Gandhian Philosophy

in the centre of

Sulabh sanitation movement


Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak*
Ph.D., D.Litt.

I am the product of Sarvodaya Samaj. I started my journey from Bihar Gandhi Centenary Celebration Committee. I was asked by my General Secretary, Saryu Prasad to work for restoration of human rights and dignity to untouchables in the year 1968. As it is known to all of you that this sub-human occupation started during Vedic period and this obnoxious practice continued for centuries until Gandhi came on the scene. In 1901 in Kolkata conference where he took a broom and clean night-soil by himself. Gandhi said that till they clean night-soil nobody will have food with them. He also stressed that freedom would be meaningless if untouchability was not removed. So there was a need of a scientific technology which could replace bucket toilets cleaned by untouchables,

Before describing my life’s journey, I want to say that Gandhi is known to have set examples for two different things: his life and his philosophy.

If you were to look at his daily life, i.e. his strict routine, his spiritual practise, the way he dressed, his food habits (he did not eat meat, drank goat’s milk), his idea of detachment from the materialism etc., one could say that he acquired a status of a saint. Who is a saint? Someone who is able to control his desires, who respects his environment, nature, and his surroundings. Hence Gandhi was a saint.

Lot of people followed Gandhi’s life, but a very few implemented or even understood his larger philosophy. What did he really want? Gandhi attached great importance to the plight of Harijans or the erstwhile untouchables. He longed for a society where the scavengers were liberated, untouchables were given their human rights. For the welfare of economy, he wanted to promote Khadi and cottage industries, and stressed for basic education for all.

So many people idolised Gandhi, but only a few focused on implementing his philosophy. I want to talk about Gandhi’s life first to show that how we are all different. When a child is born, there are three things it inherits naturally which become the fundamental core of his or her being.

First, the place he is born. He will naturally have an attachment to that place. No matter where he lives in this world, he would always want to go back to the place he was born.

Second, the food cooked by his mother. He will always love it, always remember it and will always want it. He could have tried different dishes from around the world, but mom’s food is something he will always remember.

Third, his mother tongue. It doesn’t matter how much a man studies, how many languages he learns, every time his mother tongue is spoken he will have a natural affinity for it. At some point he will think in that language. And any conversation/dialogue in his mother tongue will always touch his heart.

So these three things are very important to remember when implementing Gandhi’s philosophy. So I did not have to waste a lot of time over this. For e.g., I don’t mull over what food people must eat whilst working in Sulabh. I say they will eat the food that their mothers cooked for them. Why should I waste any time thinking over someone else’s food habits or trying to change someone? Similarly, for language, they can speak whatever language they are comfortable in.

So I have never tried to put any restrictions that interferes on an individual’s identity. Like Gandhi, I believe, respect and celebrate our country’s pluralism and diversity.

Same goes for Khadi, our Prime MinisterShri Narendra Modi, brought in back in style. He showed the world how fashionable Khadi can be. You can see Khadi is increasingly becoming popular with young people. But, again it is not something that I can make compulsory for people to wear. I cannot dictate someone’s costumes. Also if you force something on someone, it never becomes a popular move. If people think that Khadi is linked with a specific philosophy, it will automatically loose its appeal. If someone thinks that Khadi is important to be a Gandhian, then they will feel disconnected and will not prefer to wear it.

So I did not put any restrictions on food or dress code. I said eat the food that you have grown up with and wear what you feel like.

What is important is how I implemented the philosophy of Gandhi. I combined my wisdom with Gandhi’s philosophy and I want to clarify this through a story:

There was a teacher in Bangkok who taught to many students. Two of his students said to him that they wanted to go to India. Their master requested them to get mustard oil in a dish made of clay. They agreed. Both the boys entered India through the Sunderbans.

When the first boy reached the jungles, he said ‘an animal has passed from here.’ The second boy asked, ‘how do you know?’The first boy said he just knew. He then said that the animal would have been an elephant. The second boy asked him how he knew it was an elephant and not a horse. The first boy said he just knew. They moved a little ahead and the first boy said that the elephant would have been blind in the left eye. The second boy again asked him how he knew this but he just said that he knew. When they continued forward they saw the elephant. They stopped the elephant and saw that it really was blind in the left eye.

It is a long story and I am shortening it. When the boys finally returned, the teacher asked for the oil. The second boy brought his dish forward but it had only half the amount left. When the first boy brought his dish it was completely filled with the oil. The second boy felt the teacher was biased towards his mate and taught him things that he wasn’t taught.  They went on to explain everything that had happened in the jungle. The teacher asked the first boy to explain.

The first boy said that when we went to the Sunderban jungles, there was a path that had been cleared. So I thought no man would have entered such a dense forest. Hence an animal must have passed from there because the path had been made. When we went ahead I saw the higher branches of the trees were broken. I knew an animal this tall could only be an elephant. When we went further ahead I noticed that the left footprint was deeper than the right footprint. I realised he was blind in the left eye and it was taking him longer to lift his left leg.

You had asked us to bring mustard oil in a clay dish. So I let the dish soak in water for three days. When it had completely soaked the water, I put the oil in it. Hence, I was able to bring a full dish of oil.

So the teacher said, “Look, I gave equal education to you both. But he also used his wisdom. And you did not.”

The point that I am trying to drive at is in order to make Gandhi’s philosophy relevant and popular, we need to use our wisdom and apply his philosophy in such a way that people can relate to it in their day to day lives.

Now let me tell you how I have applied Gandhi’s philosophy to a larger context.

I would like to tell you how I empowered and brought dignity to the untouchables of two towns of Rajasthan:  Alwar and Tonk.

In my experiment, with the two towns in Rajasthan, I found that the caste of the untouchables may remain same but their prestige and dignity can be brought to the same level as Brahmins and other castes.

Maybe we cannot get rid of the caste system. But the discrimination against the lower caste can be stopped by the society.

I demonstrated that with the two towns in Rajasthan.

I took up a five-fold programme to restore the human rights and dignity of the untouchables there and to make them a part of the mainstream society. My first step was to relieve them of the work of cleaning human excreta by converting the dry pit toilets into Sulabh flush toilets. Since owners got flush toilets they did not raise an objection.

Next, I set up a vocational training centre. It was named “Nai Disha”. It is known that education is the key to human development. So we first taught them how to read and write. For three months we gave them stipend in cash but once they learnt to read and write, we gave them cheques so that they could withdraw money from the bank.

The next step was to make them economically independent. The women scavengers themselves took the decision regarding the selection of courses. We trained them in different fields like food processing as well as market oriented trades like tailoring, embroidery, fashion designing, and beauty-care. The women who underwent the training at the centre have acquired self-confidence. In fact, it has boosted their morale and they are now engaged in self-sustaining professions. Earlier they earned a merge Rs 300-400, but now they earn upto Rs 15000 a month. They provide beauticians services to the women of the very houses they were once barred from entering.  Earlier people from the other upper caste wouldn’t even walk on their shadows but now they allow them message their faces!

During the civil rights movement in the United States, Martin Luther King Jr had said “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.”

In our case they not only sat but also drank and ate food along with over 20 Brahmin families earlier this year.

It was Gandhiji’s wish that India should have a strong women leaders at the highest offices particularly from lower stratum of our caste based society.  He strongly advocated that in order to bring social justice, the recognition of equality of women was imperative. He believed that many of his contemporary movements stopped half way because the condition of “our women” and much of our work did not yield appropriate result because women power had not been used.

Dear friends, I cannot appoint women leaders to the post of president, but at Sulabh we have appointed Smt. Usha Chamar, a former untouchable woman as our president. Today, she is sitting amongst you and on 02 October this year, on the day of Gandhi Jayanti, she received an award from the Prime Minister Modiji on behalf of Sulabh. Usha’s life is exemplary. Today she is oozing with self confidence and self respect. Even while receiving the award, she requested the gentleman next to her to move a bit to allow her enough space to stand. The gentleman is one of India’s richest man. The point that human beings no matter what their origin is, with right affirmative action they can be at par with anyone.

I would also like to say how I used Gandhi’s principle of non –violence in order to remove untouchability from its very roots.

I wanted to break the concept of ‘twice born’. I helped them perform rites and rituals of the Brahmins and the other upper castes. Initially, there was resistance from the people and they denied them even entry into the temples. I decided to take the matters in to my hands and lead some of the outcastes to the Nathdwara temple. But we were met with resistance. Instead of taking a confrontationist attitude I took the path of persuasion and successfully convinced the Priests to allow us entry. I am happy to say that my efforts succeeded and we were allowed entry into the temple.

Now the same Brahmin families offer them a cup of tea and even invited the ‘untouchables’ on two separate occasions to attend the marriages of their daughters. The scavengers freely mingle with the families of upper castes, especially the families, who earlier employed them to clean and carry night soil. This demonstrates a change in the mind set and attitude of the people of the society. There is hardly any sign of untouchability in these towns now.

The two towns of Rajasthan have been successfully declared scavenging free. The vocational training centre at Alwar is a unique case of women empowerment. This is the best model for taking up rehabilitation programme for the liberated scavengers in all the States of India.

Let me tell with pride, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations invited these liberated scavenger women in 2008 to attend the Proceedings of the House at the United Nations. They also walked the ramp with famous models from United States of America and India. They went to see the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of liberty, equality and freedom and they were so overwhelmed that from this great monument they gave a clarion call that they are no more ‘untouchables’ and have now achieved real freedom.

Today nobody can say that there is no answer or solution to the problem of scavenging or untouchability in India. You can ask the former scavengers from the two villages how they have ceased to be untouchables.

Dear friends with persistence, determination and strong leadership we can together challenge, eradicate and reform many unjust practices in our society. The ownership lies with us to take actions.

I have demonstrated that with right affirmative actions, I could gradual bring the former manual scavengers higher up the social pyramid. It didn’t happen in a day, it meant being a part of them and understand their pain and suffering.

I am not Gandhi, but I strongly believe in his principles and I implemented it in whatever way I can for the betterment of our society and prosperity of our country.

My dream for India is no different from the one envisaged by the Father of our great nation.

I would like to conclude that Che Guavara got freedom of Cuba by violence but when he came to India in 1959, he accepted the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi and said if you work against the oppressors they will crush the oppressed. Therefore it is better to bring change in the society by non-violence rather than violence. Truthfulness, non-violence, honesty, integrity, ethics, morality coupled with vision, mission, commitment, capabilities, action and efficiency are some of the ingredient of the philosophy I follow. God has helped you to help someone. I believe what Swami Vivekanand said “they alone live who live for others.” I also believe in Gandhian philosophy, “An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.” And lastly what John F. Kennedy stated in his inaugural address – “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

The most important thing is that we can solve the problems of the society by love, compassion and affection etc. To make a harmonious relationship among the people living in the society we will have to accept the philosophy of Confucius, a great Philosopher and Social Reformer of his time.

To give you the gist of my philosophy I would like to quote two stories:

  1. One farmer seeing a man in distress, went and helped him to take out his car from the mud. The man wanted to give him some money for his help. But the farmer declined to accept the money. So he asked, “have you got a son?” He replied, “yes”. He said, “if I give him money for the education, will you accept.” He said, “yes.” The man gave money for the farmer’s son’s education and subsequently that boy became a very famous doctor.Subsequently, after some time the son of the rich man became ill and inspite of all the treatments he could not be cured. The rich man remembered that boy, who had become a famous doctor so he approached him and told him about the problem. He said, “I will save your son.” The doctor cured the rich man’s son with the medicine he had invented. Now, the question is: Guess, who was the doctor and who was the rich man’s son?

    The doctor was Alexander Fleming who invented Penicillin to save the rich man’s son and the rich man’s son was Winston Churchill, who became Prime Minister of Britain. This incident shows the impact of social service and therefore it is necessary that in one’s life, one should try to help the needy persons.

  1. The second story is about making a difference: An old man was standing on the sea-shore. Hundreds of shell fish were being washed ashore. This man was picking them up one by one and throwing them back into the sea.Two youngsters were crossing that way and they saw this man picking up the shell fish and meticulously throwing them back into the sea one by one.

    They told the man that there are so many, in fact, thousands of shell fish being washed ashore, so by your doing this what difference will it make?

    The old man picked up another shell fish, threw it back into the sea and replied – At least I made a difference to this one!

Thank you!


Download full speech in English 

Download full speech in Hindi