The 1969 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership
BIOGRAPHY of Pandurang Shastri Athavale
The sheer number of people would have turned anyones head. On March 19, 1995, more than one million devotees gathered in Rajkot in the Indian state of Gujarat to listen to the Reverend Pandurang Shastri Athavale. They were not paid to attend. The white-haired, bespectacled man they wanted to see was no politician. He had no riches to spend or patronage to bestow. The multitudes descended on Rajkot of their own accord, using their own money for transportation, food, and accommodations in a makeshift tent city.
They sat patiently on the stony ground, row after serried row, as nine thousand youthful devotees danced and sang on 124 earthen stages scattered throughout the meeting ground. When the sun started to set, each participant lit a candle. A sea of flickering light stretched several kilometers to the horizon. Then Athavale spoke and his words brought a different kind of light to a million rapt faces.
This is the world of one of Indias most well-known spiritual gurus. An estimated 1.5 million people attended an Athavale meeting in Ahmadabad. About 1.1 million showed up in Jalgaon. Some 1 million gathered in Baroda; 400,000 in Mumbai; 350,000 in Allahabad; and 300,000 in Surat. Athavale has appeared even abroad. In 1995, about 7,000 people joined a symposium in Connecticut; 4,500 attended a gathering in London.
The attraction is Athavales philosophy of Swadhyaya (Study of the Self). In his parable-laden, conversational sermons, Dada (Elder Brother) says that all human beings are creations of God, who dwells within each individualand that all religious figures are manifestations of the Almighty, whom he calls Yogeshwara. "In this name you can see Buddha," says Athavale. "You can see Mahavira, you can see Jesus Christ, and you can see Muhammadall the divine forces who came here to bring some moral order to millions of people." Once this underlying oneness is accepted and internalized, he says, the so-called differences in class, creed, color, and religion that divide people and societies melt away. Humanity becomes centered on bhakti, which means devotion to the Creator.
Unlike some other religious movements, Athavales teaches that people must learn to live happily in this world even as they seek to be worthy of an honored place in the afterlife. Thus, as part of bhakti, Swadhyaya volunteers help engineer social and material transformations. In thousands of farming communities, they produce "impersonal wealth"food that does not belong to anyone because everyone worked without pay to grow it. The harvest goes to the needy. Orchardstree templeshave been created from barren land by devotees who regard a fruit-bearing tree as a living testament to the omnipresence of God. Other followers have built sanctuaries where Hindus, Muslims, and Christians worship and make village decisions without regard to religious differences, caste, and social status. Other projects include medical clinics, feeding programs, disaster relief, and technical training.
The man who inspired all this was born on October 19, 1920, one of five children of Sanskrit teacher Vaijanath Athavale and homemaker Parvati Athavale. They initially lived in Roha, a town populated by Hindus and Muslims in almost equal numbers, before moving to Mumbai some one hundred miles away. "We were close, like brothers," Athavale says of Rohas population divide. "There was a riot [at one time in Mumbai] between Hindus and Muslims, but [we remained] friendly with each other, our Muslim friends and Hindu friends. In my village, there was no partisan spirit."
As Brahmans, the family stood at the apex of Indias traditional caste system. Athavales childhood home echoed with the sound of devotions. "Everybody had to pray," he recalls. "Daily, and that was a must. We could not escape from prayer from my early childhood." Athavale also remembers growing up with books all around him. His father was a learned man and his paternal grandfather, Laxman Athavale, was a high school principal.
Laxman exerted a profound influence on the young Athavale. For a time, Athavale and an older sister, Narmada, lived with him while Vaijanath and Parvati went ahead to Mumbai. "He was a man of principle," says Athavale fondly. "We were not rich, but he once declined getting a salary for the month of May [when the state school he headed was on vacation]." The government said he must take the money. So Laxman did, but he distributed it to his students instead. He would organize class competitions, with part of the May salary as prizes. The money also went toward rewarding students who learned poems by heart.
As a Brahman, Laxman was not supposed to mingle with untouchables. Even an accidental brush with them required purification at a temple. But Athavales grandfather was a social radical, someone very rare in the 1920s. He would often go to the houses of untouchables, sit with them, and teach them the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. Laxman was also a member of the Congress Party at a time when it was working for independence from British rule. "He was strictly Gandhian," Athavale says of his grandfather, referring to Mohandas Gandhis philosophy of nonviolence. Because he was employed by the British Raj as an educator, however, Laxman did not participate in the partys activities.
It was all fodder for the impressionable boy. As he grew older, Athavale felt he too should do something about Indias iniquities. "I was not willing to accept this," he says of the caste systems disdain for the untouchables. "It was shameful to my culture. I must do something for the untouchables, for the downtrodden people, who are also sons of God. That was my ambition."
Laxman also fueled Athavales love for classical wisdom. Until he was twelve, the boy was in the formal school system. His sister Narmada entertained hopes that her adored younger brother would go on to join the Indian Civil Service (ICS), the most desirable career path at that time. But Laxman felt that his grandson was too gifted to spend his life as an ICS official. As a teacher himself, he also thought the formal school system did not fully develop the intellectual capacities of students. So Laxman devised an independent course of study for Athavale, involving one-on-one instruction with teachers in physics, literature, philosophy, and English.
Narmada so strongly opposed the idea that she refused to eat for three days. But when Vaijanath asked his son to decide, Athavale said he would do whatever his grandfather wanted. And so began a journey that lasted until he turned twenty-two. "All the three teachers were highly intellectual and loving people," Athavale says now. "I loved them and they loved me." In the tradition of the Vedic system, he had direct contact with his mentors. "We would sit and I could ask any question, not like in [formal school] where there are forty or fifty students and only one [the teacher] speaks." The boy mastered Sanskrit and read and discussed the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and other Indian works, including the poems and plays of Kalidasa. "You read and read," Athavale remembers.
The special studies ended after nine years, when his father was diagnosed with cancer. Vaijanath had acquired a reputation as a compelling lecturer on the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads, and people from all walks of life flocked to hear him speak at Shrimad Bhagwad Gita Pathshala, the informal center of learning that he and his father Laxman founded in 1920. When Vaijanath lost his voice one day, he asked his son to go in his stead. Athavales lecture went so well that Vaijanath turned over all his speaking duties to him.
At twenty-three, the young man began building a following that included professional people such as doctors and engineers. "My father was teaching only Eastern philosophy," says Athavale. "I started Western and Eastern philosophy. I was delivering lectures on different philosophies and people [came to hear] me." He would talk about the difference between Indian philosopher Shankara and Immanuel Kant, for example. "This is this thinking, this is that thinking, and they are one and they are different," he would tell them. Athavale sat and talked as his audience listened and asked questions, in the style of Indias traditional instruction and that of his own education.
He gave lectures three times a day. In between, the young man soaked up more knowledge at the vast Royal Asiatic Society library in Mumbai. "Every book, I read," he recalls. "For nearly ten years, I was a bookworm." Not just Aristotle, Kant, and the works of Will Durant. He also tackled Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Tennyson, and volumes on psychology, sociology, physics, politics, and everything else. Once, a reader asked the librarian for a certain book on psychology. Failing to locate the tome, the librarian approached Athavale and asked him whether he had read it. "I have gone through it," he answered. "The book is there." He led them to the philosophy section. The psychology book had been misfiled.
When he was twenty-four, Athavale married Nirmala, who bore their only child, daughter Jayashree, in 1957. It was an arranged marriage, although Athavale knew of Nirmala because she was also a Brahman in Mumbai. Before the union, however, the young man spoke frankly to his would-be bride. "Think thrice," he told her gently. "I am of this principle. Suppose you would not get any worldly comforts. Are you ready to accept this?" Nirmala said yes. Ten years later, when her husband was inspired to establish a college but was adamant about not begging for funds, it was Nirmala who offered to sell her jewels so he could have the seed money. "That is the spirit of my wife," Athavale says now, his eyes getting misty.
The idea of starting a university of philosophy, eventually to be known as Tatva-Jnana Vidyapeeth, came to Athavale after a seminal trip to Japan to attend the second World Religious Conference in 1954. Initially, says Athavale, the organizers had not meant to invite anyone from India. "India has no philosophy, that was the thinking of philosophers all over the Western world," he says. "You know yoga, you know how to recite the Ramayana and Mahabharata, there is some classical literature and ethical [teachings], you love your wife, you love your brother, you respect your father. This is not philosophy. You must [explain] what is ego, what is will, and can you control your ego? That is philosophy [according to the West]."
By coincidence, Athavale had met a man whose name he now remembers only as Dr. Dean at the Asiatic library. Apparently impressed by Athavales ideas, Dr. Dean wrote to Shin Nagami of Ananai-kyo in Japan, a pantheistic religious group that was sponsoring the conference, about the Indian scholar. "He told Shin Nagami, You must invite Pandurang Shastri, then you will understand what Indian philosophy is," recounts Athavale. But when he received the invitation, Athavale turned it down. "I was shy," he says. "At the same time, I had no mind to come to the East side." If the gathering was in England or America, he would have gone because it would have given him the chance to prove to Westerners the existence of Indian philosophy.
Shin Nagami did not give up. You can bring your own cook, he wrote Athavale. Dr. Dean had told the Japanese that Athavale may have decided not to come because of religion-based dietary concerns. That did the trick. "When I saw this letter, I was a little bit hurt," says Athavale. He was being regarded as someone who practices discrimination, as a ritualistic Indian who cannot accept food or water from outsiders. As Athavale puts it, "a person who is teaching philosophy is [seen as erecting] differences between men." To refute the perception, he told Shin Nagami that he was coming.
In Japan, Athavale explicated on the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita and linked them to modern life. He discussed the idea of an indwelling God and contended that the ego is a gift from God and should not be set aside. "Ego is a very powerful thing and in every philosophy, they say, you throw [away] your ego," Athavale says. "Without throwing this ego, you cant be pure. So every philosopher says that you should not keep your ego. I told them that if you throw your ego, you are nobody." It is the ego that gives a person his identity. "In the morning, when you wake up, your ego and intellect come together, and that is why you think, I want tea, she is my wife. This is the work of your ego." The important thing, he said, is to know how to use the ego and how to transcend it.
At the conference, Athavale impressed Arthur Holly Compton, the 1927 winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics whose discoveries laid the foundation of quantum physics. Compton invited the Indian thinker to the United States. "From that day, he was asking me every question," Athavale recalls. "He told me, You come to America because we are ready to make an experiment [on the concept of] your indwelling God. The God-within is a fine idea that will solve our problems." Just retired as chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis and affiliated with the University of Chicago, Dr. Compton offered an all-expenses-paid five-year stay for Athavale and his family. Plus "five hundred pounds a month," says Athavale, remitted to India in its equivalent in rupees.
But Athavale politely declined. He said he preferred to try out his ideas in India and then go to the West to show the results. When Dr. Compton learned that Athavale had founded his philosophical university, he telephoned his friend Radhakrishnan, then the vice-president of India. "This boy of thirty-four years is taking this decision," Athavale recalls the conversation as it was recounted to him. "He is too young to decide not to come [to the United States]. So you try to convince him."
At the back of his mind, Athavale knew that there were questions the conference participants in Japan could have asked, for which he did not have answers. He frames them thus: "Why are there many castes in [your] country when you accept this philosophy for five thousand years? And what is the necessity of this disparity and barriers in human life?" The caste system had been so debased that it was being used to sanction discrimination against whole groups of people. Even the Brahman, the priestly caste, was falling short. "When a priest becomes professional, he is of no use to humankind," says Athavale. "That was my thinking from the very beginning. You must tell us something. You must start to change your life. Then only are you learned."
Athavale hoped to bridge the apparent disconnection between real life and the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita by focusing on the young. That was what he hoped to do with Tatva-Jnana Vidyapeeth. But he also understood that many young people desire formal qualifications to get by in the world, so he designed two parallel curriculums at the university. In Kala Vibhag, students attend the usual courses that lead to a Bachelor of Arts degree. But instead of lasting for the normal three years, the program continues for six years because it also includes the study of Sanskrit, English, logic, Vedas, Gita, Upanishads, and philosophy.
The second curriculum, called Prachin Vibhag, does not lead to any degree but also lasts for six years. Here, students who have completed at least middle school take up residence in Tatva-Jnana and study Sanskrit, English, logic, and Vedic and Western philosophy and classics. Participants are expected to return home to their family vocationfarming, fishing, construction, and so onand apply what they have internalized to their daily lives. They are also expected to spread the teachings of Swadhyaya by setting a good example, holding seminars, and helping set up practical programs.
It was a struggle at first. "I would not beg," Athavale recalls. "Without my asking, [nobody] would give me money. That is why my wife told me, I will sell my ornaments and you do this work." But he kept trust in God and the words of the Gita: "A complete devotee, my devotee, he will start any work for others. I am ready to help him." Until today, says Athavale, he has not appealed for financial help from anybody. "And I have not taken any money from anyone who is not a believer of Swadhyaya. You come with me, you stay with me, you see my work, and after two or three years, I accept money. We have not begged, we have not stolen, we have not appealed even."
The students were not charged any fees, so there was no source of income from them either. "The first three years were really hard," says Athavale. In addition to his lectures, he also worked on his estate in Roha, a one-hundred-acre property that was partly jungle and partly rice land and orchard. At one point, Athavale considered selling the land so Tatva-Jnana Vidyapeeth could continue operating. But he decided against it because the estate has been with the family for decades. In the end, he gave ownership to his brother so he would not be tempted to sell it. "That is ancestral property," says Athavale. "According to my principles, I should not sell it."
There were other temptations. Vice-President Radhakrishnan, who later became Indias president, told him to give up the idea and accept Dr. Comptons offer to go abroad. Alluding to the Gita, he asked Athavale: "Do you think you are a complete devotee?" No, I cannot claim to be one, Athavale answered. "But this is a test of my devotion. If I am not completely devoted to the Almighty, he will not work for me and he will not assist me." And it was a test as well of the promise in the Gita that God would help his devotees.
Four decades on, both have passed with flying colors. "Now, nearly two thousand students are learning and we are teaching them, we are feeding them, and we dont take money from them and we [still] do not appeal for money," says Athavale. Tatva-Jnana Vidyapeeths six faculty members are not paid salaries. They, too, are devotees. Like the three hundred others who staff various Swadhyaya centers, the professors hold outside jobs. "For half the day, like four hours, they go [to teach] at other colleges, then they stay with us the rest of the day," says Athavales daughter Jayashree, who is popularly addressed as Didi (Sister).
Married to Dhanashree Talwalkar, Didi oversees the administrative side of Athavales various projects. "Our office runs exactly the way any other office would run," she says. "But the typist who comes, he is not an employee. The people who come and do the accounts, they are not employees. The people who formed the trusts [which administer the organizations funds] and run them and do the accounts, they are not our employees." Nobody is paid a salary, not the specialists who take videos and produce copies for distribution, not the transcribers of Athavales speeches. They are all volunteers, past students who practice Swadhyaya and willingly give their time and money to the cause.
Tatva-Jnana Vidyapeeth has stopped offering the degree course and now focuses on Swadhyaya seminars for all ages. There is one for college students, who stay at the institute for three weeks, and another for postgraduate students aged twenty-five to thirty, who usually stay at Tatva-Jnana for a month or so. There are sessions as well for varbhak, who are people aged forty-five to fifty-five in business and the professions, and sadhak, those sixty and older. Seminars for sanchalaks (organizers) hone participants in the methods of teaching children. Athavale has also organized one-hour weekend classes for kids, who listen to historical stories and learn the meaning of some devotional songs (shokas).
The participants are grouped according to age because Athavale tailors his talks in accordance with his listeners interests. "For postgraduates, he would discuss the history of Israel and that of the Jesuits," explains Didi. "With undergraduates, he would discuss something else. With the varbhak, he would give some explanations of the Shankaracharyas [the spiritual masters who oversee Indias four major monasteries]." Devotion to God is, of course, a key element. "Not a passive devotion, but an active devotion," says Didi. "This is how he trains them, urging them to do something more positive, more constructive, and making them go to villages to interact [with the inhabitants]."
The leap from attendance at lectures to real action came in the late 1950s, when a group of listeners was inspired to go to the villages and carry out bhakti. "I told them that God is generating and operating in your body," Athavale recalls. "Some supreme power is working for you. You must spare one day [for God] for that, and at that time, you must go to the people where he also resides. They are drinking alcohol, they are bad in manners, and full of vice. Do you think God is happy in their body? No. If you want to devote [yourself to God], you go there. This is not my mission. This is not social work. This is devotional work."
For Athavale, bhakti has two meanings. The first is prayer, a dialogue with God. The second is action, going out to the wider world but not in the spirit of teaching or giving. "Because if you go there to teach [another person], he will be inferior and you will be superior," he explains. "He is illiterate and he does not understand anything. This will bring [feelings of] superiority to my mind and [feelings of] inferiority to his mind. If you want to give him money, you give him [but] first establish your relationship with him. That will demolish the barriers and the inferiority and superiority complexes. The giver should not feel that he is giving something and the taker should not feel that he is taking because he doesnt have anything."
It is important for these feelings to be set aside because they detract from Swadhyaya, the study of the self. The idea that one person is superior to another, which is the implicit principle behind todays caste system as applied to whole classes of people, stunts full selfhood. "He feels that the complexes become hurdles and obstacles to self-development," says Didi. "So he puts it as graceful giving and grateful taking. Givers are giving something which is of God and takers are taking something which is of God." Neither party is inferior or superior because what is being given and taken is from God, not from any individual person.
That is why Swadhyaya devotees first establish a relationship with the people they visit. "You must give them warmth first," says Athavale, who started going to the villages himself in the 1940s, long before setting up Tatva-Jnana. Regardless of whether you are Brahman and the villagers are untouchables, "you sit with them, give them warmth, take warmth from them, and then you start speaking." Carrying their own food, cooking their own meals, and sleeping in the open, Athavales followers on bhaktipheri (devotional tour) participate in village activities. It is a painstaking exercise in trust-building. The swadhyayees are often mistaken for political operatives, especially during periods when India is holding general or local elections.
Once accepted by the community, the devotees invite their new friends to attend evening meetings. Often, the initiative comes from the villagers themselves. "They would be inquisitive as to why these city people are coming over to see them," says Didi. "The [swadhyayees] would say, We feel that God is within us and God is within you also, so we would like to see you just because of that. Then they would say, But how did this idea come to you? Who told you?" The devotees would explain about Athavale and Swadhyaya. From there, the discussions would move on to explications of the Gita and other Indian texts, transcending the barriers of caste, the meaning and practice of bhakti, and so on, down to the practicalities of daily life, including good hygiene and the cultivation of virtuous habits to honor the indwelling God in each individual.
Every swadhyayee is encouraged to allocate twenty-four days a year for bhaktipheris, which normally last from seven to nine days. By 1995, devotees in 3,557 communities in ten states had transformed rented land into farms that local swadhyayees cultivate. Each one typically tills, plants, weeds, waters, or harvests for one or two days during the cropping season. The activity, known as yogeshwarkrushi, produces impersonal wealth because no one swadhyayee can claim to have done all the work. One third of the income is given to the poor as prasad (offering by Gods devotees). Some of the money is used for agricultural inputs, with the remainder kept in a reserve fund for the communitys long-term needs. Twelve shreedarshanams, large farms that draw on the volunteer labor of swadhyayees in twenty villages, follow the same system.
Swadhyaya has also reached coastal villages. "Now you see, stretching almost from Pakistan to Goa, nearly three thousand kilometers, nobody is a beggar and nobody goes hungry in any fishing community," says Athavale. Despite their reputation for drinking, gambling, and smuggling contraband, many fishermen became swadhyayees and voluntarily set aside a portion of the income from their catch in the spirit of bhakti. In time the contributions added up to a tidy sum. Following Athavales suggestion, the fisherfolk have decided to use the money to build motorized boats and buy equipment for deep-sea fishing.
Today the fishing communities have forty-two trawlers, each crewed by up to ten swadhyayee volunteers every five to seven days. Thirty-three more boats are due for launching. Volunteers have also been at work in the past two years on a seven-hundred-ton cargo ship. Athavale had asked that the project be done as bhakti and that no laborer should be paid. Thats why construction is taking so longthe devotees work on the ship only in the evening after their regular jobs are done. This is part of the creation of impersonal wealth and feeling of oneness in fishing communities, termed matsyagandha. Because there are so many of them, any one swadhyayee typically gets to volunteer his services only once a year, so as in yogeshwarkrushi, no individual can lay claim to the riches made.
The creation of impersonal wealth and the feeling of oneness by turning barren land into an orchard or woodland, called vrukshamandir, takes longer to bear fruit. Eighteen such upavans have been started to date. Swadhyayees enter into long-term leases with the owner of barren lands, which is normally the government, and ask devotees from fifteen to twenty villages and towns nearby to prepare the land, such as digging deep wells for irrigation. Later, thousands of volunteers of all ages, castes, and social standing arrive. At a given signal, each one lowers a sapling into a prepared pit. In five minutes, an orchard of a hundred acres or so has been planted. Afterwards, devotees return in batches to take care of the saplings in the spirit of bhakti, ensuring virtually a 100 percent survival rate.
Swadhyayees undertake other projects such as adult education, promotion of good health and hygiene, medical clinics, and assistance in times of drought and other natural calamities. The movements water conservation campaigns are particularly well-known. Some ninety-five thousand village wells have been replenished by swadhyayee efforts to fill them with rainwater that normally flows away into drains and the sea. Water ponds have also been renewed and new ones built, along with soak pits that receive wastewater. In undertaking these projects, swadhyayees visit each home and farm to explain the techniques involved and how to undertake them. The personal interaction often paves the way for the householders to become swadhyayees themselves.
When most inhabitants of a village have become swadhyayees and after they have practiced yogeshwarkrushi, matsyagandha, or vrukshamandir for several years, they are given the go-ahead to build a temple called Loknath Amrutalayam (repository of divine nectar). To date, 108 such holy places have been constructed. Irrespective of caste, creed, and status, everyone is welcomed there every evening for prayer and worship according to his or her religion, whether Islam, Christianity, or any other set of beliefs. Devotees often offer prasad at the temple, money that is later distributed to the indigents of the village. They also discuss local concerns there and make collective decisions on community issues.
Built from locally available materials and surrounded by a small garden, the temple has temporary roofing of straw or leaves that must be changed every year. The annual ritual of renewal reinforces the villages sense of Swadhyaya oneness. Such unity is also nurtured in the greater community. Once a year, thousands of swadhyayees go on bhaktipheris in one state, fanning out in groups of four or five to visit the regions tens of thousands of towns and villages in an activity called teerthyatra. On the last day of the exercise, the reenergized swadhyayees gather together to renew their ties with each other, reaffirm their commitment to God, and strengthen their determination not to repeat the sins of the past.
The movement places special emphasis on the youth, defined as those from eighteen to forty years old. Young swadhyayees gather in vayastha sanchalans, which are rallies that celebrate self-esteem and awareness of the self as a walking and talking temple to the Lord. The gatherings are meant to channel youthful energies away from hedonism and bad habits toward building character and fostering true social integration and brotherhood. The rallies serve as self-affirmation particularly for the downtrodden, such as a 1988 gathering of some one hundred thousand young swadhyayees from the Vaghari hunting community. In Gujarat state, calling someone a Vaghari is considered an insult. But, at the rally, the Vaghari youth impressed an audience of about two hundred thousand people with their recitation of the Trikal Sandhya, the Sanskrit verses of thanksgiving, which indicated how greatly their lives have been transformed.
Didi, who is regarded as her fathers successor, attracts large numbers of people in India and abroad at her periodic Gitatryahas, which are three-day discourses explaining the basic principles of the Bhagavad Gita. But Athavale is the core of the movement. On October 19, 1990, when he turned seventy, swadhyayees organized celebrations throughout the year. On the actual day, three hundred thousand people celebrated Human Dignity Day in Mumbai to commemorate Athavales birthday. The numbers grew progressively larger in subsequent years as Human Dignity Day was observed in various other places in India.
Swadhyayees declared 1995, when Athavale turned seventy-five, as the Year of Gratitude. Celebrations were planned over several months to avoid overcrowding the actual birthday. The first event, held on December 19, 1994 in Mumbai, was attended by two hundred and fifty thousand people. Six days later, some 1.5 million gathered in the Gujarat state capital of Ahmadabad. An estimated 1.1 million participants were at the January 19, 1995, celebration in Jalgaon in Maharashtra; some one million people gathered in the city of Baroda in Gujarat on February 19. Another one million attended a celebration in Rajkot, also in Gujarat, on March 19. Heavy downpour forced the cancellation of a rally in Pune in Maharashtra on April 19, but not before two hundred and fifty thousand devotees arrived at the grounds. Smaller fêtes were also organized in London and New Haven in the United States. The final celebration was held in Mumbai on October 19.
Athavale drew on the enthusiasm to further strengthen Swadhyaya ideals. "All my people, they all want to celebrate my seventy-five years," he says. "In Ahmadabad, they asked me, any cost? You must first teach five hundred thousand untouchables to sing the Sandhya and some scriptures, and then only will I come." Until then, untouchables were implicitly forbidden from reciting sacred Sanskrit verses. For the Jalgaon event, Athavale asked that devotees first go on bhaktipheri in tribal villages. "Nearly fifteen hundred villages they covered," he says. "Six days they stayed there." In Rajkot, Athavale requested seventy-five thousand couples to first grow a tree in their yard, watering and nurturing it together. At the celebration, the husbands and wives formed an eight-kilometer-long human chain to greet Dada when he arrived.
The huge scale of the movements activities requires some coordination and this is done by an informal headquarters in central Mumbai, which is manned by some three hundred volunteers who take turns doing office work in the spirit of bhakti. The central office is in constant contact with motabhais (elder brothers) at the district level, who in turn liaise with kshetrapal (locality heads) at the subdistrict level. There are also kshetrarakshak (defenders of the locality), who share responsibility for two or more villages in their neighborhood, and kshetradhar (load carriers of the locality), who coordinate activities in the village. "All are swadhyayees for a minimum of fifteen to twenty years," says Didi.
This structure is not as hierarchical as it may sound. "It is not a pyramidal system," says Didi. "To give an example, the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the election commissioner are on the same level. You cannot say that one is higher than the other. They are doing two different responsibilities. The same thing with us. The person who is taking care of the village is equally responsible and equally important as the person who is taking care of the district." And the equal of any other swadhyayee on a farm, in the orchard, or a fishing boat.
"In the villages, we select ten or twenty responsible people," Didi explains. "They take care of everything, so people wont have any problems and the experiments [to study the self] are done okay. If they have any problems, they can coordinate with the country people or with the city people. Together they make a decision as to what time they want to hold a seminar, make a pilgrimage, go on a bakhtipheri. It should not be at planting time and it should not be during the rainy season. It is not convenient for the children if it is examination time. They discuss among themselves and it is all decentralized. We [in Mumbai] do not have to do anything. It is not our project and they are the executors."
This applies to money matters as well. While there is a formal structure of trusts and trustees in accordance with tax regulations and the rules of the charity commissioner, Didi says it is the generators of the wealth who control the money. "It is not the Mumbai office that decides," she stresses. While Swadhyaya funds are safeguarded by twenty-five different trusts, each administered by three to five trustees and audited by a team of two to three chartered accountants, it is the particular farming village or fishing community that chooses how to spend the fruits of their volunteer work. "The trustees do not become the bosses and they do not carry the whole power," says Didi. "Village committee members share equal responsibility and equal say with the trustees."
Each trust has been set up for a specific purpose because Athavale insists that the money should not be mixed together. The trust that funds publication of his books and the movements in-house magazine is completely separate, for example, from the trust that funds village seminars. There is a trust that promotes games and sports, another for the philosophical college Tatva-Jnana Vidyapeeth, still another for medical missions and clinics. A central trust in Mumbai holds the impersonal wealth generated from village volunteerism. "It happens that people dont ask for the money [meant for the communitys long-term needs] for a year and a half or two years and so the money accumulates," says Didi. "That money we have to keep in trust form, but in the name of that particular village."
If it were all up to Athavale, there would be no need for these financial formalities. After all, everyone belongs to the vast Swadhyaya family. Among kinfolk, there is no question about giving and taking, no feelings of superiority and inferiority in helping and being helped. "They will see and they will understand who is the needy person," he says. "These [poor] people want money and we must give them [because they are our brothers and sisters]. Fishermen [who have become swadhyayees] give twenty-five thousand rupees or fifty thousand rupees to the needy [from their collective contributions] and do not take anything in writing [as receipt]. Nowadays poor people want to [buy] a boat, they want a hotel to manage. This is our work"to provide the needy with the means to become self-sufficient, so they can help others, in turn, as part of the Swadhyaya family.
Looking back on his decades of "experiments," as he still calls Swadhyaya activities, Athavale can point to sweeping transformations. Once relationships are established, says Didi, traditional rivalries in fishing and farming communities disappear. She tells the story of villagers whose profession, literally, was thieving, despite the fact that they owned fertile farms. "For years together, they used to loot," Didi recounts. Then they became swadhyayees and decided to work on their land. "Do you know that this is the first time that we did farming?" they told Didi. "Maybe you have to send somebody to teach us." Their lighthearted joking touched her. Even more touching was the former looters decision to apologize to their victims. "There are cases when certain people gave the money back," Didi recalls. Others promised to repay in installments.
Political analyst Ajit Bhattacharjea embarked on a five-day tour of Swadhyaya villages in 1995. "A chawl [tenement] inhabited by the Vaghari community, not previously known for civic virtue, was a model of cleanliness, thrift and fellow-feeling," he wrote. In villages near the port of Veraval, "the residents looked well off. Incomes had risen after they had been motivated to regenerate local wells, and thus raise three crops instead of one. No crimes had been reported in the last year. Caste differences had been eliminated. Women no longer sat separately. They participated in discussions and told visitors that they were no longer restricted to household chores."
Also remarkable is the movements headway against the caste system. Legislation has been passed in India banning discrimination against the so-called untouchables. But the reality is that the caste systems dark side, in terms of unequal treatment of those lower down the hierarchy, still finds resonance in the rural areas. "There is an illusion in India that nobody is an untouchable and that if you treat anybody as an untouchable, you will be punished," Athavale observes. "But still, in every village, there are untouchables." Not in Swadhyaya communities, however. "This feeling [of superiority of some castes] is completely gone from our villages," he adds. A person regarded as an untouchable in another village and thus shunned there will find a warm welcome in a Swadhyaya communityincluding in a Brahman home.
Religion is the other great divide in India and here, too, the Swadhyaya movement can claim some success. Athavale believes in the spirit of ecumenism but acknowledges that religions are not fundamentally the same. They each have their own identity and the thing to do is to accept this, not work to blend them into one. "There are many fishermen, previously they accepted Western religion and when I go with them, I tell them, Where is your cross?" says Athavale. "Where are you hiding your cross? You be a good Christian and a swadhyayee. Swadhyaya means that you think that God is not in the church only; God is with you. This is the main message of Swadhyaya." As Didi puts it: "You first must be a good Muslim and then a swadhyayee. You must be first a good Hindu and then a swadhyayee."
This ecumenical approach came to life on Good Friday in 1995 when Hindu swadhyayees visited some forty-eight Christian churches in Mumbai with the approval of the parish priests and recited Hindu scriptures. At the same time, the Christian congregation read the Bible. "So the whole church was full and we had a big celebration on Good Friday," recounts Didi. "And the same way on the birthday of Krishna and the birthday of Rama. In our villages, when we celebrate these functions, the village Muslims participate as well."
The Swadhyaya way is even seen as a model for government programs, although it is doubtful whether the bureaucracy can really adopt the movements methods. As a rule, Athavale avoids getting involved in state projects because he sees his work primarily in teaching moral knowledge. At one point, however, he accepted the plea of a commissioner to help make the inhabitants of a district literate within a year. Athavale proposed that swadhyayees take care of four hundred villages, while the government worked on the other four hundred. "In eight months we did our job," he recounts. "Three years passed and the government was still unable to complete its part. We completed in eight months because we formed personal relationships with the villagers first."
As in all things, there are some downsides to the Swadhyaya movement. "Religious people, they are not inwardly accepting of him [Athavale] because he says all these things [about religious inclusion]," Didi concedes. For that matter, social reformers are uncomfortable as well because Athavale mixes social work with religion. Politicians, too, are unsettled. They know Athavale commands the loyalty of hundreds of thousands of followers and so they covet his endorsement during elections. But he never gives it. "If I want to say anything, in twenty-four hours, millions will know what I want to say," says Athavale. "And that is why all political leaders run after me when elections are there. If only Dada will say. No, I will not. You sign here. No, I will not. We are ready to do for you whatever you want. I say, I do not want anything from you."
Still, the movement has not attracted extreme reactions. R. K. Srivastava, a social scientist with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, attributes this to Athavales calm and rational methods. "As a leader who is a Hindu in a ceremonial way and is also deeply attached to the spirit of Hinduism, Dada is neither dogmatic nor a loud votary," Srivastava writes in a 1986 study of Swadhyaya. "Shrillness or stylized gimmickry so typical of many Indian cult leaders is foreign to him . The orthodoxy has not reacted against him because his manner of reforming (essentially) Hindu society is not by attacking the foundations of Hinduism but by reinterpreting it . His is an attempt to introduce a new social norm in Hindu society without creating a sense of alienation from tradition."
In the process of reinterpretation, Athavale also weaves in ideas from the West. "His talks and conversations are laced with views of the moderns," notes Srivastava. "He is quite open and has a synthesizing approach to reconstitute his tradition. The key element of his style is his didactic but resilient approach in the East-West encounter. He accommodates the relevant demands of such an impact within the traditional framework." That said, the movements vision is still not fully fleshed out and available only in outline, says Srivastava. As well, the action programs have yet to flower to their full potentialorchards and woodlands, for example, require decades of care and nourishment to mature.
Athavales East-plus-West orientation may help make other societies more open to his movement. To date, Swadhyaya has centers in the United States and Canada, the United Kingdom and Africa. There are also sadhyayees in the Middle East, Malaysia, and Singapore. "But we are small in number when compared with world problems and the world population," says Didi, who has been traveling abroad to spread the gospel of Swadhyaya. "It should be done everywhere, but it cannot be done everywhere by Dada." Athavale, after all, is getting on in years and there is still a lot to be done in India itself, where Swadhyaya has a foothold in only ten out of twenty-eight states and seven union territories.
Srivastava, the social scientist, fears that Swadhyaya "is likely to be dismissed as an experience unique to India and incapable of being replicated elsewhere, particularly in the West." Which would be a pity, because if nothing else, Athavales work indicates that there are some new ways of solving modern predicaments, such as social transformation through ego transcendence. "Dadaji has proved to the world that this is possible, this is feasible, and this is necessary," says Didi. "This is an experiment and he has proved it right. Now this is up to people like us in India and abroad, that they accept this system and do it because we wont be able to reach all corners of the world."
As he contemplates his seventy-sixth birthday, Pandurang Shastri Athavale realizes that his ailing health is circumscribing his scope for action. But he also knows that advancing age cannot dull the depth of his devotion to the indwelling God in himself and everyone elseand that there are hundreds of thousands of swadhyayees, his daughter among them, who will carry on with his lifes work.
Cesar R. Bacani Jr.
Athavale, Pandurang Shastri. Interview by James R. Rush. Tape recording. September 2, 1996. Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, Manila.
Bhattacharjea, Ajit. "A Quiet Human Revolution Is in Progress," Pioneer (New Delhi), March 24, 1995.
Srivastava, R. K. "Swadhyaya Movement: Its Meaning and Message." Paper
presented at a seminar at the United Nations University, Rome, September 1986.
Various interviews and correspondence with individuals familiar with Pandurang Shastri Athavale and his work; other primary documents.
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