It's a fictional streetscape we wander, here, a metropolis whose buildings, boulevards, and back alleys are in a constant state of flux. This is every place, and yet, no place at all - a city of dreams and a dream of a city.

Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Illich in India

In 1970, we have read, a woman named Dorothy Norman wrote to her friend Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India, urging her to read Ivan Illich's new book Deschooling Society. Norman, born into a wealthy family in 1905, was an advocate of social change, a photographer, and the "unofficial keeper" of the legacy of photographer Alfred Stieglitz. (She also was Stieglitz's student and lover.) At least for a time, Norman lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico, the home, also, of Illich and his CIDOC study center. Due largely to Malcolm Lowry's setting his well-received novel Under the Volcano there, Cuernavaca was a mecca for intellectuals (e.g. Erich Fromm), artists, and travelers looking for enlightenment of various kinds.

Upon learning of Illich's book - and who knows, perhaps she actually read it - Gandhi had her education minister invite Illich to come visit. Illich wrote back to say yes, but he also expressed interest in meeting with Jayaprakash Narayan and Vinoba Bhave. The former, often referred to as JP, was a fierce critic of Indira Gandhi. The latter was known as Mahatma Gandhi's spiritual successor.

According to a review in The Hindu newspaper of a book about those years, PMO Diary I - Prelude to the Emergency, "Indira reacted sharply. In her letter of October 4, 1972, to Norman she said Vinoba Bhave has always lacked Gandhiji's vision, breadth of understanding and human sympathy. Jayaprakash is a frustrated person. Later, she told Jayakar that JP 'hated' her; as 'he wanted to be Prime Minister'."

Evidently, Illich took up Gandhi's invitation and travelled to India. Whether or not this was his first visit to the subcontinent, we're not sure. But Illich would return at least once, to pursue an intriguing piece of research. India, and Indians, played an important role in his life's work.

In her biography of theosophist Jiddu Krishnamurti, a noted cultural activist named Pupul Jayakar takes credit for arranging Illich's meeting with Indira Gandhi and describes a meeting with Krishnamurti in 1972. (Krishnamurti, A Biography is still for sale at, for instance, though the full text also is available online for reading at no charge, here and other places.) Jayakar's chapter about Illich begins so:

In the summer of 1971 I was in the United States. After my official work was over, I spent a holiday with my daughter in California. She was to tell me of a very unusual lecture she had heard in Toronto. The speaker was Ivan Illich. He had been ordained into the Jesuit order and had spent several years in South America. Differences had arisen between him and the church in Rome and he had, after great travail, left the Jesuit priesthood and started living in Mexico at Cuernavaca. There, as he was to explain later in India, he established a center, an empty space where people could meet.

His Toronto lecture had been on “Deschooling Society,” and Radhika gave me a copy of the book. Its originality and intensity intrigued me, and on my return to India I gave the book to Indira Gandhi. She read the book, thought it relevant to the Indian situation, and arranged for Illich to be invited to India. He was to tell me later that he hesitated before responding to a government invitation, but ultimately agreed. We had a common friend, Dorothy Norman, and he brought me a letter of introduction from her.

Illich came to dinner at my house in Delhi in the late autumn of 1972. He had a remarkable presence and I responded eagerly to the challenge of his words. Soon we established a rapport and became friends. Indira Gandhi had asked me to help plan his programs and I had suggested that he visit Rajghat and meet Krishnaji.

On November 27, Ivan Illich was in Rajghat. He was staying in the room over the guest house; the river Ganga in all its majesty lay before it. He was having his meals with Krishnaji and the first meeting between the two took place in the afternoon. It was a seminal meeting of two minds; Krishnaji with an observing mind, alive, perceptive, and Ivan Illich, erudite, rational, rooted in the finest traditions of Western thought, yet prepared to listen. The river Ganga listened to the dialogue as it had listened through the centuries to the sound of voices questioning, listening and counterquestioning.

Although the minds of Krishnaji and Illich flowed as two distinct streams, they came together in their shared passion for transformations and the need to free man from illusion.

I introduced Illich to Krishnaji, and spoke of his criticism of modern society and his concern with restructuring society and its tools. Krishnaji and Illich discussed the chaos and corruption of contemporary education in the world. Illich spoke of his concern with liberating the individual from the illusions about what he owed society. Krishnaji had been listening, trying to contact the man behind the words. Sensing that the minds were not meeting, Krishnaji pointed to the river. “There lies the Ganga. It is flowing and all human beings are being driven by the flow of the stream—surely the individual is one who steps out of the stream. The word ‘individual’ means one who is not divisible, who is whole— not fragmented.”

The river was to become the shifting metaphor, around which the dialogue moved; voices coming together and moving apart.

Illich too was trying to establish contact and to feel his way into the new relationship. He said he had spent some hours on the riverbank, watching people bathing, praying, living in the same river, below the burning ghats. He had witnessed people come out of the river to sit quietly on its banks and had felt the resignation that arose within them, an acceptance that the river would carry them away again, one day. He mused on modern technological society to which India was becoming slowly a slave and so losing its touch with life, and the pervading feeling in the world that technology could re-channel the river.

“But the river could not be re-channeled,” said Krishnaji. “Will it not be the same water? There is only one action for the human being to step out of the stream, to never go back or form another stream.” Illich’s response was to quote a poem from Mexico written in the Navajo style, the first line being repeated and meditated upon:

Only for a short time have you loaned us to each other.

Because it is in your drawing us that we take shape
It is in your painting us that we get form.

It is in your singing to us that we get voice.

But only for a short while, have you loaned us to each other.

Because even as lines drawn in crystalline obsidian disappear

and as the green color of the Quetzalcoatal feathers fade

and as the waterfall subsides during the summer—so we too disappear.

Only for a short while have you loaned us to each other.

On the banks of the Ganga, Illich had witnessed an affirmation of life which he felt could be recreated in modern terms. He had sensed the weight and depth and rootedness of a civilization of which the river was a symbol. There was a great anguish in Illich for the loss of ancient traditions. Modern man, industrial man, whose values had been institutionalized, felt that he could take people from the old stream and insert them into a new stream. ...

Jayakar's description continues for a few more pages. The two men find some common understanding of spiritual matters but also disagree, she reports:

To Illich, suffering had to be accepted. "Why?" asked Krishnaji, "Should human beings suffer psychologically?"

"Because God accepted it," said Illich.

Krishnaji was merciless in his enquiry. "Why should man suffer?" For man to accept suffering psychologically was the essence of his ignorance. Why should human beings suffer? Because they were ignorant? Because they were in conflict? Because they were contradictory in themselves?

Illich was equally passionate. He said that he believed suffering was the human condition.

In the late 1970s, Illich travelled to southeast Asia and India in an effort to remove himself from Western society and thereby attain a vantage point from which to better analyze and understand that society and its underlying assumptions. The idea was to immerse himself in a language and culture that were so distant from those of the West that his attempts to write about the West in that new language would inevitably present great difficulties. Certain concepts taken for granted in the West would be difficult to describe, but it was those very difficulties that Illich wished to experience, for they would reveal what was peculiar to the West.

As he explained to David Cayley in the book Ivan Illich in Conversation (p.120):

I then spent several years learning Oriental languages, and getting my feet for long periods on roads which I walked in southeast Asian countries. For a short time I had the dream that what I really should do would be to describe the history of Western ideas in an Oriental language that was far enough away from those languages which I know that I would realy get some distance. I thought of Chinese, and found out that I'm too old. I ran into a man, Jean Domenach, who told me, "Ivan, if you really want to alienate yourself, really want to look at it from the outside, learn Japanese!" I found out that my brain was already too used up. I couldn't do it. And, even if I could have done it, I probably wouldn't have been able to write the stuff I wanted.

I found that northern India - when I finally got enough into the languages and people - wasn't far enough away, and was already too British to do what I wanted to do, so I moved another step further, into the Middle Ages. I went back to the twelfth century, which I had always loved, to certain authors, like Héloise, like Abelard, like Hugh of St. Victor, all these names whom I have beeb affectionately acquainted with, and I began to teach medieval intellectual history - for almost ten years - in French, and mostly in German. [...]

The Indian experience surprised me because of how easy it was to begin to read, to understand, and to feel somewhat at home there - at home is not really the word but to know how to move there. But I discovered that writing about Western ideas in many of the languages of modern India, or even in an ancient language, made no sense, because the semantic fields of Indian languages were already profoundly Anglicized. That project failed me, so I went back, humbly and happily, to my own Latin. In my studies, for almost ten years, I kept all my notes in Latin - kitchen Latin, medieval Latin.

In 1978, Illich gave a lecture on "Taught Mother Tongue" in Mysore, India. Given at the Central Institute of Indian Languages, the lecture was in honor of the institute's founder, Prof. Debi Prasanna Pattanayak. It later showed up as the forward to a 1981 book authored by Pattanayak, Multilingualism and Mother Tongue Education, and as one of the essays in Illich's 1992 collection, In the Mirror of the Past. (As of last year, Pattanayak was still alive, in his 80s and telling a gathering of linguists, including speakers of some 320 languages spoken on the subcontinent, that English was threatening not only many tribal languages there but even major ones like Hindi.)

That same year, Illich also gave the inaugural speech at a conference on "Techniques for the Third World Poor," held at Sevagram Ashram, the place where Gandhi resided from 1936 until his assassination in 1948. This speech shows up in Mirror of the Past as "The Message of Bapu's Hut." It picks up some common Illichian themes, including setting limits on tools and technique:


Today in the morning while I was sitting in this hut where Mahatma Gandhi lived, I was trying to absorb the spirit of its concept and imbibe in me its message. There are two things about the hut which have impressed me greatly. One is its spiritual aspect and the other is the aspect of his amenities. I was trying to understand Gandhi’s point of view in regard to making the hut. I very much liked its simplicity, beauty and neatness. The hut proclaims the principle of love and equality with everybody. Since the house which has been provided to me in Mexico is in many ways like this hut, I could understand its spirit.

Here I found that the hut has seven kinds of places. As you enter, there is a place where you put down your shoes and prepare yourself physically and mentally to go into hut. Then comes the central room which is big enough to accommodate a big family. Today in the morning at four when I was sitting there for prayer, four people along with me were sitting by supporting themselves to one wall and on the other side also there was place enough for as many people if they sit together. This room is where everybody can go and join others. The third space is where Gandhiji himself sat and worked. There are two more rooms – one for the guest and the for the sick. There is an open verandah and also commodious bath room. All of these places have a very organic relationship.

I feel that if rich people come to this hut they must be making fun of it. When I look from the point of view of a simple Indian, I do not see why there should be a house bigger than this. This house is made of wood and mud. In its making, it is not the machine but the hands of man which have worked. I call it a hut but it is really a home. There is a difference between a house and a home. The house is where man keeps his luggage and furniture. It is meant more for the security and convenience of the furniture, than of the man himself. In Delhi, where I had been put up it was a house where there are many conveniences. The building is constructed from the point of view of these conveniences. It is made of cement and bricks and is like a box where the furniture and other conveniences can fit in well. We must understand that all the furniture and other articles that we go on collecting in our lives will never give us the inner strength. These are, so to say, the crutches of a cripple. The more of such conveniences we have, the more our dependence on them increases and our life gets restrictive. On the contrary, the kind of furniture I find in Gandhiji’s hut, is of a different order as there is very little cause of being dependent on them. A house fitted with all kinds of conveniences shows that we have become weak. The more we lose the power to live, the greater we depend upon the goods we acquire. It is like our depending upon the hospitals for the health of the people and upon the schools for the education of our children. Unfortunately both hospitals and schools are not an index of the health or the intelligence of a nation. Actually, the number of hospitals in indicative of the ill health of the people and schools of their ignorance. Similarly, the multiplicity of the facilities for living minimizes the expression of creativity in human life.

Unfortunately, the paradox of the situation is that those who have more such conveniences are regarded as superior creatures. Will it not be considered an immoral society where illness is given more importance and those who use artificial legs are considered superior. While sitting in Gandhiji’s hut I was grieved to ponder over this perversity. I have come to the conclusion that it is wrong to think of the industrial civilization as a road leading towards development of man. It has been proved that for our economic development, bigger and bigger machines of production and larger and larger number of engineers, doctors and professors are not necessary. I am convinced that such people are poor in mind, body and life-style who would want to have a place bigger than this hut where Gandhi lived. I have pity for them. By doing this they surrender themselves and their animate self to the inanimate structure. In the process they lose the elasticity of their body and vitality of their life, they have little relationship with nature and closeness with their fellow men.

When I ask the planners of the day, why they do not understand this simple approach which Gandhiji taught us, they say that Gandhiji’s way is very difficult and that the people will not be able to follow it. But the reality of the situation is that since Gandhiji’s principles do not tolerate the presence of any middleman or that of a centralized system, the planners and managers and politicians have very little attraction towards it. How is not being understood? Is it because people feel that untruth and violence will take them to the desired objective? No. This is not so. The common man fully understands that right means will take him to the right end. It is only the people who have some vested interest who refuse to understand it. The rich do not want to understand. When I say rich, I mean all those people who have got conveniences of life which are not available to everybody in common. These are in living, eating and going about. Their modes of consumption are such that they have been deprived of the power to understand the truth. It is to these that Gandhi becomes a difficult proposition to understand and assimilate. They are the ones to whom simplicity does not make any sense. Their circumstances unfortunately do not allow them to see the truth. Their lives have become too complicated to enable them to get out of trap they are in. Fortunately, for the largest number of people there is neither so much of wealth that they become immune to the truth of simplicity nor are they in such penury that they lack the capacity to understand. Even if the rich see the truth they refuse to understand it. It is because they have lost their contact with the soul of this country.

It should be very clear that the dignity of man is possible only in a self sufficient society and that it suffers as they move towards progressive industrialization. This hut connotes the pleasures that are possible through being at par with society. Here, self sufficiency is the keynote. We must understand that unnecessary articles and goods that a man possesses reduce his power to imbibe happiness from the surroundings. Therefore, Gandhi repeatedly said that productivity should be kept within the limits of wants. Today’s mode of production is such that it finds no limit and goes on increasing uninhibited. All these we have been tolerating so far but the time has come when man must understand that by depending more and more on machines he is moving towards his own suicide. The civilized world, whether it is China or America has begun to understand that if we want to progress, this is not the way. Man should realize that for the good of the individual as well as of the society, it is best that people keep for themselves only as much as is sufficient for their immediate needs. We have to find a method by which this thinking finds expression in changing the values of today’s world. This change can not be brought about by the pressure of the governments or through centralized institutions. A climate of public opinion has to be created to make people understand that which constitutes the basic society. Today the man with a motor car thinks himself superior to the man with a bicycle though, when we look at it from the point of view of the common norm, it is the bicycle which is the vehicle of the masses. The cycle, therefore, must be given the prime importance and all the planning in roads and transport should be done on the basis of the bicycle, whereas the motor car should get a secondary place. The actual situation, however, is the reverse and all plans are made for the benefit of the motor car giving a second place to the bicycle. Common man’s requirements are thus disregarded in comparison with those of the higher ups.

This hut of Gandhi demonstrates to the world how the dignity of the common man can be brought up. It is also a symbol of happiness which we can derive from practicing the principles of simplicity, service and truthfulness. I hope that in the conference that you are going to hold on Techniques for the Third World Poor, you will try to keep this message before you.

Illich published in 1980, in the much-missed CoEvolution Quarterly, a set of essays under the title "Vernacular Values." In one of them, he writes:

In Trivandrum, South India, I have seen one of the most successful alternatives to a special kind of commodity dependence - to instruction and certification as the privileged forms of learning. One thousand seven hundred villages have installed libraries, each containing at least a thousand titles. This is the minimum equipment they need to be full members of Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad, and they may retain their membership only as long as they loan at least three thousand volumes per year. I was immensely encouraged to see that, at least in South India, village-based and village-financed libraries have turned schools into adjuncts to libraries, while elsewhere libraries during these last ten years have become mere deposits for teaching materials used under the instruction of professional teachers. Also in Bihar, India, Medico International represents a grassroots-based attempt to de-medicalize health care, without falling into the trap of the Chinese barefooted doctor. The latter has been relegated to the lowest level lackey in a national hierarchy of bio-control.

After Illich's death in 2002, several of his friends and colleagues wrote about him in the Whole Earth Review (the renamed Co-Evolution Quarterly.) One of those people was Vijaya Nagarajan, a professor of theology at the University of San Francisco, who writes about meeting and getting to know him over the course of many years. One passage:

In the fall of 1984, while we were visiting Ivan in Claremont [College, in southern California], he looked at me and said, "I want to ask you about something after dinner." That evening, a unique conversation began. He excitedly showed me one of his footnotes on an index card, and said, "Do you know anything about the kolam?" I looked at him with surprise, "Oh, yes, I grew up with this ritual practice, it is just something my mother did every day, and there is really not much to say about it. But I could draw you some rice flour designs tomorrow at the front threshold before sunrise and you could ask me any questions you wish." The next morning, after I had drawn these designs, we sat on the raised plinths of the front threshold of the house, warming up in the rich darkness of that sapphire dawn sky. He barraged me with questions, none of which I could answer. With these initially unanswerable questions, he started me on my own pilgrimage. This trail led me to lecture on the kolam at the Smithsonian's Festival of and onto graduate school in the Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies at UC Berkeley emphasizing Tamil Culture, Folklore and Anthropology and Art History.

In December 1992, soon after I passed my oral doctoral examinations, I had a few days before I went off to India for my fieldwork for fourteen months. I told my husband over breakfast one morning, "I wish I could talk to Ivan about my work before setting off to India." The next day we got a phone call from him in Bremen, Germany, saying he was thinking of me all day the day before and wanted to come and see me for a few days. He came to Berkeley and we talked about the kolam and the study of Indian women for three days. I felt renewed and energized about my search for understanding what the kolam was.

When I returned from my long sojourn in India, I felt the strong need to speak to him again. My husband and I went down and stayed near his house in Cuernavaca. We saw him every day for ten days. He said, "I will give you two hours a day to discuss your work. Come with your questions." He pushed me about what I had learned and what I knew and what I did not and could not know. Over this period, he tried to convince me that my most productive work would be as an scholar in religious studies. I was taken aback and not swayed at all. It would be over three years before a series of chance encounters led me to my present work as a full-time professor in that field.

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Santa Rosa, California, United States
Writer, photographer, music fan; father and husband living in northern Calif.