Most of Gandhi’s teachings seem very intuitive to me – their truth is in their peace and simplicity, and I couldn’t disagree with most of them. One of his philosophies that I initially objected to was a call for the return to villages, a complete decentralization. I couldn’t accept it at face value; my life, country, and society were entirely at odds with it. What good could come from rejecting thousands of years of progress to return to the simple and seemingly insignificant lives our ancestors had lived, long before the advent of microwaves, Ipods, cars, modern medicine, or electricity?
I soon had an opportunity to have these questions answered. After we visited the ashram we took another rickshaw to Gujarat Vidyapith, a university also established by Gandhi. We had arranged to meet with Sudarshan Iyengar, who was the vice chancellor of the university. He was running late, and because of his limited time he asked us to talk with him in his car on the way to his next appointment. The three of us piled into the back seat, and his chauffeur drove us on our way. After brief introductions he asked us if we had any questions about Gandhi, and I asked why Gandhi was so fixated on villages. He gave me four key reasons.
First, any centralized economic system is necessarily economically and socially stratifying – there will always be poverty. Villages equalize all individuals; everyone shares in the labor for food and all other basic necessities. Secondly, there is greater independence. This sounded rather counterintuitive to me, but Sudarshan’s explanation made a lot of sense. In our extremely affluent society, we feel like we have a nearly infinite freedom of choice. Food from around the world is conveniently available at Wal-Mart, we can spontaneously choose to travel thousands of miles in short periods of time, and we have access to an absolute deluge of information through libraries and the internet. But we are completely dependent on infrastructure beyond our control – as soon as something like oil is eliminated, we are completely helpless. Contrarily, in villages you control all of your own factors of production; you’re never at the mercy of an unstable other. Thirdly, our economic system is endlessly consumptive. No matter how efficient we think we are at using our resources, on an infinite time scale we will eventually run out, which is indeed a scary thought. Villages can exist on the same plot of land for millennia without exhausting their food supply or causing damage to the land. The final reason was that the moral system in our society is all about the individual. Every facet is geared towards serving “me.” I believe that this has lead to a decline in our culture and society as a whole. We’ve become overbearingly narcissistic, selfish, and impatient. The village is the exact opposite. Everything is about the group, how it can better the lives of those in the community. Thinking outside one’s self like this solves most of the aforementioned problems.