The Ashram was founded in order to serve and if necessary to die in the service of Truth. If therefore while holding that untouchability is a sinful thing, it did not do something positive in order to end it, it could hardly deserve the name of Satyagraha (adherence to Truth) Ashram. Even in South Africa we recognised untouchability as a sin. When the Ashram therefore was founded in India, removal of untouchability easily became one of its major activities.
Within a month of the foundation of the Ashram, Dudabhai applied for
admission along with his family. I had no idea that the testing time of the
Ashram would arrive so soon. Dudabhai's application was supported by Shri
Amritlal Thakkar. I felt bound to admit a family which was recommended by
The arrival of Dudabhai was the signal for a storm breaking upon the placid
atmosphere of the Ashram, Kasturba, Maganlal Gandhi and Mrs Mlaganlal had
each of them some scruples in living with so-called untouchables. Things
came to such a pass that Kasturba should either observe Ashram rules or else
leave the Ashram. But the argument that a woman in following in her
husband's footsteps incurs no sin appealed to her and she quieted down. I do
not hold that a wife is bound to follow her husband in what she considers
sinful. But I welcomed my wife's attitude in the present case, because I
looked upon the removal of untouchability as a meritorious thing. No one
could uphold untouchability and still lives in the Ashram. It would have
been extremely painful to me if my wife had had to leave the Ashram, seeing
that she had been my companion all these days at the cost of great
suffering. It was hard to be separated from her, but ones must put up with
every hardship that comes his way in the discharge of his duty. I had
therefore no hesitation in accepting my wife's denunciation of
untouchability not as an independent person but only as a faithful wife.
Maganlal Gandhi's case was harder than mine. He packed up his things and
came to me to told goodbye. But who was I to bid him goodbye? I put him on
his guard. 1 told him that the Ashram was his creation as much as mine, and
would be destroyed if he left it. But he certainly did not want that it
should perish. He did not need to seek my permission to leave an institution
which he himself had brought into existence. But to leave the Ashram should
be something unthinkable for him. This appeal did not fall on deaf ears.
Perhaps Maganlal had thought of Heaving in order to give me a free hand. I
could endure to be separated from all the world besides but not from
Maganlal. I therefore suggested that he should go to Madras with family. He
and his wife would learn more of weaving there and would have more time to
ponder over the situation that had developed. So they went and lived in
Madras for six months. They mastered the art of weaving and after mature
consideration also washed their hearts clean of untouchability.
The internal storm thus blew over. But there was a storm outside the Ashram too.
The chief person who financed the Ashram discontinued his assistance. There
was even a possibility that the Ashramites would not be allowed any more to
draw water from the neighbour's well. But all difficulties were surmounted
by and by. As regards finance, something happened which was not unlike
Narasinha Mehta's hundi (bill of exchange) being honoured at
Dvaravati. A sum of thirteen thousand rupees was received from an unexpected
source. Thus the Ashram ordeal in keeping Dudabhai at any cost was not so
severe as it might well have been. The Ashram passed the test as regards its
opposition to untouchability. 'Untouchable' families come to the Ashram
freely and live in it. Dudabhai's daughter Lakshmi has become a full member
of the family.
Three callings followed by the so-called untouchables are practised in the Ashram,
and improved methods are devised in each. Everyone in the Ashram has in
turns to do sanitary service, which is looked upon not as a special calling
but a universal duty. No outside labour is engaged for this work, which is
carried on lines suggested by Dr Poore. Nightsoil is buried in shallow
trenches and is thus converted into manure in only a few days. Dr Poore says
that the soil is living up to a depth of twelve inches. Millions of bacteria
are there to clean up dirt. Sunlight and air penetrate the ground to that
depth. Therefore nightsoil buried in the upper layer readily combines with
Closets are so constructed that they are free from smell and there is no
difficulty in cleaning them. Everyone who visits them covers the nightsoil
with plenty of dry earth, so that the top is always dry.
Then again we have handloom weaving. Coarse khadi was manufactured in Gujarat by
Harijan weavers only. The industry was almost on the verge of destruction,
and many weavers were compelled to take up scavenging for a living. But now
there has been a revival of this handicraft.
Thirdly we have tanning. We shall deal with it in the chapter on the Ashram
The Ashram does not believe in subcastes. There are no restrictions on
inter-dining and all Ashramites sit to dinner in the same line. But no
propaganda in favour of interdining is carried on outside the Ashram, as it
is unnecessary for the removal of untouchability, which implies the lifting
of bans imposed on Harijans in public institutions and discarding the
superstition that a man is polluted by the touch of certain persons by
reason of their birth in a particular caste. This disability can also be
removed by legislation. Inter-dining and intermarriage are reforms of a
different type which cannot be promoted by legislation or social pressure.
The Ashramites therefore feel themselves free to take permitted food with
everyone else but do not carry on any such propaganda.
Schools are established and wells sunk for Harijans through the Ashram which
chiefly finds the finance for such activities. The real anti-untouchability
work carried on in the Ashram is the reformed conduct of the Ashramites.
There is no room in the Ashram for any ideas of high and low.
However the Ashram believes that varnas and ashramas are
essential elements of Hinduism. Only it puts a different interpretation on
these time-honoured terms. Four varnas and four ashramas are
an arrangement not peculiar to Hinduism but capable of world-wide
application, and a universal rule, the breach of which has involved humanity
in numerous disasters. The four ashramas are brahmacharya,
garhasthya, vanaprasthya and sannyasa. Brahmacharya is the stage
during which men as well as women prosecute their studies, and should not
only observe brahmacharya but should also be free from any other
burden except that of studies. This lasts till at least the twenty-fifth
year, when the student becomes a householder if he wishes. Almost all the
students thus become householders. But this stage should close at the age of
fifty. During that period the householder enjoys the pleasures of life,
makes money, practises a profession and rears a family. From fifty to
seventy-five wife and husband should live apart and wholly devote themselves
to the service of the people. They must leave their families and try to look
upon the world as a big family. During the last 25 years they should become
sannyasis, live apart, set to the people an example of ideal religious
life and maintain themselves with whatever the people choose to give them.
It is clear that society as a whole would be elevated if many carried out
this scheme in their lives.
So far as I am aware, the ashrama arrangement is unknown outside India,
but even in India it has practically disappeared at present. There is no
such thing now as] brahmacharya, which is intended to be the
foundation of life. For the rest we have sannyasis, most of them such
only in name, with nothing of sannyasa about them except the orange
robe. Many of them are ignorant, and some who have acquired learning are not
knowers of brahma but fanatics.
There are some honourable exceptions but even these well- conducted monks lack th
lustre we love to associate with sannyasa. It is possible that some
real sannyasis lead a solitary life. But it is obvious that
sannyasa as a stage in life has fallen into desuetude. A society which
is served by able sannyasis would not be poor in spirit, unprovided
even with the necessaries of life, and politically dependent* as Hindu
society is at present. If sannyasa were with us a living thing, it
would exert a powerful influence on neighbouring faiths, for the sannyasi
is a servant not only of Hinduism but of all the faiths of mankind.
But we can never hope to see such sannyasis unless brahmacharya is
observed in the country. As for vanaprasthya, there is no trace of
it. The last stage we have to consider is that of the householder. But our
householders are given to unregulated self-indulgence. Householders in the
absence of the three other ashramas live like brutes. Self-restraint
is the one thing which differentiates man from beast, but it is practised no
The Ashram is engaged in the great endeavour to resuscitate the four ashramas.
It is like an ant trying to lift a bag of sugar. This effort though
apparently ridiculous is part of the Ashram quest of truth. All the inmates
of the Ashram therefore observe brahmacharya. Permanent members must
observe it for life. All the inmates are not members in this sense. Only a
few are members, the rest are students. If this effort is crowned with
success, we may hope to see a revival of the ashrama scheme of life.
The sixteen years during which the Ashram has functioned are not a
sufficiently long period for the assessment of results. I have no idea of
the time when such assessment will be possible. I can only say that there is
nothing like dissatisfaction with the progress achieved up to date.
If the ashrama scheme has broken down, the plight of the varnas
is equally bad. At first there were four varnas (classes); but now
there are innumerable sections or only one. If we take it that there are as
many varnas as there are castes and subcastes, their name is legion;
on the other hand if as I think varnas have nothing to do with caste,
there is only a single varna left and that is the Shudra. We are here
not finding fault with anybody but only stating the facts of the case.
Shudras are those who serve and are dependent upon others. India is a
dependency1; therefore every Indian is a Shudra. The cultivator
does not own his land, the merchant his merchandise. There is hardly a
Kshatriya or a Brahman who possesses the virtues which the Shastras
attribute to his varna.
My impression is that there was no idea of high and low when the varna
system was discovered. No one is high and no one is low in this world;
therefore he who thinks he belongs to a high class is never high-class, and
he who believes himself to be low is merely the victim of ignorance. He has
been taught by his masters that he is low. If a Brahman has knowledge, those
who are without it will respect him as a matter of course. But if he is
puffed up by the respect thus shown to him and imagines himself to belong to
a high class, he directly ceases to be a Brahman. Virtue will always command
respect, but when the man of virtue thinks much of himself, his virtue
ceases to have any significance for the world. Talents of all kinds are a
trust and must be utilized for the benefit of society. The individual has no
right to live unto himself. Indeed it is impossible to live unto oneself. We
fully live unto ourselves when we live unto society.
No matter what was the position in ancient times, no one can nowadays go
through life claiming to belong to a high class. Society will not willingly
admit any such claim to superiority, but only under duress. The world is now
wide awake. This awakening has perhaps given rise to some licence, but even
so public opinion is not now prepared to accept any distinctions of high and
low, which are being attacked on all sides. There is ever increasing
realization that all are equal as human souls. The fact that we are all the
creatures of one God rules out all ideas of high and low. When we say that
no one is high-born or low-born, it does not mean that all have or ought to
have equal talents. All have not equal talents, equal property or equal
opportunities. Still all are equal like brothers and sisters of different
dispositions, abilities and ages.
If therefore the varna system is a spiritual arrangement, there cannot
be any place in it for high and low.
Thus there are four varnas, all equal in status, and they are determined
by birth. They can be changed by a person choosing another profession, but
if varnas are not as a rule determined by birth, they tend to lose
The varna system is ethical as well as economic. It recognises the influence
of previous lives and of heredity. All are not born with equal powers and
similar tendencies. Neither the parents nor the state can measure the
intelligence of each child. But there would be no difficulty if each child
is prepared for the profession indicated by heredity, environment and the
influence of former lives; no time would be lost in fruitless
experimentation, there would be no soul-killing competition, a spirit of
contentment would pervade society and there would be no struggle for
The varna system implies the obliteration of all distinctions of high and
low. If the carpenter is held to be superior to the shoemaker and the
pleader or doctor is superior to both of them, no one would willingly become
a shoemaker or carpenter and all would try to become pleaders or doctors.
They would be entitled to do so and to be praised for doing so. That is to
say, the varna system would be looked upon as an evil and abolished
But when it is suggested that everyone should practise his father's profession,
the suggestion is coupled with the condition that the practitioner of every
profession will earn only a living wage and no more. If the carpenter earns
more than a shoemaker and the pleader or doctor more than both, everyone
would become a lawyer or doctor. Such is the case at present with the result
that hatred has increased and there are more lawyers and doctors than are
necessary. It may be that society needs the lawyer or doctor even as it
needs the shoemaker and the carpenter. These four professions are here taken
only as illustrations and for comparison. It would be irrelevant to stop to
consider whether society has particular need or no need at all for this,
that or the other profession.
This principle then is an integral part of the varna system that learning
is not a trade and may not be used in order to amass riches. Therefore in so
far as his ministrations may be necessary, the lawyer or doctor ought by
practising his profession to earn only a living wage. And such was actually
the case formerly. The village vaidya (physician) did not earn more
than the carpenter but only a living wage. In short the emoluments of all
crafts and professions should be equal and amount to a living wage. The
number of varnas has no sanctity about it; their value is due to the
fact that they define the duties of man. Varnas may be supposed to be
one or more just as we like. The scriptures enumerate four of them. But when
once we have assigned equal status to all, it makes little difference
whether we think that there are four of them or that there is only one.
Such is the varna system which the Ashram is trying to resuscitate. It is
like Dame Partington with her mop, trying to push back the Atlantic Ocean. I
have already mentioned its two fundamental principles, namely that there are
no high and low, and everyone is entitled to a living wage, the living wage
being the same for all. In so far as these principles win acceptance, they
will render a positive service to society.
It may be objected that if such a plan is accepted there will be no incentive
for the acquisition of knowledge. But the object with which knowledge is
acquired nowadays tends to corrupt it, and therefore the absence of an
incentive will be entirely beneficial. Knowledge truly so called is intended
for one's salvation, that is to say, service of mankind. Whoever has a
desire to render service will certainly try to equip himself with the
requisite knowledge, and his knowledge will be an ornament to himself as
well as to society. Again when the temptation to amass riches is removed,
there will be a change for the better in the curriculum of studies as well
as in the methods of education. There is much misuse of knowledge at
present. This misuse will be reduced to the minimum in the 'new order'.
Even then there will be scope for competition in trying to be good and helpful.
And there will be no discontent or disorder as all will receive a living
Varna is wrongly understood today. That wrong understanding must make way for the
principles outlined above. Untouchability must go, and varnas should
have nothing to do with inter-dining or intermarriage. A person will dine
with and marry whom he likes. But as a rule he will marry someone who
belongs to the same varna as himself. But if he marries a person
belonging to another varna, his act will not count as a sin. A person
will be boycotted not by the varna but by society at large when his
conduct justifies such a measure. Society will be better constituted than it
is at present, and the impurity and hypocrisy which infest it now will be