The Gift That Changed Gandhi's Life Overnight

Posted by Nipun Mehta on Aug 3, 2009
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In March 1904, when Gandhi was about to embark on a 24-hour journey from Johnnesburg to Durban (in South Africa), his friend Henry Polak gifted him a book to read on the way.  It was a small booklet of four essays that transformed Gandhi; in his own words, "I could not get any sleep that night. I was determined to change my life in accordance with the ideals of the book."

Unto His Last, by John Ruskin.  The book said the good of the individual was contained in the good of all.  This Gandhi knew.  It also said that a lawyer's work had the same value as the barber's, as all had the same right to earn livelihood.  Even this Gandhi had vaguely realized.  But the third thing, that had never occurred to Gandhi, was that the "life of labor as a tiller of soil or the handi-craftsman, is the life worth living."  After reading the book, Gandhi decided that he would live the life of labor and decided to publish his newspaper, Indian Opinion, on a farm where everyone would get the same salary, without any distinction of function, race of nationality -- which, for that time, was quite revolutionary.

Gandhi later translated the book into Gujarati and called it Sarvodaya (the well-being of all), which was translated back in English Valji Desai in 1951 as Unto This Last: A Paraphrase.  Very clearly, the book had brought "an instantaneous and practical transformation" in Gandhi's life.

Most importantly, though, Ruskin's book influenced Gandhi's ideal of soul-force as a more effective substitute for physical force.   This force, whatever name we call it, is the currency of the gift-economy work that CharityFocus has been manifesting.  In fact, at a Gandhian conference once, I gave a presentation titled, "Soul Force of a Gift Economy".  I don't know how well it went with the scholars, though, but when Somik pointed me to Gandhi's paraphrase, I was struck by a passage where he describes affection as a motive.  Below is my paraphrase of Gandhi's paraphrase :) ...

In the term justice, I include affection -- such affection as one man owes another.  All right relations between a master and operative ultimately depend on this.

As an illustration, let us consider the position of domestic servants.  Suppose that the master of a household tries to get as much work out of his servants as he can; he feeds and lodges them in as poor a condition that they will endure.  In doing this, there is no violation on his part of what is commonly called "justice".  He is agreeable to the servant, whose hardships are modulated by the practice of other masters in the neighborhood.  That is, if the servant can get a better place, he is free to move.

According to politico-economic scholars, this process yields the greatest average work from the servant and therefore the greatest benefit to the community, and through the community, to the servant himself.

That, however, is not so.  It would be accurate if the servant were an engine which was powered by a mechnical, calculable force like steam or magnetism.  But in practice, he is an engine whose motive power is Soul Force.  This is a force that is not factored into any economists equation and hence falsifies all of their results.

The largest quantity of work will not be done by monetary compensation or through use of pressure.  It will be done when the motive force -- the will or spirit of the creature -- is brought to its greatest strength by its own proper fuel, namely by affection.

Often, a strong master will be able to manifest much material work by use of pressure; if the master is indolent and weak, the servant may do some poor quality work.  Still, the universal law of the matter is that, assuming any given quantity of energy in the master and servant, the greatest material result will occur not through antagonism but rather through affection for each other.

This is true even when the indulgence is abused and kindness is met with ingratitude; an ungrateful servant who is treated ungently will be revengeful and the man who is dishonest to a liberal master will be injurious to an unjust man.

In any case and with any person, this unselfish treatment will produce the most effective return.  However, affection only becomes a true motive power when it ignores every other motive and condition of economics.  Treat the servant kindly with the idea of turning his gratitude to profit, and you will get, as you deserve, no gratitude nor any value for your kindness; but treat him kindly without any economical purpose, and all economical purposes will be answered; here as elsewhere whoever will save his life shall lose it, whosever loses it shall find it.

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Comments (4)

  • Pancho wrote ...

    A gift that started the Ahimsa Revolution! BAAM!  :-)

    Is there another way to start a true (R)evolution? ;-)

    Beloved Nipunbhaiji, I feel a profound affection to be living this radical joyous shared servanthood with you and your family.

    What a joy was to interact with you all at Rev. Heng Sure's opperating center ;-)

    My heart sings in a symphony of gratitude during this silent Monday... let there be ahimsa/satyagraha in all the hearts of humanity!  :-)

  • Ragu wrote ...

    "...the indulgence is abused and kindness is met with ingratitude..." For us, this started happening with the workers constructing our house and the material suppliers. We quickly realized that equating "being polite, nice, genteel etc" with "being kind and showing affection" is not true all the time. When the situation demands, it is necessary to show displeasure or even rebuke a person. Without a display of a negative emotion, people do not simply understand that you have a problem. They are doing a disservice to us in the first place because they don't have the capacity or time or due to some unexpected issue. While they are caught up in their stuff, being nice and kind about an issue seems to them like you are wasting their time with some mild disagreeme [...] See full comment.

    "...the indulgence is abused and kindness is met with ingratitude..."

    For us, this started happening with the workers constructing our house and the material suppliers. We quickly realized that equating "being polite, nice, genteel etc" with "being kind and showing affection" is not true all the time. When the situation demands, it is necessary to show displeasure or even rebuke a person.

    Without a display of a negative emotion, people do not simply understand that you have a problem. They are doing a disservice to us in the first place because they don't have the capacity or time or due to some unexpected issue. While they are caught up in their stuff, being nice and kind about an issue seems to them like you are wasting their time with some mild disagreement. We have found that this is the same with raising our 3 year old son. He needs to clearly understand what we do not like and disapprove. But it has to be enveloped in overall affection and should be done without any anger in the heart.

    We realize that every time we have an issue with a service provider in the village we live in, what is at stake is not the service but our relationship with that person. And many times, we decide to save the relatonship instead of quality or money in the hope that someone else in the future might benefit from our post transaction discussion. Would we do the same if we really cannot afford to lose quality or money? We don't know.

    Unconditional love is tough not at the level of intention but at the level of wisdom (that is, lack of it). Because, in tough situations, without knowing the righ way to channel ones love, it might do more harm than good. On the other hand, if one does not practice unconditonal love in not-so-tough situations, then one would not acquire the practice and wisdom to love in tough situations.

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  • rahul wrote ...

    Ragu: I'm thinking of what you told me Rev. Heng Sure once said to you when you asked him how it was possible to change others.  He said, first you serve them.  In the process of serving, you will discover if there is some affinity between you and them.  Then from that affinity, they will begin to replicate your behavior and be changed.

    Its a lot harder to do when there is some preset external objective like "build a house", and it takes a lot of wisdom to have no preset external objective.  I'm bad at having zero agendas and need much much more practice in this myself, but I think its through the difficult experiences of others letting us down that we push ourselves into deeper practice.  That lesson for myself has made it much easier to get over the aversion of difficult experiences.  Isn't just the aversion that makes it difficult in the first place?

  • Subash Chandra Dash wrote ...

    The gift has changed Mohandas to Gandhi.It, once again,established the power of books. In the sky of humanity the Gandhi is the only sun wehere it never sets because of his value to mankind in the form non-violence and peace.I personally salute with many to the hon'ble writer john ruskin for his great book 'unto the last' .I also salute the gifter of the book Henery Polak. Thank you Nipun Meheta Ji. for such publication in this rocket science age to inspire the people towards non-violence.