By Makarand Paranjape
A spiritual foray into an ecological-spiritual ashram run by the NGO—the Pipal tree
To get there you have to take the Kanakpura road out of Bangalore city. After crossing the large campus of Sri Sri Ravishankar’s Art of Living headquarters, there is a new Ganesh temple three kilometers down the road. Turn right and after about two kilometers, you will come to ‘Fireflies’, an ashram of the Alliance for a Responsible, Plural and United World and Pipal Tree.
Sounds a bit confusing? Pipal Tree is an NGO run by Siddhartha and the Alliance is a worldwide movement linking individuals and organizations to change the world. Siddhartha is the Asia-Pacific Coordinator of this network.
But who is Siddhartha? If I look at him with the eyes of a stranger, I see a tall, well-built, bearded man lounging in Fireflies in slacks and a kurta. As a friend, I know him to be a wise man who knows some of the most interesting people all over the world. Widely traveled, with a great sense of humor, Siddhartha is easily one of India’s leading theorists, activists, and catalysts of the alternative. A well-known and well-loved figure, the founder and moving spirit behind several institutions, Siddhartha is the moving spirit behind Pipal Tree, his NGO, and Fireflies.
”This is an ashram without a guru,” he says as he shows you around. ”We intend it to be a place of refuge, introspection, meditation , and activism-a secular ashram, if you like. We want this to be a place where people can go deep within themselves, to recharge themselves before they return to the world.”
>Siddhartha understands the need to go within only too well. He started his career as a Marxist but found that much of the left-oriented activism had become increasingly arid and meaningless. Now, he uses the metaphor of the bow and arrow: ”The more you pull the arrow back, the farther it goes when you release it.” The new paradigm for activism is to combine inner spiritual growth with outward action.
Siddhartha has written an important paper explaining his current position. He is now a proponent of what might be called ‘eco-spirituality’. Taking care of the earth because it takes care of us is just one aspect of eco-spirituality. The main thing is to see the interconnectedness of things and to have compassion for all those who inhabit this earth-not just human beings, but animals, plants, even insects.
At Fireflies, Siddhartha and his partner Sudha have an ambitious plan to spread the culture of organic farming. ”Why destroy the earth with chemicals?” Sudha says, as she shows her visitors around. ”In the end, we will also be destroyed by these very chemicals.” Instead, at Fireflies, the emphasis is on growing things naturally and organically, using earthworms to make topsoil, for instance. Sudha has also been working with the villagers of the surrounding area. ”We want to be a part of this community,” she says, ”not like rich people living in farmhouses.” Sure enough, walking into Fireflies is a group of villagers who wish to talk about their problems.
To go inward, to take care of the earth, to cultivate the soil, to work hard, to meet people, to discuss the issues that make us who we are, and to bring people together from all over the world-this seems to be Siddhartha’s chosen dharma today. Yet, he finds time to read and write extensively. In fact, for Siddhartha, one door to spiritual life has been literature. He quotes from a poem by T.S. Eliot:
Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the
spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks.
Our peace in his will
And even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea.
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.
He considers a poem like this a far more effective expression of eco-spirituality than volumes of analytical literature.
At Fireflies, there was a lot of activity when I visited. A tiled, sloping roof painted red, with a matching red oxide floor. Seating on the floor on cool, cotton mattresses in Indian style. A minimum of furniture and gadgetry, and a group of engaged intellectuals and activists-these are the highlights of the meetings Siddhartha organizes. All the buildings are built this way-they are elegant, but low cost.
Later at lunch, we are treated to delicious, wholesome vegetarian food that has been organically grown. Even little quantities of such food are enough to satisfy one’s appetite. After lunch, Siddhartha invites me to his machan for a chat. This is a covered terrace atop one of the houses at Fireflies. ”I want to put a swing here,” he says as we sit on the parapet. The breeze blows about cooling us down during the heat of the summer. We eat our payasam in silence before we begin to talk.
As the sun sets, the beauty and peace of Fireflies starts seeping into the pores of one’s body. I think of my friend Siddhartha and all the journeys that his searching soul has taken over the last several decades. After all the struggle and turmoil, the agony of searching and rediscovering, the various personal and professional crises, Siddhartha seems to have at last found his home. His heart and mind are both in unison as he talks the walk and walks the talk.
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