[ Translated from the original in Gujarati by Valji Govindji Desai]

Ashram Observances


Table of Contents

About This Book

Author : M. K. Gandhi
Translated from the original in Gujarati by : Valji Govindji Desai
First Edition : 3,000 copies, 1955
Total : 16,000 copies
ISBN : 81-7229-216-3
Printed and Published by : Navajivan Publishing House,
Tel. +91-79-27540635
© Navajivan Trust, 1955


Chapter-8 : Removal of Untouchablity

The Ashram was founded in order to serve and if necessary to die in the service of Truth. If therefore while holding that untouchability is a sinful thing, it did not do something positive in order to end it, it could hardly deserve the name of Satyagraha (adherence to Truth) Ashram. Even in South Africa we recognised untouchability as a sin. When the Ashram therefore was founded in India, removal of untouchability easily became one of its major activities.
Within a month of the foundation of the Ashram, Dudabhai applied for admission along with his family. I had no idea that the testing time of the Ashram would arrive so soon. Dudabhai's application was supported by Shri Amritlal Thakkar. I felt bound to admit a family which was recommended by him.
The arrival of Dudabhai was the signal for a storm breaking upon the placid atmosphere of the Ashram, Kasturba, Maganlal Gandhi and Mrs Mlaganlal had each of them some scruples in living with so-called untouchables. Things came to such a pass that Kasturba should either observe Ashram rules or else leave the Ashram. But the argument that a woman in following in her husband's footsteps incurs no sin appealed to her and she quieted down. I do not hold that a wife is bound to follow her husband in what she considers sinful. But I welcomed my wife's attitude in the present case, because I looked upon the removal of untouchability as a meritorious thing. No one could uphold untouchability and still lives in the Ashram. It would have been extremely painful to me if my wife had had to leave the Ashram, seeing that she had been my companion all these days at the cost of great suffering. It was hard to be separated from her, but ones must put up with every hardship that comes his way in the discharge of his duty. I had therefore no hesitation in accepting my wife's denunciation of untouchability not as an independent person but only as a faithful wife.
Maganlal Gandhi's case was harder than mine. He packed up his things and came to me to told goodbye. But who was I to bid him goodbye? I put him on his guard. 1 told him that the Ashram was his creation as much as mine, and would be destroyed if he left it. But he certainly did not want that it should perish. He did not need to seek my permission to leave an institution which he himself had brought into existence. But to leave the Ashram should be something unthinkable for him. This appeal did not fall on deaf ears. Perhaps Maganlal had thought of Heaving in order to give me a free hand. I could endure to be separated from all the world besides but not from Maganlal. I therefore suggested that he should go to Madras with family. He and his wife would learn more of weaving there and would have more time to ponder over the situation that had developed. So they went and lived in Madras for six months. They mastered the art of weaving and after mature consideration also washed their hearts clean of untouchability.
The internal storm thus blew over. But there was a storm outside the Ashram too. The chief person who financed the Ashram discontinued his assistance. There was even a possibility that the Ashramites would not be allowed any more to draw water from the neighbour's well. But all difficulties were surmounted by and by. As regards finance, something happened which was not unlike Narasinha Mehta's hundi (bill of exchange) being honoured at Dvaravati. A sum of thirteen thousand rupees was received from an unexpected source. Thus the Ashram ordeal in keeping Dudabhai at any cost was not so severe as it might well have been. The Ashram passed the test as regards its opposition to untouchability. 'Untouchable' families come to the Ashram freely and live in it. Dudabhai's daughter Lakshmi has become a full member of the family.
Three callings followed by the so-called untouchables are practised in the Ashram, and improved methods are devised in each. Everyone in the Ashram has in turns to do sanitary service, which is looked upon not as a special calling but a universal duty. No outside labour is engaged for this work, which is carried on lines suggested by Dr Poore. Nightsoil is buried in shallow trenches and is thus converted into manure in only a few days. Dr Poore says that the soil is living up to a depth of twelve inches. Millions of bacteria are there to clean up dirt. Sunlight and air penetrate the ground to that depth. Therefore nightsoil buried in the upper layer readily combines with the earth.
Closets are so constructed that they are free from smell and there is no difficulty in cleaning them. Everyone who visits them covers the nightsoil with plenty of dry earth, so that the top is always dry.
Then again we have handloom weaving. Coarse khadi was manufactured in Gujarat by Harijan weavers only. The industry was almost on the verge of destruction, and many weavers were compelled to take up scavenging for a living. But now there has been a revival of this handicraft.
Thirdly we have tanning. We shall deal with it in the chapter on the Ashram dairy.
The Ashram does not believe in subcastes. There are no restrictions on inter-dining and all Ashramites sit to dinner in the same line. But no propaganda in favour of interdining is carried on outside the Ashram, as it is unnecessary for the removal of untouchability, which implies the lifting of bans imposed on Harijans in public institutions and discarding the superstition that a man is polluted by the touch of certain persons by reason of their birth in a particular caste. This disability can also be removed by legislation. Inter-dining and intermarriage are reforms of a different type which cannot be promoted by legislation or social pressure. The Ashramites therefore feel themselves free to take permitted food with everyone else but do not carry on any such propaganda.
Schools are established and wells sunk for Harijans through the Ashram which chiefly finds the finance for such activities. The real anti-untouchability work carried on in the Ashram is the reformed conduct of the Ashramites. There is no room in the Ashram for any ideas of high and low.
However the Ashram believes that varnas and ashramas are essential elements of Hinduism. Only it puts a different interpretation on these time-honoured terms. Four varnas and four ashramas are an arrangement not peculiar to Hinduism but capable of world-wide application, and a universal rule, the breach of which has involved humanity in numerous disasters. The four ashramas are brahmacharya, garhasthya, vanaprasthya and sannyasa. Brahmacharya is the stage during which men as well as women prosecute their studies, and should not only observe brahmacharya but should also be free from any other burden except that of studies. This lasts till at least the twenty-fifth year, when the student becomes a householder if he wishes. Almost all the students thus become householders. But this stage should close at the age of fifty. During that period the householder enjoys the pleasures of life, makes money, practises a profession and rears a family. From fifty to seventy-five wife and husband should live apart and wholly devote themselves to the service of the people. They must leave their families and try to look upon the world as a big family. During the last 25 years they should become sannyasis, live apart, set to the people an example of ideal religious life and maintain themselves with whatever the people choose to give them. It is clear that society as a whole would be elevated if many carried out this scheme in their lives.
So far as I am aware, the ashrama arrangement is unknown outside India, but even in India it has practically disappeared at present. There is no such thing now as] brahmacharya, which is intended to be the foundation of life. For the rest we have sannyasis, most of them such only in name, with nothing of sannyasa about them except the orange robe. Many of them are ignorant, and some who have acquired learning are not knowers of brahma but fanatics.
There are some honourable exceptions but even these well- conducted monks lack th lustre we love to associate with sannyasa. It is possible that some real sannyasis lead a solitary life. But it is obvious that sannyasa as a stage in life has fallen into desuetude. A society which is served by able sannyasis would not be poor in spirit, unprovided even with the necessaries of life, and politically dependent* as Hindu society is at present. If sannyasa were with us a living thing, it would exert a powerful influence on neighbouring faiths, for the sannyasi is a servant not only of Hinduism but of all the faiths of mankind.
But we can never hope to see such sannyasis unless brahmacharya is observed in the country. As for vanaprasthya, there is no trace of it. The last stage we have to consider is that of the householder. But our householders are given to unregulated self-indulgence. Householders in the absence of the three other ashramas live like brutes. Self-restraint is the one thing which differentiates man from beast, but it is practised no longer.
The Ashram is engaged in the great endeavour to resuscitate the four ashramas. It is like an ant trying to lift a bag of sugar. This effort though apparently ridiculous is part of the Ashram quest of truth. All the inmates of the Ashram therefore observe brahmacharya. Permanent members must observe it for life. All the inmates are not members in this sense. Only a few are members, the rest are students. If this effort is crowned with success, we may hope to see a revival of the ashrama scheme of life. The sixteen years during which the Ashram has functioned are not a sufficiently long period for the assessment of results. I have no idea of the time when such assessment will be possible. I can only say that there is nothing like dissatisfaction with the progress achieved up to date.
If the ashrama scheme has broken down, the plight of the varnas is equally bad. At first there were four varnas (classes); but now there are innumerable sections or only one. If we take it that there are as many varnas as there are castes and subcastes, their name is legion; on the other hand if as I think varnas have nothing to do with caste, there is only a single varna left and that is the Shudra. We are here not finding fault with anybody but only stating the facts of the case. Shudras are those who serve and are dependent upon others. India is a dependency1; therefore every Indian is a Shudra. The cultivator does not own his land, the merchant his merchandise. There is hardly a Kshatriya or a Brahman who possesses the virtues which the Shastras attribute to his varna.
My impression is that there was no idea of high and low when the varna system was discovered. No one is high and no one is low in this world; therefore he who thinks he belongs to a high class is never high-class, and he who believes himself to be low is merely the victim of ignorance. He has been taught by his masters that he is low. If a Brahman has knowledge, those who are without it will respect him as a matter of course. But if he is puffed up by the respect thus shown to him and imagines himself to belong to a high class, he directly ceases to be a Brahman. Virtue will always command respect, but when the man of virtue thinks much of himself, his virtue ceases to have any significance for the world. Talents of all kinds are a trust and must be utilized for the benefit of society. The individual has no right to live unto himself. Indeed it is impossible to live unto oneself. We fully live unto ourselves when we live unto society.
No matter what was the position in ancient times, no one can nowadays go through life claiming to belong to a high class. Society will not willingly admit any such claim to superiority, but only under duress. The world is now wide awake. This awakening has perhaps given rise to some licence, but even so public opinion is not now prepared to accept any distinctions of high and low, which are being attacked on all sides. There is ever increasing realization that all are equal as human souls. The fact that we are all the creatures of one God rules out all ideas of high and low. When we say that no one is high-born or low-born, it does not mean that all have or ought to have equal talents. All have not equal talents, equal property or equal opportunities. Still all are equal like brothers and sisters of different dispositions, abilities and ages.
If therefore the varna system is a spiritual arrangement, there cannot be any place in it for high and low.
Thus there are four varnas, all equal in status, and they are determined by birth. They can be changed by a person choosing another profession, but if varnas are not as a rule determined by birth, they tend to lose all meaning.
The varna system is ethical as well as economic. It recognises the influence of previous lives and of heredity. All are not born with equal powers and similar tendencies. Neither the parents nor the state can measure the intelligence of each child. But there would be no difficulty if each child is prepared for the profession indicated by heredity, environment and the influence of former lives; no time would be lost in fruitless experimentation, there would be no soul-killing competition, a spirit of contentment would pervade society and there would be no struggle for existence.
The varna system implies the obliteration of all distinctions of high and low. If the carpenter is held to be superior to the shoemaker and the pleader or doctor is superior to both of them, no one would willingly become a shoemaker or carpenter and all would try to become pleaders or doctors. They would be entitled to do so and to be praised for doing so. That is to say, the varna system would be looked upon as an evil and abolished as such.
But when it is suggested that everyone should practise his father's profession, the suggestion is coupled with the condition that the practitioner of every profession will earn only a living wage and no more. If the carpenter earns more than a shoemaker and the pleader or doctor more than both, everyone would become a lawyer or doctor. Such is the case at present with the result that hatred has increased and there are more lawyers and doctors than are necessary. It may be that society needs the lawyer or doctor even as it needs the shoemaker and the carpenter. These four professions are here taken only as illustrations and for comparison. It would be irrelevant to stop to consider whether society has particular need or no need at all for this, that or the other profession.
This principle then is an integral part of the varna system that learning is not a trade and may not be used in order to amass riches. Therefore in so far as his ministrations may be necessary, the lawyer or doctor ought by practising his profession to earn only a living wage. And such was actually the case formerly. The village vaidya (physician) did not earn more than the carpenter but only a living wage. In short the emoluments of all crafts and professions should be equal and amount to a living wage. The number of varnas has no sanctity about it; their value is due to the fact that they define the duties of man. Varnas may be supposed to be one or more just as we like. The scriptures enumerate four of them. But when once we have assigned equal status to all, it makes little difference whether we think that there are four of them or that there is only one.
Such is the varna system which the Ashram is trying to resuscitate. It is like Dame Partington with her mop, trying to push back the Atlantic Ocean. I have already mentioned its two fundamental principles, namely that there are no high and low, and everyone is entitled to a living wage, the living wage being the same for all. In so far as these principles win acceptance, they will render a positive service to society.
It may be objected that if such a plan is accepted there will be no incentive for the acquisition of knowledge. But the object with which knowledge is acquired nowadays tends to corrupt it, and therefore the absence of an incentive will be entirely beneficial. Knowledge truly so called is intended for one's salvation, that is to say, service of mankind. Whoever has a desire to render service will certainly try to equip himself with the requisite knowledge, and his knowledge will be an ornament to himself as well as to society. Again when the temptation to amass riches is removed, there will be a change for the better in the curriculum of studies as well as in the methods of education. There is much misuse of knowledge at present. This misuse will be reduced to the minimum in the 'new order'.
Even then there will be scope for competition in trying to be good and helpful. And there will be no discontent or disorder as all will receive a living wage.
Varna is wrongly understood today. That wrong understanding must make way for the principles outlined above. Untouchability must go, and varnas should have nothing to do with inter-dining or intermarriage. A person will dine with and marry whom he likes. But as a rule he will marry someone who belongs to the same varna as himself. But if he marries a person belonging to another varna, his act will not count as a sin. A person will be boycotted not by the varna but by society at large when his conduct justifies such a measure. Society will be better constituted than it is at present, and the impurity and hypocrisy which infest it now will be dislodged.

  1. Written in 1932. V. G. D.