It’s a pleasantly warm evening in the south of India. A group of about one hundred people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, are gathered inside Sadhana Forest’s main building watching Plastic Planet, a documentary about the plastic industry and the effect plastic has on the environment. Looking around I don’t see much plastic at all. The structure is made of bamboo held together by twine. The roof, thatched leaves. Natural fibre carpets line the floors, some wooden children’s toys lie in the corner. Aside from the screen, the player and the odd little thing here and there, this community really does stay plastic-free, an amazing feat in this “plastic planet” of ours. It’s one way Sadhana Forest truly practices what it preaches.
Sadhana Forest is a community within a community—Auroville, an intentional community that started in 1968, inspired by the teachings of the great Indian sage Sri Aurobindo, hence the name Auroville. Among intentional communities—groups of like-minded people living together for a common purpose—Auroville is massive at 2300 people. The internationally-recognized township within India’s Tamil Nadu state is comprised of people from 46 different nations living within smaller communities such as Sadhana Forest.
Arivam Rozin, co-founder of Sadhana Forest, leads the tour. Though he’s a few years past his youth, he speaks with the highly-charged intensity of a university student excited at just having discovered an alternative way of life. “The community’s four guiding principles are “Veganism/nonviolence, gift economy, inclusivity/diversity, technical sustainable living,” he raps out with a consistency that comes from having spoken that line hundreds of times, but with the same enthusiasm as if he was saying it for the first time.
The previous video that had been playing on this community tour and movie night was Vegan, a documentary about the effect of meat consumption on the environment and veganism as a viable alternative. As I delight in eating a yummy rice and nut main dish with sweet potato and salad on the side, here again I find that the community indeed remains true to its ideals.
Sadhana Forest’s pledge towards veganism furthers their commitment towards sustainability. As the documentary had pointed out, going vegan is the easiest and best thing anyone can do to improve the environment since it reduces the need to cut down countless acres of forest needed to grow food for animals that end up polluting the air with their toxic bodily emissions. Saving forests is something close to Rozin’s heart.
In addition to living sustainably and acting as a role model for visitors, Sadhana Forest’s daily work is focused on reforestation. Pre-19th century Auroville land was desert. Poor stewardship by the colonial powers resulted in major deforestation and soil erosion problems. “Fifteen minutes after monsoon rains the soil would be dry,” Rozin said, explaining the dire erosion issue they faced when first working the land eight years ago.
Rozin leads the large group on a tour of the land. We walk past energy-efficient rocket stoves in the communal kitchen and human electricity generators, recumbent exercise bikes hooked up to a generator, on our way to Challenge Hill, the site of the community’s greatest reforestation challenge. “We’ve done all kinds of crazy stuff,” he says, “but weren’t able to get survival rates of more than 50 or 60 percent.” Rather than soaking into the Earth and replenishing underground water aquifers, rainfall would just fall onto the land and seep into the nearby ocean without adding moisture to the soil, making it a horrendous environment to grow trees.
But displaying true grit common to Aurovillians, the community saw the challenge as an opportunity to improve. “If you can grow on Challenge Hill, you can grow anywhere,” Rozin explains, pointing out the benefit to the difficulty.
They’ve dug 25 kilometers of bunds—long and narrow trenches that facilitate the absorption of water into underground aquifers—throughout the property; built a series of eight dams; and instituted other innovative land stewardship and growing practices to provide a healthy environment for the 26,000 trees they’ve planted. And their planting efforts don’t stop in Auroville. They do reforestation work in other parts of India and have a large project going in one of Haiti’s poorest parts.
Gift economy is another community principle, which is in practice on this night. I had seen a poster advertising this event offering a free movie, tour and dinner. They had even organized free buses to transport the 100-plus attendees from Auroville’s town center. They accept donations, but I didn’t hear them ask for a single rupee. “How do you get funding?” a visitor asks Rozin the obvious question. The community survives on small donations and voluntary simplicity. Free food and accommodation is offered to anyone who wants to volunteer, he says. The gift economy works on the basis of generosity. Give and the universe will provide. They’ve been going eight years and expanding, so it’s a practice that’s working for them.
Sadhana Forest has no shortage of volunteers. People from around the world flock to Sadhana for varying amounts of time, filling it to a population as high as 120. Of those there’s a core group of about 10 long-term volunteers, the rest are short-term.
“I thrive on this diversity. So many abilities to give, share ideas,” Rozin says of the community’s final principle, inclusivity/diversity. He’s proud of Sadhana Forest’s lack of institutionalization. His children don’t go to school, but learn from the community. Old people come and get taken care of rather than get sent off to old age homes. People with severe mental problems are taken in. If anyone wants to come to Sadhana Forest, they can come. No one is left behind. It’s a challenge Rozin asserts, but it’s worth it.
Looking around, the crowd is not actually all that diverse. Mostly young white Westerners, but that’s a common sight among India travelers in general, perhaps making the desire for inclusivity and diversity that much stronger.
Sadhana means spiritual practice in Sanskrit. Practicing these four principles are actions just as important to the community as its reforestation work. If a few less trees are planted because problems come up within the community, that’s fine. To live sustainably and in harmony can be challenging. It’s why so many duck out and settle for a somewhat eco-friendly lifestyle and a smidgeon of contentedness. Rozin and others living at Sadhana Forest realize the importance of this work and act as a much-needed model of true sustainable living. A model that anyone can come visit, learn from and call their home.
For more information, visit Sadhana Forest