Karline McLain

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

Capstone Conference Talk

Saturday (8/5) 3:10-3:30PM

Self-Control and Self-Sacrifice at Gandhi’s Intentional Communities

Mahatma Gandhi is known worldwide for his nonviolent fight to attain India’s independence from colonial rule. Lesser known are his residential experiments conducted at the intentional living communities, or ashrams, that he founded in South Africa and India. Residents at these ashrams engaged in crucial small-scale experiments with the ideals and methods for living a just life that Gandhi would apply to larger-scale social, religious, and political problems. My research focuses on the communal observances and experiments undertaken at the ashrams. I examine how central voluntary constraint was to Gandhi’s utopian vision for individual and communal flourishing, and explore the relationship between self-control and self-sacrifice.


Capstone Conference Research Laboratory

SATURDAY (8/5) 9:30-10:40AM

Integral Ecology: Enhancing Human and Non-Human Life

The task of this Research Laboratory is to provide perspectives from philosophy, history, theology and anthropology about the possibilities for engaging in each other’s lives and in the natural world. Rather than exploring ecology and just the sum of its parts, we explore fundamental aspects of and “integral ecology.” That is, we examine the ways environments and social relationships organize, inspire, and vitalize each other. The laboratory will also look across different societies to explore the ways these integral interactions are mediated by material infrastructures and cultural belief systems. In doing so, we seek to reflect on the webs of mutuality, interdependence, and exchange that can and do enhance the integral coexistence of human and non-human life.

Research Laboratories allow audience members to interact with a panel of ELP Scholars and Interlocutors in addressing a problem of public relevance. We invite active participation from audience members in the creation of new knowledge.

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.

Project 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.