By Ela Gandhi , from Durban , South Africa
When we look at the present context where violence has become a common occurrence, anger, greed and corruption are accepted as normal, and society is losing the basic universal human values of love, compassion, empathy and respect for people, animals, for the earth and for the environment, Gandhiji’s ideas become even more relevant now.
When Gandhiji established his first Ashram or Settlement as he preferred to name it, he was compelled by three thoughts which were inspired by his reading of the book written by Ruskin, Unto This Last. The three thoughts were:
- The good of the individual is contained in the good of all
- That all work is important and should be respected equally so that we do not create class barriers.
- That life on an agrarian economy or craftsmanship is the best life.
It is these thoughts that triggered Gandhiji’s transformation from a successful barrister conscious of his status and his patriarchal ideas into a life of simplicity, engaging in manual labour and promoting the principles of service and breaking down of societal barriers. His idiom was that he had to change first before he could expect others to change. This ashramic life was the experiment with truth that he wrote about. Find the truth and then change to live the truth. Like minded people followed him to experiment with their own lives as well. Today it has become abundantly clear that the world needs a change and that change needs to be along the lines that Gandhiji espoused.
One of the key promoters of these ideas should be the Ashrams that Gandhiji established. In his ashrams Gandhiji promoted the idea of simplicity in order to become sustainable. A lavish lifestyle cannot be maintained in an ashram setting. This is common knowledge. But Gandhiji based his simplicity on the assumption that the world has sufficient resources to meet the needs of all but not the greed of any one person. So the huge inequalities we see today in the world cannot be sustainable. It has to change so that every human being can live a comfortable life. The Ashrams must play the role of bringing home this realisation and help people change even as Gandhiji himself changed.
Gandhiji’s second very important idea was that of conservation of natural resources and protection of the environment. This today is a very urgent and serious issue and has to be as forcefully taken up as possible if humanity does not wish to leave a legacy of suffering misery and extinction, an example of which we have experienced recently with the Covid 19 pandemic. Like Steve Jobs came to the realisation on his death bed that money cannot buy health and happiness, humanity at large needs to realise that if steps are not taken now to conserve and take care of our environment then doom will be certain. Gandhiji was a visionary and he saw the need for conservation so he cultivated good sustainable waste management systems.
He wrote in respect of life on the Tolstoy Farm. “In spite of the large number of settlers, one could not find refuse or dirt anywhere on the Farm. All rubbish was buried in trenches sunk for the purpose. No water was permitted to be thrown on the roads. All waste water was collected in buckets and used to water the trees. Leavings of food and vegetable refuse were utilized as manure. A square pit one foot and a half deep was sunk near the house to receive the night soil, which was fully covered with the excavated earth and which therefore did not give out any smell. There were no flies, and no one would imagine that night soil had been buried there. ….If night soil was properly utilized , we would get manure worth lakhs of rupees and also secure immunity from a number of diseases. By our bad habits we spoil our sacred river banks and furnish excellent breeding ground for flies with the result that the very flies which through criminal negligence settle upon uncovered night soil defile our bodies after we have bathed.” P. 240 Satyagraha in South Africa. This statement speaks for itself.
However the role of large industries, mining companies and chemical plants need to be also scrutinised for their contribution to the pollution of our air and our sources of water. The economy of permanence requires us to exercise self control over how much we mine, how much we pollute, where and what is damaged and finally why do we need large quantities of products that cannot be replenished. Environmental protection requires much thought and discussion. It is common knowledge that greed and irresponsibility will be the driving force behind the destruction of the rain forests of the Amazon.
Gandhiji’s third important principle in the ashrams was that all were equal and all shared the work in the ashram. There were no specific roles. Responsibilities were rotated. This lifestyle removes the caste, class and gender barriers that we have created in the world. It is these barriers that diminishes the dignity of people and remains as a source for frustration and anger among the masses of the people who are at the receiving end of such disrespect and humiliation. According to Gandhiji and if we apply our own logic, no one individual can be happy if all around him there is misery, and so when we inflict an injury on another we are also hurting ourselves. We can see examples of this all the time. Therefore removing barriers of caste class religion and gender are very crucial to peace and nonviolence.
These and many other principles and views became central to ashramic life in Gandhiji’s ashrams but one point was very clear and that is that his ashrams were not removed from the community. They were very much a part of the wider community and various outreach programmes were carried out from the ashram.
Having placed some of these views before you, we can then look at the development needs of each of Gandhiji’s ashrams. For me the central feature when planning development of any of the Ashrams is how will the development assist in (a) promoting the ideals of Gandhiji and (b) benefit the poorest of the poor.