In Practice: Manish and Vidhi Jain, on living, innovating and unlearning

By Leonie Shanks/Peace Boat

When Manish Jain and his wife Vidhi give their lectures and workshops, they are captivating. Partly this is because the learning activists speak in a way that is incredibly considered, eloquent and poetic, but also it is because their words are filled with a passion and conviction that is infectious. Their arguments are not dry or academic, but rather full of emotion and common sense. Their speeches are laced with stories, legends and proverbs that evoke a colorful India rich in tradition, history and wisdom. And what they have to teach us is as much about ‘being’ as it is about ‘knowing.’ “Touch your elbow with the person sitting next to you, ” says Manish, by way of beginning his talks. “Say ‘Namaste’. Now, try a hug!” Co-founders of Shikshantar: The People’s Institute for Rethinking Learning and Development in Udaipur, India, Manish and Vidhi have been experimenting for many years with modes of learning, living and innovating that embrace principles of love, friendship, gratitude and sharing, so it is fitting that they begin their lectures by asking us to reach out to our neighbors in this way.


Manish and Vidhi Jain spent a week onboard Peace Boat. They were accompanied by their 11 year-old daughter, Kanku.
Manish and Vidhi Jain spent a week onboard Peace Boat. They were accompanied by their 11 year-old daughter, Kanku.

One of Manish’s most memorable stories goes like this (it’s a long story, so this is an abridged version): “once upon a time, there was a smart young girl called Binu who lived in a small rural village in the heart of the Indian countryside. As a young student, she studied so hard at school that she no longer had time to help in the fields or go to the forests with her grandmother to gather mushrooms and berries. One day, Binu’s teacher asked her father, who worked as a farmer, to send her to a good school in the city. “Binu is very bright, and you’re a poor illiterate man,” the teacher said. “Don’t let her turn out like you.” Binu was sent to the school and lived in a hostel far from home. She was not allowed to speak her local language in the school, nor could she wear traditional clothing – doing so could mean corporal punishment and a fine. Meanwhile, she began to develop brand consciousness. She got an iPhone and started to buy Levi’s and the latest Lady Gaga albums. Her father, meanwhile, began to take on debt in order to fund her lifestyle and tuition.

Binu got a place at a prestigious university. To pay for it, her father started to sell his land. Binu was under a lot of pressure at the university but somehow she got through. Upon graduating, she got a job in the IT Department of a big mining company, and moved to Delhi, where she was assigned to a project to expand mining operations into the hills. One day, her father decided to visit her, bringing her a marriage proposal that would enable her to move back closer to home. Binu’s colleagues were shocked to see him wearing traditional clothes and speaking the local dialect. By now, Binu was not even known by this name anymore – she had changed her name to Brenda. After a few minutes she appeared at reception and informed everyone that her father was her servant. Broken-hearted, her father returned to the village, where he committed suicide out of deep shame.”

The story does not end happily, and Binu is a fictional character, but as Manish points out, “there are stories like this everywhere” – about the rejection of one’s roots, the suppression of and disregard for local history and tradition, the deadly lure of a consumer culture in which one’s very identity becomes a commodity that can be changed and exchanged at will, and the destruction of the natural world by ruthless multinational corporations. His own journey was not dissimilar to Binu’s, as he ended up studying at Brown and Harvard University, worked at Wall Street for a while, and then secured a prestigious job working at UNESCO and the World Bank. Yet he was not satisfied with this life, and felt that he had never been really engaged in learning; on the contrary, he realized that he had paid a high price for ‘success.’ Manish eventually quit his job at UNESCO and went to live with his grandmother. “I like to tell people that I got my PhD at the university of my illiterate grandmother,” he says wryly.

Participants gather to watch a short film depicting the ways in which children in rural villages in India learn through play in outdoor spaces.
Participants gather to watch a short film depicting the ways in which children in rural villages in India learn through play in outdoor spaces.

Manish and Vidhi got married fifteen years ago and decided to move together to the “small, romantic” city of Udaipur. They wanted to create a community that was more connected to the local economy, environment and ecology, to explore new possibilities for a more peaceful and non-violent society, and to offer a safe and welcoming space for anyone – from housewives and ‘school dropouts’ to professionals, retirees and wanderers of the globe – to come and experiment with this alternative way of living and learning. This included founding Shikshantar, an organic learning community where “learning activists” and “co-learners” (there is no hierarchy of learning at Shikshantar, and therefore no traditional teachers) write publications and run workshops and projects around “anything related to compassionate living.” In one of his essays, “Rediscovering the Co-Creators Within,’ Manish writes that Shikshantar has “purposely been set up (and evolved into) a hybrid organization – research institute, Saturday cafe, library, community activity center, filmmaking studio, place for retreat, urban farm, zero waste centre, and publishing house.

For Shikshantar, rethinking education and deschooling our lives means re-looking at and experimenting with our energy, media, waste, food, water, healing, agriculture, transport, money, to name a few, in an intergenerational learning setting. The co-learners are exploring Udaipur as a Learning City, looking at ways to utilize and regenerate the city spaces to enable new forms of learning and relationships to flourish. This includes, for example, creating ways to bring people of different ages together in order to share knowledge and wisdom across generations. Another objective of Shikshantar is to encourage people to learn from “the small, the slow, the inefficient, the messy things that exist in the margins of our communities” – in other words, those things that – in our ongoing quest for a world that is newer, bigger, faster, cleaner – we tend to overlook or discard. The spirit of play, storytelling, laughter, silence, creativity, magic hugs, dance, infuse these explorations.

“Take cow dung, for example,” Manish says. “We have a saying in India – where there is cow dung, there is bread.” An activity that he and Vidhi commonly run at Shikshantar involves asking people to go out into the streets and collect cow dung. Then they are invited to make soap with it. People find the idea of this disgusting, but Manish and Vidhi ask: “Why? Why is this so disgusting, when cow dung is the source of so much life around us, and yet we don’t even bat an eyelid at consuming cans of coca cola filled with chemicals?” They call this exercise an “unlearning activity”, designed to encourage people to question the expert frameworks, fears, norms and assumptions that many of us carry around with us. “Unlearning is a process of forgiving, stepping outside of your comfort zone, and breaking out of established ways of thinking,” they explain. It is a central pillar of their learning philosophy.

Another initiative, Swaraj University, was designed and birthed in 2010 as a two year learning program for youth. The focus of the program is on “self-designed learning and on right livelihood, including exploration of basic gift culture entrepreneurship skills within the context of ecological sustainability and social justice.  Each person’s learning program and curriculum is individualized according to his/her specific talents, questions and dreams. There is ample scope for learners to develop a multidisciplinary curriculum. There is a strong focus on apprenticeship learning, leadership development and community living. In the area of community living, learners explore healthy and sustainable personal lifestyle choices, gift culture, co-creation and democratic decision-making. Decisions regarding day-to-day functioning is done through the form of consensus, with a space for each person in the Swaraj community, be that learner or facilitator, to express his/her voice.” (

When we say we're throwing something out, what do we mean by 'out'?" Participants get to work on making objects out of old pieces of 'rubbish', as part of a workshop encouraging them to reflect on the high levels of waste generated by our consumer lifestyles.
When we say we’re throwing something out, what do we mean by ‘out’?” Participants get to work on making objects out of old pieces of ‘rubbish’, as part of a workshop encouraging them to reflect on the high levels of waste generated by our consumer lifestyles.

Something else which Manish and Vidhi passionately believe needs to be ‘unlearnt’ is our attitude towards waste. “When we say that we’re throwing something ‘out’,” Manish says, “what do we mean by ‘out’? Where is this ‘out’? Originally, Indians didn’t even have a word for waste – it arrived with the English language.” As they see it, the modern world is currently beset by an epidemic of waste that is as violent and damaging in its own way as war. They describe an incident when their daughter Kanku, now 11, witnessed a dissection of a cow, and 50kg of plastic was discovered in the animal’s stomach – a vile example of the dark underbelly of our throwaway lifestyles. During their time onboard, Manish and Vidhi hold a workshop about upcycling waste, requesting that people bring items that they might ordinarily have thrown into the bin. Over the space of two hours, participants transform old bits of cardboard, fabric and crisp packets into colorful stationery holders, necklaces and brooches. It is absorbing, satisfying work, and even by the end of one short afternoon, participants are discussing kinds of waste that is being generated on the ship and ways in which they should cut down their own levels of waste consumption.

Poverty does exist, Manish admits, but the severest forms of poverty are created by industrialization and the fact that people are tied to the global economy, which suppresses people’s passions and interests, brings about displacement from the bonds that nurture us, and generates crippling debts fueled by mass consumption. Manish and Vidhi see traditional schooling as part of the problem, and made the decision even before they married not to send their own children to school. For Vidhi, schools’ habit of labeling people as ‘failures’ and valuing academic achievements over other forms of intelligence is nothing short of a criminal activity, and she urges us to unlearn the mindset that “only people with PhDs are qualified to be our teachers.” At Shikshantar, the co-learners are an eclectic group of healers, filmmakers, musicians, beauty artists, poets, dancers, craftspeople, artisans and farmers, many of whom – in the spirit of ‘gift culture’ – share their time and skills without money. “Only when we break this hierarchy of jobs and work will be able to learn more freely,” says Vidhi. “We need to be able to create a system in which there is room for diversity, in which our individual gifts and talents are valued equally.” They have put together a book on reclaiming the gift culture as an invitation to others and they have helped launch the Giftival which is a festival celebrating the gift culture experiments that are taking place on the planet.

In the end, the challenge with which we are faced is not only one of re-thinking education, but of re-designing whole societies. As Vidhi sees it, “the fundamental challenge of our times is to find ways to replenish soil, service, spirit and society. She and Manish do not see any hope for the “factory-like schools, big money, big technologies and big companies” currently in place, but rather that it is an urgent task for our collective imaginations to be able to dream up a completely new kind of system where diversity is valued – even to believe that miracles can happen. In the spirit of Gandhi and satyagraha, they urge people to become ‘walkouts-walkons’ – to challenge the status quo, to think outside the box, and to leave the jobs/schools they despise, and to create the world they dream of.

And in the Peace Boat participants, they find a receptive audience. “I’ve always felt that I don’t quite slot into the neat hole that society carved out for me,” says New Yorker Ludie, one of the onboard GET teachers. “What was so powerful about listening to Manish and Vidhi was that they really spoke to something inside me – inside all of us – that yearns to do something different, to break out of that mold. They’ve given us a glimpse of what can be done if you really believe in yourself and hold onto what you think is important.”

To find out more about Shikshantar click here

To learn more about Swaraj University, click here:

Leonie Shanks was the Web Reporter for Peace Boat’s 80th Global Voyage. The author’s content has been modified.

This content appeared originally on the website for Peace Boat, a Japan-based international non-governmental and non-profit organization that works to promote peace, human rights, equal and sustainable development and respect for the environment. Find out more:

Connect to the original article here: Manish and Vidhi Jain on the Power of Unlearning, Aug 3, 2013

All photos, courtesy Peace Boat.