By Shoba Naidu
Shoba Naidu visits Navadarshanam, an ongoing experiment near Bengaluru on sustainable and holistic way of living
Gandhiji’s experiment with the Phoenix Settlement in South Africa came to my mind as I stepped into Navadarshanam about 40 km from Bengaluru. Spread over 110 acres of land, of which 90 per cent is dedicated to animals and birds, Navadarshanam borders the Thally Reserve Forest. Originally barren when acquired, the land has been transformed into a lush forest with hundreds of varieties of trees just by preventing grazing and now is home to many species of birds and few animals. The commune explores an alternative way - an ecological and spiritual way - of living sustainably in tune with nature.
The group of highly-educated individuals who founded this organisation were inspired by Gandhiji. They were part of a study circle that met at the Gandhi Peace Foundation in Delhi and tried to put their theory into practice. The disparate group included Om P Bagaria (an engineer from IIT) and his wife Pushpa Bagaria; Ananthu (an electrical engineer) and his wife Jyothi, a sociology professor; Dr Partap Aggarwal, an anthropology professor and his wife Sudesh Aggarwal; Atmaram Saraogi, a Gandhian; and Rama Pai, a botanist. They questioned the established notions of 'development and success' and wanted to test it for themselves. They came together to set up Navadarshanam Trust in April 1990. Nearly 30 years down the line and after many trials and errors, the Navadarshanam experiment is still on, spreading the message of living harmoniously with nature through its educational activities, and supplying healthy organic wholesome food to the city dwellers.
It is a well-known fact that some of Gandhiji’s deepest convictions were reflected in the book Unto This Last by John Ruskin which outlines the fact that "the good of the individual is contained in the good of all; and that everybody from the smallest labourer has the right to earn their livelihood from their work and that the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicrafts man is the life worth living".
This group of idealists felt that the world today is caught up in 'dangerous swirling currents of the materialistic, urban industrial way of life' and the 'alienation of the individual from self, nature and Creative powers is going hand in hand with societal disintegration and ecological destruction'. The focus areas are eco-restoration, eco-friendly housing, energy' and healthier foods. At the core, the people at Navadarshanam are trying to maximise inner growth while minimising material inputs.
As Gopi Sankarasubramani, one of the residents who looks after the task of growing food for the residents, explains, “Food security is achieved by sustainable organic farming and growing local varieties of diverse vegetables, pulses as well as grains such as rice and millets.” Farmers in the surrounding villages are taught to grow resilient native varieties that don’t require chemical inputs.
“If we care for the farmer, we must ensure that the farmer gets a reasonable income from the activity - otherwise, how will farming as a profession survive?” asks Gopi emphatically. Navadarshanam’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) initiative among other things ensures a steady and guaranteed margin for farmers by factoring the cost and margin into the price paid to farmers irrespective of the prevailing market prices. “We are connecting responsible and conscientious urban consumers with ideally small farmers practicing sustainable organic farming. We want to make sure that not only are the needs of the urban consumer and the farmer met, they start to develop a mutual understanding leading to a more enduring relationship. By facilitating this connection and collaboration we can ensure transparency and fairness. For example, if we have set the price of tomatoes at Rs 40 that means that price ensures the steady margin for the farmer. The cost of growing does not fluctuate much if you are growing seasonal vegetables. So in this example, if the market for tomato drops to Rs 10 or lower, we still ensure that the farmer gets Rs 40 and if the market goes Rs 100, we still ensure that the farmer gets only Rs 40 and the consumer is not ripped off – so we do not have to subject the farming community or the responsible consumer to the dance of what are mostly irrelevant market forces.”
“As much as we engage in these sorts of activities as well as live by and promote the idea of leading lower foot print lives and so on, here at Navadarshanam our core is what we call inner work – individual practices whatever they may be that guide us towards a sense of centeredness. Our actions need to emanate from that space; that way we are less likely to be attached to the outcome of our actions. That is the key element. If, you are attached to an outcome however noble it may be, there is always conflict and distress,” he opines.
Gopi further quotes Ramana Maharshi who said that for there to be karma there has to be a karta (doer). Find out who that karta is. “When you realise that the karta is the ego and the ego is nonexistent then in a jiffy karma is gone. We all feel that we are burdened with karma, but in reality if we peel off the layers there is only the oneness,” explains Gopi.
“In all the activities that you are engaging in - what is the extent of peace that you have. That is the only measure of truth. Personally for me, at the height of my so-called material success, I had a deep feeling that this was all transitory and had the urge to find out that which was a source of permanent sustainable happiness. That started me on my spiritual journey. I realised that the journey is inward. The source of sustainable joy is inside of you - this I know with certainty. It is important to consciously create a degree of separation and realise that you are a witness in the experience of whatever is unfolding. It is important to have periods of stillness. Navadarshanam is intended as a place for these experiments.”
is message is that the world is always a perfect place. “You don’t need to be isolated to be on this path as it is a journey inward. Every situation has a set of challenges. Ultimately do your sadhana. If shraddha - which is not just sincerity, diligence and discipline but also acceptance - is there, the goal is reachable. You have to open yourself to the possibility of experiencing the grand unity of the universe - here and now. The ego has come in the way and veiled this truth from us.”
Nagarajan and his wife Padmini, both formerly from the banking sector, moved here in 2009. When asked how they could adjust to a place where there is no electricity from the grid, fans or television sets, his terse reply is, “You must ask, ‘how did you survive out there in the city?'” He still feels something amiss with the so-called progress and development in the city and decided to try the alternative way. “One has to understand the twin emotions of fear and greed that drives our life. You need to understand your own needs and decide how much is enough for you; draw the line and stand by it,” he explains.
Regarding the human need for comfort he says, “Even a sparrow builds its nest. It also wants some comforts. Comfort is according to your need. My stance is 'live your life and live your dream' while most of us live what others want us to live.”
All power at Navadarshanam is generated from solar panels, wind power and from honge oil-fired generator sets. Gobar gas and charcoal are used for cooking simple nutritious food. Great care is taken to conserve water. A percolation tank has been constructed and each of the beautiful, eco-friendly homes on the campus has a rain water harvesting system consisting of a PVC pipe from the roof and a small tank to filter water before it goes to the sump.
“At Navadarshanam, there is no dogma. We live consciously and with awareness, in tune with nature. We do everything minimally so as to not affect nature.” The work is shared among the residents and whatever needs to be done is done for the day. “There is no standardisation and imposition.”
Navadarshanam Trust Self Help Group was formed in 2008 and about 20 ladies work there. The objective is rural employment, fair price for farmers and better food for city folks. “We don't need mass production; what we need is production by the masses,” Nagarajan quotes Gandhiji. “While the mantra of most businesses is to ‘give less and take more’ to maximise profit, the rule here is fair price and minimum wastage of food items. Profit is not the primary objective,” he adds.
I saw many women sorting grains and packing products in the shed nearby. Grains and vegetables are sourced from farmers who are mandated to grow them organically. Value-added products including wheat flour, wheat laddu, ragi products, dry fruit sweets and mango and lemon pickles are sold at leading stores in Bangalore such as Namdharis. “There is no marketing strategy and people know about the products by word of mouth,” says Nagarajan.
I even saw a crèche run within the complex where children from the nearby villages play and sing.
People from all walks of life and all age groups visit Navadarshanam not only to experience the life here but also to attend workshops conducted on a regular basis. The other activities include: sustainable farming; silent retreat or atma vichara; reflections on food or aahara vichara; Kabir and Meera doha nights; annual get-together on January 26; science and spirituality workshops.
At the end of my trip, I understood the philosophy of the place: ‘You are already a happy person. Certain things are beyond your control. Accept and just be!’
Shoba Naidu has been a peripatetic journalist for the last 20 years. She now finds writing fiction more interesting than writing facts. Her present journey is to find the “Self”
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