John Ruskin writes in the introduction to his Unto This Last: Four Essays on the First Principles of Political Economy that his book is the first attempt to express in plain English what was given in Greek by Xenophon (especially The Economist) and Plato (especially Laws) and in Latin by Horace and Cicero.
Clive Wilmer in his brilliant edition of Unto This Last and Other Writings by John Ruskin (Penguin Classics) adds to this list others that John Ruskin cites most often: Shakespeare, Dante and the Bible.
All these works are concerned with fundamental truths of human nature. These works approach economics in terms of what is unchangingly just, everywhere and always, what Gandhiji simply called truth.
Gandhiji had read all the Latin law-books in their original language while studying to join the Inns of Court in London. The examination in Roman Law was entirely in the Latin language. While many students chose not to read the difficult texts in Latin, Gandhiji chose to study them thoroughly in Latin, a language he undertook to learn in studying for the London matriculation.
Gandhiji had undoubtedly read the Greeks, Shakespeare and Dante for his matriculation from Bombay University and again for his London Matriculation, which he describes in his autobiography as a difficult examination that meant a great deal of labor (Latin and a modern language were compulsory) and much addition to his stock of general knowledge. In England, while still a student, he had read the entire Bible, both Old and New Testaments.
In 1908 when Gandhiji read Ruskin's Unto This Last: Four Essays on the First Principles of Political Economy on a life-changing 24 hour train journey from Johannesburg to Durban, he was already familiar with the great classical ideals that Ruskin based his own book upon. In fact, Gandhiji's creation of what we may now call Gandhian economics went far beyond Ruskin and his classical Greek and Latin sources.
Gandhiji had, under the influence of the Theosophists in London, read many Hindu texts including the Bhagwad Gita. Bhikhu Parekh points out in his wonderful book Gandhi: A Very Short Introduction (and formerly in his masterful treatment of Gandhiji in the Past Masters series) that Gandhiji's mother came from a community which considered the Koran as equally holy as the Hindu scriptures. The influence of the non-violent Jain religion was very strong in the region where he grew up, especially in Gandhiji's own family.
Furthermore, Gandhiji started corresponding with Tolstoy in 1909, during the last year of Tolstoy's life, and even translated Tolstoy's Letter to a Hindu: The Subjection of India--Its Cause and Cure into Gujarati. In his introduction to this book, Gandhiji calls Tolstoy his "great teacher whom I have long looked upon as one of my guides".
So, when Gandhiji took the life-changing 24 hour train trip from Johannesburg to Durban reading Ruskin, he was recognizing in Ruskin truths that he already knew well and that were part of his family background, education and study. Gandhiji said he had read few books, but what he had read he had digested well.
Gandhian Economics undoubtedly begins with Gandhiji, and its roots can be traced back through John Ruskin to the ancient Greeks with detours in Shakespeare, Dante, the Bible, Horace, Cicero, Tolstoy, Jainism, the Bhagwad Gita and Koran and that infinite pool of wisdom that was ancient India.
Posted by Abhay Burjor Ghiara at 6/11/2014