Nuggets From Awakin Talks With Sister Lucy, Abhay Bang
Posted by Gayathri Ramachandran on May 18, 2020
Following on last week’s inaugural Awakin Talks webinar, this weekend we continued the conversation on “What would Gandhi do?” In this round, we were graced by the wisdom and lived experience of senior Gandhians-in-action, Dr. Abhay Bang and Sister Lucy Kurien, and the touching enthusiasm and earnest spirit of everyday hero, Bhaskar Kulkarni. The conversation was masterfully moderated by the ecosystem’s very own gentle love warrior, Meghna Banker. What follows is a summary of the call in lieu of a call transcript.
Meghna surfaced this powerful quote in her opening introduction: “The pre-corona existence was not normal, other than the fact that we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction. We are given this opportunity to stitch a new garment, one that fits all of humanity and nature.” She remarked that ‘a karuna-virus garment is being woven at this moment!’
Meghna: Today, we welcome Dr. Abhay Bang. He grew up in the Sevagram Ashram and was educated under the principles of Nai Taleem, was a top student at one of the most prestigious colleges in India and received gold medals. Yet, he was unsatisfied with his achievements. He had a serious health experience and asked himself "What is the purpose of my life?" He and his wife Dr. Rani Bang founded SEARCH and began helping the community with health care. It is a joy and a privilege to share this space with you Dr. Bang.
Dr. Abhay Bang: What would Gandhi do? That is an extremely difficult question. Where do we look for answers to this question? When Gandhi was asked a similar question, he said, "My life is my message." Instead of looking at books, we can look at his life.
I offer three principles:
1. He did not preach (to) others and (stay in) inaction by himself.
2. He would begin locally (but he was thinking globally).
I am reminded of that beautiful poem by Blake (Auguries of Innocence, by William Blake): “To see a World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour”. Gandhi could see all of India in one goat, one child!
3. He would begin with small actions.
Yesterday, at night, I sat quietly and asked, "What would Gandhi do?" I tried to imagine, but keep in mind that even my imagination has limitations. I came up with an 8-point program:
1. Freedom from fear: Gandhi would say, “Fear is a dark room. Come out of it!”Meghna: Thank you, Dr. Abhay Bang. That was very refreshing to hear your words. You addressed fear as the crux of all emerging problems… We can take questions in zoom chat and answer later. We will now take the next speaker, Sister Lucy Kurien from Maher (which means ‘Mother's Lap’ in Marathi.) She has been called our Mother Teresa of Pune. She is warm and cuddly and innocent. She says she does everything with love and prayers. She has had many awards, but she is the same every day. She says, "May love ignite every human heart."
2. Care of the sick (nursing and medical care).
Use Nature Cure. There are several instances when Gandhi does this and this (covid-19 pandemic) is a perfect example for Nature Cure.
Advice and practice good hygiene, physical distancing, using a mask.
Shun alcohol and tobacco. When spitting tobacco there is a much greater chance of spreading germs, including the virus germs.
3. When confused, bring before your eyes the most miserable people you can imagine (Gandhi’s talisman). For me, that is the migrant laborers walking 1000 km to their homeland; they are ‘living misery’, which we have inflicted on them. Gandhi would rush to provide shelter to immigrants… They have been two-times displaced -- first from villages; then from cities, to go back to villages where they are treated as untouchables. They need food, shelter and livelihood (and Gandhi would talk of charkha as a means of livelihood).
4. Action -- practice and preach Hindu, Muslim, Christian, untouchable unity. There have been Hindu/Muslim riots. This is not a time to be concerned about politics, religion, regionality. The virus observes no boundaries. Nobody is safe alone. The virus has shown us a universal unity. Focus on this!
5. Economy: We need to move away from globalization to local production, local consumption (khadi, gram udyog). This is a fragile economy... Produce enough for ourselves, and neighbors. Practice economy of small scale.
6. Governance: Gandhi would say that global political governance of a few people is bad. It is very dangerous to have so much power in a few hands. He would say, "Let's deglobalize. Let’s go for localization.” We must change to local freedom and local responsibility. We need a society of small, self-sufficient units, called gram-swaraj. Covid has exposed the weakness of globalization. So gram-swaraj.
Even before the pandemic, the large specter of climate change and global warming loomed over us. One reason for that is hedonism, consumption. So limit hedonism to share with others and to save the earth. "There is enough for everyone's need, but not for everyone's greed."
And we have seen that because of the pandemic, people have been forced into less industry. As a result, there is cleaner air and rivers. That means we can change this earth. Global warming is not inevitable. The pandemic gave us a glimpse into what life is like without excess!
7. Truth: Gandhi would practice and advise us to be truthful, at a national level. When that one episode of violence happened at Chauri Chaura, he said, “I have committed a Himalayan blunder.” And he withdrew his entire activism against the British. He risked his political movement for it; for the sake of truth and accepted what he thought was his ‘Himalayan blunder’.
And at a local level, if we could be truthful… When covid-19 came knocking on our door, it found us fighting amongst ourselves (referring to the CAA legislation and the ensuing protests against it). And we did not stop it in time. We let international travelers run free. We have locked down 140 crore people (national lockdown) because we did not stop 40 lakh people who came from abroad in those two months. We have caused enormous misery and suffering to 6 crore migrant labourers. We didn’t even consider about them before putting on a national lockdown.
And finally, instead of the lockdown, the number of cases is increasing. Now, this is changing the goal post… We have (finally) started to say that we have to learn to live with this virus. But we are not admitting that our strategy has failed! We must be truthful.
8. All those actions, Gandhi would do and finally, he would say, “We need prayer.” We need humility. We are not the gods of nature. We don't decide everything. We are only a tiny fragment. Let thy will be done (inshallah). Gandhi would tell us, we must offer prayer and purify ourselves.
Sister Lucy: Thank you Meghna. Thank you, Dr. Abhay Bang. So the question is "What would Gandhi do in this time?" For me what I feel is that what India sees tomorrow, Gandhi would see today because he had great love, and he was a great planner. He would have seen that everything is done for every person in India.
At the end of February, I started hearing about the sickness. I have no TV or Internet, so I read it in the newspaper. A call came to me and I knew it was going to spread. It came to me that we must be prepared. In the first week of March I called for all staff from every house in a meeting. I told them, "This particular virus is going to spread." We have prepared very well, but my staff was confused. (They did not yet see this threat.) We started creating awareness for my staff and then the children, and then we went to the village to create awareness. Because the whole thing is, we are connected to so many.
How would Gandhi take this forward? I had many sleepless nights. The news on the TV and in newspapers began putting fear into people. I saw my staff and the children were gripped with fear. I thought, "Now, what shall we do?" We made people aware of what to do next and how to face this. I said, "Having fear about this illness is not going to help us. But how we face it, is what is important."
I called for all children and staff. A thought came to me. "If we are physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally strong, we can cope with this virus. I made the children very strong. I was telling them how to get physically strong. Emotionally, I kept telling them, "You will not be left alone." Because they asked us, "Will we be left alone to die?" I kept reassuring the children. I knew I had to take away their emotional fear. So we stood with them and reassured them as much as they needed. The children are very observant. They saw me preparing extra rooms. If 1000 people have a need, we cannot learn about this at the last minute. We had to be prepared, so I made rooms ready. The children were watching. We were almost ready and I called together all staff for meetings to make sure our storerooms had enough for two months. Then the lockdown came on the 24th (of March).
So then I thought, "How do we take this forward?" Because in many villages people were calling us and asking, “Didi, what do we do? We have no food.” And I realized I had only planned for those inside, not outside Maher. On the 25th itself, people started coming forward… We helped more than 15,000, giving them our food.
People were walking on the street. It was so painful to see their suffering. We went to them and they said, "We have no food. We will die of starvation." So we promised we would help. (They were going to UP, MP, Rajasthan). I told people to stay in the village, not to leave. Some had no food, gas cylinders (for cooking). I said what Gandhi was saying, "There is enough. Not for greed, but we have enough resources. “
So I started sending emails and making phone calls to 300, 400 people. I said we must help these migrant workers. I was staying in Bhima-Koregoan at that time. People came forward to help. So none from the slums or pavement dwellers or other nearby villages left. They felt the security of Maher. They continued staying.
So the next problem was how to find jobs. So we started with some making masks, so at least a few had jobs. Many people did other things like making chappatis for the migrant workers. We had to tend to hygiene, of course. We had to make sure everyone was safe. All that was done out of love.
I kept telling my staff, "Every grain of rice that goes from Maher to people should contain love so that, when they consume that, they feel it. Don't go as a donor, but to feel their pain." We didn't go as someone big saying "I can help." We were just sharing what we have, so you and I will remain happy, and even when we were cooking the food, and sometimes we were cooking for 400 to 500 at a time, and serving, we said, "We will cook food, but at the end, we will serve love." So people who were taking the food could feel that. It's very important when doing this, to do with humility. It helped the staff. None thought, "How will we go there because of the virus that may come?”. I asked them to keep back the fear. And by the grace of God, none of our people are touched by this virus.
Keeping in mind aspects of Gandhi, how will Gandhi do this, I felt that villages have to be developed, and with dependence only on companies, things can go wrong. I'm trying to plan to be self-sufficient (we were doing this before too), started small-scale industries in different villages. We started many small jobs that we can give to people, so people don't have to migrate. Because of the lack of jobs, people migrating are really really suffering.
I didn't know how to answer fully at the moment, so we reached out to people with what we can do. What I can say is that it's all because people share their resources with us and we could then share with people. There is so much goodness and love and I was tapping on that love aspect of people to share. So I reached out to people… Thank you, Meghna! Thank you, Dr. Abhay Bang!
Meghna: It is lovely to hear from you and Dr. Bang. It is wonderful to get both experiences. Thank you for speaking from the heart, Sister Lucy and with a mother's love. I invite Bhaskar Kulkarni to reflect on "What would Gandhi do today?"
[Bhaskar Kulkarni shared in Hindi and we provide a translation summary of some nuggets that he shared here]:
“During lockdown, I would carry a grocery kit with me for distribution to the needy. One day, I offered one such kit to a couple who I thought may need it. But they refused it saying there are others who need it more than them! This lesson stayed with me.
I also carry food for the stray animals on the streets and install water-pots on the roadside kerbs for birds. Passers-by, who did not even know me, supported with more pots for the birds. I receive these offerings with a responsibility that I should become yet another link in the chain of trust. All the lovely people around me and all of you have been practicing such acts of kindness and I bow down to your heart of service.”
Meghna: Thank you Bhaskar, for all your small acts of love. You touched on two important aspects. There is enough for every one’s need, not for every one’s greed. And in our time we have gotten into the scarcity model. If we stay rooted in our values and the space of abundance, a different level of trust emerges. Thank you for holding a torch-light to take this further.
Q&A section of the call:
Meghna: Dr. Abhay Bang, Ashish asks, "You have nurtured a dream for sarvodaya (welfare for all) and gram udgyog (village industries) through your efforts at SEARCH for several decades. The leadership of this country is talking about self-reliance in these times. Do you feel the SEARCH model can be replicated across the country and can thousands of shodhgrams be created? What do you think needs to be done so migrant workers who don't feel the need to go back to the cities? And adding to the gram udgyog and gram swaraj note, Gajendra asks, “Lots of people are moving towards their native place. This movement of ‘go back to the villages’ was actually Gandhi’s dream as well. Can this restore the village ecosystems and economies?”
Dr. Abhay Bang: I will begin with the second question. Today the reason people are going back to the villages is out of fear. It is not out of love, or respect, or choice for rural life as an ideal form of society. It is more that people want to escape from the risk of infection in the urban areas. Once the risk is over, they would like to come back to the urban areas. That ‘go to the village’ – that is not true in the Gandhian sense; it is an ‘escape to the village’ That is not a solution at all. It generates by itself a second level of problem.
What Ashish asked me about, and what we are practicing in shodhgram, though I would not claim that what we are practicing is in every way gram swaraj, but we are primarily focused on health, since we know a little bit about that. We are trying to generate a model of health care based on the community, and based on self-sufficiency. Health care is woven today in such a way that masks come from China and they are of poor quality, and we have to send some back. The technological solution comes from the U.S. The medical care comes from private hospitals. And the insurance finance is dependent on political whims. So the entire web of dependence -- that is itself unhealthy.
Swastya -- the word for health in India, swast literally means "one who is stationed in himself." Self-sufficiency or freedom from dependency and that is part of the true meaning of health. We are trying to develop health care models in villages that are based on these principles, so helping people to change their behaviours, in relation to hygiene, in relation to tobacco, alcohol, and stressing good nutrition. Or developing community health workers in each village who can take care of common illnesses and common problems in the village itself. We call this arogya swaraj.
A part of the picture of gram swaraj, what would be the health scenario -- that is what we are trying to build up in Gadchiroli, in about 100 villages. We call that arogya swaraj, where individuals, families and communities can work, as far as possible, to manage their own health. Can this be scaled up? In three ways:
1. Government of India is already scaling up part of it in the form of ASHA. The ASHA scheme is partly dependent on what we developed in Gadchiroli in SEARCH.
2. A second way of doing this is large number of NGOs, instead of only giving medicine, can we also give empowerment to the people?! How to be healthy yourself and how to take care of your community’s health?
3. The third way is new leaders. New leaders/change-makers must emerge and they must come from our youth. In shodhgram, we are trying to nurture a youth change-maker movements called nirmaan. Every year, we select about 200 young people from all over Maharashtra, and now from all over India. They go through the nirmaan program with the aim that they're about to discover themselves, and discover the cause they want to serve, outside of themselves, a social need; and they can find their own fulfillment by helping others.
And all of this can multiply organically the arogya swaraj model we are trying to create in Gadchiroli.
Meghna: Freedom from fear and dependence -- that is actually a big one. And there are layers to this fear as well. How do you address that? I wanted to hold that thought and address a question to Sister Lucy.
Ashima asks, “Both of you talked about taking away the fear. Currently, we are seeing an environment of fear, scarcity, and distrust. Rajni-ji (Bakshi) addressed this in ‘What Would Gandhi Do (1)’ when she spoke of a woman fearing to buy vegetables from a Muslim vendor. How do we address these fears that appear in layers, whether it is through caste, survival, whether it is at some level even taking care of your loved ones, and feeling that we cannot take care of the world too, as much as we would like to. How do we transform that collectively, now that we have the space to look more deeply, with a focused lens?” Sister Lucy, would you like to share around this question?
Sister Lucy: That is what I was looking at, when I was telling you at the beginning, of helping children out of their fear. So for one, I have to go inside for meditation. There is another aspect of fear that comes out of me too. I had the fear that if any of my children get infected, it could be bad because we stay 25 to 40 in one hall. I am praying over it and it is making me very internally strong to face everything. We face the fear of lack of food and everything else; or if a loved one becomes sick?
It so happened that, yesterday, one of our staff lost his mother and he was in another city. It was so difficult – how am I going to talk to him in that moment? He was facing a question as to whether he should come. I said, "Face it. Don’t come. That will be better for you and better for the people." The question is, how to make them strong? This is a big challenge. How do I console a young boy who lost his mother? His father was gone already. Now he is alone. I felt also that he was almost prepared, that this is going to happen and I must face it. He was upset at first, that is natural, but he then calmed down.
And the people in the village said, "We were not prepared for this, but you helped us be ready; when you conducted awareness programs though, we first thought you had gone mad" Our work is becoming meaningful. How do we continue to do this with millions losing jobs? That fear – how will they manage for their families? My staff asks, "How do we keep going? How do we deal with this?" I told them "Use our brain. Find small jobs. Let us come together and not rely on companies. Let's do this.” One-to-one, over the phone, we have been talking. I am still working on this. We are finding some small solutions.
Meghna: Thank you, Sister Lucy. You reminded me we require freedom from dependency. But dependence on communities also creates resilience. So that’s a great thought to hold as well.
We have a question about migrant workers and their displacement. Arunima asks, "Do migrants travel because of lack of jobs or does the lustre of the city lure them? Urban India wants to move abroad, not for lack of food but seemingly, for better opportunities.”
Also, to add to the question, Jose asks, specifically to Abhay ji as well: “How practical is the idea of self-sustainability? Our youngsters are only trained for specific professional skills. Is it possible to achieve local production and local consumption in a short period?” So how would we address this topic of self-sustainability, at an urban or rural level? Maybe Abhay-ji can go first and if Sr. Lucy has something to add, you can go next?
Dr. Abhay Bang: I would keep the issue of migrant workers aside since these two questions are different.
So is self-sufficiency practically possible? It depends on how we define the life of our dreams, what we want our life to be. If our life depends on mass production, on Chinese goods, on tech from America, it has its own logic, which leads to global dependence. Globalization came with global dependence.
Instead of economic globalization, what we need is a globalization of the heart -- universal love, universal unity, that we are all one. Globalization of the heart – what Vinoba (Bhave) used to call ‘Jai Jagat’. In the days of Jai Hind, in the days of war against China, he said, “Not Jai Hind. Say Jai Jagat!” We need that kind of feeling towards the whole of the Universe.
But man also needs bread, man needs local connections. In spite of all internet connections, we do still seek direct human contact. A human being is (forgive this crude word but I am using it in the biological sense) a herd animal. We belong in a group. We are not lonely individuals, as capitalism wants to paint us. We survive and thrive emotionally and physically in the community. How do you link with the community? Only on Facebook? Only in a virtual world? That doesn't give you true satisfaction.
So local, face-to-face community -- their most common area of collaboration is economic production/consumption. When you buy rice from far away, you are rejecting your local neighbor farmer. So in my production, consumption, my economic relationships, which are naturally followed by social relationships, I must first think of my neighbours. My neighbourhood is my swades; My neighbourhood is my immediate universe.
If there is a corona pandemic, Abhay Bang does not need to go to US, or Russia or China, for serving the patients there. I am here in Gadchiroli. My relationship, responsibility and duty is towards the people of Gadchiroli. I should be serving the local people, because they are my immediate neighbors. Similarly, economic production relationships should be fulfilled as far as possible in the immediate neighbourhood; if not, from the 100 villages, if not, maybe within the district. So we need to cultivate economic relationships, where from a small circle, we gradually expand. But we don’t start using and depending on the global production because global production chains have failed us in the days of corona. We have seen how miserably they failed, and in the coming 2 or 3 years, they will fail us even more with the economic recession.
Is local production possible? It depends on our desires. If we desire an American way of life, then 100 Earths are not enough for Indians. But if we want a meaningful and fulfilled life with the local neighbourhood, local human beings, local nature (birds chirping, trees and wind flowing) then yes -- local production is enough for our needs, even if it is not enough for our greed.
Meghna: Thank you Dr. Abhay Bang. And this is a word of practice. You denied yourself an opportunity to go abroad and continued to serve locally. Sister Lucy, do you have something to add?
Sister Lucy: Dr. Abhay Bang has answered everything beautifully. I don't have much to say.
Meghna: Thank you very much -- Dr. Abhay Bang and Sister Lucy. Any closing remarks?
Dr. Abhay Bang: This was a great opportunity. It brought me to a place of introspection and to look at the question in this light of "What would Gandhi do?" I want to touch upon that question of fear because I think truly it is a pandemic of fear rather than COVID. Gandhi would answer this question on a different level, that will free us from the fear.
1. He would use science (as reassurance). For example, 97 percent of those who contract the virus don't die. Majority of them don’t have symptoms so why are you afraid? Statistically, corona is not as dangerous as it is posed to be.
2. He would go beyond that to say that by connecting to others, by way of service, you lose the personal fears. When we are alone, your fear multiplies. "We shall overcome," not "I shall overcome."
3. Then finally he would give a spiritual answer. “Atmaa amar hai, shareer nashvar hai; bahut chinta ki koi baat nahi hai” (meaning “The soul is immortal, the body falls apart; there is not much to worry about here”)
Meghna: Thank you, Abhay-ji! Sister Lucy, would you like to share?
Sister Lucy: For me, when the migrant workers were walking many kilometers, I was wishing there was a call from the top. If one family could adopt one man or one woman, they don’t have to walk so many kilometres. If we could all come forward to feel one person's (pain), to feed one person, they would have stopped walking. When I asked them, "Why are you walking?" they said, "There is no food." My children in Maher said, "Didi, we can skip one meal," when they saw that. Another woman said, "I have one kilo of rice, you take it." Other people really inspire me. I am grateful to all those who inspire me.
Meghna: Dr. Abhay Bang, thank you so much.
Dr. Abhay Bang: Thank you, Sister Lucy.
Meghna: We look forward to listening more and thinking more about this and making better decisions about how we can all as human beings co-create in a world of love without differences of caste or religion or language
(A Song by the Maher Children, in Marathi, provided a fittingly heart-tugging end to the call♪♥)