Swadhyaya: A Five Decades-Old Quiet Revolution

Not many people have heard of Swadhyaya, the movement that is centered in Maharashtra and Gujarat and which was started by Pandurang Shastri Athavale (popularly and fondly referred to as Dada) in 1954. Even the award of the 1997 Templeton Prize, worth more than a million dollars, seems to have mostly gone unnoticed by many Indians. And most Westerners who complain about the caste system in India and seek to laud some of their own efforts in highlighting caste-based discrimination, are expectedly mum over this Hindu scriptures-inspired social movement that has changed the lives of people in more than 100, 000 Indian villages and is quietly impacting people and communities around the world.

When I first read the little snippets on Athavale and his work, it was in the context of discussions on Hinduism and caste and how one can or should or must deal with caste-based discrimination. As it happens in most such discussions, Dada’swork was mentioned in passing and some said rather cryptically that he had a penchant for doling out sacred threads to fishermen in the coastal areas of Gujarat. The otherwise well-informed discussants usually then went on to talking about a Smita Narula’s high profile and highly publicized attempts to make caste an item of discussion in an United Nations forum on human rights this year[1], or the Christian-inspired Martin Macwan’s tour of the US after winning the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award[2]for his work in about 2, 000 villages in Gujarat. Barbara Crossette wrote about Macwan[3]and the $30, 000 prize that was awarded him. Crossette, whose tenure in India as the New York Times’ correspondent, was spent in acquiring a deep dislike, if not hatred, for matters Hindu spared no hyperbole in describing the work of Macwan (a Christian tribal) but failed to note the $1.2 million prize given Athavale for his five-decades long service to the dalits, the poor and the disenfranchised in India.

I too would have ignored the work of Athavale if not for a Sulekha reader who chanced upon my essay on the Gita. Since Athavale relies on the Gita to help villagers correct their lives and acquire a strong sense of self, this Sulekha reader sent me a compilation of essays on the Swadhyaya movement[4].

Athavale is the founder and leader of this spiritual self-awareness movement that has liberated millions (there are supposed to be more than twenty million followers of Swadhyaya worldwide) from the shackles of poverty, moral dissipation and societal discrimination. Athavale has used the Bhagavad Gita along with modern education, lessons on better hygiene and environmental improvement to bring about revolutionary change in Gujarat and Maharashtra. His work now has spread to other parts of India and there are thousands of Athavale supporters and Swadhyaya followers in the US who contribute their work and might to both local and Indian causes[5]. In the Chicago area alone, there are more than 8, 000 Swadhyaya followers, who over the last 15 years have worked in raising money, running a farm and working in local industries and businesses on weekends to earn money to contribute to charity throughout the area. According to the Chicago Tribune report, sixty Swadhyaya volunteers spend every Friday evening in a Glendale Heights warehouse pressing out circular cardboard that goes beneath pies and cakes. They pack hundreds of the plates into boxes and deliver them to bakery companies, earning wages that they then donate to the United Way and Indian charities. They call such funds 'impersonal wealth'. About 2, 500 Swadhyay is gather each Sunday at Chicago area locations to hear Athavale’s discourses, recorded each week from Bombay, while their children attend Swadhyaya Sunday school.

The Man and his Origins

Pandurang Shastri Athavale was born in 1920 to Parvati and Vaijnath Laxman Athavale in the small village of Roha near Mumbai. His father founded the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita Pathashalaon the advice of Pandit Ramapati Mishra and aimed at giving the young Pandurang a well-rounded education. Athavale learned not only classic literature, Sanskrit and Hindi. By the time he was twenty-one, Athavale had acquired the reputation of a gifted speaker and teacher. It is said that his father did not allow Pandurang any special favors and that he never allowed him more than two pairs of clothes. After twelve years in his father’spathashala Pandurang emerged with a firm determination to spread Indian culture and civilization. But then he realized that to communicate with the Western world he had to understand its thinking. So, he began a twelve-year self-study of English and Western literature and philosophy during which he diligently arrived every morning at the Royal Asiatic Society Library in Bombay when it opened and left only when it was time to close. They say he has a photographic memory. Swadhyay is talk in awe of his ability to recall the name of every member of his 'flock' he has met.

In 1954, Dadawas invited to be a participant in the Second World Religions Conference in Japan. At the conference he spoke on the relevance of the Gitain resolving life predicaments, both at the individual and the social levels. He descried his vision for a world based on “selfless love, dignity accorded to all and co-sharing for community well-being” (p. 18, Vital Connections). When he was asked if there was any such movement in India or if there was any community in India that lived by the Gita’sideals, he realized there were none. Even though he was invited by the physics Nobel laureate, Arthur Holly Compton to become an academic or a roving philosopher, Athavale decided to work out his ideas in India instead of settling for the middle class comforts and book deals in the West. With fewer than 20 co-workers, Athavale began visits to villages around Bombay to spread a message of love for God, love of self and love for others. He urged villagers to engage in swadhyaya(self-study).

When Athavale attended the Templeton Prize award ceremony one of the Rockefellers supposedly asked what they could do to help him. Athavale, it seems replied, “Nothing”, highlighting the fact that swadhyaya is thus both self-learning and self-help. It is this lived philosophy that makes Dada ignore fame and prestige. In fact, one of the reasons that the movement is not that well-known is that the swadhyayisd on’t seek publicity.

The love and devotion of his followers and the prestige and accolades won have not made a dent in Dada’sfrugal way of life. He lives with his wife in a meager one-bedroom apartment in Bombay, in the same place where he has lived for 45 years. He gets up around 3 a.m. to meditate and never misses his daily worship. His day is devoted to discourses and work. His daughter, Dhanashree (fondly known as Didi) is expected to succeed him in leading the movement.

The Work

Among the programs that swadhyaya promotes are equal respect for all religions, races and creeds. In many 'out-caste' communities reached by swadhyaya, gambling, drinking and family abuse have been replaced with cooperative efforts that have vastly improved the life of villagers. Economic opportunities have improved, as have health and sanitation. Villagers have also started communal farms and orchards and organized to create new forests. Swadhyaya is unique in that it has virtually no organizational hierarchy and not a single paid worker. Dada discourages proselytizing and he seeks neither private nor public funding. Swadhyaya is now active in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America and there have been some unique efforts to use the swadhyaya techniques elsewhere. An international group is using the swadhyaya philosophy to help the aborigines in Australia reinvigorate their lives and their communities.

When he was presented the Magasaysay Award, Athavale said this about his work: “We Swadhyayistry to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots, but we are not socialists. We are engaged in removing the dirt and rust which has settled on our culture. Yet we are not reformers. We do try to emancipate women from their oppressed conditions but we are not women liberators. We are basically devotees, i.e. bhaktas”. Dadatells those who come to listen to his discourses: “Devotion should not be limited to temple worship, rites and rituals, singing and chanting. This crude faith will drown us in oceans of ignorance; and man shall be degraded to a beastly sensual existence. Under such conditions, if young people like you who have studied the Upanishads and the Gitasit and do nothing, you will be guilty of neglecting your duty. Neither society, nor history, nor God will ever forgive this lapse on your part. You must go to the villages. This too is a form of devotion”[6].

Swadhyay is recognize that beyond human beings’ basic needs what everyone requires and wants are the following: Self-dignity and esteem for one’s cultural heritage

A sense of becoming

A sense of pursuing worth ideals

A sense of belonging to a worthy group

A sense of participation

A sense of being in command of one’s destiny

A sense of wholeness and

A sense of justice in the larger order.

As Gujarat and Gujaratis reel under the devastating earthquake that have taken the lives of more than 20, 000 people and reduced to rubble some of their cities, I know that there will be swadhyay is both at ground zero and around the world pitching in to rehabilitate life and instill courage. I hope you too will pitch in and may be get to know and work with aswadhyayi.


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