Vinay Lal

It is tempting to think that Gandhi may have been an “early environmentalist”, and yet there appear to be insuperable problems in embracing this view. His views on the exploitation of nature can be reasonably inferred from his famous pronouncement that the earth has enough to satisfy everyone’s needs but not everyone’s greed. Yet Gandhi appears to have been remarkably reticent on the relationship of humans to their external environment, and it is striking that he never explicitly initiated an environmental movement, nor does the word ‘ecology’ appear in his writings. The 50,000 pages of his published writings have relatively little to convey about trees, animals, vegetation, and landscapes, with the notable exception of pages devoted to the subject of cow-protection and the goat that Gandhi kept by his side.

It is also doubtful that he would have contemplated with equanimity the setting aside of tracts of land, forests, and woods as “wilderness areas”, though scarcely for the same reasons for which developers, industrialists, loggers, and financiers object to such altruism. Though an admirer of Thoreau’s writings, such as the essay on “Civil Disobedience”, Gandhi would not have thought much of the enterprise, rather familiar to him from the Indian tradition, of retreating into the woods. He was by no means averse to the idea of the retreat, but Gandhi spent an entire lifetime endeavoring to remain otherworldly while wholly enmeshed in the ugly affairs of the world. The problems posed, for example, by the man-eating tigers of Kumaon, made famous by Jim Corbett, would have left less of a moral impression upon him than those problems which are the handiwork of men who let the brute within them triumph. It is reported that when the English historian Edward Thompson once remarked to Gandhi that wildlife was rapidly disappearing in India, Gandhi replied: “wildlife is decreasing in the jungles, but it is increasing in the towns.”

Thus neither ‘ecologist’ nor ‘environmentalist’ seem to sit on Gandhi’s frame with ease. And, yet, few people acquainted with Gandhi’s life, or with environmental movements in India, would cavil at the suggestion that Gandhi has been the inspirational force behind the ecological awareness of contemporary Indians. It may be mistaken to speak of the Chipko movement and the Narmada Bachao Andolan [“Save the Narmada Movement”] as “Gandhian”, since any such reading perforce ignores the traditions of peasant resistance, the force of customary practices, and the appeal of localized systems of knowledge, but the spirit of Gandhi has undoubtedly moved Indian environmentalists. Not only that: far beyond the confines of Indian environmental movements, exponents of deep ecology have spoken glowingly of the impress of Gandhi’s thought upon them. Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher with whose name deep ecology is inextricably intertwined, has testified that from Gandhi he learnt that the power of non-violence could only be realized after the awareness of “the essential oneness of all life.”

To comprehend the ecological dimensions of Gandhian thinking and practice, we shall have to go well beyond the ordinary implications conveyed by the categories of ‘ecology’ and ‘environment’; indeed, we may not even find much in these words, as they are conventionally understood, to bring us close to Gandhi, unless we are prepared to concede that ethics, ecology, and politics were all closely and even indistinguishably interwoven into the fabric of his thought and social practices. If, for instance, his practice of observing twenty-four hours of silence on a regular basis was a mode of conserving his energy, entering into an introspective state, and listening to the still voice within, it was also a way of signifying his dissent from ordinary models of communication with the British and establishing the discourse on his own terms. Similarly, Gandhi deployed fasting not only to open negotiations with the British or (more frequently) various Indian communities, but to cleanse his own body, free his mind of impure thoughts, feminize the public realm, and even to partake in the experience of deprivation from which countless millions of Indians suffered. Gandhi deplored the idea of waste, and fasting was a sure means of ascertaining the true needs of the body and preserving its ecological equanimity.

The ecological vision of Gandhi’s life opens itself before us in myriad ways. First, as nature provides for the largest animals as much as it provides for its smallest creations, so Gandhi allowed this principle to guide him in his political and social relations with every woman and man with whom he came in contact. Gandhi’s close disciple and attendant, Mirabehn, wrote that while he worked alongside everyone else in the ashram, he would carry on his voluminous correspondence and grant interviews. “Big people of all parties, and of many different nations would come to see Bapu, but he would give equal attention to the poorest peasant who might come with a genuine problem.” In the midst of important political negotiations with senior British officials, he would take the time to tend to his goat. Gandhi remained supremely indifferent to considerations of power, prestige, and status in choosing his companions; similarly, he was as attentive to the minutest details as he was to matters of national importance. One of his associates has reported — and such stories proliferate — that when news reached Gandhi of the illness of the daughter of a friend, he wrote to her a long letter in the midst of an intense political struggle in Rajkot, detailing the medicines that she was to take, the food that she was to avoid, and the precautions she was to exercise. His own grand-niece, pointing to the meticulous care with which Gandhi tended to her personal needs, all the while that he was engaged in negotiations for Indian independence, perhaps showered him with the most unusual honor when, in writing a short book about him, she called it Bapu — My Mother.

Secondly, without being an advocate of wilderness as that is commonly understood today, Gandhi was resolutely of the view that nature should be allowed to take its own course. Arne Naess has written that he “even prohibited people from having a stock of medicines against poisonous bites. He believed in the possibility of satisfactory co-existence and he proved right. There were no accidents . . .” There is far more to these narratives than his rejection of modern medicine. Gandhi scarcely required the verdict of the biologist, wildlife trainer, or zoologist to hold to the view that nature’s creatures mind their own business, and that if humans were to do the same, we would not be required to legislate the health of all species. On occasion a cobra would come into Gandhi’s room: there were clear instructions that it was not to be killed even if it bit Gandhi, though Gandhi did not prevent others from killing snakes. “I do not want to live”, wrote Gandhi, “at the cost of the life even of a snake.” Gandhi was quite willing to share his universe with animals and reptiles, without rendering them into objects of pity, curiosity, or amusement.

Thirdly, Gandhi transformed the idea of waste and rendered it pregnant with meanings that were the inverse of those meanings invested in it by European regimes, which represented the lands that they conquered as ‘unproductive’ and ‘wasteful’, and requiring only the energy and intelligence of the white man to render them useful to humans. Gandhi, contrariwise, was inclined to the view that man was prone to transform whatever he touched, howsoever fertile, fecund, or productive, into waste. His close disciple and associate, Kaka Kalelkar, narrates that he was in the habit of breaking off an entire twig merely for four or five neem leaves he needed to rub on the fibers of the carding-bow to make its strings pliant and supple. When Gandhi saw that, he remarked: “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.” Gandhi also described himself as pained that people would “pluck masses of delicate blossoms” and fling them in his face or string them around his neck as a garland.

Yet this alone was not wasteful: there was also human waste, around the disposal of which an entire and none too savory history of India can be written. While it was a matter of shame that Indian society had set apart a special class of people to deal with the disposal of human excrement, whose occupation made them the most despised members of society, Gandhi found it imperative to bring this matter to the fore and make it as much a subject of national importance as the attainment of political independence and the reform of degraded institutions. Unlike the vast majority of caste Hindus, Gandhi did not allow anyone else to dispose off his waste. His ashrams were repositories for endeavors to change human waste into organic fertilizer. Moreover, during the course of the last twenty years of his life, he was engaged in ceaseless experiments to invent toilets that would be less of a drain on scarce water resources. If Gandhi had done nothing else in his life, one suspects that he would still find a place in histories of sanitation engineering in India; he would also be remembered as one caste Hindu who did not hesitate to wield publicly the toilet broom.

Fourthly, and this is a point that cannot be belabored enough, Gandhi did not make of his ecological sensitivities a cult or religion to which unquestioning fealty was demanded. One writer credits him with the saying, “I am a puritan myself but I am catholic towards others”. His attitude towards meat is illustrative of his catholicity in many respects: Gandhi was a strict vegetarian, some might say in the “unreflective” manner in which many Indians are vegetarians from birth. He was aware, as his writings amply demonstrate, of the cruelty to animals, but he may have been unaware of the argument, which is widely encountered in the ecological literature today, about the extreme pressures upon the soil and water resources induced by the meat industry. In this matter, as in many others bearing upon critical elements of his thought and ethical practices, the anecdotal literature is more revealing, more suggestive of the extraordinary notion of largesse which informed every action of his life. Once, when he had an European visitor at his ashram, where only vegetarian meals were prepared, Gandhi had meat served to him. This surprised everyone, but Gandhi, who had come to understand that his visitor was habituated to meat at every meal, construed it as unacceptable coercion to inflict a new diet upon him.

Gandhi himself partook of milk and milk products, unlike those who style themselves ‘vegans’ in the United States, and his reverence for life and respect for animals did not border on that fanaticism which is only another name for violence. Jehangir Patel, an associate of Gandhi, has written that one day his intimate disciple and attendant, Mirabehn, came running to him in an agitated state of mind. “Bapu [the affectionately respectful term for Gandhi] won’t be able to eat his breakfast”, she said. “Some one has put meat into the fridge where his food is. How could you allow such a thing?” The cook, Ali, explained that he had gotten the meat for the dogs, and offered to remove it at once. Jehangir asked him to let the meat remain there, and Gandhi himself was fetched. Jehangir then apologized to Gandhi: “I did not think of speaking to Ali. I did not realise that this might happen.” Gandhi replied, “Don’t apologise. You and Ali have done nothing wrong, so far as I can see.” Gandhi took some grapes lying next to the meat, and popped them into his mouth; turning then to Mirabehn, he said: “We are guests in our friend’s house, and it would not be right for us to impose our idea upon him or upon anyone. People whose custom it is to eat meat should not stop doing so simply because I am present.” Similarly, though Gandhi championed prohibition, he would not prevent anyone from drinking alcohol, and he condemned altogether the principle of drinking on the sly; as he told Jehangir, “I would much rather you were a drinker, even a heavy drinker, than that there should be any deceit in the matter.”

Though Gandhi was, then, no philosopher of ecology, and can only be called an environmentalist with considerable difficulty, he strikes a remarkable chord with all those who have cared for the environment, loved flowers, practiced vegetarianism, cherished the principles of non-violence, been conserving of water, resisted the depredations of developers, recycled paper, or accorded animals the dignity of humans. He was a deep ecologist long before the term’s theorists had arisen, and one suspects that even the broadest conception of “deep ecology” is not capacious enough to accommodate the radically ecumenical aspects of Gandhi’s life. He wrote no ecological treatise, but made one of his life, and it is no exaggeration to suggest that he left us, in his life, with the last of the Upanishads or “forest books”. This is one life in which every minute act, emotion, or thought was not without its place: the brevity of Gandhi’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 the symphony was orchestrated.

Note on publication: This article has been adapted from the much lengthier version published as Vinay Lal, “Too Deep for Deep Ecology: Gandhi and the Ecological Vision of Life”, in Hinduism and Ecology: The Intersection of Earth, Sky, and Water, eds. Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP for Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard University, 2000), pp. 183-212; another version was published as “Gandhi and the Ecological Vision of Life: Thinking beyond Deep Ecology”, Environmental Ethics 22, no. 2 (Summer 2000), pp. 149-68.

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