More forests to grow people

By Sangeetha SriramonFeb. 13, 2015in Environment and Ecology

A Story about Sadhana Forest, Auroville

Written specially for Vikalp Sangam website

Where it all started…

Thirteen years ago, when Aviram and Yorit Rozin, with their one-year old daughter Osher, moved into Auroville with a calling from India and The Mother, they knew only one thing: that they wanted to live a life that embodied seva. They didn’t know the how, when, where and what of it then. All that has happened through them in the past decade across the globe is a result of, in their own words, a sheer act of surrender.

The Rozins
The Rozins

Aviram, a psychologist and later, a business executive, and Yorit, a practicing architect in Israel, weren’t exactly happy with the way they were living, serving their narrow personal interests. During a visit to India, they fell in love with the country and decided to wrap up all their pursuits in Israel and make India their new home. After living in a few communities in India, the Rozins finally moved on to 70 acres of degraded land, which the Auroville Foundation offered them to steward. It was land that no one else had really wanted because it was quite barren and because it was removed from the rest of Auroville. Aviram and Yorit happily accepted the offer and started working on it. They initially envisioned a small community of families doing afforestation work and living sustainably. But the land had a different plan for them. Almost all the saplings that they planted died, for the land was too dry. And volunteers started coming in large numbers to experience their way of life and work. Gracefully embracing the unexpected way it was unfolding, they soon saw it become a community of volunteers undertaking water conservation and forestry work. The Rozins, who had no prior background in either of these, started learning on the job: learning to use the A-frame, building swales and ponds to harvest rain water, experimenting with innovative tree-planting methods and water conservation techniques, ecological buildings, renewable energy, compost toilets, community processes, community cooking and more.

Afforestation is an important everyday activity at Sadhana
Afforestation is an important everyday activity at Sadhana
Volunteer Community
Volunteer Community
What it is…

Having been a regular visitor to Sadhana Forest for seven years now, I can easily make a long list of things the community does in response to the more apparent world crises: being off the grid, using solar and human-powered energy, natural buildings, compost toilets, water harvesting, water conservation, afforestation, veganism, zero-waste, Permaculture and so on. At one level, these could be seen as what define Sadhana Forest. At another level, they become mere details. What really stands out for most people who come to experience Sadhana Forest is the spirit that it embodies and the subtler aspects of its life and work. In one way, the Rozin family is more Indian than most people who call themselves so. What really drew them to India and compelled them to make it their home, is the culture of the place that embodies the truth of Oneness; a culture that is largely lost to various forces today, a culture that Sri Aurobindo made a call to rebirth. Here are some values that Sadhana Forest holds very dearly and highly, and lives by.

* Daana

At Sadhana Forest, someone having or not having money is just another piece of information that doesn’t actually have anything to do with what the community can offer them. Unlike the capitalist system that our society is embedded in, that thrives on turning all that is essential to life – good food, clean water, love and knowledge – into tradable and exploitable commodities, the Rozins believe that these should be available freely and abundantly. Sadhana Forest is one place where Tagore’s dream of a land ‘where knowledge is free’ is lived. All workshops being organised here are offered as a gift. They range from a half-a-day workshop on ‘cooperative games’, a two-day workshop on ‘forestry and water conservation’, a week-long workshop on ‘social entrepreneurship’, all the way up to a two-month  residential course on ‘Permaculture’.

Water Conservation Workshop by Aviram
Water Conservation Workshop by Aviram

In Aviram’s words, “When one sees everything through the lens of ‘what can I get in return for this’, one is constantly stuck within the cycle of ‘lack’. When we practice giving without expectation, those who experience the abundance will share it with more people, restoring the flow of life and most importantly, of faith in life. This experience of abundance has the key to freeing humanity. It is called ‘the Gift Economy’ or ‘the Economy of Happiness’.”

Thatched Structures
Thatched Structures

If there is indeed so much abundance, so much to offer freely, who then pays for everything?

Sadhana forest is funded primarily by the gifts of others, from all corners of the world. All gifts are appreciated, big or small. Some funds are raised through projects carried out by the community. The criticism often raised is ‘But why doesn’t Sadhana Forest sell something, such as courses or timber or vegetables?’ The gift economy which Sadhana Forest practices is very difficult to comprehend for most people.  It is thought of as a form of naïveté.  

“Gift Economy is not a cake walk. It requires having unswerving faith that somehow we will receive what we really need to carry forward our work. Sometimes, we get tested for our faith till the very last moment. When our coffers run dry, we are tested if we can hang in there keeping our faith strong. Just when we feel we’re about to fall, help arrives from unexpected sources in unexpected ways. This has happened over and over again! What this kind of manifestation needs is the strength to never doubt if the help might actually arrive. It’s simple, but not easy. It is one kind of tapas,” answers Aviram to this very-oft asked question, each time with more conviction.

Once upon a time, India abounded with chatrams, especially along the roads to great pilgrim centres. In these chatrams, ­all comers received food throughout the day. Those who fell sick during their stay, and the dependents of those who happened to die there, were taken care of. Many times, Sadhana Forest reminds me of an attempt to revive this spirit of daana.

* Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam

Sadhana Forest views the world as one family. Among those who I have personally seen cared for at Sadhana Forest are an abandoned mother and child, a couple who was disowned by their larger family and an emotionally unstable woman who felt safe and at home only here. Sadhana Forest is increasingly becoming a refuge for many youngsters who want to live differently and are seeking inspiration, direction and support. Among these, is a steadily increasing stream of fatigued IT professionals from cities like Bangalore, who want to take a break from the tiring treadmill they’re on. They come here to labour with their hands, learn to live lightly on the planet and experience community living where people are authentic with each other.

Packed hall every Friday night at the Eco-Film Screening, followed by a free vegan dinner for all
Packed hall every Friday night at the Eco-Film Screening, followed by a free vegan dinner for all

Sadhana Forest is one of the very few places where the watchman is a member of the community. The local villagers can freely walk in and participate in all aspects of life as much as they want to. Human unity is a lived value here.

The Rozins have extended these ideas past India into post-earthquake Haiti (2010) and tribal northern Kenya (2014), where there are now two more thriving Sadhana Forest communities. In both locations the main focus of seva is on creating food forests to provide long-term food security for the local populations.

* Seva

In today’s world, where work is seen as drudgery that needs to be outsourced either to machines or to lower-caste people, it is rare to find a community that not only resorts to neither of these, but calls it ‘Seva’. All the tasks in the community from cooking to gardening to cleaning the toilets are shared by those who live there. One can often hear a volunteer shout out “Time for Second Seva of the day!” It’s built into Sadhana Forest’s vocabulary.

Weekly Community Meeting for sharing and planning
Weekly Community Meeting for sharing and planning
* Ahimsa

One of the values that Sadhana Forest holds very dearly is ahimsa. “Animals are repeatedly ill-treated for the things we extract from them, including their milk. One of the ways we care for them is to refrain from consuming any of these products. Moreover, the world food and forest scenarios can see vast improvements if we use the food that we give to animals in the milk and meat industry to feed people,” say the Rozins.

* Shiksha

7 year-old Shalev, Yorit and Aviram’s second daughter, has never been to school. 14 year-old Osher chose to start school just this year. The Rozins have demonstrated that children thrive in a rich intergenerational community that lives with integrity, with members of the community pursuing their unique callings in life, rich in life skills and arts, where the physical and emotional environment is safe, where there is a lot of unstructured time, and where children are welcome to participate in most spheres of adult work. The multiple facets of their innate intelligence find the kind of nourishment and abundant opportunities for expression that the modern context fails to provide. When Osher was merely 10 years old, she could cook tasty healthful food for over a 100 people, conduct workshops for adults and children on cooperative games, and participate in conflict-resolution processes. Some of these may not be seen as having value in the old world, but all of these are extremely important skills to have and hone in order to thrive in the new world and hence, an extraordinary achievement for someone that age; an achievement that came about naturally, without any prodding or incentivising from the outside.

Children make their own boat
Children make their own boat

All great spiritual leaders have had one thing to say about children’s education and the work of educators: ‘if you’re a parent or a teacher, keep working on perfecting yourself. That’s the best thing you can offer your child or student.’ Children are not asked to be silent or kind. They imbibe the silence and kindness that are lived here. “The very reason for calling ourselves ‘Sadhana Forest’ is that we are a community that is committed to Sadhana (practice) towards perfection” say the Rozins.

A very important project at Sadhana Forest is ‘Children’s Land’ located on 2.7 acres of land, which was entirely designed, planned and created by the local village children with help from adults: trees, a small garden, a compost toilet, a small recycling station, a kitchen, an activity centre are all part of this space. On four days of the week, children from local villages are brought here to spend half a day. The volunteers anchoring the sessions ask the children what they are interested in doing and continuously co-create these activities with the children. They also announce the activities the volunteers are going to be engaged in like watering the garden or making bunds, inviting the children to join them. The children are also free to swim in the pond nearby, or come up with their own independent activities like building a tree house and playing games, all while having an organic learning experience.

In eleven years in India:

  • 1,000 people volunteering with us every year
  • 170 tree species that make up the Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest, many of them food-bearing
  • Across India, Haiti and Kenya: 121,000 trees planted
  • Over 80% average survival rate of the trees we plant (extremely high)
  • 21,500 people that have been trained in Permaculture techniques by our teams
  • Tens of thousands of people have visited a Sadhana Forest somewhere in the world
  • Over 9,000 volunteers have stayed in Sadhana Forest communities for any length of time between two weeks and six years

What can be…

The Rozins have more dreams for Sadhana Forest. “We dream of a goshala to take care of cattle rescued from butchers, not because they can give us something in return, but simply because they deserve a good life and they can give us the opportunity to grow by doing selfless service. We dream of bringing in and mentoring young adults who leave orphanages, to help them transition into the world outside as healed, skilled and confident adults. We dream of having a lot more Indian families make this their home. We dream of hosting more Indian sadhus doing karma yoga in the forest while pursuing their own beliefs. We dream of taking in terminally ill children and giving them a dignified life. We dream of undertaking a jal yatra (water pilgrimage) across India, implementing water harvesting and conservation in the drylands of the country.”

Each time I meet Aviram, he keeps adding to his already long wish list. “But all these ideas need the right kind of people to anchor them and sufficient funding. And it will happen when the time is right.” he adds.

When Sadhana Forest started, its vision was to ‘grow forests’. But when a Swiss volunteer said ‘May there be more forests to grow people’, it all fell in place. From then on, that very line became Sadhana Forest’s motto.

According to the Rozins, the most important message that Sadhana Forest has for the world is that ‘Change is possible!’ There are many kindred spirits out there who are waking up to the damage that the current dominant system is doing to the soil, soul and society. Many times one feels very overwhelmed and does not even know where to begin to create a different world: all the way from changing deeply ingrained habits and comforts one has gotten used to, to challenging the system at a collective level. When they learn to live in Sadhana Forest with the least comforts, hard labour, without animal products or addictive substances like alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, they suddenly feel a sense of personal empowerment. When they experience a very different world where work is seva, where there is no competition or transaction, where everyone is treated equally, where children thrive without being directed all the time, they leave feeling ‘so right’ about this way of living and being; they leave knowing that another world is definitely possible. It gives them the strength to discover and pursue their own calling to create a different world. “Sadhana Forest grows through all these young people who have gone in different directions, but living their own callings.”

Contact the Author

Sadhana Forest website

Sadhana Forest featured in Auroville Today

Read The Green Life, another article on the Sadhana Forest

Read another article on Aviram Rozin’s work – Aviram Rozin: A man who left his job and came to India to grow 70 acres of edible forest

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Rajesh March 29, 2015 at 5:46 am

Very sweet! Thank you for connecting so well all the concepts of forest, people, society, values, nurturing, education, economics, …

Bharat March 27, 2015 at 10:28 am

Happy to read this beautifully written and inspiring story! May the strength and sensitivity grow.

SUSHIL JAIN March 10, 2015 at 3:34 pm

I wish I could volunteer at Sadhana Forest. Last year I was there but unfortunately for a very short time. I have put in my papers, this March 31st I will be free as a bird. May be soon you find me perching on a tree there or sowing seeds in the lap of mother Earth.

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