Posts Tagged ‘Manav Sadhna’

Its the title of a recent Current TV Vanguard episode that literally gets to the bottom of the 2.6 billion people worldwide who lack access to a toilet.  The topic is covered in an authentic, bold, and balanced way that is informative, shocking, disgusting, even entertaining at times– a must watch for anyone curious about the daily reality of 40% of humanity.

Featured early on is long-time InSPIRE friend Vimlendu Jha, of Sweccha, who takes Adam Yamaguchi on a tour of the Yamuna river.  Once sacred, its of course now a blackened, bubbling stew of sewage and industrial waste whose stench makes Adam lose his breakfast on its banks. Mixed in with the drama and cinematographic excellence, sanitation legends like Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International and the charismatic Jack Sim of the World Toilet Organization are also featured prominently, though their compassionate spirit do not quite transmit through the script and editing.

While I laud Current TV for leading with programs like this, I wonder how far the same resources would go on a very different target audience.  Viewers in the West are edu-tained by such programs, but the impetus to act, if there is one at all, is dulled by a half-world’s distance from the problem and a lack of connections and savvy about how to engage with the issue.

Yet as a creative systems thinker, the program got my head and heart churning.

When we launched Lok Darshan in Gujarat’s largest slum, the very first program had an edu-taining segment on the need for toilets.  Narrowcast simultaneously with Manav Sadhna and the Environment Sanitation Institute’s toilet-building campaign, we heard of a large increase in inquiries and requests for toilets.  Though we did not have the bandwidth to actually measure our impact, it became immediately clear that the bottleneck in delivering on the demand was first limited organizational capacity & manpower, and then funding which came from both the NGO via the Gujarat Gov’t and a private donor from Singapore.  However, it was clear that edu-taining media was quite powerful when well-designed and targeted.

Some time later when working on few films for Gram Vikas,  Joe Madiath (the founder / executive director) and I discussed an idea inspired both by our success with Lok Darshan and with IDE’s success in marketing irrigation pumps across Bangladesh & N. India.  Why not create a Bollywood-like film that could be broadcast on a mobile van where the storyline ultimately edu-tained villagers into collectively signing up for sanitation?  After all, this is what Gram Vikas did anyways through countless meetings with village leaders across Orissa. Why not scale the messaging to move from supply-push to demand-pull?

Of course, Gram Vikas had no funding for the project and we did not have the expertise to make an appealing Oriya language film.  In addition, their deep and narrow focus means that its unlikely that they would ever have the idea or initiative completely on their own.

Enter Arvind Singhal.  He’s made a career of studying entertainment-education and social change.  A friend recently introduced us to his work with a stack of books and an offer to connect us personally if we’re interested.  The first chapter of one of his (long) books features Jasoos Vijay, a detective story with 125 million regular Doordarshan viewers in N. India that has successfully deconstructed social norms, values, and beliefs around HIV/AIDS.  At the time of the study, 5% of the audience had reported a positive change in their sexual behavior as a result of the program such that the cost per behavior change was 5 cents.  Like all change, I suspect that this first ripple has a much bigger actual impact that is perhaps immeasurable.

Examples now abound in media for social change at all ends of the spectrum.  Video Volunteers has expanded and scaled their community video unit model into a people’s media channel. Lok Darshan lives on through the instrumentality of MaM founders Meghna Banker and Madhusudan Agrawal.  Microsoft Research spun off Digital Green, a media-powered peer-to-peer farmer education network.  Avaaj Otalo uses radio broadcasts and a voice-enabled system to allow farmers to access timely agricultural information and knowledge.  Planet Read subtitles Bollywood songs in the same language to improve literacy.  And these are just a few examples from the South Asian context.  This phenomena is spreading all over the world, often funded by wealthy donors and agencies in the West.

So could this approach work for toilets?  The answer is “maybe”.

The competency of building demand for toilets and sanitation is different than managing and constructing them well.  One organization is unlikely to have both competencies because of the numerous social and financial obstacles to this enterprise, creating a familiar chicken & egg problem often seen in the developing world.  You have to both create the demand for your service, and deliver it at market-creating price, similar to what Aravind Eye Hospitals did with cataract surgeries.

The strategy on paper, regardless of how difficult or seemingly impossible, can be worked out.  Summoning the compassion and integrity to make it happen is the challenge.  So often, those who have cultivated the spiritual foundation don’t go further toward the practical implementation processes of a legitimate social enterprise.  And without rigorous internal processes, no strategy on paper really works.

And that stinks.  Literally.


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When music video geniuses Shivraj & Aparna of WildKumar go to Ahmedabad with their cameras, you know something beautiful is going to happen.  In January of 2008, they shot this recently released video featuring many Manav Sadhna superstars, complete with their signature ring lights glowing in their eyes.

Those who have been to MS will quickly catch Bharat, Jignesh, Upendra, Kiran, Sandeep, Anjali, Parvati, Raghu, Bhaskar, Shirish bhai, and Jagat bhai prominently featured in the first 2 minutes.

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There was a time in my life when I thought I would never get married.  When most people make that choice, its usually because they are too afraid of commitment.  In my case, it was the opposite.  I wanted a partner in the cultivation of unconditional love, and after a few experiments in college and after, I concluded that most are not really interested in living that concept. And so I didn’t think it would be possible to find someone whose commitment ran as deeply as mine, and that marriage would be a costly distraction in the spiritual mission of making myself a more loving, happy, and serviceful person.

On May 2nd, 2009, I officially proved myself wrong and finally married my dearest, deepest friend, Asha Patel.

The planning of our marriage seemed like a protracted negotiation between the requirements of traditional culture stemming from our parents wishes, and our desire for something small, simple, and deeply meaningful. Turns out we took the middle path!  🙂

I found myself repeatedly overwhelmed with the love and beauty that was coming at us leading up to our wedding, and even more moved by everyone whose love was pouring out on the day of the wedding itself. Yogesh uncle converted his home into my surrogate home for the precursor ceremonies and starting location for the groom’s procession. I was resistant to riding a horse, so Hemin gave me 300 horses through his sportscar!  John flew in as a surprise, and was such an incredible nose-defender (don’t ask) that the priest told me to let Asha’s mom pull my nose as a freebie to make her feel better  🙂  Dinesh & Paresh uncle took charge of so many small pieces, including a major one through muscling the heavy stage around in our massive backyard tent!  Another uncle forgot a suit on the west coast, and through the heroics of the anonymous usual suspects, Raj had it on a plane to the east coast within 90 minutes!

As gifts to our guests in attendance, our friend Emmanuel from the Global Oneness Project sent a big box of DVDs of inspiring films and our dear friend Ankur offered box of his book on his personal re-tracing of Gandhi’s Dandi Yatra.  We gave every guest a DVD of stories of people who have shaped our lives, and Nipun & the HelpOthers.org crew kicked in a ton of Smile Cards (and small gifts with big love) to facilitate all the forward ripples.  Many friends not in physical attendance offered spiritual attendance by meditating during our ceremony. At least a hundred even did random acts of kindness, and through Sukh & Raju’s coordination, the stories were captured to a website so the ripples could continue!

Seema and Seth went a step further in conspiracy with Christine Bulaoro and beautifully printed out all of these acts of kindness, and spent the morning hand-folding them into tent cards to share with everyone at the reception!

Out of their own goodness, and perhaps to offset some of the paper we used (!), Uma & Sriram had a 1000 trees planted in a village near Bangalore! Anjali and some Manav Sadhna heroes cleaned an entire street in the holy town of Rishikesh. Vandana from Pune sent her daughter Keya on her behalf as the smiling emissary, though we felt like so many of our friends from India were smiling through her.  Nature also seemed to conspire: there was solid rain every day before and after our wedding, but the morning of the actual ceremony only saw very light sprinkles which quickly subsided.  The sun even came out super brightly just as Asha got carried in!


The list goes on & on… Carpools to the events were spontaneously coordinated, extra guests effortlessly accommodated, crowd-sourced marriage advice books lovingly compiled, and so many seeds (literally & figuratively) were offered and planted to bring in the day. And it was all so fitting, because when you decide to make your marriage about the cultivation of unconditional love, you implicitly understand that its a lifelong (perhaps longer!) project in changing yourself to increasingly bring more goodness in the world.  What better gift could there be than the offering of so many people’s goodness on that day?

Even before the marriage, but most definitely after, we are so deeply aware of the necessity of a harmonious community of friends and well-wishers to aid us on our lifelong partnership together. As a reminder to these co-creators of our journey as well as ourselves, each table had the vows that spontaneously coalesced late one night after reading and reflecting on sets of similar vows by people we deeply respect and trust. Our vows read as follows:

We live in a materially finite world, and have potentially unlimited material wants.  Every physical thing we consume is something that is denied another fellow human.  Do you vow to grow in simplicity, reducing your wants so that others may satisfy their needs?

Pleasure can be an intoxicating labyrinth, numbing our awareness and derailing our sense of sacred purpose in this world with its flickering satisfactions.  Pleasure can also be beautiful, and can sweeten life in big and small ways.  Do you vow to enjoy the pleasures life offers you without chasing them, while growing into more subtle, expansive and enduring joy?

Money, power and fame can become their own ends, robbing us of our sense of interconnectedness, indebtedness and obligation to serve a higher purpose.  Do you vow recognize your stewardship of whatever money/power/fame comes into your life, and to only accumulate it as a trustee for the greater good or a higher calling?

Love is a force that binds us together and makes our worlds go round.  But the attraction of love can also pull us increasingly closer into each others’ orbits, denying us its expression in other forms in every other department of life.  Do you vow to grow your love, and increasingly free it from all its conditions so that you may eventually express love unconditionally for all?

Our words have the power to inspire and to propel each other forward.  With our speech, we can build trust, elevate dialogue and create a foundation of harmony in our home.  Do you vow to grow in noble speech that uplifts & inspires, builds trust, and aligns your words with your thoughts and actions?

There is a knowing beyond the mind that is not rooted in facts or histories.  Do you vow to grow in cohesion and integrity so that your intuitions are the stuff of inspiration rather than the product of whim and fancy?  Do you vow to support one another’s intuitions, even when your own facts and perception may not agree?

There is an order and a nature to the inscrutable complexity of cause and effect converging and rippling at every moment.  Do you vow to surrender to the mysterious ways of the universe, trusting the inevitability of change, even in difficult times?  Do you vow to cultivate gratefulness for the precious moments you will share together, even at the end of your lives when it may come time to part?

As we grow into deeper fulfillment of our sacred vows, we ride on the shoulders of so many incredible friends, teachers, mentors, and guides who have made it possible for us to come this far. In turn, we offer ourselves to back to them, as well as all our yet-unknown friends that we’ll meet together on the journey. The spirit was perhaps best encapsulated by Yaniv’s gift to us in the form of a daily prayer for the continued deepening of our individual and collective unfoldment.

Oh, and those interested can check out our pictures here.

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Across the street from the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, India lies one of Gujarat’s largest slums. Most who hear of it expect to find despair, hardship and disease lurking in every corner. While it’s difficult to deny those facts, we came across American-born Ankur Shah, a Stanford graduate, who saw a rare form of beauty that transcended the superficial poverty.

So reads the intro to Asha’s Current TV story on a community kitchen inside Ramapir-no-tekro. Watch it and vote on it to get it aired on TV!

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The following are transcripts of letters I sent to Bill Gates and Warren Buffet in response to an LA Times article detailing how the investment practices and positions of the Gates Foundation are in direct conflict with its philanthropic mission by creating suffering among those they aim to assist.

Dear Mr. Gates,

I laud the marvelous work you’ve done through the Gates Foundation and greatly appreciate your contributions in working to solve humanity’s most pressing crises.

It was with shock and dismay that I learned of some investment practices and positions of the Gates Foundation which serve to undermine, reverse, and even eclipse all of the great work you have has done.

Though I admittedly know little about how a foundation works, it seems to me that your investments were made out of a noble desire to expand the endowment of the Gates Foundation and amplify the goodness that can come from your hard-earned money. And yet, the implications of those investments for the people at the bottom of the pyramid who stand to gain the most by your benevolent programs are dire and potentially deadly.

This letter is written to you on handmade recycled paper by slum dwellers who live near Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, India. Symbolically, these are the people whom the Gates Foundation works for, and this letter is written in red ink, symbolic of their blood.

As you think about how to rectify the problem created by the Gates Foundation’s investment practices, I would urge you to use the thinking that Mahatma Gandhi applied to inform his work for humanity:

Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj [self-rule] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away.

It’s my sincerest wish that the work of the Gates Foundation reaches a level of purity, such that it may echo in eternity beside the contributions of Mahatma Gandhi.


Rahul Brown

Dear Mr. Buffet,

Your philanthropic contributions to the Gates Foundation will be remembered as one of the single biggest financial contributions for the goodwill of humanity for a long time to come, and I would like to thank you for your spirit of generosity and benevolence.

It was with shock and dismay that I read an LA Times detailing some investment practices and positions of the Gates Foundation which serve to undermine, reverse, and even eclipse all of the great work it has done.

I am certain that you are not in support of the negative impacts and consequences of the Gates Foundation’s investments.

This letter is written to you on handmade recycled paper by slum dwellers who live near Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, India. Symbolically, these are the people whom the Gates Foundation works for, and this letter is written in red ink, symbolic of their blood.

As you think about how to use your profound influence to rectify the Gates Foundation’s investment practices, I would urge you to make use of a talisman that Mahatma Gandhi applied to inform his work for humanity:

Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny?

It’s my sincerest wish that the Gates Foundation uses your wealth with skillfulness and purity such that your impact may echo in eternity beside that of Mahatma Gandhi.


Rahul Brown

If you’d like to send letters of your own, you can write to these gentlemen at the following addresses:

William. H Gates
Chairman, Microsoft Corporation
One Microsoft Way
Redmond, WA 98052-6399

Warren Buffet
CEO, Bershire Hathway Inc.
1440 Kiewit Plaza
Omaha, NE 68131

Thanks to Ragu for the idea of writing handwritten letters.

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There’s an fun little experiment that I’ve been lucky enough to help out with. Its called the Five Bucks Club, wherein a group of friends pool $5/ea to be used in India by Jayeshbhai Patel in micro-philanthropy. Check out the premise and the online diary to read some touching stories that are part of Jayeshbhai’s every day life. Or watch him walk through Gujarat’s largest slum.

(migrated from my original Livejournal post)

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Diplomacy is nice. Courteousness is pleasant. Rules are important. Still, I’m wary of most people who are always diplomatic, courteous, and rule- abiding. While bluntness can often be offensive and inappropriate, there’s an honesty and spontaneity about it that I appreciate even when it’s harsh. Rules create order, but can stifle what’s natural, which in certain instances should preempt the imposed order and formality of rules. Since I don’t tend to take offense at much, I in-turn extend myself the privilege of being undiplomatic, discourteous, or otherwise rule-breaking with implicit understanding that others will appreciate when the situation calls for blunt honesty, spontaneity, or irreverence for rules. My ideal is a balance of honesty and courtesy, but I’m kind to myself when I fall short. This is the story of what was perhaps a failure of that balance.

It was my last night in Ahmedabad before leaving for Thailand. Ellie, Raju, and I were headed to dinner with Mark at one of his favorite digs, Uncle Sam’s Pizza. Seeing Ellie’s western complexion, he asked where we were from. Telling him that 2/3 of his passengers were foreigners was an invitation for him to cheat us on ride fare or get into a discussion that any foreigner grows tired of in the first week in India, so I gave him an honest but misleading answer.

“I’m from Jamnagar and these two work at Gandhi Ashram.”

We were almost at our destination and started getting out.

“This sister doesn’t look Gujarati.”

“But she speaks Gujarati…”

He starts talking to Ellie, but when she doesn’t immediately understand what he says (because of the paan sloppily stuffed under his lower lip) he reverts to Hindi. Ellie had picked up Gujarati fantastically in her 5 months in India but was much weaker with Hindi and so still couldn’t understand.

“How come she doesn’t understand?”

“You’re mumbling because of that paan. Say something clearly and she’ll understand.”

“Where are you from?” he says to Ellie in his clearest voice after spitting a disgusting stream of brownish-red fluid onto the road.

Ellie wasn’t briefed on my internal plot to avoid discussions about America, nor did she appreciate how late we were to dinner, so she blurts out “America…” in honest and un-misleading way.

“Oh-ho! Superpower! Very rich!!” he says in English. Reverting to Gujarati, he gets into a conversation with Ellie about America, wealth, and his own striving for luxury. Ellie responds patiently and sympathetically, while my stomach growls, and while Mark must have been looking at his watch for the 5th time wondering where we were. Finally the driver gets to the point:

“If I was in America, I’d make 55 crore dollars.” How he arrived at that magical figure I may never know.
“I would fill this whole rickshaw with money…” Both Ellie and I chuckle for a second at the thought of a rickshaw filled with money, or a rickshaw in America.

“Will you take this rickshaw to America and drive it there?” asks Ellie with genuine curiosity about what he’s thinking, totally absent of sarcasm. He ignores the question and gets to the point:

“Will you take me to America? I’ll give you 2 lakh rupees.” That’s about $4000. Still, the question is inappropriate and I would be tempted to shoot off a laughing “no, not possible” and walk away. Ellie has a congenital incapacity to be the slightest bit rude, and so seriously and delicately addresses his question. My impatience grows. This guy ignores what she’s saying about immigration rules etc, and uses her thoughtful pauses to interject more aggressive pressuring. He thinks that this request is something that she’d seriously entertain and she’s trying to negotiate with him. He ups his offer. And then again. Then he tries a different angle.

“America very good. America very nice. India, third-rate. Third class. India garbage…” he says in English, and then starts trashing India even more in Gujarati, concluding with:

“So tell me, will you help me leave this damn country? I want to–”

At this point I had enough, and interrupted before he could go any further.

Arey, don’t talk to her about leaving India. Don’t you realize that she’s left her country to come and serve in our country? You should be ashamed of thinking in such a way. Instead, why don’t you think about doing something to improve the country?”

“India is third-class, bhangaar–”

“Who spoiled India? You spit tobacco everywhere, throw trash where you please, urinate on the road and then talk about India being third-class? Who spoiled the country if not us Indians? Think instead of serving India, making it first-class, starting with yourself.”

“Yes, but you need money to be–”

“Don’t talk to me about money. Don’t you see? This girl has left America and its money behind to clean up our mess. Our mess. And you’re talking about money? How can we expect others to solve our own problems? If you don’t serve India, if you don’t make it better, who will? You can’t expect everyone to be as evolved and compassionate as this girl, especially when you’re not helping the situation.”

“You’re right. But without money, what can I do?”

“Again money? First make yourself deserving and worthy of what you desire. Fix your own behavior and attitude and then all you need will come your way. Purity of heart and intention attracts abundance. Without that, you suffer in every way, don’t you?”

He’s nodding his head and in agreement with my blunt assault on his ego and aspirations. So I continue:

“In fact, you should come to Manav Sadhna at Gandhi Ashram. See how things happen there. There’s a purity of the heart that you’ll see and feel there. Its that purity that makes everything happen. Sure, they have to spend money, but they’re not slaves to money and don’t chase after it. Its their attitude that create the real magic and beauty there and that’s free. So don’t talk of leaving this country until you’ve done something to make it better.”

“Yes. You’re right. I’ll come to Gandhi Ashram–”

“You have to come tomorrow, or you’ll miss your chance. Manav Sadhna is shutting down for a few weeks after tomorrow. You come at 11:00 for prayer.”

“But what religion are you?”

“Don’t talk about religion. We’re all Indians–” at which Raju interrupts me with:

Sarva-dharma (every religion)! I’m a sarva-dharmi.”

“I am Muslim. Gulshan Mohammed is my name” he says in English with a gruff tone as he shakes his finger at Ellie, like its challenge to her American-ness and Bush’s foreign policy.

“That’s fine. Will you come?”


And he did!
I was caught up in errands needing completion before I leaving the country (ironically) so I didn’t give him a personal tour and introduction, but one of the many people better qualified to do so than myself handled the honors.

Could he have been convinced in a less blunt, more respectful way?
Perhaps, but that would have been dishonest toward what I was thinking and feeling.

“Good manners without sincerity are like a beautiful dead lady.”
“Straightforwardness without civility is like a surgeon’s knife, effective but unpleasant. Candor with courtesy is helpful and admirable.”
–Swami Sri Yukteswar

(migrated from my original Livejournal post)

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