326-327.)


Unlike the explicit human-centric ethics of modern western civilization, the ethics of classical Indian civilization has been explicitly life-centric.  The great teachers and seers of our ancient Indian civilization explicitly accept universal non-violence, i.e. non-violence to both human and non-human life, to be the foundation of ethics. They see clearly that enlightened selfless ethical life of love constitutes the core of Truth, i.e. of the ultimate goal of life, which is essentially the same as a perfect enlightened selfless ethical life of love, and pursuit of selfless ethical life of universal love making constant effort to grow towards ethical perfection constitutes the core of its means.  They see clearly that such a life is eternally intrinsically supremely valuable, and that any person can pursue it through selfless ethical service to  society to the best of ones ability through some work required for the general good and making constant effort to purify ones inner world and grow towards ethical perfection. They see clearly that our love for human beings is bound to be highly imperfect if we interact cruelly with our fellow non-human beings. They explicitly accept that pursuit of wealth and pleasure within the limits of ethics is essential not only for the pursuit of the ultimate goal of life, but also for sustainable development and prosperity in society. Gandhiji sees clearly that all great religions also explicitly or implicitly accept the same. It is worth noting that unlike modern western civilization, classical Indian civilization has clear answer even to an atheist to the question why to make sacrifices for our future generations or for our harmless fellow lower form of creatures even if it is against our substantial selfish interest.


Gandhiji  sees clearly: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated…It ill becomes us to invoke in our daily prayers the blessings of God the compassionate, if we in turn will not practice elementary compassion towards our fellow creatures.” “We cannot have ecological movement designed to prevent violence to nature, unless the principle of nonviolence becomes central to the ethics of human  culture….A society can be judged the way it treats its animals. It is arrogant to say that human beings are lords of and masters of the lower creatures. On the contrary, being endowed with great things in life, they are the trustees of the lower animal kingdom” (T.N. Khoshoo, Mahatma Gandhi: An Apostle of Applied Human Ecology, pp.65-66.)According to him it is an insult to human intelligence and an outrage to human heart to imagine that one could propitiate the deity by sacrificing animals.  One can please God by self sacrifice and self denial. (M.K. Gandhi, In Search of the Supreme, Volume-3; Navajeevan  Publishing House, Ahmedabad-14, 1961,p.163, p.310-.311.) All religions explicitly or implicitly accept the natural systems which sustain life and health to be invaluable. Prophet Muhammad said, “Even if the Day of Judgment should arrive and you are holding a sapling in your hand, plant it.” All the prophets of Semitic religions have been shepherds at some point of their lives, who tended the plant, animal human world with loving care. All theistic religions claim that we are all created and nourished by the same source. The first mantra of Ishopanishad which Gandhiji considers to constitute the essence of Hinduism says, “All this that we see in this great universe is pervaded by God. Renounce it and enjoy it. Do not covet anybody’s wealth.”( M.K. Gandhi, In Search of the Supreme, Volume-3, p. 105.) Gandhiji firmly believes about the fundamental ethical unity and truth of all great religions.      (For a discussion on this issue, see the note entitled “Gandhji on  Fundamental Unity  and Truth of  all Great Religions” in our  website, www. savegangamovement. org.)


He sees clearly that India has the moral and spiritual resources to provide the rest of the world a culture of Truth and non-violence in the context of our technological age where all religions could grow harmoniously, in spite of their differences in the realm of metaphysics, and where development could take place with the loving care for our life–sustaining natural systems and   their countless variety of invaluable flora and fauna. He firmly believes that introduction of critical study of ethics from the very beginning of our education would be a major step in this direction. He says that “a child before it begins to write its alphabet and to gain worldly knowledge, should know what the soul is, what truth is, what love is, what powers are latent in the soul.” “It should be an essential of real education that a child should learn that, in the struggle of life, it can easily conquer hate by love, untruth by truth, violence by self-suffering.” (N.K.Bose, Ed..Selections from Gandhi, p.220.) Environmental ethics should be taught as a part of the syllabus on ethics, both at the school as well as at the college level. In his Hind Swaraj, making a severe condemnation of the education system of modern western civilization, he claims: “Our ancient school system is enough. Character building has the first place in it and that is primary education. A building erected on that foundation will last……Religious that is ethical, education will occupy the first place.”(M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, pp. 77-79.)

Teaching various branches of applied ethics like environmental ethics, business ethics, medical ethics, political and legal ethics etc. without discussing the value and  means of  an ethical life   would be of little significance. One may knowingly avoid a morally good action and   not avoid   an immoral action, if one believes it to be in one’s substantial selfish interest due to one’s lack of knowledge about the value of ethical good life; and even if one has knowledge about the value of ethical good life, one may fail to lead such a life because of one’s deep rooted contrary habits and passions if one does not have knowledge about the means to ethical good life. We must study critically the views of great religions and of great teachers and thinkers of mankind about various fundamental issues of ethics concerning ethical values as well as the value and the means of ethical good life.