By now, we’ve lost interest in the idea of work entirely. All of those discussions about working more, working too much, finding ways to work less–they didn’t get us anywhere. What is needed now is something that will allow us to move beyond these known distinctions and characterize, instead, engagement in activities with a sense of collective reverence and individual meaning. After we decided to use “seva,” someone in the group walked up to the chalkboard with the daily schedule, erased the word “work” in “1st work” and “2nd work,” and replaced it twice with the word “seva.” The following day, we performed the same activities of the day prior–watering the vegetable gardens and preparing breakfast, maintaining compost toilets and planting trees–but this was no longer characterized as work and no longer carried this associative meaning. Same action, entirely different meaning. The vague yet precise, collectively held constitutive meaning of this activity found its articulation, instead, in the word “seva.”
Joseph Redwood-Martinez describes his experience in a reader by SALT (SALTonline.org) of Istanbul:
“Sadhana Forest was established eight years ago as an ecological restoration project aimed at reestablishing the indigenous Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest that was clear cut 150 years ago throughout that entire region. Under French colonial policies, builders were encouraged to source the timber needed to build the city of Pondicherry from the surrounding areas–but there was no regulation on how they sourced this material or how much they were allowed to take. This resulted in complete deforestation that effectively destroyed the way of life for the rural populations–in many cases, as their crops failed and the top soil completely eroded into the nearby ocean, the villagers were forced to move into the nearby peripheral city slums. It’s a familiar narrative. Needless to say, by the early 2000s, the land in this area was considered to be absolutely useless.
But eight years ago, a small family was given a section of this land–about 200 acres–on the condition that they would act as the stewards of the property. They would not own the land–they were not interested in owning land, they were interested in making this their home, establishing a small community, and restoring the indigenous tropical dry evergreen forest. The thing is, they didn’t really know anything about forestry, ecological restoration, conservation biology, or even the back to the land movement for that matter. And this is precisely what they attribute to their success–the fact that they knew and were honest about their not knowing anything.
And this approach turned out to hold a certain appeal. People began expressing interest in helping the family and they soon established a community, by the name of Sadhana Forest, along the lines of four basic principles: 1. Since deforestation is happening mainly because of animal husbandry (for example, the Amazon is being cut to grow soy–and 85% of that soy goes directly toward feeding animals for human consumption), they have decided to be completely vegan. Their decision is not dogmatic, but affirms their commitment to there being integrity and consistency in every aspect of their project such that all of their actions point in the same direction.
2. Looking beyond exchange economies, they have decided to run the whole project off of what they consider to be a gift economy. They are not really interested in philosophies of money, theories of the gift, or indebtedness in relation to free economies. The belief here is simply that when people have an inner feeling of abundance, they enjoy giving; when people don’t feel abundance inside, they keep. There is no money used at Sadhana–no real money, fake money, alternative currency, or time notes. But there is also no barter or exchange system in place either. All work is unpaid, the meals are free of charge and open to anyone, and any events, screenings, or workshops are always available for free to the public. You do not need to show a card or fill out a form to participate in anything at Sadhana. As long as you are there, they will commit to taking care of your needs. This approach is not motivated so much by a critique of the capitalist system as it primarily has to do with finding a way to be consistent with the third point.
3. Everyone who wants to be at Sadhana can be at Sadhana. It is not a community formed through exclusion and discrimination. Anyone can stay there, and all events, meals, workshops, and meetings are completely open. As in nature: monocultures are weak, biodiversity creates resilience. Maintain diversity, and you will maintain resilience.
4. The community actively pursues practical, technical sustainable living. This includes growing organic food, using composting toilets, running entirely off the grid, and buying only local materials and supplies when needed.
Guided by these ethics, the community began intensive rainwater harvesting and tree planting in 2003. The main issue faced by this group eight years ago was the challenge of how to keep the water on the land–how to keep it from washing away during the monsoon season and carrying with it anything that could have developed into top soil. Through a combination of gabions, check dams, swales, edges, bunds, and contours, they were able to keep enough water on the land to plant a pioneer species of Acacia trees. Their first few attempts completely failed, but after a few years, their planting methods for tropical dry evergreen trees improved from a 40% to a 90% survival rate.
But in order to do this, Sadhana Forest has grown from three people to a community of 20 permanent residents and about 1,000 short-term residents each year. Some people come for just a few weeks, others plan to stay for a month but finally get around to leaving after a few years have gone by. It’s easy to get sucked in; life is simple there. Five days a week ,you get up at sunrise with the rest of the community. At 6:15 am, everyone meets in front of the main hut for “morning circle.” Here, people decide what they will be during what is called “first work.” Some people water the swales or the vegetable gardens, others prepare for breakfast, but most of the community heads out into “the forest” to continue the work of planting trees. This lasts until 8:30am, when everybody meets up again at the main hut for breakfast. At 9:25, everyone gathers again for second work, typically, but not necessarily, doing something different from what they volunteered to do during first work–it’s their decision. Lunch is at noon, and from then on, the day is yours to decide. Usually, there are workshops or projects throughout the afternoon. Nothing is mandatory, everything is open. Dinner is at 6pm.
Not long after I got to the community, a discussion started on whether what we were doing Monday through Friday during first and second work should actually be considered and referred to as work. Several people, myself included, started expressing concern over our use of the words “work” and “volunteer” to describe what was going on at Sadhana Forest.
We were watering the vegetable gardens and preparing breakfast, maintaining compost toilets and planting trees, but we recognized that in this context, the constitutive meanings behind these gestures had nothing to do with the word “work” as we knew it.
In The Human Condition, from 1958, Hannah Arendt draws a distinction between the three human activities of labor, work, and action. Labor, which is distinguished by its never-ending character and creates nothing that endures, was the slave’s occupation. Work corresponds to the fabrication of artificial things and was for the craftsman. Action, however, was for the free citizen: “Action [is] the only activity that goes on directly between men… [and] corresponds to the human condition of plurality…. While all aspects of the human condition are somehow related to politics, this plurality is specifically the condition … of all political life.” And by extension, this corresponds with her definition of power as the human capacity to act in concert.
Nevertheless, when we came together to discuss alternatives to the word “work,” using the word “action” in light of this characterization just didn’t seem appropriate. For some, Paulo Virno’s critique of Arnedt’s distinctions made it impossible to borrow these terms, for others, it just seemed unlikely that these ideas had any real purchase on the circumstances at Sadhana, in southern India. In any case, it was obvious that what was needed was for the introduction of another term that would allow us to break out of this tripartite characterization of labor–work–action.
Someone suggested that we use the word “seva.” In Sanskrit, “seva” corresponds with the concept of selfless service done without any expectation of a result of award for the person performing it. In most Indian religions, seva is seen as an essential devotional practice. But with the explication of this associative meaning, some people felt uncomfortable drawing a connection between religious terminology and the characterization of the actions performed at Sadhana. Furthermore, many people felt uncomfortable using a word from a language most of us did not understand in order to semantically recharacterize an activity that presumably did not require translation to understand. Unable to find our way out of this dilemma, we eventually concluded to replace “work” with “seva.” Importantly, this came down to an interest in the way in which the word seva replaced not only the word “work” but also the entire respective sentence structure and conceptual framework: you “work for” or “work with” or “work less” but seva is never said with a preposition. You would never say that you seva for someone or that tomorrow there will be less seva.
By now, we’ve lost interest in the idea of work entirely. All of those discussions about working more, working too much, finding ways to work less–they didn’t get us anywhere. What is needed now is something that will allow us to move beyond these known distinctions and characterize, instead, engagement in activities with a sense of collective reverence and individual meaning.
After we decided to use “seva,” someone in the group walked up to the chalkboard with the daily schedule, erased the word “work” in “1st work” and “2nd work,” and replaced it twice with the word “seva.” The following day, we performed the same activities of the day prior–watering the vegetable gardens and preparing breakfast, maintaining compost toilets and planting trees–but this was no longer characterized as work and no longer carried this associative meaning. Same action, entirely different meaning. The vague yet precise, collectively held constitutive meaning of this activity found its articulation, instead, in the word “seva.”