By Leslie Nazareth March 2006 The world-wide rise of intentional communities is a testimony that more and more are looking for simpler, more holistic and spiritual ways to live. In the process, they are proving to be a prototype of the new age Nandita Shah was a homoeopath leading a harried life in Mumbai. However, an episode of paralysis brought on by stress persuaded her to realise one of her cherished dreams. Today, she lives an ideal life in Auroville, practicing her trade while living in a quaint thatched cottage surrounded by cats and dogs, eating vegan food and participating in many of the cutting edge practices and ideas that Auroville creates. If proof is needed that society is turning on its axis, it can be found in the unprecedented number of ordinary, everyday people who have started to shift their lives into new models for living. Their lifestyles usually include more than one of the following elements: intentional community, living by what one loves, ecological lifestyles, living simply, natural health and living, organic or natural farming, healing the earth, right livelihood, a personal spiritual practice, self-organization, decentralization, alternative and local economic- and social-support systems, multi-culture and diversity, groups which cut across boundaries of belief, faith, religion, nationality and race. Some focus more on one area than others but most are moving towards or are already active in all these fields. What is common to all of them is a disillusionment with modern society with its materialistic, fragmentary and conflict-ridden systems, its artifice and exploitation of nature. They are also bound by a search for a more holistic and simpler way of life that is ecologically sound, meaningful and spiritually resonant. Most approach these ends through intentional community. A web search yielded more than a 1000 listed intentional communities in every corner of the world. Most of them are unknown to me but those I do know were mostly not in those lists. This means that one can expect the actual number to be much greater. Some examples from India are Navadarshanam, the Timbaktu Collective and Vanwadi, to name just a few. A New VisionMy first visit to Navadarshanam was about 15 years ago. At the time the land was quite bare and there were no residential facilities. So, we stayed some distance away at Atheetha Ashram, where I renewed my acquaintance with Pratap Agarwal, one of the many founders. Pratapji is well known in India for promoting natural farming and for publishing the book, One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese farmer-sage. During my time there, I met many of the members of Navadarshanam and also was witness to a long string of young visitors, some of them couples. Well-qualified but unwilling to join the rat-race, they were wandering around the country looking for a simple but meaningful way of living. The late Swami Sahajananda of the Atheetha Ashram was a most enthusiastic supporter of the group. He himself trained as an engineer but had found a calling as a social activist, a yogi and a Vedantin, a nature-curist and – above all – a Gandhian. On this property of 110 acres of hilly land adjoining a reserve forest not far from Bangalore, there is now accommodation for about 30 people in seven ecologically designed houses. Once very barren, it is now a place full of life and greenery. Organic farming is practised here and a variety of organic products are offered for sale in a monthly market of health foods. There are residential programmes to explore the aims of the group and a study-circle in Bangalore hosted by the Ananthus, who are also founder members. Their aims are: ‘Exploring and adopting holistic and natural ways of fulfilling our outer and inner needs; rediscovering our relationship with the creation and the Creative Power; giving up a path of development which fans consumerism, profiteering and growth measured purely in material terms; striving towards the transformation of self by reaching out to that Creative Energy which gives rise to all physical and mental phenomena.’ Perhaps over a dozen people now live here as the resident community, but such places always have a traffic of seekers, visitors and an extended community of active associates and even relatives. Temple of TreesPerhaps it is an emerging pattern around big cities, but a group of us from Mumbai too shared similar aspirations for a simple and meaningful life. When we discovered a large property which was in danger of being deforested and ravaged by property developers, about 30 people came together 12 years ago, with the hope that this land could be saved and also used as a base for an ecological community. It was called Vanwadi, and designated a Vriksha Mandir – temple of trees. It has already been most successful in saving the forest. Vanwadi is yet another demonstration of nature’s power to heal itself and the human spirit. The dense natural forest which had previously been felled has returned and ponds beckon where once all was dry and rocky earth. It is becoming an inspiration for its members and gatherings of people in search of a new and harmonious way of living. I was passing through the neighbouring village recently with Bharat Mansata, one of the founder members, when some speculators accosted us. ‘When are you going to sell the trees?’ they asked. It was unimaginable for them that people from the city should acquire land and have such a great ‘crop’ of timber and not cash in on it. The philosophy of the group is demonstrated right at the very first boundary of the land. Instead of barbed-wire fences, they have made extensive use of trenches, rough stone walls and, most importantly, green hedges to make sure that stray cattle don’t wander where they can cause damage. The hedges consist of shrubs and trees which can provide fuel, oils, medicine and other useful products. Neighbors, including the Adivasis, continue to have access through the property. Recently a Van Utsav (Forest Festival) was held here to exchange skills, ideas and products which enable simple living. This drew about 80 people for a few days from all over the country. Most people had an immensely enjoyable time without any of the so-called necessities of modern life. Vanwadi does not have electricity, piped water or television and even mobile phones seldom work. Food was a delight both in the preparation and the eating, which was done collectively. We also had a chance to enjoy food prepared by another member, Vijaya Venkat, founder of Health Awareness Centre, Mumbai, and her team. Great contributions to Vanwadi come from the tribals of the area. My organisation, Phase Five, recently conducted a work camp at Vanwadi, which involved building a shelter for use at the Forest Festival. I was astounded to hear Madhav Bua, a Thakur Adivasi elder, outline the philosophy of Vanwadi for our participants. He said, ‘Everyone’s ideas are considered here including the opinion of us, Adivasis. This has solved many problems and prevented some from even happening. When I visit villagers around here, I often say Adivasis, Maratha villagers and Mumbai city people need to sit together like we do.’ Madhav Bua does not write but with his daughter’s help he has put together a great list of the plants to be found at Vanwadi and their uses. This work has been complemented by other senior Adivasis and botanists. Precious knowledge like this and bio-diversity is a key to living successfully and harmoniously with nature. Eco CommunityThe Timbaktu Collective started out from social activism and made a natural progression towards healing the earth and creating an inclusive community that is part of a larger one, far exceeding the number of those who live there. Its founder, Bablu, was also inspired by One-Straw Revolution. The switch from activism to joining the production process as a farmer was a very difficult and trying one for the family. But this led them to care for their forest on the 32 acres of Timbaktu. From the success on their land, the work extended to a neighbouring 125 acres and now 8000 acres are covered – all because it was a replicable model. Decision-making, maintenance and protection remained in the hands of the villagers, using locally available resources and self-organization. Timbaktu, say its creators, ‘is envisaged as an agro-forest habitat. It is an attempt to create an alternative eco-sensitive community. A community, while caring for nature and tending to its basic needs, can demonstrate a sustainable, alternative, decentralized, self-respecting, non-alienating way of life for all sections of society. Such a community can be the only starting point for building a just and peaceful world, as any vision of such a world, without an ecological perspective, is vacuous.’ The Collective SpiritWhat is special about all these communities is that they arose from the convictions, personal resources and the local wisdom of ordinary people. While these communities may have made ecology the starting point of their discovery of a life that works, there are others that arose out of a spiritual philosophy. Auroville, arising from Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s vision of a ‘new world’, is the first that comes to mind. It is a community of communities and perhaps the most extensive example of its kind in the whole world. Spread over about 20 sq km, it takes a geographer to reckon with it – and at least a bicycle, as I discovered on my first day there. With over 100 settlements, it has an economy of its own and a diversity of food production, livelihoods, alternative education, arts, crafts, products and skills to offer. In this sense it is not an ashram or a retreat from the world, as it is a way of living for many families. There are many communities of varying size
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