Karline McLain

Research Project Title: Gandhi's Ashrams: Residential Experiments for Enhancing Life in India and South Africa

Associate Professor of Religious Studies; Chair of Religious Studies Department

Bucknell University, Department of Religious Studies

Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; United States of America

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Academic Biography

Karline McLain is Associate Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Bucknell University.  She received her PhD in Asian Cultures and Languages from The University of Texas at Austin in 2005.  Her area of expertise is religion in colonial and postcolonial India, and a persistent interest in religion, public culture, and pluralism underlies her diverse projects.  Her first book, India’s Immortal Comic Books: Gods, Kings, and Other Heroes (2009), explores how an incredibly popular comic book series helped to define what it means to be Hindu and Indian for several generations of readers, and examines how the national canon of mythological and historical Indian heroes created through this medium aligned with Hindu nationalist ideology.  This book received the Edward Cameron Dimock, Jr. Prize from the American Institute of Indian Studies for its contribution to the Indian humanities.  Her second book, The Afterlife of Shirdi Sai Baba (forthcoming in 2016), explores the many interpretations of Shirdi Sai Baba across hagiography, ethnography, film, and history to theorize his increasing popularity among Hindus since his death in 1918 in the context of debates about religious syncretism and pluralism.  Her research for The Enhancing Life Project is a study of the intentional communities, or ashrams, founded by Mahatma Gandhi in India and South Africa.  This project will examine the counter-world enacted at the ashrams and their implications for the imagined national future, identify the spiritual laws established at the ashrams as essential for enhancing life, and assess their viability beyond their particular socio-historical context.

Executive Summary

Mohandas Karamchand “Mahatma” Gandhi (1869-1948) 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 apply to larger-scale social, religious, and political problems in both countries.  This project is not a study of Gandhi per se, but is instead conceived of as an investigation into the four primary ashrams established by him: Phoenix Settlement (est. 1904) and Tolstoy Farm (1910) in South Africa, and Sabarmati Ashram (1915) and Sevagram Ashram (1936) in India.  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 self-control and communal labor 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.  In insisting that the ashram residents practice swaraj (self-control) and ahimsa (nonviolence) at all times, Gandhi sought to instill the moral discipline necessary for their communal life of exemplary service together in the pursuit of a greater truth, satyagraha.