In a world increasingly enamoured with technology and good-living on one hand and giving in to violence on the other, perhaps it is time to rediscover the Mahatma
In Gandhi landThe Mahatma’s ideas and ideals are alive and kicking in Sewagram and Sabarmati ashrams
If one is tempted to believe that Gandhi is irrelevant in today’s times, a visit to his ashrams in Sewagram and Sabarmati disillusion you.
Here, Gandhian ideals and ideas are not just alive but active, fertilising measures that improve the lot of the rural poor.
Sewagram in Wardha, Maharashtra, is host to a number of Gandhian organizations, apart from the ashram.
It contains the massive Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, originally a guesthouse built by his industrialist friend, Jamnalal Bajaj, to accommodate Gandhi’s visitors, and the Kasturba Health Society, which, apart from running the hospital, also holds an institute to train nurses and a school for children.
These apart, there is Yatri Nivas, a cluster of small dwellings for those interested in visiting the ashram; the Centre of Science for Villages; the experimental farm, Chetna Vikas, and an institution run by the followers of J.C. Kumarappa, Gandhi’s economic adviser.
In Gandhi land, everyone, from ashramites to doctors to medical students and orderlies, wears khadi. And when opportunity arises, they spin.
Here, away from the urban obsession with stock exchanges, one gets a sense of how the years have treated rural India.
Post-liberalization, the committed Dr Jajoo tells us, agriculture has become unviable.
It is this among other factors, which is persuading some of the farmers to consider organic farming.
The ashram, though in many ways the heart of Sewagram, is now but a shadow of the vibrant place it must have been when it was Gandhi’s headquarters from 1936 to the time of his death in 1948.
The low roof-tiled mud dwellings must have a charm of their own, but on a cold rainy day, they appear dank and uncomfortable.
Each was built with less than Rs 500 and of local material available within a 50-km radius. Yet they are immaculately kept.
Among others, there is the large Adi Niwas where Gandhi first lived with his guests and the compact Bapu Kuti where he shifted in later.
The aesthetics is pleasing. The cowdung-stained floor is cool to the touch, and the smooth walls hold etchings of Om and a collection of palm trees.
Elegant palm-leaf mats line the floor. Gandhi’s corner is characteristically stark, with a white mattress. There are only a handful of residents left in the ashram.
We meet them at the evening prayer held on the verandah of the Adi Niwas.
The prayer consists of songs and chants from all religions including Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. It ends with a reading from one of Gandhi’s speeches.
Shivshankar Pente, Secretary of the Sewagram Ashram Pratishthan, a frail 75-year-old, says: ‘‘I have great contentment in doing this work. I have had the good fortune of working with people like Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan.’’
These two names are brandished like a talisman. It is clear that most of today’s Gandhians have had no direct access to Gandhi.
Their source of enthusiasm has been one or other of these two great Gandhians who, in so many ways, carried on Gandhi’s work.
Vinoba Bhave translated one of Gandhi’s cherished schemes of persuading rich landowners to part voluntarily with their property to benefit landless peasants in the Bhoodan movement.
The Sabarmati ashram, known in Ahmedabad as the Gandhi Ashram, is much more modern looking than Sewagram despite having been set up earlier, on Gandhi’s return to India in 1915.
Perhaps because these are pucca settlements, not yet as radically simplified as his later dwellings.
The grounds are divided into the original buildings and the beautiful Gandhi Memorial Museum, designed by the well-known architect, Charles Correa.
The original buildings are monuments today, but the Museum has extensive reproductions of Gandhi’s life, both in paintings and photographs.
Amrutbhai Mody, secretary of the ashram and director of the Museum, also came to Gandhi via Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan.
He left his government job in favour of serving humanity soon after attending a camp by Dada Dharmadhikari, a veteran Gandhian.
Later, we meet the charming C.H. Patel. An invalid, he claims that his depression was cured by his contact with Gandhi’s thoughts.
His daughter Deena admits that Gandhian thinking has helped her along the spiritual path.
Next day, we visit the Gujarat Vidyapeeth for morning prayers. The giant hall is filled with students and teachers.
The mellifluous strains of the Sanskrit shlokas dying out, there is a small hustle and bustle before we are treated to the fairly surreal sight of 1,000 people spinning away.
The Vidyapeeth offers M.A., M. Phil and Ph.D. on Gandhian thought and M. Phil and Ph.D. in science and peace.
Living the Gandhian life is supremely hard, for it means stripping oneself of all wants.
The people at Sewagram and Sabarmati have made their own uneasy compromises with modernity, but what gives their lives meaning and purpose is that they continue along the Gandhian path.
In doing so they remind us that there are higher goals than earning a livelihood, and that in serving our fellowmen, we may best serve ourselves.
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