The Undeveloped Heart:  Gandhi on Education

(Third in an occasional series that will run for several months on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.)

October 2nd, Gandhi Jayanti, has come and gone.  Thousands of statues of Gandhi were doubtless garlanded, and I suspect that some new statues were installed.  We all know, of course, that Mohandas Gandhi would have sharply disapproved of these celebrations. He never had much use for statues, having noted that they were perhaps most useful to pigeons.  That flowers should be plucked to create garlands which make their way from statues to streets and garbage bins struck him as not merely senseless but as a form of violence. Barely anyone listened to him in his lifetime, certainly not in his last painful years, and fewer still are those who listen to him now.

And then there are the customary homilies to him. No one has to have listened to the Indian Prime Minister’s speeches this October 2nd to know that he would have exhorted the nation and especially school children to follow the example of Bapu.  School principals all over the country would have done the same, taking Gandhi as an example of someone who, as they believe, understood the value of education and was himself a product of a well-established educational system.  If there is one thing that “reasonable” and “sensible” people agree upon, even if they are not predisposed to a liberal point of view, it is that education is the sine qua non of the progress of individuals, communities, and nations.

Thus it behooves us to consider, howsoever briefly, what Gandhi thought of education. He had, on this subject as much as anything else that occupied his attention, strong, carefully reasoned, and wholly unconventional views.  Since nearly everything that he stood for has been consigned to oblivion in modern India–even, let it be clear, his views on “cleanliness”, notwithstanding the hullabaloo over the “Swachh Bharat” [Clean India] mission launched by the Prime Minister some years ago–it is scarcely surprising that his outlook on education has similarly been dismissed by Indians as hopelessly idealistic, old-fashioned, and utterly unworthy of their attention.  The Gandhians who have encapsulated his thinking under the term “Nai Taleem”—and it is quite irrelevant that Gandhi himself used the term—have not helped, given that the term is calculated to send middle class Indians into a panic.  Middle class Indians know that those who follow “Nai Taleem” [New Education] will never gain entrance to even a second-rate Indian university, much less St. Stephen’s College, JNU, Ashoka University, or the yet more exalted institutions of higher education in Britain and especially the United States.

The story of Gandhi’s radical skepticism about modern education is best told, in the first instance, through an anecdote from his life around 1927.   He was visited by an American clergyman by the name of Reverend John R. Mott, with whom Gandhi would have subsequent meetings in 1936 and 1938 as well.  Mott would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946.  According to Mukulbhai Kalarthi [Anecdotes from Bapu’s Life, Navajivan Publishing House, 1960, p. 33], Mott and Gandhi engaged in extended conversations over the course of several days. Towards the end of his stay, seeking to crystallize their discussions into a few important insights, Rev. Mott posed two questions.  “Tell me, Mahatmaji”, he asked Gandhi, “what is it that, after nearly two decades of the freedom struggle, still gives you the greatest hope”?  Gandhi unhesitatingly replied, “What gives me the greatest hope is that the Indians masses, despite the grave provocation, do not abandon nonviolence [ahimsa].”  Rev. Mott then moved on to the next question:  “And what is it that fills you with the greatest fear and makes you exceedingly unhappy”?  Gandhi, we are told, paused and then said:  “The hardheartedness of the educated is a matter of the constant concern and sorrow to me.”

It is more than likely that today Gandhi would have had reason to question his faith in the adherence of his fellow Indians to ahimsa. But, on the question of education, it is rather remarkable that, at a time when the educated comprised a relatively tiny community, Gandhi already was deeply suspicions about the value and utility of formal education.  Some people have thought it hypocritical that, having availed of higher education in London, Gandhi was not inclined to let his two older sons pursue the same course of action. At a time when Gandhi and the Congress were championing swadeshi or indigenous institutions, he could ill afford to let his own children acquire higher education in England. But Gandhi wasn’t merely trying to look good or be, in contemporary jargon, “politically correct”. It is precisely his own experience with higher education that, in his view, conferred on him the moral authority to repudiate its alleged benefits.

Modern education, as Gandhi understood it, thrives on a number of disjunctions that are absolutely fatal to the development of a person’s moral faculty and thus to the conception of the person as a whole entity.  Such formal education, which begins as children start going to school and is amplified over the years, receiving its most pronounced expression in university education, aggravates the divide between the head and the heart, between mind and body, between intellectual work and the work of labor, between reason and emotion, indeed between thought and feeling. “I would develop in the child”, wrote Gandhi in Young India on 12 March 1925, “his hands, his brain and his soul. The hands have almost atrophied.  The soul has been altogether ignored.”

He spoke often of how education in India had to be “revolutionized.  The brain must be educated through the hand.  If I were a poet, I could write poetry on the possibilities of the five fingers” (Harijan, 18 February 1939).  Time and again, Gandhi wrote, and wrote insistently, passionately, and from the viewpoint of some whose certitude derives from a lifetime of thought and experience, in this vein.  “Now, I wish to say that whatever is taught to children, all of it should be taught necessarily through the medium of a trade or handicraft.”  So he said in his address to the Wardha Education Conference on 22 October 1937.  But Gandhi anticipates the objections of those who, pointing to its “irrelevance” in the modern world, might scorn at learning a “handicraft”, by arguing that “we aim at developing the intellect also with the aid of such trade or handicraft.”  The takli [spindle] shall also be the medium through which students “would be able to learn a substantial part of the history of cotton, Lancashire and the British empire.”

When Gandhi adverted to the hardheartedness of the educated, he also had in mind the view that modern educational systems are not designed to teach compassion or empathy for the poor and the wronged.  Education may inspire a well-meaning economist to draw up a model for the alleviation of poverty, but almost nothing in the economist’s education gives him or her a feel for the lives of the poor.  If anything, the economist’s model is much more likely to worsen the condition of the poor:  entranced by his own artful games, the economist overlooks the fact that most models rarely have any relationship to the reality that they purport to describe.  Their referential world is other models, and the work of other economists; and before the well-meaning economist knows it, the lives of the poor themselves get reduced to a series of numbers and abstractions.  In all this, the meaning of “poverty” itself never gets interrogated.  Perhaps the economist might begin fruitfully with some reflections on the sheer poverty of his discipline.

For all its failings, Gandhi did not give up on education.  One keeps on learning to the end of one’s life.  He regretted the “hardheartedness” of the educated, not their heartlessness—which is a rather different thing.  I very much doubt that Gandhi thought of anyone as ‘heartless’, and he would have agreed with the novelist E. M. Forster that the British had an “undeveloped heart”.  Education had hardened the British, too, and in his visit to Britain in 1931 he found that the warmest receptions he received were from the working class, particularly the mill workers of Lancashire who had suffered the most from the boycott of British textile manufactures that Gandhi had initiated in India.

There are many indices one can use to measure the shocking failures of education, even as it is conventionally understood, in India today. The stories of state-run schools that are in absolute shambles are legion, and have been documented by thousands of researchers, journalists, and social workers.  More than seventy years after independence, the effective countrywide literacy rate is less than 50%; in some districts of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Madhya Pradesh, female literacy rates still hover at 10%.  The best public universities have been gutted; all that is left is a shambolic display of awards of “excellence”, a word as shorn of content as any.  In one instance the award has been to an institute of higher education that does not even exist.  Yet all this is far from what Gandhi had in mind when he pondered over the ruins of education and I wonder how he would have struggled to even comprehend the “hardheartedness” of the educated in India today. Let there be no mistake:  what really ails Indian education is the fact that at its center is the “undeveloped heart.”

 

(NB:  This is a revised version of the piece published on 13 October 2019 under the same title on the ABP Network, here.  A conversation between Gandhi and Mott reported in the December 19 and 26, 1938, issues of Harijan, another magazine founded and edited by Gandhi, seems to have gone over the same ground eleven years later. Gandhi was asked the same two questions, but described the “ignorance and poverty of the masses of India,” and the treatment meted out to the Harijans, as the matters of the greatest sorrow to him.  It may be that Mukulbhai Kalarthi was mistaken about the date of the conversation and reported it inaccurately; but it is just as likely, perhaps even more so, that Gandhi did speak about the hardheartedness of the educated, considering the highly critical views that he held about the state of Indian education.)

Also published in Hindi as भारतीय शिक्षा पर महात्मा गांधी के विचार here:  https://www.abplive.com/blog/the-undeveloped-heart-gandhi-on-education-1219181

Gandhi and the Ecological Sensibility

(Second of a long series that will continue through the year on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi.)

The word ‘ecology’ appears nowhere in Gandhi’s writings and similarly he never spoke on environmental protection as such. Yet, as the Chipko Movement and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or, in a very different context, the manifesto of the German Greens and the action against the Mardola dam in Norway have clearly shown, the impress of Gandhi’s thinking on ecological movements has been felt widely.  The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who traveled through India in 1969 with Johan Galtung and Sigmund Kvaloy, and with whose name “deep ecology” is associated, confessed that it is from Gandhi that he came to the realization of “the essential oneness of all life.”  Gandhi was a practitioner of recycling decades before the idea caught on in the West and he initiated perhaps the most far-reaching critiques of the ideas of consumption and that fetish of the economist called “growth” that we have ever seen.  Thus, in myriad ways, we can begin to entertain the idea that he was a thinker with a profoundly ecological sensibility.

In one of several books that he wrote on India, the late V. S. Naipaul skewered Gandhi for his narcissism.  Adverting to the three years that Gandhi spent in London as a law student, Naipaul points out that his autobiography is stunningly silent about the landscape, trees, vegetation, or the much vaunted English notion of ‘nature’.  It is certainly the case that Gandhi was sparse in his discussion of the relationship of humans to their external environment.  Similarly, though Gandhi was a great admirer of Thoreau, and had read, besides his famous essay on the duty of civil disobedience, Walden and the essay on ‘Walking’, I wonder what he made of Thoreau’s enterprise of retreating into the woods for a two-year stay.  Gandhi was no naturalist. When the English historian Edward Thompson once expressed his concern to him about the rapid disappearance of wildlife in India, Gandhi reportedly replied, “wildlife is decreasing in the jungles, but it is increasing in the towns.”

The ecological dimensions of Gandhi’s thinking cannot be comprehended unless one is prepared to accept that ecology, ethics, and politics were deeply enmeshed into the very fabric of his being. Take, for example, his practice of observing twenty-four hours of silence on a regular basis. The maun vrat has a honorable place in Hindu religiosity and one might be tempted into thinking that Gandhi was only following Hindu tradition, and, to take the argument further, it was his way of entering into an introspective state and making himself receptive to the still voice within. A more political reading might suggest that it was also his way of bending the English to communicate on his terms.  But it was also an ecological gesture, a mode of conserving energy and a devastating indictment of the modern industrial culture of noise and consumption.  We talk too much, eat too much, and consume too much.  The phrase “noise pollution”, and India is the most egregious example of it in the world, is nowhere in Gandhi but he tacitly had a full-fledged critique of it.

There are other respects, and I shall take up only three, in which the ecological vision of Gandhi’s life opens itself up to us.  First, he was of the considered opinion that nature should be allowed to take its course.  The environmental crises and “extreme weather events” that are upon us have been precipitated by the gross and appalling instrumentalization of nature. The earth is not merely there to be mined, logged, farmed, domesticated, and hollowed out.  However, we have to first preserve the ecological equanimity of the body.  Nature’s creatures mind their own business:  if humans were to do the same, we would not be required to legislate the health of all species.  Thus Gandhi did not, for instance, prevent others from killing snakes but a cobra entering his room was left alone.  “I do not want to live”, he said, “at the cost of the life even of a snake.”

Secondly, Gandhi mounted a rigorous critique of the “waste” that is behind modern industrial civilization in more ways than we imagine.  European colonization the world over was justified with the claim that natives and indigenous people “wasted” their land and did not render it sufficiently productive. But Gandhi also held to the view that humans are prone to transform whatever they touch 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.”

Thirdly, as is well known, Gandhi was a staunch vegetarian, and he would have been pleased with a great deal of modern research which has established that the extreme pressures upon the soil and water resources have also been induced by the meat industry and the massive increase in levels of meat consumption when people start entering into the middle class in countries such as India.  But to be ‘ecological’ in sensibility also means harboring a notion of largesse towards others; it is a way of being in the world.  European visitors to his ashram, where only vegetarian meals were prepared, had meat served to them if they desired.  To inflict a new diet upon someone who was habituated to meat at every meal was, in Gandhi’s thinking, a form of violence. As he once told Mirabehn, “People whose custom it is to eat meat should not stop doing so simply because I am present.”

Gandhi strikes a remarkable chord with all those who have cherished the principles of non-injury, cared for the environment, practiced vegetarianism, worked energetically to conserve our air, soil, and water, resisted the depredations of developers, recycled paper, or accorded animals the dignity of humans. In contemplating his life, his anticipation of the Anthropocene is striking. “God forbid that India”, Gandhi told an interlocutor in 1928, “should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West.  The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 millions took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” What if, Gandhi is also asking, nature was the bearer of rights?  What would nature have to say on this subject?

Not less remarkably, though Gandhi wrote no ecological treatise, he made one of his life.  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 he orchestrated the symphony of life. No philosopher of ecology could have done as much.

(First published in a slightly different form as “An Environmentalist by Nature”, The Hindu (2 October 2019), special supplement, Gandhi@150, 18-19.)

This article is also available in a French translation by Mathilde Guibert here:  https://mathildeguibert.imedix.fr/gandhi-et-la-sensibilite-ecologique.html

 

Gandhi’s Religion

Gandhi Jayanti, 2 October 2019

(First of a long series that will continue through the year on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi.)

The subject of Gandhi’s “religion” has never been more important than at present when Hindu nationalism is sharply ascendant and Hindu pride is being championed as a necessary form of the reawakening of a long subjugated people.  The contemporary Hindu nationalist narrative also feeds on other propositions, among them the conceit that Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion, the view that Hinduism is uniquely tolerant, the apprehension that Hinduism’s tolerance has historically rendered it vulnerable to more aggressive faiths, and the twin conviction that Indian civilization is fundamentally Hindu in its roots and that secularism is alien to India.

Gandhi would not have abided by much of this worldview.  Indeed, he would have been sharply critical of what is represented by Hindu nationalism, and therefore it becomes imperative to assess what he understood by Hinduism, what it meant for him to be a Hindu, the relationships that he forged with Muslims and Christians, and the centrality of Hindu-Muslim unity in his thinking. It is well to remember that Gandhi’s assassin felt justified in killing him partly on the grounds that Gandhi had betrayed the Hindu community.

Gandhi_prayer_meeting_1946

The more secular-minded have thought it fit, with some justification, to characterize his religion as manavta (humanity), manav seva (the service of humankind), or sarvodaya (the welfare of all).  But the fact remains that Gandhi often declared his belief in varnasrama dharma and he remained a devout Hindu.  The roots of Gandhi’s religious worldview and conduct must be located in the religious milieu from which he emerged and in which he was raised.  Gandhi’s predilection for the Vaishnavism of his household and the region was reflected later in his life, one might say, by his fondness for Narsi Mehta’s bhajans, most famously “Vaishnava Janato”, and Tulsidas’s Ramacaritmanas. His mother belonged to the Pranami sect which, if centered on Krishna worship, showed a remarkable ecumenism in also drawing upon the Quran and the Bible and multiple linguistic traditions.  But Jainism also left a deep impress upon Gandhi from the outset, and Gandhi drew upon all three traditions in his thinking about ahimsa and what Jains call anekanantavada, “the many-sidedness of perspective”.

Gandhi has himself said that he first acquired an understanding of textbook Hinduism in England. He first became familiar with the Gita, a work which would in time become his life-companion, in the English rendering of it by Edwin Arnold called “The Song Celestial”. The world of Christianity really opened itself up to him in South Africa: the Old Testament put him to sleep, but portions of the New Testament, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, moved him deeply.  And it is in South Africa that he encountered a great many missionaries, who all came to the conclusion that it was impossible to convert Gandhi to Christianity since he was a much better Christian than any they had ever encountered.

GandhiPrayerMeetingBirlaHouse.jpg

Gandhi had known Indian Muslims in South Africa and he addressed the question of Hindu-Muslim unity in Hind Swaraj (1909). Nevertheless, it was upon his return to India in 1915 and his immersion into Indian public life that made him gravitate to the view that the question of Hindu-Muslim unity was pivotal.  Indians, and most historians, have gravely misunderstood his advocacy of the Khilafat as an attempt by him to extract from Muslims in exchange their support for a ban on cow-slaughter. Rather, he had by this time, around 1920, come around to the position, radical then and now, that both the Hindu and the Muslim are incomplete without each other. This would remain one of the cornerstones of his religious belief.

In reflecting upon what endures from Gandhi’s lifelong and extremely rich understanding of the religious life, some principles stand out. First, in moving from the proposition that ‘God is Truth’ to ‘Truth is God’, Gandhi sought to signal a certain inclusiveness and suggest that the core of ethical life is the quest for Truth.  A confirmed non-believer such as the social reformer Gora, who wrote a fascinating little book called An Atheist with Gandhi, could partake of Gandhi’s religious universe.  Secondly, he stood by the idea that no religious outlook was acceptable, no matter how venerable a text, until it passed the litmus test of one’s individual conscience.  He unequivocally rejected passages from the Ramacaritmanas and the Quran that he found unacceptable.

Thirdly, Gandhi firmly rejected the idea that there is any kind of hierarchy to religions.  This is one among several reasons why he was not sympathetic to the idea of conversion, even as he recognized the absolute right of an individual to her religion.  The individual who seeks to convert has an inadequate comprehension of his faith, and there is practically nothing that one religion has to offer which is not to be found in other religions. Fourthly, Gandhi believed strongly that the practitioner of a religion has a moral obligation to understand other faiths.  He was a strong advocate of the fellowship of religions, and he pioneered the prayer-meeting as a new form of intercommunal and intercultural samvad.  The Hindu should pray, Gandhi was to write, that he should become a better Hindu, that the Muslim and Christian should become a better Muslim and Christian, respectively; similarly, a Muslim should pray not that the Hindu should convert, but that the Hindu should be a better Hindu, the Muslim a better Muslim; and so on.

Finally, and most critically, Hinduism to Gandhi was a religion of mythos not of history.  He couldn’t care an iota whether Krishna had been a historical person and arguments about the historicity of Krishna or Ram not only left him wholly unimpressed, but he found them singularly unproductive and antithetical to everything that he understood by Hinduism. When we consider that the entire Ramjanmabhoomi movement has been predicated on demonstrating the historicity of Ram, we can see how far modern-day Hindu nationalists have drifted from the spirit of Hinduism.  They claim to be freeing the Anglicized and deracinated Hindus from the stranglehold of Western interpretations but nowhere is the colonized Hindu to be seen more clearly than in the figure of the Hindu nationalist.  Their Hinduism and Gandhi’s Hinduism have almost nothing in common.

(First published on 2 October 2019 in the Daily Mail newspaper in a slightly shorter version under the title, “Gandhi preached a unity of religions“.)

Readers can access at least fifteen other essays on Gandhi on this blog using the search function.  Some of those essays include the following:

The Imprint of a Man’s Life:  Visualizing Gandhi’s Biography” (27 Oct 2018)

Footloose and Fancy Free:  The Killers of Gandhi in Modern India” (2 Oct 2018)

“The Homeless Gandhi” (30 January 2018)

Vaishnava Janato:  Gandhi and Narsi Mehta’s Ideal of the ‘Perfect Person'” (25 February 2015)