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

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