The Silent Revolution

The Sunday Observer, October 1990

Not many people are aware that an old, nondescript building, Nirmal Niketan, in the heart of Girgaum is the head-quarters of a vast, social movement, which has, since its inception 36 years ago, reached all over the world. Spear-headed by the magnetic Pandurang Shastri Athavale, Swadhyay was recognised as the best sociological model at a United Nations seminar in Rome in '86. Swadhyay, by its simple, realistic ideals has assimilated millions of followers of diverse castes and religions into its fold. Madhavi Purohit looks at this movement on the occasion of Athavale's 70th birthday, which was celebrated as Human Dignity Day at Chowpatty last month.

Thirty-six years ago, a man called Pandurang Shastri Athavale attended the second World Religious Conference in Japan. There he spoke about the teaching of the Vedas, and the Geeta and its relevance to modern dilemmas. Impressed by his speech, several universities in the UK and USA proposed lucrative offers, which he refused. This apparently was because Athavale had no answer to the question as to whether there was a single community in India that lived by the ideals propagated by the Geeta.

On returning to India, he began to teach at the Shreemad Bhagwad Geeta Pathshala; a school set up by his father. His discourses attracted people from all walks of life-mostly the educated middle class. From these he chose 19 people with whom he held long personal dialogues and discussions. Thus, a germ of an idea took root. To put it into action, Athavale asked these 19 people to form small groups of four to five persons and visit certain villages in Gujarat and talk to the people there. They were not to preach, deliver solutions to problems or ask for food and shelter. They were to simply live amongst them as brothers. The 19, although skeptical, carried on, out of sheer faith in their guide. What seemed overly idealistic and impractical 36 years ago, Swadhyay has today grown into one of the most phenomenally successful grassroots movements that independent India has seen.

Followers of Swadhyay range from fishermen and farmers to politicians and industrialists. At a recent meeting of Swadhyayees at Chowpatty Beach to celebrate Dada's (as Athavale is known) 70th birthday, over five hundred thousand people - from within the country and abroad - turned up. Rich and the poor mingled freely among themselves in the true spirit of Swadhyay. One Aagri speaker told the audience about how life for their community had changed after Swadhyay and how they, an illiterate lot, had begun to spout shlokas from the Geeta. Another said, "Mahatma Gandhi gave us sympathy, Dr Ambedkar gave us our basic rights, but you (Dada) have drawn us close."

Swadhyay is a movement in which values are not impossibly idealistic but are to be followed -is with love and determination. Where religion does not mean rituals and idol worship but a celebration of human dignity. Where a spiritual quests does not mean an ascetic withdrawal from materialistic life. It means utilizing material gain for individual and social progress. Where knowing the three R's does not spell education but a cultivation of values does.

Swadhyay literally means a knowledge of the self. ("Swa" is self and "adhyay" is study or knowledge). Based on the teachings of the Bhagwad Geeta, it believes in ego transcendence through bhakti (devotion). Writes R.K. Srivastava, in his paper on Swadhyay, which he presented at a United Nations seminar in Rome, "Swadhyay is both a metaphor and a movement. It is a metaphor in the sense of vision, and a movement in terms of its active orientation in social and economic spheres. Instead of charging into minefields of state power or questioning societal leadership, it is creeping where it finds space."

The operative word bhakti; A bhakti which all encompassing and believes that no human being is superior or inferior to any other. In practical terms, it means that every person who practices Swadhyay is a Swadhyayee and not Marathi or Gujarati, Swadhyay however does not radically negate the existence of inequality. The idea is that although there is inequality, which is impossible to eradicate, it is your perception of it that matters and what ultimately makes the difference. In that sense, Swadhyay does not shake the foundations of our society. Says a swadhyayee, Mukesh Gandhi, "It is like this. If you demolish a dilapidated building, where do the tenants go? Instead if you retain the basic structure and gradually renovate it, it is so much better. That is what Dada believes in doing. "

Swadhyay does not even try to eliminate the existing economic and social disparity. More importantly, it creates an alternative form of economic and social parity. That is where its success lies. Writes Majid Rahenuma, former education minister of Iran and a UNESCO research scholar, "Dada does not believe in the wisdom of mobilizing people's energy on fighting the caste system on legal or moral grounds, or simply because that seems to represent out-dated and undemocratic practices. The caste system, he believes, is a part of a holistic world-view of many complex dimensions. To translate it into a "modern" concept of fictitious "equality" and thus to reduce it to a political issue of fashionable or demagogic nature, is to hinder rather than to foster the processes required for the elimination of dehumanizing and exploitative social barriers."

Swadhyay creates equality through several experiments. One such experiment is Yogeshwar Krishi. Here, plots of land are jointly cultivated by Swadhyayees. Volunteers take turns in working on these farms. The resulting produce become part of the "impersonal wealth" generated by them. Part of this is distributed among the needy and the rest is ploughed back into farming. This way it not only eliminates any feeling of superiority on the part of the giver (since he doesn't even know to whom he is giving) but also does not demean the acceptor of charity (since he only gets God's "prasad", which is what it is called). There are as many as 3,500 plots of land which are collectively tilled, all over the country.

A similar undertaking is Matsyagandha - the same concept applied to fishing. Fishermen sell part of their catch to create impersonal wealth, which is used for the upliftment of their community. Today there are 18 such boats, which are used for this purpose. Likewise, there is a transport company called Ekveera, a dairy - Goras, a store - Pariwar; and a cottage industry product shop called Sanket, which all function on this concept.

Vrikshmandir is a name given to an orchard scheme which is tended by Swadhyayees, and so far 12 orchards have been created by Swadhyayees, totally on their own, out of barren, unused land. Another interesting concept is that of Amrutalayam. These are idol less temples where villagers assemble every evening, no matter what their caste. Individual and collective problems are discussed informally. Anonymous offerings may be made to increase the common bank of impersonal wealth. There are 74 such Amrutalayams all over the country, which speaks of the success of this completely a religious movement. Apart from these practically oriented experiments, there are institutions that propagate the message of the Geeta. There are the Vayastha Sanchalans that specialize in "building character and imparting moral orders to the youth". The Tatvadyan Vidyapeeth is a special center that teaches the Geeta to post-graduate youths and even grown-ups. The Bal Sanskar Kendra is for children while the Mahila Kendras are designed to help Swadhyayee women teach and help each other.

Remarkable As the movement is, what is even more creditable is its activity abroad. The DAY (Devotional Associates of Yogeshwar) is an active organization in the US. Says Jaittik Patel, A London-based businessman, who has been a participant of the DAY for the last 10 years, "We do exactly what our brothers here do. We too go on bhakti pheris from house to house spreading the message of Geeta." There are Swadhyay kendras all over London. Their activity has spread to the USA where at a Swadhyay meeting two years ago, nearly 20,000 Swadhyayees attended. "And those were only the ones that attended," points out Dr. Jay Bathani, a physician. "This is our Gangotri. We take our message from here," he adds.

Starting this year, the overseas Swadhyayees have embarked on a new program that will take the movement to South America and Europe. While the US organization will send their Swadhyayees to South America, the UK division will be responsible for spreading the message to Europe. A group of 19 people have already travelled all over Lisbon and Portugal and have reached over 5,800 families where the response was enthusiastic. Although the message of Swadhyay is from the holy book of the Hindus, the Geeta, the movement has attracted followers of all religions. In Houston, USA, there is an all American Swadhyay kendra. In the Middle East too it has a large following.

What is it about the movement that draws people like moths to a flame? Explains Bhupendra Patel, a UK Businessman, "I remember the first time Dada came here. At that time I was going through a phase where I was rather frustrated with the establishment. Out of sheer curiosity I accompanied a Swadhyayee to one Punjabi household. There was some sort of a guru seated on an Asian. When the Swadhyayees began to speak, he asked them whether they could explain the Geeta in five sentences. Without any hesitation they replied, "Kaam karta ja. Haak marta ja. Madad tayar hai. Karne ke shakti tujh me hai. Kiye bina kuch milta nahin. (One does not get anything without action. Action does not go in vain. God helps those who help themselves. Energy for action is within you. Act and seek help of God which is ever ready). I was very impressed. That was the turning point." Once a Swadhyayee, always a Swadhyayee seems to be the prevailing maxim. For there are people who have been active in this work since its inception. There are entire families who have adopted Swadhyay as their religion. Says Nandkumar Vanvari, an architect," My father was a follower, so I am one and my children."

In this day and age when social work has been reduced to a fashionable pastime for rich, idle women, Swadhyay brings hope. For it is a thriving example of a successful democratic experiment. A movement which is truly of the people, by the people and for the people.