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Uplifting Stewardship

(A profile of a great political leader who can be a role model of inspired leadership for a country or the CEO of a company.)

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

-Abraham Lincoln

There are two kinds of leadership. First one is of the ordinary kind which at the best can maintain an efficient status quo and at the worst allows things to degenerate into a chaos. The second one is the uplifting leadership which can save alive a nation’s soul from disaster and raise the individual and corporate life to a higher level of values. Abraham Lincoln is an exemplar of this second kind of leadership. Lincoln is a legend among American people and one of the most admired heroes of American historian and biographers. Numberless biographies are written on him in America. This case study is based on the following sources:

  1. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by the Pulitzer Prize winner, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster Paperback.
  2. “Leadership Lessons from Abraham Lincoln” A Conversation with Doris Goodwin in Harvard Business Review, 1st April 2009

The Leader of Rivals

We can get a glimpse of Lincoln’s character when we look at the composition of the Cabinet formed by him after he was elected as the President of US. Lincoln made his arch political rivals his core cabinet team. Initially, none of them liked Lincoln and some of them looked down upon him with contempt and scorn, but Lincoln won over them by his extraordinary character and personality. Stanton, his Secretary of War, who once described Lincoln contemptuously as a ‘long-armed ape,’ became one of his greatest admirers and later said that Lincoln was the “best among us” and “superhuman” in his magnanimity. Similarly, another member of the Cabinet, Bates, who regarded Lincoln as weak and incompetent, later admired him as a near perfect-human being. Goodwin describes this aspect of Lincoln’s characters and leadership:

“It soon became clear; however, that Abraham Lincoln would emerge the undisputed captain of this most unusual cabinet, truly a team of rivals. The powerful competitors who had originally disdained Lincoln became colleagues who helped him steer the country through its darkest days.” Seward was the first to appreciate Lincoln’s remarkable talents, quickly realizing the futility of his plan to relegate the president to a figurehead role. In the months that followed, Seward would become Lincoln’s closest friend and advisor in the administration. Though Bates initially viewed Lincoln as a well-meaning, but incompetent administrator, he eventually concluded that the president was an unmatched leader, ‘very near being a perfect man.’ Edwin Stanton, who had treated Lincoln with contempt at their initial acquaintance, developed a great respect for the commander-in-chief and was unable to control his tears for weeks after the president’s death. Even Chase, whose restless ambition for the presidency was never realized, at last acknowledged that Lincoln had outmaneuvered him.

Lincoln’s cabinet colleagues were not only his political rivals, but also strong and powerful personalities with a big ego and of very different temperament. For example, Stanton is virtually the opposite of Lincoln in character. “No two men were ever more utterly and irreconcilably unlike,” Stanton’s private secretary, A.E. Johnson, observed. “The secretiveness which Lincoln wholly lacked, Stanton had in marked degree; the charity which Stanton could not feel coursed from every pore in Lincoln. Lincoln was for giving a wayward subordinate seventy times seven chances to repair his errors; Stanton was for either forcing him to obey or cutting off his head without more ado. Lincoln was as calm and unruffled as the summer sea, even in moments of the gravest peril; Stanton would lash himself into over the same condition of things. Stanton would take hardships with a groan; Lincoln would find a funny story to fit them. Stanton was all dignity and sternness, Lincoln all simplicity and good nature…yet no two men ever did or could work better in harness. They supplemented each other’s nature, and they fully recognized the fact that they were a necessity to each other.”

These perceptive comments bring out forcefully Lincoln’s character and his leadership style. He was never surrounded by weak sycophants, but was accompanied always by strong men who will always complement him, which means who can support him with skills and qualities which he himself lacked. They are also men who thought very differently from Lincoln and bold enough to express their disagreement in strong words. Lincoln came to power when his nation was in peril and on the verge of getting split into North and South on the issue of slavery. Lincoln felt strongly that in such a crisis situation, personal likes and dislikes and old animosities or hurt feelings should be set aside in choosing the leaders of a nation. When people asked him why he chose his rivals as his colleagues, Lincoln replied: “we needed the strongest men of the party in the cabinet. I had looked the party over and concluded these were the strongest men. Then I had no right to deprive the country of their services.” Thus Lincoln did not deliberately choose his rivals as his cabinet colleagues. He chose them because he felt that his rivals are the most able men in his party and the country. As Goodwin points out:

“But you have to remember, the idea is not just to put your rivals in power—the point is that you must choose the best and most able people in the country, for the good of the country. Lincoln came to power when the nation was in peril, and he had the intelligence, and the self-confidence, to know that he needed the best people by his side, people who were leaders in their own right and who were very aware of their own strengths. That’s an important insight whether you’re the leader of a country or the CEO of a company.”

The Inner Charisma

What made Lincoln the most beloved leader among American people? He cast a spell and a charm over whoever came into contact with him and transformed his rivals into his staunch supporters, friends and admirers, but, Lincoln was not outwardly a charismatic personality. He was tall and lanky, but awkward in his features, appearance and manners with a melancholic sadness in his face. As Goodwin recounts some of the observations of Lincoln’s contemporaries on his outer appearance:

“Lincoln’s shock of black hair, brown furrowed face and deep-set eyes made him look older than his fifty-one years. He was a familiar figure to almost everyone in Springfield, as was his singular way of walking, which gave the impression that his long, gaunt frame needed oiling. He plodded forward in an awkward manner, hands hanging at his sides or folded behind his back. His step had no spring, his partner William Herndon recalled. He lifted his whole foot at once rather than lifting from the toes and then thrust the whole foot down on the ground rather than landing on his heel. “His legs,” another observer noted, “seemed to drag from the knees down, like those of a labourer going home after a hard day’s work.”

Thus Lincoln’s charisma comes not from his external personality, but from the character of his inner being which came to the front when he started speaking. As a reporter, Horace White observed, “Yet, when Lincoln began to speak, this expression of sorrow dropped from him instantly. His face lighted up with a winning smile and where I had a moment before seen only leaden sorrow I now beheld keen intelligence, genuine kindness of heart and the promise of true friendship.” All those who came into contact with Lincoln felt this extraordinary inner presence. “It wasn’t anything immediately felt as charisma” states Goodwin, “His popularity almost came from inside out. His cabinet was the first to see something unusual about him. Take William Seward, who originally was a rival. Some eight weeks after becoming secretary of state, Seward wrote to his wife that Lincoln was unlike anyone he’d ever known. Other members of the cabinet came to think so, too. One after another, they came to power thinking Lincoln was rather unexceptional and ended up believing that he was as near a perfect man as anyone they’d ever met.”

This inner character of Lincoln was made of a sharp, brilliant mind, gifted speech, a will persistently focussed on the purpose and above all an extremely magnanimous heart—all the qualities of a born leader.

We will not enter into the perennial debate on whether a leader is born or made? In the integral perspective it is both. In every human being, there is an external personality and an inner being. The external self is mostly shaped by the outer environment and genetics, and the inner being contains the accumulated result of our past evolution through many births. Both these external and inner being can grow and develop through a process of unconscious natural evolution and a self-directed conscious evolution, through education, experience and discipline. However, the inner being of a person is to a certain extent born. A well-developed inner being, the “born” element in a person, can come forward and make itself felt even during childhood or the early years of growth. Most of the great leaders including Lincoln exhibit leadership qualities during their early years of child and youth. Goodwin recounting the childhood days of Lincoln, writes:

Even as a child, Lincoln dreamed heroic dreams. From the outset, he was cognizant of a destiny far beyond that of his unlettered father and hardscrabble childhood. “He was different from those around him,” the historian Douglas Wilson writes. “He knew he was unusually gifted and had great potential.” To the eyes of his schoolmates, Lincoln was “clearly exceptional,” Lincoln biographer David Donald observes, “and he carried away from his brief schooling the self-confidence of a man who has never met his intellectual equal.” His mind and ambition, his childhood friend Nathaniel Grigsby recalled, “Soared above us. He naturally assumed the leadership of the boys. He read & thoroughly read his books whilst we played. Hence he was above us and became our guide and leader.”

The sadness in Lincoln’s personality is predominantly external, probably the result of his hard and difficult childhood and youth, but as the reporter Horace White observed when Lincoln speaks his inner being came into the front animating his outer self.

Leading from the Heart

Lincoln was endowed with a keen and wide intelligence, but he was not an intellectual by temperament. He was basically a man of action who led from his heart. One of the most prominent qualities of his personality, which made him an endearing leader, is his Himalayan magnanimity, which his cabinet colleague, Stanton, describes as “superhuman.” This superlative appreciation of Stanton was perhaps based on his own experience of Lincoln’s magnanimity. Stanton was a professional rival of Lincoln. When Lincoln was pursuing his career as a lawyer, Stanton deprived Lincoln of a lucrative offer from a client, by talking ill of Lincoln and persuading the client to give the assignment to him. Stanton told the client: “Why did you bring that long-armed Ape here–he does not know anything and do no good.” However, Lincoln remained in the court to see Stanton representing his client. Lincoln listened with rapt attention and was very much impressed by Stanton’s talent as a lawyer and his dedication to his profession and his client. Later, when Lincoln became president and met Stanton after six years, he offered Stanton the most powerful and important post as the Secretary of War.

Goodwin regards this “singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation or bitterness” as one of the great leadership qualities of Lincoln. Stanton was won over by Lincoln’s magnanimity and “   come to respect and love Lincoln more than any other person outside of his immediate family.” Lincoln’s magnanimity was not confined to his VIP colleagues, but flowed equally to people in all the levels of the economic, social and political hierarchy. Here is an interesting episode recounted by Goodwin:

“The story is told of an army colonel who rode out to the Soldiers’ Home, hopeful of securing Lincoln’s aid in recovering the body of his wife, who had died in a steamboat accident.  His brief period of relaxation interrupted, Lincoln listened to the colonel’s tale, but offered no help.  “Am I to have no rest? Is there no hour or spot when or where I may escape this constant call? Why do you follow me out here with such business as this?” The disheartened colonel returned to his hotel in Washington.  The following morning, Lincoln appeared at his door, “I was a brute last night,” Lincoln said, offering to help the colonel in any way possible.”

This magnanimity of Lincoln’s temperament expressed itself in his mind as a wide, mental, tolerance with a readiness to listen to, accept, understand or learn from different and conflicting view-points or in otherwords, the ability for democratic leadership. Lincoln listened patiently with a genuine openness to the view-points of his colleagues before coming to a decision. The other aspects of his mental magnanimity is his willingness to accept his mistakes and also assume responsibility for others mistakes. “He was able to acknowledge his errors and learn from his mistakes” says Goodwin and “took responsibility for what he did and he shared responsibility for the mistakes of others.”

The other important quality of Lincoln’s character is his empathy, which according to Goodwin is the ability to “put himself in the place of another, to experience what they were feeling, to understand their motives and desires.” Lincoln was uncommonly tenderhearted. He once stopped and tracked back half a mile to rescue a pig caught in mire. This quality of empathy made Lincoln not only compassionate and a little melancholic, but also successful as a leader. As Goodwin explains:

“Though Lincoln’s empathy was at the root of his melancholy, it would prove an enormous asset to his political career. “His crowning gift of political diagnosis,” suggested Nicolay, “was due to his sympathy…which gave him the power to forecast with uncanny accuracy what his opponents were likely to do.” She described how, after listening to his colleagues talk at a Whig Party caucus, Lincoln would cast off his shawl, rise from his chair, and say: “From your talk, I gather the democrats will do so and so…I should do so and so to checkmate them.” He proceeded to outline all “the moves for days ahead; making them all so plain that his listeners wondered why they had not seen it that way themselves.” Such capacity to intuit the inward feelings and intentions of others would be manifest throughout his career.”

As we said earlier, Lincoln was a little melancholic, but not depressed. On the contrary, had remarkable sense of humour, which he regarded as the “joyous, universal evergreen of life” and as an integral part of his personality. Lincoln’s humour is not cynical, but “life-affirming” and almost everyone who came into contact with Lincoln testified that he was “an extraordinarily-funny man.” Lincoln was a born story-teller who charmed people with his witty lore’s which are not only funny, but with a moral significance. While talking about the early youthful years of Lincoln, Goodwin writes:

“In these convivial settings, Lincoln was invariably the center of attention. No one could equal his never-ending stream of stories or his ability to reproduce them with such contagious mirth. As his winding tales became more famous, crowds of villagers awaited his arrival at every stop for the chances to hear a master storyteller. Everywhere he went, he won devoted followers, friendships that later emboldened his quest for office.”

This sense of humour, and the gift for oratory and storytelling made Lincoln a great communicator, which enhanced his effectiveness as a leader. “This great story-telling talent and oratorical skill” states Goodwin “would eventually constitute his stock-in-trade throughout both his legal and political career. The passion for rendering experience into powerful language remained with Lincoln throughout his life.”

MS Srinivasan


Nelson Mandela – Leading From The Heart

(This article presents a brief leadership review of a great leader who liberated South Africa from apartheid).

To those who observed him closely, Nelson Mandela always carried himself as one who was born to lead. As his former cellmate and long-time friend, Ahmed Kathrada, said: “He was born into a royal house and there was always that sense about him, of someone who knew the meaning of leadership.”

Helen Suzman, the lone parliamentary voice of opposition to the nationalist government, went to Robben Island to check if the prisoners were being treated fairly. She wrote:

He had an amazing way of communicating with people, particularly the young. He mesmerised them. It was not a politician’s way: unlike many politicians he had warmth, real warmth.

When I arrived I was taken to the single cells where the political prisoners were kept. Eddie Daniels’ cell was the closest to the door. When I went to him, he said: “We know who you are. Go right to the end and you will find our leader, Nelson Mandela.”

Even in these conditions his leadership was acknowledged. My memory of that first meeting is that he was a man who exuded a lot of authority. Within a few minutes of discussion, given his understanding of the situation in the country, I was convinced that he would be an essential component of any negotiation process about the country’s future. I of course did not realise that it would take so long to get there.

Mandela was very courageous in that meeting. The head of the prison was with me and yet he was not cowed down.…

I continued to see Mandela at Robben Island and later when he was moved to Pollsmoor and Victor Verster prisons. Seeing and chatting with him made me stronger in certain ways — I made speeches every year in parliament calling for the release of all political prisoners. …

I do not think that our country would have become what it is without the magnanimity that he and FW de Klerk showed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That is their greatest achievement.

Mandela once said: “When there is danger, a good leader takes the front line; but when there is celebration, a good leader stays in the back of the room.” He added: “Sometimes a leader has to criticise those with whom he works — it cannot be avoided. I like a leader who can, while pointing out a mistake, bring up the good things the other person has done. If you do that, then the person sees that you have a complete picture of him. There is nobody more dangerous than one who has been humiliated, even when you humiliate him rightly.”

British Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, considered Mandela’s courtesies as one of his leadership qualities: “Mandela’s courtesy in small things derived more widely from his underlying belief that the way forward for South Africa lay in discussion and reconciliation.”

One of the great qualities of leadership is humility. In an interview Mandela was asked, “You once told me that humility is one of the greatest qualities a leader can have. Did you come out of prison a more humble man?” He replied: “If you are humble, you are no threat to anybody. Some behave in a way that dominates others. That’s a mistake. If you want the cooperation of humans around you, you must make them feel they are important — and you do that by being genuine and humble. You know that other people have qualities that may be better than your own. Let them express them.”

Thomas Friedman in an article in The New York Times speaks of Dov Seidman, author of the book How, who advises CEOs on governance. Friedman writes: “’What is so inspiring about Mandela,’ explained Seidman, ‘is that he did not make the moment of South Africa’s transition about himself. It was not about his being in jail for 27 years. It was not about his need for retribution.’ It was about seizing a really big moment, to go from racism to pluralism, without stopping for revenge. ‘Mandela did not make himself the hope,’ added Seidman. ‘He saw his leadership challenge as inspiring hope in others, so they would do the hard work of reconciliation. It was in that sense that he accomplished big things by making himself smaller than the moment. ’‘Through his uncommon humility and his willingness to trust his people with the truth,’ explained Seidman, ‘Mandela created a hopeful space where enough South Africans trusted each other enough so they could unite and do the hard work of transition together.’‘ Finally, said Seidman, ‘Mandela did big things by making himself small.’

Mandela also said: “I learned to have the patience to listen when people put forward their views; even if I think those views are wrong. You can’t reach a just decision in a dispute unless you listen to both sides, ask questions, and view the evidence placed before you. If you don’t allow people to contribute, to offer their point of view, or to criticise what has been put before them, then they can never like you. And you can never build that instrument of collective leadership.”

ANC stalwart, Mac Maharaj, writes of Mandela: “One of his strengths was his ability to look at himself; this was something he deepened and broadened during 27 years in prison. During out discussions in jail, he had the willingness to say ‘maybe we were wrong,’ which didn’t play well in many quarters.” Maharaj also wrote, “His strength is not simply to change his views but also to acknowledge his adversary when he did make the shift.”

Former South African president F.W. de Klerk wrote:

My first meeting with Nelson Mandela was on the evening of 13th December 1989 … I was immediately struck by his charm and his leadership qualities.

We discussed the ANC demand for majority rule on the one hand and the need for structural guarantees for minorities on the other. At the end of our brief meeting I concluded he was a man with whom I would be able to do business.

He had a great sense of dignity. He was courteous and self-confident. Later in my relationship with him I learned that he could also be remorseless and harsh — but then we were, after all, political opponents. He had the leadership of a natural aristocrat….

He showed the power of perseverance and of reconciliation.… His great contribution lies in the fact that he emerged from 27 years of imprisonment with so little bitterness and was able to make such a great contribution to national reconciliation and to the birth of the new South Africa. …

Mandela hauled the young ones into a new South Africa. Along the way, particularly in the 1990s, he was called everything from soft to a stooge of the regime. But today we know the necessity of his actions.

Mandela managed to drag the young and angry along with him because he had once been a very angry young man himself. In the late 1940s and early 50s he had been one of the powerful young ANC leaders who installed a radical new leadership and programme of action.

How do I remember Nelson Mandela? In George Orwell’s famous story a young British policeman stationed in Burma walks towards an elephant that has just killed a villager. There are 2,000 Burmese following him. He is the only one with a gun. They all want him to kill the elephant. He knows that it would be wrong to do so because the elephant no longer poses a threat to anyone. But he is scared of looking a fool — and regarded as weak — by the villagers. So he shoots the elephant.

When Mandela came out of prison there were millions of us behind him. We all urged him at the top of our voices to act radical, to shoot the apartheid elephant and cause a conflagration. He did not.

He is the greatest, most courageous and honest leader we ever had. He gave us — the so-called “lost generation” of South Africa — a future. He saved us.

Indeed, one of Mandela’s greatest gifts to the nation and the world was the lesson of forgiveness and reconciliation. Mr. de Klerk, who released Mandela from prison in 1990 and then negotiated the end of apartheid, called Mandela a “humane” and “compassionate” man who was able to understand the fears of South Africa’s white minority in the transition to democracy. “He was a great unifier and a very, very special man in this regard beyond everything else he did. This emphasis on reconciliation was his biggest legacy.”…

When Mandela passed away, acclaimed American poet and author Maya Angelou was asked by the U.S. State Department to write a tribute poem to him on behalf of the American people. Angelou’s interview with CBS about Mandela and the poem is very touching. She mentioned that she was married to a South African freedom fighter, a member of the PAC, who was an arch rival of the ANC in the South African struggle against apartheid. She said: “Mr. Mandela came to Egypt where I was living. And I’ve been so used to these rivals arguing and shouting in the living room and shouting in the street against each other. … When Mr. Mandela came here he never had a cross word to say to anyone. I was amazed. I had never seen a South African that kind. He had a compliment to give to everybody, including my housekeeper and the doorman, it was amazing. A gentle giant he was.” When asked “What did Nelson Mandela mean to you?” she replied, “I know that, with the attitudes and anger in South Africa after apartheid, had there been no Mandela we would see blood running in the streets because apartheid was so brutal and the people were so angry, the black people were so angry and white people felt so guilty, until Nelson Mandela released from prison came out smiling and holding hands with whites and holding white babies and saying this is a time for friendship, this is about South Africa. … That is the great gift of Nelson Mandela.” She adds, “There is something greater than you, and there is a good thing to do, you can stand on the good foot, you can say the kind things, you can be generous, you can, and he showed us that. He also showed us how liberating it is to forgive.” When asked, “If you were to pass on to the world one thing of Nelson Mandela, what would it be.” She replied, “I would talk about his kindness, I think you cannot really forgive if you are not really kind. And so you forgive a person or persons or systems, you forgive them and then you don’t have to drag them around every day and all day and all night long. It’s a gift to yourself to forgive and I would say Nelson Mandela’s gift to the world was his ability to forgive.”

One is reminded here of Mother’s phrase: “True greatness, true superiority lies in kindness and goodwill.”

We conclude the article with a quote from Nelson Mandela, which can aptly be applied to him: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

Gautam Malaker

(Excerpts from his article in Mother India of March 2019)











An Integral Spiritual Approach to Development – Concept and Practice

(A review of the book, Integral Rural Development: A Rural Transformation Experiment, by Sri Aurobindo Society, Puducherry by G. Palanithurai and R. Ramesh, Concept Publishers Ltd.)

The concept of ‘development’ can be viewed and practised at many levels and perspectives. For a long time, this idea of development has been conceived and practiced mainly in terms of economic development, but now many other social and cultural factors, such as education, equity, gender and environment, are added on as parameters for measuring development. However, the concept of development is still viewed predominantly in terms of improving the quality of the outer life. What is still missing is the inner dimension. Here comes the importance of this book which provides a conceptual and, more importantly, practical framework for incorporating this missing dimension in the concept and practice of development.

The authors of the book Professor G. Palanithurai and R. Ramesh are accomplished scholars in the domain of Rural Development. Professor Palanithurai is the head of the Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayat Raj Studies, Department of Political Science and Development Administration at Gandhigram Rural Institute, Gandhigram. He was also a visiting professor at Cologne University in Germany. R. Ramesh is an Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchyat Raj, Hyderabad.

An Experiment in Integral Development

The main subject of the book is Sri Aurobindo Rural & Village Action & Movement (SARVAM), a unit of Sri Aurobindo Society, Puduchery, which is engaged in an on-going and innovative experiment in Integral Rural Development based on a spiritual, value-based and human-centric approach to development, with an emphasis on awakening the inner being of the individual and the community but without ignoring the outer needs. “The bottom-line is impacting on the person’s way of thinking and being,” say the authors of this book, “rather than just providing some essentials for supporting survival or improving living standards.” This idea of “impacting on the person’s way of thinking and being” constantly recurs in this book. And the project mission is described as follows:

  • Initiate a movement for an integral village development, which aims at establishing developing a progressive and happy village community, empowered and directed from within and based on a new consciousness attitudes and values.
  • Integrate and try to bring harmony and perfection in every activity of the village life based on a spiritual approach.
  • Help every individual of the village, without any distinction based on age, gender, caste or religion to realize his/her highest physical, emotional, mental and spiritual potential.
  • The strategic principles for action are enumerated in the following terms:
  • Build social infrastructure – both physical such as houses, roads, schools, etc., and service-based factors such as education, orientation, training, etc.
  • Integrate all aspects of life – education, health, economic development, vocational training, organic farming, water harvesting, waste management, sustainable resource development.
  • Self-driven development by the community right from planning, execution and maintenance, through local decision-making, empowering the village community to take charge of their destiny and future.
  • The village community is encouraged to fix goals, identify problems, seek solutions, rise resources from within, supplemented from resources from outside.
  • Provide equal opportunity of growth and development for the marginalized sections of the community.
  • Seeks for creative and collaborative partnership with other NGOs, government and quasi-government organization, corporate houses and individuals.
  • Look for new and creative ideas and best practices from other institutions and organizations from all over India and the world.
  • Along with developing physical infrastructure, a conscious attempt is made to bring about a major change in the way of thinking and feelings, attitudes, dreams and aspirations with a will to overcome all internal as well as external obstacles which prevent inner and outer progress of the community or in other words growth in consciousness.

Most of these strategic principles are much discussed and debated in the new and emerging development literature, especially from United Nations, and they are probably put into practice in many rural development projects all over the world – except perhaps the last one, growth of consciousness, which is the unique feature of SARVAM. Coming to practices, the following activities are outlined in the book.

  • Education and awareness generation
  • Physical games and active play
  • Health and sanitation
  • Woman and youth development
  • Developing life-skills and vocational education
  • Housing
  • Assistance to the ultra-poor

These things are also well known in development circles, and they are not unique to SARVAM. But the unique feature of the SARVAM is the principle of growth of consciousness and integral development of the community, and how they are incorporated in every aspect of life.

Incorporating Spirituality

This reviewer asked Shri Senthil, one of the pioneering leaders of SARVAM, about the main principles and practices behind SARVAM incorporating spirituality in the development process. Senthil explained his thoughts with extreme clarity and deep conviction, which I am summing up in my own words:

The popular conceptions of spirituality equate it with traditional religion. But SARVAM’s approach to spiritual growth is more secular and psychological than religions. The methodology of spiritual development followed in SARVAM aims at the mental, moral, aesthetic and psychological development of the individual, which leads to an opening or receptivity of the consciousness to the spiritual self or divinity within him or her. Here are some of the principles and practices of inner growth adopted in SARVAM.

  • Living example of leaders and organizers who practice spirituality in their lives
  • Cultivating punctuality, harmony, order, beauty in habits, behaviour, action and organization of the outer life
  • Awakening to the urge for progress and perfection in work and action
  • Importance of concentration on the work to be done
  • Meaning of true prayer
  • Need for truth in thought, speech and action
  • Practice of inner silence
  • Learning through dialogue, discussion, questioning and action

The Concept and Meaning of Integral Development

A clear distinction is made in this book between what is called ‘Integrated Rural Development’ and ‘Integral Rural Development’. The concept of Integrated Rural Development aims mainly at improving the outer quality and or living standards of the outer economic and social life. The idea of Integral Rural Development aims at improving the inner being of people, for example, their thinking, feeling, attitudes and values but without ignoring the wellbeing of the outer life.

The authors of this book conceive integral development in terms of (i) economic wellbeing, (ii) social wellbeing, (iii) political wellbeing, and (iv) spiritual or emotional wellbeing.

Economic wellbeing means to provide employment and livelihood opportunities, skill development through vocational training; assistance to the poorest sections of the society.

We may include here developing entrepreneurship and habits and qualities which lead to greater prosperity such as minimizing waste, cleanliness, time management, efficient organization of life and, most importantly, eco-friendly and sustainable economic development. Political wellbeing is conceived in terms of developing a ‘sense of participation in community activities, feeling empowered to take decisions and take responsibility’. Social wellbeing is described in terms of being well nourished and well clothed, having decent housing, quality health care and education, safe and adequate water and sanitation facilities and also satisfying leisure hours and cultural freedom.

Social and political wellbeing together may also be conceived in terms of an increasing manifestation of the triple values of French revolution—Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Liberty means the freedom to grow in harmony with the unique nature and capacities of each individual and the freedom to initiate, think, organize and innovate. Equality means awakening the sense equality of the human essence whatever may be the outer economic or social status. Equality can also be viewed in terms of ‘a just social order’ which Sri Aurobindo describes as ‘under a just social order, there must be an equal opportunity, an equal training for all to develop their faculties and to use them, and as far as may be, an equal share in the advantages of aggregate life as the right of all who contribute to the existence, vigour and development of that life by the use of their capacities’. Fraternity means a sense of unity, harmony and solidarity among the members of the community.

Regarding spiritual and emotional wellbeing, this book describes it in terms of ‘self-respect and freedom’, which is inadequate for a paradigm of development based on a spiritual vision. Spiritual wellbeing may be defined as awakening the spiritual self in us beyond our mind and organizing our whole being or life around this spiritual centre of our being. This may be a very high ideal for average people like us. But the ideal may be conveyed in simple word and also how to progress slowly from our present condition, through various stages. A beginning has already been made in SARVAM on the lines indicated by Shri Senthil, which we have described earlier. Along with it, some more methods of Indian Yoga can be taught, such as silencing the mind and listening to the inner guidance of the soul. Selfless work consecrated to the Divine, inward concentration on the indwelling Divine in the depth of our heart, observing our thoughts and feelings as a detached witness. Similarly emotional wellbeing may be defined as having a peaceful and kind heart. And the way to develop it is through rejection of all negative feelings like anger, jealousy, dislike, greed, anxiety, and cultivating positive feeling like compassion, benevolence, forgiveness and generosity.

Development in Practice

The most interesting part of the book are the two chapters ‘Development in Practice’ and ‘Tenets of Transformation’, which explain with many concrete examples how the strategic principles of the SARVAM project are incorporated in every activity of the community, for example, in education, youth development, woman empowerment, housing, health—and what are the results and achievement in these areas. In the last part of the book, Dr. Palanidurai describes the transformative changes happening in the mindset and behaviour of people. For example, before SARVAM appeared on the village scene, the mindset of people in the community was somewhat as follows:

  • Bank loans need not be repaid, which had resulted in banks abandoning the villages.
  • We grew up on the street, so will our children.
  • School is a place of study for children of educated parents and it is a place where they give free noon meal for the children of daily labours.
  • To drink is manly and to cook food and give birth to children are woman’s work and a woman who questions and argues with her husband has her head messed up and she must be fixed.

The transformation of this old mind-set into positive attitudes is described by Dr. Palanidurai vividly in the following passage:

‘SARVAM claims to be unique project because of the influence it exercises at the cult level, shaping the way people think; and the things people attach importance to, and give value for. Valuing the dignity of holding a bank account, for instance, and owning a house of one’s own and working hard to repay the housing loan obtained from SARVAM; finding the meaning of sending children to school; finding sensitivity in listening to and respecting woman; giving up drinking in order to pay cow loan obtained as a promise of improving one’s income—all these manifest transformative change—change in their language, behaviour and in the interpretation of desirable and undesirable. Such positive aspirations towards life have weaned many a man from alcoholism and transformed him to be a responsible member in the family and the community. A currency note, meant to be paid as school fee, is lost in the school premises but finding its place at the “Lost and Found” spot of the school, puts across how cult works at the local school children level.”

In another interesting chapter on ‘Sustainability, Replicability and Scalability’, the authors describe with an admirable clarity the strategy evolved by the SARVAM team for sustaining, replicating and scaling up the project. They are described in terms of the following categories of activities:

  • What do we do well?
  • What needs improvement?
  • What we should discontinue doing?
  • What we should start doing?
  • What we should continue doing?
  • What are the fears and hopes for the future?
  • What are the activities which have become self-sustaining therefore need no further support of SARVAM?
  • How to make the two SARVAM-supported villages entirely self-supporting and how SARVAM can phase out of them and move on to other villages?

The Spiritual Significance of SARVAM

This book as a whole provides a very useful and practical guidance on a holistic spiritual approach to development for all those who are working in the concept and practice of development as scholars, researchers and practitioners. This slender book is a valuable and important contribution to the literature on community development.

There is another factor which makes the book very significant. It is the spiritual development or inner progress of a collectivity, which has not been sufficiently attempted explored or experimented in any part of the world or even at this scale in India which is the land of spirituality and carries the spiritual genius in her soul. The ancient India mastered the art and science of inner spiritual progress for the individual, but not much attention is paid to the spiritual progress of a collectivity in an integral manner which means integrating the inner spiritual and the outer collective or secular life in a harmonious fusion. There are spiritual communities in ancient India, like the Ashram or the Monastery, but in such collectivities, there is not much of the secular life with vibrant economic, social and political activities. But awakening the spiritual dimension in a community with a vigorous and active economic, social and political life and integrating them will be the challenge for the future spiritual endeavour of India. As Sri Aurobindo describes the future mission of India.

‘This must be her mission and service to humanity—as she discovered the inner spiritual life for the individual so now to discover for the race its integral collective expression and found for mankind its new spiritual and communal order.’

SARVAM is a pioneering attempt and an experiment in building ‘an integral collective expression’ founded on a spiritual vision of life and this book is the first step towards documenting and researching the experiment in a systematic way.

M. S. Srinivasan


Beyond Traditional Environmentalism: An Alternative Paradigm on Environment

(Review of the book Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough & Michael Braungart, North Point Press)

The remedies to the environmental crisis we are facing today are now more or less accepted by all progressive and thinking minds and getting standardized. They eliminate pollution, consume less, recycle waste, minimize the use of non-renewable resources. Here are two people, an architect and a chemist, who dare to question this accepted environmental wisdom—which looks very reasonable—and offers a better and alternative paradigm for dealing with the ecological crisis facing our humanity.

The authors of this book under review William McDonough and Michael Braungart take a sharp, critical look at the present standardized remedies suggested for restoring our damaged environment, for example, recycling. But what is interesting and valuable in this book by McDonough and Braungart are not their criticism but their positive, wider and enriching vision and approach to environmentalism.

William McDonough is an architect and the principle founder of ‘William McDonough and Partners, Architecture and Community Design’, based in Virginia. Time magazine recognized him as a ‘Hero for the Planet’. In 1996, he received the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development, the highest environmental honour given by the United States. Michael Braungart is a chemist and the founder of the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) in Hamburg, Germany. Prior to starting EPEA, he was the director of the chemistry section of Greenpeace.

The Cradle to Grave Model

The title of the book is based on two contrasting models of development. The first one, the traditional industrial model, where things are made, used and discarded is the ‘cradle to grave’ model. McDonough and Braungart present a ‘Cradle to Cradle’ model where the discarded things, what we call as waste, become the cradle for something useful or enriching. The traditional environmentalism offers recycling as the remedy for waste. But Macdonough and Braungart indicate the defects in this method which are unrecognized in most of the discussion on it. As they point out:

“Just because a material is recycled does not make it ecologically benign, especially if it was not designed specifically for recycling. Blindly adopting superficial environmental approaches without fully understanding their effects can be no better – and perhaps even worse – than doing nothing.”

When a product is not predesigned for recycling, it may happen that one set of harmful chemicals are replaced by another equally harmful ones used in the process of recycling. McDonough and Braungart give many examples for illustrating these defects of recycling. Here is one of them:

“In some developing countries, sewage sludge is recycled into animal food, but the current design and treatment of sewage by conventional sewage system produce sludge containing chemicals that are not healthy food for animals. Sewage sludge is also used as fertiliser, which is a well-intentioned attempt to make nutrients, but as currently processed it can contain harmful substances (like dioxins, heavy metals, endocrine disrupters, and antibiotics) that are inappropriate for fertilising crops. Even residential sewage sludge contains toilet paper, made from recycled paper, may carry dioxins. Unless materials are specifically designed to ultimately become safe food for nature composting can present problems as well.”

The Cherry Tree Paradigm

But the more positive part of the book is that the authors provide a much more enriching alternative to the current thinking on environment. According to McDonough and Braungart, contemporary environmentalism based on the principle of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle, – and regulate’ impoverishes Nature and life and it is contrary to the ways of Nature, which produces a creative, diversified and beautiful abundance. The true Environmentalism has to follow this richer ways of Nature. The authors of this book frequently cite the cherry tree as the example of their alternative approach. “Consider the Cherry tree: thousands of blossoms create fruit for birds, humans and other animal, in order that one pit might eventually fall onto the ground, take root, and grow,” say the authors, and elaborate further on the way of the cherry tree:

“The tree makes copious blossom and fruit without depleting the environment. Once they fell on the ground their materials decompose and break down into nutrients that nourish microorganisms, insects, plants, animals and soils. It enriches the ecosystem, sequestering carbon, producing oxygen, cleaning air and water, and creating and stabilising soil. Among its roots and branches and on its leaves, it harbours a diverse array of flora and fauna, all of which depend on it and on one another for the functions and flows that support life. And when the tree dies, it returns to the soil, releasing as it decomposes, minerals that will feed healthy new growth in the same place … what might the human-built world look like if a cherry tree had produced it.”

Inspired by the example of the cherry tree, the authors of this book offer an alternative model of environmentalism where products can be designed in such a way that after their useful lives they will become either ‘biological nutrients’ which re-enter the cycles of Nature and the water and the soil without injecting synthetic materials or toxins into it or else they become ‘technical nutrients’ which continually circulate within the industrial cycles as useful materials or products.

Eco-efficiency and Eco-effectiveness

McDonough and Braungart make a clear distinction between ‘eco-efficiency’, which is the main principle of current environmentalism, and ‘eco-effectiveness’, which is the principle of the new paradigm that they offer as the better alternative. The main features of the eco-efficiency model are:

  • Release fewer pounds of toxic wastes into the air, soil and water every year.
  • Measure prosperity by less activity.
  • Meet the stipulation of thousands of complex regulations to keep people and natural systems from being poisoned too quickly.
  • Produce fewer materials that are so dangerous that they will require future generations to maintain constant vigilance while living in terror.

In contrast, the eco-effectiveness model is based on the following principles:

  • Buildings which, like trees, produce more energy than they consume and purify their own waste water.
  • Factories that produce affluent that are drinking water.
  • Products that when their useful life is over do not become useless waste but can be tossed into the ground to decompose and become food for plants and animals and nutrients for soil; or alternately that can return to industrial cycles to supply high-quality raw materials accrued for new products.
  • Billions and trillions of dollars’ worth of materials accrued for human and natural purposes each year.
  • Transportation that improves the quality of life while delivering goods and services.
  • A world of abundance, not one of limits, pollutions and worse.

This is not merely a utopian theory. Drawing from their rich experience in environmental consulting, the authors give many examples on how they redesigned things from carpets to corporate campuses. Let us look at one example, described by the authors:

“Working with a team assembled by Professor David Orr of Oberlin College, we conceived the idea for a building and its site modelled on the way a tree works. We imagined ways that it could purify the air, create shade and habitat, enrich soil, and change with the seasons, eventually accruing more energy than it needs to operate. Features include solar panel on the roof; a grove of trees on the building’s north side for wind protection and diversity; an interior designed to change and adapt to people’s aesthetic and functional preference with raised floors and leased carpeting; a pond that stores water for irrigation; a living machine inside and beside the building that use a pond full of specially selected organism and plants to clean the effluent; classrooms and large public rooms that face west and south to take advantage of solar gain; special windowpanes that control the amount of UV light entering the building; a restored forest on the east side of the building; and an approach to landscaping and grounds maintenance that obviates the need for pesticides or irrigation. These features are in the process of being optimized – in its first summer, the building began to generate more energy capital than it used – a small but hopeful start.”

On another assignment, a textile manufacturing company asked the authors to redesign a fabric which was producing toxic effluent and it was done in such a way that effluents are cleaner than the water that went in! The environmental inspectors were baffled and wondered whether their testing instruments were working properly!

The Larger Crisis

This brings us to the question whether the eco-efficiency model can be entirely abandoned? The authors admit that eco-efficiency is helpful as “transitional strategy to help currents system to slow down and turn around”. However, the authors do not address serious environmental problems posed by a predominantly consumerist culture, when it starts consuming limited, non-renewable resources on a large scale with a ravenous appetite. Asia in general and large populous countries such as India and China are facing such a crisis. As Kishore Mahubhari, former Singapore Ambassador to UN describes the crisis facing Asia:

“Two virtually certain major trends will create a massive global collision. First, Asian living standards will rise spectacularly. This is good. Second, Asian will replicate Western consumption patterns. This is bad. How do we gain the good and avoid the bad? This will be one of the biggest questions of the twenty-first century.”

In such situations, a strategy based on the principles of eco-efficiency with restraints and limits to consumption of resources seem to be the right remedy. Chandran Nayar, the founder of the Global Institute for Tomorrow, in his book Consumptionomics, presents a blueprint for tackling the Asian environmental crisis based predominately on the principle of eco-efficiency. Writing about the main cause of the environmental crisis, Nair says: “That cause is what we consume – both its volume and its nature. The only way the world can expect to have an environment fit for those currently alive to live in, and to pass on the future generation in a decent form, is by consuming less and in a different way.”

The much-talked about ‘demographic dividend’ of a large population can be realized only when we are able to provide the basic needs of the population and make each individual into a productive citizen with sufficient health, education and skill. All these require immense amount of resources and how to find it? Assuming we are able to harness these resources and create a productive population, when a large part of this population rises in the economic pyramid and takes on to the western types of consumption in the form of more and more TVs, cars, fridges, etc., then will it not become a too heavy burden for the environment? So, reducing excessive consumption of resources is something indispensable for preserving the environment, and the need for controlling the population cannot be dismissed or underestimated.

This brings us to in other important environmental concern – population growth. But the authors of this book do not offer any useful strategies on how to tackle this problem in an ‘Eco-effective’ way. They are highly critical of the reduce–minimize–avoid culture of traditional environmentalism which counsels “we must shrink our presence, our systems, our activities and even our population control through limiting birth rates as the most effective way to deal with the problem”. The authors of this book are critical of this approach but do not offer any better alternative.

How to bring down consumption? There are the outer or material methods through regulation, laws, environmental education and many others. But there is also an inner, psychological path. The driving force behind consumption is desire for more and more material objects or enjoyments and reduction or renunciation of this kind of desires can lead to reduced consumption. The best way to do it is to turn the energy of desires towards non-material objects, which aims fulfilment in the intellectual, aesthetic or spiritual realms. So a system of education which awakens this higher needs or the aspiration of these higher aims can help not only in spiritual growth but also beneficial to our environment.

M. S. Srinivasan