The Gift That Changed Gandhi's Life Overnight
--Nipun Mehta
4 minute read
Aug 3, 2009


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.


Posted by Nipun Mehta on Aug 3, 2009

4 Past Reflections