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Living the Gandhi Dream in Ahmedabad

By Ruth Broyde Sharone


Mahatma Gandhi – Photo: Wikipedia

Mahatma Gandhi – Photo: Wikipedia

The Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, in the west Indian state of Gujarat, was a bold experiment initiated by Mahatma Gandhito find a way to make the spiritual practical. How does one take spiritual principles, apply them genuinely to everyday life, and then convey those principles to the neediest of children, so that the next generation might grow up with an innate sense of what it means to “love all and serve all.”

That is what a small group of modern-day Gandhians is attempting to do through an organization called Manav Sadhna (Worship God by Serving Humanity), a modern incarnation of the Gandhi Ashram, located in the same ashram where Gandhi lived, just across the road from one of the largest slums of Ahmedabad.

To understand their mission, it is important to revisit history. The original Gandhi Ashram, established in the city of Ahmedabad in 1915, moved in 1917 to a rural area of some 36 acres near the Sabarmati River, which in Hindu mythology was revered as the site of a famous incident of extreme sacrifice. The mythological symbolism was not lost on Gandhi when he discovered that the land was surrounded by a jungle full of snakes and near a prison. Gandhi deemed it a perfect place to carry on his search for Truth and, in the process, to develop fearlessness. He designed what he conceived of as “a human laboratory” to test his moral and spiritual hypotheses. 

The ashram consisted of a few modest dwellings, simple but efficient, and he gave permission for others to join his “family” not related by blood or property but only by common goals, mutual ideals, and adherence to a strict way of life: “Education, Truth (Non-Violence and Love), Celibacy, Control of the palate (no liquor or meat), No Stealing, Non-Possession (simple living, high thinking), Use of home-made articles, Conquer of Fear, and the Eradication of Untouchability.”

Today’s Manav Sadhna was established through the shared vision of three people: Viren Joshi, Jayesh Patel, and his wife, Anar Patel, in principle, in the U.S. in 1992, then in practice, in India in 1993. The predominant orientation towards education and service was seeded by Jayesh’s father, the late Ishwar Patel, founder of the Environmental Sanitation Institute, who dedicated 60 years to Gandhian work. 

Morning interfaith prayer service – Photo: Manav Sadhna

Morning interfaith prayer service – Photo: Manav Sadhna

For the past 24 years, the three co-founders have pursued their passionate mission – without salary – working with slum children of India and teaching Gandhian values daily to the 9,000 children they serve. The Gandhian principle of giving respect to people of all faiths and economic backgrounds is expressed in a daily interfaith prayer service held at 10 am. The bell rings and the children scurry to sit down, cross-legged on the floor. The bell rings again and all goes quiet. Then in unison they chant by heart holy texts and prayers from multiple religions.

Manav Sadhna oversees 38 projects in five slum communities. It employs 100 full-time and 170 part-time workers. The proof is in the pudding, as they say – many of their full-time employees are the now grown-up slum kids who came to them when they were 8-12 years old. Earning a humble salary, they continue the tradition of service to the community where once they were served. In addition, some 200 volunteers from all over the world descend on the Ashram every year without any kind of solicitation but by word of mouth. 

Manav Gulzar performance troup – Photo: Manav Sadhna

Manav Gulzar performance troup – Photo: Manav Sadhna

The trustees made a decision not to accept government money, so all their financial support arrives unsolicited from generous friends, families, and supporters in India, the U.S., U.K., Singapore, and Australia.They have also created accomplished performance groups of children, drawn from the slums of Ahmedabad. In the ashram, the children are rigorously and professionally trained in the arts of dance, song, and theatre. They have already performed skits based on Gandhian principles to sold-out crowds around the globe. (Tours: Ekatva and Ekta)

Interfaith Education

Manav Sadhna founded a satellite education center in Ram Rahim Tekro, a slum historically troubled by sectarian conflict, 12 kilometers from the Gandhi Ashram. Gaining prominence for its outstanding interfaith education, Manav Gulzar (Flowering Garden of Humanity) – now its own NGO – serves a community of Hindus, Muslims and some Christians, Their program is run by Barot Mahendra, 32, and Nilam Thakkar, 24, founding trustees, along with Jayesh, Viren, and three others.

Nine years ago two Manav Sadhna teachers – once street kids themselves – were running a street school close to this community. One day no one showed up. They discovered that the police had begun to arrest some of the kids because local people had complained about illegal child labor. Fearful for their children, the parents decided not to let their kids participate in the street school. So the teachers went into Ram Rahim Tekro to talk with the parents. The parents requested that they form a non-formal school and even offered them a free space, a 10’x12’ room. Hindu, Muslim and Christian children immediately began to arrive. Their numbers grew over time, and the community offered a larger space next to the river where a Dargah (Sufi Islamic shrine) and a Hindu temple are good neighbors.

Manav Gulzar Community Center – Photo: Manav Sadhna

Manav Gulzar Community Center – Photo: Manav Sadhna

Though newspapers and TV have reported incidences of violence among Hindus, Muslims and Christians in India, the Ram Rahim Tekro community in recent years has not only survived but thrived from their interfaith connections, including winning an award in New Delhi for their exemplary interfaith relations.

Now over 400 Hindu and Muslim kids and a few Christians from a total of 300 families come and pray, eat, learn, and celebrate religious festivals together including Diwali, Holi, Christmas, and Ramadan. All of the Hindu teachers and older kids keep a fast one day during the month of Ramadan. Barot, one of the Hindu trustees of Manav Gulzar, even fasts for the whole month.

The kids follow an annual tradition of visiting a church, mosque, Hindu temple, and Sikh gurudwara. They walk together in silence. In each location a religious leader explains the tenets of that religion and conducts services in which the kids all participate.

Which brings us to our story.

The Power of 50 Rupees

“Last year someone from U.K. donated 75,000 rupees to feed all our kids on one specific day,” Viren related. “We had funds of 30,000 left over and, with the donor’s permission, decided to give 50 rupees each to 600 older kids (12-18 years) in four of our community centers. With the 50-rupee note came a specific instruction: This is not for you, your family, your friends, or someone you know. You have to use these 50 rupees to help someone you don’t know.

“Having even two rupees for them is a big deal,” Viren explained. “These kids all come from very needy families. Fifty rupees are worth less than one dollar, and some people in that area may earn only 75-250 rupees per day ($3-5). The idea was – instead of receiving – to be on the other side by giving to someone less fortunate than themselves, to engage in a random act of kindness.

Diyas (oil lamps) bring light to a Diwali night – Photo: Wikipedia, Ramnath Bhat

Diyas (oil lamps) bring light to a Diwali night – Photo: Wikipedia, Ramnath Bhat

“During the school vacation, a 12-year-old Muslim girl, Mahejben, went home to her village since it was time for the annual Hindu’s Diwali celebration, called the Festival of Lights. She happened upon an old man and a little boy sitting outside a small dark house. She asked why their house was dark during Diwali. The old man explained how his only son had died, leaving this little grandchild behind. He did not even have oil to eat, so how could he possibly purchase firecrackers for his grandson or light diyas (clean-burning candles made with cotton and eating oil)?

Viren said Mahejben instinctively knew what she should do. "Shewent to the market and, with her 50 rupees, she bought sparklers for the small boy and enough oil so her Hindu neighbors could light several diyas in their dark home. When she saw how happy the little boy became and how the grandfather smiled, she herself shed tears of happiness and later told us that she experienced an ecstatic feeling that defied description.”

The spirit of Gandhi lives on in Ahmedabad.