As one struggles to make sense of what is happening all around in these trying, pandemic times, one is struck by the way Nature is healing itself by creating a new blueprint of life. It is a call to all to a simpler way of life and values, a call to self-reliance, a call to end the mad rush to nowhere.
I relive Schumacher’s classic ‘Small is Beautiful’, that put people at the centre of policies and focused on the need to rebuild economies around communities and not merely big corporations. Applying Buddhist principles to the notion of wealth and its consumption, Schumacher came up with the idea of Buddhist economics, focusing on the Middle Path between spiritual and materialistic well-being.
As opposed to the mainstream western notion of excessive consumption giving greater happiness, Schumacher speaks of the need to maximize welfare with minimum consumption. Only then can the spirit of Right Livelihood come alive. Schumacher sees this as the cardinal principle of Buddha’s Eightfold Path for modern times. Foretelling the depletion of physical resources, he advised modest use of resources.
He believed that self-sufficient local communities would serve the purpose much better than an imbalanced consumerist culture spawned by those who believe that ‘bigger is better’.
Small is Beautiful came as an alternative concept and Schumacher was inspired by Thoreau, whose own experience of living alone at Walden Pond for two years was an intense reflection on the need to slow down, to adopt simple, self-reliant living, which would trigger an inner voyage of Self-discovery. Thoreau reflects on his great escape from modern society and calls his two-year solitude as an opportunity to talk to his inner Self. His deep communion with Nature made him say,? “The only medicine needed by man is a draught of morning air.” Thoreau and Emerson, the Transcendentalist group of philosophers, found spiritual solace in the Upanishads, in the vedantic blueprint of contentment set forth by seers.
Schumacher and Thoreau both believed that a life of contentment was possible only when you can tune in to your inner Self. This is possible only when you’ve learnt to recognize the interdependence of people with each other and with Nature. And the way forward is to change the framework that the modern world has designed for us. We are in a prison of our own making; a world where our ambitious and consumerist instincts keep us in a constant state of competition with the other, making us feel more unhappy and worthless.
Why the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns at this point of time? Is Nature trying to tell us something that can change the course of human life for the better? Perhaps there was no other way to ‘uncondition’ the human mind that has become so habituated to greed and excess.? The conditioned mind has made us like the prisoners in Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’, who lost the ability to see reality and are happy in the delusion that the world of appearances and vanities are all there is, to life. We needed to be reminded of the importance of life itself, and break free of our self-made prisons, so that we can experience true reality.
The author is joint secretary, Government of India.