An attitude of the mind

IN several coastal villages of Gujarat there are certain fishing boats which function as floating temples called Matsyagandhas. These boats are part of a collective endeavour of local members of the Swadhyaya community.

The boat is built through voluntary labour using materials which are donated by members of the community. Each day five different fishermen volunteer their labour to take the boat out to sea. Their catch is sold in the market and the proceeds are distributed to those in need. These collective earnings are treated by the Swadhyayees as impersonal wealth.

Swadhyaya is a Sanskrit word which means study or discovery of the self. Today in many States of India, this word is automatically associated with Swadhyaya Parivar. For over four decades, this parivar has been galvanising millions of men and women in different parts of India under the leadership of Pandurang Shastri Athavale.

Swadhyaya is an attitude of the mind. Swadhyaya is the right perspective or the vision which enables one to understand the deeper aspects of religion and culture, says Athavale. Swadhyaya is neither an agitation nor a revolution. It is an attempt to lead life in the light of god's wisdom and to be ever ready to work for him.

This ideal lies at the core of the Swadhyaya Parivar. However, this spiritual quest is not limited to individual peace of mind and salvation. For Swadhyayees, this quest finds expression through diverse social and economic activities that enhance the quality of everyday life for countless people.

Yet Athavale has always insisted that they are not a movement. "We, Swadhyayees, try to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots, but we are not socialists. We are engaged in removing the dirt and rust which has settled on our culture. Yet, we are not reformers. We do try to emancipate women from their oppressed conditions, but we are not women's liberators. We are basically devotees, i.e. bhaktas," Athavale said in 1996 while accepting the prestigious Magsaysay Award.

Athavale, now 80 years old, is fondly and reverentially called Dada (elder brother) by all Swadhyayees. He was born in a family of learned and prosperous Brahmins and trained at a traditional Sanskrit school, or gurukul. He could easily have garnered a large following just on the basis of his erudite lectures on the Bhagvad Gita and other spiritual texts. Instead he combined spiritual discourses with an active search for practical solutions to problems stemming from modern materialism and the despair and frustration that haunt most people's lives. This pain and grief shall not be in vain, he says, if it gives birth to a new social order.

Athavale derived answers from ancient Vedic wisdom and practice but gave the principles new form. For instance, he transformed the traditional practice of fasting on ekadashi, the 11th day of the lunar cycle. Instead of giving up food on that day, Athavale urged people to set aside 24 days in the year for Bhakti Pheri or devotional visits.

Swadhyaya work is organised in a thoroughly decentralised manner. At the core of its activities is the Bhakti Pheri. Each pheri consists of about 10 Swadhyayees going door to door in various villages and engaging in heart-to-heart speaking with the residents. The purpose of the pheri is to help people to become conscious of the divinity within them and thus catalyse various transformative endeavours in the local community through entirely voluntary work. Swadhyaya's activities are based entirely on contributions of its members. It seeks no private or public funding and declines unsolicited donations.

The Swadhyaya community is widely credited with reaching out to nearly 100,000 villages and urban neighborhoods, primarily in Gujarat and Maharashtra but extending to parts of central and southern India. Its efforts are estimated to have improved the lives of over 10 million people. Many of the Swadhyaya communities have succeeded in putting an end to gambling, alcohol addiction, wife and child abuse and initiated cooperative efforts which vastly reduce crime, feed the poor and help to nurture a spiritual quest.

Similarly, Swadhyayees work through Yogeshwar Krushi, which is collective farming of a single field. The benefits of the harvest are redistributed within the community according to need. Similarly, there are community-based programmes for tree plantation and water conservation, medical care and education. There are Bal Samskara Kendras for children, Mahila Kendras for women, the Divine Brain Trust for young people and Dhananjay Kreeda Kendras for sports.

In all such collective endeavour, people's time and labour is donated as an expression of their devotion to god, and the fruits of their labour belong to god, says Pramila Jayapul, a writer- activist who has studied the Swadhyaya community.

Dr. R. K. Srivastava, another scholar who has studied Swadhyaya, finds that it is both a metaphor and a movement. It is a metaphor in the sense of a vision, and a movement in terms of its orientation in social and economic spheres. Swadhyaya has ignored caste barriers and focussed on marginal communities and the dispossessed, and is integrating them successfully into its community without hectoring them to change their lifestyle, adds Srivastava.

As Paul Ekins noted in his book A New World Order, Swadhyaya tackles the materialism of the western worldview by reasserting the essential spiritual quality of human nature; it tackles poverty by bringing about increased production but without enlisting the greedy, self-serving incentives of the Western economic system.

This is possible because bhakti (devotion) is an antidote to excessive individualism and oppressive State control. Participation in community reconstruction also becomes a journey of self-discovery, Athavale said in his acceptance speech while receiving the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1997. "For us, to align with the divine means to align with others. ... From being passive spectators and helpless victims, we become responsible for our lives and the world in which we live."

Therefore, the utilitarian aspect of the various constructive programmes is only a by-product from the Swadhyaya point of view. It is the human bonding capacity of these endeavours that is important for the Swadhyayees. Naturally, such processes of transformation are slow. The earliest entrants on the Swadhyaya path waited for 8 to 10 years before they saw any signs of change.

Athavale often says that the problems we have in society today will take at least two generations to resolve and yet we do not even have the patience to wait two years.


Further information and literature about Swadhyaya is available at: Nirmal Niketan, 2, Dr. Shajekar Lane, Mumbai 400004.

Email: ddsat@giasbm01.vsnl.net.in

Recommended for you