Sarita kare na paan, vriksh na fal chaakhe kadi, Khet na khave dhaan, parhit neepjey sekhra
The river never drinks its own water. The tree never tastes its own fruit. The field never consumes its own harvest. They selflessly strive for the well-being of all those around them.
– Mewari proverb
In these challenging times of dominating multinational corporations, collapsing neo-liberal economies, and the commodification of everything, it seems vital to explore a different form of relationship and exchange. ‘Gifting’, and the larger culture it draws from, provides a welcome oasis of hope from the hackneyed debates around capitalism vs. communism and the paralysis of TINA (There Is No Alternative). We share , more widely some of the important concepts, beliefs, practices and dreams around reclaiming the gift culture in our different spaces and places.
We have come to understand that the ideas and practices of deep learning, self-organizing learning communities and vibrant learning ecosystems are predicated on a culture of generosity, care, trust and mutuality. The gift culture is critical to decommodifying our collective intelligence and underlying diverse human learning processes; that is, removing it from the realm of monoculture and artificial scarcity, monopolized packaging and distribution, and institutionalized hierarchy and exploitation. It is heart-wrenching to witness that learning processes that are essential to being human like play, laughter, Nature, storytelling, care, etc. are being commercialized and as a result, becoming accessible only to a small elite. The gift culture inspires us to see our learning resources and relationships as part of the larger commons that is accessible to all and nurtured by all.
The gift culture also fundamentally challenges our perceptions about ourselves. Engaging in the gift culture transforms our self and world understanding by reminding us that we are being given gifts all the time from many known and unknown sources. It graciously invites us back into our sacred role as active gift-givers – from homo economicus to homo giftus. We are able to recognize and re-value our own gifts as well as those others in our own terms. This is critical for de-institutionalizing our lives and our communities – to moving beyond Experts, Money, Technology, Nation-states, Rights for defining our identity and purpose in life – and for re-asserting our dignity as diverse co-creators of learning and life.
The gift culture also challenges the core underpinnings of the Global Market and the Development Project which are built on extraction and concentration of wealth and power and the spread of violence. The gift culture doesn’t mean that there are no markets, but rather we need to re-create a healthy set of cultural, spiritual and social values and rituals to limit the space/control of markets in our lives and relationships – a true ‘sense of the sacred’. Most importantly, the gift culture is the key to sustainable living and real happiness on the planet. By witnessing and appreciating our own gifts and the gifts of others, we open the possibility for the organic unfolding our whole beings and for accessing our deepest humanity to ensure the collective well-being of all life on the planet.
We should clarify at the outset that the gift culture is not some new fangled concept; rather it is based on ancient and sacred life sustaining principles that can be found in many diverse cultures around the world. When we started to think of examples in our region of Mewar, many inspiring images came to mind:
Hosting a payoo is the spiritual practice of sitting on the road and offering drinking water to those passing by – humans and animals alike. It is done in a spirit of sewa (selfless service for the benefit of all, performed without any expectation of reward or personal gain). The Sanskrit word, sewa, translates directly as ‘string’, implying that all things are connected in the thread of existence. In India, it is still a cause of great disbelief for many that corporations are charging money to provide clean drinking water to travellers.
There is also the ritual of manwar, which is a cultural act of offering, sharing yourself, your home and food, with your guests, with a spirit of great hospitality and care. No one should leave feeling neglected. There is saying in Mewari that your guests should be treated with the same affection as you treat your son-in-law. Manwar is experienced around weddings and other kinds of gatherings, but it also happens on small-scale, say, when one visits another’s home.
The traditional practice of guptdaan literally means ‘undisclosed giving’. One used to give donations with the understanding that no one, including the receiver, should know where it came from. This would protect the receiver from humiliation and help the giver retain their sense of humility. It also shields us from the trap of having expectations to receive something in return after giving a gift. Guptdaan stands in stark contrast to the modern practices of P.R. campaigns and photo shoots that surround donations and voluntary effort.
The Jain paradigm of aparigraha (non-acquisitiveness and non-possessiveness) serves as gentle reminder that we should not hold on to or covet things too tightly since we are not ‘owners’ of life but rather its trustees. It also encourages us to move beyond unlimited greed and think about what our real needs are. In this way, it creates a healthy field for engaging in a discourse of self-imposed and self organized limits.
When one actually sits down to think about it, the list is seemingly endless. There are many ‘modern’ ways that the gift culture is being invoked and experimented with as well. We have been trying to explore these as an essential part of our work in Shikshantar over the past 10 years. This starts with our community learning center where we do not charge any fees for participation. At the same time, we say it is not ‘free’. We invite people to come and share whatever talents, knowledge, energy, questions that they have and take what inspires them. This had led to many exciting interactions and innovations.
This spirit extends to all of the activities of Udaipur as a Learning City, where we rely heavily on inviting in volunteer energy – the natural instinct of people to share their time, skills and learning resources with each other to reclaim and nurture our learning commons. Many ‘private’ spaces, services and goods have been brought back into the service of the public/community good. Udaipur locals have hosted workshops in their homes; they have opened their art galleries, offices, kitchens and farms to visitors; they have brought their knowledge and talents to participate in new collective experiments in rooftop farming, rainwater harvesting, mural-making; they have freecycled their leftover waste materials (scraps of wood, rubber tire tubes, cloth scraps, old wedding cards, etc.) for workshops with kids all without one rupee being exchanged or demands for self-promotion in the media. This kind of volunteer spirit has enabled Shikshantar’s budget to go down every year, while the movement expands into new individuals, families, neighborhoods, organizations and places.
We are trying to experiment with many other ways to reduce our collective dependency on the Global Market and regenerate the local culture of generosity, hospitality, self-defined limits and collaboration. Several children and youth have gotten into this spirit by making useful things out of waste with their hands. One young person who comes to Shikshantar, Ankit, has made and gifted over 200 unique pieces of coconut jewellery to friends and relatives. He has also ‘paid forward’ the art of making jewellery to several hundred children and youth in self-organized workshops. We are also working on reclaiming forms of play from the world of competition and commercialization. We have freely shared lots of cooperative games with thousands of children and families in Udaipur. Many of these games highlight the wise principle that if one person ‘fails’ or is ‘out’, it is the failure of all.
We have also been experimenting with our organic mela (a festival or fair) as a vehicle for strengthening local markets. It is a space for both selling organic, local and natural products, as well as for sharing ideas so people can learn to make their own things. For example, even while the jewellery or pottery is on display, there is simultaneously a workshop happening at no cost, where people can make their own jewellery from natural and waste materials, or a potter’s wheel for trying to throw one’s own pots. We openly share recipes for different healthy foods and herbal treatments and invite others to do so as well. We have been inspired by the sacred practice of many traditional healers in our region, and have moved away from putting a fixed price on the herbal products we make, to inviting people to contribute what they feel is appropriate based on their shraddha (faith) and capacity.
The gift culture has also been an integral feature of our on-going intercultural dialogues and publications. It has helped create a field for a different depth of conversation. Hundreds of people have shared their thoughts in writing with us (in Mewari, Hindi and English languages) without ever asking for an honorarium. We make all our publications available on-line, free of charge in print, and copyleft (able to be reproduced and shared freely, with authors and sources acknowledged). As we all know, our knowledges, creativities and profound insights have come from so many sources: how could we ever put a price tag on them?
This article was originally published in a Shikshantar bulletin in 2008 under a copyleft license.