Friday, August 1, 2008

Navadarshanam I

Navadarshanam, July 29-30. On the 29th we made our way by plane, coach, and in the final leg, in the back of a truck, from Pune to Bangalore and then to the small commune run on Gandhian principles called Navadarshanam. The Pune to Bangalore flight was quick. The new airport on the outskirts of the city is another example of India’s explosive development. It’s modern, expansive, and state of the art. You could be in Paris or Madrid or New York City. The area just outside the terminal is dominated by a huge sculpture of a Luis Vuitton bag, as good an icon I can imagine for the boom in consumerism that’s helping fuel Bangalore’s rise. The city itself, where we spent about three hours is, at least in its modern center, even more prosperous and contemporary in its look than Pune. Many of the buildings are new, the shopping streets wide, and elegant hotels share the avenues with virtually every brand name store you can think of from Rebok to Levi’s to Nike (but no Chanel or Gucci, at least not yet). Bangalore is of course the home of India’s call centers, and is also a hub of activity for the IT industry, and it is booming (although this is only true of the immediate center and the IT parks, for on its outskirts the city quickly becomes shabby, then impoverished—and the pollution is nearly unbearable). The modernization and urbanization that mark India as a rising power but which seems unsustainable on a global scale is everywhere in Bangalore, and so the city in its own way represents everything many of the Gandhians we’re meeting with lament.

That’s certainly the case with our hosts at Navadarshanam, a small community started by Indians who were working both here and in the U.S. in the computer and software industries but who decided to drop out and start there own self-sustaining community in the forests of Tamil Nadu, in the south of India. But before I describe the place, a word about how we got here. After lunch in Bangalore we headed out in a convoy, two cars filled with our luggage and a couple of passengers, and the rest of us in a small coach. We had to cross the state border just before we got to Navadarshanam and at that point we had to abandon our transport for a new set of vehicles. I ended up in the back of an open truck with our luggage, our guide, Ranjith, and Ted and Wendy. It was a great ride. As we drove deeper into the forest people, animals, oxcarts, and soon, small villages would suddenly appear behind us out of nowhere. Hopefully I’ll be able to post some of the pictures I took from the back of the truck. My favorite series was shot when we drove by a large school just as the kids were getting out. It seemed like a hundred of them, and when they saw us they started waving and laughing and chasing after us. We waved back, the truck sped along, I shot away with my camera, and they ran, smiling, as fast as they could. Later we made our way through a small village, and then met the road to Navadarshanam, which turned out to be under construction and blocked by a tractor. We had to wait awhile, and mingled with a local couple and some kids until the road opened and we were able to make our way into the compound. Groves of banana palm trees covered the land that wasn’t being farmed, and the far horizon gave way to green, rolling hills.

The Navadarshanam compound itself is quite a beautiful place, nestled on land that slightly inclines down to a little valley and has beautiful views of the surrounding forest and a small lake. The vegetation verges on tropical. Here and there in the fields are small, simple Hindu temples. The buildings in the compound itself are made of simple, sun-dried bricks with tile roofs, but they’re pleasant, even elegant, and decorated in places with painted designs or murals. There is a single communal kitchen and dining area, small homes for the full-time residents, and a couple of large nicely furnished dorm rooms where we are staying. The grounds are beautiful, and animals graze nearby on a landscape that spills off into farmland. Navadarshanam (which means “new light”), a marvel of ingenuity, is completely “off the grid,” in other words, it produces all of its power from the wind and the sun and draws its water from wells and rain water harvesting. Gas, as at Navdanya, comes from a mix of cow dung and water which produces methane gas used to heat cooking stoves. Solar panels produce warm water for showers most afternoons. There’s also a windmill that generates the power that runs their computers.

We had a quiet dinner with the people who live here (all the food is vegetarian, grown either on the property or on nearby farms), spent a little time singing together in the dining hall, and then went to bed. It is surprisingly cool here. We’re at 3,000 feet and I needed a blanket to stay warm. After breakfast this morning some of us did yoga together and others walked the trails that branch out into the forest (I explored the area of farmland that spills down to the small lake, and it was on that walk that I spotted one of the small temples I referred to earlier). At 11:00 this morning we gathered for our first extended discussion with two of the principles behind Navadarshanam ,T. S. Ananthu and Om Bagaria. You can read on their website details of how the place came into being, but essentially it grew out of a study group centered in Delhi in the 1970s, people mostly in technological or scientific fields (Ananthu worked for Xerox and Om is a mechanical engineer) who were interested in governmental change. Although some of the structural changes they wanted finally did occur, they found themselves increasingly disenchanted with the direction of contemporary commercial and technological development and finally made a commitment to try their hand at creating a self-sustaining community based on Gandhian principles, and so they bought this fallow, over-grazed land very cheaply and set to work partly doing nothing so that the forest would return (it has, in dramatic fashion), building the facilities and small scale infrastructure for power I described above, and beginning to farm organically. Early on they had trouble with herds of elephants who would plunder their potatoes, so they put up an electrical fence around the property to keep them out. Apparently an occasional panther can wander onto the property.

Our discussion this first morning focused on Gandhi’s critique of modern civilization in his controversial 1909 book, Hind Swaraj. Ananthu presented his own sense of what Gandhi was getting at in the book, and the ways in which his arguments are connected to the community here. Those who founded Navadarshanam, of course, share Gandhi’s critique of modernity, partly because of their feeling that modern industrial society produces alienated people whose spiritual lives are undone by an increasing preoccupation with a market-driven desire for material possession, and partly because at the rate we’re going such a society is simply not sustainable world wide given the drainage of natural resources and the environmental pollution it produces. Their point was that even if only China and India succeed in creating a level of consumption like that we currently have in the U.S., the world will run out of resources quite quickly. It’s hard to argue with this analysis. The question, however, is what’s to be done about the problem. The general Gandhian answer, keeping in mind there are different versions, is to scale back radically on cycles of production and consumption, shifting away from material production and acquisition and the technologies and machinery that supports them toward a scale of production that is much more austere, local, and egalitarian. Their vision for India in particular, as I’ve said before, is to revitalize the villages (70% of the Indian population is rural) along Gandhian lines and to abandon the modernization and industrialization characteristic of India’s urban areas (which they often see quite understandably as the imposition of an alien culture on a country with a 4,000 year old history of rich cultural practices). For them, these modern cities are homogenous and unsustainable, and so the village, where most people live still, is the most attractive option. As I’ve said before, it still is not clear to me what future, if any, the Gandhians see for the city. Some keep telling me there’s no reason cities have to disappear, but I haven’t heard anything like a plan for India from any of them that deals systematically with the problem of urban areas other than a focus on the village as an alternative, which seems to suggest an embrace of Gandhi’s desire at independence that people move back to the villages. Again, I keep hearing this isn’t the case, but absent any large scale plan for dealing with urban areas as well, it too often seems like it is. When I brought this question up at Navadarshanam the assumption seemed to be that cities like Bangalore would soon enter a period of crisis and finally collapse of their own weight.

My own problem with this Gandhian vision has less to do with their analysis of the effects of development and modernization, which certainly are long past needing to be scaled back, made more socially and economically just, and more environmentally friendly, than with their wholesale rejection of modern culture and the extent to which their prescriptions for change are completely focused on revitalizing the village to support an austere lifestyle centered on the local production of food, clothing, and shelter. Such a revitalization, I believe, is crucially important for villages and those who want to live in them, and so the methods of organic farming and the environmentally friendly production of power advocated by the Gandhians are, to my mind, fundamentally sound. But I don’t believe modernity and the culture it has spawned in cities and suburbs is going to go away, and without some kind of structured and systematic attention to the problems there, we aren’t going to solve the systemic problems the Gandhians rightly call our attention to. I believe no matter how appealing you can make farming and spinning cotton young people are going to continue to want more than that, more variety in the lives they live and the jobs they do. Cities are going to continue to attract people and we’re going to have to find a way to make urban life in them sustainable along with improving life in the village. I don’t see the masses who live in cities suddenly deciding any time soon that they want to go back to living in villages (the trend is the other way), and no Gandhian I’ve talked to has suggested the most un-Gandhian solution of forcing people back to villages. So, we’re stuck, for better or worse, with large urban centers and the cultures they’re producing (I’m committed, by the way, to the idea that cultures are fluid and changing, not only urban ones in the U.S. and the West, but Indian culture as well, which has changed dramatically in 4,000 or so years). It seems to me the only viable option, then, is to regulate growth, production, consumption, and pollution aggressively in urban areas, and to move away from our dependence on oil and toward sustainable and renewable power. Gandhian principles can be central to that effort, but I haven’t heard many Gandhians talking about this in our meetings, as exciting, moving, inspiring, and enlightening as they’ve been.

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