Robyn Maree Pickens
Some words can seem unfamiliar, even though they are known. Words like love, truth, compassion, humility, service, non-possession, self-sacrifice, non-violence. Concept-words like these appear to ask something of me, perhaps triggering incomprehension, indignation or deflective gaucherie. The latter arrives like a hair-shirted supplicant in the messy, unravelling hours of a party. Amusing, if unwelcome. By comparison, in these post-modern-fallout days, it is still perhaps more comfortable to speak in tones of abjection, cynicism, ennui, entropy, irony, apathy, violence and the inescapable system. These words ask little of me. I am absolved of motivation or responsibility to act and relieved of any agency I may have to do so, knowing full well that any action will be recuperated by the system and sold back to me. Capitalism could not have asked for a more companionable theoretical aide.
Set against such a backdrop this little piece of writing is, therefore, as much an experiment in how to write with unfamiliar words, gauche words, unwelcome words, as it is about the influence of Mohandas Karamchand ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi’s satyagraha on the Chipko movement, both of which can, of course, be viewed through a similar ‘unwelcome’ lens.
Satyagraha, a word coined by Gandhi (1869-1948) is the union of ‘satya’ which means ‘love’ or ‘truth’ with ‘graha’ meaning ‘firmness’, ‘insistence’.1 It has been translated as an insistence on truth, or, holding firm with love, though is most popularly known as ‘non-violent resistance’. Chipko was a social movement of local hill people in Northern India against state-led commercial forestry and deforestation policies that was enacted through satyagraha (non-violent resistance) philosophies and practices. The andolan (movement) received the title ‘Chipko’, which is Hindi for ‘to stick’, ‘to embrace’, ‘to hug’,2 after its participants’ most talismanic, non-violent practice of hugging the trees to prevent them from being felled. Chipko occurred in the lower Himalayan region (now state) of Uttarakhand between 1973 and 1981,3 some twenty-five odd years after the death of Gandhi by assassination in 1948.
In this short text I am less interested in determining a precise historical lineage from Gandhi to Chipko by way of satyagraha, but rather in drawing out aspects (qualities) of satyagraha as they can be identified in both the lives of the Mahatma and that of the Chipko andolan. It is these self-selected aspects themselves (humility, service, non-possession, self-sacrifice) that leverage this text. This focus stems in part from an appreciation that a detailed analysis of the lives of Gandhi and the andolan is beyond the scope of this text, and in part, to spend some time with these less familiar concept words. Words which, although made to stand apart here, nonetheless cohere utterly in the context of satyagraha, if not ontologically. All of which are underscored by love and truth, or the pursuit therein.
A mango tree heavy with fruit lowering its branches to the ground is one analogy of humility that Gandhi gave.4 In a humble state one lowers oneself before another sentient being, before the earth. Humility is not a state of being that the bearer can be aware of. One cannot apprehend one’s own humility. It is negated in the moment of hubris. Gandhi rejected on many occasions the title of ‘Mahatma’ or ‘great soul’ and encouraged self-reliance amongst those who wanted to emulate him or carry on his work. “No one has to look expectantly at another, and there are no leaders and no followers.”5 Gandhians active in the Chipko andolan, among them Chandi Prasad Bhatt (1934-) and Sunderlal Bahuguna (1927-), were self-described and known as ‘spreaders’, or ‘co-workers’, not leaders.6 They continue to work alongside people of the Uttarakhand.
Humility anticipates service, or true service is an act of humility.
“A life of service must be one of humility…True humility means most strenuous and constant endeavour entirely directed to the service of humanity.”7
Gandhi’s life was one of service and his dedication to the racially discriminated Indian community in nineteenth-century South Africa, to the poor, to Dalits (‘Untouchables’) and to India’s quest for Independence is well documented.8 His service to others is rightly interpreted in a religious sense as a desire to experience god, but requires careful attention as to what ‘religion’ and ‘god’ signified to him. Gandhi’s favourite word for ‘god’ was ‘Rama’ and whilst he was heavily influenced by key Hindu religious texts, in particular the Bhagavad Gita, he sought a god beyond (organised) religion, and beyond the religion on which religion itself is based.9 God/Rama as love or all-animating, pervasive essence is perhaps the most concise summation of his understanding, and it was the pursuit of an experience of this that became his religion. Humble service provided the path.
“I am endeavouring to see God through service of humanity, for I know that God is neither in heaven, nor down below, but in everyone.”10
“If we are to be non-violent, we must then not wish for anything on this earth which the meanest or lowest of human beings cannot have.”11
Gandhi enacted practices of non-possession (aparigraha)12 most openly through his self-presentation as, in Winston Churchill’s infamous appraisal, a ‘half-naked fakir’. For the last two decades of his life Gandhi wore, without exception, the short dhoti (loincloth) and chaddar (shroud-like cloth wrapped around head and upper body). From a London-trained lawyer in a three-piece suit to the ‘Father of the Nation’ in a loincloth, Gandhi shed cultural layers in accordance with his growing practical political philosophy of satyagraha. His conscious adoption of the everyday clothing of the most poor was not merely indicative of resistance to the imposition of British colonisation, and concomitant struggle for Independence, but an exemplar of his religion of service. To be of service to greater humanity, to the poor, he must live like the poor and look like the poor.
“…the only thing that can be possessed by all is non-possession, not to have anything whatsoever.”13
On the subject of British colonisation of India, and indeed the march of industrial capitalism that accompanied it, however, Gandhi held clear, forthright ideas that cannot fail to appear both astute and prescient from our particular ecological moment. He viewed both colonisation and capitalism as destructive and inimical to life; they ran contrary to his practical philosophy of non-possession and non-violence.
“Civilisation, in the real sense of the term, consists not in the multiplication, but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants.”14
“If an entire nation [India] of [then, 1920s] 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, [as England] it would strip the world bare like locusts.”15
Ramachandra Guha, widely recognised as the leading historian of the Chipko andolan, characterises the colonising project as an essentially extractive process that depended on the ‘frontier’ for its very existence.16 It was mercantile expansionism that first brought England to India in the 1600s. Guha goes on to describe the continuation of that extractive process as it manifests in post-colonial (or global capitalist) conditions, as “brutal” and “grotesque”.17 Without recourse to a frontier themselves, to offer ameliorative promises, to offset or sop up extractive excesses, the once colonial, now post-colonial country is doubly impacted. These dynamics inform the Chipko andolan.
It is a shadowy thing to sit half a world away and write of the cultural practices of hill people of Uttarakhand, living over a century and a half ago before British colonisation came into their orbit. One must acknowledge limitations. It is equally difficult perhaps for the reader to bring a pair of unclouded eyes to words like ‘communal’, ‘egalitarian’ and phrases like ‘free gift of nature’. So the challenge becomes one of outlining, in as bald terms as possible, the ways in which historians have described the lives of hill people in Northern India. The thematic here is non-possession.
Land was not land in a purely physical sense. Nature was not only a resource. The natural world could embody a deity or invoke the sacred. Forests and grazing land were held in common and shared, they were not owned exclusively. Caste was less marked than in the Plains and women less subjugated. The key reason given for these cultural relationships of people to each other and to the land is the particular regional set of geographic, geologic and climatic conditions. The severity of which was said to preclude the accumulation of wealth by any one individual at the expense of others and inspire a companionable collectivism. TN-18 It is equally possible that this summation is ‘geo-climatically’ over determined, as extractive practices are carried out in similarly or more inhospitable regions. It is perhaps too radical to suggest that people could havechosen to live with each other and their environment in mutually enhancing ways. In any regard, whether by choice, geo-climatic restraint, or some combination thereof, the life of the hill people as it had evolved, was severely impacted upon by the arrival of British colonialism to the relatively ‘isolated’ region in the 1860s.
Beginning with the first forest law in 1865 the forests of the Uttarakhand region became the property of India under British control.19 Forests that no one had exclusively owned were systematically codified into areas that either restricted or denied access to the local people. Not only were they no longer able to (within the cultural framework outlined above) graze their animals, lop branches, burn areas of the forest floor to encourage new grass growth, collect food, fodder, firewood or plant-based medicines, the very routine of life was broken.20
With the help of German silvicultural experts the vast mixed forests that included Banj (Himalayan oak) entered into ‘management’. Forests were felled to provide railway sleepers for the colonial network in India and for Britain’s participation in the two world wars.21 Deforestation practices were not the only ones that had a negative impact however, plantations of monocultures proved equally destructive. Mixed forests produce a composition of leaf litter that not only nourishes the forest floor by returning nutrients to the soil, but actually builds up the soil itself, enabling the trees and land to ‘hold’ each other. In place of mixed forests, profit-driven management policies favoured plantations of Chir pines, grown for dual purposes of resin and timber. Chir pines produce pine needles that do not decompose in the same way (as mixed leaf litter) and are easily washed away during monsoon rains or floods, thus exposing the land beneath to erosion and degradation.22
From community to commodity, the forests of Uttarakhand underwent a rapid transformation. A transformation predicated on ownership, management, control and restricted access, and ultimately on a conceptualisation of nature as resource. Gandhi’s vision of Independent India as a life lived non-possessively and non-violently was in the end, not the one selected by Independent and post-Independent Indian governments, for whom the lure of things modern and industrial was too pervasive. His vision exists as one of the great whole scale ‘what ifs?’
“It is a law of Satyagraha that when a man [sic] has no weapon in his hands and when he cannot think of a way out, he should take the final step of giving up his body.”23
It is, without a doubt, the ultimate sacrifice: to offer one’s life for another, for a cause, a belief. It is also the hardest thing to imagine, and perhaps the most distant concept one could muster within the framework of Western consciousness, where one is hyper-positioned as consumer, to consume; where everything exists for me. It is perhaps from this place of incomprehension, in the only tones available to me, that I can approach the willingness of Chipko activists to offer their own lives to protect the greater life, or whole.
In 1974, where there were no cameras, no media and no police, twenty-seven women of Reni village faced a group of ‘axemen’ to save 2500 trees within their local forest that had been marked for felling. In the ensuing standoff between the two camps the women were threatened and abused but did not back down. Ultimately the forest was saved.24 This event is the one most often portrayed in the history of the Chipko andolan, although it did not involve the satyagraha leitmotif of hugging the trees, contrary to some popular versions of the story.25 It is however noteworthy for the participation of women in the andolan and the duplicity with which the men of Reni village were called away by the government and forest department under false pretences for the felling to proceed, supposedly unchallenged.
It was some four years later, in 1978, that the first mass protection of trees by 500 satyagrahi (non-violent resisters prepared to risk their lives) took place in nearby Advani forest.26 It involved men, women and children and as with earlier events such as that at Reni, was founded on decades of diligent work by followers of Gandhi founding cooperatives to work with the local people, who were in turn preceded by ‘Gandhian matriarchs’ like Mirabehn (Madeleine Slade, 1892-1982) who set up ashram to assist with the “uplift of all.”27
The will to sacrifice self was predicated on both immediate and long-term survival; immediate in the sense that peoples’ lives were directly threatened by the degradation caused by colonially-inspired, state-led deforestation and monocultural plantation practices, and long-term in the wider context of Himalayan life and ecology. Severe flooding as a result of deforestation had taken lives, livestock, fields, forest remnants and villages.28 In order to protect the forests that did remain, people performed forest satyagraha; non-violent resistance against the felling of the forests. Perhaps what marks out these acts of resistance, when compared to similar manifestations in the West, is the extent to which the entire community was mobilised, together, for sustained periods of time. They were not activities performed by a radical fringe (respect) but whole communities, forcibly estranged from ingrained ways of living with their forests, acting together to petition non-possessive customary rights.
It can be easier to write about colonial practices in another country, rather than one’s own.29 Such avoidance was not the motivating agent of this text, but it feels important to acknowledge the lacuna, or absence that has occurred by alternate selection. Rather it was the life of Gandhi and the Chipko andolan in the wider context of our inhabitation of the earth at this (ongoing) watershed moment that inspired this exploration. Particular states of being that made up Gandhi’s practical philosophy of satyagraha attracted my attention because they seemed strange and remote when set against the dominant values and activities of Western culture. I wondered how we might begin (again?) to talk about humility, service, non-possession and self-sacrifice, if these states of being and living could even garner interest and value and whether, ultimately, if lived, they could extend beyond application to humankind to encompass the earth.
13 September 2014
Although it is not customary to reveal the editing process I have been invited by the editors of this journal to expand the latter part of this essay. The reasons for making this process transparent are twofold. Firstly, and with respect, I agree with them. There is a lilt towards the end, an unfinished cadence. The first reason bleeds into the second, in that the lilt was intentional. To expand beyond merely a perceived need to talk about such qualities (humility, service, non-possession and self-sacrifice) - to make them more concrete - dangles me over the precipice of possible (unintended) prescription. I left it as an invitation precisely to avoid this position and hence the second reason for making this process transparent – to register a degree of discomfort that accompanies courting this precipice. Ideally we would be talking together. But perhaps the invitation here is to simply present some (further) embryonic thoughts that the reader can either dismiss or use as a springboard for subsequent exploration.
In the last sentence of the (original) final paragraph the unfinished cadence gestures towards an expansion of the four selected satyagraha qualities of humility, service, non-possession, self-sacrifice to envelope all sentient beings, including the Earth. An exemplar of this way of life was of course very briefly sketched out in the short précis of life in Northern India prior to colonisation, whilst simultaneously acknowledging that such a look (from my particular Western/pakeha vantage) is neither innocent nor unproblematic. However, it can be said that prior to colonisation the trees held the land and the hill people could sustain life within the mixed forests. Following colonial silvicultural and commercial extractive practices, bare hillsides caused massive floods and the destruction of many forest ecologies meant hill people, particularly men, had to descend to the Plains to find work, sending money back home to their families. It is not romanticist to say that before colonisation hill people lived in greater total health and harmony with their environment than after.
In a similar vein of expanding the satyagraha qualities beyond the inter-human, the text referred occasionally to the present ecological moment, thus throwing out a fine tether between past and present ways of living with the environment that the reader could hardly be immune to. The great gulf between the past (although some Indigenous cultures maintain their ways of living companionably with ecologies today) and our present ecological moment takes in the vast differences of relating to the earth and all sentient beings. Non-Abrahamic Indigenous cultures the world over have demonstrated millennia of living in greater companionability with their ecologies than Abrahamic cultures who follow a sky father (Jesus, Allah, Yahweh), or occupy this legacy-consciousness. A sky father who has decreed that humankind holds dominion over the earth and all sentient beings, only to transcend them all upon death for a holy place with him in the sky. In a move to counter this stance, a common strain in much Deep Ecology/Spiritual Ecology literature vis-à-vis our waning habitat, involves the repositioning of the earth and all sentient beings, including humankind, as (already) holy. Clearly this involves a complete volte-face. Even a partial survey of the above literature reveals a culture adrift, flailing around from Buddhism to various Indigenous cultures’ traditions looking for a return (?) to holism. And this is the most concentrated theoretical-practical paradigm we currently have. It is also one in which the ethics, politics or even pragmatic practicalities of seeking succour or guidance from Indigenous cultures can appear monstrous. Particularly when Abrahamic-driven colonisation and ongoing global capitalist exigencies continue to wreak havoc on all beings.
As discourses like Anthropology, Deep Ecology and Indigenous voices themselves have repeatedly revealed — and to generalise very broadly — Indigenous consciousness is founded on intimate connections with the earth and other sentient beings. The Western individual is by contrast… an individual: an “amputated being” in the well-known description by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009), quite separate and terribly alone in her/his perceived superiority to, or isolation from, other living beings. Only a severely alienated, individuated culture could destroy the environment they inhabit. It is this destruction that prompts, if not demands an appraisal of ‘self’ and our relationship to the ‘other selves’ (leaf self, snow self, worm self, reindeer self, soil self et al).
Whether one’s conception of self includes the leaf and reindeer or ends at the epidermis depends on one’s culture of origin, which is in turn a product of a particular consciousness; historical and contemporary. Without labouring the obvious, consciousness comprises thoughts, beliefs, values; a feedback loop between awareness, apprehension, process, action, reflection, interactions, relationships and environments. One cultural consciousness can produce a living synergy where a gift is offered for a life taken (a prayer for a tree, for example) and another can take excessively without recompense. For the latter to become common practice, even celebrated, a whole host of belief and reward systems had to shift. Consciousness is malleable, flexible, fluxible. There is movement between the internal and the external. When a belief changes within a person or indeed a culture it leaks out, it manifests, it radiates: the internal and the external become one.
What therefore might consciousness want to hold, to manifest, to celebrate? That there is an all-pervasive essence or life force that animates all sentient beings? That all beings are bound in a type of life covenant? That, this life all sentient beings are engaged in, is sacred? Holy? With such a consciousness, satyagraha qualities of humility, service, non-possession and self-sacrifice become less weighty and ponderous; more porous, even redundant. If I inhabit a kinship culture where leaves, soil, humans, reindeer and worms (et al) are bound together with the same essence of life, how can I be alone, cut-off, alienated, destructive? How could I possess unduly? What other self would there be to sacrifice to, to serve? I would already be part of the one self.
On a more becoming, journeying note, many traditions hold that there is the inner self, generally concealed and the outer self accreted by dominant cultural-consciousness. In discussing Gandhi, humility and the mango tree earlier, I wrote that one bows to another and to other sentient beings. Perhaps I could have included one’s ‘own’ self. The smaller, fabricated outer self bows to the greater, inner self that is and is simultaneously part of, anima mundi, Qi and all-animating pervasive essence. This is the self that knows how to be, how to live with and how to heal.
13 September 2014
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About the Author
Robyn lives in Oamaru. She is involved in community well-being groups such as The Front Lawn Project (transforming families’ front lawns into edible gardens) and the Oamaru Food Forest, which has begun planting fruit, nut and native trees on public parks and lands. An avid researcher/writer, her most recently published essay was for Miranda Parkes’ exhibition at the University of Canterbury.
Mohandas Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi at Work: His Own Story Continued (Vol. III), ed. Charles F. Andrews (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1931), 150.
Gerald D. Berreman, “Chipko: Nonviolent Direct Action to Save the Himalayas”, South Asia Bulletin, 5:2 (1985): 8.
Ramachandra Guha, The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya, (India: Permanent Black, 2013): 197. Although ‘Chipko’ has been used subsequently to designate socio-ecological movements in 1987 (limestone quarrying) and against the construction of dams up until the early 2000s.
Mohandas Gandhi, Selected Writings of Mahatma Gandhi: Selected and Introduced by Ronald Duncan, ed. Ronald Duncan (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1951), 74.
Mohandas Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi at Work: His Own Story Continued, ed. C. F. Andrews, 253.
Thomas Weber, Hugging the Trees: The Story of the Chipko Movement (India: Penguin Books, 1989), 11.
Mohandas Gandhi, Selected Writings of Mahatma Gandhi: Selected and Introduced by Ronald Duncan, ed. Ronald Duncan, (London: Faber and Faber Limited), 52.
Stanley Wolpert, Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
Mohandas Gandhi, All Men are Brothers: Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi as Told in His Own Words, ed. Krishna Kripalani (Paris: UNESCO, 1969), 56.
Dhirendra Mohan Datta, The Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1953), 82.
Mohandas Gandhi, All Men are Brothers: Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi as Told in His Own Words, ed. Krishna Kripalani (Paris: UNESCO, 1969), 45.
Mohandas Gandhi, Selected Writings of Mahatma Gandhi: Selected and Introduced by Ronald Duncan, ed. Ronald Duncan (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1951), 47-48.
Mohandas Gandhi, ed. Ramachandra Guha, “Mahatma Gandhi and the Environmental Movement in India,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 6:3 (1995): 49.
Guha, The Unquiet Woods, 194-196.
Ibid., 21, 27-28, 30, 106 and Weber, Hugging the Trees, 90.
Guha, The Unquiet Woods, 38.
Gerald Berreman, “Chipko: Nonviolent Direct Action to Save the Himalayas,” South Asia Bulletin 5:2 (1985): 8.
Weber, Hugging the Trees, 18-22.
Ibid., 25-27 and Guha, “Mahatma Gandhi and the Environmental Movement in India,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 6:3, (1995): 54.
Mohandas Gandhi, All Men are Brothers: Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi as Told in His Own Words, ed. Krishna Kripalani (Paris: UNESCO, 1969), 100.
Guha, The Unquiet Woods, 158-159; Weber, Hugging the Trees, 44-46; Martin J. Haigh, “‘Understanding ‘Chipko’: the Himalayan people’s movement for forest conservation,” International Journal of Environmental Studies 31:2-3 (1988): 101.
Guha is particularly scathing of misrepresentations. See especially Guha, The Unquiet Woods, 197-202.
Weber, Hugging the Trees, 53.
Ibid., 24-25 and Martin Haigh, “‘Understanding ‘Chipko’: the Himalayan people’s movement for forest conservation,” International Journal of Environmental Studies 31:2-3 (1988): 104.
Weber, Hugging the Trees, 61-63.
(Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995) is a comprehensive local study of the destruction of New Zealand’s forests, especially those that once covered low-lying coastal, estuary and wetland areas, and of the resultant disenfranchisement of tangata whenua (Maori) as mana whenua; kaitiaki, guardians of the land.