How Gandhi ‘mainstreamed’ peace, sustainability and empathy

Instead of just aspiring, some goals critical to humanity can be achieved only by embedding them in our daily thoughts and actions

By Ram Krishna Sinha
Published: Friday 02 October 2020

A morally worthy end, according to Mahatma Gandhi, can be achieved only by adopting morally pure means. He did not agree with those who said means are after all means. For Gandhi, means are after all everything.

There are many worthy and aspirational ends or goals which humanity strives for. Some of them are critical to our sustenance and welfare. These are peace, sustainability and empathy. In all three, we need convergence of ends and means. Unless ends are ‘mainstreamed’ as means, they will remain just lofty ideals and their realisations will either be distant or elusive.

Peace, as an end, is hugely worthy and aspirational. We are in dire need of peace to cleanse us from the evils of rage, vengeance, selfishness and foster happiness, harmony and brotherhood. 

But, despite big talks and profound declarations at global fora, the kind of humanitarian crisis the world is facing due to war, insecurity and violence is unprecedented. The conflict zones of Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Somalia are some reminders to our distant dreams about peace. 

Unless the basic systems, policies and governance systems of superpowers and institutions, that are grossly unjust and unfair, are radically shaped and structured, the conflict and war will continue unabated. What is ironical and more disturbing is the attendant geopolitical games and commercial ventures that are promoting arms trade and build-up of lethal weapons in the name of finding peace.

“Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind” Gandhi asserted. Peace, he showed, can be ushered in by mainstreaming its components manifested through non-violence, tolerance, patience and understanding, in all of our words and actions.

Sustainability is a profound goal which would ideally ensure that nobody is left behind in our planet. Indeed, it was in 1992 that more than 170 countries came together at the Rio Earth Summit and agreed to pursue sustainable development, protect biological diversity, prevent interference with climate systems, and conserve forests. 

But three decades later, the natural systems on which humanity relies continue to be degraded. Be it ecological footprint, biodiversity index, greenhouse gas emissions, loss of tropical and subtropical forests, we have slipped on all key indicators. Now, the efforts towards meeting the ends of sustainability are being taken forward through the seventeen United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goals. 

It would be tough to attain the goal of sustainability if it is not mainstreamed in the design and implementation of every developmental project, policy instruments, institutional programmes, governance and, indeed, every aspect of human lives and lifestyles. It would in turn require changes in market-based economy, business / production models, communicational approaches with local communities and their leaders.

The responsible consumption based on need and not greed, strengthening village and local enterprise, circular economy and trusteeship in corporate vision are some key elements that Gandhi advocated which must be ingrained to further the ends of sustainability.

Empathy is the base of compassion — a highly cherished dharma. Indeed, this unique quality is all the more required in the new knowledge economy and human-Artificial Intelligence world. In his book Hit Refresh, Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief excecutive, writes:

If we hope to harness technology to serve human needs, we humans must lead the way by developing a deeper understanding and respect for one another’s values, cultures, emotions, and drives

But moral virtue should not find occurrences and be confined to only scriptures, texts and preaching. Empathy must be revealed in all our motives and actions. Yet, we are witness to gross absence of empathy, even during the ongoing novel coronavirus disease pandemic. The scenes of migrants trudging hundreds of kilometres home from the cities, jobless and uncared for, are heart-rending. 

Our ability to care for, help and cooperate with each other is the cornerstone of human culture and also one of the keys to cultural transformation for a thriving civil society, respectful debates and discourses and a humane world. Unless we place empathy as a universal value at the centre of everything we pursue and make it a driving force in all our endeavours, we cannot hope to transform the world.

Gandhi demonstrated powerfully how empathy should be revealed in action. Upon his return from South Africa in 1915, he decided that in order to work for the downtrodden of his motherland, he must literally experience the life of the poorest himself.

Be it his clothes, food, daily routine, all reflected his deep empathetic instinct. This instinct even took him across religious boundaries. “I am a Muslim! And a Hindu, and a Christian and a Jew — and so are all of you” he said.

It is not without reason that he famously said “My Life is my Message”. With non-violence as his credo, village republic, rural economy and the poor his talisman and human rights, dignity and humanism his priority, he mainstreamed peace, sustainability and empathy as an inalienable, organic and natural part of his work and life.

Though the humility and simplicity in the Mahatma wouldn’t have allowed him to admit, we can definitely say with conviction that there is no way to Gandhi, Gandhi is the way.

Ram Krishna Sinha is a former bank executive and writes on education, learning and spirituality. He may be reached at 

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