The superpowers of Gandhian austerity

The superpowers of Gandhian austerity

In his book, Imagining India, Nandan Nilekani writes: “Wherever I go, I find that Indians know our growth numbers backward and forward, and there is a strong, common feeling among us that our country has finally come of age." It’s something I’ve seen even in the slums of Mumbai: The statistics of India’s new growth economy grip the popular imagination. Children who scavenge trash for a living report confidently and accurately that India is the second-fastest growing economy in the world, and see in the numbers a happier future for themselves.

Strikingly, this Indian trust in economic improvement as a means of greater happiness coincides with something of a countermovement among economists in the West. Some of the best of them now argue that, beyond a certain point, economic growth doesn’t in fact result in national contentment. It’s an argument Mahatma Gandhi

actually made one hundred years ago, though today’s economists have regression analysis to work with. The distinguished economist Richard Layard writes of the citizens of the Western countries he’s studied, “In the last 50 years...They have become much richer, they work much less, they have longer holidays, they travel more, they live longer, and they are healthier. But they are no happier." Layard, along with Nobel laureates such as Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz as well as Partha Dasgupta have been trying to work out new, non-economic statistical measures to gauge national well-being, including quality of life and ecological sustainability.

In the advanced industrial countries, governments too are seeking to build some of these apparently new ideas into their assessments of how their citizenry is doing. It was Nicolas Sarkozy who invited Sen, Stiglitz and the French economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi to prepare a report outlining a new, more differentiated gauge of economic prosperity and human well-being. And in the US, President Obama has signed into law the creation of a new system of “key national indicators", a “dashboard" of measures (developed by a NGO project called The State of the USA—also the name of the website at which the information is posted) which aim to give a picture of national well-being that is fuller than the simplicities of GDP and growth statistics.

Gandhi would have been pleased to hear of such developments. “The rich are often unhappy, the poor happy," he wrote in Hind Swaraj in 1909. He counted himself among the latter group, though I confess I’ve never thought of him as a good example of someone who knew how to be happy. He was too obsessed by self-mortifying experiments, and his household was hardly a cheerful one, given his sometimes disdainful and ferocious treatment of his wife and his children. The Gandhi family was not a Happy Family. But Gandhi was someone who thought a lot about well-being as a psychological condition, and understood that the link between personal wealth and personal contentment was often—maybe even always—a weak one. Gandhi’s ideas about what it meant to live well and in a sustainable fashion are integral to his conception of Swaraj, or self-rule, and were worked out against the foil of what he came to call modern civilization—the subject of his swingeing critique in Hind Swaraj, a book the 40-year-old Gandhi wrote in a 10-day fit of “violent possession" while aboard a ship, and whose ideas he stood by until his death.

It’s a book I’ve recently been re-reading, and I’m struck by how his diagnosis of what he called “wretched modern civilization" continues to resonate with the discontents of the increasingly prosperous 21st century.

Gandhi’s critique of the modern leaned on the anti-industrial romanticism and anti-progressivism of Western writers, from Henry David Thoreau to Edward Carpenter and John Ruskin. Some of the alternatives Gandhi proposed were wildly nostalgic, and many were simply nonsensical. But what does remain powerful and valuable in Gandhi are his perceptions about the dynamic of modern industrial civilization—and its wider costs. He saw how its spread, once begun, was unstoppable.

Modern civilization, Gandhi believed, reduced an individual’s capacity to choose and act for himself. It weakened people, by turning them from active, imaginative beings into passive spectators and consumers. It anaesthetized fear instead of forcing an individual to face that fear down. And so it drained away our “real physical strength or courage". Modern civilization—and not British rule—was the main obstacle to the freedom of Indians.

Gandhi hated dependency and had contempt for those who felt themselves to be victims, and among the appurtenances of modern civilization he saw as self-depleting were machinery, the railways, armaments, and the professions—lawyers and doctors, parliamentarians and politicians. To the machinations of any of these, he preferred an honest fight.

Above all, there is a psychological sharpness to his argument that modern civilization implants in all of us a restless dependency. It corrodes individual self-restraint and self-rule, and inundates the individual with distractions. Did he sense the Facebook and Internet addictions of the future when he wrote:

“(M)ind is a restless bird: the more it gets the more it wants, and still remains unsatisfied. The more we indulge our passions, the more unbridled they become. Our ancestors, therefore, set a limit to our indulgences....(They) dissuaded us from luxuries and pleasures."

Gandhi was himself fascinated by modern inventions—pens, watches, the wireless radio, gardening tools—and perhaps felt his own susceptibility to gadget addiction. He saw how difficult it was, once new technologies and tools were invented, to turn away from what they seem to offer. “It is no easy task to do away with a thing that is established," Gandhi wrote in Hind Swaraj, “We, therefore, say that the non-beginning of a thing is supreme wisdom."

Modern civilization, Gandhi seems to be saying, sets in motion a psychological dynamic that is unsustainable, liable to career into a disastrous end—because it corrodes our capacity for perspective, balance and judgement. It undermines self-restraint. He gives an earthy example: “I over-eat, I have indigestion, I go to a doctor, he gives me medicine, I am cured, I over-eat again and take his pills again. Had I not taken the pills in the first instance, I would have suffered the punishment deserved by me, and I would not have over-eaten again. The doctor intervened and helped me to indulge myself. My body certainly felt more at ease, but my mind became weakened."

As much as I like to be able to scrounge an Anadin or Crocin after a night out, Gandhi is on to something here—about the destruction of self-restraint, weakness of will. Despite the poetess Sarojini Naidu’s old joke, about how expensive it was to keep Gandhi in poverty, in fact he was a very frugal man: reusing envelopes, writing notes on scraps of waste paper (an archivist’s conservation nightmare). He self-mockingly put these habits of his down to the penny-pinching mentality of his bania caste. But in fact his austerity was a precise choice, and he was able to stamp it on Indian public life in the middle decades of the 20th century. Even well into the 1970s, Indian political and business elites were much more restrained and austere than they have now become in their public conduct—they were somewhat embarrassed about ostentatiously displaying the wealth they no doubt possessed. Today, as the country itself gains wealth, that ethic has entirely disappeared. The newspapers now write explanatory pieces on the term “retail therapy", as shopping malls proliferate and supplant the cricket field and movie theatre as the centres of urban public life. We seem proud to have among us someone who is building what is supposed to be the most expensive private residence in the world, a clumsy pile rising on Mumbai’s Cumbala Hill that looks like a slightly squeezed steel and glass millefeuille—its compound walls alone are three storeys high.

And we have of course the branded glamour of Montblanc’s Gandhi Commemorative Pen—turned in white gold, it’s yours for just around Rs14 lakh. “Formerly, men were made slaves under physical compulsion," the pen’s inspiration wrote, and “now they are enslaved by temptation of money and of the luxuries that money can buy."

Seeking to make up for lost time, we’ve become as avidly consumerist, maybe even more so, than our counterparts in the West. Nothing remarkable in that. But as India shakes off the last vestiges of a Gandhian restraint, it is hitting limits at once human and natural. The struggles that animate India’s Maoists and Naxalites are battles over India’s basic resources—increasingly depleted as consumption rises. Today’s struggles are over land, over water, firewood, over the mineral wealth buried in the hills and forests and over an atmosphere whose capacity to absorb our energy burn has been damaged. In the cities, tuberculosis and lung disease are rampant and undercounted in official records, as slum dwellers, whose huts offer little protection against the environment, suffer the polluting effects of hectic construction and 3-hour traffic tie-ups.

“Real home rule is self-rule or self control," Gandhi writes towards the end of Hind Swaraj; in the Gujarati original, the sentence is “One’s rule over one’s own mind is real Swaraj." The dissolution of such self-rule, Gandhi foresaw, would lead to a world not unlike the one we now live in, riven as it is with egoism and inequality—and unsustainable consumption. But what he insisted on was in fact deeply hopeful and relevant: that our civilization’s improvement, or its further destruction, depended on the choices we make as individuals. As I type his words into a new laptop, purchased before I really needed another one, I can’t help wondering if I would be better off—if India, if the planet, would not have been better off, in some small, barely traceable way—if I had exercised a bit of Gandhian self-control.

Sunil Khilnani is the author of The Idea of India. His radio essays on Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 during the week of 19 July.Write to him at