In the afternoons at Brahma Vida Ashram, I am free to rest, read, and reflect. I spend my time speaking with the older sisters, the ones who have been at the ashram for decades. This post is a compilation of two interviews with a particular lady in her eighties. She is devout, informed, and dedicated. May I share her words well.
“’I, me, mine,’” the elderly sister tells me, leaning forward from her pillow in earnest, “that has created all the problems.”
Her simple room near the ashram’s gardens is dark and cool in the afternoon heat. She sits on her bed next a table stuffed with books, an alarm clock, a radio, and bits of paper. Her gray and white hair is cut short, a radical style for India; sometimes she takes a deep breath as she speaks, wind in her chest emphasizing her most important points. “A calm state of mind is essential, all the time observing your breath,” I am told. She squints slightly at me, serious but kind. Sometimes she augments our conversation with a book pulled down from the shelves behind her – something on Vinoba, the ashram’s founder, or various aspects of life. The conversation flows from her travels in America to questions about my work. At this particular moment, we are discussing the future of humanity.
“From the moon, there are no lines on Earth. […] The identity of “I” is fake, it has no meaning. When we get rid of the I-ness, I am nothing, I am an instrument in the hands of a power, I want to keep links with that power.” Her eyes are calm but grave. “These wars, the bloodshed, exploitation, trying to find some place for myself, I depend on this person — I don’t depend on any person, I am empty.”
She tells me stories: how she gave away her inheritance after keeping just enough for her needs, how Gandhi was careful to take no more than his share, Vinoba’s simple way of life. Producing a pair of pink pants made from thick, handmade cotton, her hands perform the movements of sewing a patch — for twenty-two years. She owns a summer outfit and a winter outfit. Waving at the things on the table beside her, she tells me, “Objects are here with me temporarily, they will move on,” her hand flings out and I imagine the books speeding away from her. “We have to use objects to their ultimate end, you can’t use and then throw away.” Counting on her fingers, she explains that mass production and consumption mean mass waste.
Our conversation turns to India, its problems and heritage. “India is a land of unity in diversity,” she explains, her voice soft but her words railing against corporate systems, the dangers of globalization, the monopolization of seeds and that variety will be finished, that regular folk won’t be able to get seeds from the fields, as they always have. Vinoba’s peace walk for land reform floats up from my memory; I hear the vital role of agriculture in her words, echoing the man who started the ashram seventy years ago.
Thinking about role of giant corporations in America’s government and economy, I ask the question I’ve carried with me for the Gandhians: how can young people have hope?
“When we see positive and negative things in this world, we get confused. But there is — positivity is in a bigger number than the negativity. And the whole world is standing on some harmony. In human society, negativity is in bigger number than positivity. But because God has created this whole universe, Divinity will be more successful… there is a survival instinct in human beings, in insects and everything. Through violence, we cannot survive, we need nonviolent means. The language of love need not be learnt, any individual animal or insect understands the language of love. […] So our mission of life is to give love, to everyone who comes into your life flow — serve them with a compassionate and loving heart. If I can do that, then my life is worthwhile. You will be so much happy, and so much enjoy. On a certain level, that’s how the Divine power works. People catch our vibrations, and it becomes something magical.”
I scribble notes and promise to write something that my university community back home could read.
When we say our goodbyes, she hands me a book of poetry on nature’s beauty, and takes my hand. “I have realized the significance of your name. Bridget. You build bridges between people.”
Remembering Chicago, the interfaith community, and their nickname for me, I know it is not a great leap to make but I still stagger away from her room in awe of the experience.
Faintly curved seams distinguish wall from floor in the earthen rooms. Wooden slats and beams separate the kitchen from the sky, but birds flit in through the windows to perch above the breakfast scene. One or two brave souls join the ashram residents on the dining room floor, making small nonchalant hops as if they are innocently sharing space — then dive for a peck or two from an unattended breakfast plate.
Glass-free windows allow an untempered flow of sounds: cows murmuring to each other in the nearby fields, chattering schoolchildren, the intermittent low rumble of an auto. Memories of plastic and tile stand stark against worn wooden cupboards and exclusively metal tools. Half-doors sling a partial line between the large, plant-spottted patio space and the kitchen.
Paths connect each building, turning the complex into a single unit wholly integrated with nature, where inside and outside become loose terms.
Chicago had felt disconnected — cement and brick sealing off earth access, wind and winter pushing us between disjointed boxy buildings, isolated under fluorescent tubes at pressed-board desks. When people ask me about India and America, I explain how space separates: wide roads and long distances, the urban personal bubble, lawns pushing the world away from suburban houses, that three thousand miles affects how people think.
Sevagram Ashram embodies a Gandhian ideal. By embracing a village lifestyle and merging with nature, it attempts to tap into the common Indian experience of rural life. Gandhi advocated simple living and personal sustainability: outlining “bread labor,” doing at least some direct work each day on producing your own food, as well as the practice of wearing natural fabric woven from thread that you have spun yourself. One slim, serious woman wears the kurta of a man, spurning dupattas (and the symbolic modesty) for a practical shirt. One with a softer face and easier smile is still wrapped in soft, white women’s clothing, but her self-assured tone and movements defies the stereotypes written onto her body. Their apparent leader, a bearded man, strides around the room without aggression, approaching every task in the same efficient manner; his toned, age-denying chest and back are often exposed under the drape of his dhoti, a reference to Gandhian simplicity and work.
This seemingly simple village complex witnessed major political decisions and discussions that shaped India’s independence. Modern India grew in reference to its heritage, birthed in allegiance to its past.
Where the general rural population inherits its position, this is an intentional community, self-conscious and more likely than not finds its residents in the middle to lower middle range of economic class. Rose-tinted glasses removed in the spirit of effective understanding, I am surprised by their employment of a cook and wonder at how contemplative living truly could make a positive difference in the world. But the residents work alongside her in the kitchen, and sometimes there are more than twelve for dinner, visitors swelling our numbers. They humbly live in a significant historical site.
The new country did not dedicate itself to Gandhi’s ideas. This living museum could be called obsolete, clinging to a past that never produced its hoped-for future. It is village life interpreted, a demonstration of the ideas of one influential man. Indian tourists come and click their pictures of Gandhi’s walking stick. So easily forgotten, a small community holding on against globalization’s tidal wave of obscurity.
It is remembrance by doing — how very Gandhian. Each lift of a spade, each rolled chapati and turn of the spinning wheel, done in quiet dedication. You could focus on the individual buildings marked by a sign explaining their role in Gandhi’s life, but the work, the people, the dynamics embodied in their way of life and the use of space, are the real thing being preserved for the education of posterity.
The soft crunch of gravel precedes the arriving white-wrapped forms who quietly settle onto the porch floor, forming an inward-facing circle. We wait silently in the pre-dawn darkness. The unnatural experience of gathering without greetings gives the moment a beautiful gravity; at some indiscernible cue, the chant “om, shanti, shanti, shanti” (“shanti” = peace) spreads into the calm. I cannot figure out who begins it, it is as if everyone is in tune, collectively shifting into prayer.
It’s 4:30 a.m. at Sevagram ashram, the place where Gandhi planned his political movement. In the mornings, Hannah, the German intern, comes to collect me at my room where I have been awake since 4:15 and lie in bed fully dressed, trying to expend the minimum amount of energy. We climb over the guest house gate, reluctant to wake someone to unlock it.
The collective chanting fades and everyone departs in silence as if nothing happened, another layer of surreality. I sneak another thirty minutes of sleep, then report to the kitchen. The narratives written into that communal, traditionally female space make it my frequent access point into connection and mutual understanding. Sharing work can ease the expectations attached to me – white skin and foreign citizenship often writes me into a privileged, untouchable category.
The small broom is a bound bundle of grasses; all walk barefoot inside the kitchen and dining space, so sweeping is a necessary task. I’ve picked up habits, so hold my left arm behind my back as I clean.
The ashram employs a cook: a petite, wiry woman who lives with her clever, pretty daughter in a room on the property. She grins at me and my foreign foolishness, and squats next to the stove, pulling at different pans. The “stove” is shaped from earth, the fire visible through openings in the molded clay, with a laid-in frame to support the pots. Soon, I am shooed into the next room to eat, where Hannah has stretched out the long mats; other ashramites arrive for breakfast, a rustic porridge with nuts, and sit in a row on the floor, scooping from metal plates and bowls.
Afterward, if there are no vegetables to chop, I follow Hannah to the fields. We gather rocks from the soil as the others break through the winter grasses; we are preparing the soil for planting. She and I each have a large, shallow, metal bowl, and the collected rocks clang loudly against the silence of the diggers. Instead of kneeling Western-style, we rest on our haunches so that only our feet make contact with the dirt, and pick out the offending stones until lunch.
I am grateful for Hannah, who guides me throughout my stay, clueing me in on rules. We are the rare Westerners, who don’t truly stand out until tourists (mostly Indian) come to see Gandhi’s ashram. They take photos of the famous buildings — Bapu’s residence, his wife’s, the various other historic bits of space. It’s like living in a museum; it belongs to you at night, but then you’re slicing onions and realize that a curious face is peeking through the window at you. I try to tell people about the reenactment town of Sturbridge Village back in Massachusetts, but I think only Hannah understands.
Lunch comes quickly, and afterwards, the ashram folk disperse to rest, read, reflect, and, most of all, spin, which is considered a form of meditation. Gandhi attached great import to spinning cotton into thread; all of the residents wear clothes made from natural, handmade cloth. It has a distinct, earthy texture and a familiar whitish shade. Hannah tries to teach me on the private porch of one of the ashram ladies. We’re hiding from tourists, because white girls engaging in ashram life – especially the famous spinning – tends to draw attention. I struggle to pull the cotton and turn the wheel at the same time, so we form a team, her spinning and me attempting not to break the thread. But soon I return the handful of cotton and settle against a post to enjoy the sunlight and let her actually complete something. A head peeks around the bamboo screen separating us from the public area of the complex, and soon we have an audience: twenty amused Indian tourists pack themselves into the tiny space, staring at Hannah spinning. A man pulls out a camera, but points it at me. We call into the room for back up and a smiling ashramite shoos the tourists away.
Back in the kitchen, prepping for dinner, I battle with the standing knife: it is a curved blade attached to a wooden block that rests on the floor, and you push the potato down against it. I rarely have it for long before a woman stops my slow work, giving me a regular knife – always followed by her slicing like a fiend on the traditional one.
I can’t repress my American side, my big gestures and joking. The cook waggles her head at me for being unable to speak Hindi, and I manage with our common words supplemented by performing ideas. I am accepted and enjoyed, I am told. I can’t help but wave and gasp and joke, expressing self-deprecation when they point to my kitchen skills, or communicating how bizarre the spiky “bitter gourd” looks by waving it like a weapon at a laughing (thank god) elderly woman.
The true test comes at chapatis. The ability to properly make chapatis (and chai, and probably curry, but especially chapatis) is essential to being an Indian woman. It seems simple. It is not. One must properly roll the ball of dough with deft, specific hand movements that prevent impudent wrinkles. It is not simply rolling it like cookie dough. The cook left me to prep via dough rolling, fiddling with the fire and moving things around. She turns back, takes one look at my neat pile of rolled dough, and wails, “Nooooooooo!” as if I have smushed the all the dough into a pattern on the floor.
I laugh and poke fun at her dramatic reaction, but consent to being instructed again in proper dough rolling. Luckily she is satisfied, and my work is approved, flattened, and puffed up over the fire. I am so ridiculously proud of myself.
Dal, rice, chapatis, as much as you can eat. Simple food taken in silence, but all I could want in India. We wash the metal dishes with ash at the outdoor trough-like sink as the sun sets across the fields. The resident litter of puppies arrives in a brigade of cuteness, stumbling around my feet and dashing up to their familiar Hannah.
The tourists are fading away into dusk, and the ashram folk gather in front of Gandhi’s famous sitting spot to chant and pray. I join them, a less serene and temporary member. If I remembered to coat myself in mosquito repellent, I sit quietly and listen to unknown words spoken and sung in a gentle cadence, welcoming in the night and echoing peace.