Where to begin a blog post about Sadhana Forest? We spent two and a half months there. What a long amount of time! But also, ten weeks is such a short stretch, even of our trip, that I can’t believe what weight I give our experience there. It was transformative to say the least, but to say the most– well, keep reading.
Sadhana Forest is a project to trump all other projects (not that it’s a competition!) due to the philosophical consistency and strength of its tenets: veganism, a gift economy, sustainability, and unschooling. I’ve described it to practically every person I’ve had a meaningful conversation with since we left. I begin by defining it as “an international volunteering community focused on regrowing an endangered type of forest.” That’s fairly accurate but doesn’t capture how living there was the absolute highlight of our trip to me.
In brief, here are my observations, couched in the form of a critique, with an ultimate expression of my respect and gratitude for Sadhana Forest:
1. the tenets are transcendental, that is, ideal or not necessarily reality;
2. most volunteers who visit are transient and don’t easily accept the tenets as permanent lifestyle options;
3. community living makes it hard for the tenets to get noticed or properly examined, expressed, accepted;
4. the graciousness of its founders and the long-term volunteers inspires change in the direction of the tenets, at the deepest level of personal growth
1. The tenets are transcendental, that is, ideal or not necessarily reality.
The ideals of SF are incredible–I remember thinking, how could it be SO in line with my own thinking?–and also perhaps, transcendental. Transcendental in the sense that such a perfect project, one that represents “sadhana” or a spiritual path, can only exist in our minds. Ideal are just that, ideal, and the people who hold these ideals themselves are also always changing and in changing situations. The ideals are always being contested and re-defined. I mean, I know I believe in veganism and in being vegan. In my mind, some things can seem SO black and white, so vegan or non-vegan, but for example, if a core group of long-term volunteers were out to eat with Aviram, the founder of SF, and one of them ordered a chai (with cow’s milk in it) and Aviram had already said he would pay the bill, and does in fact pay the bill, does that make him or SF non-vegan? The long-term volunteer isn’t vegan, and he is while physically at SF but he hadn’t thought about his beverage choice now outside of SF. Veganism still remains the ideal SF lifestyle, but situations like this can happen at anytime. Veganism is not really ever something that can be 100% in reality, and I’m not sure that perfection is the point. I can name many instances when I’ve completely accidentally consumed non-vegan things, and I know I consider myself fully vegan, but after SF, I’ve noticed how silly it is to try to quantify my or anyone else’s veganism (i.e. 100% vegan). And how trite it would be to point out the long-term volunteer’s chai. What would that have proven about veganism, the animals, or compassion, in general? Nothing.
Interestingly, veganism and unschooling are two beliefs which inspire their believers to identify themselves as fully vegan or fully unschoolers. There aren’t any well-defined ways to be partially-vegan or half-unschooled, though I’m sure people have experimented. In any case, the desire to be fully immersed in the belief set lends a sort of extremist reputation to these philosophies which might turn out to be a false impression. I don’t see these philosophies as extreme because I see them as appropriate political responses to the way our world has become. But without having some sort of discussion of the tension between veganism and carnism, or unschooling and conventional schooling, these philosophies seem extreme and ridiculous. So back to the chai, what sort of political weight would it have to criticize it? None. But it still made me uncomfortable. When I tried to sit with my feelings to understand my discomfort, I realized I had lost sight of veganism as a transcendental, political philosophy and had instead stamped veganism as my identity. It became personal rather than political. I saw my friend’s drink as a direct affront to me, to Aviram, to Sadhana Forest, instead of it being the result of my friend’s being raised in India, drinking chai, and being encouraged to drink cow’s milk for the profits the dairy industry would give his community. The way I interpreted this situation is a key flaw to these movements which were developed in response to politically-charged situations. Since noticing the way Aviram handled the situation–he didn’t say anything–, I’ve really worked to become more compassionate and understanding of others, while still maintaining my political criticism of animal agriculture.
2. Most volunteers who visit are transient and don’t easily accept the tenets as permanent lifestyle options.
These tenets lend a certain allure to the project and it seems like the allure, more so than an actual belief in the tenets, drew volunteers in. I was always surprised by how few vegans there actually were. In fact, I could usually count the number of vegans on one hand–not that I would often count, but new volunteers would always ask, as if they were curious to know if they would be outnumbered.
The type of traveler who comes to India and especially to SF already falls into some sort of stereotype of being more adventurous and more inclined to thinking critically and not just accepting a religion or a dogma. A lot of them are also interested in spirituality and open-mindedness. In my observation, this also meant a lot of people would eat non-vegan things if offered to them, or do non-environmentally friendly things as a means to an end without feeling guilty. Or they have some sort of belief of karma in order to justify eating animal products in this lifetime. Practically none of the volunteers had a belief system consistently based on gift economies or unschooling. (I recognize that I’m passing a lot of judgment here.)
My point is the volunteers at SF learned about the tenets through living at SF, but their lifestyle changes so frequently and they are often at the mercy of whatever project they are at so keeping a certain lifestyle or diet can limit their sense of adventure. Of course, all of us were using non-renewable power outside of projects with solar or other alternative energy sources; all of us traveled by trains, planes, buses, and rickshaws; and the majority of us were schooled conventionally and might volunteer with children who are also being taught conventionally. Veganism seems to be the exception in that it’s easy to keep a vegan lifestyle while traveling if you keep an open heart and are willing to kindly explain your diet and ask politely for vegan options. And we did have a lot of people experiment with being fully vegan while at SF and who tried to keep it up afterwards. I don’t think it’s the fault of the tenets that more people didn’t ‘convert’ to the SF lifestyle; after all many people are very interested in learning about them. It’s simply that nothing is very permanent in the life of a traveler.
3. Community living makes it hard for the tenets to get noticed or properly examined, expressed, accepted.
Like I just said, people are interested in the issues of the tenets, especially people who want to try veganism or “ultimate” sustainability, but general community life makes it hard for them to stay, or even to stay committed. Like most progressive ideals, these ideals aren’t accepted readily and they don’t actually play a starring role in the day-to-day life. If the tenets were the things which most people recognized as most radically different in the community it would probably revolve around 1) not wearing shoes, ever 2) wiping (your bum) with your hand and 3) eating a lot of fruit for breakfast. After the introductory “thank yous” (the affirmative list of rules i.e. “thank you for eating only vegan food while at SF”), most volunteers probably forget that these are the vital tenets. After all, it’s already India and the way of life in an international community like Auroville is already drastically different than the Western lifestyle. But after a week or so of being there, the foot fungus you got from being barefoot, your infected mosquito bites, your frequent stomach ailments, and your complaints over the bland and repetitive food are your primary concerns with the community. I’m guilty of these things, but I wish we had all explored the tenets more, especially those of us transient volunteers who lived and breathed alongside those more “permanent” members of the community.
I personally wished I had learned more about unschooling as it is perhaps the least conventional ideal. Almost every volunteer I talked to is concerned about the children and their learning rate at Sadhana. Why can’t they read yet? Why can’t they tell time or count yet? Most people seem to believe that these are the vital skills which should be taught, and everything else can be learned through the child’s desire to learn. I am still not sure how I feel about this issue, but I feel a lot of nostalgia for my childhood literature. Certain books enlivened my imagination and certainly shaped my development as a person. Additionally, the censorship of media strikes me as unfair. How will a child know what she likes if she isn’t ever exposed to it? My parents never censored my books or movies (that I know of…), and I know I was drawn to things which were age-appropriate. Well, I suppose I remember learning about sex when I read Flowers for Algernon, but I don’t think I’ve been scarred for life and I think that accidental exposure allowed me to think about sexuality with a normal sort of curiosity.
4. The graciousness of its founders and the long-term volunteers inspires change in the direction of the tenets, at the deepest level of personal growth.
Since we left SF, we’ve both WWOOFed alongside strangers who had been to SF a year ago, and WWOOFed with hosts who had been inspired by volunteering there 6 years ago. But recounting our stories with these people felt superficial since the SF we each experienced was completely different. I feel so lucky that I made a few good friends there who I know I could tell anything and could depend for support. I credit them of course, but also SF for creating an environment which breeds such integrity in its residents. The comfort of sitting next to these friends during meals in the main hut is a feeling I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so consistently. All of them happened to be long-term volunteers. I also felt a strong sense of kinship with the founding family, the Rozins. Aviram and Yorit dealt with incredibly difficult situations like a volunteer being raped, Cyclone Thane, a pregnant prostitute, outbreaks of illness, broken water filters, and a million other daily issues. They and long-term volunteers and residents handled these situations with incredible kindness and graciousness. Their honesty and integrity are the sorts of things that comprise the greatest literature, the greatest music, and the greatest art of our human history. And it’s so raw, so real, and you can hear their own process at sharing meetings and in conversations at meals. That’s the power of this project.
These are my personal and honest reflections. I say them with utmost respect, because I know it is so easy for most to criticize a community with “extreme” values. SF welcomes hundreds of new and old volunteers each year because something about it just works and feels genuine. I was drawn in, like others, because of the tenets, but I’ve grown to love it, not because of the tenets or some blind belief in them, but because of the goodness and kind tenacity of my friends there.