Growing up in Mahatma Gandhi’s Sevagram Ashram
“Did you actually see Mahatma Gandhi ?” I asked my mother once. She is now 94.
“After we got married, your father and I used to live in Sevagram. Every day I could see through the window Bapu on his evening walk.” I had goose pimples. Mahatma Gandhi walking in front of my house! “You were yet to be born,” she added.
“The generations to come will scarce believe that such a one, in flesh and blood, ever walked on this earth,” Albert Einstein had said. I was born in one of those future generations, but I faced no such difficulty. I experienced him in Bapu Kuti, in Sevagram ashram and in Wardha.
In 1936, Gandhi decided to personally live and work in villages. He wanted to redirect the educated class in India towards villages. He chose a small village Segaon — populated mostly by lower castes, so-called untouchables. It was later renamed as Sevagram. Gandhi’s ashram stands there, eight kilometres from Wardha town. Wardha, in those days, had become the emotional capital of India. A letter once addressed to “The Emperor of India – Wherever He Is”, was delivered by post to Gandhi. How did the emperor live in Sevagram?
“The house you will construct for me should be no different than an average farmer’s house. Don’t spend more than a hundred rupees,” Gandhi told Munnalal, a disciple, who supervised the building of his ashram. Bapu’s modest hut, another for Kasturba, one for guests, a common kitchen and a courtyard for daily prayers — these together constituted the Sevagram ashram. But this list fails to capture the magic in the atmosphere, the ethos.
The ashram was the laboratory where Gandhi experimented with life. The manner in which he and his colleagues lived every day was not simply a routine, but a prayer; an effort to become purer. Nothing in life was insignificant for him.
A scene from Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film, Gandhi, captured the ethos of the place well. In the film, the Mahatma abruptly gets up to leave a political meeting. “Where are you going ?” Jawaharlal Nehru asks him. “To apply hot mud pack to the sprained ankle of my goat,” Gandhi replies. For him, providing health care to animals was indeed as important as national politics. Gandhi was not an armchair intellectual. He served and searched as he lived.Thus, Sevagram became a mirror of his mind.
Not surprisingly, more than a dozen institutions — each dedicated to a specific cause — sprung up around his ashram and in Wardha: women’s education, Khadi, rural health care, leprosy care, village industry, promotion of Hindi, a school for new education he called Nayi Talim. Later on, from 1960-64, I studied in that school, barely a hundred metres from the Bapu Kuti. He was no longer around, but his shadow lingered. His presence was felt everywhere.
Gandhi’s ashram and these diverse institutions together created a world of alternative values, purpose, a way of life and social relationships. During my childhood, everybody around me was a freedom fighter or a satyagrahi. Everybody spun the spinning wheel and wore white, coarse khadi. Everybody cleaned the toilet, everybody helped in cooking, childcare and looked after the sick. No class, caste or gender discrimination existed for us.
Reducing your unnecessary consumption was one of the goals. The Gandhians around me strove to take lesser and lesser salary so that they should live within minimum resources and thus, leave more for the 400 millions who needed them the most.
What is the relevance of Gandhi and his ashram, today’s generation may well ask. That is an important question. The 21st century faces three urgent challenges.
Capitalism has succeeded in fuelling economic growth and prosperity, but it has also generated humongous economic inequality, as author Thomas Piketty and Oxfam’s annual reports tell us. The modern mantra is: greed is good. But unlimited greed has resulted in corruption in the corporate and political class. How to contain these ills of capitalism is the first challenge. Modern industry exists on the belief that more is better. We produce more, buy more, consume more, but in doing so, we harm the global climate more. Global temperature is rising. How are we to contain this? That is the second challenge. Religious and cultural diversity is turning into suspicion, opposition, hatred and violence against each other. The enemy is the other, who is hated. This is a political programme today, and the third challenge. What solutions does Gandhi offer?
We can turn to three of his works — The Story of My Experiments With Truth, Hind Swaraj, and Mangal Prabhat — as well as the most important book he wrote: his life. “My life is my message,” he had said.
Even a cursory survey will reveal that Gandhi had foreseen these problems of the modern civilisation nearly hundred years ago. His solutions were both external and internal. He preached sarvodaya, the rise and liberation of all, and satyagraha, a non-violent and loving way of conflict resolution, for a society based on alternative values. Equally important was changing one’s inner world and the way one lived. “Be the change yourself that you wish to see in the world,” he had famously said.
Gandhi advised us to limit our wants. “There is enough on this Earth for everybody’s need, but not for everybody’s greed”. He practised it. His living room in Bapu Kuti is hardly 10 by 8 feet. His one solution to the problem of wealth concentration in the hands of a few was that the wealthy should use their wealth as if they were trustees of social capital. This solution, which appeared ridiculous to the radicals, is now being practised by the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Ratan Tata and Azim Premji.
In 1980, the Croatian Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich visited Sevagram ashram for a week. Everyday, he sat silently inside Bapu Kuti. On the last day he broke his silence and told me that the hut made him wonder how little one needed to live happily and productively. In the West, five-room houses and two cars per family were norm; enormous amounts of energy were consumed to heat or cool buildings; mountains of waste were generated. The hut taught him, he said, that such modern affluence was a form of slavery — to wants and greed. This need not be so, there is an another way of life, he said. He had experienced it inside Bapu Kuti.