I was sitting at my computer working one day, feeling kind of disillusioned, ready to give up everything and go live in a vegan intentional community somewhere. Naturally, I Googled “vegan intentional communities”. This was how I happened to stumble across Sadhana Forest. As I was reading through their site – water conservation, reforestation, non-competition, veganism, children’s autonomy, eco film club, permaculture, food forests, food security, gift economy, human unity, zero waste, compost toilets… – I was like “What?! This place seems to just check all the boxes.” Their first and biggest “campus” is also in India, a place Cara and I had been planning to visit for quite a long time. Then I thought, hold on, it’s probably like R6000 a day to volunteer here, as most volunteer programs are insanely expensive for some reason. Nope. Sadhana Forest uses the concept of Gift Economy, and you only pay for your food.
Later, as I was reading about this utopia to Cara, she interrupted me to say “This sounds fake. It’s way too good to be true.” So I did some more research, reading the blog posts of past volunteers, checking out their photos, visiting volunteer Facebook pages… It was legit. Not long after that, I get Nomadic Matt‘s newsletter, which often lists flight deals. There happened to be one for Johannesburg – Mumbai. I checked it out, and it was real, and it was cheap. I’ll just straight up tell you, it cost us R10 000 total to get two return tickets to India. There was literally not one reason we couldn’t go. I think we bought our tickets the next day.
Sadhana Forest is located in Auroville, Tamil Nadu. That place has enough stuff going on to write another blog post about. In short, it’s an experimental “township” (different to the South African concept) with the goal of realising human unity.
If you want to find out more about Sadhana Forest, you can always just visit their website, but here are the things that really stood out to me while we were there (September – October 2016).
The main reason that Sadhana Forest India is there for, is reforestation of India’s Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest. Only 0.04% of this forest is left, due to logging, and then grazing animals. When we were there, Sadhana had already planted over 80 000 trees. You should see the before and after photo’s. Reforestation is the majority of volunteer work you’ll do there. The biggest challenge in the hot, dry climate is water conservation.
From the moment you arrive at Sadhana, you become acutely aware of water and how important it is. You will never think about water the same way again. The logging and grazing took away much of the water retention in the soil, and rain now simply lands and washes off the land, so they have dug huge holes, so that the water will stay a while, and seep into the soil. Sadhana’s efforts have already risen the water table by 6 meters, and now local villages even have access to water in their wells again. On campus, there are signs all over the place that compare the amount of water used in a traditional way vs. the amount you use doing the same thing at Sadhana e.g. their compost toilets, hand wash stations, bucket showers, and clothes washing station all use a fraction of the water regular toilets, taps, showers and washing machines use. No water is wasted, and even the water from washing yourself or your clothes (only with organic, biodegradable soap), goes to the base of banana trees.
A major value at Sadhana Forest is veganism. Veganism is an effective way to protect natural resources, to ensure food security, to use less land, and to use far, far less water. There is no getting around it; animal agriculture takes up the majority of the world’s agricultural land, and is the leading industry in terms of water waste. In fact, it is to the extent that it would actually be ridiculous to claim to care about water or the environment if you consume animal products.
“Seva” means “selfless services”, and it is the name for your sessions of volunteering, of which you do two of every day. I love this concept. Your seva’s all revolve around either reforestation or maintaining the community.
You aren’t allowed to smoke, do drugs or drink alcohol while you’re there. They’re making sure that everyone stays fully aware of their behaviour, and maintains personal health, safety and security. This was no issue for us, but for some people this is a big deal. We actually met people who were there as an alternative to rehab, and people who had successfully broken an addiction during their time at Sadhana. Personally, I think a community can only benefit from a value like this.
Children’s land is a place where the children of Sadhana Forest have full autonomy. Adults need to ask permission to enter, and only help facilitate whatever the children want to do. It empowers children to be creative and to think independently. I loved this idea. Sadhana also practices the concept of “unschooling”, one of the most progressive forms of education I’ve ever heard of. Look it up. The kids we met there were some of the coolest, most mature and well-adjusted kids I have ever met. They knew how to grow and cook their own food, enjoyed eating vegetables and knew the names of all the local edible plants, had tons of confidence in themselves, had their own progressive ideas about the world, and could hold a conversation with anyone.
The community at Sadhana is like none I have ever experienced. It is intimate, supportive, loving, and non-judgmental. Everyone shares duties, and you eat all your meals together. There are also things happening almost every night you can attend e.g. a sharing circle, free workshops (we heard everything from non-violent communication to long term bicycle touring), and an eco film club. I think that their value of non-competition creates such a great environment, because it is the opposite of the capitalist view of seeing other people as your competition. There are no “winners” or “losers”.
On Mondays, you meet, and duties are dished out for the week. There are volunteer duties, and then the rest are divided equally e.g. kitchen duty, where you help prepare meals. Kitchen duty was my favourite community seva, because I learned so much, used foods I had never used before e.g. okra, and made coconut milk with a bicycle blender. For the first week, I was on “wake up” duty, where I got up at 5:30 every morning to walk around the campus playing a bongo drum so get everyone to wake up. Other duties included cleaning the compost bins, washing the solar panels, and anything else you can think of involved in the running of a community.
Their animal sanctuary was still quite new when we were there. They have dogs, cats, and a few cows, who were rescued from local dairy farms. Despite what you hear about cows and the dairy industry in India, the dairy industry is the same everywhere. Babies are still separated from mothers, and ultimately they are still seen as resources for humans.
From meeting the founder, Aviram, and his family, to all the volunteers we met and made friends with, the people were amazing. Over our two week stay at Sadhana, we added to our friends all over the world including Japan, Israel, France, South Korea, Spain, Poland, Sweden, Germany, England, America, all over India, and more that I probably can’t remember. The local community even invited us to witness and participate in a “Puja” ceremony, which was pretty special.
Sadhana Forest is an incredible place, and I can’t recommend visiting them highly enough. We are making plans to visit their Kenya and Haiti locations sometime in the near future.
“May there be many more forests to grow people”. – Katharina, Swiss volunteer
We’ll do a separate post about the rest of the time we spent in India soon.
The compost toilets
The main hut, where we shared meals, meetings, the sharing circle, non-talent show, and eco film club
New friends from Poland, Germany and South Korea
Street art in Auroville
Exploring Auroville on the bike we rented
The mud pool was amazing, the only relief from the intense heat
Prepping for the Puja ceremony
Scene from the Puja ceremony, and the entrance to Sadhana Forest
Pete going full Puja
words by Pete | photos by Cara