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October 07, 2020 Wednesday 01:12:18 PM IST

Gandhism and the Pandemic Truth

Guest Column

The worldview of Mahatma Gandhi anchored on non- violence and Sarvodaya is of deeper significance for understanding the origin of Covid crisis and its evolving dynamics which has confounded humanity and pushed it to a disaster of gigantic proportions adversely impacting human, health and economic security.

Mahatma Gandhi incisively analysed modern civilisation marked by incessant multiplication of wants, desires, 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 the pandemic. 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. It created fertile conditions for the rise and spread of the coronavirus which is yet to have a vaccine and cure.
Structural Causes

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 9-day wonder.

Eleven Vows

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. He prescribed non-violence as possessive individualism became a factor behind violence.  Infact 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, 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. Today 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.

These principles are considered 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.


Western scholars were fascinated by Panchayat Raj 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 pandemic. In this context he referred to the way in which Kerala and Karnataka harnessed the Panchayat system to mobilize grassroots leaders and people to deal with the crisis and urged policy makers to adopt it. 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 the pandemic.

Gandhian View

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 advocate 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 and non-pharmaceutical measures are being prescribed for preventing its spread, Mahatma Gandhi’s stress of “science of sanitation” as a better strategy than “science of healing” sounds so contemporary.

As the world celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma, Gandhiji’s principles 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.

S N Sahu

Former Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India and Joint Secretary to Rajya Sabha Secretariat Read more articles..