By PRADEEP SINGH
Self reliance, self sufficiency and self isolation, today, mean different things to different folks and more often carry negative emotions rather than something that was a desirable option for those who saw life a little more holistically and with wholesome outcomes. For the latter, the notion of self reliance and desire for self sufficiency was closely linked with self esteem that went hand in hand with physical or manual tasks performed with a mindset of sustainability and respect for resources and their minimalistic use.
The nineteenth century saw several visionary votaries of self reliance who had a high regard for manual work aimed at doing one’s daily chores by one’s own hands. Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi were in more ways than one kindred spirits who ignited and inspired ideas that were simple yet revolutionary insofar as these ideas challenged the prevalent false value structure that placed primacy on a hierarchy of tasks and efforts in which manual labour was relegated to the lowest rung despite its indispensability and which was greatly appreciated by Karl Marx as the source of wealth albeit for the one who actually did no physical work but controlled the means of production .
The epitome of self reliance that many of us are familiar with, though only more in name, is Mahatma Gandhi. Remembered only in school history lessons as the premier national leader in India’s independence struggle, Gandhi was so much more than just a symbol of political leadership. He spun his own yarn, wove his khadi cloth, knew how to sew, cut his own hair, cleaned his own toilet and even those of others and, during his days in the South African prison, he learned to make leather sandals. While on long sea journeys, he taught himself Urdu and Tamil so as to communicate across the country that he led.
Gandhi’s formative ideas on self help were inspired directly by the great Russian author, Leo Tolstoy, who in turn had been greatly motivated by the writings of Henry David Thoreau who had spent two years in near seclusion at Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts, to fully examine how to live on limited local resources through manual labour, while meticulously recording every effort in a journal immortalised by the eponymous Walden Pond.
Gandhi wrote lengthy letters to Tolstoy seeking guidance in his search for a workable ideal of self sufficiency and self reliance while he established a cooperative farm in South Africa which was named Tolstoy Farm. Just before his death in 1910, Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi appreciating his experiments in self reliance. Tolstoy famously stated elsewhere too: “You see, if you take pains and learn in order to get a reward, the work will seem hard but when you work… if you love your work, you will find your reward in that.”
Though himself a man of intellectual introspection, Gandhi was emphatic that physical labour and doing everyday chores by one’s own labour was an act of high moral order: “The law, that to live man must work, first came home to me upon reading Tolstoy’s writing on bread labour. But, even before that I had begun to pay homage to it after reading Ruskin’s Unto This Last. The divine law, that man must earn his bread by labouring with his own hands, was first stressed by a Russian writer named TM Bondaref. Tolstoy advertised it and gave it wider publicity. In my view, the same principle has been set forth in the third chapter of the Gita where we are told that he who eats without offering sacrifice eats stolen food. Sacrifice here can only mean bread labour.”
It is ironic that this simple yet empowering message of Gandhi has been largely ignored in his own country where its relevance, especially in the present perplexing environment, is so telling. The upside of the current global pandemic is that Gandhi, Tolstoy, Thoreau and Bondarev have a better chance of becoming meaningful by showing the value of being self reliant and infinitely more independent from external means of satisfying some of the most basic needs of a fulfilling life. More than ever there is a crying need to stop putting our revered leaders on a pedestal or placing them on a sham altar. With a global pandemic echoing the panacea of self reliance offered years ago by Thoreau, Tolstoy and the Mahatma stand a chance to be viewed in a clearer perspective.