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The Problem of the Rich

[Pierre Ceresole, Founder President of the International Voluntary Service, during his visit of India in 1935, expressed before Gandhiji some of his doubts about capitalism and non-violence as follows:]

“Could one lay down a rule of life for the wealthy? That is to say, could one define how much belongs to the rich and how much does not belong to them?”

"Yes”, said Gandhiji, smiling. “Let the rich man take 5 per cent, or 10 per cent, or 15 per cent.”

“But not 85 per cent?”

“Ah! I was thinking of going up to 25 per cent! But not even an exploiter must think of taking 85 per cent!”

Pierre Ceresole’s tangible difficulty was how long one should wait in order to carry conviction to the rich man.

“That is where I disagree with the communist,” said Gandhiji. “With me the ultimate test is non-violence. We have always to remember that even we were one day in the same position as the wealthy man. It has not been an easy process with us and as we bore with ourselves, even so should we bear with others. Besides, I have no right to assume that I am right and he is wrong. I have to wait until I convert him to my point of view. In the meanwhile if he says. ‘I am prepared to keep for myself 25 per cent and to give 75 per cent to charities,’ I close with the offer. For I know that 75 per cent voluntarily given is better than 100 per cent surrendered at the point of bayonet, and by thus being satisfied with 75 per cent I render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Non-violence must be the common factor between us.

“You may argue that a man who surrenders by compulsion today will voluntarily accept the position tomorrow. That, to my mind, is a remote possibility on which I should not care to build much. What is certain is that if I use violence today, I shall be doubtless faced with greater violence. With non-violence as the rule, life will no doubt be a series of compromises. But it is better than an endless series of clashes.”

"How would you in a word describe the rich man’s legitimate position?”

“That of a trustee. I know a number of friends who earn and spend for the poor and who do not regard themselves as anything but trustees of their wealth.”

“I too have a number of friends wealthy and poor. I do not possess wealth but accept money from my wealthy friends. How can I justify myself?”

“You will accept nothing for yourself personally. That is to say, you will not accept a cheque to go to Switzerland for a change but you will accept a lakh of rupees for wells for Harijans or for schools and hospitals for them. All self has got to be eliminated and the problem is simplified.”

“But what about my personal expense?"

“You have to act on the principle that a labourer is worthy of his hire. You must not hesitate to accept your minimum wage. Everyone of us is doing the same thing. Bhansali’s wage is just wheat flour and neem leaves. We cannot all be Bhansalis, but we can try to approximate to that life. Thus I will be satisfied with having my livelihood, but I must not ask a rich man to accommodate my son. My only concern is to keep my body and soul together so long as I serve the community.”

“But so long as I draw that allowance from him, is it not my duty to remind him continually of the unenviableness of his position and to tell him that he must cease to be owner of all that he does not need for his bare living?”

“Oh yes, that is your duty.”

“But there are wealthy and wealthy. There are some who may have made their pile from alcoholic traffic.”

“Yes, you will certainly draw a line. But whilst you will not accept money from a brewer, I do not know what will happen if you have made an appeal for funds. Will you tell the people that only those who have justly earned their money will pay? I would rather -withdraw the appeal than except any money on those terms. Who is to decide whether one is just or otherwise? And justice too is a relative term. If we will but ask ourselves, we will find that we have not been just all our lives. The Gita says in effect that every one is tarred with the same brush; so rather than judge others, live in the world untouched or unaffected by it. Elimination of self is the secret.”

“Yes, I see,” said Pierre Ceresole, and remained silent for a few minutes. Then with a sigh he said: “But one sometimes finds himself in a most embarrassing position. I have met people in Bihar working from morning until evening for less than a couple of annas, sometimes less than an anna, and they have often told me that they would very much like to dispossess the wealthy around them of their ill-gotten gains. I have stood speechless before them by reminding them of you.”

Harijan, 1-6-1935, pp. 121-22


Inherited Riches

Q. How is it possible to earn lakhs in a righteous way? Jamnalalji, the merchant prince, used to say it was not. Moreover, however careful a rich man is, he is bound to spend more on himself than his actual requirements merit. Therefore, why not lay more stress on not becoming wealthy than on trusteeship of riches?

A. The question is apt and has been put to me before. What Jamnalalji could have meant was in the Gita sense that every action is tainted. It is my conviction that it is possible to acquire riches without consciously doing wrong. For example I may light on a gold mine in my one acre of land. But I accept the proposition that it is better not to desire wealth than to acquire it, and become its trustee. I gave up my own long ago, which should be proof enough of what I would like others to do. But what am I to advise those who are already wealthy or who would not shed the desire for wealth? I can only say to them that they should use their wealth for service. It is true that generally the rich spend more on themselves than they need. But this can be avoided. Jamnalalji spent far less on himself than men of his own economic status and even than many middle-class men. I have come across innumerable rich persons who are stingy on themselves. For some it is a part of their nature to spend next to nothing on themselves, and they do not think that they acquire merit in so doing.

The same applies to the sons of the wealthy. Personally I do not believe in inherited riches. The well-to-do should educate and bring up their children so that they may learn how to be independent. The tragedy is that they do not do so. Their children do get some education, they even recite verses in praise of poverty, but they have no Compunction about helping themselves to parental wealth. That being so, I exercise my common sense and advise what is practicable. Those of us, however, who consider it a duty to adopt poverty and believe in and desire economic equality may not be jealous of the rich but should exhibit real happiness in our poverty which others may emulate. The sad fact is that those who are thus happy are few and far between.

Harijan, 8-3-1942, p. 67