The ashram, established in 1917, was a laboratory for Gandhiji’s experiments with food, farming, animal husbandry, khadi and more. It was set up with the dual mission of serving as an institution that would carry out the search for truth and to create a platform to bring together groups committed to non-violence. The ashram also called the “Satyagraha Ashram” became a centre for the national freedom struggle. It was from here that Gandhiji launched the famous Dandi March. He lived here till March 1930 after which he vowed he would return only after India won her freedom and independence.
Today, the ashram is not a working ashram and yet hordes of visitors flock to its serene environs. It is estimated that more than half a million people visit it every year. Some may come out of a sense of curiosity; some come because of a sense of devotion; some others come in for inspiration. I went with a sense of awe and some questions.
• What helped Gandhiji live his life unflinchingly in accordance with his beliefs?
He was undoubtedly a hero - a hero who in his journey of search was deeply anchored in himself.
• What enabled Gandhiji to have that sense of anchoring and make offerings from there? I wondered ...
I hoped to find answers as I wandered about the simple ashram, the wooded and open spaces and the beautiful museum. As I tried my hand at the charkha (a first for me), I was guided by a member of the ashram. She told me that the trick was to have a sharp focus and yet hold the yarn lightly. I discovered that even for a novice like me it was a meditative exercise. Was this one of the many practices that helped Gandhiji centre and anchor himself? The story goes that when asked by a friend of his as to how he maintained his serenity and composure during the trying period of India’s partition, Gandhiji’s response was, “Take to spinning. The music of the spinning wheel will be a balm to your soul .”
For him khadi was not merely a vastra, it was a vichaar, and the spinning wheel was the symbol of the search for a non-violent socio-economic order. His different experiments with truth, were not only for spiritual growth at a personal level but also were his way of seeking answers to many questions that he had at the macro level. He was a visionary far ahead of his time. Sudheendra Kulkarni in his book – Music of the Spinning Wheel states, “Gandhiji remains a deeply enigmatic figure in India and the world. Easy to admire, difficult to understand in his totality, and almost impossible to follow, even in parts.”
His ideas and ideals were probably difficult to comprehend and assimilate for a civilization set on a reckless path of progress and development. Having embraced the modern development paradigm and heady with all the goodies that this approach provided, we were unable to see its pitfalls. It seemed ironic to see the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project right beside the ashram. To me, the project is a symbol; a testimony of our continuing romance with ‘development’. The project and the ashram present two contrasting world views, two altogether different paths to follow.
Gandhiji was a holistic thinker who had an amazing understanding of ecology and what was required for long term sustainability. He believed in an ethics-based social, economic and political system focussed on small scale technologies meant for the masses. The three operative points that emerge out of Gandhian economic thought are:
• adoption of the virtue of cooperation
• societies and individuals to move away from an economy of acquisition to an economy of human needs
• voluntary limiting of man’s material needs through self-control
Where we stand today, the illusion of limitless growth and riches for all is fast disintegrating. Gandhiji had recognised the inherent conflict between economics and ecology in an era of unending growth and production dependent on limitless exploitation of nature. He believed that lording over nature is no different from lording over people. Gandhiji’s environmentalism was integrally linked with his worldview of ahimsa . He believed that humans need to take on the role of trustees of the planet proactively.
The question that came to mind as I pondered on this thought was: if the western models of growth and development are what we are hankering after, isn’t this simply a colonisation of the mind? If so, have we then really attained swaraj ?
If we want to truly experience swaraj and our place in the larger scheme of things we need to change course drastically. Gandhiji’s life and teachings provide direction, inspiration and the resolve to commit, required for this course correction. “He was the symbol of unity between personal morality and public action.”
Perhaps finding unity between ethical living at a personal level and public action at a macro level is the first step forward. There are enough examples of this, both at the individual and the collective level to see that this is possible, after all, to follow Gandhiji in our own ways. I stepped out of the magical space of Sabarmati Ashram ruminating on what steps I should take.