Interviewsand Articles


Vaidyagrama and the Punarnava Ayurveda Trust: In Search of Authentic Ayurveda

by R. Whittaker, Feb 13, 2016



My first trip to India happened for an Ayurvedic panchakarma, a cleanse. How it came about is a long story and now, afterwards—grateful for the good that came to me—I want to share one of the unexpected high points of my three weeks at Vaidyagrama. My relationship with Ayurveda had barely begun and had not taken hold in any serious way, when circumstances lined up in such a way that suddenly India lay ahead of me. This alone was a great surprise. And not only that, but this trip was connected with a word I’d never heard before, panchakarma.
     I can thank Dr. Eduardo Cardona, who was the main instrument of this adventure. I faced it with a mix of feelings--apprehension being first in line. But my intention was to give myself over to the unknown ahead. This was not going to be a working trip and I’d consciously decided against even thinking about doing any interviews. So there must be a story here considering the interview that follows.
     Here's the short versionVaidyagrama is a beautiful place. I met beautiful people. I went to morning and evening ceremonies, sat in on satsangs and talks in this new place, new for me. And as one will hear, new for others in some important ways. I learned about the vision this place is making real. And then I was introduced to Dr. Ramkumar Kutty and found it impossible not to ask him for an interview.
     “Only if it’s not about me,” he said. “Because this is a shared undertaking, a shared vision.”
     “Okay,” I said, and with that, the next day, I found myself setting my iPhone down on a table between us as we began…

Richard Whittaker:  To begin with, can you tell me a little about how the idea, the concept, of Vaidyagrama arose?

Dr. Ramkumar Kutty:  Okay. Punarnava Ayurveda, whose initiative the vaidyagrama healing community is, was started by Sampath, Kalpana, Ramanandan, Ramadas, Harikrishnan and Ramkumar. You know, the doctors here—Doctor Harikrishnan, Doctor Ramadas, Doctor Ramanandan and myself—we all studied together in Ayurveda school 30 years back. We stayed in very simple surroundings in the foothills of the mountains. We used to have elephants coming up to our dorm windows. We did prayers in the morning and the evening. The food was simple; the life was simple. The teachers were there, the books were there, all that was there. But more than conscious learning, there was an unconscious learning that happened in that environment. As one of our colleagues of 30 years back who just came visiting was saying, “Let the environment lead us.”
     After we completed Ayurveda school and got back into our daily lives we found that most of us were continuing the discipline.

RW:  The discipline you learned in the school.

RK:  In the school, yes. Which, ironically, we were not too fond of while at school.

RW:  How long were you in the school?

RK:  We were in the school together from the age of 15 to 22.

RW:  My gosh, the four of you.

RK:  Yes. In fact, Doctor Harikrishnan and Doctor Ramadas were one year senior to me. Dr. Ramanandan was one year junior to me. We were friends. And we were friends with everybody; it was a small group.
     But we went our own ways after schooling. Each of us went into different areas of our training. And ten years later, I moved out from the place where I was working, the Ayurveda College of Coimbatore. 
     To go a little deeper, that institution was settled by my grandfather. There's a college, a hospital, there's a manufacturing unit. It's called the AVP group of institutions.

RW:  Were the four of you from families that had an Ayurvedic lineage?

RK:  Yes. My lineage would be the least, I would say. My grandfather was an Ayurveda physician, my mother's father, but nobody else in the family had an Ayurveda lineage. But with the other three, the fathers and the grandfathers were all Ayurveda practitioners.

RW:  I see. So ten years later what happened?

RK:  I was in my family institution for ten years. Then I came out for various reasons, one of which was that in school everybody kept saying Ayurveda is holistic, Ayurveda is natural. But in actual practice, in the 90s and in the first decade of this century, there was very little holistic and natural work being done in Ayurveda. It had moved into modern settings and was being practiced the way Western medicine is practiced. The doctor sits and writes the prescriptions with very little effort to create a conscious change in the thought process, in the activity, in the diet, in the lifestyle, in the community at large. The Ayurveda community had moved far away from the holism and natural part of Ayurveda.

RW:  Would you say that in ancient times it was an entire lifestyle?

RK:  Yes, I think so. In the old days, a village community had an Ayurveda doctor as a member of the family, and that doctor was not a full-time professional. He could have been a farmer, he could have been a priest, and he was practicing Ayurveda when required.

RW:  I see.

RK:  He was a member of the community, and that community was consciously or unconsciously living an Ayurveda lifestyle—which is what we will still find in many of the practices in communities across India that exist today. In their lifestyle, in their diet, they are practicing Ayurveda without knowing that they’re actually practicing Ayurveda. You'll find changes in the diet from summer to winter to rainy season. They’re doing it naturally. They do it as a tradition. But that tradition goes back into Ayurveda, and that’s why we talk about two streams, the oral stream and the written stream.
     The written stream of Ayurveda is a documented stream, and the oral stream is the folk medicine, tribal medicine, grandma medicine. The two share a symbiotic relationship. We can see validation of the theories in Ayurveda in the practices in the village medicine, and we can find the theories for the practices in the Ayurveda texts. So it goes beautifully together.

RW:  Would you say just a little bit about the history of Ayurveda?

RK:  They say people prepared the first documented text of Ayurveda around 5,000 years back. It’s very difficult to put the dates exactly. The text tells us that Ayurveda is as old as time, because it’s just the systematic observation of nature. So whenever nature came into existence, Ayurveda came into existence. And some qualities are ascribed to Ayurveda, one of which is called apauruSeya that means not of human origin. That is, nobody can lay credit to having invented or discovered Ayurveda. That’s why it is called without beginning and without end, like time. Ayurveda always has to be proved to be true for the past, the present, and the future. So if any principle in the Ayurveda texts is considered outdated, that is not Ayurveda. One of the criteria is that it has to be proof of the past, the present, and the future. So that’s the high standard that was set by our teachers.

RW:  To your knowledge, was Ayurveda widely practiced up until the British came? And were they destructive of Ayurveda in India?

RK:  Actually, until today 70% to 80% of India uses some form of traditional medicine, that is lay medicine, herbal medicine, grandma's medicine, folk medicine, Ayurveda, homeopathy.
     What changed was the cities. In the bigger cities, people became more and more dependent on Western medicine, and all writings and evidences presented by Western medicine converted the minds of a few people in the cities. But generally in the far-flung regions, which are untouched by the modern communities, Ayurveda is being used for taking care of health needs. 80% of deliveries in India are conducted by traditional birth attendants. 80% to 85% of snake bites in India are treated by traditional healers. 80% of fractures in India are taken care of by traditional bone setters. So while Western medicine had an influence, it’s not as big an influence as people think it to be.

RW:  I see. Okay. So you were saying that after ten years, you left…

RK:  Yes. I left the institution, because among other reasons, I felt that we need to explore these things a little more. We’re talking about holism. So we need to try to see whether we can go back to the practice of Ayurveda the way it used to be.
     So a combination of many reasons got us thinking and we said, "Why don't we try to set up an authentic Ayurveda hospital?"

RW:  How did you all come together around this?

RK:  We had been in touch all through the 10 years. When I made this move and spoke to the others, all of them immediately said, “We’re ready!” In fact, a few more were ready and would be coming in as we set up more buildings to accommodate more people.

RW:  Your friends?

RK:  All friends, and they all said, "Yes. Why don't we set up something that is authentic?" So we called Vaidyagrama an "authentic Ayurveda hospital." For us, “authentic” meant that the treatment should be from the texts and the medicines should be from the text. But then, as we began to create the space, we realized that being authentic also means that we should be as natural as possible. We should be in a chemical-free environment as much as possible. We should be growing our own foods so that we can be chemical-free. We should be growing our own herbs so that we can have chemical-free herbs. We should be making our own medicines so we are assured of the quality of the medicines. We should avoid using plastic. So everything in that whole eco-movement would be a part of authentic Ayurveda.

RW:  Yes. That's beautiful.

RK:  It was a discovery for us. When we started, we didn’t think like that. But as the process unfolded, we began realizing that we have to go deeper and deeper to being as natural, as holistic and as simple as possible. The city was not the best place to actually do it, at least to begin with and that’s how we finally landed in this space.

RW:  I see.

RK:  This was land that had not been cultivated for seven years before we bought it. There was no water on this land. It was full of the weed called parthenium.

RW:  And how many acres are in…

RK:  Today we have around 30 acres of land, and this hospital today stands on four acres.

RW:  Okay. Is the rest of the acreage contiguous?

RK:  It all is. Where we have the children's home, the goshala (cows’ residence) and the temple—it’s around this parcel. We came and first bought three acres. We got this land because it was of no use to the local farmer. There were 12 coconut trees, which were almost about to die. And one mango tree. This is what we had on this land. And we bought it.
     The farmers thought we were fools to come in here, but you know, something happened that made us feel good about this land.

RW:  What happened?

RK:  Well, we just came and stood here.

RW:  And you just felt something?

RK:  …Felt something good about the land. Then, within a week of buying the land, we did a puja for Varuna. Varuna is the god of water. We did a puja for Varuna around 8 o'clock in the morning on a hot, sunny day in the middle of summer. As the puja was ending the clouds gathered and it rained for around 45 minutes! So we were convinced that we were going to get water on this land.
     Then we called a geophysicist to find water for us. He used his science. He did his calculations and said there's one spot where probably we could get water. That spot was virtually next to the spot where we did the puja. So we drilled, and we got a lot of water, well water, and we put in harvesting wells everywhere. The farmers got angry when they saw that we found water. But that's how we began our journey.

RW:  I’ve noticed that you have an intentional way of furrowing the land. Are you planting that way so that the rainwater is captured and sinks in?

RK:  That's exactly what we did, because the gradient from the main road to the land behind us is almost 100 meters. That meant all the water was running off the land. So we started working to trap the water, to keep the water in our land. That’s the way we do the planting, and we also put in the rainwater wells; we’ve got six wells on this campus.

RW:  So you've gotten more water now?

RK:  After six years, for the first time this year we did not buy water in summer.

RW:  There's a movie about water called, Elemental. In part, it tells how a man from India, a doctor, went out to a village and set up a clinic to help. It's a long story, but eventually, one of the elders taught him the old ways of farming, so the rainwater would be captured. That knowledge had been lost. And using that the doctor ended up being able to help the villagers bring a dried-up river back to life. That was the real help the villagers needed. Have you found that these old ways have been lost by the farmers?

RK:  Yes, yes. Mostly lost. Unfortunately the farmers are all guided by modern farming techniques; they're not caring for the environment. So we try. For example, after we got the water, we said let's start some farming here, just on a small piece of land. It was eggplant season, so we planted eggplant and the neighbors also planted eggplants. They were using fertilizers and pesticides. We were not using anything—at the most we used worm compost. And all the pests from the neighboring farms came into our farm and destroyed the eggplants. Then the farmers came in said, “We told you so. You should have used pesticides.”
     We said, “No. Let the pests have the produce and be happy.” Because the pests are also living beings of some kind. We were beginning to handle things like this. So we planted it again. This time we got 20% of the produce and 80% was taken by the pests.

RW:  Okay.

RK:  We did a third round of planting and we got 60% of the produce; 40% was taken by the pests. Then we discussed, “If the pests are taking up to 30% of our produce, it doesn’t matter. They also need to live, and their droppings are fertilizer for the plants. So let them eat. There will be diseases; there will be insects. Don't bother about that. Let the plants become the seed.

RW:  Wow.

RK:  So on this whole campus, we have not used any fertilizers, any pesticides—whether chemical, or even natural. Nothing. At the most, what we have done is the agnihotra every day in the morning and in the evening. You know, the small fire ritual they do.

RW:  Yes.

RK:  So the ash from the ritual is mixed in with water and used for the plants. And we get a little more ash from the kitchen, also, after cooking—which is good ash—and we spread it out for the plants.
     That's not much and that’s the only thing we’re doing. And the place has grown as you can see.
     We also enjoin every visitor to Vaidyagrama to plant a tree. We make that a ritual here at Vaidyagrama, and everybody who has come to Vaidyagrama has planted a tree.

RW:  That's beautiful.

RK:  Maybe only 70% have survived.

RW:  70%? That's a lot.

RK:  That's a lot, and that’s what you are seeing all around the place.

RW:  And the trees that you provide, you've chosen them because they're useful?

RK:  Yes. They're all medicinal trees. Either they're fruit trees or medicinal trees. So today you'll find more than 50 neem trees, for example. You know neem?

RW:  Not really.

RK:  The table that you lie on in the treatment room is made of neem wood. Neem is antiseptic and de-infectious. It is very good for the skin. You can brush your teeth with neem twigs. You get fresh air in the neem trees. You can chew neem leaves. The juice is very good for a lot of the metabolic issues. Neem has a whole range of properties.
     We've got more than 50 neem trees on this campus. And papayas. You’re seeing them all over the place. Mangoes are here; pomegranates are here. More than 200 varieties of medicinal plants are here on this campus.

RW:  And it's beautiful how all the plants are here and growing.

RK:  Yes. Now the other important thing is, we did not remove a single weed here! We did not remove the bacteria here. We only kept planting. And as we kept planting, they found that they had no space. Here at Vaidyagrama, even one-and-a-half years back, this area, which had not been developed, was full of this weed. Once we developed and started planting, the weed made way for the plants.

RW:  Earlier I heard you mention Fukoaka, the Japanese farmer, and so you had read his book, I take it?

RK:  Yes, many years back. It's quite an inspiring book—and the whole concept of how we improve the quality and quantity of rice, through similar methods. It's so natural. Nobody takes care of a forest. And in the forest the only thing that happens is that the dry leaves that fall down are not cleared. The soil is always covered with dry leaves and twigs. Which means that the sun's rays are not hitting the soil directly, and that means the water in the soil is not evaporating quickly.

RW:  Right.

RK:  Other than this, we don't see any form of caring that is happening in the forest. Whereas, in our gardens, typically, we’re cleaning everything, the dry leaves and twigs lying all around the place, because it looks really messy. But here we let the soil be covered with the leaves and the twigs. That itself will take care of the moisture in the soil and help ensure that we don't need to water those days when we have very little water. Here, we don't need to water more than once in a week or once in ten days in summer.

RW:  Wow.

RK:  These days I don't normally see anybody watering. You haven't seen anybody watering the plants, have you?

RW:  No. No, I haven't.

RK:  So we keep experimenting and learning; as long as every one of us keep learning, this community will keep moving towards self-sustainability. A forest grows and takes care of itself and regulates naturally, a natural life cycle. If we can appreciate that life cycle, then we will not be too bothered about protecting the plant or destroying the plant. Because as long we don't interfere in the life cycle of the plant, or the building…. For example, often people say, "You’ve planted a banyan tree very close to a building. Isn’t that going to hurt the foundations of the building? Won’t it pull the building down in a little while?"
     Our response is, one, “This is not a monument.” Two, “Almost all the material we use here is earth-friendly, and even if it comes down, nothing is getting lost. It just goes back to the soil and can be used again.” And three, “It could happen. Maybe the banyan tree will uproot the foundation 50 years from now. 50 years is a good enough lifespan for a building like this. Even 25 years is a good enough lifespan for a building like this.” We’re not looking to create a building that outlasts us.
     And the last and most important point is that, around the banyan tree we have planted four other trees. So the chances for the roots of the banyan tree to spread laterally, as opposed to going deep down, are reduced. The chances are that they go down further rather than spreading laterally. And if they go down, the building is safe. We don’t know we just keep trying to observe and learn.

RW:  Those are good points. I wanted to touch on something that Geetha talked about. You've reached out to a neighboring village and offered them Ayurveda and they said, "No, thank you." Right?

RK:  Yes.

RW:  Instead, they wanted money and you said, "We don't have money. How about food?" And they said, "Okay. We'd like that."

RK:  Yes.

RW:  But Geetha said you discovered there's a caste system, even in the village. Can you talk a little bit about that encounter and how you're dealing with that?

RK:  Yes. Again, like we said, the vision is authentic Ayurveda and we continue to discover the depth in its meaning. So as we move toward this, we unravel more of its meaning.
     As we created the hospital, we realized that yes, we can create a hospital. But first, to create a healing environment, an entire community has to be created. Otherwise, the hospital can be nice, but if our farmer next door is using pesticides and fertilizers and is living a chemical life, the healing energy will be disturbed at some point.
     So that is how we began expanding the meaning of the word authentic.
     We realized that the outlook of the current generation of elders of the working people in the village was going to be difficult to change. So we thought we'd work with the children and create a spirit and attitude in them that they're not thinking about caste and they're not thinking about alcohol or thinking about going to the cities, but actually being proud to be a villager and proud to live off the land, proud to do farming.
     In the initial days, when Geetha went to the village, she would try to put the dream of becoming a collector in the students—you know a collector?

RW:  No.

RK:  The Collector would be head of Coimbatore City, for example. He takes care of the entire administration of Coimbatore. So he's a pretty powerful person.

RW:  It sounds like what we’d call a mayor or a city manager.

RK:  Yes. It's a dream that a lot of people nurse as students. And we said, "Don't do that, Geetha. Put the dream of becoming a farmer in their heads. Make the children feel happy to be a farmer, happy to be able to live off the land, happy to be able to do everything themselves—build their homes, everything they should be able to do.”
     So then we decided we would go with food into the villages and try to get everybody together. Our idea was to create a community kitchen where villagers would bring the vegetables from their farms and everybody would cook together and eat together at least once a month, if not once every week.
     But that’s where we ran into this caste block. We discovered that only one section of the village was being invited because if they invited the entire village, this section would boycott it. The higher caste would boycott it.

RW:  Yes.

RK:  So we said, no. Even if only one person takes part in the community kitchen, it will be fine. We will not avoid inviting anybody because of fear. Fear will not be a base for our work. Fear will not help the community to develop as a healing community. We said, “Invite everybody!”
     They kept telling us, “Be careful!” and, “There will be a lot of issues.”
     We said, “It doesn't matter.” And for the inauguration of the community kitchen, we told the village head man that the Collector from Coimbatore was going to be there.—The Collector didn't come, but we managed to bring the Collector's father to light the lamp in the kitchen.—So everybody came to the inauguration, the entire upper caste and the lower caste was there, too.

RW:  Wow. That's beautiful.

RK:  So we have to keep doing the small things. It’s not easy. We have to continue to work with them. Geetha, Somu, Kavitha, Aparna and others – all are doing a great job of patiently working with the community. Today we are giving food every day to around 100 old and disabled members of the extended community; when we started everybody wondered how this can be sustained; one year later, it is still continuing thanks to the support of many patients, friends and well-wishers.

RW:  You have a long range view, I take it.

RK:  Yes. We believe that if we will be able to create this community within the next 15 years, we will have done well.

RW:  So how did you get the villagers to let the children come to be educated?

RK:  That was a little easier, because for the villagers it was less trouble. And then, you know, we were giving these children pencils and erasers and books and clothes and everything. So the villagers were happy at that. Many of the villagers had by then started to work with us in Vaidyagrama. And many of them were seeing that there was a slightly larger commitment than just running a hospital here. It was not just about running this hospital.

RW:  So some of the villagers began to be involved here?

RK:  Yes. Many of them are involved in the kitchen and the housekeeping and the laundry. One girl is now well trained as a therapist; her mother also works with us.

RW:  And that's an ongoing development?

RK:  Ongoing development, yes.

RW:  What do you do for the people who work here? I get the feeling you must have programs for them or something?

RK:  Honestly, as of now, we don't have any major programs. The only thing that we are committed to, and which we have shared with them, is that for life they will be taken care of. They can stay here, even after retirement. We will have the senior citizens community. For the children we will create a school; we have the children's home. We want families to stay here. We want the whole community to develop. And if they are unwell, we will take care of them. We encourage them to take treatments here during the time when there are fewer patients in Vaidyagrama. So basically, we’re including them to become a part of this culture, of this lifestyle.

RW:  That's beautiful.

RK:  Having said this, it takes time for them to understand, because many of them are coming from deprived backgrounds. For many of them, the thought is still on money. They don't see anything else. So it takes time for their thought process to change.

RW:  Yes, certainly. At a satsang, I heard you say that only 5% of your vision had been realized. I get the feeling it extends generations.

RK:  I think so. We think what we're trying to do here is create something that’s sustainable and independent of all of us. For example, I'm no longer involved in the hospital activities here. I’ve moved out of that. Right now, it’s Doctor Harikrishnan and Doctor Ramanandan and Doctor Ramadas, who are running this space. And my constant feeling and request to everybody is, let us learn something; let us apply it; let us share it, and let us move on to learning something new. So when different generations—like, take Doctor Omprakash. I don't know if you met him?

RW:  Not officially, but he's teaching some of the cooking classes, I think.

RK:  Yes. But he does everything. And earlier, you met Doctor Aruna?

RW:  Yes.

RK:  Now, these are two young Ayurveda doctors who came into Vaidyagrama as their first job. And over the last four or five years, they are becoming truly Vaidyagrama people. They have imbibed the spirit of Vaidyagrama because they are not contaminated. I tell them sometimes, “You are better than us.” Because we came with fixed ideas, and this can be detrimental as change is difficult where there is rigidity.
     They are fresh in this space, and that is why you can see them doing everything with no ego. Now, that was the other big thing that we discovered in the word authentic. That if we are going to do authentic Ayurveda, then ego has to be far away from us. We don't want to talk about “I,” “me,” “my” and “myself.” Then we are getting into trouble—we take, we designed it here, we are the doers, when we are the instrument of doing. There's a big difference between the two.

RW:  To me, that’s one of the more remarkable things about this whole remarkable place, the conscious attitude towards not feeding the ego that way. Even when I asked to interview you, you said “It has to be understood that I’m just part of a team.”

RK:  Yes.

RW:  I wanted to ask you about the people who are coming from the village—they're having the experience of this authentic way of living. But how do you help remove the stratification? I mean, there are people who are bending over and working in the ground, and there are the doctors, and the tendency is toward stratification. Right?

RK:  Yes.

RW:  So what do you do to try to encourage self-respect, and respect for every aspect of the work here?

RK:  Well, there are a few things. If you go to the space where everybody eats, you’ll find that the staff, the doctors, the therapists, the kitchen staff, the gardeners—everyone is eating together. And everybody goes and washes their own plates. Everybody is doing it.
     And every afternoon at 2 o'clock, everybody gathers in Mandepan hall. All of the staff come together for ten or fifteen minutes, sit together and talk. Again, everybody is on the same level, either sitting on the ground, or those who can't sit on the ground, sit in a chair. So everybody is on the same level. They talk and discuss if there are any issues, or share good news, or whatever. And anybody who has something to celebrate, everybody celebrates together—you know, if somebody becomes pregnant or a baby is born, any activity. Everybody celebrates together. And when we had a conflict here, everybody sat together and agreed on a solution for that conflict.
     And you’ll find that here the doctors are doing a lot more than clinical practice. Dr.Somu is completely involved in the creative process of Vaidyagrama. On Thursday nights, the doctors are serving food to the patients. Dr. Omprakash is doing cooking and bringing water. Everybody is sharing in all the work. There is no question of, “I will do only this little work I’m now doing.”
     So slowly, slowly, people are beginning to understand. We also share with those who work in the garden, or with cultivation. We told them that today we can only use our hands to eat food, and that their hands have so much of magic in them that they can actually create food.
     I believe we should, we would all like to, be doing cultivation—which is the plan, as we go along, that every single person who lives in the Vaidyagrama community should cultivate at least four or five vegetables. Two vegetables for self-use and three vegetables for other’s use, something like that, you know?

RW:  Yes.

RK:  Farming has to become the core fulcrum of the community. We believe that it’s only through farming for oneself that there can be a harmonized, balanced community. And slowly, slowly, they are beginning to see that. Some people have different areas that they cultivate the way they want. You’ll see there's a lady who works here, they call her an old lady, and you’ll see the passion with which that lady works.
     Sometimes people say, "But she’s working so hard. Why don't you put in drip irrigation?" But that’s not the idea. It's a small piece of land. If you’re doing an entire acre of land, it’s tedious. But for less than a quarter of an acre, cultivating it is good exercise for the whole system. So everybody has their little plot of land for growing things. We say, "Put love into what you do and whatever comes up, let's all be happy and share it.”

RW:  That's really very special. There’s a lady who makes rice flour drawings that appear on the pathways in front of buildings here, and I was watching her. I saw how skillful she is and gave her with a big smile and a thumbs up. She's truly skillful. I mean I was amazed. I don't know her name, but it's quite fascinating, you know?

RK:  The kind of skills they have are phenomenal. They just need to respect themselves. They just need to know that they have something that we don't have, and to be proud of what they have.

RW:  It's a tremendous gift if one can do that, and if only more people could understand that.

RK:  Yes.

RW:  Once I got to be behind the scenes in a restaurant and I was watching this dishwasher. I soon realized I was watching a maestro, I mean a total expert at what he did. Later on I thought, "This guy should be honored." He's like a master violinist, only he's washing dishes. But these things don't get recognized, you know?

RK:  Yes, yes, yes. So the idea is that slowly, slowly, we should become one big family. And there should be trust and faith in our ability to support each other, not just our immediate family, but the entire family. So that, I must say, that is a challenge. It does take a little more work to help people go beyond their immediate families, to think of the larger community. For example, one of the doctors whenever he went into town, he would bring drinking water back from the town. So one day we saw it and we asked him, "Why are you bringing drinking water from the town?"
     He said, "The water here, I think it's not good for the system and I’m having health issues."
     So we said, "Fair enough. Now, don't we need to inquire further? Because if this water is not good enough, it should not be going to any of the 100 people who are living in this community. How could you think only of yourself and bring drinking water for yourself from the town?"
     He said, "I never thought about it that way."
     We said, "Think about it. So if the water here is not good, what do we do to improve the quality of this water on a permanent basis so that everybody can drink it?" Because bringing the water in a bottle, is a short-term solution. And how do we take care of the entire community?
     Even this last week, as we prepared for the conference, toilets were being planned. There were a couple of young event organizers. The students dorms were being created. It's a small example. Because of the drains, they had a problem locating the toilets nearby. So they put the toilets further away; they decided everything. The only question that we asked one of them, a lady, was, "If you were staying here and you had to walk to there for the toilet and the shower, and it was in full public view, would you use it?
     She said, "I wouldn't use it."
     We said, "Then why did you agree to this?" We said that each time we have to go beyond ourselves and think for the entire community. With anything that we think for others, the first question is, "Would I use it myself?" If I wouldn't use it, I shouldn't be putting it in front of others. That takes a little bit of doing, for all of us, to develop that attitude of thinking for the community at large.

RW:  Yes. That's a big step.

RK:  Yes.

RW:  Now I see that there's a Hindu culture here. And I'm sure you have a conscious attitude about the aspect of religion, and people are coming from other places, also with other religions.

RK:  Yes.

RW:  What are your thoughts around that?

RK:  We’re very clear that spirituality is to be encouraged; religion does not matter. We want every one of us to be spiritually conscious. Since many of us know this—like I said, from 30 years back—we’ve been using these prayers. And we’ve seen it work for us; we have adopted them here.
     But we encourage people to bring their own prayers. In the Ramadan period, Muslim patients come together and do a prayer. As a community, we all do it together. We celebrate Christmas. At the end of this month, you will find a crib, the reading from the Bible and everything will be done. So generally, with any religion—if anybody's here who can help us celebrate the festival—we will celebrate it because festivals are around the community coming together.

RW:  Yes.

RK:  On a daily basis we practice what we know best, which is our prayers, our mantras, our meditations. We do make it a point; we repeatedly tell all our patients and colleagues and everybody, the religion does not matter. Just invite the spirit and do your own practice, whatever the practice is. Just keep doing it.
     One of the earliest incidents we had was that our first therapists here were all Muslims. And one of our first patients here was a celebrated Hindu priest from a very famous temple. It was a time of Ramadan and, at that time, we didn't have all these buildings. There was a house and a building next to it, nothing else. It was all empty.
     So the patient was sitting there, and one day he saw one of the Muslim therapists hiding behind some bushes and doing something. So the priest called and asked him, "What were you doing?"
     With a lot of fear he answered, "I was doing my prayers." You know, the Ramadan prayers.
     So the priest asked, "Why were you hiding there?"
     He said, "I didn't know whether I could do my prayers openly here."
     This priest then said, "You should do your prayers openly in these spaces here. If anybody objects to it, I'll will move out of this place immediately! You should not be scared to practice what you know, and I'm going to tell the doctors here to let everybody know that everybody can practice their religion." So the priest spoke on behalf of the other religions.

RW:  That's beautiful. I don't know much about Hinduism and I wonder, is there a difference in the southern Indian Hinduism and Hinduism in other parts of India?

RK:  There's a lot of difference in everything in Hinduism—in Ayurveda, and everything. See, basically with any knowledge system that come from the Vedas, there are three aspects to it: one is the core principles; the second is the elaboration of the core principles; and the third is the practical application of the core principle.

RW:  Okay.

RK:  This core principles remain unchanged across space and time. It's called Tattva; the core principles cannot be changed. That is proof of past, present, and future. But the remaining two—the elaboration of the core principles, and the practical application of these principles—can be customized or modified according to space and time. So that changes in different places.

RW:  I see.

RK:  The other big issue to ask about is practice through the generations. There's a problem of customs, superstitions and general traditions. Sometimes general traditions have been lost and we only have superstitious practices.
     We keep repeating the story of the saint who was doing the fire ritual. There was a cat jumping across the fire. So the saint tied a dog next to the fire ritual to keep the cat away. Many hundreds of years later, as people were practicing the fire ritual in an air conditioned home, the dog continued to be there next to the fire ritual, though there was no sign of any cats in the area. It’s an indication of how superstition takes over sometimes. So we have to separate the superstition from the real practice, keeping the principles in mind.

RW:  I really appreciate this conversation and we've covered a lot of ground. Now I understand that you have some interest in art as part of this community.

RK:  Yes.

RW:  Would you talk a little about that?

RK:  Yes. Again, we have to go back to the way the community was created in the Vedic period where the temple was the center of the community. And with the Muslims the mosque was the center of the community. The church was the center of the Christian community. Everywhere you had a spiritual space that was the fulcrum of the community. It was around the spiritual space that all activity happens; schools were related to the spiritual space. The dance, the music, even the justice was delivered on the premises of the spiritual space. So dance and music and fine arts and performing arts were integral parts of creating a healing environment.
     People today have disconnected many areas from their ultimate purpose. The real purpose of any of these knowledge systems, whether dance, music, mural paintings, whether it is vastu or Indian feng shui, astrology, Ayurveda, tantra, puja—with all of these systems, the primary purpose was to create a conducive, healing space where one is able to be in harmony with one's self as well as the surrounding environment. That was the role of art. That was the role of everything. But today, the arts have moved away from where they were and have moved onto a commercial platform.

RW:  Right.

RK:  Art for the sake of art is of no use. But art for the sake of creating this harmony has a great role to play. So that’s what we are trying to recreate here—to have all of them in the context they are meant for.

RW:  Right. It's not the Western way of looking at it at all, but it's a much deeper and more beneficial way.

RK:  Yes. It has to be, because otherwise, the question we have to keep asking ourselves is, what is the purpose of life? And why are we doing something? What is the purpose of doing anything that we care about? If you think the purpose is to make money that’s a very limited, short-term view. It’s not going to make us happy.
     If we can just expand our vision, expand our horizons, then once that's seen, everything can be in its context. This conference is also an attempt to discover the different pieces in the jigsaw puzzle, and to put all of them into that perspective.

RW:  So the conference is part of an exploration to continue to expand and deepen this whole vision?

RK:  Yes, absolutely—for us to learn. We are continuously learning and, at this particular stage of our learning process, we realize that we need the support of a bigger group of people. Who can help us to deepen this understanding at a practical level?
     Thirty years back everybody would say, “It's very difficult. The modern community will not accept it.” You know, “People are not wanting to practice Ayurveda the way it used to be.”
     Many people in the Ayurvedic community who visited us five years back, were actually disgusted with this project.

RW:  Disgusted?

RK:  Yes. They said, “It's in the middle of nowhere.” And “Are you saying no air conditioning, no television, none of the modern comforts. No tea, no coffee?” “What are you people trying to do?" "Do you think anybody is going to come here for treatment?" That was the question that many in the Ayurveda community asked us. Even today, one of them, who asked this question five years back, and who came here today to visit us, said, "Five years back, I never ever thought this was the way the space was going to develop."
     So people keep saying that theory is beautiful, but it is not practical today. What we are trying to see is how can the theory be made practical? And the conference will help us to learn more theories, which we can bring into practice.

RW:  I get the feeling that this is a unique place here, in terms of the Ayurvedic world.

RK:  Let me put it this way. People congratulate us for being original. We say we’re not original. Nothing we’re doing here is original. It’s already been done somewhere, at some point in space in time. And nothing, whether it be the walls, or the baskets, nothing is new; nothing is original.
And people ask us, “Can we take ideas from here?”
     We say, “We don't own any of these ideas, so feel free to take whatever you want!”
     So nothing is original, but what perhaps we’ve been working towards—and which very few other places do—is to bring all these thoughts together and make them practical in one location. So you have the permaculture community, for example, abroad, doing great work.

RW:  Right.

RK:  But they don't have Ayurveda or vastu (Indian feng shui).

RW:  Yes.

RK:  You have Ayurveda hospitals here, but they don't have permaculture. So you have a little bit of everything everywhere. What we’re trying to do is move towards creating a sustainable community environment.

RW:  And another aspect of that would be, I take it, what I've heard called the gift economy.

RK:  Yes.

RW:  Can you say something about that?

RK:  I was telling you that in the old way there would be an Indian farmer in the community who would help people with Ayurveda without actually taking anything in return. That’s the classical way of the practice of Ayurveda, which down the centuries changed, and has become something where the practioner makes a living through the fees charged for services. We aspire to go back to the original model.
     To begin with, we’ve made it completely free for the surrounding community. Anybody in the surrounding community who needs Ayurveda treatment or needs our medicines, we do not charge them. Maybe we will ask them to donate one rupee or ten rupees so that they treat it with respect.

RW:  Right.

RK:  That we do, but otherwise there are no fees for that. Most likely, ten years from now, we would like to see us not charging any patient in Vaidyagrama, if we’ve become sustainable by then—in terms of our farming activities or feeding activities and everything, and if then people are actually living off the land. Then people should come here and take treatment and give what they want and move on. Because the people who are residing here are not dependent on what they get from the patients for their survival. This is what we would like to reach, because unless we take greed out of the creation, a healing environment is not complete.
     Unfortunately, everybody thinks that we have a need for money. Ultimately there’s a greed from money, not a need for money. As I tell everybody here, if you want, we can stop charging patients today in Vaidyagrama because the 100 people living here today can live comfortably for the rest of their lives without earning any money. All they need to do is a little bit of farming in this area. That is all they need to do. Everything else is in place, but people are not ready for that. People still want to see currency in their hands. And I think we have to move away from that. That's why I'm looking forward to meeting Nipun Mehta.

RW:  I've heard that you're building some new buildings, some houses.

RK:  Yes. You know, this is something that we’re experimenting with—ecofriendly construction and all that. We’ve built with bamboo walls and the roof is coconut leaves. We just built on the other side of the campus.

RW:  I think I saw them on the way into town, and they look beautiful.

RK:  Yes. Those are traditional houses. Over here the concept is called an agraharam. An agraharam is like a unique garland. The houses were laid out like a garland of flowers and the flowers are closely knit next to each other. So the agraharam is a closely-knit community of people who live within that space.

RW:  In terms of the community, are you concerned about the ongoing encroachment of Western media, and all that implies?

RK:  Absolutely. I can answer with a couple of examples. As we built this new community some of our colleagues came and asked me, "Are there any rules for living in this community?"
     I said, "Well, like in Vaidyagrama, we would prefer that we avoid intoxicants and alcohol and meat, maintain high values, and all that."
     He said, "So are you going to be monitoring us, you know, whether we’re cooking meat or drinking alcohol?"
     I said, "No. Why should we monitor?"
     He said, "Then how will you know?"
     I said, "I don't need to know. But what you must remember is that always in a community, there will be good days and bad days. And on the bad days, you will fight amongst yourselves. And one of you will tell that the other person was eating meat. When you’re feeling good, you’ll keep it a close secret, when bad, you’ll speak about it.”
     I told him, “We had an incident in Vaidyagrama once, where some of our colleagues were engaging in meat eating within the campus. As long as they were together it continued. But the moment they fought, it came out. And we told them, “You have to correct yourselves. Or if you cannot correct yourselves, please move on because we are not against anything. We are just saying we should avoid having it within this community. That's all. If you want to go out and do anything, nobody's stopping you.”

RW:  Right.

RK:  So I believe that we’re going to face far more challenges than we’re facing today. For five years, six years, we have not even had any signage of Vaidyagrama anywhere. At the most, we might have seen two small signs for Vaidyagrama. We’ve kept this place very quiet for the last five or six years. But I believe that we’re going to be subject to many external influences, and there will be many temptations. People are going to try to change our purposes.
     Sometimes we have internal discussions and sometimes, disagreements. But it's a journey, as far as we are concerned, and every one of us are on this journey at different levels. So we have to give time and space for each person on this journey to catch up. We can't be harsh and say, "Oh, this is wrong and that is right."
     There is no wrong or right; it's all relative. So slowly, slowly, slowly. You know, some of the doctors, when they came into Vaidyagrama five years back, they used to eat meat twice or thrice a week. Today, they would eat meat perhaps a few times a year. I don't know if they would even eat meat at all. But it has happened naturally. Nobody has pushed them into that.
     I think it's a natural process. We will have our conflicts. There will be a lot of external influences, and people will try to tell us what we’re doing is not right, or that we’re being dictatorial or we're being too rigid in our thought process. As long as we're firmly rooted in this concept of being authentic, and the foundations of our thought process are strong, we think that we will be able to stand up to any challenge that comes.

RW:  I hope so. I wish you well.

RK:  And like I said, I'm going to be out of one part of the community, and very soon I'll be out on the other side of the community, too. I think we all need to keep moving, moving, moving. Because we have to give space to new ideas, space for new journeys. As long as we have certain fundamentals clearly in place, people should be allowed to interpret the fundamentals the way they want to.
     This is a journey that we are undertaking; a journey to help discover our own selves. There are / will be many obstacles along the way, one of the biggest of them being self-doubt. As long as we stand together as a team, and support each other on this journey with a strong intention and through lots of love, trust, faith and commitment, each of these obstacles will be surmounted. The good part of this journey has been that the core team has stood together over 12 years now despite conflicts, differences of opinion, self-doubt, egos etc. If, in the next few years, this core team expands to include more people, and the conviction grows to include the entire community, the combined power of intention will itself propel this journey onto much higher levels. We look forward to the “global community supporting the local community to support the global community” for when local communities around the world become sustainable, it has but to contribute to global well being on all fronts.
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About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.  


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