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The Ashram and the Madrassa: A Tale of Two Schools

Religion writer Valerie Tarico is traveling with her husband and two teenage daughters during the first half of 2010. Missives from the Southern Cross are her occasional dispatches from the road.

Green-eyed indian boy during Ardh Kumbh Mela |...Image by Amre Ghiba - Le Batteur de Lune via Flickr

Quite by accident this week, I found myself at an ashram, which traditionally means a retreat or commune setting where Hindus practice yoga or other spiritual disciplines. In this case, it wasn’t a Hindu ashram, though since I didn’t even mean to be there, I had no idea what it was at the time that the taxi driver dropped my family in the dusty compound and left.

Brian, my husband, had decided that it was time for us to get off the tourist trail and see “the real India,” as he put it. He dug out some paperwork from an old peace organization, Servas, listing Indians who were willing to host international visitors for a few days in our destination city, Trivandrum. And he called a woman who said, “Yes, come.” Only somehow, along the way, it turned out that her address wasn’t in Trivandrum City but Trivandrum District (aka county), and the taxi wound its way through villages and farms and rubber plantations before passing through a pair of iron gates and depositing us by a palm thatched veranda.

While Brian and I hauled our ridiculous quantity of luggage out of the taxi and the girls rubbed their eyes in groggy silence, a small brown woman wrapped in a saffron sari, appeared at the edge of the veranda. By some stroke of fortune, we were in the presence of one of Gandhi’s last remaining disciples. She held out her hands, literally and figuratively pulling us into her embrace. Over the next three days, her story emerged.

Parivrajika Rajamma, known by those around her simply as “Amma” (mother), turned eighty five this year, but her skin is surprisingly smooth, her step sure, and her cropped salt-and-pepper hair more pepper than salt. (“Because she is on a spiritual path,” one of her four adopted sons would explain later. “Her work is not done.”) She is quick to laugh, and equally quick to scold, and there is no question that her determined coordination of the activities around her is “not done.”

Amma’s spiritual mission began when she was seven. Mahatma Gandhi was touring in Kerala. “I saw the special passage to the stage, made with white sand, and I didn’t know what that was for but I was attracted to it, so I just went down there and reached the stage, climbing the stairs. Then I saw many people standing around but one person sitting, half naked, with legs folded legs to one side and the right hand resting out to the side and the left under his chin. I had seen a picture of Lord Buddha and it reminded me of him. So I went and was looking at him. I stood in front of him, and with me standing and him sitting we must have been about the same height. He stopped speaking and was intently looking at me. Now I understand that through his eyes he must have transmitted some power to a soul that was standing before him. Perhaps he foresaw that this girl would dedicate her whole life to this mission . . . .”

It is the only place in India that I have seen tiny girls in black burkas. Amma’s voice broke when she told the story. We were sitting at a simple table on that same veranda. Above us hung a picture of Gandhi, and below that, Amma herself as a young woman in white beside a white clad man who many Indians call a “the Walking Saint,” Vinoba Bhave, who started a land reform movement known as bhoodan, in which four million acres were voluntarily donated by landowners and redistributed to the landless poor. Like Amma, Vinoba spent his life as a disciple of Gandhi, seeking to practice what Gandhi called yoga karma, meaning spiritual enlightenment through community action. His priorities included basic education, cottage industries (for economic independence), environmental stewardship, protection of cows, abstinence from alcohol, elimination of caste, elevation of women, and above all non-violence. Amma, with Vinoba, spent eight years after Gandhi’s assassination walking the country, from the Himalayas to the plains carrying this message from village to village.

Vinoba believed that peaceful global transformation could happen only when enlightened women brought the force of their spiritual resources to bear on the world. “Like Gandhiji he believed in the innate potentialities of women and he inspired them to rouse 'Stri Sakti’ (universal feminine creative power) and organized them to enlighten the menfolk toward moral renaissance.” He looked to Amma to lead this transformation, first through the creation of a monastery or mandir of celibate women devoted to these ideals, and then through the creation of VinobaNiketan to do the practical work of empowering social change in poor rural communities.

Since its inception in 1955, VinobaNiketan has survived on hope and hard work and modest grants from the government, NGO’s, and foreigners like us who stumble through their gates. They do much with little. A mobile medical unit travels to local villages twice weekly. Onsite, in a small collection of simple rooms, adults receive training in soap making, weaving, and bamboo craft. One building houses a crèche—a nursery school - and another houses six dairy cows.

At the heart of the compound is a residence that is home to 150 tribal girls from kindergarten through 8th grade: a grant of 600 rupees (13 dollars) monthly covers a girl’s room and board and tuition at the state-accredited school also run by the ashram. The girls sleep on simple bamboo mats that they roll to the end of their wooden cots each morning. They get vegetarian curries for lunch made with pulses and vegetables, a watery rice for dinner. Milk, in short supply, is distributed to the youngest first; fruit when it is in season. The staff share their austere lifestyle.

Kerala has suffered drought this year, and the government is still reeling from the global economic recession, which makes austerity measures tighter. Promised grants have been paid only in part, and after the harsh weather killed off their crops, the ashram has had to beg credit to buy food. A dining hall that will have tables and electric lights was put on hold half finished, because funds ran out. In the evenings, the girls eat dinner and study scattered under outdoor lights along a gravel road that separates their residence from the temporary kitchen.

The community’s resources are small, but their dreams are big. On her wall above the photos, and above the Ashram’s entry gate arch the words Truth-Love-Compassion—Amma’s definition of Divinity. Once, when Vinoba opened a meeting with prayer, some Christians became offended and walked out. Determined to transcend sectarian boundaries, Vinoba announced to his followers that they would replace opening prayers with silence—but, he said, we can call God by the name we all agree on: Truth-Love-Compassion. After that, meetings were opened with the words “Shanti (peace)—Truth-Love-Compassion”, follow by two minutes of silence. Like Vinoba, Amma insists that there is a spiritual path that lies beyond our religious divisions, an economic path that lies beyond competition, a political path that lies beyond nationalism — and that with focus and hard work we can get there.

Amma holds forth the hope that one day Vinobaniketan will house an international and inter-spiritual center for the study of nonviolence. Today, the dormant seed of that institute lies in a dusty museum that through photos and paintings tells the story of the Gandhian movement. At one end the sun streams through windows lighting a progression of three busts: Buddha, Gandhi, and Vinoba. At the other a simple wooden shrine contains ashes of the latter two. Across a courtyard is a polished plaque, placed by India’s prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, in 2005. But in the absence of funds, the institute lies in wait.

Just a few kilometers from VinobaNiketan, a different sort of institution has risen up. While visiting the ashram we rose early one morning and climbed to the height of land, a small mountain sacred to Hindus because it rises 2000 feet above the surrounding land and is shaped like an elephant’s head. From there we could see layers of green hills in all directions, fading into a haze of mist and wood smoke.

Off to the west, like a medieval castle in the hinterlands lay a beautiful new white building, maybe eight stories tall, surrounded by shorter buildings and minarets. With money from the Gulf States and a fundamentalist form of Islam from Saudi Arabia, local Muslims are building an institute that includes an Islamic university, a seminary with student housing, and a madrassa for local youngsters. We drove through the village that clusters around the institute. It is the only place in India that I have seen tiny girls in black burkas.

As we flew over the area a few days later, leaving Trivandrum district, I couldn’t help wondering about the future of the region. The ashram embodies the social current of Amma’s generation — the shared idealism that inspired an array of collaborative efforts focused on equality and the common good: India’s independence and anti-colonial movements around the world; Israeli kibbutzim and socialist experiments in Cuba and Scandinavia; American feminism and war protests; and South American liberation theology. The Madrassa embodies the competitive dynamics that have inspired my own generation: free market economics; multinational corporations; Islamist tribalism, Evangelical missionaries touting individual salvation; the Dubai skyline, petroleum wars; Internet and real estate feeding frenzies.

What will be the ideas and passions that drive the next generation? Both the ashram and the madrassa are planting seeds for the future. Which, I wonder, will fall on fertile ground? And during times of drought, which get watered?