Profile: Manav Sadhna
Thursday, January, 31, 13 § 4 Comments
From the heart in India: Service, learning and love.
The Place: Manav Sadhna, located in Ahmadabad. A city of 5.5 million people in the state of Gujarat, western India.
History: Manav Sadhna is one of several learning and service organizations clustered around the Sabarmati Ashram, where Gandhi and his wife and supporters lived from 1918 – 1930, and continued many of his “experiments in truth”. Manav Sadhna was created in 1993 by three friends working to embrace Gandhi’s values and way of life.
The Skinny: Manav Sadhna offers an example of an organization in which learning goes hand-in-hand with living, with improving one’s quality of life and understanding of the world. Nearly 10,000 people are touched by this organization in the realms of sanitation, health care, education, and economic livelihoods, including scores of Westerners who come to learn about themselves and the world through volunteering.
What matters: Moving beyond the rational mind: learning, living and serving with love, compassion, and faith.
Many people argue that the defining characteristic of humans is our ability to reason. But what if the most important truths—those that lead to peace, happiness, unity, and sustainability—do not derive from human rationality? What if paying more attention to our innate senses and heart, and less attention to rational inquiry, is what’s needed for living in greater harmony?
In my travels here in India, I just spent a week visiting an organization called Manav Sadhna, a lynchpin for a number of innovative, service-oriented organizations and individuals who seek to act from the heart, striving to attain a level of being in which “doing” flows naturally from compassion and love, rather than human rationality.
It is no coincidence that Manav Sadhna and this community of organizations sprung up in buildings adjoining the Sabarmati Ashram, in the city of Ahmadabad. This ashram was founded by one of the modern world’s most famous pioneers of truth and peace, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi, his family, and supporters lived at the ashram from 1918-1930, during a time when he was defining and testing some of the precepts that supported his subsequent, world-changing actions of non-violence. His “experiments in truth,” as he called them, explored boundaries of love, non-violence, restraint, and learning.
Over time, the Sabarmati Ashram has been a lightning rod for service-oriented organizations. One of the most influential, the Sanitation Institute (Safai Vidyalaya), was founded in 1963, with the mission of modernizing sanitation practices, and thereby alleviating the suffering of a caste of Indians who had for generations been relegated the unhealthy and undignified task of cleaning out dry latrines by hand. In 1964, a man named Ishwar Patel became the head of this Institute, and over the course of his subsequent 40 years of service, dedicated his life to improving sanitation and livelihoods for some of the most underprivileged communities.
Ishwar’s son, Jayesh, and his wife Anar, were living in London when they decided to come back to India and find their heart’s work, through service, in the early 1990’s. Together with another man named Viren Joshi, they began spending time with children from the dense slum across the street from the Sabarmati Ashram. They made sure the children had a good meal once a week, and shared with them the importance of hygiene and sanitation. While they probably weren’t sure what they were creating, they were very clear on their values: to serve others with love and compassion.
Today, those small acts of love and service have grown into Manav Sadhna, a formal non-profit which hosts a heart-moving aggregation of programs, projects, and personal transformation. Their work now touches over 9,000 women and children, with more than 300 permanent staff, and a steady stream of volunteers, working in fields of education, sanitation, health care, and economic livelihoods.
What struck me as much as the impactful and varied work, was that their approach flies in the face of the cardinal rules of most successful social entrepreneurs and businessmen: be goal oriented, plan, and leverage limited resources. In fact, Viren told me that they don’t do dedicated fundraising from large donors, they have limited capabilities in the realm of accounting, and they do little long-range planning. He said that the money just shows up, and they’ve never come to the point where they couldn’t pay a salary.
None of the three co-founders has ever received a salary from Manav Sadhna, there are few titles, and no centralized offices. These facets all support one of Jayesh’s favorite slogans: “Be a ladder, not a leader”.
Indeed, Jayesh and the people who work with him are examples of embodied compassion and generosity. In a conversation several months ago, Jayesh explained to a group of listeners that “Every time we love, we receive. Love is my spiritual practice. If you love all, you can effortlessly serve all. I try to practice love in every moment. I try to love myself first and then I try to love everyone I meet.”
Impressed as I was by the Gandhian values of this organization, I did not anticipate the inspiring and vibrant project infrastructure that I would come across in the slums and other parts of the city, especially considering its lack of sophisticated accounting or dedicated fundraisers . Money flows in from private supporters, government, grants, and all of their projects have a lot of community support. In fact, their community work has been so successful that in several areas, the government has placed all education and community facilities in the hands of Manav Sadhna.
We were given a tour of several of these facilities by a young man, who, only a decade earlier, had been living on the streets, as a young child. He’d caught the eye of Viren, Jayesh, Anar and others, and was welcomed in to the Manav Sadhna family, like so many other struggling children. At the age of fifteen, he was inspired to return to school. He went on to college and a graduate program, and is now the volunteer coordinator for Manav Sadhna. His inspirational story is not uncommon: many of the children touched by Manav Sadhna programs return to serve within the organization.
One of the centers to which he took us is the Ramapir No Tekra Community Center. It was finished in 2004, built with recycled materials, and designed by some of the city’s most creative architects. The castle-like structure sits smack within the local slum, offering dental care, a library, value-based classes, theater, and computer training to some 500 women and children every day.
Around the corner from this community center was a meek but tidy one-room class and adjoining living quarters. We were greeted by a beaming elderly woman who clearly enjoyed the presence of visitors and the children. I was told that she didn’t have a family, and so she donated her small land plot in return for the construction of the tiny school and improved living space.
A stone’s throw away was a women’s center, where we found women engaged in intricate embroidery, which would later be sold in a retail outlet for Gramshree, another non-profit that works to empower women and artisans. Women are trained in various craftworks, and can spend time together in community spaces, or at home, opening pathways for both income generation, and a new sense of self-confidence. Craftroots, a project of Gramshree, is a network that creates markets and fair prices, supporting the work of artisans throughout the state of Gujarat.
In one corner of the center several girls were making professional-looking gift bags from newspapers, part of Manav Sadhna’s Earn and Learn program. Many children in the slums drop out of school to support their families (or themselves) by collecting trash, selling balloons, or cleaning. Children in the Earn and Learn program offers them an alternative: they spend four hours each day at a Manav Sadhna facility, where they attend an hour of class, receive a nutritious meal, are in a safe and loving community, and get paid more than the alternative day’s labor, working for two hours making gift bags, greeting cards, and other simple crafts sold by Manav Sadhna. Gramshree and Earn and Learn, like most of Manav Sadhna’s projects, have holistic approaches. Husbands are invited to visit the center and learn about their wives’ work, and family visits are part of the Earn and Learn program.
If Manav Sadhna’s lack of financial planning defies conventional wisdom, so does their treatment of volunteers. In an age of increasing volunteerism and decreasing availability of funds for non-profits, it has become common for international volunteers to pay for their stay in many organizations – especially if it is short-term. Most non-profits look for people willing to commit at least three months, preferring volunteers who can stay for more than a year. Both criteria are not unreasonable, especially in terms of project sustainability. It becomes hard when new volunteers show up without any real understanding of local culture and challenges and then try to initiate projects, only to leave when the work is beginning to gain momentum.
Manav Sadhna places none of these restrictions or expectations on its volunteers. Viren explained that many great people have tried to change the external world, but the wisest have realized that true change must begin from inside. They treated me the way they treat all volunteers: they encouraged me to just spend time learning about what they are doing, and expressed more concern about how my stay was contributing to my own personal journey than to their work-at hand. (I heard several stories of volunteers showing up for a visit, or a several month stint, and staying for years.) Though the volunteers may or may not contribute much in the moment, the inner transformation and growth that they experience will likely ripple out into unexpected change around the world. (Visit the group of inspiring service space projects in the U.S., or the urban ashram in Pune. All have deep ties to Manav Sadhna and its founders.)
Though Manav Sadhna is the organization with which I spent the most time, there are several others clustered around the ashram, including MAM movies, which uses film as a medium for social change. Its founders, Madhu and his wife Meghna, had worked in the film industry in the U.S. and Mumbai before they moved to Ahmadabad to bring together their passions for social change and cinema. Their team of creative staff and interns has supported the production of many films documenting the work of inspiring non-profits and individual change-makers. Madhu and Meghna also host weekly gatherings in their apartment, which include an hour of silent meditation, an hour of sharing, and a home cooked meal, the first half eaten in silence. (They are also very welcoming hosts: they invited me to stay in an apartment that they maintain for their staff and visitors.)
Other volunteer initiated projects that I caught wind of included the Dosti, or “Friends”, program, in which a class from one of Ahmadabad’s exclusive private schools makes exchange visits to connect with a group of kids from the nearby slum. Another day I saw two U.S. college students hauling in a helium tank and large rubber balloons. They were introducing a method whereby they’d attach a digital camera to the balloon and take aerial pictures of neighborhoods, which could be used for dialogue, planning, or activism. Another pair of volunteers had started an urban garden project. A popular long-time project is Seva Café, a volunteer-run restaurant where the patrons can leave what they want, contributing to the next customer’s meal (paying-it-forward).
I spent one of my last mornings in Ahmadabad with Ragu. He must be in his late twenties. About three years ago he started a program delivering meals to elderly people in the slums who don’t have anyone to care for them. Every day, rain or shine, he picks up the pre-cooked meals and delivers them to over fifteen homes in one of the nearby slums, covering a loop that takes over an hour on his scooter. Accompanying him, it was clear that he wasn’t just delivering food, but also his joyful and caring presence. Everyone smiled and greeted him as we navigated the narrow pathways.
What makes his labor of love even more remarkable is that he lost his legs to polio. Until he received his scooter last year, he used to deliver the food using a tricycle that he pedaled with his hands and arms. His work and spirit highlighted for me the irrelevance of our common metrics of success. Ragu doesn’t likely have any advanced degrees, certainly doesn’t make a lot of money, and his greatest skill may be his ability to live from the heart. Yet probably more so than any corporate designed nursing home could ever be, Ragu is a critical link in the social sustainability of the local communities.
Spending time in these organizations has been eye-opening, but also offered me a personal challenge. Letting go of my desire to carefully rationalize the design of projects takes a certain amount of faith.
For many of the organizations associated with Manav Sadhna, there is an overt recognition of the constant presence of something that can’t be grasped by human rationality. In sharp contrast to institutions where religious tolerance often takes the form of secularity (not mentioning religion), these organizations actively embrace all religions, emphasizing the underlying spirituality. Each day begins with a non-mandatory morning prayer, which is a compilation of short hymns or chants from Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Islam. It is then followed by a short period of sharing from anyone wanting to speak.
However, faith and good intention aren’t enough to ensure that appropriate actions are carried out. It takes time for the veils of ignorance to fall away, and often it only happens after wrong turns are made. Dedication to place and the presence of love create a rich environment for learning and growth. Love allows communities to accept that actions are carried out under the best of intentions, and helps dissolve personal egos, creating space for full community involvement.
The last project that I visited further convinced me of our need to shift our education systems in a way that embraces non-rational thinking and love. I’d been hearing about this “school” throughout my stay. It had been founded in a nearby community with the help of a long-time Manav Sadhna volunteer named Anjali, who is now in her tenth year in Ahmadabad. No one seemed to know whether the after-school program was still in session or not, since Anjali happened to be back in the U.S., so I made an unannounced visit. As I stepped off the street and into the community, I was greeted with a beaming smile from a 19-year-old boy named Rahul, who happened to be standing in the path. He said that he runs the after-school program when Anjali isn’t around. He quickly rounded up fifteen kids, ranging in age from three to fifteen, and led me to their “school”: a creative construction that the community had built using only recycled materials. The walls are cylinders made from mesh wire, and filled with stones, covered by a dome-like bamboo roof. The children glowed with pride as they toured me around the building they and their families had built. Rahul pointed out a swinging gate that he had pounded from a discarded oil drum.
The children led an opening prayer song that described the interconnectedness and divinity inside us all, and then presented me with a colorful paper butterfly that said “Happy You,” before we dove into an art activity. Rahul had a natural loving presence, helping facilitate the activity, offering encouragement, and giving instructions. The kids were all present because they wanted to be there, working and smiling together in groups of mixed age and genders. After we finished the art project, and the sun began to set, we gathered outside to play a few games. Several mothers watched the activities with curiosity, as they gathered flat cakes of cow dung that had been placed to dry behind the school–fuel for cooking the evening meal. When I thanked the kids for two wonderful days with them, Rahul smiled and said “No sorry, no thank you,” gesturing to his heart.
It brought to mind the story that I had read about Jayesh’s decision to come back to India and work with his father. Ishwar had told him to “Put your hand on your heart and ask if you can feel the love in the work that you’re doing. If you don’t feel the love, then you’re not going to feel joy in your life. So be connected to the heart centeredness of your work.”
-Site visited by Christian Casillas | December 2012-January 2013
 Translated text from one of the all-religion prayers: Speak the truth, practice non-violence of thoughts, speech, actions, do not steal, do not accumulate more than you need. Control all your senses, perform efforts on your own, do not believe in untouchabilty, all are equal. Do not have fear of anything, use things made in your own country, sacrifice tastes, all religions are equal. Practice these principals, bow down with respect and practice these things in your life.