The need of Gandhi in a changing world. P. Rühe

By Peter Rühe, Founder of the GandhiServe Network

Why do we live in a changing world? What has definitely not changed is the nature of man: He / She was always led by hate, attachment, compassion, love and lust. Men always wanted to rule over others, had therefore fought numerous battles and wars. The weapons used in earlier days were comparatively simple: axes, fists, knives, spears and later on guns, rifles and bombs. What is different today is the power of our nuclear, biological and chemical weapons which have a destructive potential above imagination. What has also not changed over the centuries is man’s desire to kill animals, to fell trees as well as the tendency to make mistakes. What is different today is that the mistakes we are making are not correctable anymore:

  • Several animal races are extinguished from mother earth forever;
  • Widespread deforestation in the Himalaya region, in the Amazonas rainforests and elsewhere lead to a global climate change, supported by a damaged ozone layer of tremendous – still growing – size;
  • Pollution of the environment in general, especially the nuclear pollution as well as air and water pollution become health hazards of unknown dimension allover.

More pressure on resources

What else makes these days different to earlier decades? For many years, 20% of the world’s population consumed 80% of the world’s energy resources. This situation has changed now due to two main factors: the awareness programs in the Western world for consuming lesser energy, plus drastic price hikes, have led to a lesser growth of consumption in private households as well as in industries. Many people turn to a simpler way of life, i.e. they use bicycles instead of cars, share households or do organic farming. This further leads to an active care for the protection of environment, human rights, resistance of war service (conscientious objection) and informal education programs, like free schools for example. In these days, knowingly or unknowingly, a good number of people turn Gandhians in the Western world. Over thirty institutions outside India carry Gandhi’s name and propagate his life and work as well as his ethics of nonviolence. Altogether, a few hundred institutions outside India work in Gandhi’s spirit for a more humane, livable and peaceful world. At the same time the abovementioned 80% of the world population, which belong to developing countries, such as India and Indonesia or emerging superpowers such as China, with its rapid economic progress, have adopted very fast the same craze for consumerism which is predominant in the industrialized countries.

A few figures underline this tendency:

  • India has the second largest active military in the world and ranks high in military expenditure;
  • China became the world’s largest energy consumer in 2010;
  • China used more cement between 2011 and 2013 than the U.S. used in the entire 20th century;
  • China’s global market shares are 50% in steel, 50% in aluminum and 30% in automobile manufacturing.
  • One needs not be a prophet to realize how soon the conservative energy resources will be finished. Renewable energies are on the increase and so are e-mobility and global energy conservation measures, but they will not be able meet the tremendously increasing energy demand worldwide.

A necessary reassessment of our lifestyles

The situation in general can be described by the words of the great black American social reformer and fighter for human rights and social justice, the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who himself found much inspiration and encouragement by the study of Gandhi’s life and work. He said: “There is no choice between violence or nonviolence. The only choice we have is between nonviolence and perish.” A turn towards a nonviolent, peaceful life in harmony with man, nature and God is the need of the hour. An increasing number of individuals and institutions all over the world are implementing Gandhi’s spirit, his constructive program for human rights, protection of environment, decentralized industries and a more meaningful life by serving the poor in their respective countries. Though the destructive powers, such as centralized industries and the multinationals, are still mightier, a considerable and growing counter movement against consumerism and destruction of mother earth – led by Gandhian ideals – can be observed.

In India as well as elsewhere, there are a growing number of civil rights movements and social action groups which support minority rights and the rights of the poor on the basis of Gandhi’s ideas. While Gandhi’s symbol for economic independence had been the simple spinning wheel, in present-day India it is cars, mobile phones and computers which symbolize freedom and progress. However, these luxury and consumer goods are still obtainable only for a minority. At the same time, the majority of people, especially in the countryside, feel the ever-increasing pressure of commercialization and growing competition and are driven further into poverty. In the struggle against the neo-liberal trend of the economy, the return to Gandhi’s ideas is required.

A reappraisal of our lifestyles is required everywhere according to the basic principles of simplicity, contentment, sustainability and justice, as preached and practiced by Mahatma Gandhi. A look at the influence Gandhi has had on human rights movements worldwide shows that his ideas are highly relevant up to the present day and have been applied very successfully in the respective contexts.

The centrality of Gandhi

When one becomes aware of how many leading personalities of the 20th century call themselves students of Gandhi, it seems clear that his humanistic concept of nonviolence and xenophilic philosophy— not the opponent is being fought, but his convictions— has left its mark on humanity like hardly any other: Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, HH the Dalai Lama, Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, Michael Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, Aung San Suu Kyi and many others have studied Gandhi and drawn on his ideas in their efforts towards a better world. It is not only for this that his spiritual heritage is still alive.

The international art and media scene impressively confirm Gandhi’s actuality. There are excellent exhibitions about Gandhi’s life and work, an opera, several theatre plays and musicals, numerous movies and documentaries for cinema and television. Of course, new publications are launched constantly— by now, there are well over 10,000 books on Gandhi available in all languages. The internet has contributed much to keep Gandhi in the minds of people; unfortunately, not always in a realistic and just way.

For Gandhi the political freedom of India was a result of the personal freedom (swaraj) of the individual, which is embedded in the continual striving towards truth. The world needs to become better by the practice of brotherly love and the search for truth by every person everywhere. Everyone must begin seriously practicing with oneself, carrying out one’s own experiment with the truth, here and today, everywhere and with no end:

The world of tomorrow will be, must be, a society based on non-violence. That is the first law; out of it all other blessings will flow. It may seem a distant goal, an impractical Utopia. But it is not in the least unobtainable, since it can be worked for here and now. An individual can adopt the way of life of the future – the non-violent way – without having to wait for others to do so. And if an individual can do it, cannot whole groups of individuals? Whole nations? Men often hesitate to make a beginning because they feel that the objective cannot be achieved in its entirety. This attitude of mind is precisely our greatest obstacle to progress – an obstacle that each man, if he only will it, can clear away.”
— Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan, 10 February 1946 —

Therefore, Gandhi’s thoughts are highly relevant in the changing world and a thorough study of his life and work – according to his saying My life is my message – is more important than ever before.

Those people who adopt the ideals Gandhi stood for – intelligently and adequately – are not survivors of the good, old days but they are the avantgarde of the future society.

Peter Rühe is the founder of the GandhiServe network, a Berlin-based multinational which consists of various institutions furthering the promotion of Gandhian values – truth, civil disobedience, nonviolent resistance and peace.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:

Peter Rühe (2019). “The need of Gandhi in a changing world”, Observatory on contemporary crises, October 10, 2019, URL: