One early morning Rishi Bhardwaj saw that Rishi Durwasa had camped on the other side of river Ganga. Rishi Bhardwaj, who had 100 sons called his wife and said “Look, the great sage Durwasa has camped across the Ganga. From now on you must cook for him too and bring him food”. His wife with a puzzled look replied “I can prepare the food, but how am I to cross the swollen Ganga and take the food to rishi”. To this, Bhardwaj suggests “You tell Ganga maiya, that you have come with the permission of a Sada-Brahmachari and you wish to cross”. The wife, after preparing the meal, goes to the bank of the river and repeats the words of Bhardwaj. The river makes a narrow path for her to cross over. Reaching the other side, she greets rishi Durwasa and offers him food. The rishi, eats to his satisfaction and thanks the lady. The woman poses the same question to rishi Durwasa on how to cross back the river. Durwasa suggests “Tell Ganga maiya that you have come with the permission of Sada-Upavaasi and you wish to cross the river”. The lady repeats the same in front of Ganga, and a narrow path is made for her to cross over.
This story of the Puranas was first told to me by Shri Ravindra Sharma (Guru ji). He was narrating it as if he himself was present at the scene. It seemed as if the characters are his friends. This style of narration was new to me. I had not until then seen this seamless stitching of speaking and singing. Sometimes it felt as if he is actually singing the story and not merely stating it.
Guru ji as he is fondly called from his wrestling days, while narrating this pauranic katha concludes “Bhardwaj who has 100 sons is calling himself sada Bhramhachari (one who has practiced celibacy all his life) and Durwasa who has had a full meal is calling himself a sada upavasi (one who has been on eternal fast). Nirlipta is such a virtue where one engages with the world, yet is in no way attached to it. To engage without attachment is being Nirlipt. Rishi Bhardwaj lived like a Brahmachari though he fathered 100 sons, and similarly Durwasa was fresh like a Upavasi even after a fulfilling meal. This is not hypocrisy. The story is not about lying. The story is about a distinction between being vairagya (renunciation from the world) and being nirlipt”.
Guru ji would narrate many mythological stories in similar manner. These stories would no longer remain mythical but became real and relevant. Perhaps the traditional way is such, where Truth is revealed through myths!
I met Ravindra Sharma ji for the first time in 2009, while visiting Kala Ashram. We were a bunch of Humanities students. Our professor, Navjyoti Singh ji was keen that we all visit Kala Ashram and meet Guru ji. Looking back, I can now imagine the reasons for his keenness. He perhaps wanted to challenge our way of looking. He perhaps wanted to shake the way we listen, contemplate and reflect. He perhaps wanted to give a glimpse of a teacher, whose style is so unfamiliar to our colonially urbanized mind. I decided then to come back and stay with Guru ji for few months. I was keen to be with a teacher of such kind.
I asked him once, how and when did he think of doing this work (I was not even sure what exactly is the nature of his work- was he a social reformer, was he an artist or was he simply a story teller). To this he narrated another story.
Once many many years ago, all the rishis realized that pralay is inevitable. And so, before the dooms day arrives it is important to gather seeds of everything. The rishis went around and carefully gathered all the seeds. Pralay came, and the whole Earth got submerged. The rishis along with the seeds survived on a boat. After many years when the water receded, the rishis recreated a new world with the help of the seeds saved.
Guru ji went on to say “I also one day realized that a pralay is round the corner. This time itis in the form of modern science and modern civilization. Everything will be swept away in this wave. And so I decided to collect seeds of our past, our samaaj, our ways of living before all of it becomes extinct. And that is just what I do.
My friends ask me who is Guru ji and what does he do. I find this story appropriate to describe his effort. He is a seed collector.
Environmentalist, Dr. Vandana Shiva, who calls herself an eco-feminist, once during a talk called seed as the modern day charkha. According to her, the seed has the potential to upturn the apple cart of modern agriculture. Farmers’ sovereignty lies in control over seeds. Guru ji’s work in this light gains enormous importance. His seed collection is of civilizational order.
Kanwarjit Nagi, an architect by profession and a close friend, once asked Guru ji of which seed he considers most important, the one seed which is probably most essential. Aesthetic sense or in his words saundarya drishti is that seed. We seem to have lost a sense of what is beautiful and what is not. Saundarya drishti demonstrates our sense of self belief. Saudarya drishti is what makes a family achieve prosperity. Saundarya drishti is what turns a crowd into a samaaj.
Since then I am grappling with this seed. I for one has lost all aesthetic sense. What looks beautiful to me is often colored by ideology, emotions, utilitarian value etc. I have observed Guru ji, sometimes from a distance and sometimes very closely. There seems to be a laya (rhythm) in almost all aspects of his life. He would often describe how laya was incorporated in living by people of all professions. He would describe how utility and aesthetics were inter-twined in a grameen life.
His image of a village is in sharp contrast to the ‘Mother India’ image of the village, we urban youth have grown up with- a cursed, desolate and exploitative place. Such beautiful is Guru ji’s description and imagination of a village, that a gentleman once called it a parikatha (a fairly tale). To us it looks like that, but to him it was a lived reality. His elders, would attest that. Renowned Telugu literary figure Late Shri Sadashiv Rao ji, would quietly nod when listening to Guru ji. For him Guru ji’s description was nostalgic, and not a fairytale.
Description of gram arth vyvastha; definition of a village
One day Navjyoti ji said, there is no imagination of village life in the future of India. In all the plannings for future, the image is of a more urbanized India- better roads, taller buildings, electricity for all, percolation of electronic technology, high bandwidth, faster cars, factory schools etc. There is no imagination of rural life. There is no imagination of ‘rurality’- a term he coined. At first I thought rurality is an actual word, just like urbanity. I now wonder why not. There needs to be an image of rurality.
When I posed this to Guru ji later, he said, it is important to have a definition of a village. The image of a village life can be built on that. A village is commonly called Gram. The word comes from the sankrit root gru, from which also comes the word gruha- meaning a home. A gram is like a home. It has the same unity as of a family. In north India, another word popularly used is Dehaat, which comes from the word deh meaning body. Dehaat has the same unity as that of a body. A village is therefore to be seen as a home or as one body.
Guru ji then went on to describe two fundamental requirements for an entity to be called a village- a place where there is aahar ki suraksha and kaam ka gaurav for all its inhabitants. Aahar ki suraksha when explained by him can be understood as secured livelihood, and kaam ka gaurav would indicate to respect given to means of livelihood. Thus a village is an entity which provides a secured and respectful livelihood to all its inhabitants. These two requirements would form the base on which a village can have unity of a home.
In Guru ji’s description of village life, one gets a glimpse of this. Guru ji would describe how the Kumhaars (potters) would divide the rest of the village amongst themselves into market territories. Say, if there are four potter families residing in a village, they divide the rest of the village in four market territories, with an estimation of near equal earnings from each. This division is not eternal but usually for a period- one season or one year. This division is a prerogative of the four families. After the end of the year, the territories are again shuffled or rotated amongst them. Once the division is made, no potter can encroach other potter’s territory. All the pot related requirements of that particular territory would be met by the particular family, and in return all the remuneration would be theirs. This Guru ji calls as bandha hua bazaar or fixed market. In addition to this there is also a Khula bazaar or open market. These are usually the occasions of mela (village fair), haats, yatras etc. On these special occassions anyone was free to transact with anyone. While the bandha hua bazaar provides a secured livelihood, the khula bazaar provides the opportunity for extra earning. Such segregation of market territories and their timely rotation was done by community of every jaati.
Inside a bandha bazaar arrangement, the relation of the service provider with the families in that market territory is that of kaam wala and jajman. Jajman means on whose behalf a yagya is done. All work is a Yagya, and is done on behalf of a Jajman (and not for oneself). A weaver in Chirala (Andhrapradesh) once told Gandhi ji, that the best of the produce is for the other. If one starts consuming the best of one’s effort, it is the beginning of death of the profession.
The production/service is customized for each Jajman family according to their needs and tradition. A potter would not provide uniform pots, but pot production would be customized for each family (a Lohar would need long and flat earthen pots for his long tools, a charmkaar’s needs would be for immersing skin of dead animals, a purohit would need it for performing pooja etc). For the potter, they are all his Jajmans. The quantity of pots required, the design of the pots, occasions of delivery would be different for different Jajman family.
Just as the service provided to the Jajman is highly customized, so it the remuneration. There existed multiple forms of remuneration through multiple currencies. A majority of the service provided would be in the form of debt, as the remuneration would not be immediate. Usually the remuneration waits for the end of the season, when the grains are harvested in the fields. All the Kaam walas would be present in the field at the time of harvest. The harvested crop would first be distributed amongst the kaam walas. Everybody’s share would be pre negotiated. Once all the Kaamwalas have taken their share, the remainder of the harvest is that of the farmer’s family. This is an instance, when the farming family is playing the role of kaamwala, while the Jajmans are the various artisanal families of the village. In other words, just like the artisans, even the farmer does not grow for himself, but on behalf of others. The role of Jajman-kaamwala keeps reversing. No one is only a Jajman and no one is only a kaamwala. Each one is Jajman to many and Kaamwala to many.
Remunerations are usually through multiple currencies, and not only one. Dhan (money) is only one kind of remuneration. In addition to it, dhaanya (grains), cloth, cattle, goats, knowledge and return service (or product) are other forms of remunerating. One can remunerate through what he produces or does. There is a time deferment in remuneration. A service provided is not immediately remunerated, but is deferred for some time. This deferment can be for a season, or an appropriate moment in future. This time deferred remuneration, forms the bonding amongst village families. Each one is indebted to each one, and therefore there is a strong feeling of krutagyata for each other. Unlike in the modern economic system, where every need is seem to be met by the supermarket and there is no visibility between the producer and consumer, in a village market, there exists a strong bonding between the two.
Some of the remunerations are private, while some are public in nature. There is a protocol associated with each remuneration. Public remunerations are to publically acknowledge the need and role of each profession (jaati) in the village. Each Jaati has 12 such occasions, called barah maan. From purohit to chandaal (morgue keeper), all enjoy barah maan. Festivals in the village, are occasions of public acknowledgement. Each festival involves greater and greater participation of various jaatis. In one of my witnessing of Pola (festival of bull), I counted presence of 18 jaatis, each one being acknowledged. Festivals when seen in this light, can now be better understood.
This multiplicity of remuneration, in form of debts, is an extremely complex process, but nevertheless was handled with ease in a village. As an outsider, one is usually tempted to see if the exchanges have been equal or not. And in order to co-measure, one usually tries to place each form of exchange, on some uniform scale. I believe this is exactly where one crosses the line from rurality to urbanity. This is where death of diversity begins. This is where commoditization starts.
It’s a Samaaj and Not a Community
A village should not be seen as a community. The central concern in a commune is equality. And an over emphasis on it, leads to uniformity. A village is a samaaj, where unequal rise together. People can live together and rise together while being unequal. Or in other words, equality is seen in rising together. The rise is towards, as Guru ji would put it, an adhyatmik jeevan (a spiritual life). Equality is in terms of opportunity for everyone to move towards more and more adhyatmik way of living. Equality if to be seen, can only be seen in that realm, and not in material realm. A grameen arthvyavastha (village economy) needs to be such, which ensures a secured and respectful livelihood for all, so that each one is nishchinta (assured) towards fulfilment of their material needs. According to Guruji only when one is nishchinta, does one gets samajik. And only when one is samajik, can one get adhyatmik. The principal characteristic of samaaj is that it provides all the necessary conditions for one to move from bhautik (material) realm to adhyatmik (spiritual)realm.
Technology, the power of producing One
Technology can be crucial in functioning of samaaj. It has the potential to help a samaaj blossom one hand or to subjugate it altogether. The blossoming of samaaj is in the form of diversity, while its subjugation is in the form of uniformity and standardization. Cultures, languages, customs, beliefs, relations, education thrive in diversity.
Traditional technology played a big role in allowing a high level of customization for the Jajman. This is where Guru ji, I will say brilliantly critiques the modern technology or what he calls Karkhane wali takniki. Machine based technology (factory model) has the capacity for mass production, but its limitation is in its uniformity. Modern technology can produce one thing in millions, but it cannot produce many in ones. On the other hand, tool based technology has the capacity to produce every singular product, with a unique design. The potter’s wheel can make a unique pot for every household, the carpenter’s tools can build a unique chaukhat (entrance door) for each house, a lohar’s furnace can cast a variety of tools for each artisan, a charmkaar can manufacture chappals for every pair of feet uniquely, a darzi can stitch clothes for every individual uniquely. Guru ji would aptly put it “traditional technology has the capacity to produce One. Modern technology is viable only in mass production”.
A young photographer from Europe was on his trip to India, when he met Guru ji in Baroda (at the time Guru ji was a student in M S University). The young man was interested in exploring India, and in Guru ji he found a perfect companion (they were of similar age group). It somehow happened, that one small screw of his camera went missing, and as a result the camera became dysfunctional. So on a Sunday, they decided to explore the local market of sunars (goldsmiths) in search of a screw that would fit. A sunar looked at the camera and said though he doesn’t have a screw of that particular kind, but if they want he can make one for them. They agreed, and the sunar made that singular screw of the exact size and fit. The camera worked again. The young European was surprised. He had never seen somebody make just one of a kind. This was an instance of a technology which has the capacity to produce one and yet be viable both economically and socially. The camera was saved from being discarded. They thanked the sunar and went back home.
It will be a mistake to think that large scale manufacturing is not possible from tool based traditional technology. As Guru ji describes, he once saw a single dari (carpet) covering almost the entire playground. It was all but one sheet, and not many stitched together. Several handlooms had been cascaded together, and the weavers worked in tandem to weave the dari of that size. Another example of large scale manufacturing is that of the large canon atop Daulatabad fort. It is one of the few forts which remained inaccessible by the enemy, and the large canon has played a crucial role in its defence through innumerable wars. The canon was not fabricated in some workshop and then pulled up the high fort wall, but the artisans casted it there itself. A number of furnaces were cascaded together atop the fort and smelters worked in tandem. As Guru ji would put it, the technology was simple enough that an artisan could carry his workshop in his bag. And yet flexible enough to scale up the size of production.
Guru ji would often say “when technology is small, the samaaj has a control over it. Large scale technology has the capacity to control and mould the samaaj”. This one statement if seen carefully, is actually a critique of why Marxism failed. Large scale technology and heavy industry would not allow establishment of small communes. Politics of communes, would need to incorporate tool based technology. Large scale technology will inevitably lead to resource and power concentration. Somehow the socialist model missed this simple point.
Gandhi ji in his imagination of swarajya was sure about incorporating swadeshi. Small technology, forms an important aspect of it. Swadeshi is not about producing everything in one’s own country, as unfortunately interpreted by many. Swadeshi is about lessening the distance between the producer and the consumer. The technology empowers the producer and not disempowers it. In modern factory model of production, the producer is one cog in the wheel (the wheel being a giant machine or a system).
Coomaraswamy once said, a machine is designed to replace human effort, while a tool is designed to enhance human faculties. For an artisan, his work is not merely means to produce, but is more importantly means to grow (physically, socially, spiritually). Guru ji would often say, each artisan would mould his body as per his profession, so much so, that for each their medicine would come from their tools and raw materials. A lohar when wounded by the hammer, would pour water drops trickling down from his hot axe, while a kumhar would put a clay pack on his wound. A traditional vaidya while prescribing and preparing a medicine, would always keep in mind his patient’s profession (jaati). He is not discriminating on the basis of caste, but knows that each patient has moulded his body according to his profession.
Jaati and Vritti
A profession in itself should also be seen as a knowledge system. A kumhaar is not merely a producer of pots. A charmkaar is not merely a manufacturer of leather products. A farmer is not merely a grower of food. Each profession comes with a complete knowledge system. Kumhaars are also known to cure many diseases (probably Gandhi ji borrowed mud-pack method of treatment from them), charmakaars are experts in treating boils and other skin related problems etc. Each professional is well aware of medicinal use of the raw material they use. They are also were aware to how best to utilize the waste emanating from their production cycle (modern production systems are struggling with waste management, leading to environmental crisis).
Therefore a jaati is not merely a profession. A jaati should be seen as a knowledge system in itself, just as linguists see language. One of the mistakes of modern Indian outlook has been to translate jaati as caste. A jaati vyavastha is not merely division of labour. A village is not one big factory, where different jaatis are just playing a cog.
Traditionally there have been three categories of work, called Kaaru Vritti, Varta Vritti and Bhiksha Vritti. In the first kind, a person puts his effort on inanimate objects like wood, mud, metal to manufacture an artefact. All the artisans like kumhaar, lohar, sunar, charmkaar etc would constitute this group. Varta vritti people are those who put their effort in managing and exchanging somebody else’s labour e.g. a baniya is one who trades the output of others labour. Shepherds, grazers and other people in animal husbandry are also in this category. Their effort is to manage and exchange the output of the animal’s labour. Interestingly, even the farmers come in this category, who manage the labour of plants.
Both Kaaru Vritti and Varta Vritti people have something tangible to offer to their Jajman. And therefore their remuneration is well negotiated till a mutual agreement is reached. On the other hand, Bhiksha vritti people offer nothing tangible (which can be measured, weighed, packed, compared and co-measured). Story tellers, teachers, medicine men, singers, artists (performing as well as non-performing), dispute resolvers etc constitute this category. Since their contribution is intangible in nature, their remuneration is in the form of Bhiksha. Social activist Sandeep Pandey while addressing young computer engineerssaid that service sector should actually made service sector, where people engaged with it are supported by the society. Guru ji would say that bhiksha vritti people are our traditional sociologists, historians, linguists, doctors, gymnasts, artists, singers etc.
In modern system of governance, bhiksha has been standardized as salaries. This is probably because there is a gradual decline and disintegration of samaaj. We are slowly moving to a stage where there is individual and then there is state. In between, the samaaj is now disintegrated and the family is also heading towards the same fate. A disintegrated form of samaaj in Guru ji’s words is sanchari in nature. A sanchari samaaj is what present day society looks like, where one’s livelihood is not ensured in his family and in his village. This is probably the first time in the history of India (since the ancient times), that people on such a scale are migrating in search of a (better) livelihood. Guru ji would say, society in such a state of flux does not need music, art, stories etc. There needs to be a nishchinta about material needs, only after that a society aspires for higher needs.
Typical of his style of explaining things, Guru ji one day said, it is important that we re-look at the Mahabharata again and understand Krishna’s revolution. Krishna as a child was no less than a revolutionary. He ensured three things in his village- he liberated the water of the village from the control of an external agency, he stopped milk being drained out of the village and by the help of this little finger he established goverdhan parvat, the principle source to the village, as their primary god. This mythical story of Krishna if scrutinized and understood is extremely relevant in today’s times.
As water is turned into a commodity, the danger of ‘thirst deaths’ (in words of Sandeep Pandey) can be a grim reality in future. People have for some time being claiming that if at all there is a third world war, it will be on water. Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh in April this year said that water is a scared commodity and therefore there is an urgent need to ‘optimally price’ it. For the first time the government described farmers as ‘private irrigators’ and expressed concern towards ‘private irrigation’. The case of Plachimada in Kerala and Mehdiganj near Benaras, where the cola companies drained out underground water, resulting in steep fall in water table is not an isolated case. The motto of many activists have been a village’s sovereignty over jal, jangal, jameen (water, forest and land). In such a scenario, Krishna’s first revolution of regaining right over one’s water should be understood.
An old tribal woman once explained to Guru ji, why selling milk is considered a sin while selling ghee is not. Milk is the basic raw material which a family gets. People drink milk, they have curd, kheer, butter milk and butter. Milk is used in every possible way (milk and its products form essential part of a vegetarian diet). The last product left is ghee, which is not really needed to those who have already had the above. And so ghee is sold. Ghee is bought by families who do not have access to milk and its products (ghee compensates for it). The old lady was making a very simple economic argument. It is not wise to sell of the raw material itself. A raw material needs to be fully used in a family or a village, before being given out. This explains Krishna’s second kranti. Mining and exporting of raw ore, if looked from this view seems a gross miscalculation.
Krishna’s third kranti is about protecting and nurturing the source of livelihood. If the source is destroyed, the livelihood goes with it too. Economist E F Schumacher’s critique of industrial way of production was that they have mistook the source (capital) as income, therefore rendering it expendable. Kumarappa’s description of a Parasitic economy is exactly the same.
Who is responsible for the murder?
Guru ji’s narration is through innumerable instances and stories. Dohe of Kabir and Rahim and chaupaiya from Ramayan are probably his favourite medium of putting across a point. However, I think he saves his favourite story for the last.
One day an eagle caught hold of a crawling snake in its claws and flew in the sky. The helpless snake not knowing how to save himself started spitting poison in the air. Below on the ground a woman was walking, carrying a pot full of milk on her head. Unfortunately the pot was uncovered, and so some poison drops fell in it. The woman obviously was unaware of it. She delivered the milk to a housewife in the village nearby. The lady made a delicious kheer of the milk and served it to her husband during lunch. The husband ate the kheer and died.
Up at the doors of heaven Chitragupt stood puzzled with his bahikhata, the book where he maintains an account of everyone’s sins. He did not know in whose account he should register this sin of murder. It is after all a murder as the man has not died a natural death. It was not the eagle’s fault as it was only hunting its food. It wasn’t the snakes fault as he was desperately trying to save himself. It wasn’t the milk woman’s fault who was unaware of the poison falling in the milk. It was not the housewife’s fault and nor was it the man’s fault as they too were unaware. Chitragupt went to Yamaraja, the god of death with the dilemma. Yamaraja after giving some thought, asked Chitragupt “when the man died, people must have got assembled there. What was their concern”? Chitragupt replied “they did not seem concerned. Somebody was blaming the man’s wife, somebody blamed the milk woman, while somebody blamed the man himself”. Hearing this Yamaraja gave the verdict “put this sin in the account of all these bystanders”.
The story ends and Guru ji laughs. Then slowly he would say “our gram vyavastha has been killed and we are just bystanders to this murder. At best we blame. The sin will go into our accounts”. It was a brutal reminder to me (and probably many others like me) that mere trumpeting the past and critiquing the modernity will not do. Something more needs to be done. This story a wakeup call the one who got lost in the fairytale. This story shakes up the one who is content with critiquing the modern way of development. This story reminds one to act.
- Harsh Satya. (2012). p173-186. Smriti Jagaran Ke Harkaare: Shri Ravindra Sharma (Guruji). SIDH Publications.
- Shri. Ravindra Sharma on Indian Traditional Society. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-pMQeKe8GI
Vidyadan Foundation for Education in collaboration with Society for Integrated Development of Himalayas(SIDH) organized a seminar on Indian Perspectives of Education from 20.9.2012 to 23.9.2012 at MRA, Panchgani, Maharashtra, India.
- Shri. Ravindra Sharma on Indian Traditional Society. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kbZ0OyJVV8