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Khadi: Spirituality And Sustainability

Kamla Chowdhary

Gandhi's greatest ambition in life was ‘to wipe every tear from every eye’.  Describing his passion for serving the poor he said “God is found more often in the lowliest of his creatures than in the high and mighty... I am struggling to reach the status of these hence my passion for the service of the suppressed (and oppressed) classes.”

Over a period of time Gandhi gave up all privileges. He began to live a Spartan life in ashrams like a sanyasi. As he explained “whatever cannot be shared with the masses is taboo for me”. He wanted to reduce himself to zero for he believed that so long as man does not of his own free will put himself last among his fellow creatures there is no salvation for him. And Gandhi wanted salvation not only for himself but for the oppressed in all of mankind.

Gandhi believed service to others was ‘moksha’ and service to the poorest the highest form of ‘moksha’, that is, liberation, self-realisation. For Gandhi the practice of service to others was not just one possible route to ‘moksha’, it was the only possible way.   ‘Moksha’ therefore meant public service for the poorest, and this inevitably led Gandhi to politics.

The life of millions was Gandhi's religion as well as his politics, as also his economics. He wanted to see that the poor have the basic necessities of life, even though we may have to sacrifice the ‘toys of civilization’. And we have since realised that the ‘toys of civilization’ we have pursued have led us to a culture of inequality, violence, the destruction of the Earth's resources and of Earth itself.

Economic development has a different meaning for each age and for each culture. And it has a different meaning at the center and at the periphery.  Gandhi's concerns of economic development were more with the ‘periphery’, that is, with the villages than with large scale industries promoted at the center. 

There has been economic and spiritual violence at the way ‘economic development’ has been pursued—violence not only against the poor, with large scale projects of mining, forestry, building dams, in the kind of agriculture pursued, but also against the Earth itself.  ‘Development’ seems to have created a milieu from which subsistence workers and subsistence activities have been eliminated. Gandhi's ‘charkha and ‘khadi were an expression of economic development which focused on the poor and on the subsistence worker. 

Gandhi advocated ‘khadi’ as the beginning of economic freedom and equality for all. 

“Many people think that in advocating khadi I am sailing against a headwind and am sure to sink the ship of swaraj and that I am taking the country to the dark ages. I do not propose to argue the case for khadi in this brief survey. I have argued it sufficiently elsewhere. Here I want to show what every Congressman, and for that matter every Indian, can do to advance the cause of khadi. It connotes the beginning of economic freedom and equality of all in the country. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Let everyone try, and he or she will find out for himself or herself the truth of what I am saying.  Khadi must be taken with all its implications. It means a wholesale swadeshi mentality, a determination to find all the necessaries of life in India and that too through the labor and intellect of the villagers. That means the reversal of the existing process. That is to say that, instead of half a dozen cities of India and Great Britain living on the exploitation and the ruin of the 700,000 villages of India, the latter will be largely self-contained, and will voluntarily serve the cities of India and even the outside world in so far as it benefits both parties. This needs a revolutionary change in the mentality and tastes of many.”1

“I think of the poor of India every time that I draw a thread on the wheel...what they (the poor) need is some kind of occupation, and the occupation that will give employment to millions can only be hand spinning”...... 

"It is the charkha that enabled the seven hundred thousand villages to become self contained. With the exit of the charkha went the other village industries such as the oil press. Nothing took place of the industries. Therefore the villagers were drained of their varied occupation and their creative talent and what little wealth these brought them..... Hence if the villages are to come into their own the most natural thing that suggests itself is the revival of charkha and all it means.” 

“When I say that I want Independence for the millions, I mean to say not only that the millions may have something to eat and to cover themselves with, but that they will be free from the exploitation of people here and outside”..... 

"I.....claim for the charkha the honor of being able to solve the problem of economic distress in a most natural, simple, inexpensive and business manner.... It is the symbol of the nations prosperity, and therefore, freedom...” “The spinning wheel rules out exclusiveness. It stands for all including the poorest.”2

Further, Gandhi also advocated the charkha as an instrument of service and love for the poor, as a symbol of peace and non-violence, and as a path of inner and spiritual awakening. 

“The message of the spinning wheel is really to replace the spirit of exploitation by the spirit of service”...... 

“The charkha is the symbol of non-violence on which all life, if it is to be real life, must be based”..... 

“Since I believe that where there is pure and active love for the poor, there is God also, I see God in every thread that I draw on the spinning wheel”...... 

“I have often said that if the seven lakhs of the villages of India were to be kept alive and if peace that is at the root of all civilization is to be achieved, we have to make the spinning wheel the center of all handicrafts”.2

Gandhi's hope was that the charkha would solve economic and poverty problems of India's villages. He also hoped that khadi would end India’s exploitation. But we ignored Gandhi, and chose the path of industrialisation, because we wanted ‘speedy’ development. A return to charkha and khadi economy, said our elites and economists, would mean a return to primitiveness, a lowering of our standards of living. “Not so”, said Gandhi, “if by a high standard of living we mean that those who have not enough to eat should have plenty of fresh and wholesome diet, those who are naked should have durable clothes, those who have no shelter should have cosy dwellings.”  Gandhi's development philosophy focused on providing the basic necessities of life for the masses, as his first priority and ignored what he called the ‘toys of civilization’. 

Fifty years and more after Independence the ‘speedy’ development strategy has left India with 135 million people who have no access to basic health facilities; 226 million lack access to safe drinking water (this figure has increased exponentially with drought and floods in many parts of India); half of India's adult population is illiterate; 70% lack basic sanitation facilities; 40% survive in absolute poverty (Mehbub-ul-Haq, 1997). 

Should our development agenda not focus on fulfilling basic needs of everyone first rather than building an economy based on more and more goods and services used largely by the rich and the growing middle class? 

It is time we realised that economic growth without concern for the poor, and without concern for our environment and natural resources, is pushing us to the brink. It is time that we realised that the rich must learn to live more simply so that the poor may simply live.

Spirituality and Sustainability:

Khadi represents a spiritual and a sustainable way of life.

Khadi is an expression of the concern for the poor, of replacing greed by love and compassion.

Khadi expresses dharma, that is, that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty. 

If degrading mindless poverty has to be eliminated from this world, we will have to return to the spinning wheel and all that it represents, as our moral compass. Gandhi's advice as to the use of his moral compass was “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to self-reliance for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away”. 

Gandhi's moral compass inevitably leads us to the spinning wheel and to khadi – and it also leads us to simplicity, sustainability and spirituality. 

To live more simply voluntarily is to live more deliberately, intentionally and purposefully. It also means that we pay attention not only to the outer world, but also to our inner world, that we are more concerned with ‘being’ than ‘on having’. Voluntary simplicity therefore leads us to a life that is outwardly more simple and inwardly more rich.

Simple living also leads to ecological living and to sustainability. With an emphasis on conservation and frugality , we use resources only as much as needed. To live sustainably means to live in peace and in close relationship with nature. 

At the heart of voluntary simplicity is a harmonious and purposeful living.  Richard Gregg, a follower of Gandhi, wrote the following about a life of voluntary simplicity. 

“Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer condition. It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organisation of life for a purpose.”3

Voluntary simplicity acknowledges the underlying philosophy of khadi. 

Slowly but increasingly scientists and economists are recognising that development is a process that encompasses both the spiritual and the material aspects of life; that personal transformation must go hand in hand with spiritual change, and that values and culture of countries must be woven in the fabric of development and sustainability. 

There is a growing body of enlightened opinion which distrusts a civilization which has insatiable material ambition at one end and consequent war at the other end. 

Mathew Fox agreeing with Gandhi writes “The addiction to avarice and greed is deep within our civilization. It is built in the very structure of capitalism; this quest for more. Avarice is not a problem of materialism, it is a soul issue, it is our quest for the infinite but it has been misplaced......”  And, like Gandhi, he emphasises the spirit within. “If we want to remake our civilization we must remake it around what is the spirit in us.... It is because we are violent inside that our environment is dying all around us. The nest in which we live

we are fouling".4

The addiction to greed and avarice is deep within us, this quest for more.  Gandhi used the spinning wheel to awaken us and the masses, to help put our inner houses in order, to teach us ways to live non-violently with ourselves and therefore with others.

With the charkha and khadi we can rediscover sustainability and spirituality. 

We are at the crossroads of history. It is becoming increasingly clear that if humanity is to survive we will have to reexamine our concepts of progress and development, and our addiction to having more and more. 

Gandhi turned around the idea of modern civilization, of economic growth, of unlimited consumerism to timeless principles of Truth and Non-Violence, of love for fellowmen as the only basis of establishing the right relationship between human beings and the divine. 

Gandhi's life and teachings are essentially the awakening of a moral force in people, in awakening the conscience of mankind, in the awakening of one's spirituality, and in the pursuit of one's dharma. And he used the language of the charkha, khadi and salt to reach the soul of the people—especially people at the periphery. 

If humanity is to survive khadi or the way of life it represents, is inevitable.  It represents the awakening of the self, and it represents the future of sustainability and spirituality. 

As Sir Radakrishnan pointed out “A people are saved not by their military leaders or industrial magnates or by their priests and politicians but by their saints of impeccable integrity” Gandhi was a saint of implacable integrity, a self denying tapasvi. The life of millions was his religion as well as his politics and khadi expressed his politics, his economics, and his spirituality.


  1. Anthony J.Parel (ed) Gandhi:Hind Swaraj and Other Writings Cambridge University Press, 1997 

  2. R K Prabhu and U R Rao (editors) The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi Navjivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad , 1967 

  3. Duane Elgin, Voluntary Simplicity: Towards a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich William Morrow & Co., New York, 1993 

  4. Selected by John Lane and Maya Kumar Mitchell, Only Connect: Soil, Soul, Society. The Best of Resurgence 1990-1999, Green Books, Devon, 2000 

  5. S. Radhakrishnan (Ed.), Mahatma Gandhi 100 Years Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi, 1968

Source: Vikram Sarabhai Foundation, January 2002

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