Gandhi and Buddhist Economics

- By Thomas Weber

The central importance of Gandhi to nonviolent activism is widely acknowledged. There are also other significant peace-related bodies of knowledge that have gained such popularity in the West in the relatively recent past that they have changed the directions of thought and have been important in encouraging social movements - yet they have not been analysed in terms of antecedents, especially Gandhian one. What has become known as 'Buddhist economics' very closely mirror Gandhi's philosophy. This article analyses the Mahatma's contribution to the intellectual development of E. F. Schumacher and argues that those who want to make an informed study of Buddhist economics, and particularly those who are interested in the philosophy of Schumacher, should go back to Gandhi for a fuller picture.

Schumacher and 'Buddhist' Economics

Some editions of Schumacher's landmark book, Small is Beautiful, had a picture of the Mahatma on the cover, and for many in the West it provided an introduction to the economic ideas of Gandhi. As important as its popular appeal was, that book also introduced Gandhian ideas to economists and allowed these ideas to become the focus of serious study. It also earned the author the title of 'later-day [sic] Gandhi' (Hoda, 1978: 2).

According to his daughter, Schumacher admired Gandhi and was greatly shocked when he learned of his assassination. In the mid-1950s Schumacher began a study of Eastern thought, including the writings and speeches of Gandhi, noting that the Mahatma's view of economic development was quite different from that of the mainstream and required careful examination (Wood, 1984: 243). The various strands crystallized during a trip to Burma as an economic adviser in 1955, when he realized that Western economic philosophy could not merely be transferred to Burma because it would merely lead to a transfer of Western demands (Hoda, 1978: 5-6). What was needed was, in his terms, a 'Buddhist economics' (Wood, 1984: 246).

Schumacher realized that economics did not stand alone. As with other disciplines, it derived from a view of the meaning and purpose of life - in this case a purely materialistic one. Gandhi's economic thinking, on the other hand, was based on a spiritual criterion. Schumacher took Gandhi's ideas of swadeshi (local production) and khadi (hand-spun, hand-woven cloth) and applied them to modern economic problems (Wood, 1984: 247).

Gandhi claimed that:

True economics never militates against the highest ethical standard just as all true ethics, to be worth its name, must at the same time be also good economics ... True economics stands for social justice; it promotes the good of all equally, including the weakest and is indispensable for decent life' (Harijan, 9 October 1937); and that he had to confess that he did not 'draw a sharp line or make any distinction between economics and ethics (Young India, 13 October 1921).

Gandhi's notion of revitalizing village India through the spinning wheel struck many as anachronistic, but the logic of his arguments took on greater force after his death.

Gandhi's economic ideals were not about the destruction of all machinery, but a regulation of their excesses. Khadi requires decentralization of production and consumption, which in turn should take place as near as possible to the source of production. Such localization would do away with the temptation to speed up production regardless of the costs and would alleviate the problems of an inappropriately structured economic system.

In his economics of locally handmade goods, the Mahatma saw the poor as being delivered from the 'bonds of the rich' (Young India, 17 March 1927). His approach 'wholly concerns itself with the human', while ordinary economics 'is frankly selfish' (Young India, 16 July 1931).

Gandhi's ideas on swadeshi were summed up during his first major struggle in India and repeated almost verbatim throughout the next 30 years:

Swadeshi is that spirit in us which requires us to serve our immediate neighbours before others, and to use things produced in our neighbourhood in preference to those more remote. So doing, we serve humanity to the best of our capacity. We cannot serve humanity by neglecting our neighbours. (Young lndia, 20 August 1919)

In a similar vein, following the Burma trip, Schumacher gives an example of contrasting views on freight rates between the thinking of an economic expert and an economist in the Gandhian tradition or, as he later termed it, a 'Buddhist economist' (Schumacher, 1974: 49). A traditional economist:

may be inclined to advise that the rates per ton/mile should 'taper-off', so that they are the lower the longer the haul. He may suggest that this is simply the 'right' system, because it encourages long distance transport, promotes large scale, specialised production, and thus leads to an 'optimum use of resources'.

The latter would argue the opposite:

Local, short-distance transportation should receive every encouragement but long hauls should be discouraged because they would promote urbanisation, specialisation beyond the point of human integrity, the growth of a rootless proletariat, - in short, a most undesirable and uneconomic way of life. (Wood, 1984: 247)

Later, Schumacher was to explore the link between economics and war in the light of Gandhi's thinking and came to the conclusion that what was needed was a 'non-violent economics (Wood, 1984: 292). In 1960, he published what was to become his manifesto:

A way of life that ever more rapidly depletes the power of earth to sustain it and piles up ever more insoluble problems for each succeeding generation can only be called 'violent' ... In short, man's urgent task is to discover a non-violent way in his economics as well as in his political life ... Non-violence must permeate the whole of man's activities, if mankind is to be secure against a war of annihilation ... Present day economics, while claiming to be ethically neutral, in fact propagates a philosophy of unlimited expansionism without any regard to the true and genuine needs of man which are limited. (Schumacher, 1960)

Only months later, through his friendship with leading Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan, Schumacher paid a short visit to India, and the crushed spirit of the country which he saw led him on a further quest. Following Gandhi, Schumacher saw the distinction between 'production by the masses' and 'mass production'. The former provides dignity, meaningful contact with others and is appropriate in a country with a huge population, while the latter is violent, ecologically damaging, self-destructive in its consumption of non-renewable resources and dehumanizing for the individuals involved (Schumacher, 1974: 128). Following a longer trip among the Gandhians in 1962, he saw that the key to solving the dilemma of implementing Gandhi's dream was the development of a level of technology which would be appropriate to the needs and resources of the poor with tools and equipment designed to be small, simple, low-cost, environmentally friendly (Schumacher, 1979, ch. 2), and 'compatible with man's need for creativity' (Schumacher, 1974: 27).

Several decades before, Gandhi had explained that while he was not against machinery per se, he did object to the 'craze for machinery':<

The craze is for what they call labour-saving machinery. Men go on 'saving labour' till thousands are without work and thrown on the open streets to die of starvation. I want to save time and labour, not for a fraction of mankind, but for all. I want the concentration of wealth, not in the hands of a few but in the hands of all. Today machinery merely helps a few to ride on the backs of millions. The impetus behind it all is not the philanthropy to save labour, but greed. (Young India, 13 November 1924)

This leads to what he termed 'parasitism':

Man is made to obey the machine. The wealthy and middle classes become helpless and parasitic upon the working classes. And the latter become so specialized that they also become helpless. The ordinary city-dweller cannot make his own clothing or produce or prepare his own food. The cities become parasitic upon the country. Industrial nations upon agricultural nations. (Young India, 15 April 1926)

Schumacher's book (1974) echoed this message, claiming that we are moving ever more rapidly into a world dominated by the large-scale; complexity; high capital intensity which eliminates the human factor; and violence. In order to ensure survival, he recommended new guidelines which point towards smallness rather than giantism, simplification rather than complexity, capital saving rather than labour saving - and towards nonviolence (Schumacher, 1978: 25). The profit motive throws humanity and the planet out of equilibrium. The emphasis has to be shifted back to the person rather than the product. Costs have to be measured in human terms by taking cognizance of happiness, beauty, health and the protection of the planet.

In a Gandhi Memorial Lecture at the Gandhian Institute of Studies at Varanasi in 1973, Schumacher noted that the affluence of a small part of the world was pushing the whole world into the three concurrent crises concerning resources, ecology and alienation (Schumacher, 1978: 14). He explained that the modern world finds itself in trouble and that this would not have come as a surprise to Gandhi (Schumacher, 1978: 16). Voicing his debt to the economic thought of the Mahatma, Schumacher noted that Gandhi enunciated his economic position in the language of the people, rather than that of academic economists: 'And so the economists never noticed that he was, in fact, a very great economist in his own right, and it may well emerge ... [as] the greatest of them all' (Schumacher, 1978: 18).

Gandhi's admission that he had not made a study of the great economic thinkers did not concern Schumacher, who himself had turned his back on traditional orthodoxy. Gandhi's ultimate goal of self-realization naturally carried over into his economic thinking. It meant more than identification with the mere personal ego, it required a merging with a greater Self. This could not come about through exploitation, but demanded social justice and the good of all. For Gandhi, economics was an economics of nonviolence. Towards the end of his life he wrote:

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt or when the self becomes too much for you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and weakest man whom you 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 Swaraj [self-rule] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubt and your self melting away. (Tendulkar, 1963, 288-289)

In 1962, the Gandhians were already embracing Schumacher's vision and he was acclaimed as 'the man who could interpret Gandhi to the Indians' (Wood, 1984: 322). The concept of intermediate technology, following initial criticisms by the economic community, was eventually taken up by UN agencies, governments and non-governmental organizations around the world and led to a proliferation of studies in Gandhian economics (cf. Diwan & Lutz, 1985).

Just before his death, Schumacher outlined his personal philosophy of the meaning of human life, talking of the transformation of the inner self through 'inner work' in ways reminiscent of Gandhi and Naess (Schumacher, 1977a; cf. also Schumacher, 1975: 104-106). In a film (1977b) and in language which could have come straight from the Mahatma, Schumacher explained that the 'religion' of economics is the enemy of all the things that really matter - beauty, sympathy and harmony; it is, in fact, uneconomical because it produces waste. In this 'religion' the only thing considered worthy of economizing is human labour - paradoxically the very thing that is free and of which there is plenty. Schumacher emphasized that we are part of the environment, that if we win the fight against nature we will find ourselves on the losing side. Finally, he emphasized that if we do not develop an economics of permanence then we are too 'clever' to survive, that we can be classified as a species in danger of extinction (cf. Schumacher, 1975: 101) - again sentiments familiar to anyone who is versed in Gandhi's economic writings.


There is certainly no shortage of writings on Gandhi or Gandhian philosophy. However, attention to his influence on, or relevance to, fields of knowledge or praxis other than non-violent activism has been scant. There is, of course, a risk perhaps of peddling a conspiracy theory of sorts, one that sees the Mahatma lurking under every bed. Nevertheless, to those who want to make a study of deep ecology, peace research or Buddhist economics, and more particularly who are interested in the philosophy of Naess, Galtung or Schumacher, a recommendation to go back to Gandhi for a fuller picture is not out of place.

Source: Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 36, Number-3, May 1999