Challenges to Learning from the Swadhyaya Movement
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Printed in Vital Connections (Edited by R K Srivastava. Inside-Outside
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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