Archive | December, 2009

The Problems of Progress – by J S Mathur

Conferment of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize on Al Gore and Rajendra K Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has focused discussion on the calamity that the human race faces as a consequence of climate change. Dr Pachauri remarks:

“Something should be done immediately to mitigate the threats of global warming which are near and real”. Gordon Brown has observed: “Climate change poses an urgent challenge that threatens the environment but also international peace and security, prosperity and development.”

Global warming is only a symptom of the prevalent civilisation. We need to go to fundamentals and not be sidetracked by laying emphasis on various symptoms of the present ailment and trying to find a solution for these. Gandhiji, writing in Young India on 6 April 1921 said:

“We must refuse to wait for generations to furnish us with a patent solution of problems which are ever growing in seriousness. Nature knows no mercy in dealing with stern justice. If we do not wake up before long, we shall be wiped out of existence.”

It is high time we listen to the sane advice of Gandhiji and radically change concepts that are associated with growth, progress and development. His message is Universal for the whole of humanity. He made experiments in India and the people of India understood his simple language. Addressing himself to ‘American Friends’ he observed:

“The message of the spinning wheel is much wider than its circumference. Its message is one of simplicity, service of mankind, living as not to hurt others, creating an indissoluble bond between the rich and the poor, capital and labour, the prince and the peasant. The message is naturally for all.”

The international conferences on climate change in recent years have ended in pious resolutions. It appears that those who attend these deliberations are high ranking politicians and bureaucrats who are far away from the realities and the shortcomings of the present system. As one looks at the welldressed and shining faces at conference tables one can understand the casualness in approaches to these problems. They are not prepared to change their lifestyles. Let me draw attention to what Gandhiji said several decades earlier:

“I do not believe that multiplication of wants and machinery contrived to supply them is taking the world a single step nearer its goal … I wholeheartedly detest this mad desire to destroy distance and time, to increase animal appetites and go to the end of the world in search of their satisfaction. If modern civilisation stands for all this … I call it satanic.”

In Hind Swaraj he observed:

“This civilisation is such that one has to be patient and it will be self-destroyed.”

In the same book he remarked:

“Civilisation is like a mouse gnawing while it is soothing us. When its full effect is realised we shall realise that religious superstition is harmless compared to that of modern civilisation. I am not pleading for a continuance of religious superstitions. We shall certainly fight them tooth and nail …”

“In the evolution of civilisation needs created machines and simple technology. In modern civilisation this situation has reversed. In today’s world it is technology that creates wants (not needs) and that is the villain. Technology has created an age drunk, not merely with synthetic emotions and pleasures manufactured by entertainment factories, but dreams of power and of the conquest of outer space.”

The world faces a number of problems besides global warming: pollution, ecological imbalances, exhaustion of resources and the like. But far more important are the social and emotional problems that this unbridled development of technology has for the human race. One of these is a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. Bertrand Russell said:

“We are perhaps living in the last age of man, and if so, it is to science that he will owe his extinction”. (The Impact of Science on Society, p33)

Albert Schweitzer observed:

“It is clear now to everyone that the suicide of civilisation is in progress. What yet remains of it is no longer safe”. (Decay and Restoration of Civilisation, p16)

Today technology is the domain of the specialist and a specialist is one who knows more and more about less and less. Relying on this technology which is beyond control we have all round centralisation with power concentrated in modern multinational corporations transcending national boundaries and which rely on competition, exploitation, coercion and manipulation. The remedy to the present ailments that the world and humanity faces is a thorough overhaul of our approach to life. Al Gore observed:

“We have also fallen a victim to a kind of technological hubris, which tempts us to believe that our new powers may be unlimited.” (Earth in Balance, p206)

One of the characteristics of technology is that there is no limit to its growth. Gandhiji remarked:

“Machinery is like a snake-hole which may contain one to a hundred snakes . . . . Machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilisation … it represents a great sin”.

Other features of technology are that it not only displaces human and animal labour, it has a will or genius of its own and depends on creation of wants (not needs), which are insatiable. It puts enormous concentration of material power and wealth in the hands of the few. Another feature is ‘parasitism’. Man is made to obey the machine. Along with these characteristics is widespread irresponsibility.

These views were expressed to warn humankind of the danger that unbridled technology has in its womb. Gandhiji was not opposed to technology as such but to technology that masters us and is beyond human control. He was for technology that empowers individuals and small groups and is dependent on renewable sources of energy, non-polluting, that lead to peace, cooperation and universal brotherhood.

Every now and then we read or hear that the world is on the brink of annihilation. We must now clearly understand the traits of a healthy society. A few traits that Gandhiji suggested are:

“In a well-ordered society the securing of one’s livelihood should be and is found to be the easiest thing in the world. Indeed the test of orderliness in a country is not the number of millionaires it owns, but the absence of starvation amongst the millions”.

“Man’s triumph will consist in substituting the struggle for existence by the struggle for mutual service. The law of the brute will be replaced by the law of man.”

The socio-economic system should provide full employment. Unemployment is a sort of economic capital punishment. Unemployment and idleness of millions must lead to anti-social values and even bloody strife. Employment means that work should be pleasurable and satisfying. Gandhiji said:

“I should never be satisfied until all men had plenty of work, say eight hours a day …” He continued: “In a healthy society concentration of riches on a few people and unemployment amongst millions is a great social crime or disease which needs to be remedied.”

All this implies the wholesale repudiation of the current socio-economic political-technological system. There is nothing sacrosanct about the present order. Maurice Strong remarks:

“That economic growth in countries like physical growth in people is natural and healthy up to a point. After that it can become cancerous …. From that stage we should regard real growth as intellectual, moral and social”.

Two world wars and the nuclear bombing of Japan and ever-growing sophistication of the means of mass destruction and exploitation, the all-round exhaustion of resources, pollution and ecological imbalance, rivalry and competition amongst nations to go nuclear are warning signals.

Outmoded political structures, fossilised traditions, inflexible policies need to be abandoned at the earliest. Gandhiji’s advice:

“Civilisation, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants. This alone promotes real happiness and contentment and increases the capacity for service”.

This demands almost savage asceticism. Gandhiji dressed like the dispossessed and Tagore said:

“He spoke to them in their own language; here was only living truth at last and not only quotations from books ….”.

Gandhiji’s advice:

“…begin with the first convert. If there is one such, you can add zeros to the one and the first zero will account for ten and every addition will account for ten times the previous number. If, however, the beginner is a zero, in other words no one makes the beginning multiplicity of zeros will also produce zero value”.

Let us hope that Al Gore and R K Pachauri and their like will start a movement and listen to the advice of Gandhiji that centralisation as a system is inconsistent with a peaceful, nonviolent structure of society. A beginning has to be made. Each day begins with a dawn and it is never too late to begin and retrace one’s steps if they go in the wrong direction. The longest journey begins with the first step. Someone has to take the step. One Gandhi giving all his time to peace made news all over the world. Many people giving some of their time for peace and a nonviolent socio-economic system can make history. The idealist of yesteryears has become the only realist today.

J S Mathur is Director of the Basant Bihari Jairani Foundation for Peace Studies, Allahabad.

Masanobu Fukuoka and Natural Farming – by M R Rajagopalan

Masanobu Fukuoka

Fukuoka, the Japanese author of One Straw Revolution which inspired many a person all over the world to convert to Natural Farming, is no more. He passed away at the age of 95 on the 16th August, 2008. I read this famous book, a third time, after a gap of 10-15 years, for writing this article. Often I got the feeling I am reading Mahatma Gandhi! The common point between Gandhiji and Fukuoka is that they practiced first and preached later. One of the remarkable statements of Gandhi was “My life is my message”. Though Fukuoka made no such statement, his life is his message in relation to Natural Farming. Nevertheless, it should be borne in mind Gandhiji’s life and message have universal application for truth, nonviolence and village-based economy, whereas Fukuoka’s message is restricted to Natural Farming.

Fukuoka was inspired by Buddha and Gandhi. In Fukuoka’s words

“I believe that Gandhi’s way, a methodless method, acting with a non-winning, non-opposing state of mind, is akin to natural farming. When it is understood that one loses joy and happiness in the attempt to possess them, the essence of natural farming will be realized. The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

Again Fukuoka says in some other place in this book

“Fast rather than slow, more rather than less – this flashy ‘development’ is linked directly to society’s impending collapse. It has only served to separate man from nature. Humanity must stop indulging the desire for material possessions and personal gain and move instead toward spiritual awareness”.

Does this not sound like Gandhi?

As a young man, Fukuoka left his rural home and traveled to Yokohama to pursue a career as a microbiologist. He became a specialist in plant diseases and worked for some years in a laboratory as an agricultural customs inspector. It was at that time, while still a young man of twenty-five, that Fukuoka experienced the realization which was to form the basis of his life’s work and which was to be the theme of this book, The One-Straw Revolution. He left his job and returned to his native village to test the soundness of his ideas by applying them in his own fields.

How the Revolution started

The basic idea came to him one day as he happened to pass an old field which had been left unused and unplowed for many years. There he saw healthy rice seedlings sprouting through a tangle of grasses and weeds. From that time on, he stopped flooding his field in order to grow rice. He stopped sowing rice seed in the spring and, instead, put the seed out in the autumn, sowing it directly onto the surface of the field when it would naturally have fallen to the ground. Instead of plowing the soil to get rid of weeds, he learned to control them by a more or less permanent ground cover of white clover and a mulch of rice and barley straw. Once he had seen to it that conditions had been tilted in favor of his crops, Fukuoka interfered as little as possible with the plant and animal communities in his fields.

All three methods (natural, traditional and chemical) yield comparable harvests, but differ markedly in their effect on the soil. The soil in Fukuoka’s fields improves with each season. Over the past twenty-five years, since he stopped plowing, his fields have improved in fertility, structure, and in their ability to retain water. By the traditional method the condition of the soil over the years remains about the same. The farmer takes yields in direct proportion to the amount of compost and manure he puts in. The soil in the fields of the chemical farmer becomes lifeless and depleted of its nativefertility in a short time.

In the area of Shikoku where Fukuoka carried on his experiments, rice is grown on the coastal plains and citrus (orange/lime varieties) on the surrounding hill sides. His farm consisted of one and a quarter acres of rice fields and twelve and a half acres of citrus plants. He adopted four principles for farming this land, which are as follows:

Four principles

  1. The first is NO CULTIVATION – that is no plowing or turning of the soil.
  2. The second is NO CHEMICAL FERTILIZER OR PREPARED COMPOST. People interfere with nature, and try, as they may, they cannot heal the resulting wounds.
  3. The third is NO WEEDING BY TILLAGE OR HERBICIDES. Weeds play a part in building soil fertility and in balancing the biological community.
  4. The fourth is NO DEPENDENCE ON CHEMICALS. From the time that weak plants developed as a result of such unnatural practices as plowing and fertilizing, disease and insect imbalance became a great problem in agriculture.

These four principles of natural farming comply with the natural order and lead to the replenishment of nature’s richness. Ultimately, it is not the growing technique which is the most important factor, but rather the state of mind of the farmer.

A Self-supporting Farm

Apart from agriculture, Fukuoka also practiced animal husbandry, poultry, fisheries and bee keeping – these factors ensured that life in the farm was self-supporting – the attainment of Gandhian ideal village where the entire requirements were locally produced.

Fukuoka had become a legend in his own life time. Naturally there was a stream of visitors and admirers not only from different parts of Japan, but from all parts of the world. Visitors were accommodated in mud huts like in Sevagram of Gandhi and had to participate in daily chores. To quote a visitor,

“There are no modern conveniences in Fukuoka’s farm. Drinking water is carried in buckets from the spring, meals are cooked at a wood burning fire place and light is provided by candles and kerosene lamps. The mountain is rich with wild herbs and vegetables. Fish and shell fish can be gathered in nearby streams and sea vegetables from the Inland sea a few miles away. There are the daily chores of cutting firewood, cooking, preparing the hot bath, taking care of the goats, feeding the chickens and collecting their eggs, minding the beehives, repairing and occasionally constructing new huts, and preparing soybean paste and soybean curd.”

Why the title One Straw Revolution?

The first sentence of the first chapter Look at this Grain, begins like this:

“I believe that a revolution can begin from this one strand of straw. Seen at a glance, this rice straw may appear light and insignificant. Hardly anyone would believe that it could start a revolution. But I have come to realize the weight and power of this straw. For me, this revolution is very real.”

Elsewhere, he says

“Spreading straw might be considered rather unimportant, but it is fundamental to my method of growing rice and winter grain. It is connected with everything, with fertility, with germination, with weeds, with keeping away sparrows with water management. In actual practice and in theory, the use of straw in farming is a crucial issue. This is something I cannot seem to get people to understand.”

A word of caution

Before concluding this article, I would like to observe that what has become popular now as Organic Farming is different from Fukuoka’s methods. The organic farmers prepare compost, vermi compost, Panchagavya, Bio fertilizers, Bio pesticides etc. These methods are foreign to Fukuoka – who just left the soil to do its own work.

Yet, a word of caution would be in order. In some place in his book Fukuoka says “the geography and topography of the land, the condition of the soil, its structure, texture and drainage, exposure to sunlight insect relation, the variety of seed used, the method of cultivation etc. are essential factors. These vary from place to place.Fukuoka’s own farm was somewhat exceptional. It had a humid climate with rain dependably falling throughout the spring months. The texture of the soil was clayey. The surface layer was rich in organic matter and retained water well. If we tried to follow Fukuoka’s do nothing after scattering the seeds in the dry belts of central and southern Tamil Nadu, or for that matter in any part of the world with scanty rainfall, or a sandy or loamy soil, the results would be disastrous.

Nevertheless, Fukuoka has created a new trend in farming. His method could be copied at least in some places. In other places with different soil and climatic conditions, one can avoid chemical fertilizers and pesticides and use organic fertilizers. Lastly, what is inspiring as one reads through Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution is that he reminds us of Gandhi for his truthfulness, simplicity, spirituality and living with nature as part of it with minimal interference.

M.R. Rajagopalan is Secretary, Gandhigram Trust, Gandhigram, Tamil Nadu.

Applications of Gandhi’s Thought to Religious Studies Today – by Alex Damm

In modern universities, the discipline of religious studies seeks to understand religion and religions in all of their richness. Much as geographers analyze elements of physical and cultural landscapes, or historians investigate the relationships among past events, students of religion analyze phenomena that we call “religious,” phenomena that Robert Bellah defines as “a set of symbolic forms and actions that relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence” or to an ultimate reality. In our study ofreligion, we ask questions that can help us appreciate the structures, histories, origins, goals and logic of religion in general and of the numerous world religions. And to answer such questions, we employ methods drawn from across the intellectual spectrum, including psychological, literary-critical, sociological and linguistic methods. Ultimately, religious studies in the university aims to appreciate the complexity of religion as a human activity, to foster critical thinking skills, and to build a stronger appreciation and toleration of the world’s religions and ultimately of other people. It is worth noting, too, that the fundamental approach to religious studies is academic or critical: religious studies has no desire to accept (or to deny) truth claims of religions, but rather to describe and assess them as human endeavours, without appeal to faith or religious authority.

To a point, this critical approach to the study of religion is satisfying. But only to a point. As I reflect on my stance as both a student of religion and a participant in religion, in particular as an admirer of the religious principles of Gandhi, I wonder whether there is more room in religious studies to accommodate and acknowledge the value of religion to our lives. In the university, I wear an “observer’s hat” and teach about religion without investment in my own or others’ religious well being. As a human who thinks about how we can align ourselves to ultimate reality, though, I wear a
“participant’s hat”: I strongly believe, as many of us do, in principles espoused by Gandhi, including a commitment to nonviolence and to the fundamental unity of life. While I hope that I would remain objective and never teach students that one religious stance is normative or “better” than another, I also believe that many of Gandhi’s principles are noble, are practically universal, and are worth sharing. And there are precedents for this stance: certain of my own professors have taught me, explicitly and through their personal example, that we can do more to embrace and respect others, and to raise consciousness of Gandhian principles. Are there, then, ways in which Gandhi’s thought can find a place within the academic teaching of religion?

I submit that Gandhi’s thought can inform today’s teaching about religion. My insight is not novel: work by Glyn Richards among others has demonstrated the timeliness of Gandhian thought to religious studies. I believe that we can further apply Gandhian thought in ways that will enrich our study of religion yet also maintain its academic objectivity. In what follows, I shall outline some Gandhian principles and then suggest that certain of these principles are consonant with and so can enhance, the teaching of religion in universities.

Gandhi on Post-Secondary Education

Perhaps the most direct means to discover Gandhi’s value for teaching religion is to examine his thinking on education. From at least the 1920s, Gandhi wrote and lectured on the kind of education that India required to function well as a sovereign state. For Gandhi, the basic purposes of all education are social and religious. On the one hand, education has a social purpose: to equip people to “serve their country.” Put more precisely, the purpose of education is to inculcate in students the virtues of swaraj and sarvodaya. The term swaraj or “self-rule” denotes intellectual and manual skills that foster autonomy and build in their turn a just and equitable society for all. Critically for Gandhi, education must impart such swaraj. Education must train individuals and families in skills to help them support themselves and their families (for instance, trade skills that produce good income, as well as skills in maintaining one’s own clothing, healthy accommodation and food). Similarly, education must train citizens about their nation’s history and culture, using national languages, so that citizens will appreciate and in turn keep the interests and well being of the nation, the people of the nation, front and centre.

Sarvodaya is a second virtue that Gandhi believed needed the support of education. Often translated as the “uplift of all,” sarvodaya denotes the amelioration of the lives of as many people as possible. Significantly, Gandhi held that education had to equip citizens for sarvodaya; education needed both to teach moral values of service and compassion, and to emphasize practical skills that can express such compassion, whether in natural science, medicine, engineering, or philosophy. For Gandhi, the centre of gravity in post-secondary education is to foster social well-being; it places no premium on individual achievement in the form of income or professional status.

Underlying and infusing these social purposes, on the other hand, Gandhian education has at its core a religious purpose: to teach students to value truth, the essence of which is ultimate reality (or God) as well as one’s real self (or Atman). Manifestations of truth in our world include the moral principles of nonviolence and of love that recognizes others as fundamentally linked to oneself; indeed, truth manifests itself in the social values of swaraj and sarvodaya. Education should inculcate precisely these values.

Thus far, we have described Gandhi’s views on the purposes of education. What role did teaching specifically about religion play in achieving these purposes? Gandhi believed that in schools and universities, students ought to become aware of the world’s religions and study them in a manner that was, as Richards puts it, empathetic. By learning about other religions, and also by taking one’s learning back to nurture a better appreciation of one’s own religious tradition, the student could gain a better and fuller grasp of truth.

Gandhi’s Relevance to Religious Studies

I believe that Gandhian philosophy can “fit” within and indeed support the contemporary teaching about religion in publicly funded, secular universities. Already Richards has observed that Gandhi anticipates modern teaching about religion, for instance in his concern for examining world religions and for a tolerant and equitable method of study. Richards is entirely correct; I would add only that Gandhi can further inform the study of religion in ways that do not compromise the discipline—indeed, in ways that are consonant with the aims of a university as a whole. To their credit, certain university departments of religious studies already teach in ways that reflect, consciously or unconsciously, the influence of Gandhi. Be that as it may, I propose that four tenets of Gandhian thought can fit comfortably into any religious studies program: sarvodaya, nonviolence, inter-religious dialogue and the importance of seeking after truth.

First, the teaching of religion can comfortably afford to encourage sarvodaya. For instance, in a department’s required religious studies course, such as a course in method and theory, students could write about ways in which their study might help them pursue meaningful social service after graduation. Reflection on the social value of one’s discipline certainly does not compromise its academic integrity; it simply extends our studies beyond academic training into contributions to others’ welfare. And no university would deny (I hope!) that we apply our academic training to the welfare of society; indeed, universities aim to promote such welfare through disciplines as diverse as medicine, music and physics.

Some universities offer courses that concern religion and violence, but there does not exist to my knowledge a course specifically about religion and nonviolence. Such a course would be highly valuable in raising awareness of Gandhi and others’ teachings on the benefits of nonviolence. This kind of course needs not compel students to take a stance on the appropriateness of violence and nonviolence (even though it would seem hard to argue against nonviolence as a universal value). Teaching about nonviolence in world religions would encourage students to reflect on the values of nonviolence for themselves.

A third application of Gandhi’s thought to the teaching of religion is in inter-religious dialogue. Gandhi believed in what scholars call a dialogical method of study, whereby students could reflect on similarities between one’s own traditions and other traditions, and so come to better appreciate truth. University courses in inter-religious dialogue could serve this very aim. In Canada, some universities already offer courses in dialogue among religions. Established though these courses may be, we can afford to offer more such courses.

Finally, the teaching of religion can and should accommodate Gandhi’s cardinal principle that it is our obligation to pursue understanding of truth — to “experiment” and adapt our lives accordingly with truth. Gandhi described truth in terms that could appeal to adherents of any religion. I believe that it is important in teaching about religion to encourage students to use their knowledge in their own quest for truth. Often, the practice of religious studies — and here I include my own practice — deconstructs religious phenomena in ways that are necessary but which forget to remind us that, outside the classroom, religion and its quest for truth is highly noble and necessary. And once again, this quest for truth need not be phrased in a “religious” manner; after all, universities have for centuries prided themselves on the effort to discover truth, however one might conceive it; the motto of the university that I attended as an undergraduate is that “truth conquers all.”

In these ways, and others too, I believe that Gandhi’s thought is consonant with the values of the university, and that as such it can infuse the teaching of religion with a fresh relevance that respects objective study and can help us apply our knowledge in commendable ways. I hope that in a small way, this submission can contribute to our appreciation of Gandhi’s importance to our world.

Gandhi and Ruskin

‘Unto This Last’, I translated it later into Gujarati entitling it ‘Sarvodaya’ (the welfare of all). I believe that I discovered some of my deepest convictions reflected in this great book of Ruskin and that is why it so captured me and made me transform my life. — Mahatma Gandhi

John Ruskin (1819 – 1900) established his reputation as Britain’s foremost art and architectural historian in the nineteenth century, with the publication of ‘Modern Painters’ and other books. From 1857, with the delivery in Manchester of a series of lectures called ‘The Political Economy of Art’, Ruskin changed his career and work from that of an art critic defending the Pre-Raphaelite painters to that of a social critic bent on exposing the superficial Christianity of Victorian England. His favourite and one of his shortest books, ‘Unto This Last’, was begun in 1860 as a series of essays for Cornhill magazine. His purpose in these powerful polemics was to attack the underlying assumptions of political economy and in particular the concept of ‘economic man’. The hostility of the British establishment to their publication forced the editor to curtail their appearance after the fourth essay.

Ruskin’s critique of economic man centres on the simplicity and the artificial nature of the construct. First, the concept only identifies the materialistic and base needs of human beings and neglects the importance of higher moral values and needs. He illustrates convincingly that all commercial transactions have an underlying moral and social aspect. Indeed, he makes a prescient case for fair trade and ethical investment in his defence of the moral and legal restraints — such as usury laws — governing pre-industrial economies. The powerful conclusion he draws is that real wealth is not money or gold. Real wealth is life, because only people working with nature can create those use values necessary to support and advance life.

Gandhian economics build upon Ruskin’s critique of political economy. Gaudi’s architecture in Barcelona also drew inspiration from Ruskin’s philosophy. Schumacher and other environmental thinkers have drawn extensively from his heretical views and his plea that ethics should be put back into economics.

Taken from the winter 2009 edition of the NEF’s ‘Radical Economics’ http://www.neweconomics.org

Gandhi and Johnny Rotten

Johnny Rotten

“Anger is an energy” according to John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited (PIL). In a recent interview with Andrew Graham-Dixon on the BBC’s Culture Show, he clarified what this credo “Anger is an energy” means:

“If anything, it is in opposition to violence, which I don’t ever think solves anything ultimately. Gandhi has always impressed me with that idea of passive resistance. What a marvellous scheme to come up with, and it worked, it did work!”

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