Experiencing India and Gandhian Philosophies towards Non-Violence, Peace Education, Social Activism and Community Action

 

I was lucky enough to be given the remarkable opportunity to visit India not as a tourist but as a student.  Here I share my experience of a different aspect of India from the lens of Gandhian philosophies towards non-violence, peace education, social activism and community action from within.  I had no idea what I was about to embark on but I knew I was going to be enlightened!

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This is me the night before I was leaving for Madurai, India which is in South India.  Exhausted from last minute packing and knowing that I would still have to go to work the next day and then get to the airport to catch my evening flight! I still couldn’t believe I was actually going to India 🇮🇳 to study! I was nervous and excited for this adventure also knowing that I would be without my kids for the March break.  They wished they could come with me but understood that I was doing something very different than sight seeing the Taj Mahal or visiting popular cities like Dehli or Mumbai.  I wished I could take them with me but that would have to be another time.  This journey will have me doing a lot of critical thinking about Leadership, Education, Peace, Social Activism and the Humankind. So thankful to @dcptkhan and my parents for supporting me and my sisters and brother-in-laws with all their help with the kids! I certainly missed them!

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This is me, Annie, Christine and Emily in the airport waiting for our flight.  We didn’t know much about each other going but learned so much about our passions, family and educational interests along the way.  I would travel with these 3 beauties again anytime!

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We arrived in Mumbai Airport at almost midnight and we were wide awake! I have not felt the heat yet, even when we exited the air conditioned airport. But it was amazing to see all the people waiting to pick up travelers.  the We are staying at a sweet hotel, The Hyatt for our first night then we will take a domestic flight first thing in the morning to head to Madurai.

We explored the hotel before we head to bed and woke up for a delicious Indian cuisine breakfast, channa masalas, dosas, basmati rice, chicken tikka, all for breakfast!

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Next we head for our domestic flight and are off to see our Professor Dr. Reva Joshee and stay at the Centre for Experiencing Socio-Cultural Interaction CESCI Campus in Tamil Nadu, South India.  Finally we arrive and are greeted by Reva.  Did I mention the airplane food in India is so yummy!  Below is me finally in my room.  I was taken by the tiles of Gandhi on the walls to my room.  It was so spiritual to feel a sense of ease and calm in this space.

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My living space for the next few days. Quite different from the Hyatt but I’m ready for the challenge and peaceful learning this space proved to be a place of deep reflection for me nightly.

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First day I woke up at 6:00 am to sing Victory to World Jai Jagat Pukare Ja…then the most delicious morning Chai and then our gift of labour to the Ashram. Performing Shramdan means giving back to the ashram and doing my fair share of labour for being given the honour to occupy this space right now.

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After breakfast of Idly and Sambar its off to class!  Tools for learning; notebooks, iPad, my sons pencil case, camera and water – material necessities. Ultimate tools: Readiness to Learn, Open Mind, Willing to Engage, Actively Listen, Courage to speak. Love Truth and Ahimsa…to be of no harm in ones thoughts, words and deeds. Through love and a greater truth, our relationships and care with oneself, each other, the environment and community is at the forefront of our existence. It’s reciprocal and resources and knowledge is given and shared in return. There is so much already I have taken in and not easy to express. I am ready to take what I have learned and construct new meaning within the relationships I have to be a better me.

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Tea time 3 times a day. A ritual that is looked forward to and enjoyed by all here on campus. The conversation seems to always continue around the tea table. No matter how hot it is, the hot tea seems to be soothing.

Staying at the CESCI campus: The Centre for Experiencing Socio-Cultural Interaction, is a place where “social work” happens. Meaning a place where community members work on social issues to improve the lives of the most impoverished in India by educating them to realize that they have power within their community.  When leaders from within emerge they begin to understand how to access resources and through the centre learn to do this through nonviolence. By engaging in struggle dialogue, embracing inner capacities and focusing on a pertinent social issue to them such as land, education, poverty, water, girls education- change can happen. Social movement is knowing that if you use “fire for fire” this is “violence for violence” it will create bigger fires.   But “water for fire” this is “nonviolence for violence” then the fire can be extinguished. Social change can occur and the community members have become agents of change for justice . This analogy is from founder of Ekta Parishad “Unity Forum” Dr. Rajaji. A guest speaker in today’s class.

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Part of our study is to create a community art piece. Here I find myself painting on of my favourite artifacts of nature a tree. I seems to find myself painting trees all my life. Although we only have one noun to describe a tree, here there are many words to say tree as people understand how much a tree posses and gives. Much like the First Nations in Canada have many words for “snow”. I am using a coconut shell as my paint pot. The tree has given me a paint pot. Not to mention a handle for the bristols.

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Coconut shells coloured in paint splattered on the local newspaper.

The following day we visited a local village.  Below we are greeted by the women with gorgeous Rangoli made with coloured powder.

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Today we visited a local community that is in th rural area of Madurai called Pundagampatty.  It was an overwhelming experience of respect and celebration of the community and women that certainly was beyond my expectations. The community came together and organized an incredible program to highlight the achievements of there small village, Pundagampatty. We were truly honoured by this gesture in profound ways.

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The community Leader Kavita is seen as a Leader in the village who volunteers throughout the community and advocates for the needs of the community. Here she led the school children to us to share the local food that is grown and how it is prepared.

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This young man adorned me with my garland of flowers that was handmade by the women to welcome me. The children all wanted pictures 📷 and kept saying “selfie, selfie, selfie!”

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Pundagampatty has many amazing things started to make their village thrive and progress. Most of their homes are structured, they have running water and a school for their kids. A young man named Paramar studied at the university,  engineering. He lectures physics there and he is know in the community as the Doctor of herbal medicine a honoured bestowed on him from his father who also is a medicine man and taught him about all the local plants 🌱 and their healing power. Paramar explained each plant displayed for us with passion as his father looked on with pride. I too was in awe of the many roles this man played, he also teaches yoga and meditation to the children and is working towards resources for a local medicine shop so sick villagers do not have to go far for basic health care needs.

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After we were led to give an offering to the Gods and blessings. Inviting all of us to partake was a sign of community. There was no hesitation from me even though I am Muslim. I have learned from my grandma that acceptance of others rituals and traditions is a sign of respect. I am also reminded of the time when my dad’s brother had passed away and my dear friend Puja came to our house with her dad to offer condolences. It was time for Magrib and he joined in the prayers although he is Hindu. Acceptance and tolerance begins in our hearts and it only makes me more Muslim when I show respect, love and compassion for my neighbour.

Womens Day

“Women’s Day Celebration” the words written on the ground from the women from this village for us as each of us who came from Canada are women too.  They created beautiful Rangoli and this was an incredible display of community art, showing joy and light by the women. This art is passed down to the children. After they organized a cultural performance with dances and song by the children. Some were fun Bollywood songs and some were songs of liberation “I am no longer a slave i can fly up up up”. The games were organized to show how women must do things carefully and efficiently in order to sustain for the family. I too had to participate in a spoon and lemon game to show spirit and it gave me a sense of acceptance.  March is Women’s Day everyday❤

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After the cultural celebration we had a feast prepared by the families. It was so delicious! They made us many different dishes and kept giving us more and more food. I tried my best to eat as much as I could as I know that this would have taken a lot of time and resources.  I was eating pretty slow with my hands and they came several times to me to ask if I needed a spoon in Tamil but I understood and refused.  We laughed together about this and it was wonderful.

My favourite part of the day of course was visiting the local school and the students.

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The school was across from the community centre where the celebrations were put on and the temple where we prayed. The kids melted my heart by greeting us at the door with big smiles and wanting handshakes and pictures.

The school children honoured us each with a tree to plant in their school yard  Some were fruit trees and some would flourish to create shade. This was an incredible gesture and I am so priveldged to have planted a tree with these talented bright students. They tried their best to talk with us in English and loved taking selfies. I am hopeful they will take good care of the trees and also that they will continue to educate themselves beyond grade school to be a better community member. That will be my prayer for them.  After we stood in a large circle on the field. I of course was holding the hand of my “sister, sister”, she wouldn’t leave my side. The moment was an overwhelming feeling for me. I had to hold a lot back. I  hope I will visit and see them again but I know I will keep in touch through my friends at CESCI.

After we took a short drive back to the Ashram with little words as we soaked it all in, each of us in such awe and reflection of what we had just experienced.  When we got back to CESCI we went to our rooms in solitude to take in the emotions.  As if it was not enough of a profound day, we got ready to go into the city to visit the Menakshi Temple.  What a day we had planned!

Below the women sit in the shade with the Menakshi Temple as their backdrop and little baby walks around unknowing of the divinity of the structure before her.

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One of the most beautiful artifacts of architecture I have seen in my life in the Menakshi Temple.  Dr. Valliamma accompanied us. She is a history professor at an all women’s university and was the first woman in her village to receive higher education. We were not permitted to take photos inside or any closer than this. So the experience is mine and like visiting many holy places the experience was spiritual and enlightening. There are 14 structures like this on the grounds that make up north, south, west and east and then inner structures. We ventured under them where the centre had a huge body of water which was once used to wash deities. Many people were here conducting rituals. The very heart and epicenter we were not permitted to enter as none of us were Hindu’s.  As we walked through corridors all around us had intricately carved gods in many representations. Then suddenly just like that an elephant walked passed me! So close I could reach out and touch it, I have never been that close to an elephant. My mouth literally dropped in the sheer hugeness of the animal that was being revered as a god. 🐘

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The food at CESCI is quite delicious but I was happy for a dinner at a restaurant that Dr. Valliamma and her husband, Dr. William a PhD philosopher in Ghandian thought hosted so generously for us.  Butter Paneer and Naan was a great way to end our very busy and life changing day!

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In the photo that follows you see Jill (seated, second from the left) and Rajaji (seated in the centre). They are Social activist and freedom fighters who operate the CESCI and organize many grass roots foot marches inspired by Gandhian thought, for equal rights.  They had a huge impact on my learning this week. Dr. Reva my professor is sitting far left next to Jill.  Seated next to Rajaji far right is Dr. Ravi, who was the director at the Gandhi Museum and now is in Delhi.  Along the back standing from left to right is Premkar who works at the CESCI library, then Danraj, Dr. William and his wife, Dr. Valliamma who is now the director of the museum but will be retiring in June.  After it is all of us Emily, Annie, Christine and I. This dinner was a meeting of minds talking about social action, Ghandian influences, Indian culture and Indian sweets!

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The next day Thursday March 15, 2018 we headed to the university. They served us tea. Everywhere serves tea.

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We learned early in the week that we would be attending an International Conference and that my professor Dr. Reva was presenting. As the week continued we were asked to each present on youth action and peace. So in India I presented at my first conference! I was so nervous! But already I felt I had so much I learned and Reva and Jill convinced us all by gently telling us that our contributions are valuable as they are students like us and doing this work begs to ask what social action we will take. I thought about this and recognized that what I have to give is “knowledge” and I shouldn’t be nervous, we all learn from each other. What good is knowledge if it is not shared.

This conference was for students studying social work which is community work. T he group of ladies I was talking with were students from computer science who came to the conference as well as it was open to everyone. What I tried to capture was that each of them were already leaders and that they cannot underestimate the power of their capabilities to contribute to their community and globally. I had noticed the vision statement on their principals walls and reiterate the words ” becoming accomplished individuals with a stimulus for social change through character, confidence and competence.” The education they are receiving is providing them with skills, resources and supports to do the important “he❤️rt” work that they were doing. I am grateful for their work and the impact they have had and will continue to have on the lives of others.  Especially the lives of their people.  Many of these students especially the women have so many responsibilities at home and getting to school is harder for them. The “girls push out” rate is very high and many girls do not attend or drop out of school to attend to household duties. We had a man come and share with us this problem more intimately earlier in the week. They already inspired me, especially the women.

 

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One of our last days in India we had the chance to finally do a little shopping!  We had a fun ride in a Tuk Tuk!

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This beautiful lady owns this boutique and lives above it. She was adopted and lived with a Swiss family who ensured she went on to receive her Masters. She is married now and needs to work. One aspect that Rajaji and Jill shared with us is the idea of continued learning or life long learning is not part of the vernacular. If you get an education and have a job there is no need to educate yourself anymore. What for?? I chatted with her and explained that I have children and a full time job and I go to school in the evenings sometimes weekends. We cannot progress if we don’t keep learning and it keeps our mind active too. The brain is a muscle and needs to be exercised, it becomes more and more important as we get older. But mostly we won’t be able to keep up with the fast paced world of information sharing and changing if we don’t. But even more importantly when we keep learning we open our minds to more possibilities and meet more amazing teachers along the way.

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India I will miss so much about you. You have changed my heart, mind and soul and I know I will be living with more Ahimsa in my life. I feel like you have always been with me and being with you I saw so much of myself that I can only think my ancestors are here, somewhere. When I go home the bustle and energy of my life will surround me and I will love it. I miss Kaysan and Khyra  and Mike dearly. But I will be the only one changed and see life differently, more beautifully than before.  I am blessed to have been on this journey with the love and support of all my family.  My mom and dad seemed to know I was going to India before I did❤️💙.  I have big dreams and high hopes for all my family and friends everywhere in the world, and my new friends in India. May you experience enlightenment somewhere along your journey in life and may you be generous enough to share it with me so I can continue to learn and grow, no matter how old I am and so I can tell you how amazing you are because I am sure I don’t say it enough.💙❤

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                             Experiencing India and Gandhian Philosophies Class of 2018

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CESCI Website:  http://www.cesci.ch/en-us/cescicenter.aspx

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