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July 17, 2017 • By Karline McLain Gandhi and "Alternative Modernity": A Q&A With Karline McLain

What is the topic of your Enhancing Life Project research?

The title is “Gandhi’s Ashrams: Residential Experiments for Enhancing Life.”

Gandhi, of course, is known worldwide for his contributions to attaining India’s independence from British colonial rule and for his advocacy of nonviolent methods of resistance against an array of injustices.  Lesser known are his experiments with alternative modernity conducted through the handful of intentional living communities, or ashrams, that he established in South Africa and India.  Yet at these ashrams the residents engaged in crucial small-scale experiments with the ideals and methods for enhancing life that Gandhi would then seek to apply to larger-scale social, religious, and political problems.  

In these ashrams, Gandhi and his co-residents sought to bring to life a counter-world, a physical space wherein the inhabitants engaged in acts of communal labor and self-control in the pursuit of spiritual and social liberation.  They believed their residential experiments would enable them to discover the spiritual laws necessary for enhancing life not only on the micro-scale, but for the future improvement of India and of human society writ large.  

I seek to uncover who lived with Gandhi at these intentional communities, why they were initially drawn to these places, why they chose to stay or to leave them, and what daily life was like therein.  With this approach, I hope to better understand Gandhi’s hands-on experiments with the evolving concept of sarvodaya – universal welfare – and his beliefs about the relevance of self-discipline and voluntary limits to universal welfare.

You used the phrase “alternative modernity.” What do you mean by that?

Living in the context of colonialism and industrialization, Gandhi insisted that true justice was to be found in the advancement of all, rather than for some people at the expense of others.  His ashrams were the spaces where Gandhi and his co-residents sought to forge a more just community, wherein human relations – in Gandhi’s words, affection – must be taken into consideration.  In living and laboring together as equals, Gandhi and his co-residents sought to enact a counter-world to the colonialist and capitalist status quo.  They endeavored to establish a just society, one that would advance the economic well-being of all residents – Indians and Europeans – through shared labor, while simultaneously advancing their equity with and affection for one another.  Gandhi viewed this as a micro-level residential experiment for the ideal India he hoped to help bring about.  

What does your research have to offer people who do not live in ashrams? In which specific ways do you think that your project might inform either public policy or public discourse?

In terms of public discourse, sustainability is a word that we hear frequently these days.  The decisions that we make in our daily lives have an impact upon our individual well-being, and the well-being of our community.  Gandhi advocated for restraint in our daily lives.  At his intentional communities, he sought to cultivate self-rule within himself, and encouraged his co-residents to cultivate it as well.  He felt that this self-rule, and at times even self-sacrifice, was crucial to universal well-being.

I do not seek to replicate life at Gandhi’s ashrams, nor do I advocate that everyone live exactly as he did.  I do, however, advocate thinking seriously about what our daily spaces and practices say about ourselves, our communities, and our linked future.  I advocate thinking seriously about whether the way we each live is sustainable, for ourselves as individuals and for the greater community.  I advocate asking ourselves whether practicing self-discipline and simplicity can ever be a way of enhancing life.

Has there been anything recently in the news that's struck you as relevant to your topic? 

Gandhi emphasized self-discipline and self-sufficiency in daily life at his ashrams: the residents lived and labored together, growing their own produce, building their own houses, and educating their children.

Gandhi was adamant that people should voluntarily live in huts, not houses.  Living in the midst of the struggle for India’s independence from British colonial rule, Gandhi believed that choosing a smaller, more sustainable way of life was the only way to improve the quality of life for all citizens in India.

Looking beyond Gandhi’s historical context, his insistence on huts over palaces resonates with conversations taking place in India, in the United States, and around the world today in response to the widening gap between the rich and the poor. 

We regularly read stories in the news about the rise of inequality and its adverse impact on society.  And we also hear in the news about the need to moderate, to choose a more simple life.  A contemporary example of choosing huts over palaces can be found in the tiny house movement.  The tiny house movement advocates downsizing one’s residential space, encouraging people to select smaller, more efficient residential spaces. At the same time, Newsweek magazine ran a story on July 4, 2017, titled “Big Houses in the U.S. Are Back.” This story states that McMansions – houses over three thousand square feet in size and intended to mimic more expensive palatial residences – are increasing in popularity.  A quarter of homes built in the U.S. since the 1980s fit this category, and though construction of McMansions had slowed a decade ago, they are once again on the uptick. 

These parallel trends – tiny houses and McMansions – raise the question: How should we live?  In huts as Gandhi advocated, or in palaces?  Is there any merit to the idea of choosing a smaller scale of consumption in the interest of the greater good?  

Are you planning to teach a course inspired by your research on the ashrams? What would that course focus on, and what do you think students in different disciplines would learn from studying these issues?

I am currently in an administrative position, and therefore am not in the classroom.  I’ll return to teaching after two more years in my current position, and look forward to teaching an undergraduate seminar on “Gandhi’s Ashrams: Living the Gandhian Life” at that time.

Course readings for this course are organized to explore the four primary ashrams founded by Gandhi in their chronological order: Phoenix Settlement (est. 1904 in Natal), Tolstoy Farm (est. 1910 outside Johannesburg), Sabarmati Ashram (est. 1915 outside Ahmedabad), and Sevagram Ashram (est. 1936 in Wardha).  We will read many of Gandhi’s primary writings to think through the ashrams and their significance in both his life and his historical-cultural context.  We will also read other primary and secondary sources to explore the ashrams through the eyes of some of the settlers who chose to join Gandhi as co-residents.  In the final unit of the course, we will give consideration to the legacy of these ashrams in India and in North America.

Key questions the seminar will explore include: Why did Gandhi found these ashrams, and how are they related to his larger social, religious, and political reform work? What was life like on these utopian farming villages?  Who chose to live alongside Gandhi, what were their motivations in doing so, and what were their experiences like?  What is the legacy of Gandhi’s ashrams in India and around the globe today? How should we live, in order to enhance our lives and the lives of those around us?