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Nature and Humankind

            Gandhi view of the relationship between humankind and nature was influenced by the vedic perceptions about the earth being a home of a very large family of living organisms. Athav veda says that the earth is our mother (Dharti Mata) or the Universal Mother. Furthermore the earth as a whole is looked upon as a gigantic super-organism, which is living , dynamic , evolving and continuing. The earth is the only planet in the solar system that harbours life, as we know. Like all living organisms, the earth system also shows properties or irritability and response, and reacts to any natural or human perturbations. The Indian concepts of Mother Earth, though much older, matches to a large extent , with the Greek concept of Goddess Earth (Gaia)

Today, due to unsustainable industrial development, the earth system is under considerable stress and strain: indeed, it is in jeopardy. Many physical and chemical changes have taken place in the system., which are a cause for serious concern .Changes in the life support system ultimately affect the survival potential of different organisms, including the quality of life of human beings.

One of the important foundations of Gandhi’s environmentalism has been the age-old ethical doctrine that India has given to the world –non-violence is the highest dharma(ahimsa parmo dharma). There is no exact  equivalent for dharma in the English language. According to Jawaharlal Nehru

Dharma really means something more than religion. It is from a root word which means to hold together : it is inmost constitution of a thing, the law of its inner being. It is an ethical concept which includes the moral code , righteousness, and the whole range of man’s duties and responsibilities. The doctrine of non-violence (ahimsa) has come from the epic Mahabharata, where it is described not only as the highest dharma but also the highest form of self-control, wealth, perance, puissance, friendship, happiness, truth and scripture.

After Buddha, Mahavira, and Emperor Ashoka, Gandhi was the greatest exponent of non-violence. This was the chief weapon that he used against the mighty British: and it drove them out of India. The most important thing is that the parting was friendly.


Gandhi’s views on truth, non-violence and religion dominated his life and work. This came fro his deep insight into  India’s past and his ability to discern the future. He regarded non-violence as a code of chivalry and reasoned that if India threw out the British by violence, only the violent people would then rule India. Some of his quotes give an insight into his thinking

The only virtue I want to claim is truth and non-violence. I lay no claim to superhuman powers. I want none, I wear the same corruptible flesh that the weakest of my fellow beings wear, and am therefore as liable to er as any. My services have many limitations, but God has up to now blessed them in spite  of the imperfections...I am built a poor struggling soul yearning to be wholly good, wholly truthful and wholly non-violent in thought, word and deed; but ever failing to reach the idea which I know to be true. It is a painful climb, but the pain of it is a positive pleasure to me . Each step upwards makes me feel stronger and fit for the next....A religion that takes no account of practical affairs and does not help to solve them is no reason, to submit to the acid test of reason and universal assent....The first  condition of humaneness is a little humanity and a little diffidence about the correctness  of one’s conduct and a little receptiveness ... A nations culture resides in the hearts and in the  soul of its people...It is through truth and non-violence are my God. The are the observe and reverse of the same coin... My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God. Non-violence is the greatest means of realizing Him. It is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man...In one who has ahimsa (non-violence) in him becames part of his very nature. Perfect non-violence is the highest bravery. Non-Violent conduct is never demoralizing, cowardice always is ...Non-violence requires a double faith, faith in God and also faith in man.

Gandhi had also led a struggle against the white regime in South Africa, whose creed was racialism and inequity. His major  contribution was to cnvert non-violeence , a strictly individualist ethic , into a social and political force and put the same into practice. This movement was based on truth (satya), and, therefore, he called it satyagraha(sticking to truth). He converted this creed into action not only in south Africa, But also in India after his return in 1914. For its implementation, he devised a stringent code of conduct which gave it considerable more content. He considered satyagraha a science in the making , a moral force , and he used it against both the British and religious orthodoxy in India. This changed it fro a theory into a practice , which gained in respect and acceptability . His justification for launching non-violence satyagraha was that ‘Just  as a man would not cherish living in a body other than his own, so nations would not like to live under other nations however able  and great the latter may be  


            The movement was not only to rid India of foreign domination, but in its wake, it was to India of the blatant loot and plunder of its  resources, which prompted him to say , ‘We e cannot have ecological movement designed to prevent violence  against nature, unless the principal of non-violence  becomes central to the ethos of human culture,’

More importantly , he also said that since ‘man has no power to create life, therefore, he has no right to destroy life.’

Leaders in different parts of the world-Africa, Europe, and  the world-Africa, Europe, and the USA-followed Gandhi. Martin Luther King said ‘Juesus Christ gave the motivation and Gandhi showed the method.’ The basic elements of his thinking were truthfulness, humility, and tolerance. The average Western minds failed to understand the power behind this creed, and often they felt it could be learnt like ping-pong, karate or judo. They failed to understand that it needed renuciation of violence under the gravest threat;it needed pernance (tapasya) and experiencing (sadana) . In brief, it had an underlying high moral force, which brought the mighty British tumbling down. Thus, Gandhi became a great pacifist, a democrat, a defender of the rights and privileges of the down trodden and of women and least, but not the least , an economic and social environmentalist. This then is the non-violence legacy of Gandhi to India and the world.

At least , The non-violent campaign , while in operation, was not visible;but it did have the desired effect. It evoked indifference, ridicule, abuse, and even repression in the early stages. But once it was established , it commanded respect. In fact, contrary to the expectations of the British, their rule in India ended earlier than they had expected ; and the campaign of non-violence was primarily responsible for hastening their departure.

Mahatma (Great Soul ) was the name given to Gandhi by the people .This became his name in the true sense, for he gave the world the non-violent method of conflict resolution. Gandhi also made a distinction between humankind and the brute. He did this to remind  human beings of their duties towards other creatures. He said , ‘Man has reasons, discrimination and free will such as it is . The brute has no such thing. It is not a free agent, and knows  no distinctions between virtue and vice , good and evil. Man, being a free agent, knows these distinctions, and when he follows his higher nature, he shows himself far superior to the brute, but when he follows his baser nature, he can show himself lower than the brute.

Furthermore, Gandhi said, It is man’s social nature which distinguishes him from the brute creation. If it is his privilege to be independent, it is equally his duty to be interdependent. Only an arrogant man will claim to be independent of everybody else and be self-contained...Man becomes great exactly  in the degree in which he works for the welfare of his fellow men. Finally, in this context Gandhi said’ of all the animal creations God, man is the only animal who has been created in order that he may know his Maker. Man’s aim in life is not, therefore, to add from day to day to his material prospects and to his material possession, but his predominant calling is , from day to day to come to his own Maker.

According to Gandhi, the duty of the human being to clearly not only to himself and to his fellow beings, but also to control his desire to acquire more and more. His duty, in fact, extends much beyond himself and his fellow beings and covers the entire biosphere. As he said ‘A society can be judged by the way it treats its animals.’ He regarded the human being as a trustee of all creation. In  this regard , he emphasized; It is an arrogant  assumption to say  that human beings are lords and masters of the lower creatures. On the contrary , being endowed with greater things in life, they are the trustees of the lower animal kingdom. There  is an interesting story on wildlife. A British writer, Edward Thompson, a friend of India, once told Gandhi that wildlife was fast disappearing in India. Gandhi paused and replied, Wildlife is decreasing in the jungles, but it is increasing in the towns.

Mere birth as a human being and the amassing o wealth by committing wanton destruction upon the environment does not entitle one to be called a civilized human being in the real sense of the term. AS stated above, Gandhi saw humankinds role as a trustee of all other living creatures and therefore, the human  race has to earn this distinction by letter thoughts, words, and deeds. One has only to follow the leads given to us by the Isho upanishad referred to earlier.

Non-violence and compassion are not only for all living beings, but also towards inanimate materials.

Although humankind is the pinnacle of creation, biologically it is only one out of about 1.6 million species of plants , animals, and micro-organisms described so far (World Conservation  Monitoring Centre 1992). Many more await discovery. However, on account of their reasoning power, human beings have far greater responsibility than other species. But on no account should humans consider themselves  superior to other organism in the family of living creatures, which in  essence is a vast web of life. Here, different organisms are interconnected, interrelated and above all, interdependent. Such a view goes well with the Indian ethos. We need to have  compassion towards all creatures, and malice towards none. The only exception that human beings, as the trustees, can make is towards the disease-and  destruction –causing organisms , which pose threats to the very existence of humankind and other living species (plants and animals ) on which the human beings depends for its sustence. In such cases, it becomes the moral duty of the human being to depends for its elf, perhaps even to the point of extermination of the killer species.

Being environmentally conscious, Gandhi was a vegetarian, yet he was not a puritanical vegetarian (like the vegans who avoid even milk and milk products and honey). He was  not a faddist and said ‘I am a puritan myself but I am catholic towards others. His reason for vegetarianism was that one does  not kill  plants in the sense animals are killed. Furthermore, plants are the primary producers, and as long as we maintain the health and tilth  of the soil, good water supply and clean air, vegetarian food will be always available for all times  to come. Many Indians, like Gandhi , are vegetarian by conviction on moral and religious grounds. George Bernard shaw said ‘Meat-eaters are walking graves of slaughtered animals.’ There is now a very strong movement towards vegetarianism gaining ground in the West. This is because scientific evidence indicates that meat eaters face far greater risks of high cholesterol levels, hypertension, heart problem, slower movement of food in intestines, constipation, piles and cancer. The general; feeling is that vegetarians are pacifists, while meat-eaters are aggressors. This is why, someone has said, herbivores retire at night , while carnivores prowl and kill at night.


The implications of what Gandhi said regarding environment re indeed vast. At least six civilizations in the past have fallen just because they did not nurture nature, from  which humanity draws its sustence. This has been true of the early agriculture-based urban civilizations like the Mediterranean Euroean, Lower Mesopotamian (Tigris and Euphrates), Nile, Indus and Huang Ho Valleys and the Mayan. All these evolved 6000-8000 years ago, reached their zenith and contributed substantially to art, literature , science , music and to overall human development . However , they faded on account of their almost total disregard for nature. The lesson from the fall of these civilizations is loud and clear.’ Forests precede civilizations, deserts follow them, so said Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand. According to Gandhi , ‘Civilization is a mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty. Performance of duty and observance of morality are convertible terms. To observe morality is to attain mastery over our mind and our passions. Morality is not only towards one another, but towards nature as well. The passion to have more and more at the expense of nature and members of our own species , and a lot of the root causes of environmental problems. Gandhi categorically stated , ‘I refuse to buy from anybody anything, however nice or beautiful if it interferes with my growth or injures those whom Nature has made my first care’.


Source: Mahatma Gandhi and the Environment