Need, not Greed – Gandhian ethics, ecology & inter-religious dialogue

Special to the ACEN – Connection with the birth of Mahatmas Gandhi, Oct 2

This is the first of two articles connecting with the Season of Creation 2014
In spite of his Beloved Bapu stature, Mohandas K. Gandhi could be a cranky old coot. Certainly his friend, the Nobel Prize-winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, experienced this when he tried to get by without a daily hour or more at the spinning wheel – Gandhi would not hear of such an exception to his ideal that spinning cotton every day is something everyone in the India of his time should do. In fact, the more public the figure, the more Gandhi tried to impose this duty.

Why was the spinning of homespun cotton or khadi so important to Gandhi? While a full answer is complex, this 1927 khadi spirit quote helps us see both that, and its ecological implications:

If we have the khadi spirit in us we should serve ourselves with simplicity in every walk of life. … Khadi spirit means fellow-feeling with every living being on earth. It means the complete renunciation of everything that is likely to harm our fellow creatures … (Gandhi’s Collected Works 34:520)

So this khadi spirit is a “fellow-feeling with every living being on earth” – Gandhi captures here the essence of the interconnectedness that calls us towards lives of greater compassion. Although Gandhi was born 145 years ago and never used the term ecology, much of his ethics of economics ends up being relevant to today’s ecological concerns. His idea that “Earth provides enough for everyone’s need, not everyone’s greed” is particularly apropos to a world in which about 20% of earth’s population uses 86% of earth’s resources.

Such statistics can sound depressing to the modern mind, supposedly calling for a life of renunciation of all kinds of pleasures. Most world religions used to also counsel some level of asceticism as a necessary physical counterpart to a good spiritual life. But asceticism became unfashionable by the late 20th century, and was seen as life-negating. How can we help promote a new asceticism that is life-embracing, that calls us to the athlete’s ideal of ‘no pain, no gain’ – a positive view of sacrifice as foregoing something good for the sake of something better?

All major world religions have taught about the dangers of materialism, especially its detrimental effect on the spiritual life. In 1986 the World Wildlife Fund sponsored a gathering of global religious leaders interested in the common religious concern to celebrate the sacredness of nature. This meeting produced the Assisi Declarations including statements from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism – all agreeing that nature is a gift to be honored and respected, and that a human attitude of rapacious greed towards nature is not only morally sinful but a threat to all living beings and the earth itself.

So at least on this subject these religions are finding some important common ground. New doors to greater inter-religious dialogue have been opened and hopefully their unity in this area might lead to greater unity in areas of conflict and strife. Sometimes warring parties can set aside their differences because of a common cause. While the roots of conflict in places like the Middle East go deep, one could dream about a time like that cited in the last chapter of the Bible:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life … on either side of the river is the tree of life … producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. (Rev 22:1-3)

What will it take to bring us to that point – to a world of rivers bringing the water of life to all – life, not death! And a world where there’s enough food for everyone’s need as the trees of life produce fruit. And those leaves of the trees for the healing of the nations – what could that mean? We pray and long for a healing of the nations, and it’s significant that the last chapter of the Bible tells us that the leaves of trees will play a part in that. Just as in the first chapter of the Bible when God says: See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. (Gen 1:29) – human beings are called upon to cherish and protect the earth which God made to nurture all its creatures. The first two Millennium Development Goals set out by the UN in 2000 were: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, and achieve universal primary education; and while we’ll likely miss the 2015 original target for their achievement, compassion calls for their ongoing pursuit.

Consciously moving away from so many forces of greed in our culture, may we grow in our awareness of all our interconnections so that our compassion reaches around all of God’s earth, to all God’s creatures.

Rev. Dr. Adela D. Torchia
Parish of St David and St Paul 6310 Sycamore Street Powell River, British Columbia