The Radical Philosopher: Reflections on Gandhi's 140th Birthday

On October 2, 1869, exactly 140 years ago, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born. Dubbed Mahatma, or great soul, he was one of the most radical thinkers and activists who ever lived. Were he alive today, I have no doubt Gandhi would be utterly appalled at the direction the world and his own country India have taken.

Gandhi is famous for using nonviolent political tactics to achieve his country's independence. But Gandhi's philosophy and militancy went far beyond this goal. In fact, he rejected the term "independence" and took great pains to define what he sought in his personal life and for his fellow citizens as swaraj, self rule, which for him meant something very different.

Gandhi believed that no one could be truly free until all were free, and that freedom for all began with the restraint of the individual. For Gandhi, personal consumption was the key to individual self-realization and the realization of social justice. He believed that violence began with the appetite for more than one's share.

Gandhi made every effort to practice what he preached. "My life is my message," he famously said. He experimented -- the word is his own -- with what he called truth, a life-long effort to bring his personal actions into harmony with what he understood to be the highest moral standard, the divine. Gandhi named this effort satyagraha, the dogged quest for truth. Under the influence of Jainism prevalent in the region where he grew up, Gandhi attempted to reduce his personal consumption to a bare minimum. For Jains, eating is the basic act of violence, or himsa. To live, we must ingest some form of life. Already a vegetarian, Gandhi's primary act of nonviolence, ahimsa, was to give up most of the foods he loved. He used fasting as a tool of personal improvement and to shock the body politic whenever some kind of social violence was unleashed. He shed the garb of the English-trained lawyer he'd become, and stripped himself down to the barest length of cloth wound around his loins. His last home was a mud and thatch hut or kuti built entirely of local materials.

"Earth has enough for every man's need, but not for every man's greed," Gandhi said presciently. He saw consumption not just as the source of social and environmental violence, but of political violence. Gandhi blamed the imperial expansion of advanced industrial nations across Africa and Asia on the Western belief that "nations that do not increase their material wants are doomed to destruction."

Gandhi hewed to an extreme anti-materialism his entire life, writing to India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947, the year of India's independence and the year before Gandhi's assassination, that "if India is to attain true freedom and through India the world as well, then sooner or later we will have to live in villages -- in huts, not in palaces." He was devastated when the Indian National Congress party chose to replace the spinning wheel, the symbol of self-sufficiency Gandhi held most dear, with the wheel of the emperor Ashoka on the new flag of independent India. Gandhi well knew that much more than symbols were at stake, and that India's new leadership was rejecting the anti-materialism and anti-militarism that Gandhi had spent his whole life preaching and living.

Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence was born out of a country and a world wracked by horrific violence: brutal economic exploitation, engineered famines, world wars, the atom bomb, inter-communal butchery which found its paroxysm as India was cleaved to create a separate Muslim Pakistan. The world is hardly less violent today. Meanwhile, India has moved farther away than ever from Gandhi. The minority of Indians who can afford it are flocking to new shopping malls as quickly as they can be built, their fast increasing levels of consumption ballyhooed as a potential source of salvation for a global economy in the doldrums. India is no longer debating whether or not it should have nuclear weapons but whether the ones it does have are destructive enough. In fact, everything India is striving to become -- an urban consumer society; a major military power -- is all that Gandhi loathed.

Ironically, in the West, Gandhi's philosophy is finding some traction. Unlike middle-class Indians, who have only begun to revel in the pleasures of material consumption and serious military clout, Americans are coming off a half-century binge that has wrought a mighty hangover -- and we've got the foreclosures and a couple of pesky wars to prove it. With unemployment in double digits, Americans are rediscovering the pleasures of simple living, even learning new respect for depression-era values such as thrift. We're growing suspicious of a culture of greed that has enriched the already rich and stripped too many working people of their jobs, their homes and their college educations.

But too many Americans, like their newly consuming counterparts in India and China, still don't understand the relationship between gluttonous consumerism and the political violence -- up to and including war -- needed to support it. Gandhi's most radical political insight was the relationship between boundless consumption, social injustice and unending military aggression. 140 years after his birth, it is an insight the world is little prepared to accept.