Thinking about Gandhi                    

                                        The Life and Death of
Mahatma Gandhi
                                                by Robert Payne, E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc.,
                                                        New York, 1969, 703 pages.

            I have just finished reading and making notes on Robert Payne's book, The Life and Death of Mahatma
. This is a progressive, supportive, yet somewhat critical account of Gandhi's life. There is documentation
        from Gandhi's writings to support the portrait being presented by Payne.

            Gandhi was born in 1869 and was assassinated in 1948. This is the first time that I have read an extensive
        account of his life and ideas. So it has been a good opportunity for me to assess where I stand on Gandhi. Also,
        this has enabled me to try to put forth a tentative position for discussion - that is, where Gandhi might fit
        philosophically into a left biocentric/ecocentric position. A concern for some of us is working out what a "left"
        focus for deep ecology means - and what such a focus means for deep ecology and for a way out of industrial
        society. "Left" as used in this context, means anti-industrial and anti-capitalist and does not necessarily imply

            I found it of interest that Barbara Noske, who was in the Halifax area from November 22-26, 1997, to promote
        her book Beyond Boundaries: Humans and Animals, and where she gave a number of talks, did not refer at all
        to Gandhi or his philosophy. Yet one main theme of her visit was the relationship between the animal rights (she
        uses the term integrity, not rights) and environmental movements. Barbara also stayed two nights with us in
        Saltsprings. Overall her visit went well and made for considerable intellectual upwelling. Also, I came in contact
        and had discussions with people from Gandhi Farm in Nova Scotia, who attended several of Barbara's public talks.
        Their hand-written journal, which I found a nice example of daring to follow convictions, is called Ahimsa: a
        Journal of Gandhi Farm
. Ahimsa means non-violence.

            Arne Naess' take on Gandhi, on non-violence, and what this all means for organizing environmental campaigns
        is, I feel, important to try to understand. "It is a central norm of the Gandhian approach to 'maximise contact with
        your opponent!'", or "Trust your opponent as you trust yourself!", etc. can be seen in his book Ecology,
        Community and Lifestyle
. (These comments, and similar ones by Naess, I disagree with and find totally naive.)
        Gandhi is important to Naess' thinking as a philosopher and his life as an activist.

            After reading Payne's book, it seems to me that the concept of Self-realization in deep ecology (also not part
        of the Platform), should perhaps be seen as flowing from Gandhi's philosophy. For Gandhi, one turns inward for
        spiritual purity before turning to an outward path. With Self-realization, one strives for an expansion of individual
        consciousness which then can come to include the natural world. Thus one is part of the forests or the oceans, or
        part of the coyote or snake, with full self-realization.

            There has been some discussion of Gandhi on the discussion group left bio. Many will remember on this list,
        the discussion of Green Web Bulletin #60, which helped give rise to the current network. At that time I made the
        comment that "There needs to be much more discussion about Gandhi's contribution and limitations." I
        hope this posting contributes and that others will join in.

            A final spur for myself to have a view on Gandhi, and to wind up this "introduction" to Thinking About
, is that the Selected Works Of Arne Naess (10 Volumes) are in preparation, to be published by
        the Foundation for Deep Ecology. Harold Glasser is Series Editor.

            Because of the forthcoming publication of the Selected Works, I have been thinking particularly about how a
        philosophy or theoretical outlook can remain an evolving life force and not be reduced to a catechism. What is the
        room for variance? How do ideas like those, say of Marx, Gandhi, Naess, etc., evolve? Who then decides the
        content? Who "owns" the eight-point Platform, originally drafted by Naess and George Sessions, after it becomes
        embedded in the radical environmental movement? How can future changes to the Platform come about? What can
        one reject or accept in deep ecology, and still be considered a follower of a philosophical position? Is acceptance,
        say of Gandhi's non-violence, which is part of Naess' thinking, (but is not in the Platform), necessary to be
        considered a deep ecology supporter?

            How do we avoid 'contributing' to sainthood and slavishness? Do university-based deep ecology academics
        enforce an imperial control over deep ecology through basically controlling what is published? Is there not, a
        distinction to be made between practising or applying deep ecology, and "following" the philosophy of Arne

        Possible left biocentric agreements with Gandhi

            1. The first level of agreement with Gandhi, is a deep respect for what one might call his "moral authority" or
        spiritual power and his courage. This came from his willingness for self sacrifice, the simple way he lived, and his
        preparedness to die if necessary for his beliefs in the various struggles he took part in, both in South Africa and
        India. He defined for all of us what "voluntary simplicity" could mean for a person with extraordinary social status.
        Inspiring countless others to themselves become agents of social change, he led by example. Fasting (there were
        fifteen fasts) was one way he projected his inner strength.

            As Payne puts it in his book, for Gandhi   
                The strength of the soul grew in proportion as the flesh  was subdued, and from the absolutely pure
                soul there flowed out in ever-widening circles a power that was ultimately invincible...

            2. While a deeply religious Hindu, he was totally non-sectarian in his personal and political life, with friends
        and colleagues from all religious backgrounds. In opposition to the concept of "untouchability", he personally
        showed a way forward for India with respect to religious tolerance and against caste distinctions. This
        unfortunately was not to be, with the Partition in 1947. There was the murder of, according to Payne, four
        million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims.

            3. Gandhi rejected modern industrialism. Modern civilization had brought nothing to India. For him, the
        social model was the village as the center of Indian society, with the peasant's life to be aspired to. He put
        this rejection into practice by establishing Ashrams (communal farms or retreats for communal living) in South
        Africa and in India for himself and close followers. He made use of the village spinning wheel part of his daily
        routine. In a document called Confession of Faith, written in 1909 by Gandhi, and quoted in Payne ,
        he said
                If British rule were replaced tomorrow by Indian rule based on modern methods, India would
                be none the better, except that she would be able then to retain some of the money which is
                drained away to England.

            For Payne, Gandhi's view of the old India was a "reactionary" one:
                Gandhi permitted no change in the relationship between the feudal lord and his peasant servants,
                the rich and the poor.

            He was not a socialist. As Payne says, Gandhi "regarded the rich as trustees of their wealth, and thought
        it no sin to be poor."
p.577  So his stand against industrialism needs to be placed in context.

            4. Gandhi obviously had a deep sense of social justice and his life shows this. This is conveyed in the following
        quotation, cited in Payne, from a document called Young India and written in 1931:
                I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel it is their country in whose making they
                have an effective voice; an India in which there will be no high class or low class of people; an
                India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony. There can be no room in such an
                India for the curse of untouchability or the curse of the intoxicating drinks and drugs. Women
                will enjoy the same rights as men. Since we shall be at peace with all the rest of the world,
                neither exploiting, nor being exploited, we should have the smallest army imaginable. All
                interests not in conflict with the interests of the dumb millions will be scrupulously respected,
                whether foreign or indigenous. This is the India of my dreams.

            Non-Violence, Passive Resistance and Other Comments

            Gandhi had an enormous influence on India but the India he wanted is not the India of today. He was a person
        who influenced others by his moral authority. As Payne noted, quoting Gandhi,
                Non-violence is not and never has been the weapon of the weak. It is the weapon of the stoutest

            Gandhi had no position in the Indian Congress Party and he held no high state office. There seemed to be no
        organization to implement his philosophy of non-violence and passive resistance. Whatever his successes, his
        belief in non-violence was overwhelmed by British Partition policies and those forces within Indian society, both
        Muslim and Hindu, who wanted a divided not united India.

            Gandhi's belief in non-violence did not preclude recruitment for the British army. In South Africa, he urged
        Indians living in that country, to take part on the side of the British during the Zulu rebellion and in the Boer War.
        He himself organized the Indian Ambulance Corps. Gandhi was given the rank of Sergeant Major. In the First
        World War Indians were asked by him to serve. Payne says of Gandhi
                For fifty years he showed his enduring respect for the duly constituted authority of the British Raj,
                turning defiantly against it only in 1919 after the Amritsar massacre.

            With his compassionate belief that no one is unredeemable, "everyone has part of the truth", Gandhi wrote two
        letters to Hitler, neither of which was delivered, but quoted in Payne's book. In 1940, Gandhi wrote an astonishing
        appeal "To Every Briton":
                He called upon them to abandon the struggle, lay down their arms, and quietly accept whatever
                fate Hitler had reserved for them. 'You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what
                they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful
                island with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your

            Does non-violence have any relevance for left biocentrism, is of course the question which any examination of
        Gandhi brings to the foreground. Given that any State, no matter under which ideological banner it is organized,
        reserves to itself the use of force, and defines as seditious any challenge to this, questioning non-violence has to be
        done in a circumspect manner. I think most of us prefer non-violence, and this certainly is the moral high ground.
        But opposing increasing economic growth and consumerism and the destruction of the natural world, will
        ultimately be considered seditious activity and violence will be used against us, no matter how non-violent we are
        in our actions.

            Gandhi's ecological credentials are difficult to assess. He was a vegetarian and lived lightly upon this Earth. His
        opposition to industrialism and the steady-state village as social model are environmentally friendly. But the world
        view seems human-centered.

            Payne admires Gandhi but he does point out his negative side. While proclaiming his humility, he did not
        tolerate criticism and was very authoritarian. He was against birth control and felt that sexual activity, except for
        purposes of procreation, was sinful.

            For myself, I want to reserve a final view on Gandhi because it would be presumptuous based on reading only
        one book. What has surprised me though is the general eulogistic appraisal of Gandhi in the environmental
        movement and deep ecology circles, without showing his dark side. I feel this 'normal' one-sided presentation of
        Gandhi is compatible with the preservation of industrial capitalist interests.

            David Orton -  November 30, 1997

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