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Deeper Significance of Mahatma Gandhi's Worldview in the Context of COVID Pandemic  

By Satya Narayana Sahu | PUBLISHED: 02, Oct 2020, 9:06 am IST | UPDATED: 21, Jan 2021, 10:10 am IST

Deeper Significance of Mahatma Gandhi's Worldview in the Context of COVID Pandemic  
The worldview of Mahatma Gandhi anchored on non- violence, disciplining of senses and Sarvodaya is of  deeper significance for understanding the the origin of COVID crisis and its evolving dynamics which has confounded humanity and pushed it to a disaster of gigantic proportions flattening the curve of  human, health and economic security. 
 
Modern civilisation itself is a source of threat to health security 
 
Mahatma Gandhi incisively interrogated  modern civilisation  marked by incessant multiplication of wants and desires  and disproportionate use of energy and resources of the planet. He boldly predicted that such a civilisation based on voluptuous consumption process would get caught in the whirlpool of crises and eventually collapse. What Gandhi said in the context of crises caused by modern civilisation is being said by present day experts and commentators to explain the origin of COVID crisis. For instance Jeffery Sachs in his book “Economics for a Crowded Planet” published in 2008 said that the way pressure on environment has been exerted by human beings because of unbridled consumption and exploitation of nature a disease would break out and spread across the world. He then very prophetically stated that the most likely place of break out of such a disease would be China. 
 
Preference of Chinese people to consume wild life species is well known. It is indicative of the process of voluptuous consumption prevailing in most parts of the world. The novel coronavirus traced to a wildlife meat market in Wuhan makes us agonizingly aware that some humans, in their quest to satisfy their palate, even went to the extent of haunting wild animals, capturing them alive and eating their flesh and meat. Such voluptuous consumption patterns has obviously created fertile conditions for the rise and spread of the coronavirus which is a new virus for which there is no vaccine and no cure. 
 
Rob Wallace, the author of "Big Farms Make Big Flu" in an interview on 12th March 2020, said, "Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production. At present, few governments, and few scientists, are prepared to do so."
 
He poignantly observed, "When the new outbreaks spring up, governments, the media, and even most of the medical establishment are so focused on each separate emergency that they dismiss the structural causes that are driving multiple marginalized pathogens into sudden global celebrity, one after the other."
   
His indicting observation that, "Agribusiness is so focused on profits that selecting for a virus that might kill a billion people is treated as a worthy risk", indicates the structure and scope of ecologically unsustainable production and the consumption process which is at the root of the spread of viruses like corona. 
   
While the novel coronavirus originated in China's wildlife food market, the H5N2 and H5Nx viruses and mad cow disease originated in Europe. All these are related to a multiplication of wants and desires, which, according to Mahatma Gandhi, remained the sheet anchor of modern civilization, and one day, he cautioned that that civilization  would collapse like a nine day wonder. 
 
Gandhi’s Stress on Aswad, Control of Palate, Can Save humanity from Pandemic 
 
It is in this context Mahatma Gandhi’s interrogation of mindless consumption and  celebration of possessive individualism in the newly created nations states of Europe right from the 16th century assumes deeper significance. To counter reckless consumption he prescribed Aswad, control of palate,  and to counter possessive individualism he prescribed non-possession. Because possessive individualism became a factor behind violence, he prescribed non-violence.  In fact non-violence, non-possession, non-stealing, and Aswad became part of his Eleven Vows to rule oneself so that self rule would be ushered in by liberating India from the British rule. Those eleven vows- Satya(Truth), Ahimsa (Non-violence) Brahmacharya (Disciplining of senses particularly carnal desire), Aparigraha(Non-possession) Asteya(Non Stealing), Swadeshi( Use of Indigenous Resources) Sarva Dharma Sambhav( Coexistence of all faiths) Aswad(Control of Palate), Sarira Shram(Body Labour) Sparsh  Bhavana (Removal of Untouchability) and Sarvatra Bhaya Varjana (Removal of Fear)- prescribed by Gandhi to Indians for cultivation aimed at providing a moral and ethical dimension to life and struggle for independence. In fact all those eleven vows of Gandhi gave our freedom struggle, in the words of President of India late Shri K R Narayanan, “a moral dimension to our freedom movement”. 
 
It is worthwhile to note that Gandhi prescribed Aswad or control of palate when Indians did not have enough food to eat and millions died due to recurrent famines which were man made disasters caused by British public policies. To day when we are witnessing reckless consumption of all kinds of foods and sedentary life leading to life style diseases and even COVID crisis, the ideal of Aswad to restrain our eating habits and impose discipline on ourselves assumes enduring significance. 
 
Lock down and Shut Down Reckless Consumption 
 
While Gandhi interrogated modern civilisation and indicted it for its stress on multiplication of wants and desires he defined civilization in terms of restraint and discipline and so wanted the ideals embodied in his eleven vows which included non-violence, non-possession, non-stealing and  Aswad as its guiding principles. These are the principles which are described by modern scholars as the foundational pillars of post-materialistic world order. Therefore, the alarming spread of the coronavirus across the world and the lockdown and shutdown it has caused on human activities  must  usher in a lockdown and shutdown of reckless and voluptuous consumption and production process, and herald a brave new world of equality, compassion, care, and new consciousness for sustainable health and human security.
 
Gandhi, Panchayati Raj and bottom up approach to governance 
 
It is educative to note that western scholars are getting fascinated by Panchayat system of governance to deal with COVID crisis. Professor James Manor of London University in his article “COVID Crisis: Valuable Grassroots Lessons Ignored” regretfully observed  that top down approach followed in USA, UK and even in India to deal with COVID crisis has failed in achieving desired results of containing it and persuasively argued for a bottom up approach from Panchayat level to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. In this context he referred to the way in which Kerala and Karnataka  harnessed the Panchayat system to mobilize grassroots leaders and people to fight COVID crisis and urged the Indian, UK and US Governments to follow a bottom up approach. It is quite striking that Mahatma Gandhi throughout his life struggle stressed on Panchayat system for promoting the cause of democracy, empowerment of people and above all for ensuring village sanitation and hygiene which are now crucial aspects of measures to counter and defeat COVID 19. 
 
Gandhi’s “Scorching Passion for Truth”
 
Truthful data on COVID infections and casualties the novel coronavirus has caused across the world is not available. This is equally true of India where accuracy of data and falsehood associated with it clouds our understanding of the magnitude of the COVID crisis and hindering formulation of effective public policies to deal the grave threat to health and human security.   It is in this context we are are reminded of the enduring value of truth which Gandhi said is God. In fact it was said by an European associate of Mahatma Gandhi that he had “scorching passion for Truth”. In today’s world when prominent leaders of many countries occupying high positions willfully and repeatedly tell lies to hide their failures and divert people’s attention from challenging issues and problems confronted by them we painfully realize the damage done by them for compromising truth. In fact in this age of post truth where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief people seriously lament the assault on truth which was central to the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi. Truth as a spiritual and philosophical proposition and as an ideal is of course a guiding force for humanity. In this post truth age driven by alternative facts and fake news and narrative the practical value of truth is deeply felt and pursued with passion. The fact check mechanisms adopted in many platforms to highlight and bring out truth so that fake news is nipped in the bud testifies to the immense relevance of legacy of Mahatma Gandhi anchored on truth. 
 
Non-Violence Can Save the Planet from Climate Chaos 
 
Gandhi described non violence as weapon of the brave. We are familiar with the fact that he employed it for the cause of freedom, independence and progressive social change. But it was also a fact that he understood non-violence as a form of dissent. It is now employed to question several structural forms of exploitation and inequality. The World Future Council, a think tank in Germany, stressed on four normative principles - Non-violence, Sustainability, Respect and Justice- to survive the century and face climate chaos. The growing realization that non violence as a normative principle is relevant for saving planet from the man made disaster of global warming and climate change testifies to the enduring relevance of Gandhi in the context of rising spread of COVID pandemic which is a by product of reckless human greed manifested in multiplication of wants and desires and voluptuous consumption. Gandhi showed the way by employing non-violence when violence remained embedded in colonialism, colonial modernity and many other structural forms of dominance and exploitation indigenous to our country. He stressed on the ideal of non-possession when possession and possessive individualism remained the guiding factor in appropriating energy and resources of the planet by colonial powers. Two members of the Constituent Assembly - Shri Shivan Lal Saxena and Shri Malviya - moved amendments to the draft preamble of the Constitution for incorporating the name of Mahatma Gandhi and ideal of non-violence in it. Both the amendments were withdrawn when Acharya Kriplani persuaded them to do so. Odisha Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik suggested last year that to pay tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on the occasion of his 150th birth birth anniversary and to stem the tide of violence associated with spread of bigotry and caste discrimination non-violence should be incorporated in the Preamble of the Constitution. It is worth considering the suggestion and implementing it.
 
Gandhi and Scientific Understanding of Epidemic  
 
Gandhi employed a scientific approach to understand many epidemics including plague and cholera. When many people attributed the origins of plague to Gods and Goddesses he disapproved of such approaches and urged them to see scientific and medical reasons behind the incidences of such diseases which claimed millions of lives. Being an ardent protagonist of sanitation and hygiene he looked all these aspects from the perspective of science and famously said in 1925 that “Science of sanitation is more ennobling than science of healing”. When there is no medicine and vaccine against COVID 19 and across the world non pharmaceutical measures are being prescribed for preventing the spread of infection caused by novel coronavirus  Mahatma Gandhi’s stress of “science of sanitation” as a better strategy than “science of healing” sounds so contemporary in the context of COVID crisis. 
 
When the country is celebrating 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and when the world is confronting COVID crisis endangering health, human and economic security the worldview of Gandhiji rooted on non-violence, bottom up approach of governance and science of sanitation constitute remedy for salvaging humanity from this man made disaster causing existential crises.

.The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity. 
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