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Keeping an Old Man in Poverty

Sarojini Naidu, a poetess and close friend of Mahatma Gandhi, was a feisty, outspoken woman who was totally unfazed by his growing rock-star status (by the standards of the 1930s) and global celebrity. She berated Gandhi for his attempts to live in poverty, as a semi-recluse, in his ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati River, at that time on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. “Do you know how much it costs every day to keep you in poverty?” she is reputed to have asked him. Gandhiji’s response is unknown, but it is clear he was not offended, because he knew the accusation was true. He knew how much every train journey in a simple third-class railway carriage cost the state because of the adoring millions who flocked to see him. They had to schedule special trains and reserve a whole compartment for him because of the crowds. Gandhi knew and accepted this. In criticising such  ‘extravagant’ expenditure, I see a parallel between critics of Gandhi and of Jesus, or even of Pope John Paul II, great men all, regardless of religious belief.
In the case of Jesus, all four gospels report that he allowed a woman (allegedly of ill-repute, a composite Mary Magdalene) to wash and anoint his feet with expensive perfume. His disciples were indignant, muttering that the money could have been given to the poor. In the case of John Paul II, he came to the papal throne as a robust 58 year old who loved physical exercise. At one of his early press conferences, he was asked why he had used precious Vatican resources to have a swimming pool built. The simple answer that silenced critics: because I like to swim.

Critics of Gandhi and his methods proliferate in India. There are probably more true practitioners of his philosophy around the world than in his native country. Why is this? More of a-prophet-is-not-honored-in-his-own-country syndrome? Not quite. Maybe because so much lip-service is paid to his ideals by politicians and policy-makers in India, while millions continue to live in poverty, lacking any kind of basic infrastructure. Critics attribute the failure of successive generations of Indian leaders to Gandhi and his message. In doing so they forget that he was a leader engaged in the creation of myths to forge the collective will of a nation for independence. A nation is nothing more than the manifestation of a commonly held body of concepts and ideas. He succeeded brilliantly in creating these myths. He was also wise enough to see that the party that brought India to independence should be disbanded soon after the process of nation-building began. But his life was cut short.

One recent attempt to live a self-sufficient life outside the cash economy for a year is recounted by Mark Boyle, a young Irishman inspired by Gandhi, living on a farm near Bristol. The book of his experiences is highly recommended by this blogger. The Money-less Man: A Year of Freeconomic Living by Mark Boyle. All profits from the sale of this book go towards his foundation that works towards greater free sharing of assets and resources. His message is doubly appropriate during this Christmas and New Year season, when so many of us suffer from simply having too much stuff around us and exchange superfluous gifts that are perhaps wordless substitutes for true communication.

For more by this author, see his Amazon page here.

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