Friday, August 1, 2008

Navadarshanam II

My previous post dealt with the social vision underlying Navadarshanam since yesterday’s discussions dealt mainly with an analysis of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj and the role his critique of modern civilization has played in the development of the community here. This morning’s discussion, on the other hand, focused on the spiritual aspects of Gandhi’s thought and on his conception of religion. As we’ve seen all along, Gandhi was a multi-faceted thinker, and so he is often treated as a political leader or as a philosopher, but not as often as a religious leader or thinker. In his presentation this morning, Ananthu stressed that in Gandhi’s introduction to his autobiography he wrote that the whole point of his existence was self-realization and seeing God, that he was less interested in India’s self-rule than he was in individual self-rule achieved through a kind of spiritual journey (although for Gandhi there seemed no division between religious and public life). His insistence on nurturing the spiritual and his commitment to a fundamentally religious life, of course, caused much division among his peers, for many of them, like Nehru, were secularists. But Ananthu insisted that Gandhi’s commitment to a spiritual life and to religion is of central importance. He explained that for Gandhi, however, “religion” was the “religion underlying all religion,” that is, it is constituted of those basic moral principles that underlie all religions and therefore intersect, so that to be religious is to rise above narrow definitions rooted in the doctrines of individual religions, especially those that claim a special or privileged status. This means that in the Gandhian sense, religion need not be divisive, since it’s constituted of the basic underlying truths of all faiths. The question I had, of course, what just what those basic underlying truths are, and who decides? We didn’t really talk about this, but I think the question sometimes gets begged. In theory this conception of religion is very appealing, but there are complexities underneath the surface.

Ananthu also took some time to discuss yoga as a spiritual practice that can help us to transcend mind and body and connect us to an ultimate or essential reality. This practice is a central aspect of life at the commune. His discussion of yoga, which as a practice is designed to “yolk” (the literal meaning of the word) the individual to a higher essential force or principle by using the body to do “inner work,” led to a spirited discussion of some of the underlying spiritual concepts Ananthu had been invoking all morning. Some of us wondered whether living a moral life required religion at all, and Ananthu quickly insisted that religion and morality are the same thing, which I think is essentially correct. Others took issue with his invocation of “essence,” the idea underlying western metaphysics that there is an unseen, higher, transcendent reality or force beyond material reality, a “higher” reality that is intrinsic and absolute. This in turn led to a discussion of the role religion has played in the history of violence and conquest, whether the quest for material plunder was at the center of things like colonialism and slavery, or whether religion also played a central role. The whole morning’s discussion was lively, intelligent, thoughtful, and engaging, and I thought it produced some really helpful give and take between the group. I like the fact that, collectively, we have a variety of points of view. We share an interest in Gandhi and how his work is being carried on at the places we have visited, but we have diverse intellectual and religious backgrounds and each of us comes at the issues we are discussing in different ways. Add to that the fact that our assumptions are continually being challenged on the trip and that we are learning an enormous amount (we’re really a kind of traveling seminar) and you’ve got the makings of a really fertile intellectual experience.

In the afternoon we met with the senior trustee at Navadarshanam, Partap Agarwal. He is in many ways the most fascinating person I’ve met in India. He’s is absolutely uncompromising in both his criticisms of the effects of modernization and his prescriptions for social change. And he’s quite preoccupied with toilets and what we put in them. He is absolutely convinced that the toilet is one of the three worst inventions of mankind (the other two being the automobile and nuclear energy). In Partap’s view the toilet has created two problems. In the first place, it wastes water, a valuable resource, and in the second flushed fecal matter pollutes the environment and is a natural resource that’s being wasted. He’s a strong advocate of shitting in the woods so that fecal matter can return to the earth and nurture the soil. For him, human beings took a fatal wrong turn when they invented agriculture, for agriculture has led inexorably to the degradation and then the pollution of land, and to the creation of increasingly large communities that have proved, especially with the invention of the city, increasingly unsustainable. His solution to the problems of modernity? Forget Gandhi’s proposal that people return to villages, for Partap insists that everyone should move to on an acre or so in the forest and live off the land. Without planting anything. He is a guru of the tree, and has a dizzying knowledge of the edible matter they produce. In his view, of course, the community of Navadarshanam is full of bad compromises. They have toilets (which he spoke against), grow their own vegetables, and create their own electrical power. In a way he strikes me as the conscience of the community, the man with the most extreme vision of what a healthy life entails. I thought Gandhi’s vision was severe until I met Partap. But while his vision is uncompromising, his life is a compromise. He lives here only part time, and his other home isn’t in the forest.

Partap’s other passion is fasting. He claims he hasn’t been to the doctor in 20 years. When he feels bad, he fasts. The science of fasting (if one can call it that) as he explained it has to do with freeing the body from its work processing the food we take in, separating off what the body needs from the foreign material it needs to expel, so that it can set to work getting rid of residual foreign material that may be causing our symptoms. When he gets sick, he fasts, letting the body purge itself of whatever is ailing it. He also fasts on a fairly regular basis as part of his over-all spiritual practice. In these fasts, he takes nothing but water, lays at rest, and does nothing but meditate, trying to get in tune with his body and lifting himself above the mind (I told him frankly that the fasting part sounded like something I could do but that doing nothing for three days sounded impossible).

What he advocates (everyone moves to the forest, no agriculture, shit in the woods, no doctors, fast regularly to cleanse the mind and body, live without everything we think of as part of our culture) of course strikes me as extreme, to say the least. There is a logic to his analyses and to what he advocates, of course, but putting all of these things into practice as a way to heal human civilization and save the planet is clearly impractical. I don’t see people deciding any time soon to move to a single acre in the forest to become gatherers who shit in the woods, fast when they are ill, and spend most of their time seeking God within themselves. But at another level I find Partap extremely compelling exactly because he takes such an uncompromising position, and because he argues it with such passion, grace, and goodwill. If we are to measure the quality of the lives people live by their presence, their devotion to the common good, their sense of well being and comfort in the world, by their sense of humor, contentment, and the solidity of their attitude, then Partap is doing something right. He’s a wise man, lovely to be with, and a great conversationalist with a wonderful sense of humor. And this isn’t to say that the others I’ve met here aren’t equally impressive in their own ways, indeed, everyone here is absolutely charming in the best sense of the word, and the range of their talents is striking. Ananthu is in many ways the intellectual leader of the group (though he’s a deeply spiritual man), Om the practical solver of problems, the engineer extraordinaire who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, Partap is the guru, the spiritual leader, and Shoba the master cook extraordinaire who prepares the most wonderful, tasty (and easy to digest) vegetarian food you can imagine and leads the group every night in communal hymns. All of these people have wonderful spirits. It is relaxing just to be around them, and they’ve created an impressive community here based in equal measure on devotion to sustainable, healthy living, ingenuity, and gritty tenacity.

A footnote: There is a small village just about 200 yards beyond Navadarshanam’s gate which I visited alone early on the first morning of our stay. As much as I’ve come to love my companions on this trip it was nice to take a solitary walk and to move through the village on my own. Often when we’ve visited villages we’ve arrived as a group, and it is pretty overwhelming for the villager, and a little chaotic, when 14 Anglos just appear out of nowhere in western dress, cameras in hand. As I arrived (the name of the village is Ganganahalli) people were just beginning their day, emerging from their brightly painted concrete and wood homes to fetch water, tend to the cows, wash clothes, or just mingle with one another. One little girl in a school uniform was standing in the front of her house combing her long hair. I was struck by how colorful, well-built, and nicely kept the homes were (I didn’t see a single commercial business, they seem centered in another village a few kilometers away), and by how little people seemed to be disturbed by my presence. I strolled through the village and out the other side into rolling farm land. There was a small blue temple on my right which had a little shrine in it, and the structure was covered by a small thatched roof supported by four thick branches sunk in the ground. Beyond this farmers began to work their fields, some by hand and others with tillers pulled by oxen. One boy walked by and told me he was a student on his way to school. Further on was a small, abandoned granite quarry that had filled with water. A thick row of beautiful grass was growing in the water and swayed in the morning breeze.

The quarry pool was a particularly peaceful place, but I had to double back to get to breakfast, so I headed along the road I had taken back into town. The first little home I encountered was a small farm on the edge of the village with a pen full of very young goats. As I moved back into the village I could see more people were up and at work. They didn’t seem to mind my taking pictures. Indeed, one woman with a child on her hip motioned me over to take her picture. Once I’d shown it to her she called others over, including a much older women I assume was her mother, or her mother-in-law. Children also appeared from all sides, and pretty soon there was quite a crowd. I tried to explain who I was as best I could, and they spoke back, but who knows what they thought of me, why I was there, and what I was doing?


Brooks Anderson said...


Thank you for posting your description of your visit to Navadarshanam, and your impressions of T.S. Ananthu and Partap Agarwal.

I first met Partap in 1987 when I spent 3 months at Friends Rural Centre, a Quaker farm in Rasulia, Madhya Pradesh, where Partap was the director. I had just graduated from the College of Wooster and was spending 8 months on farms in India, learning about the potential of do-nothing farming, which was being practiced then at FRC. At that time, Partap's family had moved to Delhi, so Partap was living alone. Folks at the farm asked me if I wouldn't mind doing some cooking for Partap. I had no idea how to cook, but I happily agreed, and thereby had the privilege of eating with Partap on many occasions.

It was a life-changing and extremely special experience.

A couple of years ago, Partap visited me at Annapurna farm, a 135-acre organic farm in Tamil Nadu where I've lived since 1995. Partap arrived dressed completely in white cotton khadi, and with brilliant white hair and a long white beard. I hadn't seen Partap since 1988, and it was startling and wonderful to see him again.

I recall Partap sitting in a cane chair on the varandah of our community kitchen, remarking, "we're witnessing the collapse of civilization," and chuckling.

He's mad, I thought to myself.

Since his visit, I've realized that in his analysis of society is absolutely correct, although it is often not what we'd like to hear.

I also had the pleasure of meeting T.S. Ananthu. In 1988, I travelled with Ananthu and some other friends to an organic farm outside of Delhi. At that time I believe Ananthu was living at the Gandhi Peace Foundation in Delhi.

Again, thanks very much for sharing your time with these very special people, and also for your wonderful account of your exploration In Search of Gandhi's India

Brooks Anderson

Sanjay said...

India is really a country with variety of culture, cuisine, etc. I read your article and its well researched and it seems you are a traveller and from your personal travel experience.