India’s Silent But Singing Revolution
Twenty million Indians are disproving the West's favorite myths about work, self-interest, and community.
In the fishing villages along the coast of Gujarat, one fisherman’s lucky day may be another’s day of shortage. Mother Water is not always kind. Those fishermen who do not have their own boats usually work as laborers on another’s boat. On a good day, they earn enough to feed themselves. Life is hard. Inequality of income is often extreme and alcohol a warm retreat from the harsh realities.
But in Veraval village and many others like it, a group of villagers who call themselves Swadhyayees have built a Matsyaganda, or community boat, using their own tools and building materials and donating their labor. Every day, five different fishermen contribute their time to fish on the boat. Their catch is sold in the market, and the proceeds are distributed to those in need. The distributions are considered prasad — offerings blessed by God — so those who donate their labor do not develop a sense of superiority from helping, and neither do recipients develop a sense of inferiority from being helped. (In fact, the identities of those who receive help are known only by those who distribute the prasad). The fishermen’s time and labor is donated as an expression of their devotion to God, and the fruits of their labor belong to God. In this sense it is, Swadhyayees say, “impersonal wealth.”
Swadhyaya is difficult to describe. It is neither a membership organization nor a political movement. One author has called it “a silent but singing revolution.” Swadhyaya’s founder, Pandurang Shastri Athavale (known to his followers as Dada) describes it as simply a stream of thought and consciousness.
Swadhyaya, from a word meaning “knowledge or discovery of the self,” is based on the Upanishadic concept that God does not reside in a temple or church but within. By virtue of our creation, we are related — part of a world community connected to each other and to Nature. Dada’s central message is described in the Bhagavad Gita: A person’s responsibility is only to do one’s duty to the best of one’s capability for God and without attachment to the fruits of the labor.
In Swadhyaya no membership fee is required, no induction, no “joining.” A person is a Swadhyayee when he or she feels convinced by and enrolled in the essential principles of Swadhyaya philosophy. When this is so, Swadhyayees naturally wish to take part in devotional and community activities through which they can do God’s work.
Since its beginnings some forty years ago, Swadhyaya has maintained a low profile. It takes pride in its lack of interest in quick results or publicity and in its total independence from donors and religious or political forces. Even so, Swadhyaya has spread to a phenomenal 100,000 villages and 20 million people across India. In 1997 the United Nations called Swadhyaya one of the most exciting and powerful movements in the world.
Swadhyaya has brought back, through prayer and devotional activities, the awareness of the nearness of God and the innate good nature of man. It has also built community by re-establishing the sense of interconnectedness, to others and to some greater force. As a result, discrimination because of gender or caste no longer makes sense, because individuals are viewed not as these classifications but simply as creations of God.
How do these kinds of dramatic social changes actually come about? My husband and I had a chance to see for ourselves.
A journey through social revolution
In August 1996, the Gandhi Peace Foundation invited my husband and me to participate in a tour of Swadhyaya communities and projects across India’s western state of Gujarat, one of the areas where Swadhyaya was flourishing and, not coincidentally, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthplace.
Our group of 20 included people from the extremes of the political continuum, professors from well-known universities, journalists, social scientists, environmental activists, and social reformers from across India. One of the tour members was a Maulana, a revered Muslim leader known nationally for his work of religious tolerance and his intense love for India. At 70, the Maulana made a striking figure with his long white beard, beautifully lined face, and white robe. He took notes copiously and asked people to write in his small book their prognoses for India’s future. There was also a Rimpoche — a high Buddhist monk — who had worked closely with the Dalai Lama for Tibet’s freedom. Diverse as our group was, we shared a common concern that India’s current path, like that of the rest of the world, neglected the spiritual development of the individual and ultimately of communities.
Our first destination on the tour was a chawljust outside Ahmedabad’s city limits. Chawls, common sights in most urban areas, are slum areas often made up of lower-caste people.The road to the chawlwas nothing more than clumps of reddish-orange mud interrupted by puddles of cloudy water with sewage floating on top. Inside, the small, narrow lanes were populated with buffaloes, people, and children. A sudden spurt of heavy monsoon rain beat down on the tin roofs of the shacks that lined the roads.
We made our way into a concrete room. Its walls were peppered with small shrines displaying pictures and statues of deities. These were strung with garlands of fresh flowers and marked with wet red paste, indicating a recent puja or prayer ceremony. The room was filled with men, women, and children who lived in the area, mostly of the Harijan or sweeper caste and widely considered “Untouchables.” They greeted us with roses, streaked our foreheads with the same red paste to bless us in welcome. Murmurs of “Jai Yogeshwar,” the Swadhyaya greeting, echoed around us.
A well-dressed man stood up and began speaking. The manager of the local State Bank of India, he lived only one kilometer away, and yet for 30 years he had never bothered to come to this area. “I used to think that this caste was too low for me. Dada’s words changed me. I began to think, if I won’t go there, then who will?”
A stream of shared experiences followed.
There was Pushpa Behn, a strong, stout woman who used to get furious at the disparity between the way her Harijan caste was insulted and the way rich people were honored. “Because of my caste, I was not even allowed to carry the [Bhagavad] Gita! Now, not only have I learned the Gita, I feel I have a head full of thoughts.”
There was Narayan Bhai, a reformed alcoholic who said he gave up drink with the realization that God was within him. “If we leave our shoes outside the temple before going to see God, shouldn’t we keep our bodies pure if God is within us?”
Personal testimonies followed one after another, a periscope into troubled lives that had now opened to hope. This is the Swadhyaya community.
In 1957 a group of 17 city people traveled to villages in what was to be the first of the Swadhyaya bhakti pheris, or devotional visits. Their mission was to re-establish a lost connection between wealthy, high-caste urban intellectuals and poor, low caste villagers. There was no other motive to the visit. Swadhyayees — at their own individual cost — carried all their own supplies, including food, stoves, blankets, and lamps. Though many owned vehicles, they were instructed instead to take a bus to a central point and then to walk, carrying their own supplies. Fancy cars or motorcycles would focus attention on the differences between these city people and the villagers and would create a hierarchy of wealth before a meeting even occurred, Dada said. Perhaps Dada also wanted the city people to return to the simplicity of years past where walking, talking, and seeing the countryside were part of building a relationship with fellow travelers, with nature, with God.
Hemraj Ashar, a respected Bombay attorney who was one of Dada’s early followers, remembers the doubts and trials of those early days: “Dada told us we should go to the villages, find out how these people, our brothers and sisters, lived. We should get to know them, he said. At first, we didn’t want to go! What would we say to them? What would they say to us? But Dada insisted that we should just tell them the truth: that we were their relatives in the family of the Creator, and that we wanted to get to know them.”
Today thebhakti pheriis the driving force behind the growth of Swadhyaya. Bhakti pherisare now carried out by thousands of people across India and, to a lesser extent, in America, England, and various African countries. Swadhyayees continue to visit the same people over a long period of time — Swadhyaya is not about visiting one family one week and another the next week. There is no underlying motive of conversion to a particular religion, no intent even to “change” someone — just the desire to meet and know. It is precisely because of this lack of ulterior motive that Swadhyaya has been so successful. Most Swadhyayees devote half of their yearly vacations to going on these devotional visits, an expression simply of their devotion to God and God’s creations.
Dada says that Swadhyaya should reach “unto the last,” and since 1984, Swadhyaya has touched over a fourth of all the chawls in Ahmedabad. At a recent meeting of Swadhyayees there, 400,000 Untouchables were present. One of the chawlresidents described Dada’s display of love for them: “He welcomed us, held us. It made us cry to be loved in a way that we had never experienced before. Because of him, people who used to throw us out, throw vessels and stones at us, also began to see that we were their brothers, divine representatives of God.” Now there is a new sense of pride within these communities and a gradual breakdown of caste prejudices.
But Swadhyaya is not social work. In Dada’s words, “In social work, we go to others with the idea that they are oppressed, and we have come to help. This creates a social hierarchy. Bhakti[devotion] is not about helping anyone — it is an expression of the feeling of love toward God. When you lose the concept of devotion, it becomes social work. And when it becomes social work, issues of motive and results enter the picture.”
Swadhyayees told us that the process of change began when they finally accepted that the motive for people coming to visit them was entirely selfless. These visits by people who did not even know them and who asked for nothing except friendship seemed to re-build a basic trust in humanity and in self.
“At first, when people started coming, we thought they were coming either for votes or money or some other motive. Nobody ever comes without a selfish reason,” said Harshan Behn in Kajali village. “Why would they just want to get to know us? But then, when they kept coming back time and time again for years, taking nothing from us but just wanting to get to know us, we began to believe them.”
“Change,” said another Swadhyayee, “is a process that starts to move inward and then spreads. It is a continuous process that takes time. We follow Dada’s words that we must listen, practice, and think. Swadhyaya affects our thoughts, makes us begin questioning things we have never questioned before.”
From wasteland to farmland
Saurashtra, another area of Gujarat, suffers constantly from droughts. The land is parched and water a precious commodity. During the dry season, a bucket of water costs as much as ten rupees, a fortune for a poor villager. Over the last twenty years, hundreds of wells across Saurashtra, even deep wells, dried up completely, and the water table was dangerously low. Several years ago, the government announced that Saurashtra had become a wasteland. Saurashtrians, unable to access sufficient water, began to move out of the area, abandoning their family homes for a precarious future.
“We have enough water,” said Dada. “We just are not collecting and utilizing it properly.” Even with droughts, he said, there was still rainfall to fill ponds (called nirmal nirs) that could then be used to recharge wells and provide enough water for year-round use.
The villagers committed to building 20 nirmal nirs in their villages within a year. As with other Swadhyaya experiments, the ponds were built completely from the time and materials of the villagers themselves. Within a year, Swadhyayees had built not only the promised 20, but 10 times that number. Over time, these nirmal nirs not only recharged the wells, but collected sufficient water to raise the water table.
Seeing Swadhyaya’s work, villages across Saurashtra began to do similar work. Today, one research organization has found that almost 80 percent of all such
reservoirs that exist in Saurashtra have been part of or inspired by Swadhyaya. Out of barren, rocky lands Swadhyayees have created lush green fields, grown crops where others have said it is impossible, and turned wasteland into productive land.
Farming as a community
Dada’s visit to a kibbutz in Israel inspired a Swadhyaya experiment in community farming. A Shri Darshanam is a piece of land that has been purchased by the Swadhyaya trust for tending by a cluster of 20 villages. (Only when 90 percent of all 20 villages are Swadhyayees is a Shri Darshanamstarted — and even then, only if the villagers request it themselves.) A different person from each of these villages is assigned to work on the land on specific days of the month, so that on any given day there are at least 20 people working. These farmers, called pujaris, provide the tools, labor, and seeds themselves. Every month an expert meets with a group of 15 people from the villages to talk about issues, problems, and new ideas for farming, such as nonchemical fertilizers, worming composts, and other natural techniques to increase yields.
The pujarisspend eight hours working in the fields and the evening hours discussing ideas, studying, and learning from other pujaris. Businessmen and intellectuals who do not know about farming come as pujarisalso. During the day they learn about the earth and agriculture from those who can teach them. Then in the evening hours of talk, they contribute from their areas of knowledge.
When the crops are harvested, they are sold to Swadhyayees at market prices. The demand is great, because the crops — like the fishing catch — are considered prasad. Remaining produce is sold in the bazaar. Profit goes back to the central Swadhyaya trust, which is used to fund purchases of land for their experiments, the Swadhyaya universities, and other projects.
The primary purpose of this Shri Darshanam experiment is to expand the notion of community and allow individuals to give of themselves with no thought of their reward or gain. Men, women, and children begin to think of more than themselves, their own families, or even their own villages. They learn to respect the Creator and the creations — creations like Mother Earth. But in performing their work with love and absorption, Swadhyayees have also produced excellent harvests.
“Dada provided us the opportunity to be detached from our house and our work, and instead, to do selfless service,” one Swadhyayee said.
“In this way, we improve ourselves spiritually. We also have an opportunity to give back to Mother Earth what we take from her,” said a white-bearded man tenderly gesturing to the trees around him.
“Our Shri Darshanam is proving that the statement that ‘man does not work without [monetary] incentive’ is false,” another said. “From 20 villages, we have made one community. Any sadness or need that exists in any other of these 20 villages is like it exists in our village. This is the community that has formed. This is above the sense of ‘my’ village. It is one level higher. It is about God’s family.”
Pride and wholeness of spirit
Compelling statistics show the progress Swadhyayees have made in fighting discrimination, decreasing poverty, and improving equality of income in their villages.
But by looking only at these statistics, we ignore the most important and often unquantifiable results: the self-respect that a Harijan (Untouchable) now feels in the same community where he was discarded a decade ago; the pride a farmer feels when he shares his knowledge of the land with his seemingly different businessman neighbor; the wholeness of spirit and mind a woman feels when she leads a religious ceremony that she and her forebears has been excluded from for hundreds of years.
How can we measure inner peace, harmonious relations, or a new awareness of and respect for self? How, in other words, can we measure real empowerment?
Although the ethos of Swadhyaya is Hindu, it has gradually gained acceptance among groups of Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists. But the world is a diverse place and Swadhyaya will certainly not appeal to everyone. In some communities, Muslims have taken offense at the worship of idols as a part of the rituals.
However, the Muslim Maulana’s reaction at the end of our trip was very different. He stood up during our last meeting with Dada and stated in a quivery,
emotional voice that he had “joined the Swadhyaya family.” Just the day before, I had seen him enter a Hindu temple in one of the Swadhyaya villages and pray, an action that spoke volumes about his belief in Swadhyaya’s philosophy of including Muslims in its fold. The Rimpoche, while expressing his doubt that Buddhists could ever truly be incorporated into the Swadhyaya community because of its dependence on accepting God as a central figure (a belief that Buddhists do not share), also expressed his support for Swadhyaya’s philosophies and achievements.
Will Swadhyaya appeal to Westerners enveloped in materialism? The magnitude of the transformation Swadhyaya is achieving gives me more hope for a new direction than anything else I have seen.
Revolution through patience and humility
The transformation brought about by Swadhyaya has been neither quick nor easy. The early Swadhyayees often doubted that anything would ever happen. It took 8 to 10 years, they say, to begin to see any kind of change.
Even today, though the movement continues to grow, the process of self-transformation is necessarily slow. “The problems we have in society today will take at least two generations to resolve,” says Dada, “and yet we do not even have the patience to wait two years.”
But Dada’s faith in the ultimate ability of Swadhyayees to establish a different kind of world continues to inspire and guide his followers. Few people I have ever met have Dada’s courage to look beyond today’s realities and believe in the seemingly extravagant possibility of a new world order. Fewer still share his humility. “I have nothing new to offer,” Dada said to us at our last meeting, smiling gently. “I am only restating what has already been said.”
These are almost the same words that Mahatma Gandhi used. What I saw in Dada and in Swadhyayees was a living example of a real search for truth, a re-definition of individual happiness and societal progress, a world of relatedness lost in modern times.