Indology - Preserving the Voice of the Vedas
These days, there is a great deal written and spoken about globalization and the spiritual world is not exempt from this phenomenon. Countless people in the west have been 'turned on' to eastern ways of thinking. An estimated 20 million Americans attend yoga classes every week. I make a living in New York City teaching sitting meditation ...mostly to Americans. Many of the modern masters of yoga, meditation and Advaita practice now hail from the west. Someone told me that the most popular restaurant dish in London, in 2003, was chicken tikka masala. People in the east have imported western ways of thinking and practice too. Seekers in India now have a great array of choices for their spiritual life. Traditional religious beliefs are giving way to spiritual paths emphasizing personal growth.
While people on both sides have benefited greatly, one could also argue that both sides have lost some important content in translation. In some cases, a steep tariff has been placed on the spiritual import-export trade. In the west, many eastern paths have arrived missing important pieces, sometimes lacking a certain depth of tradition and understanding. In the east, western ideas of free enterprise and individuality have begun to erode some ancient and precious gems of eastern culture. One of these gems is the rich and beautiful tradition of the Veda.
The Veda with its scriptures, its traditions and its world view forms a seed kernel of so much that is 'eastern' and Indian and yet, it is hardly known of in the west and is decaying and disappearing in the east. Few of the westerners sporting OM tattoos and Lakshmi T-shirts have any idea of their origins or meaning. In India, an honest, highly learned Brahmin priest is becoming as endangered a species as a rare bird. Originally there were more than one thousand living branches of Vedic practice in India. Of those, only 13 have survived. Among these, four schools are currently at risk of disappearing altogether. In 2003, the United Nations identified the Vedic tradition as a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" and is taking steps to help ensure its survival.
But this article is not about endangerment or decay. It is about honor, preservation, and hope. In the midst of the decline, there's one school in Satara, Maharashtra, that is alive and well, keeping tradition alive with style and grace.
In 1997, Siddha Yoga guru Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, created the Mukta-bodha Indological Research Institute with the mission of preserving the rich cultural heritage of India. The Institute is involved in a number of projects - from translating ancient Sanskrit texts, to sponsoring graduate students to study Indian philosophy.
In 1998, following the inspiration and encouragement of Gurumayi, the institute founded the Swami Muktananda Vedashala. This Vedashala is special. It is a traditional school of Vedic knowledge. It began as a pilot with seven boys and has now grown to more than 25 full-time students. Anyone visiting the Vedashala is struck by the amount of love and respect with which the students are treated. There is a palpable feeling of sacred energy and sweetness in the air. Walking onto the grounds of the school feels like walking into a different, ancient, sacred yuga.
In the midst of the sweetness, there is also great focus. Students typically enter this residential school between the ages of 10 and 12 and commit to a rigorous 12- to 15-year course. The boys are taught according to the traditional oral system of education. The focus of their curriculum is on mastery of the entire Krishna Yajur Veda. The students are expected to memorize the 20,000 plus verses of the Veda and understand the verses' meaning and application. Unlike other vedashalas in India, boys in the Sw. Muktananda Vedashala are not forced to remain in the school against their will.The boys each choose to remain and are required to demonstrate ongoing commitment and devotion to their studies and practice.
Along with chanting of mantras, great emphasis is placed on teaching the boys to conduct yajnas and other vedic rituals in the most traditional and scripturally accurate way. Due to market forces and loss of traditional training, many people performing pujas today use ingredients in their rituals that are substitute or even counterfeit. The sandalwood paste they use is rarely true sandalwood, the kum kum they offer is often made of toxic synthetic dyes. These are just two examples. The batuks in the Swami Muktananda Vedashala learn to perform the rites and rituals in the most ancient classical way. In some cases, the traditional materials for sacrifice are unavailable, but when possible, only the finest ingredients are used. As students learn the meaning of their mantras and rituals, they learn to put their hearts into the pujas, offering them with great devotion. The students perform a full yajna at the vedashala on every full moon. Their teachers are slowly teaching them to perform other small pujas such as vastu pujas, shanti pujas and other rituals that they will one day be called upon to perform. It is a magical experience to listen to the students recite their mantras; a combination of ancient mantric power and innocent youthful voices. Sitting amongst the batuks in their dhotis, listening to the Vedas, evokes a rare purity.
The school ensures that the students receive a well-rounded education. In addition to their Vedic studies, they have classes in English, computer technology, hatha yoga, and classical Indian music, to help them apply their skills in the contemporary world. When the boys graduate, many will return to their native places and serve as full-time priests in the vedic tradition, while others will teach. Some may begin their own vedashalas, carrying on and expanding the tradition with which they've been entrusted.
The master teacher at the vedashala, Vedamurti Shri Vivek L. Godbole, is also special. He is an expert in the Krishna Yajur Veda, and is also versed in the melodic tradition of the Sama Veda. Shri Vivek is also a master astrologer and an adept teacher, who studied in the traditional manner under his father, Vedamurti Shri Lakshman Godbole. Despite Shri Vivek's stature as a Vedic scholar and priest, he carries himself with tremendous humility and still approaches the subject of Vedic culture like an eager student. He truly loves the Vedas and loves teaching the boys in his school. His own son, Vishvajit is also now a senior student in the Vedashala.
Having known Shri Vivek for many years, I always relish the opportunity to speak with him; listening to him elucidate an idea gives one the feeling of being with an ancient sage. During my recent visit, I spoke to him about the relevance of Vedic culture and tradition for modern seekers. I narrated something I had witnessed in Mumbai on a recent visit: A man waving a stick of incense before a new motorcycle he had bought. In his characteristic way, Shri Vivek used this example to elucidate a core concept of Vedic thought.
He said, "Our tradition, our culture, says 'nitya shri, nitya mangala' - every moment is a holy moment. Every breath is pure breath, every breath is holy breath.
"At sunrise and sunset, there are changes in the atmosphere; this transition time is called sandhya. When something in your life changes, this moment of transience is a sandhi. There is a sandhi between you and the vehicle also. A bike is inanimate, but when it comes into your life, you still have to honor it. You are sitting on a chair, you have to honor that chair. You are using your shoes, you have to honor them. If you think, 'It is worthless, honor is not necessary', your nature becomes a rogue nature.
"When you wash and clean your motorbike before you start it, and perform some puja, it awakens your Self. It creates that faith, 'this motorbike will take me safely to my destination.' Our natural swabhava, our human nature, is to honor everyone and everything. This is what we are teaching here."
The Vedic tradition is an ancient technology for this kind of respect and honoring. These boys are learning to be the custodians of this ancient dharma. Of course, we don't all need to be Vedic priests to honor and respect the elements of our lives. Still, it feels good to know that there are people who are learning this ancient art and the specific powerful mantras and rituals that honor everything in such a pure, precise, and loving manner.
Contact: website www.muktabodha.org or call 2522-261221.
David Harshada Wagner, a student of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda,
is the Founding Director of Banyan Education. For more info see
Subject: Vedic Science - 20 October 2008
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