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Why Gandhi’s Ideas Of Progress Are Still Relevant To The Economy

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By Indu Gupta:

Gandhiji spinning the wheel.
M. K. Gandhi. Source: Wikipedia.

“This I do say fearlessly and firmly that every worthy object can be achieved by the use of satyagraha. It is the highest and infallible means, the greatest force. Socialism will not be reached by any other means. Satyagraha can rid society of all evil, political, economic and social.”
– Gandhi

The houses of God are present in every society, in every corner of the world. But the corridors that lead us to these ancient temples and dargahs and the unending shops of prasad, flowers and the men calling your name, dragging you to their shops, make you think very differently.

If for people staying this close to God economics is still the ruling power, why are we not able to negate the presence of something spiritual amongst us? This question has baffled me for years. As a student of science who took up Political Science in her quest for such answers, I’ve not received a 100% correct one as yet. But reading Gandhi as part of my coursework and simultaneously studying economics for the love of it, made me realise that morality and economics are and always have been dovetailed.

Today, a lot of research is being done on alternatives to economic growth which is much more sustainable and egalitarian, not based only on the figures like GDP. I feel it might pay off to go back to some of Gandhi’s work and look at economics with morality being an essential part of it.

Why Morality?

Gandhi said that high thinking is inconsistent with complicated material life based on high speed imposed by Mammon worship. But aren’t we the Space-X potential travellers the high thinking race? He did not think so. For him, all the graces of life are possible only when we learn the art of living nobly.

Today most of us feel locked in the arms of a crazy life. A feeling best described by Henry David Thoreau when he wrote in 1854, “The masses of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Morality and economy cannot be put in watertight compartments. A leading researcher of India Pratap Bhanu Mehta even sees corruption as empowerment. The need to assert one’s socio-economic status through corruption becomes so vital psychologically that in certain cases no legal mechanism finds success in rooting it out. This is especially the case in developing countries like India where age-old hierarchies and colonial legacies permeate every corner of the social system.

Joseph E. Stiglitz the Nobel Laureate of 2001 in a piece titled ‘Moral Bankruptcy‘ has also stated that “we have created a society in which materialism overwhelms moral commitment, in which the rapid growth that we have achieved is not sustainable environmentally or socially, in which we do not act together to address our common needs. Market fundamentalism has eroded every sense of community and has led to rampant exploitation of unwary and unprotected individuals. There has been an erosion of trust – and not just in our financial institutions. It is not too late to close these fissures.”

Today the invisible hand of Adam Smith seems to be going for our throats. And a solution for this needs to come with an alternative idea of an ideal life.

The Art Of Living Nobly

The understanding of human life has changed dramatically in the 20th century in comparison to what we believed in the 14th. Robert Venturi, Jean Baudrillard, Jean- Francis Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Jean Barnard Leon, Foucault, J. Habermas – the thinkers of post-modernity are greatly distrustful of the grand narratives and grand ideologies we saw earlier. They challenge the modernist assertion that only scientific thinking could yield objective knowledge and universal truth. Instead, they repose their faith in the continental, contextual and situational nature of truth.

The corporate state capitalism has almost rendered the word ‘Truth’ obsolete. Propaganda and ‘manufactured consent‘ are the instruments of the state and institutions in the current world order. Democracy has been used as a tool to interfere in countries and leave them after jeopardising their age-old culture and power structures. The world is divided today into the haves and the have-nots along with being divided into the leaders and their instruments. This social engineering for benefits of every kind sometimes makes us question the very things that make us human.

“Then we open somebody up
We eat their bones and wonder why they have no bones left.
Maybe one day we’ll find we have
No need for a leader.”

Hence, it is of an absolute necessity to seek an entirely different ideal life which is based on limited material pursuits while leading to a greater growth of the humanity at the same time.

The Solution – Three Pillars Of Gandhian Thought


It was one of the results of Gandhi’s long search for truth which was greatly influenced by John Ruskin’s Unto this Last, his study of the ‘New Testament’ and the ‘Bhagavad Gita’. Gandhi himself defined satyagraha as ‘insistence on truth’ or ‘firmness of truth’ with its outer manifestation being non-violence. Here, truth is virtually a synonym for God and non-violence more in thought, word and deed than merely non-injury at the physical level.


Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi pay homage at the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square, in London, November 12, 2015. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls - RTS6OII
David Cameron & Narendra Modi. Reuters/Peter Nicholls.

Sarvodaya signifies the welfare of all, in contrast to that of a few. The ideal economy is, therefore, that of a locally oriented production, using local resources and meeting local needs.

This does not mean, isolating ourselves or following import-substitution policies, neither does it mean saying no to technology and the digital revolution. Gandhi, in fact, used to cite the example of Singer sewing machine as an instance of desirable technology which avoids drudgery and reduces tedium. His criticism was not against technology, but against society’s contemptuous attitude to manual labour.


“The word Swaraj is a sacred word, a Vedic word, meaning self-rule and self-restraint, and not freedom from all restraint which ‘independence’ often means.” (Young India, March 19, 1931)

Swaraj was an old Vedic concept. Moderates understood it as self-rule while the Extremists took a wider view. Gandhi, on the other hand, saw Swaraj as self-rule at the level of an individual. It was symbolic of an individual in full control of his ‘baser’ passions. For such an individual, the control by any external agency including ‘State’ was peripheral, if not irrelevant and meaningless.

This was real progress for Gandhi. He did not define growth in the sense of monetary terms. For him, real progress was in self-discovery, where the phenomenal world was not rejected in the name of finding a transcendental centre for man but rather a balance was found.

Rather than seeing the natural order and the man-made institutions to be subdued to man and his purpose and social engineering, he saw the society as an organic structure – based on mutual cooperation and respect, free from domination and exploitation.

“Under Swaraj based on non-violence, nobody is anybody’s enemy, everybody contributes his or her due quota to the common goal, all can read and write, and their knowledge keeps growing from day to day. Sickness and diseases are reduced to the minimum. No one is pauper and labor can always find employment.” (‘Harijan’, March 25, 1939)

Is Any Of This Possible Today?


This would be possible because a ‘man’ in Gandhi’s worldview is not egocentric but is rather endowed with an extended self. In such a perspective, there is no ‘other’, as you are in ‘other’ and ‘other’ is in you, hence ruling out entirely the politics of an enemy symbol.

These ideas are very relevant for us today because they are strong and effective remedial measures at the disposal of an individual to protect minority rights or to keep any government on its toes.

The entire post-war history has been impacted by the transformative role of Gandhi’s Satyagraha. Dr. Martin Luther King’s fight against racism, the struggle against the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos of Philippines and even the struggle against the Emergency rule of Indira Gandhi are cases in point.

Satyagraha should, however, not only be seen as an instrument of conflict resolution. It is much more than that. It is a brave attempt to empower the poor and the dispossessed and humanise those who are engrossed in seeking their selfish interests. It is an attempt to build a better future by eliminating all traces of human frailty, manifest in all kinds of injustice and exploitation. It is an attempt to build a better world.

What is needed is, however, will and strength because only the brave can tread the path of love.

“There is no failure for the good and wise
What though their seed should fall by the wayside,
And bird snatch it – yet the birds are fed,
Or they shall bear it far across the tide
To give rich harvest, after thou are dead.”
– Anonymous.

You must be to comment.
  1. Noel Kurian

    Nice article. It was interesting read. I agree that the divorce of economic policy and philosophy from morality is certainly something that has led to the current economic conditions and gross inequality.

    However, you lost me halfway through the article. If post-modernism has done away with any concept of objective truth, then how is Gandhian thought is going to help us? Will it not only be categorized as “just another opinion”?

    Not to say that you are wrong, but before the society can accept any such ideal, it needs to rediscover Truth.

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