Mahatma Gandhi: An environmentalist by nature

The word “ecology” appears nowhere in Gandhiji’s writings, and he never spoke about environmental protection as such. Yet, as the Chipko Movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan and in a very different context, the manifesto of the German Greens have shown, the impress of Gandhiji’s thinking on ecological movements has been felt widely.

The Norwegian philosopher, Arne Næss, who came up with the idea of “deep ecology”, had said it is from Gandhiji that he came to the realisation of “the essential oneness of all life”.

Gandhiji was a practitioner of recycling decades before the idea caught on in the West, and he initiated perhaps the most far-reaching critiques of the ideas of consumption and that fetish of the economist called “growth”. Thus, in myriad ways, we can believe that he was a thinker with a profoundly ecological sensibility.

In one of the several books that he wrote on India, V.S. Naipaul skewered Gandhiji for what he called his “narcissism”. Naipaul says Gandhiji’s autobiography is stunningly silent on the landscape, trees, vegetation or the much-vaunted English notion of “nature”, though he spent three years in London as a law student. It is certainly the case that Gandhiji was sparse in his discussion of the relationship of humans with their external environment.

"Though Gandhiji wrote no ecological treatise, he made on of his life". Gandhi with Jawaharlal Nehru.

"Though Gandhiji wrote no ecological treatise, he made on of his life". Gandhi with Jawaharlal Nehru.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives


Similarly, though Gandhiji was a great admirer of Thoreau and had read his Walden and the essay on ‘Walking’, I wonder what he made of Thoreau’s enterprise of retreating into the woods for a two-year stay. Gandhiji was no naturalist. When the English historian Edward Thompson once expressed his concern to him about the rapid disappearance of wildlife in India, Gandhiji reportedly replied, “Wildlife is decreasing in the jungles, but it is increasing in the towns.”

Part of his being

The ecological dimensions of Gandhiji’s thinking cannot be comprehended unless one is prepared to accept that ecology, ethics and politics were deeply enmeshed into the very fabric of his being. Take, for example, his practice of observing 24 hours of silence regularly. The maun vrat has a honourable place in Hindu religiosity, and one might be tempted into thinking that Gandhiji was only following Hindu tradition — to take the argument further, it was his way of entering into an introspective state and making himself receptive to the still voice within. A more political reading might suggest that it was also his way of bending the English to communicate on his terms. But it was also an ecological gesture, a mode of conserving energy and a devastating indictment of the modern industrial culture of noise and consumption. We talk too much, eat too much, and consume too much. The phrase “noise pollution” is nowhere in Gandhiji’s writings, but he had a full-fledged critique of it.

There are other respects (I shall take up only three) in which the ecological vision of Gandhiji’s life opens itself up to us. First, he was of the considered opinion that nature should be allowed to take its course. The environmental crises and “extreme weather events” that are upon us have been precipitated by the gross and appalling instrumentalisation of nature. The earth is not merely there to be mined, logged and hollowed out. However, we have to first preserve the ecological equanimity of the body. Nature’s creatures mind their own business; if humans were to do the same, we would not be required to legislate the health of all species. Gandhiji did not prevent others from killing snakes but a cobra entering his room was left alone. “I do not want to live at the cost of the life even of a snake,” he said.

Second, Gandhiji mounted a rigorous critique of the “waste” that is behind modern industrial civilisation in more ways than we imagine. European colonisation the world over was justified with the claim that natives and indigenous people “wasted” their land and did not render it sufficiently productive. But Gandhiji held the view that humans are prone to transform whatever they touch into waste. His close disciple and associate Kaka Kalelkar was in the habit of breaking off an entire twig merely for four or five neem leaves he needed to rub on the fibres of the carding-bow to make its strings pliant and supple. When Gandhiji saw that, he said: “This is violence. We should pluck the required number of leaves after offering an apology to the tree for doing so. But you broke off the whole twig, which is wasteful and wrong.”

Third, as is well known, Gandhiji was a staunch vegetarian, and he would have been pleased with a great deal of modern research which has established that the meat industry has put extreme pressures on the soil and water resources and the massive increase in levels of meat consumption when people start entering he middle class in countries such as India. But to be “ecological” in sensibility also means harbouring a notion of largesse towards others; it is a way of being in the world.

European visitors to his ashram, where only vegetarian meals were prepared, had meat served to them if they desired. To inflict a new diet upon someone who was habituated to meat at every meal was, in Gandhiji’s thinking, a form of violence. As he once told Mirabehn, “People whose custom it is to eat meat should not stop doing so simply because I am present.”

Gandhiji strikes a remarkable chord with all those who have cherished the principles of non-injury, cared for the environment, practised vegetarianism, worked energetically to conserve air, soil, and water, resisted the depredations of developers, recycled paper, or accorded animals the dignity of humans.

Anticipating Anthropocene

In contemplating his life, his anticipation of the Anthropocene is striking. “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism 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,” Gandhiji told an interlocutor in 1928.

What if, Gandhiji asks, nature was the bearer of rights? What would nature have to say on this subject? No less remarkably, though Gandhiji wrote no ecological treatise, he made one of his life. This is one life in which every minute act, emotion or thought was not without its place. The brevity of Gandhiji’s enormous writings, his small meals of nuts and fruits, his morning ablutions and everyday bodily practices, his periodic observances of silence, his morning walks, his cultivation of the small as much as of the big, his abhorrence of waste, his resort to fasting — all these point to the manner in which he orchestrated the symphony of life. No philosopher of ecology could have done as much.

Vinay Lal is a Professor of History and Asian American Studies at University of California, Los Angeles

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 6:07:29 PM |

Next Story