The Ashram holds that every man and woman must work in order to live. This principle came home to me upon reading one of Tolstoy's essays. Referring to the Russian writer Bondaref, Tolstoy observes that his discovery of the vital importance of bread labour is one of the most remarkable discoveries of modern times. The idea is that every healthy individual must labour enough for his food, and his intellectual faculties must be exercised not in order to obtain a living or amass a fortune but only in the service of mankind. If this principle is observed everywhere, all men would be equal, none would starve and the world would be saved from many a sin.
It is possible that this golden rule will never be observed by the whole world.
Millions observe it in spite of themselves without understanding it. But
their mind is working in a contrary direction, so that they are unhappy
themselves and their labour is not as fruitful as it should be. This state
of things serves as an incentive to those who understand and seek to
practise the rule. By rendering a willing obedience to it they enjoy good
health as well as perfect peace and develop their capacity for service.
Tolstoy made a deep impression on my mind, and even in South Africa I began to
observe the rule to the best of my ability. And ever since the Ashram was
founded, bread labour has been perhaps its most characteristic feature.
In my opinion the same principle has been set forth in the third chapter of the
Gita. I do not go so far as to say that the word yajna (sacrifice) there
means body-labour. But when the Gita says that 'rain comes from sacrifice'
(verse 14), I think it indicates the necessity of bodily labour. The
'residue of sacrifice' (verse 13) is the bread that we have won in the sweat
of our brow. Labouring enough for one's food has been classed in the Gita as
a yajna. Whoever eats more than is enough for sustaining the body is
a thief, for most of us hardly perform labour enough to maintain themselves.
I believe that a man has no right to receive anything more than his keep,
and that everyone who labours is entitled to a living wage.
This does not rule out the division of labour. The manufacture of everything
needed to satisfy essential human wants involves bodily labour, so that
labour in all essential occupations counts as bread labour. But as many of
us do not perform such labour, they have to take exercise in order to
preserve their health. A cultivator working on his farm from day to day has
not to take breathing exercise or stretch his muscles. Indeed if he observes
the other laws of health, he will never be afflicted with illness.
God never creates more than what is strictly needed for the moment, with the
result that if anyone appropriates more than he really needs, he reduces his
neighbour to destitution. The starvation of people in several parts of the
world is due to many of us seizing very much more than they need. We may
utilize the gifts of nature just as we choose, but in her books the debits
are always equal to the credits. There is no balance in either column.
This law is not invalidated by the fact that men raise bigger crops by
mechanizing agriculture and using artificial fertilizers, and similarly
increase the industrial output. This only means a transformation of natural
energy. Try as we might, the balance is always nil.
Be that as it may, the observance best kept in the Ashram is that of bread labour,
and no wonder. Its fulfillment is easy with ordinary care. For certain hours
in the day, there is nothing to be done but work. Work is therefore bound to
be put in. A worker may be lazy, inefficient or inattentive, but he works
for a number of hours all the same. Again certain kinds of labour are
capable of yielding an immediate product and the worker cannot idle away a
considerable amount of his time. In an institution where body labour plays a
prominent part there are few servants. Drawing water, splitting firewood,
cleaning and filling lamps with oil, sanitary service, sweeping the roads
and houses, washing one's clothes, cooking, — all these tasks must always be
Besides this there are various activities carried on in the Ashram as a result of
and in order to help fulfillment of the observances, such as agriculture,
dairying, weaving, carpentry, tanning and the like which must be attended to
by many members of the Ashram.
All these activities may be deemed sufficient for keeping the observance of
bread labour, .but another essential feature of yajna (sacrifice) is the
idea of serving others, and the Ashram will perhaps be found wanting from
this latter standpoint. The Ashram ideal is to live to serve. In such an
institution there is no room for idleness or shirking duty, and everything
should be done with right goodwill. If this were actually the case, the
Ashram ministry would be more fruitful than it is. But we are still very far
from such a happy condition. Therefore although in a sense every activity in
the Ashram is of the nature of yajna, it is compulsory for all to spin for
at least one hour in the name of God incarnated as the Poor (Daridranarayan).
People often say that in an institution like the Ashram where body labour is given
pride of place there is no scope for intellectual development, but my
experience is just the reverse. Everyone who has been to the Ashram has made
intellectual progress as well; I know of none who was the worse on account
of a sojourn in the Ashram.
Intellectual development is often supposed to mean a knowledge of facts
concerning the universe. I freely admit that such knowledge is not
laboriously imparted to the students in the Ashram. But if intellectual
progress spells understanding and discrimination, there is adequate
provision for it in the Ashram. Where body labour is performed for mere
wages, it is possible that the labourer becomes dull and listless. No one
tells him how and why things are done; he himself has no curiosity and takes
no interest in his work. But such is not the case in the Ashram. Everything
including sanitary service must be done intelligently, enthusiastically and
for the love of God. Thus there is scope for intellectual development in all
departments of Ashram activity. Everyone is encouraged to acquire full
knowledge of his own subject. Anyone who neglects to do this must answer for
it. Everyone in the Ashram is a labourer; none is a wage-slave.
It is a gross superstition to imagine that knowledge is acquired only through books.
We must discard this error. Reading books has a place in life, but is useful
only in its own place. If book-knowledge is cultivated at the cost of body
labour, we must raise a revolt against it. Most of our time must be devoted
to body labour, and only a little to reading. As in India, today the rich
and the so-called higher classes despise body labour, it is very necessary
to insist on the dignity of labour. Even for real intellectual development
one should engage in some useful bodily activity.
It is desirable if at all possible that the Ashram should give the workers some
more time for reading. It is also desirable that illiterate Ashramites
should have a teacher to help them in their studies. But it appears that
time for reading and the like cannot be given at the cost of any of the
present activities of the Ashram. Nor can we engage paid teachers, and so
long as the Ashram cannot attract more men who are capable of teaching
ordinary school subjects, we have to manage with as many such as we have got
in our midst. The school and college-educated men who are in the Ashram have
not still fully acquired the skill of correlating the three R's with body
labour. This is a new experiment for all of us. But we shall learn from
experience, and those of us who have received ordinary education will by and
by find out ways and means of imparting their knowledge to others.