13 Experiments with Simple & Sustainable Living: Stories from Swaraj University

Experiments with Simple & Sustainable Living: A story from Swaraj University by Rahul Hasija

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Khojis at the lake-side behind campus

When I see small ants, hundreds of them, crawling in my mud house every day, when I hear the Nilgaay (Blue bull) jumping in my backyard garden in middle of the night in search for food, when I see stars, planets and meteorsand the faint milky way in the night sky, when I see the grass growing wild in the rains and vanish in the summers, when I hear people sharing deepest of their stories, music and dance, when I see birds and bees do what they are best at, and when I see people playing with mud & manure in the fields for the foods & fruits they mother for us, I realize something is alive – it is thriving and it is breathing with me. For last 6 years, I have been experiencing this aliveness with my community at Swaraj University, Udaipur.

Swaraj University is a university without classrooms, teachers, pre-defined syllabus and degrees. Intertwined in the form of a 2-year program, it has also been a space for many learnersfor the last 6 years to pursue their hearts’ calling,healthily question their lifestyles, their notions of the world, self and society and a space to be comfortable with themselves – a space where they can feel accepted.This space also came into being with the aim to challenge the institutionalization of education, health, food, entertainment and lifestyle and to give youth an opportunity to reclaim all of them in their lives.

Khojis(that’s what we call the learners, a Hindi word for ‘Seekers’) from the previous batches have explored and worked in more than 75 different fields; some of them are eco-architecture, farming, theatre, design, healing, technology, facilitation/teaching, writing, film making, storytelling, alternative education, ‘kabaad se jugaad’, event-management, healthy cooking, and even living simply in an intentional community.

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Surrounding hills around the campus of Swaraj University

Located 15kms from Udaipur city amidst the fatherly Aravalli hills range, we reside in a place called Tapovan Ashram, which was started 25 years back by a retired couple, who bought this as a barren land, reforested it and turned it into an ecological heaven. It is home for many species of birds, insects, reptiles and predators, and living on the campus itself has been a healing process for many of us.

Having been part of this space from the beginning, as a Khoji, then interning for a year and then as a facilitator and having experienced living on the campus from last 6 years, I intend to share about experiments we have begun with and how they are helping us transit to an ecological community.

‘Ecological Sustainability’ has been an important pillar of the program at Swaraj as we believe learning cannot happen in isolation and in separation from Nature. The more we sense the interconnectedness, the more in-tuned we are with self. In all these years, there have been various experiments and practices tried, some intentionally, some just came to be, at head, heart and hands level to understand the impact of our current lifestyles, assess it and slowly shift to ecologically sustainable ways (Here, Sustainability means living in harmony and inter-dependence with other beings – living and non-living, that doesn’t risk their present or potential future lives)

Some of them are:

 1. Hands-on work at the campus

All the learners and faculty on the campus are actively involved in cooking, cleaning and maintaining the community spaces. Our continuous involvement with our hands has helped us reduce the weightage today’s youth gives to head work and it has helped us understand the potential our bodies hold. A lot of youth I meet and interact with have a distorted vision oftheir physical bodies because of the persistent pressure from media and society to have the perfect body, face, colour, shape, size(I was one of them few years back). This bombardment has made us lose respect for our bodies and has made us uncomfortable within it. Doing regular hands-on work releases some of that pressure as it has made us feel and connect to our body. Hands-on involvement is not limited to cooking, cleaning and farm-work, experiences like theatre, dance movement therapy, cooperative games, and meditations of different kinds collectively helps in healing our notions of our bodies and self. I remember,by the end of my 2 years at Swaraj University, I realized I had become so comfortable with my body that it didn’t matter what kind of clothes I wear and how I look. As I observed around me, I have seen people consuming more and more, and shopping for the outer beauty because there is an uncomfortable relation with inner being. The moment I became comfortable with my body, I realized I needn’t buy new clothes or accessories, in a way reducing my consumption.

It was also intentional from the beginning to have no maids, servants or workers on the campus as it gives us the opportunity to move away from the parasitic relationships we have on people and often communities of certain backgrounds, for the work we are capable and responsible for.

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 2. Re-think Development

What are the places we consider ‘developed’ in India?Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, would be a common answer. Paradoxically, these so-called ‘developed’ places have no pure air, pure water and pure food. Then what is so ‘developed’ about them? If a man sits under the shade of a tree to relax and experiences contentment, it adds nothing to the GDP, but when the same man cuts the tree and sells it into the market, it adds to the national growth. So, are peace and contentment contradictory to nation’s growth? More of such mind-boggling and intense processes are part of this workshop that has been transformative for many. It takes us through a journey of questioning our lifestyles, our consumption patterns, our standards to measure success, happiness and of course ourselves and aims to understand the whole idea of Development through the different lenses.

Co-facilitated by me and two other facilitators Reva & Sameer Dandage, this workshop,with the help of stories, film screenings, sharing of personal experiences, participative discussions and visits to mine & dumping yards, brings out hard-hitting stories of people, places and communities that are struggling to exist from the devastating impacts of ‘development’. One of the most impactful story for me has been the story of Congo and Coltan – of kids of Congo being sent to dangerous mines at gun-point and thousands of women being raped just for a metal used in our cell phones and other gadgets. I was moved to make a decision that I won’t buy a phone in my lifetime as it is causing nothing but sorrow to fellow beings. And indeed, it was not just my decision, people who have attended it have brought about many amendments in their lifestyle. The workshop helps us to understand the mainstream model of development – extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal – to aspects we are many a times unaware of. It becomes very clear by the end of it that we have turned to the tendency of using finite sources infinitely (minerals, fuel, trees, etc.) and infinite sources (such as time) finitely. Another independent workshop aligned to Re-thinking development is Jeevan Vidya, which brings to us sets of proposals towards our lives, relations, world and spirituality, all of which bringing a new and different outlook towards life.

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3. Interconnectedness and being one with Nature:

The pre-extension of re-thinking development is re-connecting with nature. It was clear to us that facts and information won’t alone make an impact on us as we are already numb with bombardment of information we receive from media, society and education system. Rekindling our once lost connection with nature is as much important. How can I fight for the lakes, mountains and forests if I haven’t been to one or haven’t experienced the stillness that comes within their presence?In the contemporary world, there are two prominent relations we have with nature – first, we see it as something to be fearful of, and secondly we see it as a resource to be used. At Swaraj University, we try to dismantle both these attitudes as and when the learners arrive on the campus. Some of the exercises we do are spending a couple of hours observing a living organism (other than humans and other large mammals such as dogs, cows), spending time on the mountains with no agenda – just being there like any other piece of rock, walking across the stream of river barefoot and experiencing water and the wisdom it carries; One of our resource persons Sureshtook us through a startling journey of observing nature and its creatures(sun, sky, birds, flowers, bees, insects, sounds, and self) from morning 4am to night 11pm and it was amazing to see how day and night unfolds and how every moment there are parallel lives living and sustaining the world.

We also do some rituals to understand the elements of nature, shake our beliefs and experience the mountains, lakes, trees, and rivers as our relatives rather than resources. One of the most shocking and humbling experience I have come across which changed my relation with nature was when I realized and understood that the villagers never go on trekking on the mountains and hills. They only sometimes walk on these hills to graze their livestock, and that too, they seek permission from the mountains to do so. Conquering Everest or crossing English Channel became meaningless as our relatives are not be conquered on. We have also had a Shaman (traditional healer) come and share shamanic practices they practice in their tribe that re-align and heal our relationship with nature.

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4. Slowing down

We have tried to inculcate the element of ‘slowness’ into our program as Slowness in today’s World is therapeutic. Reconnecting with nature adds to our experience of slowness. Another beautiful gift we have received staying at Tapovan Ashram is the ‘slow internet connection& phone receptivity’on campus that has been a great healer for a lot of us as it gives us more time to connect to ourselves, our close ones, mother nature and to what is present.In a well-known documentary ‘Ancient Futures’, a local Ladakhi lady talks of her relative who bought appliances like refrigerator, washing machine, mixer, to save time. Sometime later, when this lady wishes to visit her relative, the relative says she has no time. Indeed there is a need we felt to actually slow down our pace rather than holding time (which is indeed not in our hands) Thus, we have chosen not to install or use wi-fi routers, LAN systems, T.V., or any other modes of modern-day entertainment. It is part of the program to start reclaiming our modes of entertainment. Learners do it with their own style designing and holding different kind of get-togethers, musical evenings, drum circles, star-gazing nights and much more.

 5. Experiments with gift culture

When I had just joined Swaraj, the same week we, in groups of two, were sent towards a village without any money or gadgets and were given a challenge of building relationships with locals and have dinner with them before coming back. It was my first time to a village. Within three hours of my time in the village, I realized a stark difference from a city. With their limited means but unlimited heart space, we were served food and lots of love and it was so easy to get into people’s house. And that is when I realized the potential of gifts they carry – the gift of abundance. At Swaraj we are constantly striving (failing, falling, getting up, trying again) to imagine and create a space for being the gift – which means slowly cultivating inside us and around us a wholesome state of giving and receiving. As a part of this we are experimenting with gift culture practices like moving from transaction to trust, contracting to connecting, scarcity to abundance, private ownership to commons, extracting from relationships to nourishing each other. These are big words and yet they hold meaning for us in small acts.Mentors, resource persons and well-wishers of Swaraj Uni. have abundantly showered on us gifts of their time, energy and resources and there have never really been any ‘transaction’ with them. Khojis too, have been spreading these gifts wherever they go thereby keeping the gifts in a flow.

Our idea of ‘money’ and its utility also changes as one this journey we also see world from a different lens. Major focus of our education system is to prepare us for livelihood and the whole economics is based on scarcity. We, at Swaraj, are trying to strive for a world where youth also focuses on living life. Livelihood is just a part of it. Even for most people working in Swaraj University, money is not the prime driver for being there.

One of the beautiful experiments we do at Swaraj is of ‘Dariya-dil dukaan’ – Shop of the open hearted, a space we create for some time where people can share their gifts (it could be clothes, gadgets, recipes, skills, time, invitation to home, etc.) and people who need it can receive it. I have been hosting Dariya-dil dukaan from last few years and every time I do it, I feel enriched by the sharing experience which takes place. It multiplies the power of sharing and challenges our attachment to stuff, thus making a small dent in our consumerism. I have seen many-many people shifting from regular buyers of stuff to hand-me down users of stuff. I recently got a kitchen added to the place I stay and I got all the necessary cooking and eating utensils as hand-me-downs.

These practices of gift-culture (economics of abundance) bring to us a possibility of a world where we see, give and receive everything as gifts – river, water, air, food, skills, everything.When we see everything as gifts, there is a deepening of feelings of gratitude that really can help us come out of consumer culture. “When anybody is in gratitude, every perception is different and every response to a situation is different. It colours your whole world. And the things that we try so hard to achieve become either irrelevant or effortless.” – Charles Eisenstein

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6. Cycle yatra

Every year, with a new group, we go on a sacred cycle yatra –ajourney to connect with each other, to the Earth, to communities we meet, to the forests, land, water, air, and self, and all that without the safety netsof money, clothes, food, medicines and gadgets. It is not a rally or a race, and there is no message or measurement. For 7 days, we move along the village side, without pre-deciding the route or the village, randomly chose a village, go and join the villagers in whatever work they are up to (farming, cow-shed cleaning, grazing, construction, etc.) And let me tell you, I have been on such yatras for four times, but never has the day passed when we have slept hungry.

It has been a transformative journey every time we set on it as it pushes us beyond our comfort zones, puts us in extreme vulnerability as we are without any safety nets, helps us move beyond the parasitic relationship we have in city and helps us surrender to the Earth and its people.

7. Jaso Ann, Vaso Mann (You are what you eat)

At Swaraj University, a lot of thought goes into preparation of food, selecting what is cooked and how it is cooked as we believe it is the aliveness of food which makes us alive. We try to include lots of millets in ourpreparations, get as much as organic grains as possible and use minimum of processed oil in our foods here. Michael Pollan, a well-known researcher of food once said “At home I serve the kind of food I know the story behind”. Knowing the story behind our food is also encouraged as we invite resource persons who with the use of films, visit to various food industries, discussions and actual preparation of food bring to us what we eat. One of our resource person, Purvi Vyas, who is also an organic farmer in Gujarat takes this fascinating subject of the ‘Geography of food’ and brings us face to face with the dangers of pesticide farming, chemical used in food, GM food, farmer suicides, factory farming and much more.

Khojis are also encouraged to participate in the kitchen, know more about food, interact with the kitchen staff, try different recipes, and bring traditional recipes from their parents and grandparents. One of our key nourisher has been Sumi Chandresh, an artist, unschooler parent and a great cook,who for last many years has experimented on food and brought variety of food recipes and ingredients to the Swaraj University kitchen.

Reva Dandage, the co-founder of Swaraj University, and I have been trying to grow our own food from last couple of years in the campus area itself. Both of us stay on the campus for most of the year and farm for at least two seasons. We often share our produce with each other and other members of the community and it is indeed a pleasure and learning experience for both of us to observe and see our tiny little seeds grow into a mature plant.

8. Participating in ecological movements

Khojis participating in the Jan Satyagrah yatra by Ekta Parishad – Jal Jangal Jameen andolan

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Khojis participating in people’s movement against the Nirma Cement factory in Mahuva, Gujarat.

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Khojis and team members of Swaraj have been witness to many social resilient movements across the nation. A huge population across India is resisting oppressive forces for their land, water and forest rights and these are the people who have lived, for generations, in forests, close to land and rivers. In a recently held gathering at Swaraj, Rajagopal ji, the man behind many land rights movement said “Aadivasis and their ecological wisdom makes them one of our gurus”Participation in these movements is not just to support them, but also to support ourselves as commons are at stake and we are all going to be impacted. Some of the movements our khojis and team members have been part to or have witnessed are people’s movement against Nirma Cement factory, Mahuva, Gujarat, people’s movement against POSCO in Odisha, Swaraj Beej (seed) Yatra that happened across many states (2 of our khojis were part of the whole yatra), Jan Satyagrah yatra by Ekta Parishad. We have also been involved in Economics of Happiness in Bangalore –a larger movement towards localization.

One of our khojis, Gyan, came to Swaraj with a focussed goal of becoming a mainstream masala film director. When he travelled with the Ekta Parishad yatra video-documenting the social movement, he was literally moved, meeting local people and listening to their stories, so much that he chose to document their lives and stories instead of making a mainstream masala film.

9. Visiting & collaborating with other Ecological communities

As part of our learning journeys and mentorships, we also visit many ecological communities, where people and organizations are trying to shift to ecological ways of living. We visit organic and natural farmers, suppliers of organic food, kabaad se jugaad artists, eco-architects and their work-site, etc. These visits and sometimes mentorships are to learn and meet people who are an inspiration, who are trying to be self-sustained and minimising consumption and destruction. Swaraj University has also co-initiated Eco-versities Network with 50 eco universities around the world.

Visiting Varsha Samuel and her balcony garden in Dharwad

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Khojis visiting an organic farm in Pune

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10. Understanding Swaraj and Commons

Every year, we play an interesting game of musical chairs that is way different than what we have played in school functions or birthday parties. What do we remember of that game? Running around the chairs, trying to push the one who is ahead and being cautious of being pushed by the one following us, having our ears attentively placed on the music waiting for it to stop and start again, our eyes, like a hawk’s, set on the chair.

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New kind of ‘Musical Chair’ – the one we need now to understand the power of Swaraj

Aren’t we playing the same game at a broader social, political and ecological level? Pushing communities and other living beings out of their space and sometimes till extinction, hoarding immense money and power to push others, living with immense insecurity of losing out and maintaining the status quo. The different game we play has just one pre-condition – no one shall lose. And indeed, it is a game changer, as what we see are people dancing around, sitting on each other’s laps as the chairs go down, going around in every direction.Manish Jain, another co-founder of Swaraj, takes us through this process of understanding how these chairs symbolize our commons – air, water, food, and land, and how do we shift to a new story – a story of people living in harmony, reclaiming their lives, inter-dependence, self-reliance and creating healthy and resilient communities, and that is what the idea of Swaraj is, which Gandhi, Vinobha Bhave and many others talked about.

 11. New Eco-construction on the campus

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Zomsa Geodome café & Chulha (Zomsa in ladakhi means getting together place for a family)
Bamboo structure bathrooms & grey-water harvesting plant

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There has been some eco-construction which has happened on the campus – that is more local style with local materials, where more natural lights flows in.Some of the khojis, who have been interested in pursuing eco-architecture have been part of designing, budgeting and actual construction along with the locals.

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New eco-toilet on the campus
OJAS – Mud-plastered & round structured hall

 

 

 

 

 

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12. Making & using herbal products

We encourage our khojis and other visitors on the campus to make and start using non-chemical self-care products. Some of the products we have made on the campus together are tooth powder, soap, mosquito repellent, lip balm, joints-pain oil, tea, utensils cleaner, etc. The recipes of these products are copy-left (instead of copyright) and anyone can make it.  22.jpg

Applying cow-dung based organic face-pack
Making and presenting herbal products like lip-balm, tooth-powder, foot crack cream and deodorant

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13. Alivelihoods

Every year, there are khojis who plan their projects, a stepping stone for deep diving into their own work. These projects are varied – some want to build their own enterprise, some want to work independently on their creative projects, some want to assist already existing organizations with their own inputs. We call it Alive-lihoods projects – where a lot of questioning and helping goes into how these projects are serving people and bringing individuals and communities alive, how is it serving the local ecology and economy and nitty-gritty of economics and our notions of money are challenged to go beyond the mainstream model of economics.

One of the khojis Kamalbir,who began a start-up project of upcycling textile waste into utility bags and then selling it into the market, soon struggled with the idea of scaling up or not – scaling up means more products in the market, which again means more consumption, and more production means the support staff of the team (the production unit, who are Women-folk of a village in Udaipur) that now have enough time at home to work for self, home, farm, poultry, would then have to focus full-time on the production. The rest would suffer. Thus, she decided to continue the work in a way where production of bags remains just one of the work and the team-members can continue to keep other valuable service activities of life in loop.Thus, understanding the ‘abundant economics’ (gift Culture) has been as important as understanding marketing and money-making, not just for khojis, but for the team as well.

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Kamalbir and Ritesh, khojis of Swaraj Uni., selling their eco-products

 

These are some of the experiments we have been up to, and all these, at hands, heart and head level, add to truly experiencing our oneness with nature and move towards a sustainable life. To be very frank, we are just beginning to understand the vastness of what still needs to be done and undone and we are faltering and making mistakes. A lot needs to be worked to be in-tune with the ecological wisdom.These choices, actions and sometimes inactions are boosting our intent of shifting towards a more sustainable life.

 

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About The writer

Rahul Hasija is a writer and storyteller and currently works as a Lead facilitator Swaraj University (www.swarajuniversity.org). Part of his work is to design and implement the structure of the program, develop facilitation tools, create safe spaces for the learners to share, hold the space, host sessions on team-building, cooperative games, circular dances, reconnecting with the ancestral roots, rethinking development and connecting with nature. Community building, gardening, bird watching, making herbal products, theatre and dance are his key areas of interest and engagement.He has been learning to farm in his efforts to live a simple and less consumption-oriented life. Inspired by the sustainable and indigenous practices and lifestyles of our ancestors, he envisions spaces where stories of people, places and nature travel into our hearts, thereby nurturing and sustaining a more harmonious earth.

Taking forward his interest in self-expression and sustainability, on the same subjecthe has written and co-written short stories and performed mono-act plays in Hindi and Sindhi at different avenues.He am the preliminary editor of the book ‘Narmada – River of Joy’ by Amrutlal Vegad and has translated a book called ‘The Original Forest’ by Evelyn Sasamoto. He worked at Bhoomi Network, Bangalore as a Sub-Editor and Layout artist in their Quarterly magazine – Eternal Bhoomi (From July 2011 – January 2012).

 

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