Community of Ark: Hind Swaraj Perspectives in Practice
Siby K. Joseph
The Community of Ark founded by Lanza del Vasto is an outstanding experiment in alternative way of living on Gandhian lines in Europe. It is indisputable that non-violent living at individual and community levels is an essential prerequisite for the attainment of true Swaraj envisioned by Gandhi.The paper explains how the Ark applies the Hind Swaraj ideals and perspectives in its experiments in community living.
It is a befitting tribute to Gandhi to reflect on his work Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule and its practical applications during its centenary year. One who scrutinises Gandhi’s philosophy and methods will see their seeds in his work Hind Swaraj.1 That is why this booklet is often hailed as Gandhi’s ‘seminal work’. Though Gandhi wrote this book keeping in mind mainly the Indians, his concept of Swaraj is not confined to the Swaraj of India alone. In fact, the ideas presented in this book constitute the foundation of Gandhi’s philosophy of life. It may be said that it is on the foundation of Hind Swaraj that the whole edifice of Gandhi’s theory of life is built. Anthony Parel has rightly pointed out that “Hind Swaraj is the seed from which the tree of Gandhian thought has grown to its full stature”.2 The values presented in this booklet are eternal and transcend geographical boundaries. Also, while this booklet is a severe condemnation of modern western civilization and its institutions, it also presents Gandhi’s concept of an alternative way of life based on moral values, and spirituality.
Records show that Hind Swaraj gave rise to a lot of controversies. Discussions and debates were aplenty at the theoretical level. It is to be noted that several experiments were also undertaken by people of idealistic orientation to put the Hind Swaraj insights into practice. The Community of Ark in Southern France, for example, is an attempt to apply the Hind Swaraj perspectives on nonviolence as a way of alternative living. This paper tries to look at the Ark experiment and examine how its activities cohere the Hind Swaraj insights and perspectives.
The Community of Ark
Before discussing the main theme of the paper a brief introduction about the Community of Ark is in order. Joseph Jean Lanza del Vasto (1901-1981), founder of the Community of Ark, was an Italian aristocrat who came to India on a pilgrimage in December 1936.3 He met Gandhi in 1937and stayed with him for three months.His stay with Gandhi was a turning point in his life. Gandhi introduced him to nonviolence and on his request gave him a new name, Shantidas, meaning Servant of Peace. Lanza returned to Europe with the conviction that the Gandhian vision provided a framework to solve the evils of modern civilisation.
The catastrophe of the Second World War deepened his conviction and he decided to spread the Gandhian doctrines in the West.This finally resulted in the founding of the original rural Community of Ark with his wife Chantrelle in the Southwest of France in1948. However, his first experiment in community life was short lived. Lanza del Vasto left France and joined Vinoba Bhave in his Bhoodan movement in early 1954.4 He returned to France to re-establish the community on an estate in the Rhone Valley in the south of France. This community had strict entry procedures to become a full-time member of the community. For three years, a new member would be treated as a novice and then will be admitted to the community by a unanimous decision. With the increase in number of members a new home was found for the Community of Ark in La Borie Noble with the acquisition of 1000 acres of farmland and forest in the hills of the Languedoc in Southern France.5 The group shifted to this location in 1963 and rebuilt the half-ruined buildings of stone deserted by the villagers since the First World War. Thus from that year onwards La Borie Noble became the headquarters of the Community of Ark. In the course of time two further communities were established on the land viz, Nogaret and La Fleyssière. La Borie Noble and La Fleyssière are the two rural communities of Ark which are still active and functioning on the ideals laid down by Lanza del Vasto.But the number of persons staying in these communities has come down drastically after the passing away of the founder. The members of these communities still follow the spirit of Lanza and Gandhi.
It may be said without exaggeration that these Communities of Ark are probably the finest examples of community living in the world. The members of these communities live together practising the values of truth, love and mutual tolerance. They follow a way of life completely devoted to non-violence. The Community of Ark is a typical example where people live a simple life based on manual labour similar to the life of the ashrams founded by Gandhi in South Africa and India .The Community of Ark of Saint Antonie was founded in 1987.6 It occupies part of the building of the former Abbey of St Antonie in the village of St. Antonie l’Abbaye. This community is basically a training centre providing courses, sessions and accommodation to guests. This community consists of more than 50 members and on an average welcomes 3000 people in a year. The Ark consists of communities, friends and well wishers who pursue individually or in groups the ideals of Lanza. Thus, Ark can be described as a movement and a group of communities. The Ark has centres in Germay and Argentina and the movement is spreading to differnt parts of the world viz. Spain, Italy, Quebec, Mexico and South Africa.
Application of Hind Swaraj Perspectives in Ark
Gandhi outlined his vision of swaraj in his booklet Hind Swaraj. For Gandhi swaraj is not a political or social term. It is basically a moral and ethical principle. While summarising the key message, at the end of the book, Gandhi clearly stated that real home rule is “self rule” or “self control.”7 For him it is not a utopia, a dream or an abstract idea. It is something one has to experience internally. It calls for an internal transformation of the individual. Intrapersonal transformation is only the beginning, not the end; once such a transformation is achieved by an individual, it becomes the responsibility of that individual to persuade others also to experience it.8 The members of the Community of Ark are trying to achieve such swaraj through an alternative way of living. Simple living is the hallmark of the community. Leading a simple, communitarian life is basically an exercise in detachment and self renunciation. For Gandhi it is an essential prerequisite for the attainment of the true Swaraj. The Ark explains the necessity of voluntary simplicity in the following words: “Everyone knows these days that the planetary resources are limited. We are squandering the heritage from previous generations that we should be passing on to our children. Given the situation, members of the Ark choose to live in voluntary simplicity, each according to his or her own lights…. It is also the preference of living together in solidarity and well-being rather than having more and more.”9 It shows a deep environmental awareness and a sense of responsibility to safeguard our common heritage.
The Ark communities try to practice some of the economic ideas of Gandhi presented in Hind Swaraj .For example, the members of the Ark embrace voluntary poverty as part of their personal ascesis. They limit their needs voluntarily to the bare minimum because they want to free themselves from the trap of the urge for consumption. They try to have an economy with a human face, one that valued relationship, sharing and mutual aid. The Ark community attaches great importance to manual labour.10 Everybody is supposed to acquire/ learn basic labour skills so that each member will be equipped to meet the basic necessities of life – food, clothing and shelter. Work is looked upon not only as a means of living but also an expression of one’s creativity and total self.11 Each member is expected to work for about eight hours a day or for as many hours as one’s physical ability warrants, including performance of household chores. All work stops once in an hour for a moment of silence and reflection on the work one has done. The members work with joy and it has a rhythm. The fruits of the labour are pooled together and each one receives according to his/her needs. They strive towards a self-reliant economy free from machinery, modern technology and market. The community engages in a healthy protest against the misuse of science and technology. The Community uses little electricity as an expression of their commitment to simplicity and opposition to nuclear power.
Gandhi wrote in Young India in January 1921 that the Hind Swaraj teaches the gospel of love in the place of hate. “In my opinion it is a book which can be put into the hands of a child. It teaches the gospel of love in the place of that of hate. It replaces violence with self-sacrifice. It pits soul force against brute force.”12 Gandhi admitted that Hind Swaraj was a true measure of his faith in the weapon of Satyagraha.13 The Community of Ark is an experiment to apply nonviolence (love) in different facets of human life. The Ark Charter reiterates the community’s faith in nonviolence. Their document lays down as follows: “In the footsteps of Gandhi and Lanza del Vasto, the members of the Ark choose the path of nonviolence which is rooted in work on ourselves and spiritual seeking. They choose: to open themselves to others in a relationship of mutual support; to live simply; to respect all life; and to work for Justice and Peace by nonviolent means.”14 The members of the Ark follow the seven vows of the community by their own choice. They are work (including bread labour, service), obedience (primarily to the rule and one’s vows), responsibility (and co-responsibility), purification (of one’s self), poverty (living simply), truthfulness (service of truth) and non-violence (including defense of justice).15 Community life in the Ark serves as a touchstone of their commitment to all the dimensions of nonviolence.
The Ark is highly critical of modern governments and their institutions. The members of the Ark look upon government as an embodiment of violence. Mark Shepard writes: “The companions saw modern government as built on violence, because its final authority rests on force, or threat of it, from its military, police and prisons .They didn’t believe that force or violence against a person is never justified, whether it is by individuals or by a government. When a government inflicts punishment on an offender, they said the crime is not corrected but doubled. In fact, they saw violence by government as more insidious than violence by individuals, because it hides behind a cloak of legitimacy”16 The Ark visualises a non-violent form of governance or self-governance in which each individual is free to act according to his/her conscience.
According to Gandhi organization is the test of nonviolence and organization means among other things decision making. Members of Ark take all important decisions relating to the community unanimously by and by consensus. If they fail to reach unanimity on a particular issue they follow different methods like discussions, observance of silence to calm down the heated arguments, prayer, meditation and, in extreme cases, even fasting. Prayer, meditation, physical exercises, work, singing, dancing, celebration etc., are carefully interwoven into this nonviolent experiment. The Ark community has no religious affiliation. They welcome people following different religious faiths and even those with no religious affiliation. It believes that nonviolence exists within all the major religions of the world at varying levels.
The Ark, as a community has deep faith in the efficacy of nonviolent direct action or Satyagraha. From the year 1957 onwards, the Ark has been directing and collaborating with groups with similar objectives in non-violent direct action to address conflicts, wars, torture, internment of Algerian civilians during the French war in Algeria, nuclear energy/weapons, compulsory military service, countryside railways and similar issues. The Ark played an important role in the struggle of farmers of Larzac plateau of Southern France to prevent the Government plan to expand the military camp of Larzac by taking huge areas of agricultural lands for weapon testing. The battle of Larzac17(1970-1980) is well known in the annals of non-violent struggles of France and of Europe. In recent years, the Ark has been actively involved in non-violent action against genetically modified (GM) crops. Presently the CANVA (Coordination of the Nonviolent Actions of the Ark), St. Antonie l’Abbaye , specialises in non-violent action. This association organises campaigns and supports those institutions and individuals engaged in non-violent movements. On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Gandhi’s martyrdom, the Ark was one of the pioneering institutions responsible for the organization of an International Congress on Peace and Non-violence at Sewagram/Wardha.18 Two close associates19 of Lanza del Vasto got the Jamnalal Bajaj International Award for promoting Gandhian values outside India in 1988 and 2008.
In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi defined true or ideal civilization as “that mode of conduct which points out to man the path of duty.”20 The performance of duty or observance of morality is essential to attain mastery over our mind and passions. It calls for an alternative way of life. Gandhi believed that the ancient Indian village system was conducive to the performance of duty which also meant the observance of morality. The Community of Ark places before humanity such an alternative way of living where social relations are organised on the basis of the principle of nonviolence and such other eternal values of life. There are several alternative experiments going on in various fields in different parts of the world based on this Gandhian vision. These experiments are mostly on a small scale, but they are concrete efforts towards building a society on the basis of the values of truth, nonviolence and justice. The real task before those who dream a just world order is to strengthen and multiply these experiments in alternative living and network them in such a way that they eventually assume the required critical mass in society.
Notes and References
* This is a revised version of a paper presented at the International Seminar on ‘Hind Swaraj:100 years and after’ organised by Gandhi Bhavan, University of Delhi from 11th to 13th Feb. 2009 at Conference Centre, University of Delhi, Delhi.
- “all that Gandhiji was teaching now lay in the germ in that little book” – Lord Lothian, See M. K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule (Ahmedabad: Navjivan Publishing House, 2004) p. 12.
- M. K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj and Other Writings edited by Anthony J.Parel (Ed.) (New Delhi: Foundation Books, 1997) , p. xiii.
- See Lanza Del Vasto,Return to the Source(New York: Schocken Books), 1972.
- See Lanza Del Vasto,Gandhi to Vinoba;The New Pilgrimage (New york: Schocken Books), 1974.
- Mark Shepard, The Community of Ark (California: Simple Productions), 1990 p. 13.See also http: //www.markshep.com/non-violence/Ark.htm
- M. K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule op.cit., p. 90
- Gandhi defines Swaraj as “It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves. It is, therefore in the palm of our hands. Do not consider this Swaraj to be like a dream. There is no idea of sitting still. The Swaraj that I wish to picture is such that, after we have once realized it, we shall endeavour to the end of our life-time to persuade others to do likewise. But such Swaraj has to be experienced, by each one for himself.” “ ibid., p. 56
- The Ark Community of Lanza del Vasto, a recent brochure of the Communities of Ark,France.
- It is evident from the description of life at the Ark for the participants of Summer School and Workshops at the La Borie Noble. “ Generally in the morning, after helping in the kitchen, there is work on the farm or in gardens With its working horses, its cows and hens, its arable farm, its haymaking and wood cutting, life unrolls peacefully and almost self sufficiently. Help is always welcomed. Occasionally there is work in the diary, assisting with cheese making or in the bakery….After lunch and siesta there is time for craftwork, woodwork, spinning, drawing and painting, for workshops and group discussions, visits to the pottery or bakery, for learning dance,…for thinking.”
- “It is in the making of things that human beings are themselves made’’ -Lanza Del Vasto.
- M. K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule op.cit., p. 15
- Gandhi explains that the “Hind Swaraj was written in order to demonstrate the sublimity of Satyagraha and that book is a true measure of my faith in its efficacy” See M. K.Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa (Ahmedabad: Navjivan Publishing House, 1993), p. 212.
- Mark Shepard , The Community of Ark op. cit., p.29
- Ibid., p. 28.
- Roger Rawilson, The Battle of Larzac (Fellowship of Reconciliation: England).
- For details See http://www.gvpwardha.in
- Pieree Parodi(1988),Louis Campana (2008).
- M. K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule op.cit., p. 53
Siby K. Joseph is Dean of Studies and Research, Institute of Gandhian Studies, Gopuri, Wardha , Maharashtra 442 001. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Gandhi Marg, New Delhi, July- September 2009.