Spiritual Sites as Sources
Spiritual Sites as Sources of Social Transformation:
Lessons from Svadhyaya
by Makarand Paranjape, A.M., PhD
I must start with my uneasy relationship with the Indian academy. What are its features and limitations as I see them? The chief feature of the Indian academy is its legacy of colonialism. And, the primary features of such a legacy are our subservience to Western knowledge systems and our departure from traditional knowledge systems. Even at its best, our academics functions through a disassociation of thought and action, creating ideologues, not exemplars. In a sub-imperial system such as ours, academics is often counterproductive and self-serving. The academic system is thus a part of the problem, not a part of the solution. Without exposing and contesting the dominant discourse of Indian academics, therefore, no useful intervention, even in the world of ideas, can be made.
To put it simply, I see basically two kinds of academics in India. One is dharmic and the other, adharmic. I am using the terms advisedly, because dharma requires not just the neutrality of liberalism, but a positive allegiance and adherence. A dharmic outlook is one that is informed by a sense of a cosmic moral order, an order that includes the community and the individual. I believe that India is not a secular society but a dharmic society. Therefore, Indian academics cannot be secular; it has to be dharmic. I am willing to concede that a secular outlook can also be conducive to dharma, but that is only possible if the practitioner has exceptional integrity.
So, there are two kinds of academic discourses in India: one accepts and perpetuates the agenda of the West, while the other tries to alter and resist it according to our own needs; one is colonized, the other is anti-colonial; one modern, the other is traditional; one is eurocentric the other indigenist; and so on. To deny the internal struggle in Indian academics between two such discourses, to pretend that all of us belong to the same discourse, or worse, to claim that only one discourse exists, in fact, is to shut out dialogue. It also implies that we take neither academics nor ourselves seriously. I am afraid a great change is about to sweep through Indian academics. If we are unable to prove our utility to society, we will be left behind. The Time Spirit beckons us, once again, to join the national mainstream, to soil our hands if necessary with the concerns and needs of common people. We can no longer afford to remain complacent in our ivory towers, disregarding the daily realities that are staring us in our faces.
What is then the sum total of this reality that is staring us in our faces? Amazingly, it is a truth accepted by all shades of opinion in the Indian political spectrum. The Left endorses it as does the extreme Right. If the centrist parties, especially the Congress, are tardy in acknowledging it, it is only because of their own complicity and responsibility. Simply speaking, the truth is that there is something terribly amiss in the project of Independent India.
In other words, the entire country is gradually but surely rejecting the belief that the gigantic mass movement, which culminated with the Independence of India, produced the society that it had envisaged and promised. On the contrary, though we gained freedom, the society that this freedom was meant to produce is yet to be achieved. In a word, we have failed. We have failed not only our forefathers who sacrificed themselves so that this new India could be created, we have failed not only the present generations whose lives have not improved as much as they should have, but we will also have failed our descendants if we do not do something about the sorry state of affairs.
The first one to realize this failure of our dreams was the so-called founder of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi himself. On the very day that India was keeping its tryst with destiny in a glittering ceremony at the Viceroy’s Palace in New Delhi, Gandhi was keeping another tryst with destiny at Calcutta. While Jawaharlal Nehru and his descendants became the symbols and beneficiaries of the transfer of power, the lonely Mahatma was continuing the other struggle to bring about purna svaraj. In a sense, as Rajiv Vohra, so eloquently put it in a conversation with me, at the very dawn of Independence, we thus see two Indias, one centred in Delhi, representing the power and authority of the state, the other in every little village and locality of India, representing the unfinished agenda of the independence movement.
This struggle of the other India will never cease, because it is not merely a political or social struggle, but a moral and spiritual one. It is the struggle, in a sense, of the human race to perfect itself and the world it inhabits. That is the quest of the metaphysical India, the India which, to use Raja Rao’s wise aphorism is not just a desa, but a darsana. However, we must always remember that the desa depends on the darsana; the former may or may not always reflect the latter, but without the latter, the former has no meaningful existence.
The struggle to free India is not yet over. It is an ongoing one. In fact, it is a struggle to which the time has come to dedicate ourselves in large numbers. Every society will find ways and means of preserving itself. If the official and available channels of finding satisfaction – the state, the political system, the bureaucracy, and so on – fail, then they will look elsewhere. They will find alternatives. They will raise new leaders who will intervene directly.
Therefore, as we prepare to enter the 21st century, I see before this country a renewed challenge to assert its nation-soul, to put out its powers, not only for its preservation, but for the creation of a society which is in consonance with its nature.
This is where the topic I have chosen becomes relevant. It is my belief that the impetus for social transformation in India comes from its religious and spiritual traditions. Swami Vivekananda said this a hundred years back when he said that if you want to act on India, to change it, you have to act on its religion. Religion is the keynote. This idea is repeated by Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo too. In fact, almost all the major reform movements of the 19th century drew their inspiration from religion and acted on it. Raja Rammohun Roy, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Sri Ramakrishna – were all religious leaders. Even the Indian National Congress was an offshoot of the Theosophical Movement. Further back in Indian history, again and again we see that religion is the source of social transformation. The whole Bhakti movement is an example. To the challenge of Islam, India responded with a new religion – Sikhism. To the challenge of the West, India responded with modern Hinduism. Both Islam and Christianity have found a unique opportunity in India to preserve their spiritual heritage. Their entry into India was necessary for their own survival. Similarly, if modern science has a hope anywhere, it is in India, where it can be spiritualized and tamed of its inherent violence. Only a science wedded to ahimsa can serve and save the world.
What I have been suggesting throughout is that it is Sanatana Dharma, that reservoir of infinite capacity, which furnishes us the wherewithal to alter our social and political institutions. Needless to say, Sanatana Dharma is not to be equated with any sect or religion, but is the source of them all. It consists both of sruti and smriti, the revelations and scriptures of all races and peoples of this earth. Even secular enlightenment, preaching the gospel of liberty, equality, and fraternity, only embellishes Sanatana Dharma. I would not like to enter into a long discussion on the problems of defining Sanatana Dharma. I consider it to be a nondual category, without an Other. It is, in fact, the way to the Absolute, which is nothing other than the Reality, the ground of all Being.
It is my belief that it is Sanatana Dharma which must be tapped into if we wish to bring about social transformation. Mahatma Gandhi’s was the prime example in this century of how Sanatana Dharma could be used to bring about a political and social revolution.
The rest of my paper is an attempt to illustrate this with reference to Svadhyaya, a mass movement inspired by the teachings of Pandurang Sastri Athavale. I will focus on how Svadhyaya tackles three of our most intractable social problems: caste, religion, and gender inequality. The empowerment that results from Svadhyaya is both real and radical, yet it is qualitatively different from what is expected or produced by modern methods.
Lessons from Svadhyaya
The Challenge of Svadhyaya
I must admit at the outset that, for somewhat self-contradictory reasons, it is not easy for me to write about Svadhyaya. I experience this difficulty because, on the one hand, I have so much to say and on the other hand, because the experience has been so overpowering that I have been silenced.
Let me address the first difficulty briefly. I went with a large group of distinguished people on a Prayog Darshan from 6-11 August 1996. This was the Ahmedabad-Veraval-Rajkot-Bombay circuit, with trips to Bhangi and Vaghri chawls, to two Amritalayam villages, to a fisherfolks’ basti, to a Shri Darshanam, Nirmal Neer, Vruksh Mandir, to Bhav Nirjhar and Tatvajanana Vidyapeeth, and finally to Dadaji’s pravachan at Madhav Bagh, Khetwadi.
Because all of us went through a similar experience, our observations and conclusions are bound to be similar. So, there is the danger of repeating what several others have already said and written; conversely, there is the fear of leaving out important insights which one may have had. Like others, I have taken copious notes, accumulating quite a bit of material. There is thus an additional organizational problem: what to include, what to leave out; what to emphasize, what to overlook; how to structure this account; and so on.
The second difficulty is a bit harder to tackle. It does not have to do only with my responses and reactions to the Prayog Darshan alone, but with the entire process of my understanding of Svadhyaya. I shall have to speak about this process briefly in order to clarify my point.
Though I had heard about it earlier, I was formally introduced to Svadhyaya in seminar which Rajiv Vohra had organized in Rajendra Bhavan, on 17 February 1996. Subsequently, I organized two meetings on Svadhyaya at IIT, Delhi, where I taught. The first was a showing of Shyam Benegal’s Antarnad, followed by a discussion which Rajiv Vohra led. The second was a Bhakti Pheri meeting in which a small group of IITians was addressed by Ramdas Bhai, Shri Mehra, and Dr. Raman Srivastava. Finally, on the 20th of March, I had the good fortune of travelling to Kurukshetra to witness the historical Svadhyaya abhinandan gathering, which culminated in Dadaji’s address to a crowd of over nearly 1 lakh people.
I must clarify that contrary to what the above chronology may suggest, my immersion in Svadhyaya was not gradual and incremental. Frankly, from the very first meeting at Rajendra Bhavan, I felt that I was no stranger to the principles, premises, or objectives of Svadhyaya. Without knowning anything about Svadhyaya, I was already, to use a recently coined phrase, a “co-Svadhyayi.” I shared the cultural, civilizational, philosophical outlook of Svadhyaya. I was in agreement with its aims and objectives. And I was also attracted to its methods.
I quickly realized that one of the things that made Svadhyaya so unique and so effective was that it offered a way of translating theory into practice. Kriti-bhakti, by its very definition implied a devotion, which was expressed through action. Without such a translation, there could be no Svadhyaya movement.
During the discussions at Rajendra Bhavan it became clear to me that reducing Svadhyaya to a topic of academic debate was futile and counterproductive. It was better to become a Svadhyayi – at whatever level – or to keep quiet. Mere intellectual analysis would be self-serving, adding yet another topic to the endless chain of ideas with which we have been habituated to playing. Thus, cocooned and separated from society, our intellectual class perpetuates its irrelevance to the burning problems of our society. Itself unable to act, it mesmerizes its adherents into a similar state of torpidity and inactivity. What became clear was that something was wrong with us, the Indian intellectuals, not with Svadhyaya.
If so, I become even more self-conscious as I write this. What is the use of this essay? Is it merely to praise Svadhyaya, to express my admiration for its amazing results? I am sure others have done so and will continue to do so equally effectively. If, on the other hand, I indulge in some armchair criticism without any actual practice either of Svadhyaya itself or of a similar creative devotion, of what use is my criticism? I am reminded of a story that I once heard about Mahatma Gandhi. A lady came to him, requesting him to tell her son not to eat too much sugar. Gandhiji paused for a moment and asked her to return after a few days. When she came back with her son, Gandhiji told the latter not to eat sugar. The mother was taken aback. She had expected the Mahatma to say something more profound. “If this is what you wanted to say, why didn’t you say it the first time itself?” she asked. Gandhiji replied, “But then I used to eat sugar myself. In the intervening days, I have given it up. So now I can tell your son not to eat sugar.” I think it was Gandhiji who emphasized the well-known proverb, “An ounce of practice is worth more than a ton of precept.”
We intellectuals have been totally divorced from any practice. We preach one thing and practise something else. There is no consistency in our achar, vichar, and anubhav. If so, then of what use is our praise or criticism of Svadhyaya, which is built upon the solid foundations of silent, devoted, and disciplined work? I think it is best to be silent, best to say nothing at all – but, for a change, to do something.
I still suffer from this sense of guilt and anxiety, but I am consoling myself by thinking that even writing is doing something. If I can write this article as an act of faith, by giving my time and talent to a good cause, perhaps it will give some benefit both to myself and to my readers. Without this spirit of self-inquiry and self-giving, I know full well that this article itself will be wasteful and useless.
This, then, is my first lesson and I do hope I have learnt it well. The rest of the essay will focus on lessons learned from specific encounters with Svadhyaya.
The Rajendra Bhavan Discussion
What impressed me most that day was the brief presentation by Dr. Gopal Krishna. Here was a man steeped in the Western traditions, educated abroad, living in Oxford, a self-confessed agnostic, finally admitting that using one’s native cultural resources was the only way to bring about social change. When it comes to the most important job of self-recovery and self-renewal, scientific, secular, and rationalistic modernity become silent. They have no answers. They are, in fact, totally hostile to our civilizational orientation. We believe that (wo)man is a spiritual being; they believe that (s)he is primarily a body. Their psychology may concede other levels, such as the emotional, the intellectual, even the unconscious, but when it comes to the spiritual, they are quiet. Svadhyaya, thus, is nothing but a process of self-acknowledgement. We must understand and accept who we are; we must undertake the journey to discover our own nature.
The problem with the intellectual class is that it looks upon all relationships in terms of power. But the renewal of India needs all kinds of people – farmers, shopkeepers, carpenters, fisherfolk, sweepers, vegetable sellers, domestic servants, daily wage earners, blue-collar workers – as well as the intellectuals, the masters of the word. That which binds all these by a common thread of self-renewal is Svadhyaya. Svadhyaya is a way of bringing diverse people together in such a manner that they can learn from each other and share each others’ talents. They also relate to one another in an affectionate, familial manner, thereby giving them a sense of belonging, togetherness, and community. Where political processes fail and where Svadhyaya succeeds is precisely this: the former concentrates on external changes, while Svadhyaya brings about inner transformation. What human beings need is dignity and recognition which can only come from genuine mutuality and caring, not just from some political programmes of social justice.
The Kurukshetra Trip
Never in my life have I seen such a large group of people assembled together for a spiritual cause. I have never been to the Kumbh Mela nor to a very large political rally. The closest I had come to this kind of crowd was at Satya Sai Baba’s birthday celebrations in Puttaparthi. But here, from near the dais, one could see an undivided and unhindered sea of humanity. What is more they were totally disciplined. The numbers must have been close to a lakh. All of them had come on their own, spending their own money, paying for their own tickets. On the way, I would see families from distant places enjoying the outing. There was a carnivalesque atmosphere.
The sheer efficiency of Svadhyaya is stupendous. This I have noticed time and time again. The people in charge are superb managers. Because the whole task force consists of volunteers, there is no problem of motivation. The communication systems are incredible; the speed with which orders are conveyed and followed is amazing. Management schools ought to teach the Svadhyaya method of cooperation. Indeed, I would encounter this efficiency again and again. The way the Prayog Darshan was organized only confirmed my initial observation. Efficiency, moreover, enhances pride and self-esteem especially in an otherwise totally inefficient system like ours.
On the way back, sitting in the bus with Professor Narayan Seth, former Director of IIM, Ahmedabad, I suddenly understood how the great social movements in the past – things that I had merely read about in books – must have happened. This very land had been blessed with so many such movements; how many great men and women had trodden this path before. What my textbooks had mentioned had never seemed as real as this day, where before my very eyes I had seen a large mass of people mobilized for a Divine cause. I felt deeply moved and privileged. My life would have been so much the poorer if I hadn’t witnessed the magic of Svadhyaya in action. I now felt a sense of relief and confidence: yes, anything is possible. God has not turned his back on humanity. We can still save ourselves. This must have been how Gandhi-ji had brought people together, how the Buddha must have functioned. And before, between, and after them so many thousands upon thousands of social, spiritual, and political movements must have worked along similar lines. All my life I had been seeking the flowing river of enlightenment, not just within myself, but outside too. I had thought that it could only be found within. But now I know that I could also run outward, bringing people together, creating a new social order.
The Prayog Darshan: Arrival
It was raining when we reached Ahmedabad. My co-passenger said that when he had called home from Delhi, they told him to postpone his arrival. There was practically no transport available. But the Svadhyayis were well-prepared. A series of cars and jeeps had lined up to await our arrival. We were sheparded through the dark and wet streets of Ahmedabad to a comfortable country club. I was impressed not just by the unfailing courtesy and cordiality of these volunteers, but by their unassuming friendliness. Later, we were taken to one of our hosts’ for dinner. We ate there throughout our stay. What delicious food! The whole family looked after us, including the children. Svadhyaya knits families together.
Bhavlakshis and Others
The next morning, we went to Ramdev Pura, a chawl near Jawahar Chowk. This was a settlement of Bhangis, the outcastes among the outcastes. In Svadhyayi parlance, they are not known as Harijans but as bhavlakshis – those who wish to be esteemed.
We sat together in Ramesh Bhai’s house before reassembling at their community centre. The house was clean, full of shining brass utensils. Ramesh Bhai’s old father had tears in his eyes as Samdhong Rimpoche-ji, a senior Buddhist Lama, the Head of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, and the Director of the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, stepped into his home. It was the miracle of Svadhyaya that had brought all these distinguished people to his home.
We heard what was to become a familiar refrain. Before Svadhyaya, this used to be like most other untouchable colonies – filthy, impoverished, neglected; the residents had a low self esteem; drinking, gambling, wife-beating were rampant; very few children went to school; though the reservation policy had ensured jobs for some, there was terrible social discrimination and contempt for these people. After Svadhyaya, everything changed. The drinking and wife-beating stopped, as did the petty quarrels. Marriage customs were reformed; injurious and expensive superstitions were abandoned; children started going to school; the houses became clean and tidy; every child in the basti learned Sanskrit shlokas.
In the community centre, I found a very high degree of awareness. Ramesh Bhai said that all of them had earned a lot of respect after becoming Svadhyayis. The savarna Svadhyayis had visited their homes, invited them to their own houses, fed them, treated them with respect. It was this attention, care, and respect that had reintegrated them into society. Earlier they had been filled with hatred and anguish, now they were loving and happy. What is more, they felt sorry for those who still treated them like untouchables, those savarnas who had not yet been touched by social reform. “I know I am better off than such people,” Ramesh Bhai said simply, “I can only feel pity for them.”
For the first time in my life I heard a man call himself a Bhangi (scavenger) with unselfconscious pride. “I am a Bhangi, but I also do the work of a Brahmin. A Brahmin is one who spreads knowledge, sanskars; so I too am a Brahmin. I go on Bhakti pheris to spread the liberating message of Svadhyaya. So I am a Bhangi-Brahmin.”
Later, an untouchable Doctor told us how he had vowed to kill at least ten upper-caste Hindus. That, he thought, would be the only way to take revenge on those who had oppressed them for so long. But now, after the enlightening touch of Svadhyaya, the same man said that he would not claim any reservation for his son because he did not feel the need for any special privileges or protections. “Dadaji has taught us not to beg, not to accept anybody’s leftovers, not to take what doesn’t belong to us, what we haven’t earned. I no longer need handouts.”
Svadhyayis feel that such a change should come voluntarily. They feel that reservations, though necessary, are not enough. What the Dalits need is warmth, human sympathy, attention, loveand respect – not just economic or political sops. It is only in Svadhyaya that I saw the solution to one of our most intractable problems: the continued oppression of the Dalits and the counter-casteism unleashed in their name by the politicians. Both extremes mirror each other; both divide society and threaten to rend the national fabric. Only in Svadhyaya did I see a Bhangi call himself one without the least trace of an inferiority complex. Only in Svadhyaya did I see a Dalit declare that he was a Brahmin. Only in Svadhyaya did I see a Scheduled Caste man declaring that he no longer needed reservations. Only Svadhyaya can help us preserve our cultural diversity without having us give up our desire for upward mobility. The cultural traditions of an untouchable enrich our society as much as that of a Brahmin. Such, after all, was Gandhiji’s idea of varna: diversity, occupational security, self-respect, without stratification or inequality. In fact, in Svadhyaya we see a combination of the Ambedkarite drive for self-respect combined with a Gandhian respect andcompassion even for one’s oppressors.
The two standard ways of opposing caste discriminations are through the counter-violence and hatred of caste-based politics or through a politics of reservations and compensations. But the method of Svadhyaya, without succumbing to either pitfall, achieves greater results.
We found a similar experience in a Vaghri village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. The Vaghris or Devi-Pujaks are another despised tribe of India. Again, we found a similar uprising among them. Ranjit Bhai, of Jawahar Nagar, summed up the impact of Svadhyaya: “Earlier we were like animals, living outside the village, drinking, fighting, cursing; but now we are flowing in the current of prem bhav. Today, far from being a nuisance to society, we have become its leaders and sustainers.” Later, in Veraval, we went to a community of fisher-folk, where again, we witnessed a self-reliant, proud society being built up. Svadhyaya, by emphasizing the indwelling Divinity in every human being gives a message of hope and strength to the most despised and abandoned sections of our society.
The empowerment that comes with Svadhyaya is not external; it is not brought about by economic or social props. It is not based on doles and subsidies given by the Government. Svadhyaya transforms a person’s concept of self: from seeing himself as helpless and weak, a person begins to see himself as self-sufficient and strong. Communities which have been alienated from society are reintegrated. People who could not read or write today recite Vedic hymns. Their faces shine with pride as they intone these mantras; they wish to tell the world that they too are children of the Rishis and the Seers of Aryavrata.
In Kajli village, near Veraval, we saw how Svadhyaya had tackled another one of our almost intractable problems: the communal canker. This village had 250 harijan families, 100 muslim families, and 100 Karari Rajput families, all living together in harmony. This village was an Amritalayam, which means that more than 80% of its inhabitants were Svadhyayis. What was the secret of their communal harmony? It was, we discovered, not just sarva dharma samabhav, Vinoba’s message, but sarva dharma sveekar – the acceptance of all faiths. When supporters of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement came to this village to collect money and volunteers, they were politely told that the villagers would built both a Ram temple and a mosque in the village itself. There was no need to get involved in a temple-mosque conflict far away. The co-existence of a temple and mosque in Kajli was the best defence against the communal violence unleashed in the wake of the destruction of the Babri Masjid.
Salim Bhai, the Secretary of the Muslim jamaat, offered his views on how to ensure peace and amity between the two communities: “No conversion; mutual respect, tolerance; and the Loknath Amritalayam, where people of all faiths can gather together.” Before Svadhyaya, the two communities were separate, neither eating nor drinking for each other’s houses; now they even worshipped together. We asked Salim Bhai if he, as a Muslim, minded coming to the Amritalayam which had photographs of Hindu gods and of Dadaji. Wasn’t idolatory prohibitted in Islam? He did not wish to get involved in doctrinal controversies, but insisted instead that there should be mutual tolerance and that the core of both faiths was similar: both stressed a belief in God and the living of a virtuous life. In effect, the Muslims of Kajli had openly accepted that Hindus would, unlike them, continue to worship idols, but that did not mean that the latter were non-believers or Kafirs. There need be no conflict between members of different communities; after all the basis of Indian culture was pluralism.
Maulana Wahiduddin got up to speak at the end of this session. He said that Svadhyaya was the hope for the new India, an India whose foundations had been laid by the freedom struggle, but whose promise had been belied by post-Independence developments. He felt that he was a Svadhyayi himself. Later, he worshipped in the mosque at Kajli, while many of us, heads covered, watched silently. What was most astounding was how, later, Maulana Saheb did his namaz in one of the Svadhyayi temples during our tour. True, he did not face the photographs of the Hindu Gods, but instead faced Mecca like a true Muslim; yet this was the first time I had ever seen a Muslim offer prayers in a Hindu house of worship. This was one of the miracles that I had seen during my trip. Now, whenever anyone tells me that Muslims are fanatical and intolerant, I point out how I have seen, with my own eyes, a learned and pious Muslim Maulana offering prayers in a Hindu temple.
Not only has Svadhyaya succeeded in empowering Dalits and in tackling the so-called minority problem, wherever it has spread, it has also raised the status of women. I felt this most keenly at Shanti Para, a village in Saurashtra., The whole village had gathered at the Amritalayam. There, in front of over 500 people, Rudi Ben, an illiterate, rustic housewife stood up to demonstrate the extent of her empowerment and emancipation. She spoke out clearly and fearlessly, explaining exactly how Svadhyaya had changed her life, reformed her family. Earlier, women from the village were more or less confined to the house. They were not educated. Their functions were confined to domestic chores. After Svadhyaya, the village women have become community leaders, with an equal voice in determining how they want their lives to be run. As one rural woman summed it up, “Svadhyaya nahin, to gaurav nahin” – there is no respect without Svadhyaya.
True, Svadhyaya, is not like Western feminism, or its desi versions. It preaches neither the equality of women, nor the upliftment of women per se. Rather, it emphasizes the value of cooperation in every family and in the whole community itself. It has special programmes for women which raise their consciousness without being problem or issue based. Because of Svadhyaya, the status of women has not only risen greatly within the family and in society, but women also go out on Bhakti pheris. They accompany their husbands in most of the important activities. They have learned not only to read and write, but also to teach, to spread the message of Svadhyaya. The evils of dowry have been eradicated in Svadhyayi families. Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, considered natural enemies, have learned not just to coexist, but to love and support each other. These changes have come about through innovative programmes such as saas-bahu ka milan or sakhi milan. All the conventional relationships are idealised; Svadhyaya builds up communities by revitalizing relationships.
Svadhyaya has not only succeeded in empowering Dalits, minorities, and women, but it has helped rebuild entire communities. The best example of this was Shanti Para itself. It felt like heaven – a self-reliant, highly enlightened village, made up of upright, responsible, and caring individuals. It was a village which used to be plagued with politics earlier; now, there was no need here even for elections. The leader was chosen by common consent. The man in question told us that it was with great reluctance that he had accepted the charge of the Sarpanch. He knew it would be a thankless job, but he had agreed only out of a sense of serving the community. How did the change in him come about? He said that when Krishna (God) was his hriday samrat (the emperor of his heart), he felt no need to seek power. After all, we seek external recognition only when we feel impoverished inside. Svadhyaya makes each person feel the wealth within, thus reducing his or her craving from external rewards. In fact, the trikal sandhya, the triurnal prayer, is based precisely on such a notion of self-renewal. One becomes (what?) by renewing one’s contact with the in-dwelling God.
There was no poverty in this village. The standard of health care was quite high. After Svadhyaya, the village had been cleaned up, the open drains sealed; malaria, which had earlier been a killer, had been nearly eradicated. The local doctor spoke of how impressed he was with the community spirit. In fact, he himself became a Svadhyayi after seeing how progressive these villagers were. Wells had been rechared, old water bodies repaired. Nearly every house had a soak-pit. When a cyclone had devasted the power lines, the villagers put up the poles and wires themselves, merely requesting the Electricity Board to switch the current on. This was the kind of village in which a farmer would have an M.A. in Philosophy. The villagers had planted over 16,000 trees – not just planted them, but nurtured them. The method was simple: each person adopted a certain number of trees and took full responsibility for raising them. Krishna broke the pots of butter and milk so that the produce of Gokul did not go to Mathura. The local youths could then eat it and become strong. Similarly, Shanti Para had a Gorus Kendra, another brilliant idea of Dadaji’s, whereby the farmer sold his milk to a cooperative in the village from which all the other villagers could get pure and unadulterated milk. This enhances the status of the cow, which was earlier thought of merely as a source of money and thus tortured. It also ensures the feeling that the profit from the centre was the prasad of God.
Such a village, to my mind, was exactly what Gandhi might have had in mind when he had spoken of Gram Svaraj:
It will have cottages with sufficient light and ventilation, built of a material obtainable within a radius of five miles of it. The cottages will have courtyards enabling householders to plant vegetables for domestic use and to house their cattle. The village lanes and streets will be free of all avoidable dust. It will have wells according to its needs and accessible to all. It will have houses of worship for all, also a common meeting place, a village common for grazing its cattle, a co-operative dairy, primary and secondary schools in which industrial education will be the central fact, and it will have Panchayats for settling disputes. It will produce its own grains, vegetables and fruit, and its own Khadi. This is roughly my idea of a model village …. (Harijan 9 January 1937).
Perhaps, Shanti Para is far more urban and modern than Gandhi imagined an Indian village to be, but it has the kind of ideal community that he envisaged.
Notable Svadhyayi Experiments: Bhav Nirjhar
Located in a spacious campus on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, Bhav Nirjhar is an educational institution with a difference. Here boys from reasonably well-off rural families are trained to become farmer-philosophers. They come here after schooling in similar, Svadhyayi institutions, and after “graduation,” will return to the villages. No degrees will be awarded. With one stroke, the whole lure of salaried jobs in the city has been eliminated as has been the problem of the drain of human resources from our villages. Dadaji started these institutions so that a different kind of human being could be created, someone who is not a slave to degrees and diplomas, someone who hasn’t received a lop-sided and practically irrelevant education. What a radical break it is from the competitive, examination-oriented, colonial education system in which we are all trapped. All the ills of the present system – the false disciplinary hierarchies, the
soul-denying, culturally alienating kind of knowledge, the obsession with marks and grades, cheating and copying, tutorial colleges, tuitions, and so on – have been eliminated in this alternate system. Here students get a comprehensive, integrated, vocational education. Besides agricultural sciences and training in cottage industries, they also do yoga and study philosophy. The emphasis is on sanskar more than shiksha. Those who wish to study further, can go to the Tatvajnana Vidyapeeth in Thane, where Dadaji himself supervises the teaching of Comparative Philosophy, Indian Culture and Civilization, and other such topics.
Yogeshwar Krishi, Shri Darshanam, Vruksh Mandir, etc.
All these are ways of creating apaurushiya Lakshmi or impersonal wealth. Cooperative farming in which volunteers from one or several villages participate, not as farmers, but as pujaris, or worshippers, helps create wealth which belongs to the entire community. This wealth is then used to help and support those who are the most needy, yet it is not seen as charity or dole. It is the prasad of the worshipful work of the whole community and can therefore be given and accepted in a manner as impersonal as that with which it was created. Yogeshwar Krishi is confined to one village; Shri Darshanam is the combined effort of 15-20 villages; while a Vruksh Mandir involves an even greater number. The sizes of the communes vary, ranging from two or three acres in a Yogeshwar Krishi, to dozens of acres in Shri Darshanams and Vruksh Mandirs.
The idea behind these experiments is not just to produce wealth and profit; in fact, during our visit to the Vruksh Mandir near Rajkot, we were told that the costs almost equal the proceeds. The main purpose behind these schemes is to bring people together. Several families work on these farms turn by turn. They stay there for two or three nights, work together, study together, and listen to each other. People of different villages come closer together through such meetings. There are spin-offs like Gaon Milans, in which entire villages visit each other. One village may go during Dussehra, while the other may return the visit during Diwali. In this manner, whole communities get to know each other.
Underlying Svadhyaya is the notion that all human beings are related by the indwelling God within each of us. There is a repeated experience and reinforcement of this deeply felt truth in these meetings. During our visit to the Dhoraji Shri Darshanam, a lady told us how the entire Svadhyayi family helped in solemnizing and celebrating the marriage of her daughter. Her own financial resources were strained, but the whole village came to her rescue without her asking for help even once. Similarly, we had earlier been told of how the highest Brahmins had helped in arranging for the weddings of their Bhavalakshi brethren. Svadhyayi makes unselfish love and giving both personally and socially rewarding.
The same idea of creating impersonal wealth and building communities informs projects like Matsya Gandha. Here, instead of community farming we have community fishing. Likewise, there are community vegetable carts, where the same concept of cooperative volunteerism is employed.
Other experiments include recharging wells, building or rebuilding tanks and water bodies, organic farming, etc. All these are meant to redress the ecological damage caused by the over-exploitation of the earth. The image presented to us was of one where we have drunk too much milk from mother-earth; now her breasts are withered and she has been reduced to a skeleton. We must
replenish her and nourish her so to save her life; otherwise, future generations will call us murderers and never forgive us. Indeed, water management is the key to sustainable agriculture and rural reconstruction. Dadaji’s emphasis on Rishi Krishi or Divine Farming reflects the urgency of eco-friendly means of self-sustainment.
The greatest soul-lifting moment during the Kurukshetra trip was Dadaji’s pravachan. He had just come out of a heart surgery; it had been touch and go for days. He was speaking against the doctors’ advice. He said, “How could I not come to meet you and talk to you after all the trouble you have taken to assemble here from distant parts of the country?” I remembered how the meeting itself had been in doubt because of the unseasonably heavy rains. Yet, now, listening to the great man, all the fatigue and hardships were forgotten.
What was the gist of Dadaji’s talk? It was very inspiring, no doubt, but what I remember most is how Dadaji interpreted the message of the Geeta. I too had read the Geeta, but I had never felt its inner truth in the manner in which Dadaji expounded it. He declared: “In the Geeta, the Lord has assured us that he is always with us, within us, to guide us, to help us live our lives. He will never let his bhakta down. This is a promise. God always keeps his promises.” What power the words had. They entered right into my soul, giving me a great sense of confidence and peace. Then Dadaji added: “What does the Geeta say? It says, `Stand up. Don’t give up. Do. Act. Don’t despair. You are not alone. I am with you. Come on, face life.” Dadaji taught me that the Geeta is not just an abstruse or esoteric philosophical text, but an assurance of help and hope. It preaches a positive, affirmative attitude to life. It uplifts and encourages. That is how the Geeta is to be read.
Later, we met Dadaji briefly. He greeted us as if he knew each of us individually. When someone said something to him, he listed with genuine interest and attention. I had seen that unhurried self-confidence before, but not that sense of curiosity. He really was keen to know us, to find out who we were. I was struck by that. Most of us had absolutely no curiosity or interest in others. We normally tend to look upon them with suspicion, if not hostility. When we meet anyone, we are guarded, cautious. We even avoid people, not wanting to deal with other people’s problems. We are simply not interested in their realities. In contrast, here was a man who actually saw divinity in all of us. It was not just a slogan that God resides within each of us. He actually saw people as embodiments of Divinity. The simplicity and sureness of this attitude were totally disarming.
When we met him again in Bombay, my earlier impressions of him were confirmed. He was simple and totally unassuming. There was a straightforwardness and clarity in his vision. At the same time, he had a sharp grasp of human beings and the ability to avoid useless discussions. The man we saw before us, however, was certainly not at the peak of his powers. His movements were slow and speech slurred. He was also wont to forget names, even of his close associates. Yet, he was by no means a man who had given up. On the contrary, though his greatest achievements were behind him, he still had the ability to plan ahead, to dream.
When we gathered around him in a group, Dadaji asked Maulana Wahiduddin only one question: “Do we have your blessings?” There was no attempt to engage in polite conversation; Dadaji had got to the root of the matter. When the Maulana had given his assent, Dadaji was very pleased. He said, “It is my belief that the communal problem in India will be solved if we accept Jesus Christ and Paigambar Mohammad as avatars of God.” This was sarva dharma sveetkriti taken to its limit. I wanted to ask Dadaji if the Muslims and Christians would reciprocate. As if he had guessed my thoughts he added, “In the Gulf, Svadhyayis donate blood on the birthday of Prophed Mohammad. The laboratories are usually closed on this day, but the Sheikh specially has them opened to receive our blood. After all, that holy day has significance; we are not interested in donating blood on any other day. So you see, we have such notions about others. If we try to go to them, to talk to them, most of the problems will be solved. Our sincerity will overcome all resistance.” That, then, was the secret of Svadhyaya: we cannot but help respond to sincere love and devoted fellow-feeling.
Later, the Rev. Samdhong Rinpoche-ji spoke. “I cannot consider myself a Svadhyayi,” he said, “though I am in full sympathy with its aims and objectives. This is because as a Buddhist I do not believe in God. Yet, I believe that this is the kind of movement that I had been looking for for years. We believe that the world will only be saved if India, the Arya Bhoomi, provides a spiritual leadership to it in these troubled times. I had almost despaired of finding something like Svadhyaya which has the capacity to raise a new society on the basis of our ancient spiritual principles. Now that I have found it, I wish it every success.”
The next day, after his lecture, I asked Dadaji to comment on what Rinpoche had said. We spoke of other ideological differences which tend to be incommensurable. Dadaji smiled and told me, “I have yet to come across an athiest.” The theism of Svadhyaya is, thus, not to be taken as a dogmatic creed. Dadaji believes that only a creator could have created this universe, but those who don’t believe in an Ishwara or God need not feel left out. Svadhyaya is for everyone who believes in human brotherhood and a higher cosmic law to which we all must submit. Yes, the spirit of Svadhyaya does militate against the modern notion of man as the supreme arbiter of his own destiny, as an autonomous being responsible only to himself for his choices.
In his lecture Dadaji had stressed nisvarth prem or selfless love. He had praised actions performed without an ulterior motive and with purity of heart. I asked him, “What about the desire or wish to attain moksha? Isn’t that also a desire? And the desire to help others? The desire not to have any desire? And so on?” He smiled and replied cryptically, “But these don’t harm you.” Once again, his ability to cut through theoretical quibbling to get to the heart of the matter was evident. Dadaji’s altruism was, ultimately, only a programme of self-realization and inner development.
He changed the topic and told us how the District Commissioner of Rajkot had once appealed to him to help make the district 100% literate. Dadaji told him, “This is your job; we have nothing to do with such missions. But, yes, now that you’ve asked me to help you, I will. Let’s divide the district into two zones. You take one, we’ll take the other. It’s your responsibility to make everyone literate in your zone and it’s ours in our zone. But note, we’ll make them literate by teaching them mantras and shlokas; you do what you like.” The result was predictable: while the Svadhyayi zone become literate in six months, the other zone is yet to achieve its target. Dadaji concluded, “Voluntary work done in the spirit of worship is far more effective than all sorts of expensive Government schemes. Material incentives do not encourage us. Instead, they corrupt us and enfeeble us. They make us lazy and dishonest.”
Finally, Dadaji spoke against the condemnation of missionaries by Hindu political parties. “We criticize them for spreading their religion among our tribes and schedule castes, but what have we done for these neglected and backward brethren of ours? We don’t go to them, work among them, but are quick to criticize others who do so. The way to stop proselytization is to give them all the riches of their own culture and heritage. Svadhyaya has taken the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Geeta, the works of Shankaracharya to some of these people; now I challenge any missionary to put a cross around their necks.” According to Dadaji, it’s no use bemoaning the decline of Hinduism if we are willing to do nothing to stop it. Make yourself strong; why blame your adversary for taking advantage of your weakness? – that seems to be the gist of Dadaji’s message.
Dadaji was also critical of those who mixed religion with politics. “We don’t allow any politics to enter into Svadhyaya. No politics is permitted on the Svadhyaya platform. Those who wish to capture power should be honest about it; why pretend that they are working for Dharma?”
All this leads me to conclude that Dadaji is a religious genius. He is a specially endowed human being, who has shown us a new way to renew and reactivate our inner strength. This special power was acknowledged wherever we went. Repeatedly, we were told how lives were changed after people had received “Dadaji’s thought.” But I am convinced that there is nothing fundamentally new in Dadaji’s thought. The newness is basically in the method of realizing the thoughts. Yet the thoughts themselves have a strange, almost mystical power, like the Guru-mantra. When someone else utters it, it loses its power, but when given by the Guru, it ignites the spirit.
Behind the entire locomotion of Svadhyaya is the engine that is Dadaji. Dadaji, to use Buddhist terminology, is a Bodhisattva, a self-realized being who has taken birth to alleviate the sorrows of others. Even if one does not believe in such divinely ordained births, simple facts of heridity and environment bear this out. Dadaji’s father, too, was a religious teacher, a pravachan-kar. It was he who had started the Geeta Pathashala in Madhav Bagh in the 1928. What was Dadaji’s contribution? He really lived up to the ideals of a pravachan-kar’s life. He idealized his own vocation, thereby becoming a figure of inspiration to a whole society. What that means is that each of us must idealize our lives, our professions, our multiple roles. If the intellectuals, warriors, merchants, and farmers had all done their jobs well, India would never have fallen. To restore the glory of India, we must, each of us, do our own job properly wherever we are. This is the most basic lesson of Dadaji’s life.
The other lessons are equally important. Never give up; be patient: to bring any lasting change one has to work silently for three generations. Therefore, work to improve your inner reality, the appearance will take care of itself.
I have said that Dadaji is a religious genius. That is because he gave a new mantra to us, a mantra best suited for post-Independence India. Dadaji has given a new meaning to bhakti. A bhakt is someone who is not a vibhakt, that is someone who is not separated from himself and his fellow human beings. To show gratitude to God it is not necessary to offer flowers, but it is necessary to offer your time and talent to a Godly cause. And, what is a Godly cause? Anything which you do not for personal gain but for the benefit of others, anything done with a pure heart, anything done with the view to one’s spiritual development through the service of others is bhakti.
On this deceptively simple premise, the whole edifice of Svadhyaya is built. Today, over 3 lakh volunteers are fanning outwards, going from village to village, town to town on their bhakti pheri, the devotional tour, bringing the message of brother and sisterhood to every home in India. In a world based on selfishness, any act of genuine and unconditional giving touches the heart. “We want nothing from you, not even a cup of tea. We have not come to collect donations or to convert you. We only wish to talk to you, to make your acquaintance, to establish a human relationship with you.” This is the watchword of Svadhyaya.
All their great achievements, the experiments in community making and community wealth, in recharging wells, rebuilding tanks, alternative education and farming, social reform and social upliftment – all these have been born out of this seemingly simple and obvious idea of the bhakti pheri. The man who is the author of this novel idea, Dadaji, has to be a genius.
In the museum at Tatvajnana Vidyapeeth, I was arrested by a representation of a human hand restraining the Lord’s sudarshan chakra. There was nothing else in the picture – just these two hands, almost touching. The guide explained the significance: “Man is telling God, give me one more chance. Let me try to do my best. Please don’t destroy the world.” The lesson for me was clear: before we invoke God, we must do what we can as human beings. Have we done enough to change ourselves and to change the world? No, not by a long shot. So let’s get down to it and do our job. We have made the world what it today is; we can save it or at least give our lives in the attempt. This is the positive religion that Dadaji preaches and practices.
What Makes Svadhyaya Work?
This is a question that I have often asked myself, especially when confronted with the living proof of the tremendous transformation that it has wrought on the lives of its practitioners. What makes a rich industrialist from Bombay give up all his comforts, sacrifice so much time and money, only to visit some distant village which even lacks a flush toilet? What makes a poor beedi maker from Andhra Pradesh save for six months in order to afford the ticket to go on a bhakti pheri in Haryana?
People undertake hardships when they are convinced that what they are getting is greater than what they are giving up. What are these people getting? I think they get what people who have
undertaken successful pilgrimages get: peace of mind, inner contentment, the joy of service, spiritual growth. Once they experience the ecstasy that comes from such self-sharing, they realize that that is the most important thing in their lives.
One can, indeed, understand why certain individuals might be attracted to Svadhyaya, but how does it succeed at the community level? What is the secret? How has the latter miracle occurred? I think the answer is that this is how the Indian villages must have been traditionally. That is, every Indian village was conceived of as precisely such a kind of ideal sub-system. In other words, Svadhyaya does not impose anything new but merely idealizes, realizes the potential of what already is.
Similarly, Svadhyaya has succeeded in Saurashtra because Saurashtra itself is a very special region, replete with the traces of similar earlier experiments, the memories of which are still fresh enough to be revived. Whether it is Dadaji or Annasaheb Hazare, what these great men are doing is already inherent in the soil of the land. The seeds of the subtle karmas of our great bhaktas, sages, reformers, and saints have been broadcast to the farthest corners of our land. They have fertilized better in some areas than in others. Saurashtra has a history of independent, fearless people. Given that Gandhi himself came from here it is natural that Svadhyaya flourishes in this soil.
Similarly, when it comes to the other programmes of Svadhyaya, the success comes from a combination of factors. There is something for everyone in Svadhyaya. There is a bit of the Rotary Club in it, a social aspect, wherein people meet, exchange ideas, get to know each other. The bhakti pheri is a combination of a pilgrimage and a vacation. The emphasis on the family means that the husband and the wife get to do things together. Children are involved in the process from an early age. There is a special programme for youth and for women. Thus, everyone is involved. What time might have been wasted in trivial socializing or gossip is now channeled for a higher cause. Everyone is constantly learning; this adds to the participants’ self-esteem. The participants feel ennobled by the productive work that they are doing.
Thus, to sum up, Svadhyaya works because of the unique religious genius and authority of Dadaji, because of the utter dedication and sincerity of its workers, because of the extraordinary organizational and entrepreneurial skills of its managers, because of innovative planning and vision, but most of all because it offers a holistic and total approach to the needs of its practitioners, nourishing their physical, vital, mental, and spiritual being. Svadhyaya works because it is practical and pragmatic, not unrealistic and other-worldly. It does not make impossible or unreasonable demands on its adherents. The extent to which they want to be involved is left entirely to each individual. Its structure may be hierarchical, but it is totally egalitarian in its approach to problem-solving. The changes brought about by it are gradual and self-motivated, not sudden and externally imposed. Svadhyaya provides a meaningful orientation to life, an orientation based on our own cultural patterns and resources.
Ultimately, what makes Svadhyaya work is the yearning within each of us to improve our lives and to contribute our mite to the betterment of the world. Each of us has this desire, but doesn’t know how to fructify it. Svadhyaya shows the way.
Today, it is considered both the duty and the pastime of academics to mount an attack on anything that smacks of tradition. That is not my intention in this brief section. Indeed, I don’t even think that mere scholars and academicians, those who have done little to understand or better the society they live in, even have a right to criticize a genuine, far-reaching, and transforming movement like Svadhyaya. It is by far wiser for us to keep quiet than to indulge in any destructive criticism. However, if some of our observations can be of help, they should be offered in a spirit of friendship and humility. That is how the following remarks are intended.
First of all, it seems to me that Svadhyaya has much in common with evangelical movements. It offers tremendous emotional and intellectual security to its adherents. It involves a conversion, albeit slow and non-violent, a change of lifestyle and attitude, public confessions of previous wrong-doing, plus unlimited opportunities for further proselytizing. I am aware that the choice of words that I have used may be seen as unfair or unfortunate, so I must hasten to add that Svadhyaya is not at all narrow-minded, fanatical, oppositional, cultish, or even violent like many of the evangelical movements. Yet, one cannot get away from the fact that most of its energy is horizontal, not vertical. In other words, once a person becomes a Svadhyayi, the next thing for him to do is to spread the message amongst people who haven’t heard of it. Bhakti pheris are thus the best possible method of broadcasting the Svadhyayi creed.
The other thought that came up again and again was, “What after Dadaji?” Dadaji himself believes that whatever has to happen in the future will happen; why worry oneself about it? Why not do what is our nearest task instead? Truly, it does not matter if the movement declines – like several such movements have in the past. Something else will emerge. Society is never static. There are tendencies latent in it which can either uplift it or cause its downfall. Svadhyaya belongs to the former category. Afterwards, something else will take on a similar responsibility. Svadhyaha does derive its strength from the ideas and inspiration of one individual; this must be understood and acknowledged. His photograph is found in all the Svadhyayi temples along with those of Yogeshwar Krishna, Amba and Parvati, and Shiva. Whether or not his adopted daughter, Didiji, will be an able successor, only time will tell.
Finally, I must also admit that though what I have heard and seen during my entire experience of Svadhyaya has been very inspiring and encouraging, I feel as if my soul is thirsting for something more, if not something else. Even after going through the Prayog Darshan, I have to say that my response has not changed fundamentally. That is, I was and remain a supporter of Svadhyaya, yet I still thirst for something more. This latter point is very personal. It does not mean that I find Svadhyaya inadequate, but that I know that what I need and crave for cannot be found outside myself, that to seek it I must not only go within, but stop expecting anyone else to give it to me. In a way, this realization might be taken as the culmination of Dadaji’s idea of strengthening oneself. The ultimate point of any self-culture is moral and spiritual perfection which can only come from personal endeavor, not from any external guidance and method. I myself am the problem and I myself am the solution. If so, whether or not I participate in Dadaji’s Svadhyaya is not as important as whether or not I undertake my own, utterly uncompromising and dedicated svadhyaya. Or, to put it in a different way, the external Svadhyaya of Dadaji cannot be a substitute for the inner svadhyaya which I must undertake for my own upliftment. And if I am doing the internal svadhyaya, then I am automatically a Svadhyayi, whether I participate in this movement or not.
Perhaps, the silence that I mentioned earlier has also to do with this realization. When judged from the standpoint of the Absolute, everything in this world is found wanting. Even an extraordinary and inspiring movement such as Svadhyaya itself seems insufficient and inadequate. Svadhyaya is but a path, a direction. It cannot liberate me; I must walk the path, undertake the journey myself if I really seek liberation. Svadhyaya may help me, but I must help myself. It may fill me with hope; it may inspire me; it may give my life a direction; it may teach me how to help others. All this is very important. But, in the ultimate analysis, I myself must seek my own freedom, my own liberation, my own self-realization. To those who are walking on the path, Svadhyaya is thus the beginning, not the end of the road.
Postscript: Manushya Gaurav Diwas
19 October 1996, Mumbai. Dadaji’s birthday, also celebrated as the Manushya Gaurav Diwas. Over 3.5 lakh Svadhyayis from all over India came to the Chaupati beach to felicitate Dadaji. It was also the day when the first Svahayayi cargo ship, Jayashree, was to be launched. This ship had been built entirely out of voluntary labor, without the loss of a single day’s wages. After a full day’s work, the volunteers worked from 7-11 PM each day for months to realize this ambitious dream. In fact, the whole ship was built entirely out of bhakti, perhaps for the first time in human history. The ship, whose carrying capacity was about 600 tonnes, was worth more than a hundred crore rupees.
When we entered the city, we saw large processions of Svadhyayis moving towards the Chaupati. The parking lots from Marine Drive to Nariman Point were crowded with Svadhyayi buses and vehicles. Later, from the stage, we saw a sea of humanity which almost rivaled the Arabian sea itself. But what was remarkable was the total discipline and orderliness of the assembled people. They were divided into manageable lots, each with a leader. Each lot was identified by special caps or clothes. The arrangements, as usual, were flawless. Different groups of Svadhyayis had assumed various responsibilities; some had built the stage, other took care of lighting, still others of crowd control, and so on. What was remarkable was that as soon as people sat down, they were offered water to drink by a group of Svadhyayi ladies. The logistics of providing drinking water to over 3.5 lakh people were mind boggling, to say the least. But that was just one example of Svadhyaya in action.
There were several speakers that evening, all of whom felicitated Dadaji. The VIP enclosure near the stage was full of various dignitaries, including the Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Shri L. K. Advani, two of the Hinduja brothers, and several other important people. An unforgettable sight was Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s offering his namaz while Dadaji’s pravachan was going on. What better demonstration could one get of the communal harmony so aptly depicted in the large, all-religious symbol on stage?
There were several notable speakers including Rahul Dev, Rev. Samdhong Rinpoche, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, a senior Catholic priest, Shri Ved Prakash Vaidik, and so on. Some even likened Dadaji to an avatar. The process of deification was quite obvious in the evening’s proceedings. Yet, it was Dadaji himself, who struck a different note. Turning away the attention from himself and his achievements, he spoke about human dignity. When all of us had gathered there to celebrate Human Dignity Day, surely the question arose as to what the source of human dignity was.
Dadaji said that it was conventionally thought that human dignity came from wealth, education, social status, and so on, all of which were conferred from the outside. However, he asked, if this were so, then about 80% of Indians could never hope to have any dignity. Dignity, he said, came not from wealth, education, or power, but from character. Alas, no one was interested today in character building. Even the present education system was ignoring this prime need.
Character, said Dadaji, came from kritagnata, namrata, tejasvita, and asmita – from gratitude, humility, integrity, and identity. When we are no longer grateful to our Creator, how can we be grateful to anyone else? Thus, We are bound to neglect our obligations to our parents, to our friends, to our community, and to the nation too. Similarly, namrata, or humility, though a hallmark of Indian culture, is disappearing from our midst. We have become rude, aggressive, and violent. Given the prevailing predominance of corruption, we tend to lose our integrity quite easily. Finally, we have forgotten who we are, what our identities are. Without these four virtues we lose our character and when character is lost, we also lose wealth, prestige, honor, and independence.
Dadaji’s speech was rivetting. It went into the very heart of the matter. While the other speakers, however inspiring, could only offer praise or best wishes, Dadaji was actually pointing the way to self-transformation. Without Dadaji’s speech, the whole evening would have remained incomplete. Even the massive crowds, the impressive fireworks, the large turnout of VIPs, the cargo ship – all these would have paled into relative insignificance. After all, the latter were material achievements which could be duplicated, even bettered. But what Dadaji offered was far greater. It was the very stuff that could connect the human with the Divine. It was that for which I thirsted, I realized instantly, nothing less.
Once again, I understood that the essential core of Svadhaya, was this tremendous, transformative energy which Dadaji generated from within himself. Without it, it would be like any other movement, more innovative perhaps, but not fundamentally different. My original intuition was now doubly confirmed: Svadhyaya, whatever be its external manifestation, implied going inwards, tapping that perennial source of spiritual power which comes to us directly from our Creator. Svadhyaya helps us activate and awaken that inner power. Without such a deep transformation and awakening, all our efforts will be wasted. In more ways than one, this great event on 19 October, 1996, brought to a completion my introduction to Svadhyaya.
The secondary material on Svadhyaya is not very extensive. Much of it consists of newspaper reports, personal accounts, and travelogues. Most of it has been collected by Rajiv Vohra in the Svadhyaya Special Issue of the Hindi Gandhi Marg (March-April 1996). The July-August 1996 issue also has some interesting discussions arising out of the response to the Special Issue. In contrast, there is a considerable body of primary material published by the movement itself. This includes transcripts of Dadaji’s pravachans and several books on Indian traditions and culture. Available in Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, and English, this material can be ordered from Sat Vichar Darshan, Nirmal Niketan, 2 Dr. Bhajekar Lane, Mumbai-400004.