Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sevagram Ashram

This post was written yesterday and comes to you today compliments of free internet access at the Indore airport, where we're waiting to change planes for Pune. I'll try to post pictures later to get caught up.

Tuesday, July 22. When Gandhi left his ashram in Ahmedabad for the Salt March he vowed not to return until India gained it’s independence. He eventually relocated to a very small village called Wardha, near the dead center of India. Having taken a stand in favor of people returning to the village, he felt he ought to follow his own advice. Eventually he founded an ashram and a school, and his mail became so voluminous they had to create a separate post office for him. Sevagram is now a vibrant institution. People come from all over to visit and study, the school was reinstituted in 2005, and there is building going on all around. Sevagram is a kind of living museum, dedicated to the historical responsibility of maintaining the buildings where Gandhi and his associates lived and worked directing the independence movement in the final decade or so of his life, keeping up the ground he walked and the shade trees he sat under. But it’s also a living, thriving hub of activism and education.

We arrived yesterday late morning after getting up at 3 a.m. in Delhi and taking a short flight to the city of Nagpur, making our way in a convoy of jeeps to Sevagram in time for tea and a rest before lunch. In the afternoon we had a long meeting with one of the principal administrators at Sevagram, Shiva Dutta, with the discussion focused on Gandhi’s theories about education and how they are being employed at the ashram’s school, Na Talim , which means “New Education.” Dutta was formally trained in economics and math but decided to renounce a mainstream career and dedicate his energy to the educational mission of Sevagram. According to Dutta, Gandhi’s approach to education was to focus on producing people for the “future, a process that involves growing ideas that can lead to productive, collective change. But the key thing is that the process of education was linked inextricably in Gandhi’s mind to the central importance of the small, independent, self-sustaining village. Peoples’ needs ought to be basic (austerity is the hallmark here) and they ought to be fulfilled by local goods and local labor. Indeed, Gandhi insisted everything villagers need ought to come from no more than 5 km. away. His educational model is linked to this idea by its stress on producing knowledge that has practical use in this context, knowledge that breeds self-reliance, ingenuity, and the ability to understand local conditions and to work with them to produce the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. Education at the ashram’s Na Talim is organized around handicrafts, so that knowledge about math, geography, science, and history grows integrally out of learning about how to produce things the village needs. As an educator myself I found this approach to education a challenge to some of my own assumptions, which is a good thing. Here the problem I’ve been productively struggling with the whole trip, how nurturing a simple and austere village life can lift everyone in India up, those who live in rural areas and those of live in cities, and how the life of the village can be made appealing enough to people who find modernity in the 21st century so seductive kept dogging me. No simple answers here, of course.

There are prayers every evening at 6:30 in the evening and again at 4:30 a.m. I attended the 6:30 prayer and, though I’m not a religious person myself, I found it quite moving and relaxing. Hindi, Muslim, and Christian prayers were chanted and in a variety of languages. A man playing what looked like a very simple sitar occasionally played a quiet tune, another person beat time with finger cymbals, and here and there men were meditatively spinning cotton on portable wheels. After dinner we were treated to an informal concert by two of the teachers, one who played the sitar and the other the tabla (drums). Staff members from the ashram joined us and sang along. This was the kind of special experience we’ve been privileged to have on a trip where we’re able to move beyond the tourist sites and have access to people in their homes, offices, villages, etc.

Today, the 23rd, was a very full day. We began with a visit to an ashram run completely by women. It is situated on a lovely spot above a wide, rocky river. The living quarters surround a small farming plot, and many women were working the field or cleaning the property. We heard a wonderful talk by one long-time inhabitant, Nirmal Bhen, who spoke to us about her own spiritual life, the power of the mind and the senses, and her belief that the purpose of life is to experience joy. She defined her life at the ashram as “spiritual experimentation,” and I think we all found her soulful energy contagious. We spent the rest of the day at an extensive center devoted to engineering and scientific innovation. They have a dizzying array of environmentally friendly, sustainable projects, everything from honey harvesting to metal works to paper making to textile weaving and dying. One whole section of the place is devoted to experimenting with toilets that process and purify their own waste materials, either to recycle them into the earth or capture them to produce gas. While we were all impressed with the ingenuity guiding their various projects there were some questions about just how all these projects will directly effect villagers. The textile production section in particular seemed dedicated to finding ways to market fairly high end khadi projects as commodities, a project that one of the directors of the ashram here later told me wasn’t really in accord with its Gandhian commitment to austerity with a focus on the production of goods to be consumed by the villagers.

This again raised for me the question of what relationship there would be in this Gandhian vision between the village and larger urban areas, between a culture of consumption focused on basic needs and one based on the production of new products and services tied to the kind of complex market economy we currently live in. While this predominantly western-driven market economy, and the patterns of consumption it feeds off, clearly isn’t sustainable world-wide, I am still having trouble seeing the “village” as an answer to the overwhelming problems of poverty, environmental pollution, and a crumbling infrastructure I’ve observed all over the country. The Gandhian principles we’ve been learning about, based on a mix of beliefs and practices that are both traditional and innovative and which tap into and thus preserve deep cultural roots, seem promising as vehicles for stabilizing and improving the quality of basic life in India’s villages. But we’re talking here about the basics, food, clothing and shelter, and a system (depending on who you talk to) that seems narrowly focused for reasons both moral and practical on austerity and on staving off the effects of modernization. Yet modernization is everywhere in India, aggressively marketed on billboards and television and realized everywhere in planned communities and building projects both in the countryside and the city. This makes for the kinds of stark juxtapositions only a visitor to India can appreciate, you see poverty and wealth side-by-side everywhere, ox-carts pulling piles of shrubs to feed cows being passed by shiny new cars and dwarfed by gleaming new buildings. Our trip has heavily emphasized how Gandhian principles can help renew and sustain basic life in villages (which make up some 70% of the population), but we’ve seen little to help explain how the quickly modernizing urban centers of India, with their vast slums and decaying infrastructure, can be stabilized and transformed. The challenges are enormous. Opting out of continued modernization and some kind of global system of linked economies (which is going to bring cultural change, but what’s new about that?) seems to me rather inconceivable, but that system needs to be made fairer, more socially just and environmentally responsible, less exploitive all the way round.

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