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Challenges to Learning from the Swadhyaya Movement

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Printed in Vital Connections (Edited by R K Srivastava. Inside-Outside Corporation, 1997)



Evaluation and praise for the Swadhyaya Movement have been presented most effectively in other papers and documents. It suffices to say that any movement that successfully involves large numbers of impoverished villagers in the Third World, empowering them to improve their own quality of life, merits careful attention. This is even more true when such a movement refuses any external, official or foreign resources. The question is whether lessons of relevance to other cultures may be learnt from such initiatives -- and how.

Although primarily based on the western coast of India, the movement defies simplistic definition. As expressed by one sympathetic scholar, Shri R K Srivastava of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (New Delhi): '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.' (1986)

Building on qualities long articulated within the Hindu spiritual tradition, emphasis is placed on the quality of relationship between people, especially within the context of the most impoverished villages. This has led to a remarkable, and growing, capacity to regenerate village life. Refusing any economic assistance from either Indian government or foreign sources, unusual achievements have been made in thousands of villages, even in such physical terms as replenishing wells and managing farms. The exceptional quality of the initiative has been confirmed by the former Iranian representative to UNESCO, Majid Rahnema (1990?)

The following paragraphs therefore focus on the questions raised by this initiative and how those from other cultures may respond to the challenges to learning from it. Westerners usually expect others to learn from them and tend to be insensitive to the problems those in other cultures experience in the process. The case of the Swadhyaya Movement highlights some of these cross-cultural learning problems as they might by experienced by westerners.

Challenge to learning

Movements tend to have founders. Whether a single individual or a group, the role of leadership tends to be a key factor. It is through that role that a new cognitive frame is explicated and rendered credible so that people can act through and out of it in fruitful ways. But beyond the intellectual skills of explanation are those other qualities which inspire and touch people. Ultimately it is these which are the catalyst of any action and the guarantor of continuity through difficult times, especially at the beginning.

Such generalities are as true in the West as in the East. And in both hemispheres the charismatic qualities of leadership play a key role. The personality of a leader is important. Whether in the political, religious, scientific, artistic or military spheres, the image of the leader acquires special significance. In the West, political campaigns are built around such images. They are a major focus for religious activity. The 'psy-op' specialists in military campaigns mobilize popular support through image-building around a key general or other figure -- often in opposition to some suitably demonized opponent. In the artistic and cultural spheres, advertising centres on media personalities, whether popular or high-brow. This has also been true of civil rights campaigns and is evident in the successful strategy of the Right Livelihood Award.

The challenge is to understand the implications of such leadership dependence for replicability of successful social initiatives, especially from one cultural context to another. For leadership of a grassroots movement to be successful, it must necessarily be embedded in the local cultural tradition. It is precisely this embedding which is a challenge to comprehension and replicability elsewhere. Beyond appreciation of the exotic, leaders from other cultures are not necessarily credible as leaders outside their context -- however much they may be appreciated for their integrity, power, accomplishments or human qualities.

But if leadership is in some respects vital to the success of social movements, then it is important to understand the constraints on the wider growth of such movements in the light of cultural constraints and boundaries. Are the learnings of a successful social movement in one context transferrable, or applicable, to another cultural context? And if so, to what degree? And what should carefully be filtered out of any transfer process?

The point could not be more sharply made than by the electoral reverses in 1995 to what is now termed in Eastern Europe as the 'so-called democratic reform movement'. Democracy, advocated by western experts and enthusiasts as of self-evident value, and a prime condition of assistance, has not been experienced by a significant proportion of the population as justifying the pain of social disruption, violent criminality, impoverishment and loss of social security. Who made the assumptions on which such misjudgements were made?

Social movements as communities of discourse

The Swadhyaya Movement is an example of a community of discourse. It was the discourse engendered by the founder, notably amongst an initial group of 19, that set the pattern for future development. A remarkable key factor was the encouragement given to participants to wander the villages, as a form of pilgrimage, purely to enter into dialogue with villagers. This remains a key activity of the movement, with sophisticated townspeople devoting part of their spare time to visiting the humblest villages on foot and simply entering into dialogue with people in an informal way over an extended period of time -- possibly years. In no way is it a question of giving speeches and responding to queries.

In contrast to western perception of missionary activity, such as the courageous door-to-door initiatives of the Mormons or the Jehovah's witnesses, the emphasis in this Indian movement is not to impose a particular belief system. Rather the purpose is to evoke a bond and to involve others from the village in the pattern of discourse. Essentially the discourse is 'non-directive', although clearly it is difficult to grasp what this might mean across cultures, especially in the case of cultures which are already non-directive in western eyes.

But although non-directive in many respects, the dialogue is clearly intentional in the case of the Swadhyaya Movement. Beyond evoking bonds, whether with visitors or between villagers, a concern is with how the villagers might better help themselves with their own resources in response to the challenges and problems of their daily lives -- in the absence of any external assistance. Such assistance is in most cases unavailable anyway or, if this is not the case, is subject to suspect, or unwelcome, conditions and constraints.

The challenge for the visitors is to find ways of evoking a reframing of the ways in which the villagers see themselves and their constraints and opportunities. This cannot simply be a cognitive game. It must build on the culture and belief system -- in this case of Hindu rural India. Patterns of meaning have to be evoked, and have to be reinforced, in order to acquire legitimacy. Clearly story-telling can be a major vehicle of exchange and has always been viewed as such. In that context, many such stories are derived from myths, legends and spiritual tales. In India, the spiritual dimension is of major significance, even in the most impoverished environments, if not especially in such environments -- whether or not it is to be labelled by outsiders as pure superstition.

The challenge for the visitors is to encourage the villagers to develop a language that sustains any village initiative to refocus community energies.

The challenge of language

Internationally, professional groups are increasingly perceived as communities of discourse. This is also true of religions, as it is true of the financial, business, military and diplomatic communities. It is readily understood that in each case people 'speak the same language'. Much does not need to be said.

Encounters between such communities of discourse, however, are as fraught with misunderstanding as those between speakers of Japanese and Gaelic. In addition, within any given community of discourse there tend to a multitude of variants. 'Accent' is as important as in any class-oriented society. One group of psychotherapists disdains to speak with another. The hard sciences disdain the efforts of the softer sciences. The lack of meaningful communication between religious faiths is currently at the root of some 40 regional conflicts.

Nevertheless the development of language is considered of such vital importance that one director of an MBA programme saw its role as teaching students a new language. In the most radical corporate training programmes, efforts to do this (notably in Japan) are designed to have a greater impact on a person's personality and sense of identity than at a military training camp.

The Division of Organizational Behaviour of the Weatherhead School of Management (Case Western University, Cleveland) has undertaken a programme to explore the deliberate use of special language by intentional groups with international development programmes (notably the Institute of Cultural Affairs and the Hunger Project).

Much more controversial is the use of language by what are casually labelled as 'sects'. Much publicity is given to the ways in which unsuspecting teenagers and young adults are 'programmed' through their participation in such groups. Warnings are given concerning the manipulative skills of unscrupulous 'gurus' supported by an unusual degree of peer-group pressure -- even leading to suicide pacts (eg Ordre du Temple Solaire) or mass poisoning (eg Aum). No effort is made however to compare or distinguish such processes from those that occur in other communities of discourse, including: state-sanctioned 'death squads'; the tragic strategic stupidities of World War I trench warfare; or the questionable heroism of the 'Charge of the Light Brigade'. Nor is any effort made to distinguish such 'sects' from those viewed complacently by the establishment (eg the Freemasons, Opus Dei, or student fraternities with their dubious initiation procedures). The inflammatory logic of religious fundamentalists is also excluded from such comparisons, even when it leads to: assassination, as in the case of Jewish fundamentalists (eg Rabin); death threats, as in the case of Muslim fatwas against writers and intellectuals; or the execution of pro-choice doctors by Christian fundamentalists.

The key questions are: what innovation in language and reframing is appropriate to social change; how are abuses to be identified; and when are they to be seen as counter-productive?

The efforts in the West in favour of 'political correctness' in language, as an essential foundation for social change, have both valuable and ridiculous dimensions. Only history will have the perspective to determine in what ways they are counter-productive -- and meaningless to cultures which do not make, or attach equivalent importance to, the labelling criticized.

A special challenge of communities of discourse, and especially those that isolate themselves by their particular use of language, is the tendency to be somewhatindulgent in consuming their communication products. The use of video recording has enabled communities to build up community memory in ways that were impossible in the past. Repeated showings of such recordings usefully reinforces a sense of community. The question is at what point this becomes an indulgence and counter-productive.

The leadership challenge

For a westerner constantly exposed to the politics of manipulative leadership, and to the rhetoric concerning the merits of the democratic process as a check against its defects, leadership itself is naturally a challenge. Whilst new leaders may be hailed and welcomed, like Bill Clinton, their qualities are constantly subject to microscopic examination and challenge. It is accepted that, as part of the natural course of events, many former adherents will sooner or later lose their enthusiasm. Few western countries have a leadership of enduring popularity. Authority figures are quickly viewed with cynicism, however much they may have been favoured in the past. Folk heroes, notably in sport and popular music, flourish only because they are not tested by the realities to which other authority figures are constantly expected to respond.

And yet the media in the west is entirely dependent on the focus on leaders and authority figures, however temporary. The reality of the moment is articulated in relation to such personalities and cult figures as reference points. In many countries, portraits of the key national leader, whether president or monarch, are widely displayed in public buildings. (It is characteristic that the most common recent focus of worldwide attention, quantitatively at least, has been the drama of the private lives of the British monarchy.) Media 'talk show' hosts, as trusted figures, articulate and orient popular dialogue with increasingly devastating power, far exceeding that of many politicians. Product advertising is most successful through endorsement by popular figures. Elites are extremely sensitive to the key figures in their particular milieux, whether in terms of attending social events and conferences, or approving fashions, theories, values or programmes. Such 'elites' also exist among alternative development movements which also cultivate their heroes and role models.

All this suggests that it may be totally simplistic for westerners to question the way in which charismatic, powerful or articulate personalities continue to influence their lives and their lifestyles. Care therefore needs to be taken in endeavouring to understand the role and behaviour required of leaders of any popular social movement -- especially in other cultures deprived of the luxury of what is considered normal western media coverage.

In this period of multiple social challenges and crises, it is therefore useful to ask the hypothetical question of westerners: 'What kind of leadership would be necessary and acceptable in a social movement responding effectively to the conditions of the marginalized, the unemployed, and those falling through the social safety nets?' For it is clear that that which is provided by conventional political systems, including the European Union and the United Nations, has proved abysmally inadequate to the challenge. It has certainly failed to inspire all but those who are ill-prepared for the realities of the deception which tends to follow from any belief in the promises made.

The spiritual challenge

Development as propounded by economists, and embodied in development programmes by intergovernmental agencies, has never had any spiritual dimension. Such development deals with objective economic and, occasionally, social conditions. The cultural dimensions of development have only been accepted very late in the process -- and with the greatest reluctance. The track record of development programmes as a whole has verged on the disastrous. Much effort has recently gone into retro-fitting structural adjustment programmes with 'a human face'. It is now being recognized how much environmental damage has been caused by development.

Recent decades have increasingly highlighted the degree to which, even in 'developed' countries, society has become alienating. Stress and marginalization are increasingly evident. Violence is rapidly increasing with its consequence for personal insecurity. The drama of family and community breakdown is widely discussed, especially in relation to the young. Religions have proved largely impotent in response to these conditions.

Under such circumstances, in the impoverishment of Indian villages, how is it possible that a social movement recognizing a spiritual dimension should 'take'? Were it merely a question of religious celebration, as is so often the case in the West, this would not be a cause for comment -- merely another case of religion as an opium for the people. Like it or not, the challenge to understanding lies in the fact that the spiritual dimension emerges within the Swadhyaya Movement as a key factor in reframing the relation between people such as to catalyse community renewal.

The joy and sincerity of such relationships can easily be romanticized in western eyes, inured as they are to the calculating falsity of many social relationships in the West. But can a useful comparison be made with the sense of community cultivated by many church groups in the West -- especially those known as charismatic? There too, surely, there is a shared joy and a special bonding? Is this not an important dimension of the Christian Coalition in the USA, just as it is important to certain Catholic groups, and religious communities? And also in certain sects, of course.

What exactly is it that gets sustained and enhanced in such settings and how can it become basic to community self-renewal? There are clearly many answers to this question, as well as many attempts to impose particular answers, notably those based on spiritual dogma and sacred literature. It is difficult to filter out the appropriate from the inappropriate. But the question then is surely 'appropriate to whom' and who is it that has the wisdom -- and the right -- to do the filtering? Development economists? Just as people are drawn to different religions and spiritual experiences -- if they are drawn at all -- so surely they may be expected to have different criteria by which to judge the bonding they find meaningful and fruitful.

At this point of social crisis, would it not be appropriate to say that if it works for a given community -- according to their own assessment -- then that is to be welcomed? The tragedy is that there is little understanding of how the varieties ofspiritual experience can prove meaningful, and under what conditions. The difficulty is that religions have such a heavy investment in inculcating dogma, that actual spiritual experience is ignored -- if not deliberately treated as illusory.

The challenge for a westerner exposed to the spiritual context of the Swadhyaya Movement is the directness of the spiritual acknowledgement, apparently uncluttered with dogma and non-experiential referents. It is one thing to treat the spiritual dimension of an individual as an article of dogma, it is quite another to greet people through their spirituality, recognizing the godhead in them as a mirror of the godhead in oneself. Of course this can evoke unending internal dialogue with oneself concerning the nature and degree of illusion associated with this process -- and whether it is really distinct from equivalents in western settings. It may indeed be the case that it is the exotic which catalyses a sense of freshness, spontaneity and sincerity, where otherwise only cliche and patterned behaviour would be perceptible. For intellectuals there may also be advantages in being unable to understand the language -- a Catholic argument for the traditional service in Latin! It is then the directness of the experience which is the focus of attention.

There are few answers to questions concerning the role of spirituality in sustainable development. But there are many unanswered questions. These have tended to be ignored or dismissed as irrelevant, notably by those whose incompetence in designing sustainable development programmes has only been matched by their arrogance and complacency. The Swadhyaya Movement has broken new ground in this respect and deserves attention.

The challenge of deference

In the liberated societies of the West, authorities of any kind are now subject to constant scrutiny and challenge. Courtesy and respect are usually merely cosmetic -- adopted for the occasion, especially to ensure one's personal advancement. Employees are instructed in codes of courtesy in order to improve customer relations. It is overt behaviour which counts, not the degree of sincerity governing it. The elderly are seen as close to the scrap heap and are avoided to the extent possible. The deference originally shown by men to women is falling victim to programmes of political correctness.

In many eastern cultures, the pattern is quite different. Deference, notably towards the elderly, is a major feature of social relationships. This is extended to those acknowledged as religious elders, and especially to spiritual authorities and gurus. How strange to see company directors, magistrates and other professionals literally on their knees before a guru. What purpose is served? Who is kidding whom? What can be said of a context in which people scurry to satisfy the smallest whim of the leader?

But these patterns have not been lost in the West. Anyone exposed to behaviour around key figures in government can attest to the cultivation of this mode by people interested in keeping their jobs (if not their lives) and advancing their careers. It is said that the reason Stalin was applauded at such great length on any formal occasion was the mortal risk to those who first curtailed their enthusiasm. Suchactivity is not confined to the entourage of dictatorships, it is evident in most developed countries -- and it is replicated in many major corporations, as well as in the academic environments of the most advanced countries. The attitude of social and other elites to bearers of awards, orders of merit, and decorations, merits reflection in this context.

Such behaviour has also been evident in the attitude to religious figures in the West, notably in relation to the Catholic hierarchy. It is only very recently, and against tremendous resistance, that the sexual scandals associated with the Catholic priesthood have started to emerge in a number of countries. The point to be made is that deference on the part of the guileless is easily abused. Investigations in the UK have recently demonstrated the abuses perpetrated by unscrupulous Muslim pirs on defenceless women who are brought to them for spiritual guidance and do not dare to protest. The Indians themselves have great tolerance of those who claim to be gurus and of those who choose to show deference to this or that guru. For, ultimately, from whom are there not important spiritual lessons to learn?

It is clear however that deference can be abused. Vigilance is required. But it is also clear that there are circumstances under which deference is appropriate. Inability to show deference is itself a weakness.

Again the question to westerners: 'What kind or degree of deference might be appropriate to the acknowledged leader of a social movement?' Elements of the answer are to be found in the fulsome phrases offered when introducing a key speaker at any international conference on social change. The organizer needs to engage in this process to justify the presence of the speaker and to establish the value of the event. The audience needs the fulsome presentation to justify its attention and to evoke an ability to learn. Such focused deference may constitute a vital keystone to the social integration of the movement

Is it appropriate to begrudge the impoverished the behavioral expressions that they favour in response to a leader of a movement responding to their needs? Is enough known about the transference processes that occur under such circumstances and their role in enabling social transformation?

But questions may also be usefully asked as to the need of the speaker for such deference and praise. However, ultimately these are problems for the leader. After all, the art of being a leader may lie in knowing how to act as the focus of collective attention. Whether the leader is attached to the process of praise and adulation, or detached from it, may be of little consequence for the achievements of the movement. Dependence on such deference, if any, may be more a challenge for the leaders's own development.

Clearly, from the perspective of other cultures however, as required behaviour such deference may be experienced as problematic. It is perhaps the case that deference emerges, and is expressed, in different ways in different cultures -- perhaps more overtly, or less overtly. It may also be expressed differently in different historical periods. For example the importance of courtly love has been extensively studied as a factor in the social transformation of the early Middle Ages in Europe.

The Swadhyaya Movement is highly unusual in India in that it results in mixing of castes in ways that are normally totally unacceptable -- and even forbidden under conventional Hindu practice, as being a source of spiritual impurity. This cuts through a conventional western view of deference as being associated with hierarchy of some kind. At its simplest and most spontaneous, there is a charm to deference voluntarily chosen as a mode of behaviour. As such it may be seen as performing important functions in facilitating relationships which might otherwise be difficult. And why should courtesy, expressed in that form, not have a key role in social transformation? Have those associating social transformation with radical interpersonal frankness been that successful?

The challenge of continuity

The challenge for the leadership of a social movement is to ensure its long-term continuity, beyond the life of the founder and of those directly influenced by him or her. Among western psychotherapists, for example, the deference and awe still accorded to those who knew Jung (or Freud), or were students of students of Jung (or Freud), raises questions concerning the nature of the movement that they inspired.

In the case of the Swadhyaya Movement, the visible achievements are at the village level and in the villagers themselves. The challenge lies in the nature of any dependence on leadership at other levels and the ability of the leadership to avoid sclerosis. When intractable differences can be referred to a distant leadership, whose wisdom and judgement is not questioned by either party, then the social movement is not endangered. But when the leadership becomes bureaucratized, after the charismatic period of growth, then the movement is faced with the challenges of many conventional organizations. It is then in danger of losing its spirit, shifting from spontaneity to form.

The Swadhyaya Movement is still young and has not yet been faced with this challenge. But it is possible that, even if any central group is unable to perform a role in conflict resolution, that the spirit of the movement can continue to operate at the village level.

But again, given the fads and fashions which have governed western thinking on improving corporate life over recent decades, any movement which can maintain its integrity over decades is already performing better than might otherwise be expected. New impulses may emerge to redefine the movement. Perhaps the challenge to learning is to determine to what extent the existing phase of the life of a movement is open to new influences, rather than dependent on the image the movement has built up of itself and its undoubted successes.


Yehzkel Dror. The Capacity to Govern: a report to the Club of Rome. Routledge, 2001

Anthony Judge:

Majid Rahnema. Swadhyaya: the unknown, the peaceful, the silent yet singing revolution in India. Theouie, France. 1990?

R. K. Srivastava. Swadhyaya Movement: its meaning and message (Paper presented to the a seminar of the United Nations University, Rome, 1986). Delhi, Centre for the Study of Developping Societies.

D. S. Talwalkar, Swadhyaya's Approach to Empowerment: two case studies (Paper for Conference on Hunger and Poverty, Brussels, 1995)

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