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June 24, 2000
"You may be sure I am living just the way I wish to live. What I might have done at the beginning had I had more light, I am doing now in the evening of my life, at the end of my career: building from the bottom up. Study my way of living here, study my surroundings, if you wish to know what I am."
--Gandhi at Sevagram, 1937
Every morning at 4:30 am, a clanging bell jars me from my sleep. In the darkness, to the sound of the crickets buzzing, I make my way through the yard, past several bamboo and mud huts. Quietly, I join a group of a dozen men and women dressed in simple, white clothing and sitting cross-legged on the porch of Bapu's hut. As we begin to sing in the pre-dawn light, the songs of dozens of birds mix with our voices. I am familiar with only a few of the song-prayers, so mostly I just listen. I am entranced as the group moves from a Zen prayer in Japanese to Hindu prayers in Hindi and Gujarati, then on to a Muslim prayer in Arabic, a Zoroastrian prayer in Persian, the Christian's Lord's Prayer in English, and many others.
This same ritual has been performed here in Sevagram, India, since 1936, when Mahatma Gandhi (aka Bapu, or grandfather) founded this ashram. An ashram is a spiritually-based community where people come together to live around a teacher or guru. Everyone has heard of Gandhi, the little guy in the white, homespun clothes who led India in non-violent resistance to British rule, but how much do we REALLY know about him?
Staying here at Gandhi's own ashram, I see the powerful ideas of a brilliant statesman and spiritual guru put into everyday practice. For one thing, Gandhi believed that all religions are equally worthy. Although 4:45 in the morning may be a little early to learn such a lesson, Gandhi always prayed and studied in the pre-dawn hours. I do feel clear-headed and awake after this morning's prayers, so instead of going back to bed like I swore I'd do when I got up, I read until 6:30, just before the work day begins.
If you're going to work in the gardens, early morning is the best time to do it; before the heat becomes unbearable. The two men working with me don't speak much English, but we chat a little as we work and then we just enjoy the morning silences. We are pulling up grass and weeds to prepare the garden for planting. After so many days spent traveling on trains and buses, my body is a little confused by this physical labor, but it feels good. Ghandi emphasized the importance of physical labor and believed that every person should take part. Gandhi also believed that all villages should be completely self-sufficient and be able to produce and take care of their own food, clothing, health care, etc.
As I crouch down to grab another weed, my stomach growls and tells me it's time for breakfast, just as the bell clangs again at 7:30. We wash up and enter a small kitchen, sitting in two rows on the floor, facing each other. A thin, serious man emerges from the back and serves us each a simple breakfast of cooked cereal and yogurt. At lunch, he does the same with homegrown and cooked soups, vegetables, and chapatis (flat-bread). This man eats only after we've all had our share of firsts, seconds and thirds, and after we've cleaned our dishes away. Our server is not the new guy in the village, he is the "head honcho" of this group who believes that all people are equal, and that it is our job to serve all of humanity. This man has lived here since Gandhi was alive, when Gandhi himself served the ashramites meals.
After lunch, we gather and sit on the porch with metal trays, carefully picking the rocks from the kernels of wheat grown at the ashram. This wheat will be ground by hand into flour, the key ingredient to chapatis. (I'm going to appreciate my chapatis a lot more in the future!) The work is boring but we chat and stay cool in the shade while we work. A smiling young woman leans over and teaches me a more efficient picking method. I begin to make progress.
As we continue to work, I find a man in the group who speaks English fairly well. He kindly answers my questions about ashram life and how he came to be here. We talk about President Clinton's recent visit to India and discuss the irony that Clinton quoted Gandhi in support of his goals, while at the same time, encouraging India to open its markets to more American businesses. (This is the very thing Gandhi worked against!) "All the politicians quote Gandhi," he says. "They use his popularity without heeding his message," he continues, smiling at the absurdity.
The conversation slides back into to the local Marhati language so I quietly concentrate on my work, reflecting on my last few days at the ashram. I realize that simple work like this, done as a group, builds community and communication. These days, in "industrialized" countries, very few people ever do simple, menial labor like this, or have the time to sit around and chat, daily, with the people they love. Gandhi only instructed us to do the labor. The benefits don't become apparent until you follow his advice!
After cleaning the wheat, a cheerful old man invites me to chat with him. He introduces himself as Ombi Yogi, and then clarifies that is his ashram name. His real name, he says, is J.P. Joshi, and he is a retired Indian Supreme Court advocate (lawyer). He is a cheerful, delightful old man, who talks and talks and talks about his ideas on the world. He has me laughing and learning for a few hours, and leaves me with a lot to think about.
At 2:30 p.m., another clang of the bell means it's time for spinning. It takes me awhile to wrap up my conversation with Ombi Yogi, who says he is not spinning today because he's got a train to catch. Ombi gives me a few things to read and insists that I leave him a note telling him what I think about them. (Sounds like homework!) Then Ombi tells me that I MUST write to him and that I must pass along his address to YOU too. So, if you want to meet an interesting, intelligent Yogi from Gandhi's Ashram--you are welcome to write to Ombi at the address below:
Ombi Yogi (J.P. Joshi, advocate, Supreme Court)
After Ombi and I part ways, I move on to one of Gandhi's most famous activities, spinning home-grown cotton into thread. This thread is then woven into a simple cloth called khadi. Again, everyone gathers on the porch of Bapu's hut, with their small, portable spinning wheels that sit flat on the floor in front of them. These spinning wheels were designed to be simple and are made easily from local materials.
Everyone sits quietly, meditatively, spinning the puff of white cotton into long, thin thread, and then rolling it onto spindles. "Why not just buy ready made clothes?" I wondered during my first few days here. All this work seemed like such a waste of time. But, as I read and learned more, I discovered that, like so much in Gandhi's life, the seemingly simple act of spinning cotton into thread takes on many layers of significance.
When the East India Company controlled India, they flooded the market with cheap cloth manufactured by the growing British textiles industry. Everyone started buying the cheap British cloth, and soon all the small, local, "mom and pop" cottage industries couldn't compete and went out of business. People in the villages were loosing their livelihoods to European big businesses. Given that most everyone wears clothing, the problems caused by the textile industry were symbolic, but they were just one part of the bigger picture.
Even though Gandhi was an educated lawyer from a high caste, he gave up his modern European suits in favor of simple, traditional clothes made of khadi, and he spent many hours a day spinning thread. Gandhi believed that the means to the ends must be pure. He carefully calculated his actions to be truthful, non-violent, and in service to humanity.
After hours watching others, I discover that spinning is like meditation. The process is quiet, rhythmic and gentle and it gives the hands something to do while the mind can either relax or review aspects of the day. As I spun, I thought about my own childhood and my own life. Never have I done anything on a daily basis that gives my brain a few moments rest from the constant flow of information and responses. From school to video games or television or books, to work and parties, my days are always packed with things I HAVE to do. All these things keep my mind fully occupied.
Gandhi's lessons are simple, subtle, and, at the same time, they have the power to change the world. No one here preaches or tells me what I "should" be doing. They just live their lives as close to Gandhi's teachings as possible, and they are willing to share with anyone who wants to learn.
My stay at Gandhi's ashram is certainly not the most exciting thing that has happened to me on this trip, but it may be the most memorable. I will continue to read about this amazing man who guided India to a peaceful independence from Britain. But, more importantly, I hope to use the things I have learned here to make my own actions truthful, non-violent, and in service to humanity, just as his were.
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...email@example.com
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