Life at Sadhana Forest is communal in all regards. Before even entering the community one is asked to pledge three things: that you will be vegan, that you will not drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or do drugs, and that you will practice gift economy by doing sevas (services) for the community. By having principles that everyone must adhere to, the community already has definition upon entering it.
The day at Sadhana Forest is structured around the reforestation work, inside of a community of people who live, work, eat, and play together. Volunteers choose from a variety of sevas, which vary from once a week, to every day, to multiple times per day. Some of these sevas include planting trees, cooking and cleaning for the community, rotating solar panels, managing the tool shed, refilling wash stations, and stirring and managing all kinds of compost. Sevas require different numbers of people each day depending on the weather and how many people are in the community. For example, more people are needed to cook, clean, and do composting when the community is large (~100 people), and when the community is smaller (~30 people) more people are needed, and available, to work in the forest. Since all sevas require more than one human at a time, it is clear when someone is not fulfilling their duties. Generally it is because someone is ill or has decided to leave the community. Rarely are there volunteers who slack off or skip a seva.
The day starts at 5:15am when a volunteer walks through the community singing songs as a wake up call. At 5:45 the community gathers for “morning circle”, a 20-minute period for stretching and doing wake-your-body-up activities facilitated by members of the community. Then members are encouraged to hug or greet each other before choosing sevas for the day. As volunteers choose their sevas they go off to work. All sevas are communal in nature and require several people to work together. For example, in the kitchen, volunteers chop, grind, or cook a variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains. Kitchen volunteers share one huge table as well as recipes, music, and life stories. In the forest, volunteers make a chain of people in order to pass huge bowls of mud down the line so that others can mold, shape, and stamp it down to make walls around the trees in order to maximize water absorption and/or retention.
After 2 hours of seva, a gong is rung and the community gathers in the main hut for breakfast. People sit in a huge circle and, once again, communal activities take place. Volunteers offer to do extra sevas throughout the day for the benefit of the community. These are not required or planned in advance, rather they are asked of in the moment. Before each meal, as food is being carried from the kitchen to the main hut, the kitchen leader asks for “runners” and “servers”. Servers plate the food and runners carry it out to all who are sitting in the main hut circle. After everyone has gotten a plate, the kitchen leader yells for “specials” which are modified plates based on allergy or dietary requirements. These unofficial sevas are open to anyone. It is just as likely to see the same people fill these roles for weeks, only to leave and have the roles be filled by different people at every meal. There is an understanding that all necessary roles will be filled daily and that no one will be penalized for not taking on extra sevas. Volunteers offer to do these extra sevas for the reward of adding to the community. Before eating breakfast, one of the program directors will ring a bell and ask for a moment of silence. Then we all eat while another program director walks around making arrangements for second sevas, the work that happens after breakfast.
Sometimes there are not enough volunteers to fill needed sevas. When that happens the long-termers step in to fill those roles, on top of their regular roles (program directors, paperwork, website maintenance, kitchen director). The long-termers are most invested in the project and are willing to give more to it than the 2-4 week volunteers of which there are 1,000 annually. Therefore, when a 2-4 week volunteer, also known as a “short termer,” does not fulfill his/her sevas, it is not seen so much as a loss since they are not so invested and will soon be gone. Additionally, the “long termers” report that it is not infrequent for a “short termer,” who has since returned home, to contact the community and share significant life changes due to his/her time in the community, which serves as added motivation in the spirit of gift economy for “long termers” to give to the community when it is needed.
After another 2-3 hours of seva, the community gathers for lunch, following the same process at breakfast. After lunchtime most volunteers are free to shower, rest, go out on their moped or motorcycle to a nearby city (Auroville, Kulapalayam, Pondicherry) to meet friends, grab a coffee, go to the beach, or participate in workshops offered by community members that are listed on a board in the main hut and announced after the moment of silence every morning. Workshops are attended by different numbers depending on interest, time, day, and number of people in the community. The most highly attended workshops are regularly occurring each week. (Workshop examples: Non Violent Communication, yoga (weekly), sewing eco-pads, sewing zippered bags out of rice sacks, vegan talks (weekly), participatory art workshops, leaf printing, meditation (weekly), women’s group, tea ceremony). Volunteers can structure their workshop any way they like, usually meeting in the main hut, often using that space, and lasting from 30 minutes to 1 hour. Program directors are available to talk to regarding ideas or advice for giving a workshop.
Some sevas take place in this period between lunch and dinner and those volunteers get to skip their morning seva on days when they’ve signed up for the few afternoon or evening sevas. This is the only direct exchange of time or effort; all other choices stem from gift economy. When someone is ill and cannot do their seva, someone else volunteers with no expectation of an exchange. Volunteers are encouraged to help each other for the sake of the community instead of to get out of something (ex. I’ll cover you if you cover me), though that (informally) happens as well. The last communal time of day is at 6pm when everyone meets back up again for dinner in the main hut. On Sunday evenings there is a “technical meeting” where volunteers go over what each seva entails, sign up for the more long-term ones, and participate in a share circle. The rules of the share circle are that you can share for as long as you like, can’t talk badly about anyone, and are free to listen and not share. This is mandatory for short-termers. Long-termers can participate but have their own mandatory share circle at another time. Again, it is mandatory to attend, not to share.
Some evenings have special community events like “Open Stage” in which community members can perform anything for/with the community. Colloquially it’s called the “Un-talent Show” to encourage inclusion and usually the entire community attends. Other special events include Thursday’s “Night Out” in which there is no dinner provided within the community and volunteers are encouraged to seek each other out for dinner and adventures. On Friday nights there is an Eco Film Club where about 100 people from other villages are bussed in to join the community for an Eco Film screening and a vegan meal- all completely free, however donations are accepted. People can also come to the community before the film for a free tour of the community and demonstration of water techniques used in the forest.
(this passage is excerpted from a guide to communal living)