As a millennial who completed his schooling in India during the decade sandwiched between the ongoing and previous millennia, my early memories of Gandhi are largely hagiographic. It is only recently that the Indian public sphere embraced the vocabulary of thinkers like B R Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh and V D Savarkar, who were critical of the Gandhian project. By the time we were born, non-violence had become a common-sense ethic embedded within our constitutional morality and liberal-democratic ethos. One didn’t really need Gandhi to point out the importance of being non-violent.
Alongside this quintessentially postmodern political irreverence came a renewed scrutiny of Gandhi’s attitude towards Dalits in India, the Zulus in South Africa and more recently, towards his grand-niece Manubehn. Gandhi’s moral hygiene is under attack in India, and allegations of casteism, racism and misogyny continue to be levelled against him.
Does Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence have significance for the millennial and post-millennial generations whose understanding and experience of politics are vastly different from those addressed by Gandhi in colonial India? The issues we face today are different and global in nature, be it the climate crisis, inequality or issues of identity. Does Gandhi help us navigate these contemporary and urgent challenges? Yes, he does, but only if we start paying attention to the substantive aspects of Gandhi’s critique of modernity. Minimalism or simple living is at the heart of Gandhi’s idea of responsible living. Minimalism, as practised today, is focused on simplifying our life by implementing a philosophy of decluttering, whereby we remove distractions and reduce possessions that don’t add value to our lives. And by doing this, we are able to focus better on our most important pursuits. The existential intentionality associated with this school of life makes it extremely empowering, especially at a time when our senses are constantly bombarded by attention grabbing algorithms and unending notifications. But the more important question remains: What values do we prioritise when it comes to intentional living?
Our answer has been to place freedom and happiness at the forefront of minimalism — freedom from “fear, worry, guilt, depression and the trappings of the consumer culture”.
Gandhi also believed that minimalism led to freedom. But his minimalism differed, both in its form and substance. For Gandhi, minimalism was not a tool to find freedom. Minimalism was an end in itself and arose out of the ethical obligations to the “other”, which included fellow humans, animals and nature. In this framework, freedom is achieved not in realising our best self but is implicit in those actions that recognise and respond to the other, especially the weak and the powerless. Unlike the liberal self who can afford to be indifferent to the other, or the conservative self who is outrightly antagonistic, the Gandhian self trusts the other, even the “enemy”, and acts out of love.
Gandhi’s minimalism thus traverses a complex ethical web. It calls for intentional living by being conscious and considerate of the diverse and varied relationships we maintain with our own surroundings. It is not the passion of the self that is at the forefront of this minimalism but our responsibility towards the other. It is in this vein that Gandhi asks us to be “trustees” of this planet, not its owner. He reminds us to use technology as a means to increase our moral fibre, not shareholder dividends. He shows us how to be responsible consumers, in what we eat, wear and use, by being conscious of the unintended consequences of our consumption practices. And most importantly, he wants us to be self-sufficient or self-reliant as individuals.
Because it is only when we are not dependent on exploitative economic and social arrangements that we can inspire ourselves and others to not cooperate with systems that don’t fulfill ethical obligations. Gandhi’s minimalism hopes to thus liberate the other, and in the process liberate one’s own self.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 6, 2019 under the title ‘Gandhi, the minimalist’. The writer is a research scholar at the department of political science, JNU