This project helps students understand the multiple methodologies used in humanities research while challenging them to think critically about what it means to live a good life.

In the early 1900s, Londoner Millie Graham Polak lived for a time with Mahatma Gandhi and his family at Phoenix Settlement in South Africa, the first of four major intentional communities that Gandhi founded in South Africa and India. The journal that Polak kept is one source that has given Professor Karline McLain deeper context as she investigates what it was like to live with Gandhi.

McLain, a professor of South Asian religions, has taught courses on Gandhi for more than a decade. Gandhi is well known as the international icon who developed a nonviolent methodology to become one of the front-runners in securing Indian independence from British colonial rule. But through teaching Gandhi seminars, McLain has come to realize that the intentional residential communities he established — ashrams — played an important role in his life and legacy.  Sources like Polak’s journal have helped McLain uncover some of the little-studied history of the people who lived in the ashrams alongside Gandhi, and to better understand what drew them there, what sort of lessons they drew from the experience, and how they interacted with Gandhi.

With the support of a two-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation via The Enhancing Life Project, McLain has begun to delve into the role that the ashrams served in the development of Gandhi’s ideology and practices. “The ashrams were living laboratories that allowed Gandhi to try out his ideas on a micro scale and then extrapolate what he learned for use in much larger political scenarios,” McLain says. The grant has allowed her to visit the sites of the ashrams and their related archives in South Africa and India.

“Through the physical spaces, we can explore the effort to embody utopia by means of architectural conception and construction,” she explains. “Through the archives, we can explore the ideas Gandhi was thinking about as he conducted these residential experiments, as well as those of some of his co-residents who contributed their own thought pieces to the newspapers Gandhi founded, such as Indian Opinion.”

McLain explains that the ashrams have often been dismissed as an anachronistic, utopic ideal. “People focus on Gandhi’s political legacy and his message of nonviolence, and they overlook the ashrams,” she says. “But Gandhi thought his residential experiments were a crucial connection to his social and political reform work.”

McLain’s past research has centered on Hindu mythology and Indian culture, work that requires a great deal of translation, but this project has allowed her to get students involved, as much of Gandhi’s writing is accessible in English.

“This project helps students understand the multiple methodologies used in humanities research, while challenging them to think critically about what it means to live a good life,” she says. One student has worked to identify settlers in photos from the ashrams, compiling brief biographies for a digital exhibit that will eventually be made public.

As her research continues, McLain plans to develop an upper-level seminar on Gandhi that explores the ashrams and gets students involved in analyzing primary source materials. “I’m looking forward to being able to infuse my research and teaching together in more a direct way than I’ve been able to do before,” she says.

Updated Sept. 23, 2016