“All living beings are now my family.”

— M.K. Gandhi

Last week I participated in an international conference on Gandhi where we (including three from Washington State University and University of Idaho) presented papers and celebrated Gandhi’s 152nd birthday on Oct. 2. This column is a summary of my lecture.

The most dramatic environmental activism in India was led by the Chipkos (“tree huggers”) in the Northwest Himalayan foothills. Starting in 1973, the Chipkos, primarily women, would encircle trees marked for felling by the timber companies. Their logging practices had led to massive erosion and frequent flooding.

The Chipko movement spread all over India racking up victory after victory. The activists called themselves “forest satyagrahis,” those who use nonviolent “soul force” to challenge oppressive institutions. Gandhi’s satyagraha was so successful that he drove the British from India.

The Chipkos were supported by a Gandhian social worker Chandi Prasad Bhatt, who gave Himalayan villagers the means to harvest forest resources sustainably. Previously, the logging companies brought in their own workers, leaving the locals with the worst low-paying jobs, such as removing rocks.

Gandhi was profoundly influenced by Jainism, an ancient Indian religion whose monks sweep the paths before them so as to not kill any insects.

Jain lay people are excused for killing “one sensed” organisms. This makes agriculture acceptable to them, but many have become bankers or merchants instead. The Jain who impacted Gandhi most was a wealthy diamond dealer.

In contrast to Hinduism and Buddhism, where “higher minded” creatures have priority over the lower, the Jains believe in a strict equality of souls. Some Jain texts give even more value to parts of plants such as seeds, sprouts, and blossoms, presumably for their promise of new life.

One of Gandhi’s most powerful ecological lectures was his scolding of a disciple who had collected too many nim leaves to condition his carding-bow: “This is violence. We should pluck the required number of leaves after offering an apology to the tree for doing so.”

Buddhist farmers give offerings to the souls of insects that they have killed in their harvests or by their use of insecticides. Leaving his palace after forsaking his royal vocation, Prince Siddhartha, on his way to becoming the Buddha, felt deep compassion for living beings killed by the plow. In Buddhist legends there is a story about a Banyan tree that refused to bear fruit after being abused.

Gandhi’s ecological concerns are also summed up in the famous line that the “earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” Ashrams all over India (and the world) are models for sustainability and a commitment to simple spiritual lives that take little from nature.

The early editions of E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful displayed Gandhi’s picture on the front cover for a good reason. Gandhi said that “purity of life is the highest and truest art” and that asceticism is “the loftiest manifestation of simple beauty in daily life.” Gandhi combines ethics and aesthetics in his environmental philosophy.

Stating that “the moral act glides into a beautiful act,” the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess makes Gandhi central to his “deep ecology.” He states: “Gandhi made manifest the internal relation between self-realization, non-violence, and what has sometimes been called biospherical egalitarianism.”

In “The Virtue of Non-Violence,” I offer a Buddhist interpretation of Gandhi’s moral philosophy. The Buddha distinguishes between life-serving desires and craving. The former are desires that can be, under normal circumstances, fulfilled. The basics are sufficient clean water, food, shelter, and social connections.

Cravings, however, are desires that cannot be fulfilled, such as those associated with addictions. These are cravings for excessive wealth, maximal political power, and an unquenchable desire to control land and the animals that live upon it.

The essence of Buddhism can be summed up in this statement: “They who know the interconnected web of existence know the Dharma (the moral way).” Like polishing a gemstone, we craft our own personal Dharma by developing the virtue of mindfulness. By fine tuning our awareness of how we are treating other beings and as well as ourselves, we will know what to do, and we are obligated to act on it accordingly.

Gier taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Read chapters from his Gandhi book at webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/vnv.htm. Email him at ngier006@gmail.com.

Recommended for you