Proposal for a Learning Exchange

between the Swadhyaya community (Western India)
and the Pitjantjatjara community (Central Australia)

- / -

Made on behalf of Tatvajnana Vidyapith (for the Swadhyaya community)
and Spirit of the Land Foundation (for the Pitjantjatjara community)


The Swadhyaya community has grown since the 1960s as a unique pattern of mutual engagement that has empowered some 100,000 Indian villages to develop successfully as communities and across caste barriers (including "untouchables") without financial or material assistance - counteracting conventional social problems in the process. It derives its strength and coherence from the cultural framework provided by the Hindu spiritual and cultural tradition dating back over 2,500 years to the Rg Veda. The Pitjantjatjara aboriginal community at Amata on traditional tribal lands in the Central Australian desert is faced with a classical pattern of psycho-social problems (alcoholism, petrol-sniffing, unemployment, alienation) although supported materially and socially by Australian welfare benefits. The Pitjantjatjara, numbering some 3,000, derive their spiritual and cultural strength and coherence from the Tjukurpa (Dreaming/Law) developed over 40,000 years in relation to their land. This pattern is severely endangered by the encounter with western civilization, despite a variety of well-meaning community development initiatives.

There are a significant number of interesting psycho-cultural parallels between the development situations and potentials of both communities which contrast with many conventional community development challenges. Preliminary contacts in 1998 indicate that both communities would be open to a proposed exchange of key figures. This exchange could be partially assisted by westerners known to either or both communities. To explore the wider relevance of this approach, such westerners would seek to derive and communicate insights to other challenged communities, with which they have special relationships, using communities in Scotland and Palestine as test cases. Deliverables would include videos for such wider communication purposes, and a series of reports with a view to developing further initiatives from this encounter, notably in relation to a number of other cross-linking international initiatives.

Funding is primarily required for the travel of 6 (?) Pitjantjatjara to India, and for 6 (?) Swadhyayees to Australia, plus travel of 6 (?) westerners from Europe through India (for the Swadhyaya encounter) and on to Australia (for the Pitjantjatjara encounter). [To be clarified in relation to per diem costings, etc...***] The visitors would be hosted by the Swadhyaya community in India. Additional funding is however required for ground support in the Australia desert, and for report writing. Separate funding is being sought for professional video production.


The objectives of this project are to:
  1. Explore and facilitate possibilities for community and individual learning, potentially sustained by traditional cultural frameworks, but challenged by conventional social problems (apathy, youth disaffection, substance abuse, domestic violence, social exclusion, unemployment, mental health, etc). The primary concern is development of insights into future possibilities, reinforced by personal experience designed to give people a feel for unexplored opportunities:
  2. Specifically, and avoiding any imposition of one culture on another:
    • For the Pitjantjatjara to learn from the achievements of Swadhyaya, notably in relation to the "untouchables" and the forest/tribal peoples -- above all, to give them a "feel" for possibilities that they can explain on their return, in the light of video and photo records
    • For the Swadhyaya community to learn from the challenges to the wider appreciation and replicability of their approach
    • For westerners to explore generic possibilities for sustainable community development based on values and strategies implicit in traditional cultural media (stories, songs, sayings, dances).
  3. Cultivate personal bonds between people who may be able to further developments between these, or other, communities.
  4. Consider ways in which south-south (and other) exchanges between traditional communities could be meaningfully sustained through internet rural networking programmes, notably in the light of the Asian Development Bank Book in Progress initiative and the Encyclopedia of Community Action under development by the Union of International Associations as an extension of its web-based Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential.
  5. In the light of the massive and exclusive use of voluntary work by the Swadhyaya community, consider the implications for voluntary action in western communities in which such action is currently threatened by a backlash -- whilst being advocated as an innovative solution to unemployment and the "welfare mentality".
NB: The situation of the Aborigines in Australia has become highly politicized. In respect of the Pitjantjatjara it should be emphasized that this proposal relates primarily to a cultural initiative on the part of those centered on the Amata community and the manner in which this might assist the development of the wider community of Aborigines and the process of reconciliation with other Australians. Its focus is on psycho-cultural intangibles, rather than on the extensively developed commercial opportuntities of Aboriginal culture (art and music).


Visit to India (Phase 1): Visit to Mumbai (Bombay) of 6 Pitjantjatjara. These might include the couple Lee Brady (Community Development Officer at Amata) and Leah Brady (daughter of the senior spiritual elders in the Amata area), Nganyinytja and Tjulkiwa (women spiritual elders), Stanley **?? Punch**? (representing establishment authority figures), Jonathan **?? and Sammy **??, (representing the challenged younger generation). The visit would be articulated in India by R K Srivastava (on behalf of the Swadhyaya community) assisted by Diana James (on behalf of the Pitjantjatjara). Note that whilst English is the only common language, it is only partially understood in both communities, if at all. R K Srivastava and Diana James together provide the key to the communication process, although it cannot be too strongly stressed that both communities rely strongly on non-verbal communication and personal bond formation.

The visit could last 7 days and would involve travel to a number of village communities in the western coastal regions of India, including communities of untouchables in the Ahmedabad area. The opportunity might also be taken to visit initiatives of:

  • Development Alternatives (headquartered in New Delhi, under the presidency of Ashok Khosla), relating to alternative technology and mud brick design and construction.
  • Lokayan group (New Delhi), relating to the gathering and application of traditional knowledge
  • Center for the Study of Developing Societies (Delhi), as a model of a particular kind of think-tank
  • Auroville (nr Pondicherry) as a Unesco-sanctioned model of extensive environmental rehabilitation and integration of local and foreign residents
Accompanying westerners, from Europe, might include: Allan Howard (Scotland), Nadia McLaren (UK/Australia), Tim Casswell (UK), Anthony Judge (Belgium/Australia), Subhi Zobaidi (Palestine). And from Australia Craig San Roque (in addition to Diana James). Separate funding might be sought for others including: Margarita Marino de Botero (Colombia), Marc Luyckx (EU), Christian de Laet (Canada), Therèse Gaudry (Canada), Jon Jenkins (Netherlands/USA), and Jacques de Mévius (Belgium).

Visit to Australia (Phase 2): Visit to the Pitjantjatjara tribal lands (Central Australia) by 6 Swadhyayees. These might include: Dr Rajan C Sonerao (representing an "untouchable" perspective), plus [to be defined***]. It might include Sanjay Prakash on behalf of Development Alternatives. The visit would be articulated by Diana James (on behalf of the Pitjantjatjara) assisted by R K Srivastava (on behalf of Swadhyaya community).

The visit could last 7 days and would involve travel to a number of desert locations in the tribal area (typically separated by several hundred kilometres) and around Alice Springs. Visitors would travel and camp out using the infrastructure facilities of the Pitjantjatjara owned eco-tourism company Desert Tracks (managed by Diana James). Consideration could be given to the purchase from Development Alternatives, and transportation to Amata for practical demonstration and testing, of their specially developed low-cost, manually-operated earth-brickmaking device. One day could be devoted to a meeting (at Umua ?) in which conclusions and future possibilities might be discussed.

Accompanying westerners, from Europe, might include: Allan Howard (Scotland), Nadia McLaren (UK/Australia), Tim Casswell (UK), Anthony Judge (Belgium/Australia), Subhi Zobaidi (Palestine). Separate funding might be sought for others including: Margarita Marino de Botero (Colombia), Marc Luyckx (EU), Christian de Laet (Canada), Therèse Gaudry (Canada), Jon Jenkins (USA), Jacques de Mévius (Belgium). Those based in Australia would include Diana James and Craig San Roque. Participants would need to accept the rigours of outback camping conditions.

In terms of people, it would be good if pairs of people in touch with shared areas of challenge (table later) were identified and put into contact. (Eg. Issues of water, social services, etc)


Video and photo record: These media would be used to communicate the nature of the achievements, challenges and opportunities. The potential audience would include people in both Swadhyaya communities and in the Pitjantjatjara community, both of which have access to video. (The Swadhyaya community operates a very extensive video circulation service amongst its centres, both within India and in other Indian communities elsewhere.) The video filming would also be done with a view to audiences in other challenged communities, notably the test cases of Palestine and Scotland. This initiative would be articulated by Allan Howard (in the light of his experience with a similar filming exercise, on behalf of the European Union, in Palestine and his familiarity with communities in urban and rural Scotland), in consultation with a Swadhyaya-selected counterpart in India and with Diana James (who has been involved with similar projects with respect to the Pitjantjatjara in Australia). It is proposed that filming be directed by Subhi Zobaidi with the aid of local counterparts in India and Australia.

Separate funding for this initiative would be sought from the EU-India program (in relation to India) and from the EU-Australia program (in relation to Australia). Attention would be given to the subsequent possibilities of distributing the film through educational TV, recognizing the constraints of intellectual copyright to which the Pitjantjatjara are especially sensitive.

Artistic representation: Drawings and paintings would be used to articulate the relation to the mythical dimensions to which both communities attach considerable importance. This medium is already used by both communities. The initiative would be articulated by Diana James (already actively pursuing this possibility) and Tim Casswell.

Separate funding for this initiative would be sought from the EU-India program (in relation to India) and with the EU-Australia program (in relation to Australia).

Report (General): Development of a general report on further possibilities, building on the bonds formed during the initial exchange of visits, notably in the light of other rural and distance education initiatives. This could be articulated by Anthony Judge and Nadia McLaren, in consultation with other interested participants and in the light of the following specific reports. Some of the material would be used to develop the web-based interactive Encyclopedia of Community Action currently under development by the Union of International Associations.

Report (Socio-anthropological): Development of a comparative study of the challenges and learning possibilities of the two communities, notably in the light of other communities relying for their coherence on spiritual and cultural dimensions ignored by conventional community development initiatives. This could be articulated by Diana James and R K Srivastava, in consultation with other interested participants.

Report ("University of Earth"): Development of a report on the possibility of a "University of Earth" on Pitjantjatjara lands as a significant extension (already under consideration) of their Bush College experiment at Angatja and in the light of the Swadhyaya post-graduate college (Tattvajnana Vidyapith) near Bombay, as well as of other efforts (especially in geographically remote locations) to provide an educational focus for the modern application of traditional knowledge and values (and their reconciliation with main stream initiatives), notably:

  • El Colegio Verde (Colombia) founded by Margarita Marino de Botero
  • Barefoot College (Rajasthan, India)
  • Schumacher College (UK)
  • Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (Delhi)
This could be articulated by Anthony Judge and R K Srivastava, in consultation with other interested participants. Note that a draft proposal by Diana James and Anthony Judge has already been presented to the Spirit of the Land Foundation (text: http://www.uia.org/guests/spirland/SL_unie.html; powerpoint demo: http://www.uia.org/guests/spirland/cavehill.ppt). There it was suggested that the title should suggest a range of complementary notions beyond those normally associated with a university:
      • A university about the Earth and the Land
      • A university for People of the Land
      • A university of planet Earth as a whole
      • A university made of earth
      • The Earth as a university of life and learning
      • An emerging image of a potential university
      • A framework for the diversity of present dreams
    This report could be supplemented by a preliminary report by architect Sanjay Prakash on behalf of Development Alternatives (New Delhi) in the light of his experience in the design and low-cost earth construction of non-western structures, including temples.

Report (Palestine): Development of a report on the learnings of relevance to urban and rural communities in Palestine, notably in the light of the spiritual and cultural coherence provided by Islam and the suras of the Koran. This could be articulated by Allan Howard in the light of his experience in those communities, in consultation with Subhi Zobaidi and other interested parties.

Separate funding for this initiative would be sought from the EU-Palestine program.  It is possible that UK funders would be prepared to add some money for the general project (ie cover some of the Australia related costs, probably non-travel related (filming etc)) especially if UK TV interests are involved

Report (Scotland): Development of a report on the learnings of relevance to urban and rural communities in Scotland. This report could raise interesting questions concerning the potential role of traditional culture in sustaining community development in ways neglected by conventional models. This could be articulated Allan Howard in the light of his experience in those communities, and in consultation with other interested parties. The report could be used in planning the proposed Conference on Sustainable Development as Culturally-based Development (Edinburgh, 2000) of the Centre for Human Ecology (Edinburgh).

Separate funding for this initiative would be sought from the UK Overseas Development Agency and from the British Council.

Report (Expo2000 dialogue): ****

Report (Sustaining Stories from Traditional Culture): ***

Report (Voluntary Action in a Western Context): ****

Salient features of the two communities

In order to clarify the "logic" justifying the proposed exchange, three annexes have been used to present:

  • Annex 1: Salient features of the Swadhyaya community
  • Annex 2: Salient features of the Pitjantjatjara community
  • Annex 3: Parallels between the two communities
*** ??? The Australian Aborigines and the Untouchables are briefly described and compared through the particular concrete community initiatives in which they are already involved. It is the relationship between these initiatives that this proposal seeks to enhance.

Preparatory groundwork to date

Development of links with Swadhyaya: Contacts between R K Srivastava with Anthony Judge regarding Swadhyaya within the framework of a United Nations University project on Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development in the early 1980s. On the initiative of R K Srivastava, Christian de Laet, Therese Gaudry and Anthony Judge, participated in a visit by a small group of westerners to the Swadhyaya community in 1994. The book arising from that visit (Vital Connections, edited by R K Srivastava) contains a report by Anthony Judge on Challenges to Learning from the Swadhyaya Movement. Jayashree Athavale-Talwalkar (daughter of the founder) has visited the Union of International Associations on several occasions (initially accompanied by R K Srivastava), notably during the FAO International Conference on Poverty and Hunger, when she also met Marc Luyckx. Anthony Judge visited Bombay in December 1998 to renew contacts and to discuss, with the founder Pandurang Shastri Athavale, the possibility of an exchange. Tim Casswell, who has worked in villages in at area, was also present at that meeting. Allan Howard attended a Swadhyaya meeting in Leicester in December 1998 and discussed the proposal with Jayashree Athavale-Talwalkar.

Development of links with Pitjantjatjara: Anthony Judge first made contact with Aborigines in the Amata area in October 1994 in a visit facilitated by Diana James, as a consequence of which he was encouraged by Ilyatjari (co-responsible for the Amata outreach) to produce a first report on the possibility of a "University of Earth". The Union of International Associations hosted the website of the aboriginal Spirit of the Land Foundation (created December 1997) from March 1998, on which this proposal was posted with an adaptation for the Pitjantjatara by Diana James. Lee and Leah Brady from Amata visited Brussels in October 1998 with Diana James and met with Marc Luyckx, Christian de Laet, Nadia McLaren, Allan Howard and Jacques de Mévius. Anthony Judge was invited to present the University of Earth proposal to a meeting of the Spirit of the Land Foundation in Umua in November 1998 where further exploration was agreed.

People links: (see Annex 4)

Institutional links: (see Annex 5)

Special considerations

It cannot be sufficiently stressed that both communities recognize the limitations of conventional approaches to "community development"and the abuses to which they can lead. As aural cultures, they place very high value on face-to-face personal contact in contrast to impersonal, formal contacts. It is on the resulting personal bonds (and the associated trust) that they rely for the development of sustainable initiatives.

With respect to any articulation of the problematique of the Aborigines, it should be recognized that there are traps associated with the conventions of western (and Australian) mindsets.

The situation may appear very different to Swadhyaya.  Do Swadhaya worry about their lack of commercial  activity? Does "unemployment" seem an issue for them? Swadhyaya will tend not see its involvement or that of the Aborigines in terms
of identities or identifications. It may define this involvement in terms of mutual learning and sharing experience as belonging to one  human family, rather than representing two indigenous/esoteric  traditions. That is the underlying basis of Swadhyayee
bhaktipheri--establishing selfless relationship with the other. Its consequence is creation of integrated communities.

With respect to travel arrangements, attention should be given to the different dietary patterns and how these constraints can be handled at the two locations.

Attention should also be given to arrangements relating to women versus men, since this is a concern in both cultures. This should not be ignored in a spirit of western "political correctness".

Whilst both groups are open to those of other faiths, attention should be given to typical problems relating to contact between Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

In Australia, attention should be given to the challenges relating to the rigours of outback camping (heat, flies and other animals, dust, distances, and ablution facilities).

In this preliminary report, numbers have not been fixed, nor the perspectives that could usefully be represented. Consultation is required on the numbers that can be conveniently handled in each location. There is also the concern at how best to limit the numbers of "westerner", despite their role in developing reports for further action.

In addition to being a cross-cultural initiative, care should be taken in seeking to benefit from "low-cost" opportunities of freely-given time in the case of some people, that the situation of others is not adequately taken into account. Specifically, and irrespective of goodwill, professional Swadhyayees would normally give their time freely, whereas the Aborigines would normally expect to be remunerated for their time, especially when some of the westerners are on generous salaries, and others are consultants who have to justify use of their time and the rates charged. An equitable resolution of these different perspectives is required in order to determine costs.

Other scenarios for consideration

1. Possibility of a preparatory visit of R K Srivastava to the Pitjantjatjara, of Diana James to the Swadyaya community, possibly accompanied in each case by Anthony Judge and Lee Brady. The purpose of this visit would be to clarify the challenges and opportunities and the people that could most usefully engage in the exchange. The presence of Sanjay Prakash on the the visit to Amata, would permit him to scope out some design ideas in relation to the soil and socio-cultural context in preparation for the main visit.

2. Separation of the visits, instead of having the visit Pitjantjatara come to Mumbai and return with the Swadhyaya group to Amata. This might help ideas to settle and clarify which of the Swadhyaya group could usefully go to Amata. However it would also dilute the effects of a combined visit.

3. One way visit only: Arrange a vist of an Aboriginal group to the Swadhyaya, but without any return visit. This would depend on the attitude of the Swadhyaya.

4. Omit participation of westerners and the production of the associated written deliverables in order to concentrate on the two-way exchange. This raises useful questions about the westerners role in midwifing the exchange and ensruing reporting to wider audiences.

5. Omit video production, on the argument that it would either be too intrusive or could not be edited into a product that would respond to all sensitivities. The key question is the audience and the purpose. Arguably no purpose would be served by having a video of the Aborigines, unless video effects were used to sketch our some future vision for them. It could however be useful as a means of communicating Swadhyaya initiatives to a Palestinian or Scottish audience, for example.

6. In the light of air ticketing constraints and possibilities, stopovers and extensions might be considered, notably in relation to Maori connections of Spirit of the Land Foundation.

Annex 1:Salient features of the Swadhyaya community

"Swadhyaya is neither a cult nor a sect; it is neither a party nor an association; it is neither messianic nor limited to a particular section of society; it is neither directed against centralising state power nor to overcoming flaws in Indian society, though such

consequences may follow. Swadhyaya is both a metaphor and a movement. It is a metaphor in the sense of a vision, and a movement in terms of its orientation in social and economic spheres." (R K Srivastava, 1986)

Active as a process of self-empowerment in nearly 100,000 Indian villages and urban communities, and in Indian communities around the world (Canada, Germany, Sweden, Portugal, Kenya, South Africa, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Fiji, West Indies, and 450 centres in the USA) that are primarily of Gujarti or Maharashtri origin. Estimated to have affected the lives of some 20 million people.

Totally based on voluntary activity (including the preparation, translation, and manual addressing of 300,000 copies of its monthly newsletter, preparation and circulation of videos, and other central administrative tasks).

Seeks no private or public funding or material assistance (including individual charity at the village level). Unsolicited donations are declined.

Swadhyaya is non-political and maintains a low-profile, notably in the "development community", although the initiatives of its founder Pandurang Shastri Athavale have been acknowledged internationally through the Magasaysay Award for Community Leadership (1996) and the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion (1997). With respect to the latter, it is noteworthy that some 400 Swadhyayees flew, at their own expense, from North America to London (for the presentation in Westminster Abbey by Prince Philip), and 200 from India. Typically, on receipt of the prestigious Mahatma Gandhi Prize (1988), Athavale doubled the financial award and returned it to the donors for alternative use.

Swadhyayees ignore caste barriers in social interaction - a remarkable achievement in India. Swadhyaya has notably focused on the untouchable castes and the tribal and forest peoples, integrating them successfully into its community (without hectoring them to change their lifestyle). This follows a long history of unsuccessful efforts by other bodies - experienced as exploitative and viewed with suspicion and distrust.

Activity is based on a range of original social "experiments" (many designed to generate "impersonal wealth" in the participating villages) including:

  • Bhaktipheri: Volunteers, notably the more privileged, travel repeatedly on their own initiative (some 220,000 visits per year in 1997) to villages to dialogue concerning their challenges, cultivate permanent living contacts with the villagers, and possibly integrate them into the Swadhyaya parivar (family). Proselytizing is discouraged; no effort is made to impose any pattern of activity or belief. Such visitors are expected to refuse all hospitality, other than simple shelter.
  • Yogeshwar krushi: Collective farming of a single field in a village by the villagers who each offer devotional labour, possibly one or two days per season. The benefits of the harvest are redistributed by the community according to need (not in proportion to contributed effort, as in cooperatives). In 1998 there were 3,558.
  • Matsyagandha (floating temples): A fishing community acquires a single boat which individuals take turns to crew voluntarily and whose catch is redistributed by the community according to need. (An analogous initiative is based on a community truck). In 1998 there were 75, plus one cargo vessel.
  • Vrkshamandirs (tree temples): A group of 15-20 villages purchase a common plot which is planted by voluntary labour with orchard trees whose produce is redistributed amongst the communities according to need. Villages share responsibility for the voluntary care of the orchard. In 1998 there were 18.
  • Shree darshanan (divine communes): A group of 15-20 villages combine to acquire and manage voluntarily a single farm whose produce is redistributed according to need. In 1998 there were 15.
  • Water conservation: Between 1992 and 1998, villages voluntarily recharged (Bhugarh Jal Sanchay) 99,355 abandoned wells (through replenishing the aquifers) and rebuilt  (Nirmal Neer) 554 run-off ponds in order to build up depleted groundwater and improve farm productivity.

  • Madhav-vrund (social aforestation): In the period 1994-1998, 6,219,100 trees were planted and maintained by individuals for 100 days
  • Amitralayams (community temples): Villages voluntarily construct a new kind of temple as a focus for community gathering and celebration. Hindu, Christian and Muslim worship is encouraged whenever appropriate. There were 120 in 1998.

  • Ghar-mandir (house temples): In 1998, 363 established as a system of places of worship rotating amongst houses in  impoverished villages to serve as a focus for moral and ethical behaviour.
  • Special village centres (40,000 often based on the community temples): Bal Samskar Kendra (for children); Mahila Kendra (for women); Manava Pratistha Kendra (for scheduled castes and the downtrodden), Divine Brain Trust (for educated youth); Loknath Amrutalam (120 socio-econic centres);  Dhananjay Kreeda Kendra (for sports); Patanjali Chikitsalaya (5 medical centres in remote areas).
  • Vayans Sanchalans: Training camps for swadhyayees in the 18-40 age group. 70 were held between 1981-1995, involving more than 900,000 people. In 1998, about 500 seminar/training camps per year (minimum 4 days)
  • Tattvajnana Vidyapith (postgraduate college): Established near Bombay on a 13-acres site as a residential school of philosophy in 1956. Currently catering for 200 non-fee-paying students, responsible in groups by turn for cooking and infrastructure care, during a 2-year course. Professors offer courses on a voluntary basis.
  • Vidya Prem Vardhan (Examinations): Annually some 80,000 self-study students world-wide sit for examinations on cultural and philosophical topics, notably vedic knowledge, at 7 levels.
  • Celebrations: Weekly talks in Bombay typically attract some 10,000 people - followed by an innovative pattern of social interaction. Larger celebrations have involved from 25,000 to 750,000.
Funds are administered (voluntarily) through some 17 independent charitable trusts relating to different initiatives and without any formal hierarchy. Administrative bodies include:
  • Sanskriti Vistarak Sangh (for the spread of culture) which coordinates the bhaktipheri and related programs.
  • Sat Vichar Darshan (for spreading noble thoughts) which coordinates print and video production and dissemination.
  • Jnana Vistarak Sangh (for the spread of knowledge) which manages educational and vocational initiatives.
Respect for traditional culture is encouraged, by-passing objections of orthodox factions to innovations. Its approach is primarily (but neither exclusively nor dogmatically) inspired by insights in shlokas from the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanisads - adumbrating the common divinity dwelling within every one. The founder's innovative work in this respect resulted in a historic translation (from Latin into German) of the work of Nicholas de Cusa being dedicated to him. Emphasis is placed on using personal efficiency as a devotional offering, generating "impersonal wealth". These insights are effectively used, in conjunction with the above experiments, to increase self-esteem and counteract conventional social ills (alcoholism, domestic violence, gambling, petty crime, ethnic violence, etc).

R K Srivastava (Ed). Vital Connections - Self, Society, God: perspectives on Swadhyaya. Weatherhill, 1998

Annex 2: Salient features of the Pitjantjatjara community

The Pitjantjatjara tribe is one of the many Aborginal tribes whose culture collectively dates back over some 40,000 years. Unlike many Aborginal tribes, its traditional lands lands (covering some 103,000sq kilometres, population 3,000) in Central Australia are restricted for use by the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara under Freehold Land Title. It is not open to casual visitors. The area is geographically remote and very sparsely populated, notably because of the arid, desert conditions that prevent any form of conventional agriculture or grazing without seriously damaging the ecology. Foreign domesticated animals and people find it near impossible to survive in these conditions.

The Freehoold Land Title is administered by Anangu Pitjantjatjara (based at Umuwa and  in Alice Springs). This proposal relates to the community based at Amata who have taken a number of initiatives of relevance, notably catalyzed by the small  homeland community of Angatja. These include:

  • Creation of an eco-tourism company Desert Tracks to offer educational encounters with groups of non-Aboriginal visitors on Pitjantjatjara lands.
  • Creation of a Bush College at Angatja as a focus of educational encounters between Aborigines and visitors. Consideration is currently being given to ways to expand this format into a University of Earth, whatever form this may usefully take
  • Creation of the Spirit of the Land Foundation (in December 1997) to build bridges of understanding between the indigenous and western cultures of the world, namely to help further a spirit of reconciliation between Aborigines and others, notably between western and Aboriginal ways of knowing
Decision making in the Amata area could be said to take two forms:
  • That based on the tribal elders, notably the men or women with spiritual authority. This proposal is only possible because of the approval given by the spiritual elder Nganyinytja, a woman who is a senior spiritual authority in the area, supported by her husband Ilyatjari who is  responsible for initiating new 'Dreamings' through which new initiatives can be undertaken. Both have been the prime movers in the above initiatives of which they are formally amongst the directors.
  • That based on management of the Amata Community in relation to procedures of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara  and the Pitjantjatjara Council. Lee Brady is the Community Development Officer of Amata and on the Executive of Anangu Pitjantjatjara.
The Pitjantjatjara have a unique relation to the land over which they have roamed for 40,000 years:
  • For them: "Landscape is a mytho-spiritual field which acts upon human beings from without, causing them to conform to ancient patterns and to re-enact the lives and movements of ancestral animals and other beings." (Tacey, p. 148).
  • According to James Cowan: "Kurunba or 'life-essence' is a meta-physical expression denoting the presence of a cultural layer within the landform itself that has been inspired by mythological contact with the Dreaming [Tjukurpa]. In other words the landform has become iconic in essence, fulfilling a role of containment, not only of physical attributes (shape, texture, mineral content, etc), but of meta-physical significations" (p. 26)
  • According to Tacey: "...these great stone monuments could act as mythic openings, if we would but allow ourselves to be opened by them. Whether this ancient land is sacred presence, or simply great scenery, depends almost entirely on the condition of the ego-personality that meets it. The sacredness of the centre becomes evident only when we achieve the courage to leave the psychological edge." (p. 32).
In this context, new initiatives have to be consonant with the Dreaming/Law. This sense of spiritual and cultural identity is severely endangered by western modes of thinking and the initiatives to which they give rise (property ownership, grazing, mining, etc). The Pitjantjatjara are privileged to be relatively protected (for the moment) by their land trust agreement and the authority of their spiritual elders, in comparison with other Aboriginal groups.

The Aboriginal culture and sense of coherence is sustained by traditional stories that emerge from an eternal Dreamtime through which the world is sustained. This is more than simply a belief. It is a lived reality.

  • As James Cowan expresses it: "I gained the impression that the Aborigines are a unique race because they are utterly possessed by the Dreaming." (p. 4) Telling the story appropriately is necessary to sustain the land. "Once we being to realize that a topographic story illicited from a given landscape by a tribal member is not a 'just-so' tale but a demonstration of mythic data, then we will begin to understand what is required of us if we are to attain to a symbolic mode of thought ourselves" (Cowan, p.32)
  • There are many intriguing indications that the "land is sung" by the Aborigines as a means of caring for it. At appropriate times people engage in the dreaming through story, song, dance and ceremony. The acts of totemic ancestors across the landscape are rehearsed and recreated to ensure continued fertility of the country and respect for it. Through these processes the land is enlivened. The dreaming is thus not some quaint or archaic mythology but is actually a living energy brought alive by the continuing communal consciousness of the people.

  • The stages or incidents in stories are thus represented on the landscape and associated with traditional sung poems that are intoned according to rhythmic measures. The land may therefore be read like music. Each song-poem is associated with a definite ceremonial centre and with a mythical being or group of totemic ancestors. A "song" is therefore the complete set of verses associated with the story at a succession of sites. T G H Strehlow (Songs of Central Australia) indicates that a valid English alternative would be the term "lay", defined as "a short lyric or narrative poem intended to be sung". As an old English word it bears an interesting relationship to "ley", as in "leyline", especially since the popularization of "songline" by Bruce Chatwin.

  • The storyline maps the landscape and the landscape is the story. An individual is an active partner in both map and landscape beyond western understandings of subject/object distinctions. The continent of Australia is covered with a network of such songlines -- some short and some covering great distances across the territories of many tribes. Individuals may be custodians of particular parts of a songline -- sacred sites along the songline may be the "place" and responsibility of a named individual.
This context is the basis for an extremely problematic relationship with western modes of development thinking:
  • Aborigines have a very different understanding of property and the relationship to it. As a consequence of their nomadic tradition, care of residential property tends to be casual at best. Personal property can be borrowed permanently by any relative.
  • The necessary celebration of cultural heritage is conducted through secret ceremonies by women and men separately ("men's business" and "women's business") and in large communal ceremonies. These may take priority over any conventional economic business, notably in relation to a western initiative. Typically roads in the Pitjantjatjara may be closed for weeks for such purposes.
  • The two preceding points make it difficult for an Aborigine to sustain a commercial activity according to any western model
The remoteness of the area and the severely limited economic opportunities combine, with the above points, to produce the following challenges to Pitjantjatjara culture:
  • There is very high unemployment within the Pitjantjatjara community. Those seeking employment in the distant western towns (such as Alice Springs) find few remunerative opportunities and are exposed to social exclusion. As a consequence their welfare benefits tend to be spent on substance abuse (typically alcohol), leading to a classic cycle of violence and imprisonment from which it is extremely difficult to escape, especially for the young.
  • Within the Pitjantjatjara community, if they return to it, most people are necessarily sustained by weekly welfare benefits (only the aged get pensions), and are provided with housing.  Not many people actually leave, and many of mixed decent are returning from southern cities where there is worse alcoholism and social violence. Relatives come back to 'dry out'. Although alcohol is prohibited, petrol-sniffing (and its consequences) is a major problem for the young. There is virtually nothing meaningful for them to do. It is characteristic of such communities that there is a high proportion of elders and their grand-children, compared to the absent middle generations. Elders exert a waning influence through their cultural tradition.

  • The people of the Pitjantjatjara Lands have voluntarily opted to pool their welfare entitlements which are then used to pay people involved in Community Development Employment Programmes. This has been used to good effect around Amata in tree planting and community services.
  • Because of the distances (hundreds of kilometres whether across Pitjantjatjara lands or two western towns) and unsealed roads, adult life tends to be dominated by access to a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. This may be essential to "traditional" hunting and to participation in ceremonies along songlines. Aborigines no longer walk the countryside as a romanticized understanding of their culture would have it.
  • There is significant hostility to "whites" and the society from which they are effectively excluded. Aborigines now choose to exclude whites from their lands. Some elements of the community, significantly those like the young  who feel disempowered, may chose to act out their frustrations when under the influence of drugs by attacking resident whites . This pressure causes some to leave and others to loose enthusiasm for working in such conditions.
Rural Australia has traditionally made superior use of telecommunications to link remote localities (flying doctors, distance education, etc). Standalone solar powered telephones (and toilets) are now, for example a feature of remote sites. A number of Pitjantjatjara communities, including Amata, will have access to the Internet (if they do not already have it), since the east-west cable passes through their area.

Despite the optimism and dedication of many isolated individuals, whether white or Aborigine, and the considerable development of material and social resources (compared to those available in many Third World countries) through government services, the Pitjantjatjara have good reason for concern for the future of their culture and the future of their children.

Cowan, James. Mysteries of the Dream-Time: the spiritual life of the Austramian Aborigines. Woollahra, Prism - Unity, 1989. (Chapter on Totems also published in: Resurgence, 1989, 138, pp. 30-34 )

Strehlow, T G H. Songs of Central Australia. Melbourne, Angus and Robertson, 1971

Tacey, David J. The Edge of the Sacred: transformation in Australia. HarperCollins, 1995

Annex 3: Parallels between the two communities (symmetries and asymmetries)

  "Untouchables" / Tribal Peoples 
(within the Swadhyaya community)
Pitjantjatjara community
Importance attached to "invisible" / spiritual dimension Existential reality of indwelling divinity Existential reality of active participation in omnipresent Tjukurpa (Dreaming)
Aural culture (as inspiration for development) Chanted slokas of the vedic literature
Sanskrit text
Chanted songline stories of the Tjukurpa (Dreaming)
Written in the land
Special reframing Indwelling divinity as articulated by Pandurang Shastri Athavale Christian dimension as articulated by Nganyinytja
Articulation of any failure Failure to acknowledge indwelling divinity (in others and oneself) and express it appropriately Failure to acknowledge, and be entrained by, the Dreaming (hence the special significance of substance abuse)
Non-western languages Sanskrit, Gujarati, Maharashtri
Some English education
Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara, and variants according to social role
Some English education
Identity in the community Thru voluntary activity Increasingly thru consumerism
Status and identity through positions of
authority in traditional law system, but  increasingly in new western  system.
Work attitudes Traditional work ethic (no work, no food) Work attitude disrupted by socio-economic context
High priority to traditional 'ceremonial' work
Remuneration Voluntary Traditional work (voluntary and obligatory)
Otherwise monetary
Family values Community values Extended family, kinship values
Community openness Effectively closed to other cultures
Open to special visitors
Effectively closed to other cultures
Open to special visitors
Dietary regime Essentially vegetarian Meat-based
Men vs Women Separation of men and women for certain purposes (gatherings, eating, education) Separation of men and women for certain purposes (ceremony, traditional education education)
Leadership continuity Currently: Key role played by a man (the founder, now infirm) and a woman (his daughter) Current Angatja initiatives:
Key role played by a woman (the spiritual authority) and her husband (now infirm)
Authority Earned Inherited, and increasingly challenged
Respect Earned, but natural deference to the elderly For authority and elders, but increasingly challenged
Community infrastructure development Relatively low (although possibly perceived as disproportionate) Relatively high
Sustainability Necessary local self-sufficiency Dependence on substantial external support and decision-making
Problematic aspects of govt. support and privileges Support evokes criticism by other groups and discourages community effort Support evokes criticism by other groups and discourages community effort
Disempowerment and sense of entrapment Especially among youth Especially among youth
Urban and rural variants of problematique Migration to towns and classic consequences Migration to towns and classic consequences
Problematic relationship to majority culture -- living memory of... Exclusion from schools, religious education, etc Shootings, rape, separation of children from parents, social exclusion, prohibited language
Negative image cultivated by majority culture Disparaging remarks Disparaging remarks
History of extreme hostility / resentment / violence towards majority culture Within living memory  Within living memory
Extreme politicization of relationship to majority culture Rights of scheduled castes Land rights issues
Openness Natural openness constrained by subtletites of higher levels of vedic interpretation and understanding Secretiveness determined by binding nature of ceremonial initiation into higher levels of interpretation and understanding -- "to know is to become an active part of" (publicized versions of Dreaming are "childrens stories")
Inquiry Beliefs freely questioned encouraging each to reach own conclusions Traditional beliefs primarily challenged by western perspectives
Seminal initiatives of creative role models and own projects   "Social experiments"   Notably at Angatija
Evolving skills enabling contact / learning with similar communities elsewhere Association with other communities  Travel to other communities 
Non-text information initiatives Video production initiatives CD production initiatives
Computer technology Used for accounting
In process of introducing for communication
In process of introducing for accounting and communication
Population Densely populated and numerous
Settlement culture
Sparsely populated and few
Nomadic culture
Land use Limited land
Intensive farming
Custodial relationship to extensive arid lands
Hunter / Gatherers
Water Exploitation of aquifers Exploitation of aquifers

Annex 4: Potential participants

Swadhyaya community:

Names to be determined

Pitjantjatjara community:

Names to be determined

Core group responsible for deliverables (tentative):

Casswell, Tim (UK): Cross-cultural facilitator (notably at the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro) and Parliament of the World's Religions (Chicago)). Artist. Co-founder of Creative Connections, a human relations consultancy working with community groups and companies in the UK, Belgium, Canada and Eastern Europe. Previously involved for a number of years in village-level rural development in India and Indonesia as a member of the Institute of Cultural Affairs.

Howard, Allan (UK): Responsible for developing an Encyclopedia of Community Action (at the Union of International Associations) initially focussed on a joint project with the Centre for Human Ecology (Edinburgh). Formerly community development officer for 5 years in Palestine (largely funded from Australia with the Ma'an Development Center) with a focus on permaculture. Coordinator of film projects. Former member of the Findhorn Foundation (Scotland), following service with the police force in Glasgow.

James, Diana (Australia): Anthropologist integrated for over 20 years into the family structure of the Pitjantjatjara. Manager of Desert Tracks an Aborginal-owned eco-tourism company associated with the Amata community. Co-founder of the Spirit of the Land Foundation.

Judge, Anthony (Australia/Belgium): Based in Brussels with the Union of International Associations. Responsible for the Yearbook of International Organizations and the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. Numerous papers relating to sustainable community development and related themes (https://www.laetusinpraesens.org/themes/aadocdia.php)

McLaren, Nadia (Australia/Belgium): Applied ecologists and environmental consultant (including work for the Pitjantjatjara). Editor of the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (currently under development through a project on Biodiversity Conservation in an Information Context, partially funded by INFO2000 (EU-DGXIII). Also a director of Global Action Plan for the Earth, promoting sustainable lifestyles. .

Prakash, Sanjay (India): Architect responsible for the design and construction of a number of significant earth-based buildings in India, including temples, notably the headquarters of Development Alternatives (New Delhi) housing 150 people.

Srivastava, R K (India): Member of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (New Delhi) from which he has been studying and collaborating with the Swadhyaya community since the early 1980s -- initially in connection with a program of the United Nations University on Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development. Currently with the United Nations University (Tokyo)

Zobaidi, Subhi (Palestine): Born in West Bank refugee camp. Trained in film-making in New York. Specializes in cultural disruption of the Palestinian people through the film company Refugee Productions. Producer of 12 TV films.

Possible additional collaborators in roles to be determined (tentative):

De Laet, Christian (Canada/Belgium): Environmental consultant, specializing in alternative technology. Director of Development Alternatives (Canada). President of the Canadian Association of Futures Studies. Former Secretary of the Commonwealth Science Council and of the Canadian Council of Resource Ministers. Member of the Union of International Associations.

De Mévius, Jacques (Belgium): Alternative technology projects

Gaudry, Therèse (Canada): Director of the Fondation Jules et Paul-Emile Leger. Member of the Union of International Associations.

Jenkins, Jon (USA/Netherlands): Co-founder and training consultant with Imaginal Training, currently with projects in Poland, Bulgaria, Kenya and Namibia. Former editor of Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential. Background of long-term involvement in the Institute of Cultural Affairs with community development projects in USA, Japan, Peru, India, Hong Kong and Belgium.

Khosla, Ashok (India): President-Founder of Development Alternatives (India). Member of Club of Rome. Formerly responsible for the environmental information programme of UNEP.

Luyckx, Marc (Belgium): Futurist (specializing in ethical issues and religion) associated with the Forward Studies Unit of the European Commission. Former president of the European Association Transpersonal Psychology.

Morino de Botero, Margarita (Colombia): Founder of Corporacion El Colegio Verde (Colombia). Member of Club of Rome. Member of Latin American Commission for environment and Development (UNDP/IDB). Vice-President of the International Advisory Board of Expo2000.

San Roque, Craig (Australia): Jungian psychoanalyst specializing in theatrical reframing of alcoholism as a therapeutic initiative for the Aborigines. Long-term ties with the Aborigines at Amata.

Annex 5: Institutions named in the proposal


Spirit of the Land Foundation (http://www.uia.org/guests/spirland/SL_first.html)

Bush College (Angatja) proposed development into a University of Earth (text: http://www.uia.org/guests/spirland/SL_unie.html; powerpoint demo: http://www.uia.org/guests/spirland/cavehill.ppt).

Desert Tracks (http://www.uia.org/guests/spirland/SL_dst.html)


Swadhyaya community (Mumbai)

Development Alternatives (New Delhi) (http://www.ecouncil..ac.cr/devalt/dagrp.htm)

Center for the Study of Developing Societies (Delhi)

Auroville (nr Pondicherry) (http://www.auroville-india.org/)

Lokoyan (Delhi)


Union of International Associations (Brussels) (UIA)

European Commission (Brussels)

  • EU-India programme
  • EU-Palestine programme
  • EU-Australia programme
European Cultural Foundation (http://www.pi.net/~ecsinfo/)

Convention on Biodiversity Secretariat

  • Encourages cooperation and communication between the COP of the CBD and IPF in considering protection of traditional knowledge of indigenous and local communities, and highlights conservation, sustainable use, and benefits-sharing. (E/CN.17/IPF/1996/9)
  • Workshop on traditional knowledge and biodiversity, Madrid 1997 (http://www.biodiv.org/indig/1-1adde.htm)
World Bank

Asian Development Bank
Book in Progress (http://www.adbi.org/bookinprogress/home.htm) and its site map (http://www.adbi.org/bookinprogress/site.htm)

United Nations University (Tokyo) (http://www.unu.edu/)

UNESCO (Paris)

Centre for Human Ecology (Edinburgh) (http://www.scotweb.co.uk/environment/che/chefront.htm)

Examples of alternative think tanks highlighting applications of traditional knowledge:


Diana James. Desert Tracks: Pitjantjatjara Tours. In: Susan Hawthorne and Renate Klein (Eds) Australia for Women.
Melbourne, Spinifex, 1994, pp. 330-335

Diana James and Anthony Judge. University of Earth: draft proposal [text; ppts]

Anthony Judge:

  • Dancing through Interfaces and paradoxes: group alchemy in the Empty Red Centre (description of an encounter with the Pitjantjatjara) [text]
  • Challenges to learning from the Swadhyaya movement (also printed in Vital Connections, edited by R K Srivastava) [text]

R K Srivastava (Ed). Vital Connections - Self, Society, God: perspectives on Swadhyaya. Weatherhill, 1998

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