Ancient world cultures honoured thinkers, who occupied pride of place in every social structure. The Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Japanese and our own Indian civilization placed scholars and priests at the top of the pyramid of work, livelihood and life itself.
After the industrial revolution and the European Enlightenment (modern science placed man at the centre of creation), which spread with western imperialism, trade and economy began to take precedence over a life of the mind. Intellectual and aesthetic movements needed patronage from powerful merchant families. Even royalty was often in debt to the money lords who financed governments, trade and wars.
Then came the concept of universal education, which drew children into classrooms and got them to focus on developing the mind over everything else. One of the motives of modern education was to equip huge sections of population to play their role in an industrialised world. In our country, the entire education plan introduced by Macaulay to produce clerks for the British Empire was designed in such a way that the more the student studied, the more he became distanced from the tasks of physical labour — not to mention his natural environment and ethos.
Naturally, those who had more money to spare were able to give their children the kind of training which gradually persuaded them to believe that all they had to learn from life lay between the covers of a book. Book-learning displaced life-learning altogether. The idea “honourable” and “dignified” work got confined to certain fixed images. Sitting in an office designing buildings and engines, planning for opening theatres and resorts, training to be a physician or surgeon to save lives and contribute to healthcare, entering a scientific career or a life spent as a lawyer was seen as acceptable work. Teaching, naturally, joined the list of respectable professions due to the status an academic life brought. Why? All these occupations were related to intellectual growth and contribution. Overseeing work and workers became more important and complicated than the actual work. Indeed, workers were paid less than those who oversaw their work.
Since we tend to think in binaries, manual labour was seen to be less respectable and desirable than working with the mind. The tradition of devaluing labour is a very old one. In the social hierarchy, home-bound labour (washing clothes, cleaning, cooking, etc.) is seen to be woman’s work and unsuited to the dignity of a man. This is certainly the case in traditional and patriarchal societies and communities.
It took Gandhiji to say that a person who has not actually worked with his or her hands and coaxed the earth into giving us what it can, cannot know the meaning of true labour. He developed the idea of ‘Bread Labour’ and took a vow to follow it. He got his ideas from Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin and made place for bread labour in his life. Behind it was also an attempt to introduce a revolutionary idea about work. Gandhiji said that sharirashrama , physical labour and effort, was more important for maintaining the health of the society than it was for staying physically fit. Just as caste, religions and religious sects had caused horizontal divisions in the society, devaluation of labour has divided society vertically.
One of the ideas behind emphasising on ritual purity is that one has to work for oneself. Having clean clothes, fresh food and living space should be taken care of by oneself without depending on or troubling another.