Ashrams for education: Gandhi, Tagore and their holistic approach to learning


As we think of the relevance of ashram ideals in the thought of both Tagore and Gandhi, we realize that they were ecologically inspired. Gandhi Jayanti 2023 may help us consider the importance of an education engaging with our natural environment.

Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi in 1940. PHOTO: Wikimedia commons. In the public domain in India and US.

In the spring of 1915, a group from the Phoenix experiment in South Africa, where Mahatma Gandhi had founded in 1904 an ashram-type community called the Tolstoy Farm, were welcomed at Santiniketan, India by Rabindranath Tagore. The link between Gandhi and Tagore was furthered by C.F. Andrews who had made Santiniketan – the university Tagore founded in 1921 – his home and had suggested that Gandhi and a group of his followers should come to this ashram when returning to work in India.

Both Gandhi and Tagore felt that an experiment in education should be the basis for rediscovering an authentic indigenous identity founded on the cultural experience of India. Tagore had initiated a type of schooling different from the Western model introduced by colonial institutions concerned with providing its local government with literate and motivated intellectuals. For Tagore his childhood experience of schooling had been a frustrating and crushing process, engaging his creative mind. He believed that a true way to broaden the horizons of a young person was to learn through a natural environment, and in harmony with the whole of creation. In 1901 he initiated an ashram school where children were liberated from a closed classroom and allowed to play and learn in the open under the branches of trees.

In 1863 Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, the father of Rabindranath, purchased a property in the countryside which he called Santiniketan, or abode of peace, where he started to live in accordance with ancient spiritual values. He gave shape to a new approach in spirituality based on the Vedas, by constructing a place for meditation under a Chhatim tree, and following a simple life close to nature. Rabindranath first visited this ashram in 1878 when he was twelve years old, and later went to settle in the ashram to pursue his literary vocation as a poet.

Harmony with nature

Both Tagore and Gandhi were inspired by a way of learning that was in harmony with nature. In the Jaina tradition, from which Gandhiji learnt the concept of ahimsa, or non-violence, we read: “In deep antiquity, human beings received all that was necessary for life from the godly trees”.

Trees played an important part in the enlightenment of Gautam Buddha. Tagore himself in his reflections on the “Creative Ideal”, speaks of “The Religion of the Forest”. Marjorie Sykes, a Quaker educationist who made India her home, worked both with Gandhi and Tagore, in their search for a more holistic approach to learning through the environment. She mentions that the celebration of festivals was an essential way of relating the life of a community to the rhythms of nature.

In 1928 Rabindranath Tagore started a tree planting festival in Santiniketan. This ‘Vriksharopana’ Utsav became a regular feature of the ashram life at Santiniketan in 1936. Other festivals related to the seasons, like the folk Paush Mela when local craftspeople were invited to bring their artefacts and village industries, or the Spring Festival when students at Viswa Bharati were involved in a joyous celebration of dance and music, using local cultural forms like the ‘alpona’ designs, and going in procession through the wooded campus adorned with flowers and colourful clothes, were other examples of how education was aligned to folk culture, that was part of the life of Santali villages neighbouring the Santiniketan Ashram.

Relevance of ashram ideals

The ecological significance of the ashram ideal is very noticeable in the way that both Gandhi and Tagore approached learning through the elemental world of nature on which we all depend for life. Book learning in this context, focusing exclusively on reading and writing, was not sufficient to engage the whole experience of the human body, which includes the hand as well as the heart, and not only the intellectual knowledge of the head. It is reported that on one occasion Vinoba Bhave, another grassroots freedom movement leader, interviewed a teacher who had come for a job in the Sevagram School at Wardha. He asked the teacher what he could teach in the school. The teacher answered that he would teach students how to read and write. Vinoba Bhave then asked what else he would be able to teach them.

A student at Kala Bhavan in Santiniketan called Devi Prasad had studied art under Nandalal Bose. Impressed by Gandhi, he joined the Sevagram Ashram in 1944 to teach art. In 1959 Devi Prasad published a book in Hindi about art and craft from a Gandhian perspective, which he later re-wrote and published in 1998, entitled “Art: The Basis of Education”. He suggested that through traditional village crafts, young people could learn to be innovative while serving the local community. After attending a conference at Gandhigram on War Resisters International, Devi Prasad became involved with peace education. This conference introduced him to a pacifist approach to art and craft, very much in line with Gandhi’s understanding of working with natural materials. In 1983 a major retrospective of Devi Prasad’s art and craft was held in Delhi. As an artist and craftsperson, he embodied both the ideals of Gandhi and Tagore through his approach to art and craft which he learnt at Santiniketan, later devoting his creativity to peace education and non-violence.

As we think of the relevance of ashram ideals in the thought of both Tagore and Gandhi, we realise that they were ecologically inspired. Gandhi Jayanti 2023 may help us consider the importance of an education that engages with our natural environment. The neo-Gandhian Sunderlal Bahuguna transformed a folk ritual of embracing trees into socio-ecological activism that came to be known as the Chipko movement. Increasingly, young people are becoming conscious of climate change, brought about by the ecological crisis that will affect particularly the lives of those living close to the earth, such as farmers and the economically marginalised. We realise that education will play an important part in the liberation of people trapped in a consumerist culture, where the gap between those who have power and privilege, and those who are disempowered, is increasing. A Gandhian approach to holistic education is now more necessary than ever before.

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The author is an artist, writer and art teacher noted for the Art Ashram he launched in a village on the outskirts of Bengaluru in the 1980s. Views are personal. (This article first appeared in The Billion Press)

Used under special arrangement with South Asia Monitor



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