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Exploring Gandhi’s Ashrams: A Q&A with Dr. Karline McLain

June 28, 2016 • By Karline McLain Exploring Gandhi’s Ashrams: A Q&A with Dr. Karline McLain

Mohandas Karamchand “Mahatma” Gandhi is best known for his contributions to attaining India’s independence from British colonial rule and his advocacy for nonviolent resistance against injustice. However, he also founded a handful of intentional living communities, or ashrams, in South Africa and India, with the aim of engaging in small-scale experiments with ideals and methods for enhancing life that could then be applied to larger-scale social, religious, and political problems. In her research for The Enhancing Life Project, Karline McLain, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Bucknell University, is investigating the history of Gandhi’s four primary ashrams, to learn more about how Gandhi and the residents at the ashrams pursued their goals of promoting communal self-control, nonviolence, and exemplary service. 

Read a blog post by Karline McLain about the legacy of Gandhi's ashrams here.

What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project? Are these new questions, or an extension of past research, or both? 

This is a new area for me. I am a scholar of South Asian religions and in my prior research I focused on colonial and postcolonial India, but I never would have predicted that I would be doing research in the subfield of Gandhian Studies. I’ve been teaching college seminars on Gandhi for more than a decade, though, and each time I reread Gandhi’s writings, I came to realize how central these ashrams were to his social, religious, and political reform work.

These ashrams have largely been overlooked because most of the scholarship focuses on his political philosophy and legacy. There’s a clear connection, though, between the rules and goals of the ashrams and Gandhi’s work more broadly. The people who joined him at the ashrams wanted to engage in acts of communal labor and self-control. They were in pursuit of spiritual liberation—this is central in Gandhi’s writings—but also focused on this-worldly liberation. The residents agreed to live by a set of rules that included practicing nonviolence but also taking a fair share in all of the labor. That way it wasn’t just people of a certain caste or gender who were doing the work of the kitchen or cleaning the latrines. They were really trying to instill the moral discipline that Gandhi thought was necessary for a communal life together of service and equality.

Who were the people who came to live with Gandhi at the ashrams?

I’m still trying to uncover who these residents were. This year, I’ve been focusing on one of the ashrams in South Africa, called Phoenix Settlement. It’s an interesting mix of residents there: a number of other Indians living and working in South Africa, coming from different regions, family traditions, caste backgrounds, and class backgrounds. And then there were a number of Afrikaaners, Europeans who had come to reside in South Africa and became friends with Gandhi. Some were Christian missionaries who were interested in promoting a more ideal society in terms of race. Others were trained lawyers who worked with Gandhi because of course he was a lawyer. 

One pleasant surprise is that I’ve been reading the journal of a woman who lived at Phoenix Settlement, named Millie Graham Polak. Millie had tremendous respect and affection for Gandhi but she was aware that he was a human person, not a saint as he is often described. She challenged him regularly as he sought to establish rules in the early days of the ashram.

What do you think Enhancing Life studies can offer your discipline, and why?

It can expand the ways that we think about asceticism within the discipline of Religious Studies. Asceticism has sometimes been interpreted as a habit of refusal or self-denial, directed toward the goal of escape from this life and toward the afterlife. But for Gandhi, the ascetic practices that he employed—including celibacy and limiting his diet and living in these ashrams, which in the classic Hindu context was set apart for ascetic practitioners—had constructive social and political significance. Practicing self-discipline and simplicity was a way of enhancing life. Gandhi’s ascetic practices at the ashrams were not world-rejecting. They confronted the major social and ethical problems of his life.

How do public debates shape your work? What are you hoping to offer those debates?

Gandhi’s role in modern Indian national history is very well known, and he’s often put on a pedestal around the world for his nonviolent methods. But he’s a controversial figure, especially in India and in Indian diaspora communities like those in South Africa. There have been questions recently about his views on race relations in South Africa and about his sexuality, in light of his advocacy of celibacy. One thing I hope my research can do is offer a deeper, more nuanced understanding of Gandhi living and working in collaboration with others, both Indian and non-Indian.

You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go? 

I travel so much for my research, it’s hard to know how to answer! If I were to travel somewhere unrelated to my work, I’d want it to be somewhere where I could be active outdoors and try something new. I’d love to do a biking tour of Wales or take my son for surf lessons in Hawaii.