Gandhi Niketan Ashram

A center for the promotion of Indian culture and civilization

One of the articles in Being Global Neighbors (IC#17)
Originally published in Summer 1987 on page 33
Copyright (c)1987, 1997 by Context Institute

Sri K. Muniandi "retired" from teaching to take on many duties as Secretary of Gandhi Niketan Ashram. As he describes in the following article, the ashram is based on Ghandian economics and Indian traditions – with specific alterations in the traditions. For example, there is no caste system in the ashram, and the "untouchable" haridjan play and work side by side with the Govi and Brahman.

Sri Muniandi is highly respected for his social change work and dedication to the ideals of the ashram. When he first came as a teacher in the ashram school, soon after its inception in the late 1940s, the difference between the wages of the highest paid (the headmaster) and the lowest paid (a laborer) was 12 to 1. When Sri Muniandi became headmaster, he made it easier to approach equality in the wages of all members of the community. Little by little, this difference has been shaved so that by late 1985 the difference was 2.75 to 1. "And next year, it will be two and two-thirds, and then, two and a half…" he told me. The steady incremental change has prevented the social chaos that ensues from most revolutions – yet the change is revolutionary indeed.

I met Sri Muniandi in October of 1985, while on a work assignment at the ashram regarding their ceramic cookstove production. During that week, we had many thought-provoking discussions regarding the encounters between cultures. It was soon after this that IN CONTEXT invited me to be guest editor for this issue. Largely because of those conversations in Kallupatti, South India, it was easy to answer "yes!"

I remember Sri Muniandi mostly with the numbers of children who liked to play and dance around his house. They, like I, responded to the welcoming smile beneath his long white beard.

– Laurie Childers

THE INDIAN VILLAGE

India is a land of antiquity surcharged with spirituality. Its earliest citizens voluntarily chose villages for their habitation, for they were aware that they would understand one another, cooperate fully, and lead a peaceful and progressive life only in small communities and groups. Besides, they could enjoy nature’s wealth in its pristine glory without any fear of pollution. Under such favorable conditions, they produced their needs without much ado, using simple but effective tools, shared the produce equitably, and paved the way for thinking about their metaphysical existence. The Vedas, Vendanthas, Upanishads, etc., sprang up during this period, standing as eternal monuments to the wit and wisdom of our ancestors. These, along with our great Epics (the Ramayana and the Maha Baratha), have been the custodians of our dynamic culture and ever-green civilization. Thus our forebears have demonstrated the path to be followed by any aspirant for global peace and human prosperity. These can be achieved by experimenting with truth through nonviolent means, casting the arsenal of man-made lethal weapons into the dust bins.

THE ROLE OF GANDHIAN ASHRAMS

In recent times in the history of the world, Mahatma Gandhi became the greatest exponent of the theories of Satya and Ahimsa [truth-seeking and harmlessness]. In a land where more than 70% of the people live in its many villages, he concentrated on the prosperity of these little sectors of economy of permanence through khadi [homespun clothing] and village industries. Soon the people began to feel the need to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. Slowly and steadily they began to realize their responsibilities and rights. This awareness made them fight the foreign rule tooth and nail, without hating in the least the individuals on the opposite side, as suggested by the Father of the Nation. Gandhiji was able to educate even the most illiterate among the rural gentry along these lines through his spotless character and open-book living in his Satyagraha Ashrams. Thus Gandhian Ashrams have become the latest torch-bearers of Indian culture and civilization.

GANDHI NIKETAN ASHRAM

Sri G. Venkatachalapathi, a school teacher of this locality who fully believed in the efficacy of Gandhian techniques for solving world problems, started the Gandhi Niketan Ashram in 1940 in Madurai District. Through this ashram, he wanted the message of Gandhiji to be spread in and around Kallupatti Block, so as to make the people of this area real exemplars of peaceful coexistence.

NON-VIOLENT ECONOMIC ACTIVITIES

For simple, pure living, every individual and family should have the wherewithal for their bodily upkeep. It is for this reason that Gandhiji, while fighting to deliver the country from the foreign yoke of the mighty British regime, simultaneously gave us his constructive programme to redeem the masses from poverty and ignorance and help them sustain themselves in the political, social, economic, educational, religious, and moral spheres of life. No wonder then that Gandhi Niketan abounds in these activities, with production centers for hand-pounding of rice, edible oil production, bakery, non-edible oil soapmaking, pottery, handmade paper, beekeeping, carcass recovery, leather tanning, leather goods manufacture, spinning, weaving, and other crafts. These provide perennial employment opportunities to more than 1000 women and men in and around Kallupatti Block, besides training traditional artisans and educated youths in these non-violent occupations. The economic equality thus established forms the nucleus for lasting peace among mankind. In this way, Gandhi Niketan has laid a stable foundation for a happy, prosperous, cooperative and meaningful life, not only for its inmates, but also for the general public round about it.

A PANACEA FOR SOCIAL ILLS

People are essentially social beings and need society to bring forth their latent talents and skills. Our innovations will be lost if they cannot by dispersed among our neighbors. With these ends in view, the ashram has started Gram Sabhas, or community centers, in a few villages situated in its area of operation. A Gram Sabha is a village parliament with a representative, male or female, from every household of the village. It meets at least once a month at a fixed time in the common area of the village. The problems of the village are discussed there threadbare. Every member is given opportunities to express his or her views openly. Consensus is arrived at at the end of the meeting. The concerted opinion of this fully representative gathering of the village is translated into action through the formation of an executive council unanimously elected by its members. The people cooperate with this committee in implementing its decisions. Small and viable proposals are attempted first, and the success in one inevitably encourages them to put other resolutions into practice. The self-confidence thus gained through these corporate exercises will ultimately make them stand on their own legs. The Gram Swaraj concept of Mahatma Gandhi will then be crystal clear to these grass root democrats, who will plan for village self-sufficiency and achieve it. Thus we find that a Gram Sabha will acquire for itself legislative, judiciary, and executive powers. It will also be the planning commission for the village. It is only villages like these that will have the potentiality to safeguard their traditions, heritage, and culture, and to plan for their peaceful technological transformation and real progress in consonance with the principle of coexistence. The tranquil atmosphere that prevails in these villages will ultimately encourage the people to extend it to neighboring areas, so as to derive lasting happiness for all in this tension-rife world with its scientific and technological advancements gained through costly and misplaced ventures.

K. CHATRAPATTI GRAM SABHA: A REVIEW

Chatrapatti is a small village near Gandhi Niketan Ashram. There are about 80 houses comprising 500 people, closely related to one another. Seven years back, it was a very factitious village, having achieved nothing through cooperative efforts. At the request of their elders, a Gram Sabha was constituted. Now they have a primary school of their own, housed in a building constructed with the help of the government. Their Chavadi (community centre), which was in a dilapidated condition for decades, has been rebuilt now through the joint efforts of the Gram Sabha members, who contributed to its success through labour, materials, and free service. Milk animals supplied to 20 families on a loan basis have become like their own animals, helping them in the maintenance of their families. They have formed a cooperative to undertake stone quarry work on a nearby hill. All feel proud that no-one in the village drinks liquor. At the time of harvest, they collect grain and money as the people’s contribution, and they have thus created a common good fund of more than 20,000 rupees, which they lend in times of need to their members at 4% interest. The president of the Gram Sabha assures that no interest will be necessary after two years. They settle their disputes locally and do not permit any member to go to the court or the police. For example, in a case taken to the court by a relative of the Gram Sabha leader of Kallupatti village, the members of Chatrapatti succeeded in arbitrating it out of court. The people have come to realize the benefits that will accrue to them if they follow Gram Sabha procedure to solve problems, and that they will improve their lot through non-violent means. Hate is being replaced by love and personal competition by mutual cooperation.

SOCIAL CHANGE THROUGH GRAM SABHA

In another village called Peria Kattalai, 25 kilometers from Gandhi Niketan, the Gram Sabha has transformed residents with a 500-year-old tradition of thievery into normal human beings, now standing on their own legs for their daily bread through agricultural work and trading. Their culture has been improved to such an extent that they have built their own temple at a cost of 45,000 rupees. They also use it as an assembly hall to make fruitful decisions for the development of the village.

THE ROLE OF NATIONAL ADULT EDUCATION CENTERS

The ashram runs 60 adult educations centers with the aid of the Indian government to create awareness, spread literacy and numeracy, and upgrade the traditional skills of 1800 learners between the ages of 15 and 35 in about 40 villages in Kallupatti Block. These learners have celebrated Independence Day and Gandhi Jayanti with the cooperation of the local people and have begun to plant trees in common areas and to nurture them with personal attention. They have begun to understand the techniques of Gandhiji, along with his ideas, and to start wearing khadi, the livery of true freedom.

EDUCATING THE LITERATES

A college of Gandhian thought, run by the ashram and affiliated with Madurai Kamaraj University, prepares students for the Certificate and Diploma courses in Gandhian thought every year. In addition, a 42-day Gandhian thought course is conducted there to train graduates and post-graduates in the art and science of Gandhian living. Some of the trained students have started Gram Sabhas in their villages and helped in uniting all sections of the people there for effective peaceful living.

RURAL HIGHER SECONDARY EDUCATION

A Higher Secondary School at Gandhi Niketan, catering to the needs of 2600 children, with hostel facilities for outsiders, inculcates in students a sense of cleanliness and self-discipline by having them undertake practical projects. The pupils join National Social Service or Shanti Sena (Peace Brigade) units in the school and get to know Gandhian techniques through their participation in free eye operation camps, socio-economic surveys, and village camps and visits.

EDUCATIVE WALKING TOURS

Pada Yatras (walking trips) are conducted once or twice a year through the Block to free the people from intoxicating drink and petty infighting. Disputes among individuals or between villages are settled amicably at the ashram. Periodic camps and seminars are held at the ashram for Gram Sabha leaders, educated youths, and teachers, to apprise them of the Gandhian approach to solving human conflict. In 1980, in view of all these activities, the ashram was presented by the then president of India with the prestigious Jamnalal Bajaj Award for its outstanding rural development work.

CONCLUSION

From what has been described above, it will be clear to the reader that Gandhi Niketan is an abode of peace and goodwill. Khadi and village industries represent non-violent occupations for the establishment of Mother Economy, shunning cutthroat competition and its concomitant evils. Our education, stressing productive manual labour, leads to Swadesi (neighborliness), ideals, and character formation. Our community prayers are for religious tolerance and secularism. Our day-to-day life is to appreciate and practise democratic socialism in our nascent republican state. Thus Gandhi Niketan stands for upholding Indian traditions, culture, and civilization.

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