To understand the Indic worldview beyond catchphrases (vasudhaiva kutumbakam and the like), we need to put it to test against contemporary issues and challenges. Our next “master idea” of Indian civilization in this series comes into focus, not on the occasion of the Sabarimala judgement and controversy (and its implications on the supposed sacrosanctity and unchangeability of tradition), but through the report on climate change released earlier this month by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It suggests that the battle to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5°C is probably lost and we might be heading towards 3°C instead, which will very severely impact all of the planet’s ecosystems, possibly triggering loops that will fuel the rise higher. Our oceans, shorelines and rivers are already invaded by plastics, including microplastics ingested by a marine life also severely affected by effluents carrying antidepressants and human birth-control pills. The oceans’ “dead zones,” in which oxygen is at dangerously low levels because of pollution from fertilisers, sewage, detergents and various industrial waste, have multiplied tenfold since the 1950s. The severely polluted condition of India’s air, groundwater, rivers and coastlines requires no elaboration.
What drives this mindless race to nowhere? A few centuries ago, Leonardo da Vinci, in a prophetic mood, wrote in his Notebooks of a creature and an age we are intimate with: “We shall see on the earth creatures relentlessly fighting each other, with great loss of life on both sides. Their viciousness will be boundless; their cruel limbs will fell countless trees in the world’s vast forests. Their hunger satiated, they will seek to satisfy their desire to inflict death, affliction, torment, terror and banishment on all living things. … Nothing shall subsist on earth or below ground or in the waters that they will not pursue, molest or destroy, and they will take what is found in one country to another; and their own bodies will before the tomb and channel for all those living bodies they have killed. O Earth, why tarry to open up and engulf in the deep crevices of your vast abysses and caves such a cruel and ruthless monster?”
Is it only cruelty, which we certainly do not lack, as whales and baby seals know too well? “Greed is good” has been de facto the motto and prime mover of the world economy, especially of the US kind: let greed drive your growth; instil the same greed in others so as to boost consumption. The consumer is not a human being with free will, but a cog in the wheel whose choices can and will be oriented. Nobody needs processed or exotic foods, ten pairs of shoes, torn jeans, piles of electronic gadgets or diamonds—never mind, the obedient consumers will buy all those and more, even if they cannot afford them.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the German economist Ernst Schumacher realised that this greed-driven economy could not last. He pioneered the concepts of appropriate technologies and unsustainable exploitation of resources, and authored the best-seller Small Is Beautiful in which he advocated a radically different philosophy: why not place the human being at the centre of the economy, rather than the consumer? “[In] Buddhist economics,” he argued, “since consumption is merely a means to human well-being, the aim should be to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption. ... Modern economics, on the other hand, considers consumption to be the sole end and purpose of all economic activity.” His book had an immense impact, but could not bring the prime mover to a halt.
Schumacher used the word “Buddhist” because he had been exposed to Buddhist thought and society during a stay in Burma (he also visited India). Indeed Buddhism and Jainism promoted “right livelihood” based on ahimsa. But this philosophy of minimised consumption or simple living applies to the whole Indian worldview. It is reflected in its approach to ecology, which I dealt with earlier (“India’s Own Sacred Ecology”, 5 December 2016; “Sacralising the Cosmos, Nature and Life”, 3 September 2018). When a Subhashita says, “One may own a hundred cows but his need is only one cup of milk; one may own a hundred villages but his need is only one morsel of food. One may own a hundred-roomed palace but his need is but one cot. All the rest belongs to others,” it is really cautioning us against accumulating needless goods.
How far were these ideals practised? Strabo, the Greek geographer and historian of the first century BCE noted, “All Indians live a simple life,” which surely requires some qualification: as we know from Kautilya and others, or from the artha-kama-dharma-moksha quadruple objective of life, wealth was not looked down upon; it was however to be used in a dharmic way, not merely for oneself but for the good of the society around. Thousands of inscriptions from all periods of Indian history testify to rulers, merchants, ordinary men and women, donating temples, icons, wells, ponds and other irrigation works, or endowments for centres of learning. Artistic depictions of village life point to comfortable but simple lifestyles. Barring the very wealthy, “Be happy with little” seems to have been the dominant line.
Today, we have perfected the art of being unhappy with much—or too much. Out of selfish greed rather than higher values, in search of petty pleasures rather than worthwhile accomplishments, we have critically jeopardised the planet’s lifecycles and caused species to fall extinct at a frantic pace. We must return to ancient India’s philosophy of simple living, else the collapse of our artificial system may one day force us to it. Our small everyday choices are blind and mechanical; let us make them enlightened and we can yet change tack.
Michel Danino is a French-born Indian author, scholar of ancient India, and visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar. Email: email@example.com.
This is the sixth part in a series on Master Ideas of Indian Civilisation; earlier articles in this series: