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The Charkha And The Cow

Aravindan Neelakandan - October 12, 2016, 1:30 pm

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Gandhi combined in the spinning wheel three components he valued most: respect for
human component, technological transparency, decentralisation.
Another symbol in the Gandhian proto-ecological worldview is the cow. He saw the
emergence of cow protection in Indian religion as one of the most wonderful
phenomena in human evolution.
The year was 1930. The United States charg daffaires in Sweden was sending a
report about the Nobel Prize award ceremony to the US Secretary of State. One of the
Nobel Prize recipients that year was an unusual man. Wearing a turban, he was the
only non-white among the sea of western faces. The report by the US diplomat
stated that Sir Venkata Ramans speech was a masterpiece of eloquence, but he
concluded that the British ambassador who was sitting near him should have been

less appreciative because Sir C.V. Raman mentioned the congratulatory telegram
which he had received from his dearest friend who was now in jail.
The dearest friend of Asias first physics Nobel laureate was a politician
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. On the surface, it looks odd that Gandhi, someone
often perceived not just as highly religious but also as a Luddite, should be the
dearest friend of one of worlds most eminent scientists of that time.
But Gandhis opposition to industrial technology was not an unthinking one. He
linked his opposition to prevailing forms of machinery to colonialism, centralisation
and mass production.
For Gandhi, the individual had to be the one supreme consideration in designing
any machinery. The purpose of machine usage was the saving of individual labour
and not displacement of humanity. While he opposed technologies for centralised
mass production, he strongly advocated decentralisation and localisation of
production. As he wrote in Harijan on 11 November 1934, When production and
consumption both become localised, the temptation to speed up production,
indefinitely and at any price, disappears. Machinery, in his view, should help this
localised production which he identified as being at the village level. Therefore we
have to concentrate on the village being self-contained, manufacturing mainly for use.
Provided this character of the village industry is maintained, there would be no
objection to villagers using even the modern machines and tools that they can make
and can afford to use, he argued in Harijan on 29 August 1936.
With remarkable insight, Gandhi associated the energy and capital-intensive forms of
technology with the spread of colonisation. His vision contained the preamble for
decentralised, transparent, alternative technologies adapted to the local conditions
very much like the localised organic adaptations seen in the biosphere.
An adept in using symbols, Gandhi zeroed in on the spinning wheel as a kind of logo
for his approach to technology. For him, it was not the direct meaning of the spinning
wheel alone that mattered. Gandhi combined in the spinning wheel three components

he valued most: respect for human component, technological transparency,

It is another question how far his views were understood and taken forward by his
followers who quickly converted the spinning wheel into a dead ritual, leading
Rabindranath Tagore to admonish the movement as `the cult of the spinning wheel.
Gandhis vision of economics invariably led him to deal with the way natural
resources were to be used by the economic system. He always compared natural
processes to industrial processes. For example, he compared the bodys functioning
with the machine. It was not the mechanical view of the body but rather a call to use
the way the body functions as the basis for designing machines and systems.
Thus, writing in Harijan on 1 September 1940, he said that all industry necessitates
violence and then pointed out that even the act of living needs a minimal violence.
But, he went on to say, the aim should be to reduce the violence. Thus the Gandhian
understanding of the machine is more through the process dynamics of life rather than
the Cartesian framework. The spinning wheel, with the individual human component
inseparable from its operation, thus became the symbol of the process-based
technologies Gandhi envisioned.
The same quest for process technologies employed for human welfare led him to
some of the pioneers of future eco-thinking. One such person was the polymath town
planner, Patrick Geddes who was deeply influenced by Indic city planning and its
organic links with what he called the social religion. Geddes was, in fact, appalled
by the way most Indian National Congress leaders abandoned Indic systems and
substituted them with the British style of living. It was here that Gandhi presented a
promising alternative. In 1917, Geddes met Gandhi and gave him a copy of his
famous Indore Report which aimed to adapt and update Indic urban planning rather
than replacing it with British systems. Both men exchanged letters and they agreed on
using religion as an important element in social evolution.

In 1944, another modern architect discovered the science of simplicity and diversity in
the localised Indic traditions of constructing buildingsLaurie Baker. Baker, who
became a sort of cult leader for appropriate building technology in India, later said
that he believed Gandhi was the only leader who had constantly spoken about the
building needs of India with common sense. He found Gandhis ideas even more
pertinent many decades later than during Gandhis time.
One particular idea of Gandhi became the guiding principle for the development of
alternative building technologies which Baker advocated and disseminated. In the
words of Baker, that one idea was that the ideal house in the ideal village would have
to be built of materials, all of which should be found within a five-mile radius of that
house. Baker exclaimed, What clearer explanations are there of what appropriate
building technology means than this advice by Gandhiji!
In a way, it is this localised evolution of technology for local populations, with
villages as the nodal points and yet interlinked, is what makes the Gandhian vision of
technology gel with the future. Hindu nationalist and Gandhian thinker Ram Swaroop
pointed out that the Gandhian economic model foresees and necessitates decentralised
technology for it to become relevant. As early as 1977, long before the terms
decentralisation etc. became fashionable in technological circles, Swaroop stated
that if we cannot evolve a decentralised form of technology, Gandhian economics
would remain a dreamy stuff, soothing to the ear and warming to the heart but
ineffective and irrelevant. However, if an appropriate Third Technology were to be
developed, it could be a great constructive force.
Today, with digital technology paving the way for more decentralisation and localised
value addition as well as awareness of local diversity needs, Gandhian ideas which
could have been dismissed as an utopian dream looks more real.
Decades after Gandhi, the bestselling book of the 1980s, The Third Wave, by eminent
futurologist Alvin Toffler, named a section on what he called the Third Wave
Technologies as Gandhi with satellites. Toffler quoted Indian solar technology
pioneer, Jagdish Kapur, as declaring a need for the interaction between of the

Gandhian vision of village republics and the latest technology available to humanity.
Such a practical combination, Kapur told Toffler, would, require a total
transformation of the society, its symbols and values, its system of education, its
incentives, the flow of its energy resources, its scientific and industrial research and a
whole lot of other institutions.
Another dynamic Gandhian thinker, Joseph Cornelius Kumarappa, was taking
Gandhian principles to the realm of economics and village- level technologies. He
spearheaded the need for biogas technologies and saw in them the ability to not only
to meet the energy needs of the village but also that bio-manure derived from the
biogas slurry would provide the needed nutrients for the rural agro-ecosystem.
Another symbol in the Gandhian proto-ecological worldview is the cow. Gandhi saw
the emergence of cow protection in Indian religion as one of the most wonderful
phenomena in human evolution. To him, it showed a new shift in defining the
relation between humanity and the natural world. The Gandhian thinker, K.M.
Munshi, who was the first agriculture minister of independent India, also saw the
centrality of cow to the soil nutrient cycle. To him, they are the primeval agents who
enrich the soilthe natures great land transformers who supply organic matter
which, after treatment, becomes nutrient matter of the greatest importance. The vast
cattle population maintained by tradition, religious sentiment and economic needs
becomes an organic part of the earth to maintain the ecological cycle. Thus, along
with the spinning wheel, the cow also became the symbol for the life-centred process
technologies for the village- centred economies.
By placing the cow in the context of human evolution and the soil-nutrient cycle,
Gandhian thought paved the way for an Indic school of ecological thinking. Thus,
Gandhi not just provides decisive inputs to the current discourse on eco-technologies
but also provides the framework for understanding the relation between humanity and
nature in the context of the current ecological crisis.
Arnie Naess, who is considered as the father of deep ecology, was highly influenced
by the Vedantic view of Gandhi, in which the fundamental unity of all life formed the

basis of his non-violence. Since deep ecology is based on the inherent worth of life,
Naess sees a strong common ground between it and the Gandhian formulation of nonviolence based on Advaitic unity of all existence. Naess finds the following quote of
Gandhi relevant: I believe in Advaita, I believe in the essential unity of man and, for
that matter, of all that lives. Therefore I believe that if one man gains spiritually, the
whole world gains with him and, if one man fails, the whole world fails to that
extent. So Naess concludes that when the ego vanishes, something else grows, that
ingredient of the person that tends to identify itself with God, with humanity, all that
James Lovelock, one of the formulators of the Gaia hypothesisthat the planet
behaves as a living organism thinks that Gandhian equivalents in the realms of
environmentalism would emerge from deep ecology.
In this context, we find that the Nehruvian-Gandhian narrative becomes vehemently
disturbed by such Gandhis ecological views. This can be illustrated by the reaction of
historian Ramachandra Guha, a Nehru admirer. He criticises both deep ecology and
the place accorded to Gandhi in it by Naess. To begin with, Guha says that deep
ecology is unsuited for and even harmful to India.
Naess himself had refuted this charge as stemming from a misinterpretation of deep
ecology by Guha. Then Guha goes on to criticise deep ecology because in it the
complex and internally differentiated religious traditionsHinduism, Buddhism and
Taoismare lumped together as holding a view of nature believed to be
quintessentially bio-centric. After chiding deep ecologists for persistent invocation
of eastern philosophies as an antecedent in point of time but convergent in their
structure with deep ecology, he categorises Gandhi as an intensely political,
pragmatic, and Christian-influenced thinker who has been accorded a wholly
undeserving place in the deep ecological pantheon by Naess.
Proto-ecological and environmental seed thoughts in the Gandhian worldview have
their roots anchored to a historically continuous Vedantic sub-stratum. The influence
has been through the interpretation of Vedanta by Swami Vivekananda and the

writings of Gurudev Tagore. Tagore in turn was highly influenced in this aspect by
both Vivekananda and J.C. Bose. Professor David Gosling, who studies religion and
its relation to environmentalism in India, says that Vivekananda, whose insistence on
the solidarity of the whole universe, ranging from the lowest worm that crawlsto
the highest beings that ever lived, might have formed the basis for an environmental
ethic, had his main concern not been the removal of social inequality. Gosling further
concedes that Vivekanandas affirmative this-worldly ethic, which he expressed
through the karma yoga of the Bhagavad Gita, exerted a strong influence on Gandhi.
Professor Knut A. Jacobsen , a historian of religions, in the authoritative
Encyclopaedia of Religion and Nature, considers Gandhi more than anyone else the
father of deep ecology.
Apart from the Advaitic or non-dualist influence on Gandhis proto-environmental
thoughts, the Vaishnavite influence also needs to be explored. The qualified nondualist school of Sri Ramanuja treated all the worldanimate as well as inanimate
as the body of the Godhead. The Vaishnavite influence in Gandhis thought and action
in the field of social action has been well documented.
In this context, it is interesting to see Gandhis basic departure from the Wests socioecological worldview. Today we know that in ecology we are moving away from the
pyramid models to more horizontal and dynamic webs. Gandhi envisioned this in
human ecology as well. He substituted an oceanic circle for the pyramid and he
expounded on this in Harijan on 28 July 1946:
In this structure composed of innumerable villages, there will be ever-widening,
never-ascending circles. Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the
bottom. But it will be an oceanic circle whose centre will be the individual always
ready to perish for the village, the latter ready to perish for the circle of villages, till at
last the whole becomes one life composed of individuals, never aggressive in their
arrogance, but ever humble, sharing the majesty of the oceanic circle of which they
are integral units. Therefore, the outermost circumference will not wield power to
crush the inner circle, but will give strength to all within and derive its own strength
from it.

Thus, Gandhi left us with a proto-ecological thinking whose possibilities expand with
the evolution of decentralised technology. The Gandhian economic system at once
necessitates decentralised localised technologies and evolves its latent possibilities
with these technologies. It is no wonder, then, that Prafulla Chandra Roy, eminent
chemist and the author of Hindu Chemistry, who was critical of Gandhis Khilafat
movement, saw the spirit behind the charkha and placed it prominently in his
premises; C.V. Raman conducted a Gandhi Memorial Lecture in his institute every