(I have changed the numbering system from this post. This series is very long and I thought that it would be easier for readers to follow if I switched from Roman numerals to Hindu-Arabic numerals with sub-sections. For example, this post and the next are numbered 5a and 5b respectively. This means that these two posts are on the same issue viz. manual labor. If there are posts numbered from 12a . . .12f, it would mean that there are 6 posts on the same issue triggered by a comment by Arundhati Roy.)
Arundhati Roy writes sarcastically about an article in the Harijan where Gandhi writes that 'the ideal Bhangi of my conception would be a Brahmin par excellence' and that a 'Bhangi constitutes the foundation of all services'. He then writes about the qualities that 'such an honored servant of society' should have. These include 'a thorough knowledge of the principles of sanitation', 'how a right kind of latrine is constructed and the correct way of cleaning it', 'how to overcome and destroy the odor of excreta and the various disinfectants to render them innocuous', etc.
It is common practice these days to take a quote that somebody made a long time ago, and invest it with huge significance. If somebody wants to condemn him politically, they quote this one line. It’s not that he didn’t say it, but you can't analyze somebody based on one sentence they said years ago. You have to look at their entire body of work. Gandhi's philosophy of manual labor was completely at variance with existing Indian assumptions about labor which was causing sharp caste divisions and the horror of the upper castes in performing manual labor. It was part of his indirect attack on the caste system without saying it in so many words.
Gandhi is too nuanced for people who want black and white answers and leap too easily to simplistic conclusions. Manual labor is the labor that is essential for meeting basic needs and nobody was exempt from it. While the poor had to do it out of necessity, the rich had to do it out of choice. The Industrial Revolution changed the way labor was perceived. Now labor is seen only as an input to produce profit and power. Manual labor's status was downgraded and seen as fit only for backward, illiterate people. It was looked down upon in Indian culture and Gandhi spent his entire adult life fighting this prejudice. Dennis Dalton writes in Gandhi: Non-violent Power in Action:
If any single idea demonstrates or stamps Gandhi's credentials as a social reformer, it must be his theory and practice of work. The idea pervades his whole reform preprogram, from abolition of untouchability to construction of village latrines and wells. His unique emphasis on public health and sanitation required social workers-cum-political volunteers to engage in labor that would routinely defy caste restrictions.
For Gandhi, manual labor is not a sign of weakness but our humanity yet he finds it continually degraded. 'In our country manual labor is regarded as a low occupation . . . We should spin, therefore, if only to guard against the pernicious tendency of regarding the toiler as being low in the social scale.' - (Young India, May 20, 1926). He was critical of the devaluation of manual labor in Buddhist monasteries. Although he had very high regard for the Buddha, he had some criticisms as well. He said that 'if I had the good fortune to be face to face with one like him [the Buddha], I should not hesitate to ask him why he did not teach the gospel of work, in preference to one of contemplation.'
He said that he would do the same thing if he met Hindu saints such as Tukaram and Jnanadev. He wondered how much responsibility the Buddha had to bear for the rise of an anti-work ethic in Buddhist monasticism. He said, '. . . did he himself set up the organizations [of monasteries] or did his followers do so? Whoever did it, the monasteries which were established became . . . stagnant and by-and-by acquired a reputation as dens of sloth.' He alluded to the same state in Hindu monasteries also. Anthony Parel writes in Gandhi's Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony:.
. . he felt it necessary to criticize the imbalance between work and the spiritual life. The theory that begging was holy and that living off the labor of others legitimate, provided it was done by mendicants, also came for criticism. He made it clear that his criticism did not spring from any sectarian bias. They sprang from the insight that the work ethic was mandatory on all, mendicants as well as lay people.
In his ashrams his insistence on everybody performing manual labor caused friction between various castes. In Sabarmati Ashram, manual labor was part of daily routine - inmates had to work for 3 1/2 hours in the field and 3 hrs. in the kitchen and dining hall. The first task entrusted to new entrants was the cleaning of latrines. Gandhi's reasoning for this kind of initiation was that this would strip the person of any residual ego and make them humble enough to be able to recognize truth and be prepared to serve the weakest and the poorest. To a young man to whom he had assigned the job of cleaning latrines, he said:
I know that you have been educated abroad and so you feel that you must address the bigger issues plaguing India, like reducing poverty, speeding up development and eradicating illiteracy, but as long as you don’t have the humility to do the humblest of jobs you will not be able to recognize the real problems that beset our motherland.
If you really want to make a difference you will have to first get rid of your ego, only then will you be able to understand that it is essential to recognize the importance of the seemingly insignificant, menial tasks and have the humility to perform them, if you learn to do them with dignity and honor, the bigger tasks will become easy.
He asserted that no work was superior or inferior; the work of a Brahmin, of expounding holy truths, was not one whit better than that of a sudra who removed night-soil. Madeline Slade was the daughter of an Admiral of the British Navy. She came under the thrall of Gandhi, renounced her affluence and came to India to live in his ashrams. Her transformation into Meerabehen, the name given to her by Gandhi, began by cleaning latrines and emptying chamber pots. He wrote in Harijan of September 8, 1946:
I am a firm believer in the educative value of manual work. Useful manual labor, intelligently performed, is the means par excellence for developing the intellect. One may develop a sharp intellect otherwise, too. But, then, it will not be a balanced growth but an unbalanced, distorted abortion. It might easily make of one a rouge and rascal.