Gandhi’s extraordinary idea of trusteeship of wealth at a time of vulgar ostentation

In a chapter titled “Choice before Capitalists”, Gandhi writes, “At present, there is no proportion between the wholly unnecessary pomp and extravagance of the moneyed class and the squalid surroundings and the grinding pauperism of the ryots in whose midst the former are living.”

Mayank Chhaya Mar 01, 2024
Gandhi book and Antilla, the 27-floor Ambani residence in Mumbai

Reading Mahatma Gandhi’s remarkable ideas about wealth and trusteeship against the backdrop of the in-your-face opulent “pre-wedding” revelries of the Ambani scion Anant and his fiancé Radhika Merchant is a striking experience.

Just bear this one fact in mind—four men alone, namely the host Mukesh Ambani, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim have between them a combined worth of $535 billion at $112 billion, $148 billion, $170 billion, $105 billion respectively. This is not counting other relatively poor billionaires and multi-millionaires in attendance.

It is true that each of these billionaires and even others who might be in attendance have made massive philanthropic contributions globally and continue to do so. In some significant sense, they have practiced at least some version of Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship of wealth.

However, at its purest Gandhi’s trusteeship means a practice that is far more austere in its underpinnings and demand. It runs counter even to the money that the Ambanis would have spent on the “pre-wedding” celebrations where dozens of private jets have ferried the superrich and super famous.

Theory of trusteeship 

In his very first chapter titled “Fundamental Law of Nature” Gandhi writes, “I suggest that we are thieves in a way. If I take anything that I do not need for my own immediate use, and keep it, I thieve it from somebody else.”

He then ventures something even more radical: “I venture to suggest that it is the fundamental law of Nature, without exception, that Nature produces enough for our wants from day-to-day, and if only everybody took enough for himself and nothing more, there would be no pauperism in this world, there would be no man dying of starvation in this world,” he writes.

Gandhi was acutely aware that even during his lifetime his theory of trusteeship was ridiculed. “I adhere to my doctrine of trusteeship in spite of the ridicule poured on it,” he said in 1948. Even much earlier, writing in his newspaper Harijan, he said, “My theory of trusteeship is no makeshift, certainly no camouflage. I am confident that it will survive all other theories. It has the sanction of philosophy and religion behind it…No other theory is compatible with non-violence.”

“Supposing I have come by a fair amount of wealth—either by way of legacy or by means of trade and industry—I must know that all that wealth does not belong to me; what belongs to me is the right to an honorable livelihood, no better than enjoyed by millions of others,” he writes.

It is the last bit of his assertion about enjoying life “no better than enjoyed by millions of others” where the ostentation of the kind unfolding in Jamnagar, Gujarat where the Ambanis - arguably India’s richest business family - are hosting the celebrations for three days, stand out in rather lurid light.

Required reading for capitalists

It would be untruthful to deny that the amount of wealth the billionaires at the wedding have given away, albeit in a manner that benefits them either in their bottom lines or personal reputational enhancement or both.

Gandhi’s trusteeship, like much of what he stood for, was demanding and exacting on even a semblance of personal luxuries that it would be unrealistic to expect 21st-century grandees such as those present at the Ambani celebrations to adhere to. Each of their individual private jet rides alone could have fed small communities for several weeks.

In a chapter titled “Choice before Capitalists”, Gandhi writes, “At present, there is no proportion between the wholly unnecessary pomp and extravagance of the moneyed class and the squalid surroundings and the grinding pauperism of the ryots in whose midst the former are living.”

This is so eerily prescient and relevant nearly a century after he wrote in Young India on December 5, 1929.

The 40-page booklet published by the Navjivan Publishing House he founded in 1929, priced at a measly 15 rupees or two US dimes at the current rupee-dollar exchange rate ought to become a required reading for capitalists around the world. If I were Mukesh Ambani, I would gift it to each guest along with whatever massively expensive gift hamper he may be giving.

(The writer is a Chicago-based journalist, author, filmmaker and lyricist. Views are personal)

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Col KL Viswanathan
Sat, 03/02/2024 - 06:55
Hi Mayank,

Mukesh A is spending money he has earned. Whatever money, which would be no use to others in Mukesh A's bank account, is spent in the opulent wedding generates trade and employment. Simple economics. If you intend that the money be distributed for free to the needy, the need will never end. Yes, as a corollary if all of us give away half our earnings in charity every month what a nice place the world would be. No, people have to to taught to earn. In a Nation , of 1.4 billion people and growing, which was in a impoverished state only seven decades back unless , market forces take over wealth and jobs cannot be created. It is a grueling task for our Nation Ramrajya (9Utopia) is a myth.. Welcome to the real world....
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