You are here:
ASSOCIATES OF MAHATMA GANDHI > VINOBA BHAVE > MOVED BY LOVE > Laboratories for Living
Laboratories for Living
I walked through India for a full thirteen years, and after that for four and a half years or so I travelled about by car, visiting all the States and almost every district. In the course of these journeys I established six Ashrams, and I am glad to say that they are giving a good and useful public service.
I call these Ashrams experimental laboratories. A laboratory is situated in some quiet spot, not in the middle of the market-place. But the experiments it makes, and the material it uses, have a social purpose. The experiments are made in controlled conditions, but the results obtained are relevant to society as a whole.
All such work, formerly carried on by Ashrams, has come to an end with the passage of time. The Ashrams have ceased to exist, and our culture has consequently decayed. True, thanks to Shankara and Ramanuja, some monasteries have survived, and have kept some spirit of enquiry alive. But Ashrams concerned with social experiment no longer existed until, in our own century, such men as Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Shraddhanand and Sri Aurobindo began to revive them. It was Gandhiji however whose experiments linked them directly with the people. He put his plan very clearly before the public. ‘Our service in the Ashram,’ he said, ‘must not be incompatible with the welfare of the world as a whole, and we therefore observe the eleven vows in our work.’
Today we can carry this service further. There many be differences of detail in the practice of the various Ashrams, but there is none in their basic purpose. While speaking on one occasion about the starting of the Ashrams, I said that the bhoodan movement and the Ashrams are two aspects of the same undertaking. A parallel may be found in science. A discovery is made in the field of pure science; it is then put to use in society, and applied science is developed. Pure science forms the basis of applied science, applied science enables pure science to be used and disseminated. The two complement one another.
Our Ashrams similarly are complementary to our social programme. The thinking carried on in the Ashram will energize the work outside, and act as a source of inspiration and of guidance. The work carried on outside is a witness to the achievement of the Ashrams; it allows their light to shine out in practice, just as the achievements of pure science shine out in the practical uses to which they are put.
Our Ashrams must serve as power-houses for the areas in which they are placed. Let the power be felt throughout the neighbourhood, the power to build the kind of society to which we are committed: a society that manages its affairs non-violently, is unified by love and stands on its own feet, self-reliant and co-operative. Such a village society provides the best education, both spiritual and scientific, and takes care that every household should have full productive work. Such a village has become a joint family whose members seek to promote the common welfare, both material and spiritual. This is the kind of society the power-house should envisage, and its influence should be felt for twenty miles around. There may be another power-house for the next locality, so that the whole region may be covered.
This is what I hope that an Ashram will be and do. Our chief task is the creation of a wholly non-violent human society—non-violent, strong, self-reliant, self-confident, free from fear and hatred. Where, you may ask, could such ‘power-houses’ be built? I answer, wherever the members of the Ashram feel the power within themselves.
I set up Ashrams at a number of places in India, three in the far north, far east, and far south respectively, and three in more central regions. If they have life in them, they can be a means of influencing the whole country. Shankaracharya established Ashrams at the far corners of the country in an age when it was not possible for them to keep in touch with one another. In each of these Ashrams, so far apart, he placed a man whom he trusted, in the faith that they would be sources of light. And so it came to pass; that is what they were. If now, after twelve hundred years, time has somewhat dimmed their lustre, that is only natural. On the whole, they have been of great service to India.
In these days we have the means of speedy travel, so  to set up six Ashrams is no great matter, but they will be of no service at all if they are not founded on devotion to God. Each of these six Ashrams has its own distinctive purpose.

1. The Samanvaya Ashram, Bodhgaya, Bihar
I set up the Samanvaya Ashram on April 18th, 1954, and I chose Bodhgaya for a particular reason. Indian culture and life have evolved through a process of synthesis, and are based on two things—Brahmavidya or spiritual knowledge, and the concept of non-violence towards all living creatures. I expect the Samanvaya Ashram to undertake a study of the various schools of thought along with experiments in practical living.
The Shankara Math at Bodhgaya gave me a plot of land which is right opposite the Buddha Mandir. It is a quiet peaceful place, and it seemed to me that it might be well situated for linking various streams of thought together. At Bodhgaya there are Buddhist temples belonging to many countries—China, Japan, Tibet, Sri Lanka and so on—with which the Ashram might be in touch. I suggested that its members should meet the pilgrims and Buddhist Bhikkus who visit Bodhgaya, for a mutual sharing of spiritual experience, offer them hospitality in the Indian way, and so build up an international fellowship. They might also, I said, plan a special pilgrimage each year on Buddha Purnima.1
In India we do pay some attention to personal cleanli- ness but too little to public sanitation. I would therefore like to see the whole of Bodhgaya kept perfectly clean. If that work were to be properly done, visitors from abroad would see a standard of cleanliness here which would be both a service to them and a practical demonstration of our ideals. We should look upon cleaning, equally with physical labour, as a part of our daily worship.
Besides the exchange of ideas and fellowship with foreign guests, I also wanted Bodhgaya to serve as a retreat for the bhoodan workers of Bihar, a place where they could relax and enjoy peace of mind.
As for the spiritual aspirants who would be regular residents, I wanted them to live a balanced life and not become in any way one-sided. They should maintain themselves by physical labour, and not depend on any gifts of money, but on their own productive work, or if need be on gifts of such work from others. As for the cost of buildings, however, I would not exclude gifts of money for these, for I know that we are not doing our work in ideal conditions.
There is no escape from the duty of serving our neighbours, but the neighbourhood need not be more than a small one. Even a tiny lamp banishes the darkness so far as its light extends. We should serve our neighbours in the same way, remembering to encourage the development of their own potential.
I have already described2 how the statue of Bharata and Rama had come to me as a divine gift when I went to Paunar in 1938 and began work there. The Samanvaya Ashram had a similar blessing. When the Ashram was started and they began to dig a well for water, they found a beautiful image of the Lord Buddha buried in the earth, and set it up in a place of honour. This gave me great satisfaction; I felt that the work of the Ashram had received a divine blessing.

2. The Brahmavidya Mandir, Paunar (Maharashtra)
During the bhoodan movement I had many oppor- tunities for thoughtful reflection, and I found myself pondering repeatedly on the fact that the tradition bequea- thed to us by Shankara and Ramanuja is still being studied and followed in India more than a thousand years later. I have had a chance to study the schools of thought which have arisen during this period, and I have found in Gandhiji’s thought a complete philosophy of life which is the finest fruit of the traditions of the past.
The thought kept on recurring to me that this inheri- tance of ours, this tradition of knowledge so many-sided and valuable should be perpetuated, and I was considering how these foundations of thought might go deep. Shankara and Ramanuja were both men of spiritual experience, devotion and knowledge; in addition they were both social reformers and men of action. Both travelled widely, but found no need to deal with every aspect of the common life, whereas Gandhiji, because of the foreign government of his time, felt it necessary to do so. Consequently his life embodied karma-yoga, the path of action, to a greater extent than theirs. But this ‘plus’ carried with it a corresponding ‘minus’. We (his fellow-workers) took up the principles of non-violence, truth and so on which are of the essence of all religions, but we left untouched the foundation of Brahmavidya which lies at the root of them all.
I myself had been attracted from boyhood by this Brahmavidya, this search for knowledge of the Supreme. I felt the lack of it in our activities, and I felt this more keenly after Bapu passed away. I become convinced that unless we had this spiritual foundation our super-structure, our various programmes, would not last, not at any rate in India, this land of spiritual knowledge. Without the attainment of this Brahmavidya the well-springs of our thought would dry up, the current would no longer flow full and freely. Having reached this conclusion, I decided to start a Brahmavidya Mandir. I did not stop to think whether this task was within my power. Faith and devotion count for more than power. I may not have the power, but I certainly have the devotion, and relying on my devotion I opened the Brahmavidya Mandir on 25th March 1959.
I felt also that the management of such an Ashram should be in the hands of the women. The spiritual achieve- ments of women have always remained hidden; and while they have certainly influenced individuals, it is needful that their sadhana should now be openly seen. Without the women, men alone cannot bring about the world peace which is the crying need of our present times. That being so, the running of the Ashram may safely be left in the hands of women.
So far as my knowledge of Indian history goes, it was Lord Krishna who first called out the power of women on an extensive scale. In a later age the same work was done by Lord Mahavira, who initiated women on a large scale into his religious orders. After these came Mahatma Gandhi, who also brought about a widespread awakening of women—a work to which I myself have also made a small contribution. Now this Brahmavidya Mandir, set up to provide a place of collective sadhana for women, may be counted as another small contribution of mine.
In former days women tried to realize their spiritual strength as individuals, and their efforts bear fruit today, by inspiring us to believe that they may also realize them- selves in community. The coming age will be one in which women play a major role, and their spiritual strength must therefore be called out.
I look forward, in fact, to the time when women will produce new shastras. Women in India have become very great devotees, and as such have had a great influence in society, but they have not written any spiritual books, any shastras. So far, whatever has been written on Brahmavidya has been written by men, and so tends to be one-sided. These works need to be revised. Let a revised Brahmavidya be given to the world, and let the work be done by the women. Our perceptions of reality will only change when women dedicated to brahmacharya and working together as a community, produce new shastras.
If I had been a woman, I should have been a very rebellious one, and I would like to see women in revolt. But a woman can be a true rebel only if she is detachment personified;3 her instinct of motherhood itself can only be perfected in detachment. Women will find their true liberty when there arises among them a writer of the stature of Shankaracharya, with as great knowledge and detachment, as great a devotion and dedication as he possessed.
At the opening of the Brahmavidya Mandir I said to the sisters: ‘It was on this very day, the 25th of March, that I left my home and went out in the name of Brahmavidya; I am still living today in the same name. Now I am starting this Brahmavidya Mandir for women, as a place for community sadhana. I have no words to describe how deeply I am concerned for it. I feel as keen an inward urge as I did in those days when I left home, but the purpose which then filled my mind of seeking Brahmavidya is no longer there. Whether that is because it has been fulfilled, or because it has simply died away, God knows ! The urge I feel now is for collective Self-realisation, collective spiritual liberation. I had a feeling for community even in those early days, but not for a community of spiritual striving. At that time I envisaged a community of service, but today my interest is in community samadhi, and it is that vision which urges me on.’
I look forward to seeing the Brahmavidya Mandir put an end to individualistic attitudes. In Brahmavidya a community consciousness must be developed. I use that phrase, ‘community consciousness’, to describe the common inspiration which is felt when self-regarding attitudes are overcome. With this in mind I suggested that everyone should take part regularly in planning the work by mutual agreement. For Brahmavidya this is very necessary. It usually happens that the people of the world follow their own inclinations, while spiritual aspirants treat their inclinations as enemies to be subdued. I want a third alternative, that of acting from a plane higher than inclination. The first simple step towards this is to decide on our activities by common consent. That is a step in the right direction, towards overcoming personal preferences.
The mathematical rules which are true for a small triangle are equally true for a big one. The many problems which confront us today on a world scale are present also on a smaller scale, in a village. And just as the solution of world problems may be discovered by experiments in villages, so on an even smaller scale experiments in Brahmavidya Mandir may point the way.
In ancient days Brahmavidya took shape in the forests. The genius which inspires the Upanishads was kindled in the forests. Later, the wisdom of Gita was declared on the field of battle. Our Brahmavidya today must be spelled out in the field of labour; labour itself, labour of the body, is to be understood as worship. I and my companions worked for several years on an experiment in complete self-support, working as long as was required, for eight or nine hours a day. That too was an experiment in Brahmavidya. Now however the experiment should take another form. If the work is properly planned each individual should, I believe, be able to earn a good livelihood by productive labour for three or three and a half hours a day. I therefore advised the sisters in the Ashram to give that amount of time to physical labour and be satisfied with whatever degree of self-support it produced. They should regard all kinds of work as of equal value. That is not how society today regards work, but we should take that position, and so help to change society.
Most of the residents in Brahmavidya Mandir are sisters, but there are a few brothers also. All share the work of cooking, scavenging and general cleanliness. The sisters run a small press, which prints and publishes books on spiritual subjects. They also publish a Hindi monthly, Maitri, and a Kannada periodical which is printed in Nagari script. There is thus a triple programme: (1) community sadhana; (2) physical labour; (3) meditation, study and devotion in which all these share together. These are the chief features of the Ashram.
Brahmavidya Mandir is situated on a small hillock. In the course of cultivation about thirty stone images were unearthed, and duly set up. They are of Rama, Krishna, Mahadev, Buddha, Mahavir and others, and thus include Jain, Buddhist, Vaishnavite and Shaivite images. These sculptures are 1400 years old, dating from the time when the Vakatakas ruled here after the fall of the Gupta dynasty. Among them is a very beautiful statue of Ganga, the river goddess; she is standing on a crocodile, and the inscription below, ‘Bhagavati Ganga’, is in the Brahmi script. At present the Devanagari script is in use, but at that time the Brahmi script was used. It is on the basis of evidence like this that archaeologists estimate that the figures are 1400 years old.
In other words they pre-date the time of Shankara- charya by two hundred years. The Prophet Muhammed was born about 1300 years ago, and by then they were already in existence or in process of creation. God’s grace has been shown forth in many ways in this place, so that in the language of devotion it could be said that this place is itself a divinity, alive with the life of the spirit.
I have described Brahmavidya Mandir as a place where one may either attain the highest or the Supreme Vision, or find one’s whole effort gone for nothing. There is no other institution where there is such an element of risk. In other places we may hope perhaps for ten lakhs, but if we do not get it we can at least be sure of ten thousand. Here, it is a case of all or nothing—infinity, or zero ! We cannot offer any lesser odds. People may try to warn me off, but I can only say that I am constrained to do this thing, even if all I get is zero. I am not interested in half measures; I must have the Infinite or nothing.

3. Prasthan Ashram, Pathankot, Punjab
When I re-entered Punjab after my travels in Kashmir, the idea of Prasthan Ashram came into my mind. Pakistan, Kashmir and Punjab are all close to Pathankot. It is a prasthan, a starting point, for all three. It can be a centre for Shanti-sena and for education; it can also be of some service to those labourers who are forced by hunger to come down from Kashmir during the winter. The Ashram can at least make friends with them and stand by them in their troubles. Then in the district of Gurdaspur there is a large number of Christians, so that in Pathankot one may keep in touch with all three religious groups, Hindu, Muslim and Christian. In this way, to work for unity from Pathankot would be a great service to the country. With such thoughts as these I set up the Ashram at Pathankot in October 1959.

4. Visarjan Ashram, Indore, Madhya Pradesh
I was about to complete nine years of travel, and had visited all the States of India except Assam. It struck me that up to then the Sarvodaya movement had been concentrating its efforts mainly in the villages, keeping their needs in mind; it was time now to do some work in the cities. In this context my eyes turned towards Indore. Indore is a meeting point with links with four States, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, and it is the land of the much revered Ahilyabai. Recently Indore had become the headquarters of the Kasturba Trust set up in the name of Mother Kasturba,4 and I felt it would be a suitable place to develop ‘woman power’. It is an industrial city, but nevertheless the people have a gentle disposition, and are not much given to quarrels and disputes. The climate too is pleasant. For all these reasons I chose Indore for a ‘city campaign’ and part of the strategy was to set up the Visarjan Ashram there on 15th August 1960.
There is a little river nearby, where the Visarjan (immersion) of Gandhiji’s ashes had taken place. In my talk at the inauguration I said: ‘The purpose of this Ashram is to perform a visarjan, a submergence of out-dated values, and along with it a vi-sarjan, a re-emergence, of those living values which are suited to the new age. Study will be undertaken here, and the eleven vows observed with purity of mind and humility. An experiment in non-violent living will be reverently carried on. It will try to awaken the citizens’ feelings of compassion and mutual love and make them aware of the power of the soul, so that the spirit of equality and helpfulness begins to grow and they accept the ideal of unity in the midst of differences. The Ashram will be maintained by its own labour and with public support also, and I hope that the citizens of Indore will interest themselves in its activities and welfare.’

5. Maitri Ashram, North Lakhimpur, Assam
This is the age of science. Its message is: ‘Peoples of the world, unite’. But the old forms of political, social and religious life have become so firmly fixed in human minds that they stand in the way of that unity, and human society today is more divided than it ever was before.
In these conditions I felt it was imperative that a Maitri Ashram, a centre of friendship, should be opened in a border state. During the last days of my journey through Assam I was also reflecting on how the foundations of Sarvodaya might be strengthened there. The Ashram is the result of my reflections. Women are a force in Assam. Men of course are active everywhere, and Assam is no exception, otherwise who would have worked for gramdan in the villages there? Nevertheless, as compared with other parts of India, Assam appears to afford good scope for the development of women’s strength, and for this reason also I felt a need for such an Ashram in that State.
‘Let this place,’ I said, ‘be an open book, displaying true feeling and the grace of detachment. Let the public see in it that women too can penetrate to the depths, can conduct researches into social development and change the kind of sociology which has held the field up to now. This is something the world has not yet seen. Women have become warriors, statesmen, devotees and writers, but in spite of all these achievements it does not appear that they have ever put forward any principles for the guidance of society, still less got them accepted. Now, however, the time has come. The world has lost faith in violence, and if the path of non-violence is not made plain, it will lose its way. The road of non-violence is not made plain; it will lose its way. The road of non-violence must now be constructed, and for that task some fundamental thinking has to be done.’
At the opening of Maitri Ashram on 5th March 1962 I said: ‘Whatever rules, purposes and programmes may be introduced here are all covered by this word maitri, friendship. The only rule is friendship, the only purpose is friendship, the only programme is friendship. This is a place of friendship.’ In these days however, friendship in the ordinary sense of the word does not count for much, for the problems of society go very deep. Our friendship, maitri, must find expression in the solution of those problems. Our top political leaders speak the ordinary language of friendship, saying that there should be no armies and no wars, but none of them sees clearly the means by which this may be achieved, and so the world has got itself into a vicious circle. The true spirit of maitri must show it a way out.
This Ashram must therefore be a place where spiritual and scientific knowledge work together in harmony, and that will demand a strenuous discipline of the body and intellect alike. There will have to be a study of various languages and religions; Sarvodaya and other ideologies will have to be studied and taught, and the necessary books prepared. The gramdan movement in the neighbourhood must be helped, and the Ashram must take up any necessary work which the organizers of the movement are unable to do.
North Lakhimpur lies in the extreme (north-east) corner of India. I chose a place for the Ashram which is very near the airport, so that it might keep in touch with the outside world and become a place of international friend- ship. International camps and seminars have been held there and international topics discussed. When it was opened in 1962 no one guessed that a year later a Friendship March would start from Delhi, going to Beijing. When the marchers reached the frontiers of Assam the way forward was blocked, and Maitri Ashram became their temporary home. This could only have happened by the grace of God and I took it as a divine blessing on the Ashram.

6. Vallabha Niketan, Bangalore
Vallabha Niketan was founded in 1965 in memory of Vallabhaswami.5 His was a pure soul. I have met many men of great intelligence, but I have not met many who could compare with Vallabhaswami in purity of spirit. Any memorial to him should reflect his own special qualities. It should therefore be a place for study, and should offer people a retreat for meditation and reflection, where they may find peace of mind. The atmosphere should be one of high-souled friendliness, and with this in view, four things need to be kept in mind: a quiet environment, service of a non-controversial nature, a spiritual outlook, and an atmosphere of peace, devotion and affection. Let people come, stay for a while, and return home with peace of mind renewed—that is the purpose for which Vallabha Niketan has been started.

‘Be Your Own Light’
I do not run Ashrams now as I did in earlier days. Then, my companions worked under my command, and whatever I said was immediately carried out. If I gave orders that from tomorrow onwards no salt was to be used, by tomorrow the salt had disappeared. There was not a murmur of dissent. If I said that from tomorrow we should eat only one kind of food at one meal, so it would be. Experiments in diet, and in eight-hour days of agriculture or of spinning were all carried out under my orders. That was what I was like in those days. But I began to notice how this regime limited personal development, both in Gandhiji’s Ashram and in my own. This led me to the conclusion that in any Ashram I might found in future there should be no director. This train of thought also led me to coin the phrase ganasevakatva (‘shared servanthood’) in connection with the Sarvodaya movement. I used it then with reference to the whole group of Sarvodaya workers, but it certainly applies to Ashrams as well. For the same reason I no longer answer the letters I receive, except with this one piece of advice: Be your own light.