Spiritual Sites as Sources of Social Transformation:
Lessons from Svadhyaya
by Makarand Paranjape, A. M., PhD

Notable Svadhyayi Experiments: Bhav Nirjhar

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Notable Svadhyayi Experiments: Bhav Nirjhar

Located in a spacious campus on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, Bhav Nirjhar is an educational institution with a difference. Here boys from reasonably well-off rural families are trained to become farmer-philosophers. They come here after schooling in similar, Svadhyayi institutions, and after "graduation," will return to the villages. No degrees will be awarded. With one stroke, the whole lure of salaried jobs in the city has been eliminated as has been the problem of the drain of human resources from our villages. Dadaji started these institutions so that a different kind of human being could be created, someone who is not a slave to degrees and diplomas, someone who hasn't received a lop-sided and practically irrelevant education. What a radical break it is from the competitive, examination-oriented, colonial education system in which we are all trapped. All the ills of the present system - the false disciplinary hierarchies, the
soul-denying, culturally alienating kind of knowledge, the obsession with marks and grades, cheating and copying, tutorial colleges, tuitions, and so on - have been eliminated in this alternate system. Here students get a comprehensive, integrated, vocational education. Besides agricultural sciences and training in cottage industries, they also do yoga and study philosophy. The emphasis is on sanskar more than shiksha. Those who wish to study further, can go to the Tatvajnana Vidyapeeth in Thane, where Dadaji himself supervises the teaching of Comparative Philosophy, Indian Culture and Civilization, and other such topics.

Yogeshwar Krishi, Shri Darshanam, Vruksh Mandir, etc.

All these are ways of creating apaurushiya Lakshmi or impersonal wealth. Cooperative farming in which volunteers from one or several villages participate, not as farmers, but as pujaris, or worshippers, helps create wealth which belongs to the entire community. This wealth is then used to help and support those who are the most needy, yet it is not seen as charity or dole. It is the prasad of the worshipful work of the whole community and can therefore be given and accepted in a manner as impersonal as that with which it was created. Yogeshwar Krishi is confined to one village; Shri Darshanam is the combined effort of 15-20 villages; while a Vruksh Mandir involves an even greater number. The sizes of the communes vary, ranging from two or three acres in a Yogeshwar Krishi, to dozens of acres in Shri Darshanams and Vruksh Mandirs.

The idea behind these experiments is not just to produce wealth and profit; in fact, during our visit to the Vruksh Mandir near Rajkot, we were told that the costs almost equal the proceeds. The main purpose behind these schemes is to bring people together. Several families work on these farms turn by turn. They stay there for two or three nights, work together, study together, and listen to each other. People of different villages come closer together through such meetings. There are spin-offs like Gaon Milans, in which entire villages visit each other. One village may go during Dussehra, while the other may return the visit during Diwali. In this manner, whole communities get to know each other.

Underlying Svadhyaya is the notion that all human beings are related by the indwelling God within each of us. There is a repeated experience and reinforcement of this deeply felt truth in these meetings. During our visit to the Dhoraji Shri Darshanam, a lady told us how the entire Svadhyayi family helped in solemnizing and celebrating the marriage of her daughter. Her own financial resources were strained, but the whole village came to her rescue without her asking for help even once. Similarly, we had earlier been told of how the highest Brahmins had helped in arranging for the weddings of their Bhavalakshi brethren. Svadhyayi makes unselfish love and giving both personally and socially rewarding.

The same idea of creating impersonal wealth and building communities informs projects like Matsya Gandha. Here, instead of community farming we have community fishing. Likewise, there are community vegetable carts, where the same concept of cooperative volunteerism is employed.

Other experiments include recharging wells, building or rebuilding tanks and water bodies, organic farming, etc. All these are meant to redress the ecological damage caused by the over-exploitation of the earth. The image presented to us was of one where we have drunk too much milk from mother-earth; now her breasts are withered and she has been reduced to a skeleton. We must
replenish her and nourish her so to save her life; otherwise, future generations will call us murderers and never forgive us. Indeed, water management is the key to sustainable agriculture and rural reconstruction. Dadaji's emphasis on Rishi Krishi or Divine Farming reflects the urgency of eco-friendly means of self-sustainment.


The greatest soul-lifting moment during the Kurukshetra trip was Dadaji's pravachan. He had just come out of a heart surgery; it had been touch and go for days. He was speaking against the doctors' advice. He said, "How could I not come to meet you and talk to you after all the trouble you have taken to assemble here from distant parts of the country?" I remembered how the meeting itself had been in doubt because of the unseasonably heavy rains. Yet, now, listening to the great man, all the fatigue and hardships were forgotten.

What was the gist of Dadaji's talk? It was very inspiring, no doubt, but what I remember most is how Dadaji interpreted the message of the Geeta. I too had read the Geeta, but I had never felt its inner truth in the manner in which Dadaji expounded it. He declared: "In the Geeta, the Lord has assured us that he is always with us, within us, to guide us, to help us live our lives. He will never let his bhakta down. This is a promise. God always keeps his promises." What power the words had. They entered right into my soul, giving me a great sense of confidence and peace. Then Dadaji added: "What does the Geeta say? It says, `Stand up. Don't give up. Do. Act. Don't despair. You are not alone. I am with you. Come on, face life." Dadaji taught me that the Geeta is not just an abstruse or esoteric philosophical text, but an assurance of help and hope. It preaches a positive, affirmative attitude to life. It uplifts and encourages. That is how the Geeta is to be read.

Later, we met Dadaji briefly. He greeted us as if he knew each of us individually. When someone said something to him, he listed with genuine interest and attention. I had seen that unhurried self-confidence before, but not that sense of curiosity. He really was keen to know us, to find out who we were. I was struck by that. Most of us had absolutely no curiosity or interest in others. We normally tend to look upon them with suspicion, if not hostility. When we meet anyone, we are guarded, cautious. We even avoid people, not wanting to deal with other people's problems. We are simply not interested in their realities. In contrast, here was a man who actually saw divinity in all of us. It was not just a slogan that God resides within each of us. He actually saw people as embodiments of Divinity. The simplicity and sureness of this attitude were totally disarming.

When we met him again in Bombay, my earlier impressions of him were confirmed. He was simple and totally unassuming. There was a straightforwardness and clarity in his vision. At the same time, he had a sharp grasp of human beings and the ability to avoid useless discussions. The man we saw before us, however, was certainly not at the peak of his powers. His movements were slow and speech slurred. He was also wont to forget names, even of his close associates. Yet, he was by no means a man who had given up. On the contrary, though his greatest achievements were behind him, he still had the ability to plan ahead, to dream.

When we gathered around him in a group, Dadaji asked Maulana Wahiduddin only one question: "Do we have your blessings?" There was no attempt to engage in polite conversation; Dadaji had got to the root of the matter. When the Maulana had given his assent, Dadaji was very pleased. He said, "It is my belief that the communal problem in India will be solved if we accept Jesus Christ and Paigambar Mohammad as avatars of God." This was sarva dharma sveetkriti taken to its limit. I wanted to ask Dadaji if the Muslims and Christians would reciprocate. As if he had guessed my thoughts he added, "In the Gulf, Svadhyayis donate blood on the birthday of Prophed Mohammad. The laboratories are usually closed on this day, but the Sheikh specially has them opened to receive our blood. After all, that holy day has significance; we are not interested in donating blood on any other day. So you see, we have such notions about others. If we try to go to them, to talk to them, most of the problems will be solved. Our sincerity will overcome all resistance." That, then, was the secret of Svadhyaya: we cannot but help respond to sincere love and devoted fellow-feeling.

Later, the Rev. Samdhong Rinpoche-ji spoke. "I cannot consider myself a Svadhyayi," he said, "though I am in full sympathy with its aims and objectives. This is because as a Buddhist I do not believe in God. Yet, I believe that this is the kind of movement that I had been looking for for years. We believe that the world will only be saved if India, the Arya Bhoomi, provides a spiritual leadership to it in these troubled times. I had almost despaired of finding something like Svadhyaya which has the capacity to raise a new society on the basis of our ancient spiritual principles. Now that I have found it, I wish it every success."

The next day, after his lecture, I asked Dadaji to comment on what Rinpoche had said. We spoke of other ideological differences which tend to be incommensurable. Dadaji smiled and told me, "I have yet to come across an athiest." The theism of Svadhyaya is, thus, not to be taken as a dogmatic creed. Dadaji believes that only a creator could have created this universe, but those who don't believe in an Ishwara or God need not feel left out. Svadhyaya is for everyone who believes in human brotherhood and a higher cosmic law to which we all must submit. Yes, the spirit of Svadhyaya does militate against the modern notion of man as the supreme arbiter of his own destiny, as an autonomous being responsible only to himself for his choices.

In his lecture Dadaji had stressed nisvarth prem or selfless love. He had praised actions performed without an ulterior motive and with purity of heart. I asked him, "What about the desire or wish to attain moksha? Isn't that also a desire? And the desire to help others? The desire not to have any desire? And so on?" He smiled and replied cryptically, "But these don't harm you." Once again, his ability to cut through theoretical quibbling to get to the heart of the matter was evident. Dadaji's altruism was, ultimately, only a programme of self-realization and inner development.

He changed the topic and told us how the District Commissioner of Rajkot had once appealed to him to help make the district 100% literate. Dadaji told him, "This is your job; we have nothing to do with such missions. But, yes, now that you've asked me to help you, I will. Let's divide the district into two zones. You take one, we'll take the other. It's your responsibility to make everyone literate in your zone and it's ours in our zone. But note, we'll make them literate by teaching them mantras and shlokas; you do what you like." The result was predictable: while the Svadhyayi zone become literate in six months, the other zone is yet to achieve its target. Dadaji concluded, "Voluntary work done in the spirit of worship is far more effective than all sorts of expensive Government schemes. Material incentives do not encourage us. Instead, they corrupt us and enfeeble us. They make us lazy and dishonest."

Finally, Dadaji spoke against the condemnation of missionaries by Hindu political parties. "We criticize them for spreading their religion among our tribes and schedule castes, but what have we done for these neglected and backward brethren of ours? We don't go to them, work among them, but are quick to criticize others who do so. The way to stop proselytization is to give them all the riches of their own culture and heritage. Svadhyaya has taken the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Geeta, the works of Shankaracharya to some of these people; now I challenge any missionary to put a cross around their necks." According to Dadaji, it's no use bemoaning the decline of Hinduism if we are willing to do nothing to stop it. Make yourself strong; why blame your adversary for taking advantage of your weakness? - that seems to be the gist of Dadaji's message.

Dadaji was also critical of those who mixed religion with politics. "We don't allow any politics to enter into Svadhyaya. No politics is permitted on the Svadhyaya platform. Those who wish to capture power should be honest about it; why pretend that they are working for Dharma?"

All this leads me to conclude that Dadaji is a religious genius. He is a specially endowed human being, who has shown us a new way to renew and reactivate our inner strength. This special power was acknowledged wherever we went. Repeatedly, we were told how lives were changed after people had received "Dadaji's thought." But I am convinced that there is nothing fundamentally new in Dadaji's thought. The newness is basically in the method of realizing the thoughts. Yet the thoughts themselves have a strange, almost mystical power, like the Guru-mantra. When someone else utters it, it loses its power, but when given by the Guru, it ignites the spirit.

Behind the entire locomotion of Svadhyaya is the engine that is Dadaji. Dadaji, to use Buddhist terminology, is a Bodhisattva, a self-realized being who has taken birth to alleviate the sorrows of others. Even if one does not believe in such divinely ordained births, simple facts of heridity and environment bear this out. Dadaji's father, too, was a religious teacher, a pravachan-kar. It was he who had started the Geeta Pathashala in Madhav Bagh in the 1928. What was Dadaji's contribution? He really lived up to the ideals of a pravachan-kar's life. He idealized his own vocation, thereby becoming a figure of inspiration to a whole society. What that means is that each of us must idealize our lives, our professions, our multiple roles. If the intellectuals, warriors, merchants, and farmers had all done their jobs well, India would never have fallen. To restore the glory of India, we must, each of us, do our own job properly wherever we are. This is the most basic lesson of Dadaji's life.

The other lessons are equally important. Never give up; be patient: to bring any lasting change one has to work silently for three generations. Therefore, work to improve your inner reality, the appearance will take care of itself.

I have said that Dadaji is a religious genius. That is because he gave a new mantra to us, a mantra best suited for post-Independence India. Dadaji has given a new meaning to bhakti. A bhakt is someone who is not a vibhakt, that is someone who is not separated from himself and his fellow human beings. To show gratitude to God it is not necessary to offer flowers, but it is necessary to offer your time and talent to a Godly cause. And, what is a Godly cause? Anything which you do not for personal gain but for the benefit of others, anything done with a pure heart, anything done with the view to one's spiritual development through the service of others is bhakti.

On this deceptively simple premise, the whole edifice of Svadhyaya is built. Today, over 3 lakh volunteers are fanning outwards, going from village to village, town to town on their bhakti pheri, the devotional tour, bringing the message of brother and sisterhood to every home in India. In a world based on selfishness, any act of genuine and unconditional giving touches the heart. "We want nothing from you, not even a cup of tea. We have not come to collect donations or to convert you. We only wish to talk to you, to make your acquaintance, to establish a human relationship with you." This is the watchword of Svadhyaya.

All their great achievements, the experiments in community making and community wealth, in recharging wells, rebuilding tanks, alternative education and farming, social reform and social upliftment - all these have been born out of this seemingly simple and obvious idea of the bhakti pheri. The man who is the author of this novel idea, Dadaji, has to be a genius.

In the museum at Tatvajnana Vidyapeeth, I was arrested by a representation of a human hand restraining the Lord's sudarshan chakra. There was nothing else in the picture - just these two hands, almost touching. The guide explained the significance: "Man is telling God, give me one more chance. Let me try to do my best. Please don't destroy the world." The lesson for me was clear: before we invoke God, we must do what we can as human beings. Have we done enough to change ourselves and to change the world? No, not by a long shot. So let's get down to it and do our job. We have made the world what it today is; we can save it or at least give our lives in the attempt. This is the positive religion that Dadaji preaches and practices.

What Makes Svadhyaya Work?

This is a question that I have often asked myself, especially when confronted with the living proof of the tremendous transformation that it has wrought on the lives of its practitioners. What makes a rich industrialist from Bombay give up all his comforts, sacrifice so much time and money, only to visit some distant village which even lacks a flush toilet? What makes a poor beedi maker from Andhra Pradesh save for six months in order to afford the ticket to go on a bhakti pheri in Haryana?

People undertake hardships when they are convinced that what they are getting is greater than what they are giving up. What are these people getting? I think they get what people who have
undertaken successful pilgrimages get: peace of mind, inner contentment, the joy of service, spiritual growth. Once they experience the ecstasy that comes from such self-sharing, they realize that that is the most important thing in their lives.

One can, indeed, understand why certain individuals might be attracted to Svadhyaya, but how does it succeed at the community level? What is the secret? How has the latter miracle occurred? I think the answer is that this is how the Indian villages must have been traditionally. That is, every Indian village was conceived of as precisely such a kind of ideal sub-system. In other words, Svadhyaya does not impose anything new but merely idealizes, realizes the potential of what already is.

Similarly, Svadhyaya has succeeded in Saurashtra because Saurashtra itself is a very special region, replete with the traces of similar earlier experiments, the memories of which are still fresh enough to be revived. Whether it is Dadaji or Annasaheb Hazare, what these great men are doing is already inherent in the soil of the land. The seeds of the subtle karmas of our great bhaktas, sages, reformers, and saints have been broadcast to the farthest corners of our land. They have fertilized better in some areas than in others. Saurashtra has a history of independent, fearless people. Given that Gandhi himself came from here it is natural that Svadhyaya flourishes in this soil.

Similarly, when it comes to the other programmes of Svadhyaya, the success comes from a combination of factors. There is something for everyone in Svadhyaya. There is a bit of the Rotary Club in it, a social aspect, wherein people meet, exchange ideas, get to know each other. The bhakti pheri is a combination of a pilgrimage and a vacation. The emphasis on the family means that the husband and the wife get to do things together. Children are involved in the process from an early age. There is a special programme for youth and for women. Thus, everyone is involved. What time might have been wasted in trivial socializing or gossip is now channeled for a higher cause. Everyone is constantly learning; this adds to the participants' self-esteem. The participants feel ennobled by the productive work that they are doing.

Thus, to sum up, Svadhyaya works because of the unique religious genius and authority of Dadaji, because of the utter dedication and sincerity of its workers, because of the extraordinary organizational and entrepreneurial skills of its managers, because of innovative planning and vision, but most of all because it offers a holistic and total approach to the needs of its practitioners, nourishing their physical, vital, mental, and spiritual being. Svadhyaya works because it is practical and pragmatic, not unrealistic and other-worldly. It does not make impossible or unreasonable demands on its adherents. The extent to which they want to be involved is left entirely to each individual. Its structure may be hierarchical, but it is totally egalitarian in its approach to problem-solving. The changes brought about by it are gradual and self-motivated, not sudden and externally imposed. Svadhyaya provides a meaningful orientation to life, an orientation based on our own cultural patterns and resources.

Ultimately, what makes Svadhyaya work is the yearning within each of us to improve our lives and to contribute our mite to the betterment of the world. Each of us has this desire, but doesn't know how to fructify it. Svadhyaya shows the way.

Critiquing Svadhyaya

Today, it is considered both the duty and the pastime of academics to mount an attack on anything that smacks of tradition. That is not my intention in this brief section. Indeed, I don't even think that mere scholars and academicians, those who have done little to understand or better the society they live in, even have a right to criticize a genuine, far-reaching, and transforming movement like Svadhyaya. It is by far wiser for us to keep quiet than to indulge in any destructive criticism. However, if some of our observations can be of help, they should be offered in a spirit of friendship and humility. That is how the following remarks are intended.

First of all, it seems to me that Svadhyaya has much in common with evangelical movements. It offers tremendous emotional and intellectual security to its adherents. It involves a conversion, albeit slow and non-violent, a change of lifestyle and attitude, public confessions of previous wrong-doing, plus unlimited opportunities for further proselytizing. I am aware that the choice of words that I have used may be seen as unfair or unfortunate, so I must hasten to add that Svadhyaya is not at all narrow-minded, fanatical, oppositional, cultish, or even violent like many of the evangelical movements. Yet, one cannot get away from the fact that most of its energy is horizontal, not vertical. In other words, once a person becomes a Svadhyayi, the next thing for him to do is to spread the message amongst people who haven't heard of it. Bhakti pheris are thus the best possible method of broadcasting the Svadhyayi creed.

The other thought that came up again and again was, "What after Dadaji?" Dadaji himself believes that whatever has to happen in the future will happen; why worry oneself about it? Why not do what is our nearest task instead? Truly, it does not matter if the movement declines - like several such movements have in the past. Something else will emerge. Society is never static. There are tendencies latent in it which can either uplift it or cause its downfall. Svadhyaya belongs to the former category. Afterwards, something else will take on a similar responsibility. Svadhyaha does derive its strength from the ideas and inspiration of one individual; this must be understood and acknowledged. His photograph is found in all the Svadhyayi temples along with those of Yogeshwar Krishna, Amba and Parvati, and Shiva. Whether or not his adopted daughter, Didiji, will be an able successor, only time will tell.

Finally, I must also admit that though what I have heard and seen during my entire experience of Svadhyaya has been very inspiring and encouraging, I feel as if my soul is thirsting for something more, if not something else. Even after going through the Prayog Darshan, I have to say that my response has not changed fundamentally. That is, I was and remain a supporter of Svadhyaya, yet I still thirst for something more. This latter point is very personal. It does not mean that I find Svadhyaya inadequate, but that I know that what I need and crave for cannot be found outside myself, that to seek it I must not only go within, but stop expecting anyone else to give it to me. In a way, this realization might be taken as the culmination of Dadaji's idea of strengthening oneself. The ultimate point of any self-culture is moral and spiritual perfection which can only come from personal endeavor, not from any external guidance and method. I myself am the problem and I myself am the solution. If so, whether or not I participate in Dadaji's Svadhyaya is not as important as whether or not I undertake my own, utterly uncompromising and dedicated svadhyaya. Or, to put it in a different way, the external Svadhyaya of Dadaji cannot be a substitute for the inner svadhyaya which I must undertake for my own upliftment. And if I am doing the internal svadhyaya, then I am automatically a Svadhyayi, whether I participate in this movement or not.

Perhaps, the silence that I mentioned earlier has also to do with this realization. When judged from the standpoint of the Absolute, everything in this world is found wanting. Even an extraordinary and inspiring movement such as Svadhyaya itself seems insufficient and inadequate. Svadhyaya is but a path, a direction. It cannot liberate me; I must walk the path, undertake the journey myself if I really seek liberation. Svadhyaya may help me, but I must help myself. It may fill me with hope; it may inspire me; it may give my life a direction; it may teach me how to help others. All this is very important. But, in the ultimate analysis, I myself must seek my own freedom, my own liberation, my own self-realization. To those who are walking on the path, Svadhyaya is thus the beginning, not the end of the road.

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