Dispatches from India: January-February 2019

Over the next few weeks, Sadhana cofounders Aminta Kilawan-Narine, Sunita Viswanath, and Sadhana’s Temple Outreach Coordinator Pratima Doobay will be in India, speaking at a series of meetings and interfaith gatherings. While we are here, we’ll meet stakeholders involved in pro-democracy, social justice, and interfaith work, share about our own work as progressive Hindu Americans, and learn how people in India view the role of Hindus in social justice work.

We will visit cities including Delhi, Kodaikanal, Madurai, Calicut, and Hyderabad. Check back for daily updates, and follow the hashtag #SadhanaInIndia on social media!


Day 1: Delhi & Behelpa

We arrived in Delhi in the wee hours of the morning, and spent the day with Swami Agnivesh, one of India’s most revered human rights activists, and with whom we are staying. We’ve worked with Swami Agnivesh in New York, Toronto, and Washington D.C., and today we were lovingly welcomed to his city, Delhi!

We spent our first day with Swami Agnivesh in his ashram, located in Behelpa, a small village just outside Delhi. Cute little puppies greeted us amidst the lush greenery at the ashram — a refreshing contrast from Delhi’s choking pollution! On January 5th, the ashram had a contingent of about 30 youth from around India to discuss the national movement that Swamiji is about to launch: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (“the world is one family,” a mantra close to Sadhana’s heart and mission). This brainstorming session featured a diverse group of thinkers, including both religious and secular activists. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam will address democracy and human rights in India, particularly the economic and social rights of the most marginalized Indians – Dalits, Adivasis and of course, women. The movement will be launched officially on January 26th (India’s Republic Day), at Kanyakumari, a holy site at the southernmost tip of India. Tomorrow, we are excited to be included in a planning meeting at Swami Agnivesh’s Delhi office.

During our conversations with Swami Agnivesh, we discused many deep philosophies and teachings, including the universality of the Vedas. Swamiji expounded that the Vedas are universal and do not address only Hindus but rather are intended for humanity. As young man, Swamiji encountered the Arya Samaj movement, which radicalized him. He shed his caste and family identity and took sanyaas. Since his 30s, Swamiji’s God has been truth and his spiritual life has been the struggle for justice. A few major takeaways and learning points from Swami Agnivesh: always question - or as he puts it: “Discuss, debate, and if necessary, dissent;” and “rather than worship in a man-made temple, why not take care of the temple that God has created – your own body!”

We took a long walk in the mountains with Swamiji and his staff. We made it to a local village temple where we performed worship to Lord Shiva and Hanumanji. While some of us were winded on the way back to the ashram, 80-year-old Swamiji showed us up – he went off jogging!

We ended our evening with Ajit Sahi, advocacy director of the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), and discussed Sadhana’s work and vision for the future, as well as future collaborations between Sadhana and IAMC. It was Ajit’s birthday! We are looking forward to another action-packed day tomorrow!

Day 2: Delhi

We went to a good friend’s home and met his neighbors Vinod and Babu. Vinod and Babu are Dalit men from neighboring villages in Madhya Pradesh. We met with them because our friend had told them about our work as Hindus wanting to reject caste and reform our religion. We sat with Vinod and Babu in a beautiful meditation space our friend built on the roof of his building for all to enjoy.

Vinod did most of the talking. Babu was quiet, but said that everything Vinod told us was true for him also. We learned about the terrible conditions for Dalits in both villages that persist even till today. Dalits cannot use the same plates and glasses as upper caste people. They have to stay far from the water pump when upper caste people are collecting water. They are regularly abused with derogatory terms like “chamar,” and are even beaten up when people from the land-owning castes like Thakurs feel they have slighted them by not saying “Namaste.” When Vinod goes back to the village, he is careful not to wear good Western clothes because the upper caste villagers will think he is showing off and will resent him.

Vinod only studied till 3rd grade. He lost his father at a young age, and therefore had to quit school to work. He moved to the city when he was 29 in order to make a better life for his family. He has three kids who attend school, and for whom he has great hopes. He told us that the area he lives in has residents who are Hindus of different castes, and also Muslims. But there is hardly any discrimination; nothing like the conditions in the village. Vinod worships Balaji, Hanuman and Devi (Mother Goddess). We asked him if he considers himself Hindu, and he said that by faith he is Hindu, and yet socially he is an outcast. He is not allowed into the temple into his village; Dalits have to pray from outside. Vinod asked us to share his story, and we are publishing this with his permission.

We told Vinod and Babu all about Sadhana’s work, and our desire to work towards the eradication of caste. Vinod said that no one had ever tried to bring change to the village. The upper castes wouldn’t allow it because then they would lose power, and why would they want to do that?

We asked how change could come about. Vinod had a ready answer: every person, regardless of caste, religion, etc, should have a home, an education and a job. Also, caste discrimination should be punished severely. Then, after a generation of struggle, we would see change. Vinod could see the way to improvement, but didn’t have any realistic hope that such change would come.

We told Vinod and Babu that it has been very hard for us to work with Dalits in the United States. There is a sense that Hindus cannot be a part of anti-caste work because we are from the religion which created and perpetuates caste. Vinod understands the political reasons for this, but feels that the movements for justice must address the rights of everyone and include everyone, including Hindus.  Improvements will only come if we all come together. We also told Vinod and Babu about Swami Agnivesh and the people’s movement he is about to launch, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.

Then we headed to Swami Agnivesh’s office at Jantar Mantar in central Delhi. About 15 people, mostly journalists and lawyers, gathered for a discussion. Aminta, Sunita and Pratima shared about Sadhana’s work in community service (seva), advocacy and religious reform, and asked the people gathered to share about the pro-democracy efforts taking place in India, and the role of faith-based activists. Several of the people gathered were Hindu, and were moved by our presentations, particularly Pratima’s experiences of training to be a priestess and promoting inclusion and progressive values in a very conservative temple and family.

Ajit Sahi, advocacy director of Indian American Muslim Council, explained just how important it is for Hindus in America to be educated about Hindutva’s far reach. We argued that while many different strategies were needed to combat religious extremism, a part of that response had to be progressive religious reform. If caste was to be annihilated, Hindus had to be a part of the fix.

The discussion was animated and wide-ranging. Some felt that Sadhana’s work could only take place outside India; that caste was way too entrenched in India. And yet Hinduism has seen reform movements throughout history; Swami Agnivesh himself is a leader in the Arya Samaj. Sadhana’s leaders value this opportunity to engage in nuanced dialogue with social justice activists in India. We feel welcomed and taken seriously as progressive Hindus.

Our friend Laila, a young Afghan woman studying in India, came out to dinner at a restaurant with live music in Hauz Khas Village, a hip enclave for dinner and nightlife. Pratima knew all the Bollywood and Qawwali songs that the wonderful band performed, and even sang with them. We ended our second day with a long conversation back at home with Swami Agnivesh about the Vasudaiva Kutumbakam movement, Sadhana’s part in it, and laughed together over many stories from Swamiji’s eventful life. We were honored to stay with him during our time in Delhi and to meet his hospitable staff, including Ashokji. Tomorrow we will leave for Madurai, to see the Madurai Meenakshi temple and participate in an interfaith discussion about social justice in India.

Day 3: Madurai

Our day started before sunrise, our plane to Madurai was delayed, and we are quite sleep deprived. However, the delicious food we’ve been eating has more than compensated for any hardships! We arrived in Madurai at around 3 pm, and had only two hours before the interfaith event we would participate in. The cab ride from the airport was a beautiful experience – we all felt home here in a way we didn’t in Delhi. Madurai has more of a small town feel, and there are gorgeous and colorful temples wherever you look. The roads are unpaved and there aren’t any skyscrapers. Sunita is from South India, and spent her formative years in Chennai. Pratima and Aminta are Guyanese Americans, and they agree that Madurai looks, smells and feels like Guyana.  We had just enough time to check into our hotel and freshen up before heading via auto-rickshaw to the Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer Community Hall for our interfaith gathering, organized by Mr. Mahboob Batcha and Ms. Selvagomathy of SOCO Trust, Madurai.

The participants included more than 75 professors, lawyers, journalists and activists. These were people who have been working together for decades on building communal harmony and human rights in their country.

As we waited for people to arrive, Dr. Murli, a former college principal and the moderator for the evening, told us that this group has had many discussions about politics and social justice over the years, bur rarely have their conversations addressed religion. He said that there was no space for Hindus to take part in discussions about politics. The temple space isn’t open for discussions on societal issues, and left/progressive spaces aren’t welcoming to religious people, especially Hindus. He remarked that this is perhaps why Hindus end up supporting Hindutva groups and positions – because there is no other platform for them to discuss Hinduism. Dr. Murli flagged that there is a Gandhi museum nearby, where interfaith gatherings are held. At those gatherings, participants share positive messages about religion in general, but there is never action afterward. Dr. Murli recognized that what we are doing is new and critical.

Dr. Murli introduced us and set the context for the discussion. Aminta and Sunita explained Sadhana’s work over the past seven years – the overall mission of Sadhana and our specific activities in advocacy, service and religious reform. There was an extremely vibrant discussion over the next two and a half hours. There were people from different religions in the room, as well as atheists. Dr. Murli did a great job of ensuring that people didn’t take too much time or talk over each other. After every few questions and comments, Aminta and Sunita gave a response.  

Even though the people who spoke were mostly men, and there weren’t many women in the room, many spoke about the importance of women’s rights. While everyone who spoke seemed to see the value of a progressive Hinduism, some speakers expressed some skepticism with comments like, Caste is inextricable from Hinduism,” and “This is unrealistic in the Indian context.” Some speakers expressed enthusiastic support for the ideas we had shared, and one older man said, “I am happy that two women have come from so far away to speak to us about our own traditions, to remind us of our own Gandhian way, and to awaken us.” 

Sunita and Aminta made a good argument for the need for progressive reform in all religions, Hinduism included. Since Hindus are the majority, and since it is Hindu nationalism that is causing insecurity and terror among religious minorities in India, progressive Hindus should be welcomed as part of all efforts for justice and democracy. Hindus who believe Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family) must be mobilized to build that unity in the world. Hindutva cannot be conquered without Hindus, and caste cannot be annihilated without Hindus. Our new friends listened, many nodded, and even those who were skeptical were intrigued. We received much validation and receptiveness, arguably more than we’ve ever received in the U.S. Perhaps this is because of the gravity of the situation in India - we were told that people are scared, there is no space for free speech, and some are arrested or even killed for speaking out.

Aminta and Sunita both spoke about Sadhana’s work with Swami Agnivesh, and the Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam people’s movement he is about to launch. This group has also worked closely with Swami Agnivesh over the years, and consider him their friend and ally. Some from this group will travel to Kanyakumari on Jan 26th to participate in the action Swamiji is organizing. 

Some points raised by the attendees:

  • Hindutva forces have a huge reach in the United States and other countries, and raise a lot of their money from there. Our response: This is exactly why it is important for Sadhana to be supported. If we have a robust progressive Hindu platform, many young Hindu Americans will join us, and help create a counter-narrative to Hindu nationalism.

  • A Christian man said he loved our talk, and it reminded him of his youth when he became inspired by liberation theology.

  • Several people spoke about how insecure people were feeling – particularly those from minorities or those who are secular in their thinking. People are afraid to speak their minds.

  • Several people said that what we were doing in the States couldn’t happen in India because caste is inseparable from Hinduism. It is an unrealistic project. Our response: Sadhana is proof that it is possible to be Hindu and reject caste. If caste is seen as inseparable from Hinduism, we must separate it anyway. 

  • One man said that there really isn’t such a thing as Hinduism because this label was coined by colonists in order to unify our many diverse traditions. Our response: While we waste time debating whether or not Hinduism exists, Hindutva forces will keep working to turn India into a Hindu rashtra (Hindu nation).

Since so many speakers focused their comments on caste, Aminta closed the evening by recounting our meeting with Vinod and Babu, two Dalit residents of a slum in Delhi. If a young man with a third-grade education can say with confidence that if we make sure that every Indian has a home, an education and a job, then a generation later we will begin to see caste fall away, we must be inspired by his spirit and soldier together to fight hatred, bigotry and nationalism, and together apply ourselves to dharma, which is none other than justice.

Day 4: Madurai

Reflection by Pratima Doobay, Sadhana’s Temple Outreach Coordinator.

I identify as a Sanatan Hindu who believes in the eternal.  I aspire to be a Pandita (priestess) devoted to the community. I see God in the community. This was my second trip to Madurai. On the lane that led to the Madurai Meenakshi temple, we bought malli (jasmine) flowers and put them in out hair, giving a sweet aroma. At another stall, we bought offerings for the fish-eyed goddess Meenakshi Devi, and then we made our way to the temple. Upon entering the mandir, we were in awe of a large tree hovering over the snake God (naga devata). As we walked around the tree three times, it was as if we were walking for the past, the present and the future. We asked for guidance and protection, as well as for enlightenment. We then made our way to the temple. As soon as we walked in, we were greeted by Aghori Baba. Aghori is a form of Lord Shiva that represents abandoning societal norms and just acquainting yourself with the divine. Aghori Baba challenges us to think outside the box; so does Kali in all her shameless glory. In a way, this is also affirming that though my path as a priestess may be different from the traditional pandits, I’m doing something right.

Then, we stepped over to Bhadrakali, who presided in front of us, beaming with energy and standing as a monument of hope and power. We thanked her for the unlimited strength she gave us; upon looking at her, we were able to see a reflection of ourselves in her eyes. It was an affirmation that we were meant to be there. We walked over to Ganesh and as we stood in front of him, we asked him to remove any obstacles in our path and to bless us with wisdom and guidance to help others manifest their own power.

We walked along the path to reach the main shrine of Meenakshi Devi and all along the way above us, lining the ceilings, were colorful, vibrant, painted mandalas. Each one had a profusion of shaped and colors within. Each triangle had a different deity and symbolism. To me, this represented unlimited diversity.

Whereas upon walking to the entrance where Meenakshi Devi stands, there are signs that say only Hindus are allowed.  Looking around, there were people from all around the world that had come to receive the blessings of the Goddess. These people were prohibited from taking darshan. We saw lines of devotees waiting for darshan. The longest line was made up of people who couldn’t even pay 50 rupees. The shorter lines were for people who could pay to pray.

We made an empowered decision together without even sharing words. We would not participate in the hypocrisy of exclusion when we know in our hearts that Devi does not discriminate according to where we come from and how much money we have in our pockets. We stood together and sang praises to Devi from afar and we were sure that our prayers reached her ears; “Jaya Jaya Devi, Meenakshi Sharanam.” Rather than enter the line, we eventually found our own Devi, nestled in a wall, where we offered our love, our flowers and took our blessings.

I sat with my sisters on the stairs by the side of the tank and we spoke about the serenity that we felt, but how heartbroken we were as well. It made us reflect on where we come from, and how thankful we are to come from a place where the doors of mandirs are open for everyone and where you don’t have to pay for darshan.

We then made our way to find Shiva but witnessed the same exclusion as we experienced when trying to see Meenakshi Devi. We ventured off to find our own free Shiva, open to all — and we found him, in the form of Bhairav. We left a mala at the shiv lingam and felt his blessings. Our hearts were filled, and we felt satisfied to leave.

My sister Aminta wanted to offer a coconut to Ganesha under the tree where we first prayed. Her first attempt at breaking the coconut was almost successful, and we all felt certain that it was Ganesh himself who sent someone to help her peel the husk and gave her the courage and strength to break the coconut.

Aminta describes the experience: “I felt hopeful and complete. We worshipped on our own terms. To me, that garnered the biggest blessing that we could have received on our trip. I felt the kind man who came to help me break the coconut was validating our choice to believe in a Goddess that loves everyone and turns no one away. After we prayed and sang and broke a coconut at this murthi that was receiving no attention, a crowd gathered. We completed our darshan in their company. I felt a sense of satisfaction and acceptance; there is another way. Many guides had come up to us and told us that since we speak English we would not understand anything, and that our worship would be fruitless. In our time at Meenakshi temple, we found that we did not need a guide. We were our own guides; our own gurus. Worship should not be so commercialized, and we should have the freedom to think and pray for ourselves.”

I was fortunate enough to then find a good friend I had made on my last trip to Madurai, named Pooncholai.  When we laid eyes on each other, it was like the meeting of two long-lost sisters.  The love that I felt from Pooncholai reassured me that the divine feminine energy exists in all of us, and is not confined to a murthi. Receiving the love and warmth of Pooncholai was equivalent to what I had imagined hugging the Goddess herself would feel like.

The words of Swami Agnivesh resonated with me instantly: “God is not confined to stone or mandirs, but in the hearts of everyone.” Pooncholai and her husband welcomed us so lovingly, and treated us as if we were their own, though we were foreigners. We told Pooncholai all about our choice not to receive direct darshan of Meenakshi, and she promptly took us by the hand and led us to her favorite temple, a short walk away from the Meenakshi temple. We basked in the presence of this wide-eyed, powerful Kali, tucked away from the crowds in a market of tailors and seamstresses. This Kali is the people’s Kali; she was the true reflection of who we are. We are the advocates of all excluded people. Our mantra is Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family).

Day 5 and 6: Kodaikanal

As we approached Kodaikanal (Kodai), we saw monkeys on both sides of the road, as if lined up just to greet us. There were groups of monkeys, lone monkeys and mother monkeys with their little ones. One monkey was emptying a plastic bottle of water; another was trying to get into a discarded bag. We laughed with delight.

Our guesthouse was called Atman (individual soul), and our hosts Lakshmi and Dinesh are very special souls indeed. They had lucrative careers and had traveled all over the world. A few years ago they realized that they wanted to make a big change in their lives; they wanted to slow things down and be more intentional in their living. They left their jobs, opened this guesthouse, and limit their travel to India. They run the guesthouse without any advertising, and their guests come through word of mouth. In Lakshmi’s words, “We want our guests to accomplish the purpose with which they have come, and we like to take care of their other needs so that they are worry-free while they are with us.”

We were in Kodai for a two-day course on Gandhi. Our teacher, David Barunkumar Thomas, also had a complete life transformation. After a highly successful career in information technology, he took an entirely different path. He had always wanted to dedicate himself to social service, but only when he had saved up enough money to stop working.  It was 2003 when David and his wife took the leap and moved to Kodaikanal. David started a nonprofit organization called India Nirman Sangh (INS) which focuses on women’s empowerment.  INS works with women in villages in the hills of Kodai, and also in the nearby town of Palani. Today, this organization works with 6,000 women. Their main activity is organizing micro-lending groups (which have had a 100% repayment rate in recent years), but they do so much more. They have helped 600 women build toilets in their homes. They connect women with healthcare services in Coimbatore. And more recently, they have been running discussion groups on issues of ethics and values.  David has hired eight women who have excelled in the micro-lending groups to be fieldworkers – these women have been key to the success of all the programs.

Caste, communal identities and hierarchies are very much present in the villages where INS works. The most prevalent community is the OBCs (other backward classes). Even though these are underprivileged groups, they are the most socially superior in these villages. Other communities present are Dalits, Adivasis, Christians and Muslims. The villages are segregated into different areas for the different castes and communities. Dalits are generally not allowed into the homes of the OBC households. Sometimes micro-lending circles meet in people’s homes, and Dalits participate while sitting outside the home. There is one village which bars Dalits from the water well. These things are changing but very slowly. INS meetings, when held in spaces arranged by the organization, do not allow such practices. Caste and discrimination are addressed as much as possible, and young people who leave the village usually come back with more openness to change. When couples fall in love across caste and community lines, there is serious conflict in the villages – there is often violence, expulsion from the village, and on some occasions, even honor killings. We thought of our Delhi friends Vinod and Babu as we heard all this from David.

When we asked David about what he is hopeful about, he said he wasn’t hopeful that caste would fall away any time soon. However, he feels certain that within two years, every home in India will have a toilet.

Over the years, David has been immersed in development, education, caste and women’s rights at the village level – all issues addressed by Gandhi. Living in such a rural setting, he also became more interested in agriculture, again something very relevant to Gandhi. David began to read about Gandhi extensively about 5 years ago, and on Gandhi Jayanti October 2, 2017, David officially opened the Gandhi Farm and Gandhi Center where our course was held. The farm is another way to serve the villagers of this area. David has felt for a while that the people he works with in the villages see life as an endless punishment. In these two years, he has been conducting four hour workshops with small groups of villagers to combine some insights into Gandhi’s life and values with the challenges they face in their own lives. His goal is to open up their minds to notions of values and ethics, and to inspire in them with a sense of higher purpose.

We are the first external group to take David’s course on Gandhi. Our course was, of course, very different to the workshop designed for the villagers. It was two days long, and deals with history, philosophy and politics. David is considering conducting such courses on an ongoing basis at the Gandhi Center, and also in other cities and perhaps online. Our class was designed as an interactive workshop, and the group was a talkative and engaged bunch. We learned about and discussed Gandhi’s personal life, his political journey, how he evolved over his lifetime, and the values and principles that were central to Gandhi like ahimsa (non-violence).  The students included a few devoted Gandhians, but most of the students were open-minded if not skeptical, and we had some great debates about controversial issues like Gandhi’s treatment of women, his views on caste, his tactics such as fasting, his obsession with “consumption and evacuation,” his inconsistencies and self-contradictions on so many issues during his life, and the complexity of Gandhi’s Ahimsa. The vibrant discussions made the two days go by all too quickly, but we will stay in touch with our new friends, especially David. 

Gandhi is most often criticized for his stances on caste, and also for his treatment of women.  David gave us a different perspective on Gandhi and caste:

  • We are often told that Gandhi was committed to varnashram (the four hierarchical caste groupings of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras) but David showed us that Gandhi evolved throughout his life on this issue and by the end of his life was completely against caste in all its forms.

  • We are often told that the reason Gandhi didn’t agree to separate a electoral block for Dalits was because he didn’t want to separate Dalits from the Hindus. However, in this class we learned that there was another possible reason. If there was a separate electoral block for Dalits, the Dalit status would be permanent, whereas Gandhi actually wanted this category to fall away. When Gandhi went on his famous hunger strike, Ambedkar compromised and agreed to reservations for Dalits, but only for ten years, again so that the goal would be to do away with the Dalit category.  This has been repeatedly extended over the decades, but the original vision was a stopgap measure of affirmative action.

  • David also asserted that Ambedkar came to prominence almost entirely because Gandhi encouraged and promoted him, and chose him to join the constitution drafting committee. 

We felt that David should have spent more time on the issue of Gandhi and women. We find ourselves unable to accept Gandhi’s experiments with celibacy  when he tested himself by sleeping in the same bed as his nieces, but the class glossed over this episode. We also felt that more time could have been spent on the need for and relevance of Gandhi’s life and legacy in the world today. In a conversation with David after the class, we shared about our work through Sadhana to build a platform for progressive Hinduism in the United States and beyond. David was happy to hear of our efforts and said, “I firmly believe that the only way to defeat Hindutva is by mobilizing Hindus.” All in all, it was deeply enriching to be discussing Gandhi and such lofty aspirations as universal love and compassion with such an interesting group of people in the idyllic setting of an organic farm and ashram in the mountains.

On our trip to India, it was inspiring to learn just how many people were spending their lives working for the betterment of others. Some of the students we got to know:

David is originally from Wales, has lived and worked in Zambia and Botswana, and has lived fo some time now in Kodaikanal with his Keralan wife. He is an educator.

He has always had an interest in Gandhi, and is sad that people seem to have little respect for Gandhi these days. David feels that Gandhi’s legacy is under threat, and that it is a dangerous time in India right now when people don’t feel safe expressing their opinions. 

Reena lives in Kodai and works at a pottery store which donates a percentage of profits to disadvantaged children in and around Kodai. She has worked with David over the years and has been wanting to learn more about Gandhi. She is inspired by this class and wants to do work with young people, to get them to engage in political life, and become aware of our history, present and be a part of building the future.

Krishnan is the creator of a nonprofit organization in Madural called The Yellow Bag. This is a project which promotes responsible consumerism. The yellow bag (manjapai) is a cloth bag given to guests at a wedding or other ceremony, with a coconut and other items. Before the arrival of plastic bags, people would use and reuse their yellow bags, and even repair them if they got torn.  The Yellow Bag takes orders for custom-made cotton bags, and employs women to make these bags either in their homes or in their central location. At present, about 50 women are employed, and about 60,000 bags are made per month. Krishnan came to this Gandhi course because he felt the need for guidance about the question of ambition. He wonders whether he should have a 500 people company or 100 units of 5.  And he wonders if growth is a good or bad thing.  He feels the class has given him a lot to think about regarding these internal questions.

Sunayna is the Kodaikanal convenor for Intach, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, an organization created in 1984 by Pupul Jaykar. There are chapters all over India and a few abroad. The Kodaikanal chapter is quite new and focuses on teaching and inspiring children. She attended the Gandhi course because her grandparents were freedom fighters who spun khadi and even went to jail. Her mother also has memories of seeing Gandhi at Marina Beach, Chennai, when she was a child. After attending this course, she is struck by Gandhi’s fearlessness, and hopes to shed some of her own fears and anxieties.

Shankar works with a Gandhian organization called Aakam Trust, for the education and upliftment of children living in poverty. Palani runs a nature shop in Chennai, and has been learning about Gandhi and Kumarappan for the past year. He is also involved with the Cuckoo Movement for education of underprivileged children. Shankar and Palani both want to learn new ways of motivating these children by teaching them about Gandhi’s life and legacy.

 Immanuel and Zareen are married and moved to the United States many years ago to raise their three children, where Immanuel worked for the Clorox Company. They moved back to India and settled in Kodai. Immanuel is an educator and has served on the board of Kodaikanal International School. Immanuel was instrumental in helping to gain Laila (mentioned in our Delhi blog) admission to Kodaikanal International School once she arrived in India from Afghanistan. He is a collector of books by Gandhi, many of them rare and limited editions. Inspired from being part of a mother’s club in the U.S., Zareen started a similar club in Kodai, where mothers could bond with each other, set up play dates with their children, etc. Zarreen jokingly mentioned that the only difference between the mothers club she was a part of in the States and the club she started in Kodai was that the mothers in Kodai couldn’t keep secrets! Zarreen, who is originally from Bombay and speaks little Tamil, is working on organizing villagers to create “smart villages” equipped with things like wireless internet and proper sanitation. 

Padmini runs a school called the My School / Satya Swaroopa for marginalized children of the surrounding five villages. It serves underprivileged children including Adivasis and those from tribal villages. Padmini was curious to learn about Gandhi’s world view particularly because she perceived him to be a conflicting character for his time. At the course, Padmini learned to be loving and open to everyone and to do your best to try to understand everyone. She will be introducing these teachings to her students in efforts to empower them. She feels that if everyone adapted the concept of ahimsa to some degree, the world would be better served. For Padmini, implementing that which she learned at the course will make her a better teacher. 

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After Kodaikanal, Aminta and Pratima returned to New York City with their hearts energized to deepen Sadhana’s work. For Aminta, the trip reaffirmed why she co-founded Sadhana in 2011, and validated the organization’s years of advocacy for social justice and selfless service in the name of ahimsa and ekatva. For Pratima, the trip underscored the need for a new sort of Hindu reform movement, one that was inclusive of all, with love at its core. Aminta, Pratima and Sunita’s sisterhood grew on their journey to India, amidst both laughs and tears. While the trip birthed many new questions, it validated the need for Sadhana’s existence beyond the United States, particularly in a country like India where Aminta, Pratima and Sunita heard several times that freedom of speech is threatened, often in the name of the very faith we hold dear. Thus, we carry on promoting Sadhana’s mission.

Day 7: Calicut

Reflection by Sunita Viswanath, Sadhana Co-Founder & Board Member

By the time I said goodbye to Aminta and Pratima, I was feeling quite sick. I had a cold, bodyaches and headache. And unfortunately, I had chosen to take a train to Calicut, for the adventure of it. Train travel in India while sick isn’t the greatest idea. I had hoped to take walks in Calicut, explore the city, and read at the beach. Instead I did a lot of sleeping in my hotel room.

I arrived in the early morning of Jan 22nd, and had just about enough time for a shower before I joined Mr. K. P. Ramanunni for a press conference at the Calicut Press Club.

I should tell you all about Ramanunniji, truly a brother to Sadhana. When little Asifa was gang-raped and murdered last year, in a Hindu temple in Jammu, our hearts were shattered and we organized a rally in Union Square, NY.  Our rally was co-sponsored by 9 Hindu temples, and while this was unprecedented, we were disappointed that not one of those temples were Indian temples. We knew that Indian Hindus must be as devastated as we were, but the Indian temples in NY weren’t ready to take a stand with us. Just at that time, we saw in the news that a Malayali award-winning writer, Mr. K.P. Ramanunni, had done a remarkable thing. He was a Hindu believer who was so horrified by this atrocity perpetrated by Hindu men inside a Hindu temple that he conducted a Hindu ritual on behalf of all Hindus.  We reached out to him and he responded right away. He was as moved to connect with us we were to connect with him – we were of one mind and heart, and belonged together in struggle. I later learned that this man is an important literary figure in India, the author of over 20 books including 4 novels, and a winner of numerous awards including one of India’s greatest literary awards – the Sahitya Academy award. In fact, I learned that Ramanunniji had donated the entire prize money from the Sahitya Academy award to the family of Junaid, the teenage Muslim boy who was lynched by a Hindu mob during Eid over a year ago.

It was this same Ramanunniji who welcomed me to Calicut all these months later, and worked so hard to take maximum advantage of my visit to raise awareness of the need of the hour: solidarity of all progressives in the service of democracy. He had organized a press conference at the Calicut Press Club on the day I arrived to notify the local press about an interfaith gathering to take place the next day. There were about 50 journalists present at the press conference including local TV stations with their cameras. I was impressed with Ramanunniji’s preparations. I had no idea what to expect, and would have been happy with an intimate roundtable discussion with a handful of like-minded activists. Apparently the press conference made it into all the Malalayam language papers and TV networks, and also a few English language papers.

The next day, Ramanunniji and I spent much of the day together in dialogue. Ramanunniji will write about our exchange in a Malayalam magazine. I learned that his birthplace was Calcutta, intellectual and literary capital of India, and his native place is Ponnani, the cultural and intellectual capital of Kerala. Ponnani is famous for being a haven of communal harmony. Many people came from outside – Christians, Muslims, Jews – but there was never any conflict, just a loving exchange of culture and customs.  Ramanunniji told me that Ponnani has produced many writers, all of them pluralistic and inclusive. He considers them his lineage, and like all of them, he writes and lives motivated by sheer love towards those of other religions. He said with a lovely pride, “We call this Ponnani school culture.” Ponnani writers are known to give more importance to mission than aesthetics. The purpose of our writing is activism to make life better.  My writing is the mission of my life.

I asked about the book which won the coveted Sahitya Academy award, “Book of God.” Ramanunniji told me all about it.

“This is probably my favorite of all my books. It is unique because it is a fantastical work of science fiction in which I have portrayed Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) as a character in a novel for the first time ever. What’s more, Mohammed (PBUH) is shown as the brother of Lord Krishna (PBUH).  I have depicted the true spirit of Ponnani.  My book has been praised by Muslims all over the world, particularly in Dubai, Quwait and Muscat where many Malayali people have made their lives. I have received phone calls from Muslim readers who wept because I had portrayed their Prophet with so much love. Hindus also love this book because of my loving rendition of Lord Krishna (PBUH).  The book is now in its 8th edition even though it is 700 pages long.  The Sahitya Academy is run by the Central government, and it is very surprising that such a book won their award under this Hindu nationalist regime. I believe that when God and the true messengers of God combine forces, nothing can resist.  I am a believer in a supreme universal divine force, and my life’s belief in realized in this book. I see this novel as an expression of my identity, my Self.”  Ramanunniji hopes that the English version of the book will be published soon; the book has already been translated, and the search is on for the right publisher.

At 5 pm we arrived at the K.P. Kesava Menon Hall, and to my surprise, an audience of about 250 had gathered, including press. The format of the gathering was similar to the Madurai event organized by Mr. Batcha. Unfortunately though, this time there was no time for audience Q&A. After a welcome by Mr. Ramanunni, I gave my presentation about Sadhana and the urgent need for Hindus in India and the world over to stand up for the values of pluralism and inclusion in order to counter the hateful narrative of Hindu nationalists. Then there were responses from about a dozen local writers, educators and activists.  The respondents were important community leaders, and included Hindus, Muslims, Christians and atheists. Almost all the respondents seemed to understand and sympathize with my message about the need for progressive Hindus to rise up and speak up. Several speakers identified as members of the Left, and said how important my message was.

Mr. Parakkadavu, a Muslim fiction writer, was the responder who most appreciated Sadhana’s message.  He said that the distance between Gandhi and Godse is the same as the distance between Hinduism and Hindutva. He remarked that it was ironic that in today’s context of Hindtuva power, Godse is seen as a true believer and Gandhi is seen as a non-believer; and if Gandhi were killed today by Godse, we would say a believer has killed a non-believer.  He said that Hinduism was far more inclusive than the semitic religions, and Hindus ought to be very proud of the teachings of their scriptures. He approved of Sadhana’s efforts to bring an end to the current confusion among Hindus.

Mr. P.N. Das gave a spiritual response. He told the story of a blind man who visited a guru and was given a lamp. He said he didn’t need a lamp since he was blind, but the guru said others would see the lamp and not bump into him. After some time, a man bumped into the blind man. The blind man shouted, didn’t you see my lamp? The man replied, your lamp has gone out.  Mr. Das doesn’t consider himself a Hindu – he is very inspired by Jiddu Krishnamurthi and also Sufism and Zen Buddhism. He takes comfort in spirituality but is not very optimistic for our world.

I was thrilled that two women spoke, both Hindu, and both had been part of the women’s wall. One woman, also called Suneetha, gave a very thoughtful response. She spoke about how alienated people are feeling in this materialistic and capitalistic world, and the comfort that religion must bring them. She invoked Mr. Das’s blind man whose lamp had gone out, and wondered if some people’s faith has similarly been extinguished. She saw Sadhana’s mission as “purifying” Hinduism of its oppressive tendencies, and she welcomed it. The other woman, Dr. Sangeetha, spoke quickly before rushing off to be with her baby. She said that she herself was not a believer, but fully understood the critical need for “critical insiders.”  Both women fully endorsed Sadhana’s mission. 

A.P. Kunhamu, a Muslim writer, said that the term “progressive Hinduism” is a misnomer. He asserted that every religion is progressive. Those who are extremists are not true religionists. Modi’s followers are not true Hindus, and Muslim terrorists are not true Muslims.

Advocate Saji, a Christian writer and waxed poetic, said that the Indian constitution may have been penned by Ambedkar, but the ink was Gandhi’s. He felt that the Indian constitution was a deeply Hindu document since the same inclusiveness was the backbone of both. He seemed to think there was no need to worry because the secular spirit of our constitution would carry us through.

Yet another Christian speaker, Father Vincent Arakkal, praised the solidarity of the people of Kerala during the recent floods, and blamed the media for manipulating the Keralans with regard to Sabarimala. He said “the media has imprisoned us.” He invoked the time of the European renaissance and wondered if we shouldn’t be keeping religion and politics apart rather than entwining them.  He said that Hinduism’s greatest contribution to the world was the idea of “universal nationhood,” the very opposite of Hindutva.

There was only one gentleman who flatly rejected my ideas, saying that religion could never be a catalyst for change, and that we need to move forwards not backwards in our thinking. This devoted communist, Abdul Hakkeem, a writer and teacher, nevertheless shook my hand afterwards and said, “your speech was brilliant, although I registered my opposition.” We laughed about our disagreement, and I offered my rejoinder that so many of the revolutions in world history, the Indian freedom struggle and the American civil rights movement to name just two, were led by leaders propelled by their faith. This same gentleman invited a group of us outside for a treat of tea, coffee and cake at a roadside stall. 

I had hoped to have dialogue with people in India about the work Sadhana has been doing, and I got my wish. Through my long conversation with Ramanunniji, and my engagement with the participants at the interfaith gathering, it is abundantly clear that while there may be varied opinions on the matter, Sadhana’s rally cry to India’s progressive Hindus to raise their voices and be included in the resistance to Hindutva is relevant and hits a note.

Thus satisfied to have had the opportunity to dialogue about the questions that occupy my days and nights, I take my leave of this sweet seaside town where Vasco de Gama first landed in 1498.  I spent my last hour in Calicut at the beach, watching a loving family play at the water’s edge. The father was encouraging the little girl to touch her feet to the water but she just clung to her mother’s leg, terrified of the waves, but so obviously secure in the love of her mother and father. I am so moved by this image of a modern Indian family spending Thursday morning spending quality time at the beach. 

Day 8: Chennai

Reflection by Sunita Viswanath, Sadhana Co-Founder & Board Member


This is the city of my birth, and I am spending my time with family. I took my mother and two cousins to Besant Nagar Beach this evening for a very special concert organized by Nityanand Jayaraman (Nity) and T.M. Krishna, and their colleagues. Nity is a respected environmental justice advocate, a journalist, and a community activist. He is also a good friend. Over the past decade, Nity has been involved in many activities for the empowerment of the fishing community at Besant Nagar, where he lives. On several trips, my family has visited an after-school program Nity helped start, and spent a glorious hour playing with the kids. In recent years, Nity has been working closely with Carnatic vocalist T.M.Krishna to organize arts events right at the beach, bringing together classical and folk music, dance and other arts, breaking down the barriers between them, diversifying both artists and audiences. These two visionary activists co-created a festival called Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha, now renamed as Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha. Last night’s concert was part of this festival, and it was an honor to be witness to this labor of love to bring about social unity and communal harmony through groundbreaking movement-building through the arts.

The first act was Paraiattam, a very old traditional dance form of Tamil Nadi. Then an absolute crowd-pleaser: a concert by popular Tamil movie playback singer, Chinmayi.  Last year, Chinmayi came out with a #MeToo accusation against veteran lyricist Vairamuthu, and while she is still facing backlash, she is standing firm. The crowd and organizers gathered yesterday clearly were in solidarity with her.

The highlight of the evening was a concert by Dalit band The Casteless Collective. This high energy band, influenced by hip hop and rap, and also traditional Gana music usually associated with funerals, has recently signed with a record label in the UK.  They greeted the crowd with the usual salutation among Dalit activists, Jai Bhim, and sang rousing songs about justice for the poor and the legacy of Dr. Ambedkar.  When they started singing a song about Modi, the concert was interrupted with a reality check and reminder of the dark hour India is in. Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the Indian constitution, and yet the police arrived, insisting that an end be put to such political songs which criticize the government.

The Casteless Collective performs at Besant Nagar Beach in Chennai, India on January 27th.

Nity, T.M. Krishna, the singer Chinmayi and bands like the Casteless Collective are the hope for India’s future. We in Sadhana pledge absolute solidarity with each of them and all those who are putting their lives and safety on the line for this nation’s constitution and democracy. As many in Tamil Nadu have been chanting in response to the Prime Minister's current visit to their state, #GoBackModi, and we add, #BringBackDemocracy.

Day 9: Hyderabad

Reflection by Sunita Viswanath, Sadhana Co-Founder & Board Member

I’ve now come to Hyderabad, a city where I have a lot of family, and many sweet childhood memories. I met local activists Vivek and Gowri when I was here a year ago. They told me about a progressive organization and event space they were involved in, Lamakaan. They were interested in the work Sadhana was doing and offered to connect me to Lamakaan to give a talk the next time I was in town. I later found out that Lamakaan was co-founded by Biju Mathew, a friend and comrade in the struggle in the United States.

I have attended events at Lamakaan during my days here, and the space is beautiful, vibrant and bustling. There are talks, movie screenings, concerts, book launches and plays; and also an excellent canteen. It is a place for open discussion. I was especially pleased to see that an inter-generational crowd tends to gather here. 

True to his word, Vivek connected me to Lamakaan organizer Nayeem, and this led to my facilitating an interfaith gathering where I could share about the work of Sadhana and ask the approximately 50 people gathered what their thoughts were, and whether they knew of similar work in India.  I especially wanted to know if they were feeling that this was a time of crisis in India, and what the role of Hindus and other people of faith should be in the work to protect democracy.

Almost everyone seemed to agree that minority rights and freedom of speech were in jeopardy. There was a Hindu couple who said they were practicing Hindus and were happy to hear about my work. They didn’t know of any organization like Sadhana, and needed time to think about all I had shared. Several Hindus were very pleased to hear that there was a progressive Hindu organization in America; one said he would share the information with his contacts in America. There were quite a few youth in the room. A young man called Riyaaz said he loved the work Sadhana was doing, especially because his name had the same meaning as Sadhana, and the concept was dear to him. Another young man, a Muslim, said that the people espousing Hindutva were taking advantage of the discomfort that some Hindus feel about identifying openly as Hindus. He said it is very important for progressive Hindus to identify openly as Hindus. One man said we had traveled to cities like Madurai and Hyderabad which were quite safe, and not so supportive of Hindutva. We should have traveled to North India and talked to people there. Another young man who had just graduated high school was very articulate: he said what we needed was a counter-narrative to the Hindutva ideology, and this was basically that we were all Indians, no matter our religion.

There was a group of social work students who had come together. They were also all active in an interfaith group called Rubaroo. One young man from this group spoke about how he and others have tried to bring up issues of caste and religious discrimination in social work classes, but haven’t succeeded. I agreed that social work classes had to address such central issues of social justice.  Sadhana will definitely stay in touch with this group. They were especially interested in our “Safe Conversations” dialogue tool we have been experimenting with in our community outreach.

There were two people, a Hindu man and woman, who were offended by my talk, and accused me of being Hinduphobic. The man said that although I had said I hadn’t found progressive Hindus who were against caste and gender inequality, he could find such organizations in every gully in India. Furthermore, Hindu and Muslims were truly brothers in India, and there was a sense not just of brotherhood but actual oneness among them. This man said there was no problem with freedom of speech in India. He said he didn’t believe my story about the the Casteless Collective’s performance being stopped by the police in Chennai, even though I said I had seen this with my own eyes. The woman went further and said she was a proud Hindu and was very sorry to have met me. She said I was spreading propaganda. She asked how I could say a little Muslim girl was killed in a Hindu temple at the hands of Hindu men (she was talking about Asifa) when there was a current court case and nothing was proven. I had talked about our meeting with Vinod and what he had told us about the situation for Dalits in his village. This woman asked what right I had to share one Dalit’s sad story while omitting all the great advances India had made.

I responded by saying that the beautiful Hinduism that the man was describing was the Hinduism of my heart, the Hinduism I desire to see all around me. However, what I am seeing is an ascendance of Hindu supremacy and a palpable sense of fear and insecurity among minorities and dissenters. Nayeem stepped in as an expert facilitator and kept the discussion going, inviting the rest of the audience members to speak. There was a wonderful woman who said she was a Muslim Indian who had a great love for Hinduism. She commended Sadhana’s work in the United States where she had also lived and done human rights advocacy, but cautioned us about doing such advocacy in a Hindu-majority country.

The final person to speak was my own beloved cousin Padmini. These were her words: “I am from a very traditional and quite orthodox Hindu family. I have three children, two of whom are daughters. When my eldest daughter told us she wanted to marry a Muslim boy, I was very much worried. Perhaps they would ill-treat my daughter. Perhaps she would be one of four wives. I was scared for her. Then I met my son-in-law and found him to be quite a gentleman. And today, all these long years later, I can actually say I love him like my own son. And when I meet Muslims, I have no fear whatsoever. We arranged my younger daughter’s marriage the traditional way. But this son-in-law badly mistreated my daughter, got angry for small reasons, and said she was not Brahminical enough. My daughter is thankfully divorced, but I learned some things the hard way. (Looking at the woman who had been so upset with me) I was like you before, but today I am a better person.”

My cousin was the only person whose statement was met with resounding applause.  It was a moving moment to call the gathering to close. I offered to stay in touch with all the attendees, including the two who were offended by my talk.

While I was talking with the charming members of Rubaroo, I noticed a young woman waiting to talk to me. She waited till I was alone before she came up to me. She said that even though she didn’t identify the same way as me, she was very supportive of what we were doing. She didn’t feel safe enough to speak, but she thanked me for my work. She had tears in her eyes. I asked her to email me, but somehow I don’t think she will.

I will be leaving my birth home for my adopted home. I will carry with me everything that has been shared in these interfaith gatherings I am so grateful to have been a part of: the passion, the fear, the vulnerability, the wisdom, the love and compassion, the despair, and the hope. I will soon be reunited with Aminta, Pratima, and all my Sadhana brothers and sisters. These conversations and experiences in India assure us that the work we are doing and the questions we are asking are relevant and timely. And so, our Sadhana — our Riyaaz — continues.