Antinatalism – Gandhi’s Gait

Gandhi (1869–1948) is acknowledged as the spiritual and practical father of modern India, the only democracy yet to establish itself in a country whose population exceeds a billion. Many of today’s middle-class Indian citizens, however, with their smart-phones and their private automobiles, think back on him with mixed feelings. Because the resistance that he called for was not just a resistance to Britain’s colonial domination; the lean man with the spinning wheel also called for a resistance to the usurpation of human spiritual concerns by Western technology. Thus, he not only spoke out, in 1940, against methods of artificial insemination – which, as he believed at the time, could not possibly bring forth anything but idiots or monsters – but also, more generally, against an age he saw approaching “when men and women will walk, if they at all do, only for pleasure but go to their work on wheels or fly to it.” (Gandhi, Collected Works, vol. 78, p. 341f[1]) And in fact, already from the 1940s on, a fertility clinic had been in operation in London[2] the methods and results of which he could hardly have approved of since it seemed to Gandhi that procreation – assuming it should occur at all – should do so only within the framework of marriage.

How would Gandhi be looked on today in India – and in the world as a whole – if people were really aware of what his ideals were on the question of ethics and population?  Contrary to what might easily be supposed these ideals of Gandhi’s were not such as to point in the direction of a “one-child policy” of the sort recently practiced in China. Nor did they amount to the principle: “As many people as the land can sustain”. The father of modern India did not imagine any upper population limit stretching into the millions. The number of human beings inhabiting the earth which Gandhi ideally envisaged was that “Nirvana figure” the notion of which was clearly first conceived in India and which found its way to Europe by way of the intellectual and commercial channels of the Arab world. This number was: zero. Gandhi’s ideal as regards population was not a small number of human beings but rather: no human beings at all; a “no-child policy”. Both in India and everywhere else in the world.

That Gandhi, the icon of peace, should have cherished in his heart the ideal of a world without human beings sounds like a declaration of war against common sense, if not against humanity itself. In fact, however, Gandhi expressed his views on this ideal of a world without human beings in so many of his writings over a period of so many years and provided such a plausible justification for this ideal, deploying that logic of the rejection of suffering which has formed the core of the Indian philosophical tradition from the start, that it would be child’s play to provide evidence that he did in fact hold to this position and the question needs much rather to be raised of why Gandhi is not universally perceived as an indeed a proponent of a “no-child” politics and ethics. 

Ironically, Gandhi was not just the demiurge of an independent nation but also the father of four children. To his second-eldest son, Manilal (1892–1956) he addressed, on the 17th of March 1922 a piece of writing contending that it would be better had he, Manilal, never been begotten and that it would have been no loss (since to whom could it have been a loss?) if neither son nor father nor any one of the countless human beings somehow linked with them had ever existed. Since it is a father who is writing here to his son, Gandhi symbolically revokes, as it were, ex post facto with the following words the begetting of his son:  “…I do not at all believe that procreation is a duty or that the world will come to grief without it. Suppose for a moment that all procreation stops, it will only mean that all destruction will cease.” (Vol. 26, p. 369) Furthermore, Gandhi contends, not one child in a million is really a “wanted child”; rather, almost all are – as he goes on to note, doubtless very much in a self-critical spirit – incidental products of a mode of behaviour arising directly from Nature and one by which Man is not really distinguished from any other animal: “Probably one in a million may be resorting to intercourse for purposes of procreation. I have not come across any such person so far.” (Vol. 85, p. 418)

Gandhi’s version of the pacifist slogan so often cited in post-war Europe “Imagine there were a war and nobody went” runs as follows: “Imagine the world were full of war and destruction and no more human beings were ever born into it!” Applied specifically to the period of British colonial rule in India this amounts to what Gandhi wrote on 25th of April 1921in a letter to his friend, the Christian missionary and social reformer Charles Freer Andrews (1871–1940): “If I could find a way of stopping procreation in a civil and voluntary manner and whilst India remains in the present miserable state, I would do so today. But I know that it is impossible.” (Vol. 23, p. 89) It would only be possible if society consisted entirely of perfect Brahmachari – i.e. of people who were devoted to following Brahma’s path of renunciation. For a perfect Brahmachari, Gandhi explained after having received many letters asking him about his stance on celibacy, nothing is impossible. But such a perfect Brahmachari, he went on, is an ideal almost impossible to attain and nearly as difficult to realize as would be the actual drawing of an infinite Euclidian straight line. (see: vol. 21, p. 356) When he was flooded with letters enquiring further about the meaning of  Brahmachari Gandhi had (on the 29th of April 1926 in the weekly newspaper Young India) also this to say about the meaning of the word: the true Brahmachari knows no desire for procreation: “The whole world will be to him one vast family, he will centre all his ambition in relieving the misery of mankind and the desire for procreation will be to him as gall and wormwood.” (Vol. 35., p. 17f [Young India, 29.4.1926])

Gandhi also saw a special immorality in begetting children in India so long as British colonial rule there endured. He said, for example, in 1920: “We only multiply slaves and weaklings if we continue the process of procreation whilst we feel and remain helpless, diseased and famine-stricken. Not till India has become a free nation, able to withstand avoidable starvation, well able to feed herself in times of famine, possessing the knowledge to deal with malaria, cholera, influenza and other epidemics, have we the right to bring forth progeny. I must not conceal from the reader the sorrow I feel when I hear of births in this land.” (Vol. 21, p. 357)

But as we will now further explain, Gandhi does not just propose, in his role as a politician, that British rule in India might be combatted by means of a “procreation strike” that would deprive this rule of those it ruled over; in his role as an ethicist he also thinks much more profoundly, in a manner directed to human being in its entirety. The British came and will go away again; unfulfilled needs, sicknesses and the inevitability of dying remain, however, as fundamental and inevitable dimensions of existence. War and violence can really only be overcome in the measure that we cease to cause new human beings to enter into an existence which is already ruinous and structurally marked by violence. This is the case inasmuch as every human being that is begotten is thereby condemned by his or her parents to decay and perish. With his reflections so permeated by anticipative empathy and genuine moral responsibility Gandhi deliberately forgoes a widely disseminated pronatal argument which runs: ‘If I (I myself) bring a child into the world, then the chance exists that the world may become just a little better through his or her action’. Gandhi’s “principle of responsibility”, on the other hand, runs: ‘Before we can even think about bringing children into the world those presently alive will have to have prepared this world for the arrival of these children’. But it was not just colonial India of the 1920s, in Gandhi’s view, that was many decades removed from being so “prepared”. The freedom-fighter Gandhi, inspired by a vision of eternal peace, knows that it is not just India that suffers from a colonial defect but rather human existence itself that is shot through with the structural shortcomings that we have indicated – shortcomings that can be abolished only in and through the abolishing of the very existence of human beings on the earth. This structural shortcoming is the co-extensiveness of procreation, existence and violence. Gandhi’s basic principle, therefore, runs:

“If destruction is violence, then the creation of a thing is violence too. This is why procreation involves violence. The bringing into being of something that is doomed to perish does in fact contain violence.” (Vol. 37, p. 337f)

As a consistent proponent of the principle of non-violence (Ahimsa) Gandhi cannot condone the bringing forth of new human beings who are all doomed to die – be this (in the India of the colonial period) of hunger or be it (elsewhere in the world or at other times in history) of sicknesses or accidents or through the colonization of their lifeworld.

Gandhi is perhaps the only “icon of peace” who is entirely rightly seen as such: peace cannot be said to prevail as soon as no warlike confrontations are any longer occurring; but only then, when human beings are no longer causing other human beings to enter into an existence already formed and shaped by violence. Whoever thinks of begetting another human being is playing with the thought of condemning a human being to perish – an act of violence which we must, with Gandhi, condemn.

It is not progeny of one’s own that constitutes, for Gandhi, the goal of human life but rather that principle of Moksha that is characteristic both of Buddhism and of Hinduism: the putting of an end to those sequences of procreations, births, deaths and more births that form an endless chain. In a discussion with the social reformer G. Ramachandran (1904–1995) in October 1924 Gandhi replied to the question of whether the abolition of humanity by non-procreation that he preached was not also a form of violence and did not amount, indeed, to the destruction of humanity itself by saying: “Then you fear there will be an end of creation? No. The extreme logical result would be, not extinction of the human species, but the transference of it to a higher plane.” (Vol. 29, p. 267f) – The earth, in any case, would be empty of human beings.

[1] Cited from: The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Electronic Book), New Delhi, Publications Division Government of India, 1999, 98 Volumes

[2] Cf.

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