View of the Sabarmati River from the Sabarmati Ashram.
This is Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat, India. When Mahatma Gandhi first established this residential community in 1915, he intentionally chose a bucolic area along the Sabarmati River that was at a remove from the city of Ahmedabad. Now, a century later, when standing on the dusty earth of the ashram grounds and looking out across the river to the opposite bank, the view is of high-rise apartment buildings and other sights and sounds of suburban encroachment.
Today, this ashram—along with the three others founded by Gandhi in India and South Africa—are primarily historical and cultural relics. As I recently walked around Sabarmati Ashram with Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, he lamented that the ashrams were now “just museums, places where tourists come to snap photos.”
Gandhi’s first two ashrams were founded in South Africa, where he lived from 1893 - 1914: Phoenix Settlement, established in 1904 in KwaZulu Natal; and Tolstoy Farm, established in 1910 outside of Johannesburg. The latter two ashrams were founded in India upon Gandhi’s return to the country in 1915: Sabarmati Ashram, established in 1915 outside of Ahmedabad; and Sevagram Ashram, established in 1936 in Wardha.
In these ashrams, Gandhi and his co-residents sought to bring to life a counter-world, a physical space where the inhabitants engaged in acts of self-control and communal labor in the pursuit of spiritual and social liberation. As the mission statement for Sabarmati Ashram proclaimed, they hoped that 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 human society writ large: “The object of this Ashram is that its members should qualify themselves for, and make a consistent endeavor towards, the service of the country, not inconsistent with the universal welfare.”
In insisting that the ashram residents till the soil together, cook meals together, cobble shoes together, spin cloth together, and clean latrines together, Gandhi sought to break down social barriers and instill a sense of equality and community across differences of caste, class, gender, nationality, race, and religion. By requiring the residents to practice swaraj (self-control) and ahimsa (nonviolence) at all times, the aim was to instill the moral discipline necessary for their communal life together in the pursuit of a greater truth, satyagraha. These residential experiments were the testing grounds for the national community that Gandhi ideally hoped to forge in an independent India––an India governed by self-control and nonviolence, and united through acts of civic responsibility.
Arun Gandhi (holding bamboo staff) with Tushar Gandhi (on his left) and Rajendra Singh (on his right), surrounded by villagers in Sariska, Rajasthan who have benefited from the work of Tarun Bharat Sangh. Photo by Karline McLain.
For Arun Gandhi and his own son, Tushar Gandhi, the legacy of the ashrams that Mahatma Gandhi established is not to be found in their physical remains, now preserved as heritage monuments and tourist attractions. Rather, Arun Gandhi sees this legacy at work in the network of grassroots non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seeking to improve the lives of people in rural and urban India by applying Gandhian philosophy in a variety of ways.
Arun Gandhi with some of the “Solar Mamas” from around the world who are receiving training in building solar lighting at Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan. Photo by Karline McLain.
For Arun Gandhi and his own son, Tushar Gandhi, the legacy of the ashrams that Mahatma Gandhi established is not to be found in their physical remains, now preserved as heritage monuments and tourist attractions. Rather, Arun Gandhi sees this legacy at work in the network of grassroots non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seeking to improve the lives of people in rural and urban India by applying Gandhian philosophy in a variety of ways. Last winter, I accompanied Arun and Tushar Gandhi on visits to several NGOs to investigate how they interpret and implement Gandhi’s philosophy in their work. These NGOs performed a diverse array of work, from Tarun Bharat Sangh, founded by the “waterman of India” Rajendra Singh, who won the Stockholm Water Prize in 2015 for his work helping village farmers in semi-arid northwestern India to harvest rainwater; to Avani, where Anuradha Bhosale works to improve the lives of child laborers in Kolhapur District, Maharashtra, by providing them with basic housing, food, and education; to Barefoot College, a non-degree-crediting educational institution founded by Bunker Roy with an emphasis on empowerment and sustainability. Each of these NGOs looked explicitly to Gandhian practices about equality, hands-on education, and local practices geared towards communal flourishing (swaraj in Gandhi’s definition of the term) in their respective work.
Gandhi’s significant role in modern Indian national history is well known, and much literature exists on his political philosophy and legacy. However, the central role of the ashrams Gandhi established to his lifelong work remains understudied. My research for The Enhancing Life Project focuses on Gandhi’s residential experiments, examining their forays into pluralistic cohousing, subsistence farming, cooperative labor, and alternative education (to name just a few of the experiments) undertaken at the four primary ashrams he established in South Africa and India. Through this lens, this project will enable not only a fuller understanding of Gandhi and his legacy, but will also bring to light the contributions made by his co-residents towards envisioning and enacting an alternative modernity on the small scale, and an alternative India on the national scale. It was this alternative India that Gandhi hoped would share the nonviolent path to truth and justice with the rest of the world.
Read a Q&A with Karline McLain about her research here.