Spiritual Sites as Sources of Social Transformation: Lessons from Svadhyaya by Makarand Paranjape, A.M., PhD
I must start with my uneasy relationship with the Indian academy. What are its features and limitations as I see them? The chief feature of the Indian academy is its legacy of colonialism. And, the primary features of such a legacy are our subservience to Western knowledge systems and our departure from traditional knowledge systems. Even at its best, our academics functions through a disassociation of thought and action, creating ideologues, not exemplars. In a sub-imperial system such as ours, academics is often counterproductive and self-serving. The academic system is thus a part of the problem, not a part of the solution. Without exposing and contesting the dominant discourse of Indian academics, therefore, no useful intervention, even in the world of ideas, can be made.
To put it simply, I see basically two kinds of academics in India. One is dharmic and the other, adharmic. I am using the terms advisedly, because dharma requires not just the neutrality of liberalism, but a positive allegiance and adherence. A dharmic outlook is one that is informed by a sense of a cosmic moral order, an order that includes the community and the individual. I believe that India is not a secular society but a dharmic society. Therefore, Indian academics cannot be secular; it has to be dharmic. I am willing to concede that a secular outlook can also be conducive to dharma, but that is only possible if the practitioner has exceptional integrity.
So, there are two kinds of academic discourses in India: one accepts and perpetuates the agenda of the West, while the other tries to alter and resist it according to our own needs; one is colonized, the other is anti-colonial; one modern, the other is traditional; one is eurocentric the other indigenist; and so on. To deny the internal struggle in Indian academics between two such discourses, to pretend that all of us belong to the same discourse, or worse, to claim that only one discourse exists, in fact, is to shut out dialogue. It also implies that we take neither academics nor ourselves seriously. I am afraid a great change is about to sweep through Indian academics. If we are unable to prove our utility to society, we will be left behind. The Time Spirit beckons us, once again, to join the national mainstream, to soil our hands if necessary with the concerns and needs of common people. We can no longer afford to remain complacent in our ivory towers, disregarding the daily realities that are staring us in our faces.
What is then the sum total of this reality that is staring us in our faces? Amazingly, it is a truth accepted by all shades of opinion in the Indian political spectrum. The Left endorses it as does the extreme Right. If the centrist parties, especially the Congress, are tardy in acknowledging it, it is only because of their own complicity and responsibility. Simply speaking, the truth is that there is something terribly amiss in the project of Independent India.
In other words, the entire country is gradually but surely rejecting the belief that the gigantic mass movement, which culminated with the Independence of India, produced the society that it had envisaged and promised. On the contrary, though we gained freedom, the society that this freedom was meant to produce is yet to be achieved. In a word, we have failed. We have failed not only our forefathers who sacrificed themselves so that this new India could be created, we have failed not only the present generations whose lives have not improved as much as they should have, but we will also have failed our descendants if we do not do something about the sorry state of affairs.
The first one to realize this failure of our dreams was the so-called founder of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi himself. On the very day that India was keeping its tryst with destiny in a glittering ceremony at the Viceroy's Palace in New Delhi, Gandhi was keeping another tryst with destiny at Calcutta. While Jawaharlal Nehru and his descendants became the symbols and beneficiaries of the transfer of power, the lonely Mahatma was continuing the other struggle to bring about purna svaraj. In a sense, as Rajiv Vohra, so eloquently put it in a conversation with me, at the very dawn of Independence, we thus see two Indias, one centred in Delhi, representing the power and authority of the state, the other in every little village and locality of India, representing the unfinished agenda of the independence movement.
This struggle of the other India will never cease, because it is not merely a political or social struggle, but a moral and spiritual one. It is the struggle, in a sense, of the human race to perfect itself and the world it inhabits. That is the quest of the metaphysical India, the India which, to use Raja Rao's wise aphorism is not just a desa, but a darsana. However, we must always remember that the desa depends on the darsana; the former may or may not always reflect the latter, but without the latter, the former has no meaningful existence.
The struggle to free India is not yet over. It is an ongoing one. In fact, it is a struggle to which the time has come to dedicate ourselves in large numbers. Every society will find ways and means of preserving itself. If the official and available channels of finding satisfaction - the state, the political system, the bureaucracy, and so on - fail, then they will look elsewhere. They will find alternatives. They will raise new leaders who will intervene directly.
Therefore, as we prepare to enter the 21st century, I see before this country a renewed challenge to assert its nation-soul, to put out its powers, not only for its preservation, but for the creation of a society which is in consonance with its nature.
This is where the topic I have chosen becomes relevant. It is my belief that the impetus for social transformation in India comes from its religious and spiritual traditions. Swami Vivekananda said this a hundred years back when he said that if you want to act on India, to change it, you have to act on its religion. Religion is the keynote. This idea is repeated by Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo too. In fact, almost all the major reform movements of the 19th century drew their inspiration from religion and acted on it. Raja Rammohun Roy, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Sri Ramakrishna - were all religious leaders. Even the Indian National Congress was an offshoot of the Theosophical Movement. Further back in Indian history, again and again we see that religion is the source of social transformation. The whole Bhakti movement is an example. To the challenge of Islam, India responded with a new religion - Sikhism. To the challenge of the West, India responded with modern Hinduism. Both Islam and Christianity have found a unique opportunity in India to preserve their spiritual heritage. Their entry into India was necessary for their own survival. Similarly, if modern science has a hope anywhere, it is in India, where it can be spiritualized and tamed of its inherent violence. Only a science wedded to ahimsa can serve and save the world.
What I have been suggesting throughout is that it is Sanatana Dharma, that reservoir of infinite capacity, which furnishes us the wherewithal to alter our social and political institutions. Needless to say, Sanatana Dharma is not to be equated with any sect or religion, but is the source of them all. It consists both of sruti and smriti, the revelations and scriptures of all races and peoples of this earth. Even secular enlightenment, preaching the gospel of liberty, equality, and fraternity, only embellishes Sanatana Dharma. I would not like to enter into a long discussion on the problems of defining Sanatana Dharma. I consider it to be a nondual category, without an Other. It is, in fact, the way to the Absolute, which is nothing other than the Reality, the ground of all Being.
It is my belief that it is Sanatana Dharma which must be tapped into if we wish to bring about social transformation. Mahatma Gandhi's was the prime example in this century of how Sanatana Dharma could be used to bring about a political and social revolution.
The rest of my paper is an attempt to illustrate this with reference to Svadhyaya, a mass movement inspired by the teachings of Pandurang Sastri Athavale. I will focus on how Svadhyaya tackles three of our most intractable social problems: caste, religion, and gender inequality. The empowerment that results from Svadhyaya is both real and radical, yet it is qualitatively different from what is expected or produced by modern methods.
Lessons from Svadhyaya
The Challenge of Svadhyaya
I must admit at the outset that, for somewhat self-contradictory reasons, it is not easy for me to write about Svadhyaya. I experience this difficulty because, on the one hand, I have so much to say and on the other hand, because the experience has been so overpowering that I have been silenced.
Let me address the first difficulty briefly. I went with a large group of distinguished people on a Prayog Darshan from 6-11 August 1996. This was the Ahmedabad-Veraval-Rajkot-Bombay circuit, with trips to Bhangi and Vaghri chawls, to two Amritalayam villages, to a fisherfolks' basti, to a Shri Darshanam, Nirmal Neer, Vruksh Mandir, to Bhav Nirjhar and Tatvajanana Vidyapeeth, and finally to Dadaji's pravachan at Madhav Bagh, Khetwadi.
Because all of us went through a similar experience, our observations and conclusions are bound to be similar. So, there is the danger of repeating what several others have already said and written; conversely, there is the fear of leaving out important insights which one may have had. Like others, I have taken copious notes, accumulating quite a bit of material. There is thus an additional organizational problem: what to include, what to leave out; what to emphasize, what to overlook; how to structure this account; and so on.
The second difficulty is a bit harder to tackle. It does not have to do only with my responses and reactions to the Prayog Darshan alone, but with the entire process of my understanding of Svadhyaya. I shall have to speak about this process briefly in order to clarify my point.
Though I had heard about it earlier, I was formally introduced to Svadhyaya in seminar which Rajiv Vohra had organized in Rajendra Bhavan, on 17 February 1996. Subsequently, I organized two meetings on Svadhyaya at IIT, Delhi, where I taught. The first was a showing of Shyam Benegal's Antarnad, followed by a discussion which Rajiv Vohra led. The second was a Bhakti Pheri meeting in which a small group of IITians was addressed by Ramdas Bhai, Shri Mehra, and Dr. Raman Srivastava. Finally, on the 20th of March, I had the good fortune of travelling to Kurukshetra to witness the historical Svadhyaya abhinandan gathering, which culminated in Dadaji's address to a crowd of over nearly 1 lakh people.
I must clarify that contrary to what the above chronology may suggest, my immersion in Svadhyaya was not gradual and incremental. Frankly, from the very first meeting at Rajendra Bhavan, I felt that I was no stranger to the principles, premises, or objectives of Svadhyaya. Without knowning anything about Svadhyaya, I was already, to use a recently coined phrase, a "co-Svadhyayi." I shared the cultural, civilizational, philosophical outlook of Svadhyaya. I was in agreement with its aims and objectives. And I was also attracted to its methods.
I quickly realized that one of the things that made Svadhyaya so unique and so effective was that it offered a way of translating theory into practice. Kriti-bhakti, by its very definition implied a devotion, which was expressed through action. Without such a translation, there could be no Svadhyaya movement.
During the discussions at Rajendra Bhavan it became clear to me that reducing Svadhyaya to a topic of academic debate was futile and counterproductive. It was better to become a Svadhyayi - at whatever level - or to keep quiet. Mere intellectual analysis would be self-serving, adding yet another topic to the endless chain of ideas with which we have been habituated to playing. Thus, cocooned and separated from society, our intellectual class perpetuates its irrelevance to the burning problems of our society. Itself unable to act, it mesmerizes its adherents into a similar state of torpidity and inactivity. What became clear was that something was wrong with us, the Indian intellectuals, not with Svadhyaya.
If so, I become even more self-conscious as I write this. What is the use of this essay? Is it merely to praise Svadhyaya, to express my admiration for its amazing results? I am sure others have done so and will continue to do so equally effectively. If, on the other hand, I indulge in some armchair criticism without any actual practice either of Svadhyaya itself or of a similar creative devotion, of what use is my criticism? I am reminded of a story that I once heard about Mahatma Gandhi. A lady came to him, requesting him to tell her son not to eat too much sugar. Gandhiji paused for a moment and asked her to return after a few days. When she came back with her son, Gandhiji told the latter not to eat sugar. The mother was taken aback. She had expected the Mahatma to say something more profound. "If this is what you wanted to say, why didn't you say it the first time itself?" she asked. Gandhiji replied, "But then I used to eat sugar myself. In the intervening days, I have given it up. So now I can tell your son not to eat sugar." I think it was Gandhiji who emphasized the well-known proverb, "An ounce of practice is worth more than a ton of precept."
We intellectuals have been totally divorced from any practice. We preach one thing and practise something else. There is no consistency in our achar, vichar, and anubhav. If so, then of what use is our praise or criticism of Svadhyaya, which is built upon the solid foundations of silent, devoted, and disciplined work? I think it is best to be silent, best to say nothing at all - but, for a change, to do something.
I still suffer from this sense of guilt and anxiety, but I am consoling myself by thinking that even writing is doing something. If I can write this article as an act of faith, by giving my time and talent to a good cause, perhaps it will give some benefit both to myself and to my readers. Without this spirit of self-inquiry and self-giving, I know full well that this article itself will be wasteful and useless.
This, then, is my first lesson and I do hope I have learnt it well. The rest of the essay will focus on lessons learned from specific encounters with Svadhyaya.
The Rajendra Bhavan Discussion
What impressed me most that day was the brief presentation by Dr. Gopal Krishna. Here was a man steeped in the Western traditions, educated abroad, living in Oxford, a self-confessed agnostic, finally admitting that using one's native cultural resources was the only way to bring about social change. When it comes to the most important job of self-recovery and self-renewal, scientific, secular, and rationalistic modernity become silent. They have no answers. They are, in fact, totally hostile to our civilizational orientation. We believe that (wo)man is a spiritual being; they believe that (s)he is primarily a body. Their psychology may concede other levels, such as the emotional, the intellectual, even the unconscious, but when it comes to the spiritual, they are quiet. Svadhyaya, thus, is nothing but a process of self-acknowledgement. We must understand and accept who we are; we must undertake the journey to discover our own nature.
The problem with the intellectual class is that it looks upon all relationships in terms of power. But the renewal of India needs all kinds of people - farmers, shopkeepers, carpenters, fisherfolk, sweepers, vegetable sellers, domestic servants, daily wage earners, blue-collar workers - as well as the intellectuals, the masters of the word. That which binds all these by a common thread of self-renewal is Svadhyaya. Svadhyaya is a way of bringing diverse people together in such a manner that they can learn from each other and share each others' talents. They also relate to one another in an affectionate, familial manner, thereby giving them a sense of belonging, togetherness, and community. Where political processes fail and where Svadhyaya succeeds is precisely this: the former concentrates on external changes, while Svadhyaya brings about inner transformation. What human beings need is dignity and recognition which can only come from genuine mutuality and caring, not just from some political programmes of social justice.
The Kurukshetra Trip
Never in my life have I seen such a large group of people assembled together for a spiritual cause. I have never been to the Kumbh Mela nor to a very large political rally. The closest I had come to this kind of crowd was at Satya Sai Baba's birthday celebrations in Puttaparthi. But here, from near the dais, one could see an undivided and unhindered sea of humanity. What is more they were totally disciplined. The numbers must have been close to a lakh. All of them had come on their own, spending their own money, paying for their own tickets. On the way, I would see families from distant places enjoying the outing. There was a carnivalesque atmosphere.
The sheer efficiency of Svadhyaya is stupendous. This I have noticed time and time again. The people in charge are superb managers. Because the whole task force consists of volunteers, there is no problem of motivation. The communication systems are incredible; the speed with which orders are conveyed and followed is amazing. Management schools ought to teach the Svadhyaya method of cooperation. Indeed, I would encounter this efficiency again and again. The way the Prayog Darshan was organized only confirmed my initial observation. Efficiency, moreover, enhances pride and self-esteem especially in an otherwise totally inefficient system like ours.
On the way back, sitting in the bus with Professor Narayan Seth, former Director of IIM, Ahmedabad, I suddenly understood how the great social movements in the past - things that I had merely read about in books - must have happened. This very land had been blessed with so many such movements; how many great men and women had trodden this path before. What my textbooks had mentioned had never seemed as real as this day, where before my very eyes I had seen a large mass of people mobilized for a Divine cause. I felt deeply moved and privileged. My life would have been so much the poorer if I hadn't witnessed the magic of Svadhyaya in action. I now felt a sense of relief and confidence: yes, anything is possible. God has not turned his back on humanity. We can still save ourselves. This must have been how Gandhi-ji had brought people together, how the Buddha must have functioned. And before, between, and after them so many thousands upon thousands of social, spiritual, and political movements must have worked along similar lines. All my life I had been seeking the flowing river of enlightenment, not just within myself, but outside too. I had thought that it could only be found within. But now I know that I could also run outward, bringing people together, creating a new social order.
The Prayog Darshan: Arrival
It was raining when we reached Ahmedabad. My co-passenger said that when he had called home from Delhi, they told him to postpone his arrival. There was practically no transport available. But the Svadhyayis were well-prepared. A series of cars and jeeps had lined up to await our arrival. We were sheparded through the dark and wet streets of Ahmedabad to a comfortable country club. I was impressed not just by the unfailing courtesy and cordiality of these volunteers, but by their unassuming friendliness. Later, we were taken to one of our hosts' for dinner. We ate there throughout our stay. What delicious food! The whole family looked after us, including the children. Svadhyaya knits families together.
Bhavlakshis and Others
The next morning, we went to Ramdev Pura, a chawl near Jawahar Chowk. This was a settlement of Bhangis, the outcastes among the outcastes. In Svadhyayi parlance, they are not known as Harijans but as bhavlakshis - those who wish to be esteemed.
We sat together in Ramesh Bhai's house before reassembling at their community centre. The house was clean, full of shining brass utensils. Ramesh Bhai's old father had tears in his eyes as Samdhong Rimpoche-ji, a senior Buddhist Lama, the Head of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, and the Director of the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, stepped into his home. It was the miracle of Svadhyaya that had brought all these distinguished people to his home.
We heard what was to become a familiar refrain. Before Svadhyaya, this used to be like most other untouchable colonies - filthy, impoverished, neglected; the residents had a low self esteem; drinking, gambling, wife-beating were rampant; very few children went to school; though the reservation policy had ensured jobs for some, there was terrible social discrimination and contempt for these people. After Svadhyaya, everything changed. The drinking and wife-beating stopped, as did the petty quarrels. Marriage customs were reformed; injurious and expensive superstitions were abandoned; children started going to school; the houses became clean and tidy; every child in the basti learned Sanskrit shlokas.
In the community centre, I found a very high degree of awareness. Ramesh Bhai said that all of them had earned a lot of respect after becoming Svadhyayis. The savarna Svadhyayis had visited their homes, invited them to their own houses, fed them, treated them with respect. It was this attention, care, and respect that had reintegrated them into society. Earlier they had been filled with hatred and anguish, now they were loving and happy. What is more, they felt sorry for those who still treated them like untouchables, those savarnas who had not yet been touched by social reform. "I know I am better off than such people," Ramesh Bhai said simply, "I can only feel pity for them."
For the first time in my life I heard a man call himself a Bhangi (scavenger) with unselfconscious pride. "I am a Bhangi, but I also do the work of a Brahmin. A Brahmin is one who spreads knowledge, sanskars; so I too am a Brahmin. I go on Bhakti pheris to spread the liberating message of Svadhyaya. So I am a Bhangi-Brahmin."
Later, an untouchable Doctor told us how he had vowed to kill at least ten upper-caste Hindus. That, he thought, would be the only way to take revenge on those who had oppressed them for so long. But now, after the enlightening touch of Svadhyaya, the same man said that he would not claim any reservation for his son because he did not feel the need for any special privileges or protections. "Dadaji has taught us not to beg, not to accept anybody's leftovers, not to take what doesn't belong to us, what we haven't earned. I no longer need handouts."
Svadhyayis feel that such a change should come voluntarily. They feel that reservations, though necessary, are not enough. What the Dalits need is warmth, human sympathy, attention, loveand respect - not just economic or political sops. It is only in Svadhyaya that I saw the solution to one of our most intractable problems: the continued oppression of the Dalits and the counter-casteism unleashed in their name by the politicians. Both extremes mirror each other; both divide society and threaten to rend the national fabric. Only in Svadhyaya did I see a Bhangi call himself one without the least trace of an inferiority complex. Only in Svadhyaya did I see a Dalit declare that he was a Brahmin. Only in Svadhyaya did I see a Scheduled Caste man declaring that he no longer needed reservations. Only Svadhyaya can help us preserve our cultural diversity without having us give up our desire for upward mobility. The cultural traditions of an untouchable enrich our society as much as that of a Brahmin. Such, after all, was Gandhiji's idea of varna: diversity, occupational security, self-respect, without stratification or inequality. In fact, in Svadhyaya we see a combination of the Ambedkarite drive for self-respect combined with a Gandhian respect andcompassion even for one's oppressors.
The two standard ways of opposing caste discriminations are through the counter-violence and hatred of caste-based politics or through a politics of reservations and compensations. But the method of Svadhyaya, without succumbing to either pitfall, achieves greater results.
We found a similar experience in a Vaghri village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. The Vaghris or Devi-Pujaks are another despised tribe of India. Again, we found a similar uprising among them. Ranjit Bhai, of Jawahar Nagar, summed up the impact of Svadhyaya: "Earlier we were like animals, living outside the village, drinking, fighting, cursing; but now we are flowing in the current of prem bhav. Today, far from being a nuisance to society, we have become its leaders and sustainers." Later, in Veraval, we went to a community of fisher-folk, where again, we witnessed a self-reliant, proud society being built up. Svadhyaya, by emphasizing the indwelling Divinity in every human being gives a message of hope and strength to the most despised and abandoned sections of our society.
The empowerment that comes with Svadhyaya is not external; it is not brought about by economic or social props. It is not based on doles and subsidies given by the Government. Svadhyaya transforms a person's concept of self: from seeing himself as helpless and weak, a person begins to see himself as self-sufficient and strong. Communities which have been alienated from society are reintegrated. People who could not read or write today recite Vedic hymns. Their faces shine with pride as they intone these mantras; they wish to tell the world that they too are children of the Rishis and the Seers of Aryavrata.
In Kajli village, near Veraval, we saw how Svadhyaya had tackled another one of our almost intractable problems: the communal canker. This village had 250 harijan families, 100 muslim families, and 100 Karari Rajput families, all living together in harmony. This village was an Amritalayam, which means that more than 80% of its inhabitants were Svadhyayis. What was the secret of their communal harmony? It was, we discovered, not just sarva dharma samabhav, Vinoba's message, but sarva dharma sveekar - the acceptance of all faiths. When supporters of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement came to this village to collect money and volunteers, they were politely told that the villagers would built both a Ram temple and a mosque in the village itself. There was no need to get involved in a temple-mosque conflict far away. The co-existence of a temple and mosque in Kajli was the best defence against the communal violence unleashed in the wake of the destruction of the Babri Masjid.
Salim Bhai, the Secretary of the Muslim jamaat, offered his views on how to ensure peace and amity between the two communities: "No conversion; mutual respect, tolerance; and the Loknath Amritalayam, where people of all faiths can gather together." Before Svadhyaya, the two communities were separate, neither eating nor drinking for each other's houses; now they even worshipped together. We asked Salim Bhai if he, as a Muslim, minded coming to the Amritalayam which had photographs of Hindu gods and of Dadaji. Wasn't idolatory prohibitted in Islam? He did not wish to get involved in doctrinal controversies, but insisted instead that there should be mutual tolerance and that the core of both faiths was similar: both stressed a belief in God and the living of a virtuous life. In effect, the Muslims of Kajli had openly accepted that Hindus would, unlike them, continue to worship idols, but that did not mean that the latter were non-believers or Kafirs. There need be no conflict between members of different communities; after all the basis of Indian culture was pluralism.
Maulana Wahiduddin got up to speak at the end of this session. He said that Svadhyaya was the hope for the new India, an India whose foundations had been laid by the freedom struggle, but whose promise had been belied by post-Independence developments. He felt that he was a Svadhyayi himself. Later, he worshipped in the mosque at Kajli, while many of us, heads covered, watched silently. What was most astounding was how, later, Maulana Saheb did his namaz in one of the Svadhyayi temples during our tour. True, he did not face the photographs of the Hindu Gods, but instead faced Mecca like a true Muslim; yet this was the first time I had ever seen a Muslim offer prayers in a Hindu house of worship. This was one of the miracles that I had seen during my trip. Now, whenever anyone tells me that Muslims are fanatical and intolerant, I point out how I have seen, with my own eyes, a learned and pious Muslim Maulana offering prayers in a Hindu temple.
Not only has Svadhyaya succeeded in empowering Dalits and in tackling the so-called minority problem, wherever it has spread, it has also raised the status of women. I felt this most keenly at Shanti Para, a village in Saurashtra., The whole village had gathered at the Amritalayam. There, in front of over 500 people, Rudi Ben, an illiterate, rustic housewife stood up to demonstrate the extent of her empowerment and emancipation. She spoke out clearly and fearlessly, explaining exactly how Svadhyaya had changed her life, reformed her family. Earlier, women from the village were more or less confined to the house. They were not educated. Their functions were confined to domestic chores. After Svadhyaya, the village women have become community leaders, with an equal voice in determining how they want their lives to be run. As one rural woman summed it up, "Svadhyaya nahin, to gaurav nahin" - there is no respect without Svadhyaya.
True, Svadhyaya, is not like Western feminism, or its desi versions. It preaches neither the equality of women, nor the upliftment of women per se. Rather, it emphasizes the value of cooperation in every family and in the whole community itself. It has special programmes for women which raise their consciousness without being problem or issue based. Because of Svadhyaya, the status of women has not only risen greatly within the family and in society, but women also go out on Bhakti pheris. They accompany their husbands in most of the important activities. They have learned not only to read and write, but also to teach, to spread the message of Svadhyaya. The evils of dowry have been eradicated in Svadhyayi families. Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, considered natural enemies, have learned not just to coexist, but to love and support each other. These changes have come about through innovative programmes such as saas-bahu ka milan or sakhi milan. All the conventional relationships are idealised; Svadhyaya builds up communities by revitalizing relationships.
Svadhyaya has not only succeeded in empowering Dalits, minorities, and women, but it has helped rebuild entire communities. The best example of this was Shanti Para itself. It felt like heaven - a self-reliant, highly enlightened village, made up of upright, responsible, and caring individuals. It was a village which used to be plagued with politics earlier; now, there was no need here even for elections. The leader was chosen by common consent. The man in question told us that it was with great reluctance that he had accepted the charge of the Sarpanch. He knew it would be a thankless job, but he had agreed only out of a sense of serving the community. How did the change in him come about? He said that when Krishna (God) was his hriday samrat (the emperor of his heart), he felt no need to seek power. After all, we seek external recognition only when we feel impoverished inside. Svadhyaya makes each person feel the wealth within, thus reducing his or her craving from external rewards. In fact, the trikal sandhya, the triurnal prayer, is based precisely on such a notion of self-renewal. One becomes (what?) by renewing one's contact with the in-dwelling God.
There was no poverty in this village. The standard of health care was quite high. After Svadhyaya, the village had been cleaned up, the open drains sealed; malaria, which had earlier been a killer, had been nearly eradicated. The local doctor spoke of how impressed he was with the community spirit. In fact, he himself became a Svadhyayi after seeing how progressive these villagers were. Wells had been rechared, old water bodies repaired. Nearly every house had a soak-pit. When a cyclone had devasted the power lines, the villagers put up the poles and wires themselves, merely requesting the Electricity Board to switch the current on. This was the kind of village in which a farmer would have an M.A. in Philosophy. The villagers had planted over 16,000 trees - not just planted them, but nurtured them. The method was simple: each person adopted a certain number of trees and took full responsibility for raising them. Krishna broke the pots of butter and milk so that the produce of Gokul did not go to Mathura. The local youths could then eat it and become strong. Similarly, Shanti Para had a Gorus Kendra, another brilliant idea of Dadaji's, whereby the farmer sold his milk to a cooperative in the village from which all the other villagers could get pure and unadulterated milk. This enhances the status of the cow, which was earlier thought of merely as a source of money and thus tortured. It also ensures the feeling that the profit from the centre was the prasad of God.
Such a village, to my mind, was exactly what Gandhi might have had in mind when he had spoken of Gram Svaraj: It will have cottages with sufficient light and ventilation, built of a material obtainable within a radius of five miles of it. The cottages will have courtyards enabling householders to plant vegetables for domestic use and to house their cattle. The village lanes and streets will be free of all avoidable dust. It will have wells according to its needs and accessible to all. It will have houses of worship for all, also a common meeting place, a village common for grazing its cattle, a co-operative dairy, primary and secondary schools in which industrial education will be the central fact, and it will have Panchayats for settling disputes. It will produce its own grains, vegetables and fruit, and its own Khadi. This is roughly my idea of a model village .... (Harijan 9 January 1937).
Perhaps, Shanti Para is far more urban and modern than Gandhi imagined an Indian village to be, but it has the kind of ideal community that he envisaged.