Communities of Faith and Action


Communities of Faith and Action (CFA) process integrates the spiritual life of village people with their social and ecological concerns. Re-interpreting traditional festivals and sacred symbols is bringing about a shift – from coping with problems to transforming them.

Communities of Faith and Action (CFA) endeavour to combine inner spiritual transformation with outer societal change. The CFA programme, on the other hand, as the name itself suggests, instils a deep commitment to change oneself and change society as well. The CFA process integrates personal transformation, social change and ecological concern. The philosophy of CFA is promoted by Fireflies, an inter-cultural ashram (community) located in a village outside Bangalore, in South India.

We work with poor peasants, women and youth. We have tried to see that the transformational process is not only one of action and reflection, but is richly endowed with feeling and compassion. The sacred-song (bhajan) movement that we helped to initiate enhanced these latter qualities.

The CFA organization 

Each village has a CFA group that may number from ten to twenty. They meet once a week, usually on Sunday mornings, and participate in a satsang (a session that entails prayer, meditation and bhajans). This takes about an hour. After this, the village group brings up the problems it faces. The issue raised could be anything like domestic violence,  inadequacy of drinking water or corruption of the local government officials Any problem that a person, or the community as a whole, faces is brought up for discussion. After studying the problems, solutions are sought for. Some remedies may be found without too much difficulty; others may take more time and entail systemic change.

Every month or so, the village officials are invited to participate and respond to the demands of the villagers. Every three months or so more senior politicians and officials are invited to participate and help in finding solutions.

One significant instance must be narrated here. Eighteen months ago a land-developer (or a land-shark!) from the city bought a few acres of land next to Fireflies. He also illegally fenced one of the village lakes and covered it with earth, using a bull-dozer. There are four small lakes in the village and he had covered one of them. This was a social and ecological crime, since the village is seriously short of water for agriculture and livestock. The people were too scared, or too indifferent, to protest. The panchayat members were also paralysed, or partially bribed. The ‘shark’ also managed to bribe some of the local government officials.

We tried to initiate a discussion on the responsibilities of citizenship and local self-governance. People were informed that a village losing a lake was like a human being losing a lung. The water in the lake percolated slowly and recharged the aquifers. (In the villages around Fireflies the ground water table had declined alarmingly in the past fifteen years from about 150feet to 600 feet or more.) Many of the people realised how serious an issue it was, but they were still not motivated to act. About twenty people, largely led by women, went and met the local Member of Parliament (MLA). They explained the problem to him and asked him to visit the village, which he did a few days later. When he came, the women took him to the earth-filled lake and pointed out how the village officials had connived with the land-shark. The MLA immediately ordered to see the village maps and when he realised that the lake had indeed been fenced in and filled-up, he asked the people to go to their homes and bring crow bars to demolish the fence poles. The people did exactly this. The MLA then asked the peoples organisation to be responsible for the village lakes. He promised financial help to restore the lakes.

The deepening of civil society processes. 

The CFA initiative helps give substance to the notion of citizenship. Here a citizen feels empowered and is able to change things in the local context. This is the basis of any meaningful local democratic process – a process that may eventually also have implications at local, national and international levels.

The CFA efforts also help in understanding local, national and international governance issues and the importance of bringing about better governance.

The CFA includes the re-interpretation of traditional festivals and sacred symbols as well as the prayerful chanting of sacred songs. Create a common ground for both religious and secular people to celebrate festivals that lead to social and environmental action.

I would like to now relate two specific examples of re-interpretation of traditional festivals – our celebration of Ganesh festival and our efforts to see Sita Devi as a figure to inspire ecological renewal.

The Ganesh festival – an experience in social and ecological awareness

Ganesh, perhaps the most endearing god in the Indian pantheon, is half elephant (the top half) and half human (the lower half). He is believed to be the remover of obstacles, the lord of knowledge. He is the god to be propitiated before beginning a new business or venture. Each September, for the past six years, we have a weeklong celebration of the Ganesh festival at Fireflies ashram.

To begin with, I must mention that the speculation that Ganesh originated from ancient animistic traditions as a pre-Aryan elephant deity led to the tribals feeling that he was at origin a tribal god. The tribals in our village have been in the village for many generations and have integrated Hindu beliefs within their faith system. They also celebrate the Ganesh festival and it made them proud that he was at origin a tribal God.

With a group of villagers we formulated three questions that were to be discussed in all the villages. The  questions ran as follows:

(1) If Ganesh is the God of knowledge, and since true knowledge is synonymous with vision, what is the kind of vision we wish for our family, for the village, for the country, for the world?  Are kindness, compassion and openness part of this vision?

(2) If Ganesh is the remover of obstacles what are the difficulties and obstacles in our villages and how can we be co-responsible with Ganesh to remove them. What is our own responsibility as citizens to overcome these social obstacles? What is the role of the Panchayat, our legislative assembly? What is the role of the prime-minister and parliament?

(3) If Ganesh is half-nature and half-human, he represents the bond between the natural world and the human world. So, what are we doing to preserve our environment? Instead of nurturing our environment are we polluting and destroying it? What is the role of chemical pesticides and fertilisers in polluting our water-table? Are we growing more trees instead of cutting them heedlessly? Are we protecting our lakes?

The questions were phrased more simply than explained here. The discussions were uneven, with some people able to deal with the personal, social and environmental dimensions better than others. But most people took an active interest in all the discussions. On the first day we erect an unpainted six-foot Ganesh statue at Fireflies. The statue is unpainted because of the toxicity of today’s paints, which contain lead and other carcinogenic chemicals in them. After a few days our Ganesh is carried in a bullock cart through the neighbouring villages and eventually immersed in the lake before Fireflies. In the first year the farmers remarked that they were moved by the Ganesh statue being in the bullock cart. “These days,” they said, “we are used to Ganesh’s being carried in tractors. This is like the old times.”

In the first year, people asked why the Ganesh was unpainted. Our response was that the poisonous chemicals in the paint would insult and humiliate Ganesh by polluting the lake he was going to be immersed into. Many people in the  villages around Fireflies have since got unpainted Ganesh’s. For those who want colour on the statues an artist at Fireflies uses natural dyes to paint the statues.

With climate change galloping along, we need to explore all meaningful avenues of genuinely sustainable social and environmental change. Obviously the experiences outlined above cannot be carried out as mere tasks, but should be deeply respectful and participatory in nature. I was once asked if I believed that Ganesh was God, and that if I was not a believer could I claim any legitimacy in participating in a process as sacrosanct as this. My response was that there was often a common meeting ground between the sacred and the secular. In the celebration of the Ganesh festival any secular person, who was open, could completely share in the vision that the villagers were trying to develop, could empathise with the desire to overcome difficulties and obstacles, and could be in complete solidarity with the effort to create an ecological consciousness.

And now to our participatory re-interpretation of the significance of Sita Devi.

Sita Devi as Earth Mother

In the Indian context we find that with rapid economic growth we are also contributing dramatically to large-scale pollution and climate change. In the field of agriculture, for example, a weak political process allows agriculture to stagnate, while simultaneously seducing farmers (whose votes are important in the electoral context) with free electricity, subsidized fertilizers, pesticides, etc. Most farmers today have only known the green revolution combination of hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, (with irrigation if they are lucky). And now industrial agriculture has begun to creep in, where the earth is simply seen as a commodity that can produce other commodities.

The lure of development has been illusory for millions of Indian farmers, but it continues to be a powerful, if deceitful, myth. In such a context can we take up the challenge and find myths that are both earth-sustaining and life-sustaining, rather than the obverse. At Fireflies Ashram, we have attempted a process of re-interpreting the sacred myths that are close to our farmers and agricultural labourers, both men and women. One such sacred myth is the story of Sita, wife of Lord Rama, known in India as ‘maryada purushottam’, or the ideal human being. The story of Sita is known by every woman, man and child in India.

It is extraordinary that the most well-known female figure in India’s religious pantheon was born from a furrow of the earth and, when in later life, her time came, the earth opened to receive her.

Our purpose here is to show that Sita Devi represents Earth Mother, and the fervent veneration of her is a commitment to practise agriculture that is sustainable. In a larger sense it is a call to urgently move towards forms of development with zero carbon emissions. It is also an acknowledgement that Sita Devi is indeed the Earth, that our earth is therefore sacred, and that we cannot continue to despoil her soil, water, air, trees, mountains and glaciers.

At Fireflies we have a Sita Devi temple, where Sita’s festival is celebrated each year on April 22nd, which is World Earth Day. Sita Devi is venerated here as Earth Mother, who watches over her human and non-human offspring, who guides and inspires. Those who nurture the Earth, and those who till the soil without endangering the planet, are particularly precious to Her.  Sita Devi is also the goddess who watches over and protects women. Women in our villages take their problems to her and find comfort.

The Sita Devi temple is not a social construction that emanates from Fireflies ashram. It is the result of long interactions and discussions with farmers, women and youth about the meaning and Nature of Earth Mother. It is a process that we refer to as ‘a participatory hermeneutics of hope”, where sacred tradition is re-interpreted and re-experienced in personal, social and ecological terms.


At Fireflies, our understanding of the relationship between religion on the one hand and social  and environmental transformation on the other is not an instrumental one. It is really a question of breaking the artificial separation between the sacred and the secular, between tradition and modernity. Our objective is to enhance the spiritual and material well being of people, located within specific cultural communities. We try to explore the space that exists between a critically thought out tradition and a critically thought out modernity, a critically experienced ‘sacred’ and a critically experienced ‘secular’.




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