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Lanza Del Vasto: (1901-1981) Shantidas -Servant of Peace Lanza Del Vasto: (1901-1981) Shantidas -Servant of Peace
by Rene Wadlow
2021-09-29 08:56:45
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Lanza Del Vasto, whose birth anniversary we mark on 29 September, was born in 1901 into an intellectual and aristocratic Italian family. Much of his early education was in a cosmopolitan  milieu in France, and Lanza spoke Italian, French and English. Later he did university studies in Florence, attracted by its art and literary history. There, in 1927, he published his first book of poetry, but quickly returned to France and developed a strong artistic friendship with Luc Dietrich, at the time considered as the raising star of French poetry, though today, largely forgotten. (1). Del Vasto continued to publish his poems, but he tired of life in the artistic milieu of Paris.

lanxa01Del Vasto considered himself as a Roman Catholic and was drawn to the idea of a pilgrimage – a journey on foot during which one discovers new parts of the world but which also has a spiritual meaning. Thus in 1936 he set out for India where he traveled largely on foot. He joined Mahatma Gandhi at Gandhi's ashram. There Del Vasto was convinced of the spiritual and political validity of Gandhi's nonviolence. Gandhi was also struck by the spiritual dimension of Del Vasto and gave him the name of Shantidas, Servant of Peace. Gandhi hoped that Del Vasto could play a mediation role between Jews and Arabs in Palestine as Del Vasto was planning to return to Europe by going first to the Holy Land but this first violent conflict of Palestinians against Zionist coming from Europe had calmed for a time by the time Del Vasto reached British-controlled Palestine.

Del Vasto returned to France in late 1938, but the clouds of war were already gathering. In Paris, he renewed his friendship with Luc Dietrich but spent most of his time writing his Indian experiences and the efforts of Mahatma Gandhi which became Del Vasto's best known book Le Pèlerinage aux sources. (2)

In reply to a question "What did you learn from Gandhi?" he replied "The principle of the unity of life.  This was the basis of nonviolence.  In Gandhi was a unity of life.  Here was a man who believed, thought, felt and acted in the same unity, precisely what is lacking in our own culture.  Gandhi pointed out that means and end are related as the seed is to the tree."

It is not fully clear to me why the German censorship in Paris allowed the book to be published. They may have thought that telling about Gandhi's struggle against British imperialism might help their cause and did not understand the power that ideas of nonviolence would have. In any case, the book was so much a «breath of fresh air» in a France worn down by the war and occupation that some 200,000 copies of the book were sold in a few weeks.

With the end of the war and the difficulties of reconstruction and the creation of a new political order, Del Vasto was able to put into practice the creation of an ashram, a vision that he had since his return from India. In 1948 he married a woman he renamed «Chanterelle» who was a musician. (Chanter in French means to sing). She put music to some of Lanza's devotional poems. They started their ashram, a mixture of Gandhian influence with some of the practices of a Catholic religious order – though people in the order can marry if they so wish. The ashram/order is called the Community of the Ark. Del Vasto had a pessimistic view and saw violence as the underlying structure of European society, violence that might again lead to war. Thus he saw the future as arising from the practice of small nonviolent groups, somewhat in the image of society being rebuilt by a few who survived the «flood» in the Ark.

The ashram was based on the principle that everyone should share the physical work needed to produce life's basic needs. The members of the Ark, called «Companions» grew all their vegetables and much of their grain, using horses and hand methods – an early example of organic agriculture. No animals were raised for meat because the companions rejected killing animals for food.

As in Gandhi's ashram, there was great emphasis on the spiritual life with an aim of inner peace and the ability to carry out nonviolent actions without developing a spirit of anger, fear or a desire of revenge. He set out the aims of the  Ark: "The first duty of the nonviolent community is helping its members work upon themselves. Community is impossible without certain prerequisites.  There must be a religious or philosophic background.  There must be leadership and agreed rules. There must be a profound sense of sacrifice.  Nonviolence must be the practice in daily relationships. One necessity for a successful community is a sense of dignity and beauty.  In our communities, great care is given to work with stone and wood, to making a door or table a joy to the eye."

In 1953, Lanza Del Vasto returned to India to see the workings of the land-gift movement (Bhu-Dan or Bhoodan) led by a long-time co-worker of Gandhi, Vinoba who wanted to end the landlessness of many Indian farm workers by convincing land owners to give a portion of their land to the landless – a form of nonviolent persuasion rather than nonviolent resistance. (3)



1) For a lively account of the collaboration of Luc Dietrich, Lanza Del Vasto and others, some of whom were in the circle of the Russian-exile philosopher Gurdjieff see  Michel Randon Les puissances du dedans (Paris, Denoel, 1968)

2) Lanza Del Vasto; Le Pèlerinage aux sources (Paris, Denoel, 1944)

3) Lanza Del Vasto. Vinoba ou le nouveau pèlerinage (Paris, Denoel, 1954)


Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens

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