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February 11, 2009

Gandhian Economics

On 22nd December, 1916, Gandhiji delivered a talk to professional economists gathered at the Muir Central College Economic Society in Allahabad. The transcript of this lecture is a very useful input for anyone trying to fully understand Gandhi's approach to economics.

It is also full of humour, as evidenced in his opening remarks:

"You are an economic society. You have chosen distinguished specialists for the subjects included in your syllabus for this year and the next. I seem to be the only speaker ill-fitted for the task set before him. Frankly and truly, I know very little of economics, as you naturally understand them. Only the other day, sitting at an evening meal, a civilian friend deluged me with a series of questions on my crankisms. As he proceeded in this cross-examination, I being a willing victim, he found no difficulty in discovering my gross ignorance ...To his horror and even indignation, he found that I had not even read books on economics by such well-known authorities as Mill, Marshal, Adam Smith...In despair, he ended by advising me to read these works...He little knew that I was a sinner past redemption."

After this self-effacing introduction, he goes on to build the case for his central proposition, which is that:

"Every human being has a right to live and therefore to find the wherewithal to feed himself and where necessary to clothe and house himself. But, for this very simple performance, we need no assistance from economists and their laws".
Imagine the guts required to declare this in front of a gathering consisting of the cream of the country's economists! How did he arrive at this fantastic conclusion? His method of doing so would have startled his audience even more than his conclusion:

"There come to us moments in life when about some things we need no proof from without. A little voice within us [leads us to the Truth]"

As his audience was predominantly from a Christian background, he quoted extensively from the Bible in support of his thesis, and ended by stating what he regarded as the most fundamental law of economics:

"Let us seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and the irrevocable promise is that everything will be added with us. These are real economics. May you and I treasure them and enforce them in our daily life."

What did he mean by saying 'everything will be added' unto us? Was he referring to 'goods and services' in the usual economic sense of the term? He explained this in another context thus:

"Modern science is replete with illustrations of the seemingly impossible having become possible within living memory. But the victories of physical science would be nothing against the victory of the Science of Life, which is summed up in Love which is the Law of our Being."

To understand what Gandhi is referring to in the above paragraph, we need to first recognize the hierarchical nature of the faculties present in every human being. Napolean too had alluded to this hierarchy through his famous statement, "in the long run, the pen always wins over the sword". In other words, development of intellectual capacities automatically leads to feats at the physical level which are of a far superior quality than if the same thing was attempted at the purely physical level.

Gandhi's grasp of this hierarchy goes beyond Napolean's in a very fundamental way. He sees the spiritual realms within us as the pinnacle of human achievement, way above the intellectual and the physical, and as inclusive of all that is below it. As Nachiketa had put it, it leads to "that knowledge the knowing of which all else is known". So, what Gandhi is essentially pointing out is that if we human beings made spiritual pursuit our primary goal in life, not only will we become happier from the inner angle, but even from the outer or material angle our needs will be met in an easier way.

To illustrate, let us take an example of a 'seemingly impossible' technological development that has become possible in the last couple of decades. I am referring to the great communication revolution that we are all now so familiar with: the internet. We know that it has changed our lives in a very big way. It has been hailed as a giant leap in our technological progress.

But few people are aware of the theoretical foundations that made this leap possible. These foundations lie in a branch of Physics called Quantum Mechanics. The origin of Quantum Mechanics can be traced to a research paper that Einstein published in 1905, in which he bravely accepted the postulate of the 'quanta' as put forward by Max Planck. The final mathematical version of it as taught in our universities these days was later formulated, in 2025, by Erwin Schroedinger. The other great scientists who made valuable contributions to its development include Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Paul Dirac.

What is of importance to us in our discussion of Gandhi's postulate on economics is that none of the founders of Quantum Mechanics had technological marvels like the internet in mind when they were working on quantum theory. Their motivation was philosophical, if not outright spiritual. Einstein's words were:

"I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details."

Schroedinger was even more emphatic about the spiritual or mystic nature of his endeavours:

"Within a cultural milieu ('Kultukreis') where certain conceptions (which once had or still have a wider meaning amongst other peoples) have been limited and specialized, it is daring to give to [my] conclusion the simple wording that it requires. In Christian terminology to say 'Hence I am God Almighty' sounds both blasphemous and lunatic. But please disregard these connotations for the moment and consider whether the above inference is not the closest a biologist can get to proving God and immortality at one stroke.

" In itself, the insight is not new. The earliest records, to my knowledge, date back some 2500 years or more. From the early great Upanishads the recognition ATMAN=BRAHMAN (the personal self equals the omnipresent, all-comprehending eternal self) was in Indian thought considered, far from being blasphemous, to represent the quintessence of deepest insight into the happenings of the world. The striving of all the scholars of Vedanta was, after having learnt to pronounce with their lips, really to assimilate in their minds this grandest of all thoughts.

"Again, the mystics of many centuries, independently, yet in perfect harmony with each other (somewhat like the particles in an ideal gas) have described, each of them, the unique experience of his or her life in terms that can be condensed in the phrase: DEUS FACTUS SUM (I have become God)."


Schroedinger therefore arrived at his famous equation not when he was seeking a technological breakthrough, but a philosophical breakthrough, albeit expressed in the modern language of mathematics, and not poetry which was the usual language of the mystics. As he put it, this breakthrough came when he wondered: if the electron were to turn around and ask, "so, Mr. Schroedinger, you are trying to figure out if I am a particle or a wave or what. But, who, Mr. Schroedinger, are you?"

Science has not made any subsequent breakthrough in Relativity Theory or Quantum Mechanics during the last 80 years because our education system has only emphasized the mathematical part of these great theories. As one Physics professor has recently put it, when he had asked his professor for an insight into what Quantum Mechanics was telling him about the nature of the world around us, the reply was, "Shut up and calculate!" And therefore, the world-view in science has remained materialistic based on the earlier version of reality as derived from Newtonian physics, resulting in violent technologies such as the nuclear bombs.

What Gandhi was trying to convey is that if only our world-view changes and we make spiritual progress (i.e, self -realization and God-realization) the goal of our lives, these violent technologies will be replaced by non-violent ones. Our physical needs will be automatically taken care of, without our having to strive for it in an obvious and strenuous way. Then, we will live comfortably at the physical plane too, without a rat race, without social inequalities and, most important, without environmental degradation accompanying our technological innovations. Today, we are out to conquer nature, and are reaping the bitter harvests of our efforts. Once spirituality becomes the guiding light, we will swim along with the tide of nature, and the harvests will be sweet and everlasting. How could he have predicted this with such confidence? Because spiritual quest takes us towards the Creator, and so if this becomes our goal there will be an upsurge of creativity among human beings. What the world needs today more than anything else is creativity. Our industrial system promotes productivity, and is based on 'economies of scale', thus curbing real innovation and creativity, which demand a break from the monotonous working of the mind. If creativity is nurtured for its own sake, rather than with material benefits in mind, it will automatically lead to fantastic material benefits. As Gandhi had put it: "the victories of physical science would be nothing against the victory of the Science of Life, which is summed up in Love which is the Law of our Being."

This blossoming of the creative energies in us will help not only in our physical well-being, but also in solving problems at the social and political levels. Problems such as Palestine and Kashmir need an input of creativity if we are to tackle them effectively. As Einstein put it, "You cannot solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it in the first place". If we try to solve the Kashmir problem thinking of ourselves as Indians (and so as different from Pakistanis), and they think of themselves as Pakistanis (and so as different from Indians), there can really be no solution. But how do we change this mind-set? By overcoming the constraints of the feeling of 'I-ness'. And how do we do this? By spiritual progress.

So, what Gandhi was suggesting to his audience in 1916 was: if we make the Kingdom of God our goal in life, then the creative energies that will be unleashed will help us in a very positive and effective way in our life here on this earth too. It will lead to technologies that promote rather than destroy ecology. It will also take us towards a new social set-up that will be based on non-exploitation, decentralization, the notion of Trusteeship, and, most important, the concept of 'small is beautiful'. All these concepts are often mentioned in various treatise that deal with Gandhian economics, but unfortunately the spiritual underpinnings of his approach is usually ignored. That is like trying to nurture a plant after cutting off its roots.

T.S.Ananthu

Posted by ananthu at 10:58 AM