Friday, September 30, 2011

Gandhi's 7 Deadly Social Sins and 11 Ashram Observances

My brief stay at Gandhi's ashram in 2007 continues to fuel my imagination

Early one January morning in 2007, our bicycle entourage that was making a 2000-mile trek from the southern tip of India to New Delhi was sent off by staff and students of Yavatmal College for Leadership Training in central India. Five Indian riders from the school would accompany us to Nagpur. The more the merrier! Early in the day, we passed through Wardha, a major intra-India train exchange depot. We then rode on in overwhelming sun and heat, finishing a long day of pedaling at a little place called Sevagram.
Gandhi's dirt-floor hut at Sevagram, where he lived simply
and from where he led India non-violently to independence.
Not much more than a wide place in the road, Sevagram became the rural home of Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1936. From this quiet place Gandhi not only practiced the simple, powerful principles of his convictions, but led India in a long, sustained non-violent march to independence until England finally "quit India" in 1947. Gandhi guided India to independence not with military force, but with the force of non-violent spirit and actions of civil disobedience.
Three years after English rule ended, the Indian democracy was established on January 26, 1950. Republic Day is commemorated across India with great affection.  There were flag-waving parades in very village we pedaled through. We spent the night of January 25 in guest huts at Gandhi's ashram in Sevagram. It seemed fitting that we should begin Republic Day from the birthplace of Indian independence. 

Visiting Sevagram was a deeply moving experience for me.  At the ashram (retreat center, community, commune, monastery, etc.) where Gandhi lived, weaved, farmed, served, taught, and strategized, I read the sign posting the "Seven Deadly Social Sins" that Gandhi defined and which I have frequently contemplated before and since. They are:

Politics without principle
Wealth without work
Commerce without morality
Pleasure without conscience
Education without character
Science without humanity
Worship without sacrifice

I was also interested in the 11 Ashram Observances, which I had not seen before.  I have since contemplated the impact--and potential impact--of the power of the use and abandonment of these practices both in India and among Americans. Here are the 11 Ashram Observances at Sevagram:

1. Truth
2. Non-violence
3. Chastity
4. Non-possession
5. Non-stealing
6. Bread-Labor
7. Control of palate
8. Fearlessness
9. Equality of religions
10. Swadeshi (Gandhi's description: "a call to the consumer to be aware of the violence he is causing by supporting those industries that result in poverty, harm to workers and to humans and other creatures")
11. Removal of untouchability

At the bottom of the sign was an additional directive from Gandhi: "Follow the above observances with humility and resolve."

Is the Sevagram ashram an exception to the rule? Sure it is.  Are the Seven Deadly Social Sins front and center in what is ripping at the fabric of our personal lives, communities, and world today?  Yes.  Do the 11 Ashram Observances offer disciplines, practices, and principles that could reweave the fabric of personal integrity, interpersonal fellowship, community vitality, and world progress?  Absolutely.  Taken together, they could be again transformative.

I would say of Gandhi's experiment at Sevagram and its initial freedom-winning impact on India what G. K. Chesterton said of Christianity: "It is not that it has been tried and found wanting, it is that it has been found difficult and left untried."

But, perhaps there are those who are hungry enough for justice and authenticity in this and the next generation to have the courage to try again.

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