Photo: Millet Sister harvesting lemon (Pipal Tree)

A Gandhian approach to dialogue: The adversary is not the enemy

In this blog, part of our Food Sovereignty and Spirituality series, AgroecologyNow interviewed Siddharta, founder of Pipal Tree India, about the role of spirituality and religion in social action for climate justice, gender justice and interfaith peace. Pipal Tree is an interfaith organisation working with marginalised groups in India. As Siddharta explains, the organisation’s approach is based on multiple strategies, which include interpreting different religions from an ecological perspective, emphasising the need to connect personal spiritual liberation with service to community and adopting a Gandhian approach to dialogue for social transformation.

AN: Siddhartha, you are the founder of Pipal Tree, an interfaith organization that was born in 1984 to create a symbiosis of the personal, the social and the ecological that leads to sustainable development practices. Tell us a bit more about your organisation and how you got involved in it?

S: Pipal Tree’s formation, in part, emerges from the analysis that most activists don’t take spirituality and religion seriously. We believe that spirituality and religion are fundamental to the lives of many people and ought to be seriously considered by activists. One of the reasons why religion is occasionally hijacked by fundamentalists is because activist and religious leaders have not worked with people to give religion a democratic and liberative perspective.

Pipal Tree works with women farmers on sustainable agriculture, panchayats (local government bodies) on climate action and Adivasi youth around leadership skills development. Pipal Tree also organises national conferences on climate action and interfaith dialogue. Its conference centre in Bangalore, known as Fireflies Ashram, can accommodate about 100 people. We have conferences and publications on climate action, interfaith peace and sustainable development. We also have an e-bulletin called Meeting Rivers, which reaches about 10,000 people. In this monthly publication we send out a piece on social and environmental issues from the perspective of one of the major religions. Climate Onion is a bi-monthly Climate Action newsletter.

We are possibly one of the few organisations in India integrating spirituality/religion with social action, climate justice, and interfaith peace. We work with our women farmers and community leaders using this approach. And similarly, among social activists, NGOs, religious leaders and intellectuals. There’s also a lot of theological reflection from the different religions concerning the environment that we have published. 

AN: Can you tell us a bit more about the context of your religious and spiritual upbringing, and how this has informed your work and activism?

S: My parents came from Kerala, in south India. In my college days Marxism played a role in my approach to politics, but not for very long. I was also based in Paris for ten years, where I became the international coordinator of an institution founded by Paulo Freire, the well-known Brazilian activist-intellectual who coined the term ‘conscientisation’. We offered training courses for people from all over the world who were concerned with social liberation. It was around this time that I felt that much of Marxism and leftwing thinking lacked a spiritual core.

Eventually I was drawn to Buddhism and aspects of Hinduism like Kashmiri Shaivism. Buddhism, with its emphasis on compassion, wisdom and impermanence is a kind of secular spirituality. The Buddha remained silent whenever he was asked about the existence of God.  Kashmiri Shaivism is about our oneness with a celebratory Universal Consciousness, free and blissful, that is real and not delusional.

AN: How do you see the role of spirituality and religion in activism or in social change?

S: In terms of our practice, all our interfaith and climate action conferences begin with a meditation each morning. There is also time to explore personal and interpersonal issues, which we believe are important. We often use the metaphor of the bow and arrow: for the arrow to shoot outwards it must be drawn inward. The outward journey of the arrow depends on the inward journey. There can be no outward journey without an inward journey. The inward journey is about spiritual depth, compassion and wisdom, while the outward journey has to do with service to the community and connectedness with nature.

We have many impressive granite sculptures and oil paintings on our campus. All of them are based on themes connected to ecological, gender, or peace issues. Instead of giving a lecture on these issues, I take groups for a walk around the campus and talk about the different sculptures and paintings and what they represent. Interpreting religion in a compassionate manner, in the context of today’s social and ecological problems, is very important. Religion is grounded in communities and the challenges they face. We try to understand what the scriptures say to us in the here and now. Furthermore, in today’s world, and obviously in the Indian context, interfaith peace, climate justice, gender issues… all these become significant. We try to bring together thinkers and activists from the different religions to interact on social and ecological issues.  A pluralistic understanding of society is basic to all these discussions.

We may not be aware of it, but we are always interpreting religion in one way or the other. Some may interpret religion in compassionate ways, while others may inject a degree of aggression. Today religion is also being interpreted from an ecological perspective.  For example, at Fireflies Ashram/Pipal Tree we interpret Lord Ganesh as a social and an environmental symbol.

Photo: Ganesh puja (Pipal Tree India)

Several years ago, at the beginning of the Ganesh festival, we formulated three questions along with some of the villagers near our ashram. These questions were to be discussed in the villages before the festival began. The questions ran as follows:

  • (1) If Ganesh is the God of knowledge, and if true knowledge is synonymous with vision, what is the kind of vision we wish for our family, for the village, for the country, for the world?  Are kindness, compassion and openness part of this vision?
  • (2) If Ganesh is the remover of obstacles, what are the difficulties and obstacles in our villages and how are we co-responsible with Ganesh to remove them? What is our own responsibility as citizens to overcome these social obstacles?
  • (3) If Ganesh is half-nature and half-human, he represents the bond between the natural world and the human world. So, what are we doing to preserve our environment? Instead of nurturing our environment, are we polluting and destroying it? What is the role of chemical pesticides and fertilisers in polluting our water-table? Are we growing more trees instead of cutting them heedlessly? Are we protecting our lakes?

The questions were phrased in a simple way. The discussions were uneven, with some people able to deal with the personal, social and environmental dimensions better than others. But most people took an active interest in the discussions. On the first day of the festival we placed an unpainted five-foot Ganesh statue at Fireflies ashram. The statue was unpainted because of the toxicity of the paints, which contain lead and other carcinogenic chemicals. In the first year, people asked why the Ganesh statue was unpainted. Our response was that the poisonous chemicals in the paint would insult and humiliate Lord Ganesh by polluting the lake he was going to be immersed in at the end of the festival. Over the years people in the villages around Fireflies have begun to purchase unpainted Ganesh statues. For those who want colour an artist at Fireflies helps paint the statues with natural dyes. Or the statues are given colour by decking them with flowers.

AN: You have alluded to both the individual and more collective or societal dimensions of spirituality. In your view, is spirituality inwards or outward looking?

S: There are two kinds of spirituality, the vertical and the horizontal. The vertical one is purely individualistic, concerned only with one’s own moksha, or personal spiritual liberation. The horizontal one finds spiritual liberation through interaction with the community, and with the problems of the poor and oppressed. And when it is horizontal, it is close to the earth as well, and therefore concerned with the health of our planet.

Gandhi is a good example of horizontal spirituality.

When Gandhi went to England and studied law, he tried to mirror the British. He went for dancing lessons and wore a coat, jacket, tie and hat. He soon realised that he was getting nowhere with this kind of imitation. Gandhi stated that he discovered that he had an inner voice speaking to him to go deeper into his spiritual core. When Gandhi came to India from South Africa, he became a renouncer. The renouncer is an age-old tradition in India, where, after a certain age, when you have fulfilled all your responsibilities, you move away from your family and other earthly concerns. You may become a wandering ascetic or live in a cave or ashram. A renouncer moves away from everyday life. But Gandhi gave a new interpretation to the renouncer. Instead of moving away from life he moved into the very thick of life, the most difficult area to navigate : politics. He became a renouncer in the world of politics, living a very austere life but campaigning for the poor and oppressed and for liberation from British rule.

Gandhi clearly saw the connection between spirituality, politics, and the material world. He famously said that for the poor God would appear in the shape of food. He gave new meaning to old traditional symbols. Fasting from food and drinking only water, a traditional religious act, became a form of protest. He sometimes fasted almost to the point of death. His longest hunger fasts were for 21 days. He did this twice, first in 1933 for the upliftment of poor backward tribe/caste people and then in 1943 for unlawful detention by the British. Put together all his fasts amounted to 135 days.

He also transformed the idea of padayatra, or foot-pilgrimage, undertaken toward sacred shrines or pilgrimage sites. The Salt March is a good example. In 1930, Gandhi marched for 24 days, covering 387 kilometres, to protest against the British monopoly over salt. On  6th April 1930 Gandhi broke the British law by making salt through evaporation at Dandi. Hundreds of people joined him on this march, following the renouncer on his ‘sacred’ foot pilgrimage.

To this day, in India, protesting through hunger-fasts and foot-pilgrimages are forms of nonviolent protest.

Gandhi was able to merge the inward journey with the outward one. In Gandhi’s case the social and political journey would not have been possible without the inward spiritual journey. Sadly, this is missing in political leaders in India today. Many social activists also suffer burnout due to the lack of an inward journey.

AN: How have you used spiritual ideas to advance agroecology, food sovereignty and climate justice?

S: We believe that all religions, if appropriately interpreted, can respond to the challenges of agroecology and climate justice. To some extent the different religions are already doing this, and we find a fair bit of relevant literature integrating religions with climate action. All our workshops and conferences are concerned with this.

Our interpretation of the goddess Sita has agro-ecological implications. Likewise, our reflections on the celebration of the Lord Ganesh festival.

Today, climate issues concern everybody, including the business community. If climate change continues, business markets will dwindle dramatically. Agrobusiness will also be impacted, since with every one degree rise in temperature there may be a ten percent reduction in food production.

AN: What are the tensions that arise in using spirituality in activism, given the Hindu nationalism that has gripped the country?

S: We are discovering several streams of religious nationalism, from liberal to extreme right. And we are interacting only with those streams that are somewhat accepting of the way we think. It was a surprise for us that these streams existed within Hindu nationalism to an extent. We are now openly talking about it, and many of our left-wing friends are asking what we are doing engaging with people who are openly Hindu nationalist. But a few of them have also met some of these nationalists and they’ve realised that nationalism itself is complex in India, and that it’s not one monolithic process. There are, for example, within India, strains of nationalism which emphasise self-reliance, which are also anti-capitalist. There are also discussions about sustainable development within the nationalist movement.

Of course, the hardcore nationalists are problematic and end up polarising society. We argue that Hinduism itself, shorn of patriarchy and caste, is essentially pluralistic and open ended. If you believe in God you can be a Hindu, if you don’t believe in God you can be Hindu. Besides, one does not find any scriptural writing that says that other religions are false.

AN: You have mentioned Gandhi’s principles of dialogue and Gandhi’s principle of non-cooperation, we were wondering whether there was a tension of trying to engage with the Hindu nationalists and trying to engage with the full spectrum of Gandhi’s ideas as well?

S: I think there are some Gandhian leaders who are in dialogue with the religious nationalists. Gandhism and religious extremism, in all religions, have little in common. Perhaps there is an increasing awareness that we have a new reality in India, and we are compelled to deal with rigid religious identities that generate conflicts. I don’t think the path ahead is clear, but there is little choice left but to dialogue. Dialogue entails talking to the other side even when they say things that you disagree with. You don’t just walk away – you search for areas of agreement, even if they are minimal.

I think the Gandhian approach to conflict resolution is very relevant. Gandhi did not see the adversary as an enemy. The opposite side was always worthy of respect. And in any dialogue an honourable compromise need not be frowned upon, even if it only advanced the cause incrementally.

At one of our meetings somebody said we should stop talking about a Hindu majority or a Muslim minority or a Christian minority. Rather we should build a climate majority. That is our most serious challenge today. We need to really create this consciousness. I was even talking to some of my nationalist friends to see if it is possible to create an interfaith cell which can address social and climate issues.

I think we are advancing a little with our attempts at dialogue. Still, we also need to contact more religious leaders who can be proactive in interfaith peace and climate justice. Like Pope Francis did with his encyclical on environment and climate. It had a very profound impact in the churches. This should be done by all religious leaders.

AN: What are some of the gender dimensions of spirituality and religion in the work that you do around food, climate, and justice?

S: The scriptures refer to goddess Sita as the daughter of Bhumi, or Mother Earth. If you waste water, if you cut trees, if you pollute the land, you are dishonouring Sita. In our ashram we have a temple and several sculptures honouring Sita.

Sita was a single mother in the forest raising her twins. Single mothers have a difficult life. So, we can also see Sita as a feminist symbol. She dealt with her problems with great dignity and resolve.

We have a program with women farmers cultivating millets. Millets are very important in the context of food sovereignty. One kilo of rice or wheat needs about 5000 litres of water to produce, whereas millets need only about 500 litres. Besides, millets are three to five times more nutritious than rice or wheat. A perfect food for all, particularly for the poor. Also, an ideal food to cultivate in the context of climate change, when water shortages are common.

Photo: Woman millet farmer (Pipal Tree India)

Our women millet farmers are called Millet Sisters. Although women play an important role in farming their role is not appropriately recognised. Nor are their rights. Our program has helped correct this and our Millet Sisters are emerging as articulate and empowered.

AN: We recently interviewed representatives of the food sovereignty movement in India who insisted that food sovereignty must be anti-caste. How do you address the caste issue in your food, climate and justice work?

S: Caste in India is not what it used to be. In the old days, an ‘untouchable’ caste member could not sit and eat with a higher caste person, or even be in close proximity. Today, whether it’s in a restaurant, or workplaces, people are sitting together and eating, breaking the barriers of ritual pollution and purity. In an urban restaurant, you don’t know who is sitting next to you or who’s serving you or who is doing the cooking. Caste patterns are being broken, although they continue to exist in less rigid ways, especially in rural areas.

Caste has undergone, I think, a very dramatic change. Caste is traditionally held together by two factors:  behaviour and blood purity. In the past, if I were an upper caste vegetarian person I would not allow lower caste people to cook for me. Untouchables would not be allowed into my house. This had to do with behaviour. But if I were to contest in electoral politics, I would need to prove to the lower castes that I was not caste conscious, if I were to get their votes. I would have to drink tea offered by them. This meant breaking the behaviour code, intrinsic to caste.

 Once the behaviour code was broken, I could sit beside a lower caste, or even get a lower caste maid to work in my house.

The other caste factor had to do with blood purity. I could hold on to that by seeing that my children only married into the same caste, thus maintaining blood purity.

But with the behaviour code largely broken a fundamental change has occurred in the caste system.

Today you can be an agricultural labourer regardless of which caste you belong to. A former president of India came from an untouchable caste. So also, a former chief justice of the supreme court. The present president of India is an adivasi (tribal).

But this is not to say that the pernicious influence of caste has gone away. It still endures subtly, and not so subtly.

The lowest castes also remain the poorest, with caste and class overlapping.

AN: You have 40 people in your organisation. Do you do this interfaith dialogue and gender transformation work within your organisation? How does that happen?

Most of our staff are Hindus from all castes (including former untouchables and Adivasis). We also have two Christians and one Muslim. We see this as interfaith work in action. At least 50% of our staff are women. Our program coordinator, program director, and administrative director are women. We regularly have ‘envisioning get-togethers’ where we try to understand the kind of vision we have, and the challenges of putting it into practice. We ask ourselves if we are consciously or unconsciously conditioned by patriarchal and caste values, whether we practise religious discrimination.  Where do we draw our strength from? What does spirituality or religion mean to us?

In some of our meetings, we also do some meditation and chanting.

Apart from our wonderful team we also draw inspiration from climate action and interfaith peace organisations like Institute for Social democracy (New Delhi). On the climate front we have a strong connection with important national networks like INECC and Kalpavriksh (Pune).


This interview was designed, conducted, recorded, transcribed and edited by Priscilla Claeys and Jasber Singh from AgroecologyNow. The final version was revised and validated by Siddharta. The opinions expressed in this blog are solely the interviewed person’s and do not reflect the views of AgroecologyNow.


Additional reading

For other perspectives on food sovereignty and anti-caste struggles, see this AN! interview conducted with members of the Food Sovereignty Alliance in India.

For resources on the violent problem of Hindutva and Hindu Nationalism in India, and across the world, please see:

On the complications around Gandhi, especially his caste oppression and anti-Blackness, please see this Aljazeera article entitled ‘Coming to terms with Gandhi’s complicated legacy’.