Sri Sri Ravi Shankar - Havens of Engaged Spirituality
by Life Positive
Angels of Mercy
In 1948, when Mother Teresa was a teacher at St Mary's High School, Calcutta, her gaze would often wander to the window. Beyond the pristine world of the convent, the vicious poverty of Calcutta swarmed menacingly. Soon after, the nun bid goodbye to the security of the convent and stepped into the reality of squalor and abjection, armed only with her faith in divine providence. "I decided to follow Christ into the slums," she would later say of her calling.
Her work commenced as an open-air school for slum children. Her courage of conviction drew volunteers. Financial support and encouragement poured in and extended the scope of her work. In 1950, Mother Teresa was granted permission from the Archdiocese of Calcutta to start her own order, The missionaries of Charity, whose primary task was to love and care for those persons nobody was prepared to look after.
From the hovels of Calcutta, the missionaries have spread their wings today across Africa, the republics of South America, the United States, Canada, even parts of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Today, the mission has more than 4,000 nuns engaged in service of the poor. They undertake relief work in the wake of natural catastrophes such as floods, epidemics, and famine, and for refugees. The primary focus however continues to be the destitute, homeless, alcoholics, persons with leprosy, cancer and AIDS sufferers.
The nuns clad in trademark blue-bordered white cotton saris go about their tasks valiantly and even when working in the pits of despair, have the Lord's name and a cheery smile on their lips. "Speak tenderly to them," the Mother always instructed her wards. "Let there be kindness in your face, in your eyes, in your smile, in the warmth of your greeting. Always have a cheerful smile. Don't only give your care, but give your heart as well."
To attain this level of dedication, the nuns have to undergo intensive training over a period of six years at the end of which they go home for three weeks so they can decide whether they really want to spend the rest of their life as a missionary of charity. The work is not for the faint-hearted. Those who volunteer to join the mission do so from immense faith in their own love and compassion for humanity. They have as their inspiration Jesus Christ and believe: "Like Jesus we belong to the world, living not for ourselves but for others. The joy of the Lord is our strength."
Of selfless service Jesus said, "Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do it to me. Give a glass of water, you give it to me. Receive a little child, you receive me." For Mother Teresa and the nuns devoted in service, to the succor of the sick and the outcasts, earthly sufferers are nothing less than Christ in "distressing disguise." And they go about their tasks not with the air of martyrdom, but joyfully and simply. Of the necessity to cultivate simplicity in living to be able to serve better the Mother had observed, "The more you have, the more you are occupied, the less you give. But the less you have the more free you are. Poverty for us is a freedom. It is not mortification, a penance. It is joyful freedom."
And in their spiritual abundance, they give of themselves plentifully in the various houses of charity they run, serving and comforting those in need. "Unless love is among us, we can kill ourselves with work and it will only be work, not love," the nuns remember the Mother telling them as they carry on her torch of service with love. "Work without love is only slavery."
Ph: Kolkata: (033) 2452277, 2491400,
Bangalore: (080) 8460074, 5474993
Swami Chinmayananda, while spreading the message of the ancient scriptures of Vedanta, did not stop at only theoretical lectures. Seeing and feeling the pain of the many needy people around him, he started and inspired his followers to undertake many service projects all over India.
The motto of the Nursing Institute of the Mission, 'Jana Seva is Janardana Seva', or 'Service to people is service to the Lord', holds true for all the projects of the Mission. For senior citizens, a home away from home are the Pitamaha Sadans established in many parts of India. The centre provides affordable and comfortable accommodation, nourishing vegetarian food, books, televisions, video players, video tapes and medical facilities, thus taking care of their worldly needs so that the elderly can focus on their spiritual practices. Another initiative is the Central Chinmaya Vanaprastha Sansthan (CCVS) for senior citizens, that provides training and support to them, equipping them to cope with their new role in society.
Bangalore houses a nursing institute and a hospital, both centers of seva-oriented training and practice. Other than their course contents, the Mission imparts value-oriented lectures and workshops to the students and professionals, enabling them to practice with an attitude of seva, rather than pursue only commercial interests. Other health programs are the Chinmaya Diagnostic Center and Clinic (CDCC) at Bansbaria, about 70 km from Kolkata and the Chinmaya diagnostic center and clinic (CDCC) at Chembur, Mumbai, that provide diagnostic services to the underprivileged.
The Mission is also very active in the area of rural community development. It runs an orphanage and the Harihar School for poor children in Chinmayaranyam, Ellayapalle, Andhra Pradesh. True to its motto, 'Receive the Light of Knowledge, bring out the heat of action,' the school is a hive of activities. The children are given a free midday meal, food is also provided to old and crippled villagers, and the school also functions as a medical center.
At the Chinmaya Seva Center, Sidhbari, Himachal Pradesh, women are given vocational training in sewing, weaving and carpet making, to empower them to live an independent life. Sidhbari also established Chinmaya Rural Health Care and Training Center to provide basic health services to remote villages. The project covers 278 villages in the Kangra district of Himachal. The program annually reaches approximately 20,000 people directly and 15,00,000 of them indirectly, in the area.
Once one begins to serve, all the needs of the entire community begin to become more visible and one realizes that all issues are interrelated. This was the seed which gave birth to CORD - Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development. This organisation looks at the needs of the rural community in totality - mahila mandals for women's empowerment, balwadis to educate the children, yuvati groups to build self-confidence in women, primary health care centers, local self-governance projects, informal legal cells, managing natural resources and education of differently abled children, yuva groups, self-help groups and income generation activities are all undertaken under CORD.
CORD was first initiated in Himachal Pradesh, then replicated in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Tamil Nadu. The vision is to spread all over India, thus fulfilling the Mission's motto, which aims, 'To give maximum happiness to maximum number for the maximum time.'
Email: email@example.com; Website: www.chinmayamission.com
Salvation Through Service
Swami Vivekananda said, "Atmano mokshartham jagaddhitaya cha," - doing good to the world with a spirit of worship is paving the path for one's own salvation. This is the principle underlying the various welfare activities carried out by the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission, the twin organizations working together for the cause of social development, which they firmly believe is an important dimension of spiritual growth.
Health, education, social development and relief activities are the various areas addressed by the Mission. Service to the sick and ailing is provided by indoor hospitals, out-patients' dispensaries, and mobile health units. Ramakrishna Mission Seva Pratisthan- one of the leading hospitals of Kolkata- has a medical research center attached to it. The Mission also runs a TB clinic in Delhi, five nurses training centers, and a TB sanatorium at Ranchi. Besides, there are 14 other hospitals, 93 outpatients' dispensaries and 30 mobile dispensaries conducted by the Mission. The aim is to reach out to people in the remotest parts of India.
About education, Swami Vivekananda said, "Education is the manifestation of the perfection already in man." Believing that given the opportunity, everybody can manifest himself or herself to a level of excellence, education is provided to students from all sections of society, grooming them for life, and not just to make a living.
The Mission runs orphanages, students' homes, a blind boys' academy, non-formal and adult education centers, self-employment training centers, samaj sevak (social service) training centers, agricultural research institutes, cattle farming institutes, technical schools, polytechnics, community polytechnics, computer training centers, language schools, libraries, librarianship training centers, hospitals and institutes for training nurses, teachers' training institutes, post-graduate medical research institutes, Veda Vidyalaya, and countless formal schools and colleges.
The Mission also runs schools and hostels for tribal boys and girls in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Orissa and other parts of the country. Facilities for sports and games and various extra-curricular activities are offered by all educational centers of the Mission. Performances of dramas, debate, recitations, drawing, painting, modeling, music, sky-searching, and horticulture, form an essential part of the educational program and some centers offer vocational training such as handicrafts.
The backbone of India are the villages, and much needs to be done there. Recognizing this need, most of the branch centers of the Mission have taken up comprehensive vocational training for the economic rehabilitation of the rural and tribal folk.
The best acknowledgment of the Mission's work is perhaps the fact that many others are emulating their efforts. The Mission has even been able to influence the policies of the government in relation to implementation of some projects. For instance, the government of West Bengal, following the experiment of the self-financed sanitary project of the Mission at Midnapore, has now initiated similar programs in the entire state. At the national level a number of workshops, meetings and seminars have been held to explore how far the same approach can be adopted in other parts of the country. Many members of the SAARC countries are also in touch with the Mission and are trying to formulate their sanitation policy based on this line.
The Mission continues to serve, believing that "people should be given help, not by way of charity, but by way of service to man as an embodiment of God."
Auroville: City of Evolution
"Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity." With this message, the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, laid the foundation of what would become a unique experiment in world spirituality. Auroville, the universal township, was inaugurated on February 28, 1968. Since then, it has grown into a community of people dedicated to actualizing the highest spiritual ideals in their lives and through their work.
Auroville's charter states, 'Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.' Today, its 1,500 inhabitants drawn from 30 countries live in 100 settlements, and are engaged in multifarious activities including afforestation, organic agriculture, educational research, healthcare, village development, architecture, information technology, small and medium scale businesses, town planning, water table management, cultural activities and community services.
For Aurovilians, their work is inseparable from their spiritual practice. Though not a requirement, many are followers of Integral Yoga given by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, which also forms the basis of Auroville. The central aim of Integral Yoga is to transform human life through the descent into it of divine consciousness, so as to "create a divine life in matter". To enable this, practitioners must integrate the spiritual in every aspect of their lives. All action must follow, not from the ego-self but from the highest part of our being. As the Mother said, "At our inmost center there is a free being, wide and knowing, who awaits our discovery and who ought to become the acting center of our being and our life in Auroville."
The integration of the spiritual into everyday life is the constant, ongoing experiment at Auroville, and is expressed in the ways in which people earn their livelihood, relate with one another and with their environment. For one, there is no personal ownership of land and resources, and everything belongs to the collective and all decisions of governance and administration are made by the collective. Every Aurovilian must be engaged in constructive work, and must contribute to the community either through manual labor or expertise or donations.
The holistic vision that powers Auroville has inspired it to experiment with sustainable living. This has led to major environmental projects such as the afforestation campaign that has greened vast swathes of the erstwhile barren township, water management that has undertaken widespread water harvesting and design and dissemination of wastewater treatment plants, and development of organic farming techniques and renewable energy projects.
In the area of healthcare, the holistic paradigm has led to the exploration and practice of alternative medicine systems, in keeping with Sri Aurobindo and the Mother's belief that health is much more than the body, it includes mental and psychic/spiritual levels as well. Thus healthcare in Auroville focuses on maintaining balance at all levels of being, rather than just curing disease, and this includes wholesome food and environment, along with healing systems like hatha yoga, bio-resonance, reiki, polarity therapy, reflexology, among others.
In keeping with the spirit of the inner quest, and the Mother's injunction to "unending education", Auroville's residents are involved in several research projects to tease out new, holistic and sustainable paradigms. True to its goal to be a living laboratory, research, exploration and experimentation is being carried out in areas such as: new economy and society, arts and culture, renewable technologies and architecture, East-West relations, education, health and healing, agriculture and forestry, and evolution and consciousness. Interestingly, a majority of researchers are engaged in a theme that is syncretistic, that relates various themes together into a synthesis of knowledge. Also, many see research as not just resulting in outer discovery but also as having an inner, spiritual dimension.
These several ways in which the spiritual is being expressed and integrated with all aspects of human living make Auroville a unique example of socially engaged spirituality. Indeed, it is the "town the earth needs".
Sadhana Through Help
"Do not keep yourself apart, working on your own salvation through meditation. Move among your sisters looking for opportunities to help, with the Name [of God] on the tongue and the Form before the eye of the mind," says Sathya Sai Baba.
Mindful of this message, his disciples work tirelessly in the various seva programs initiated by Baba. Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust, founded by Baba, is responsible not just for running ashrams, but also for various service initiatives in the fields of health, education and rural development.
The guiding philosophy of the Trust is that drinking water, medicine, and education, the fundamental needs of every individual, should be available to everyone free of cost. Recognizing that one of the most neglected areas in India is the provision of drinking water, a key project to bring drinking water to people in the drought-prone rural areas of Anantapur, Medak, and Mahaboobnagar Districts of Andhra Pradesh, was begun. This project was completed in record time and is now considered a model for the state and even the entire country.
The guiding principles driving medical relief activities of the Trust are that medicine should be available to all without the stigma of commercialization. Those that are sick should be served with love. To fulfill these aims, the Trust organizes medical camps on a regular basis in rural areas where patients are given medicines free of cost. Hundreds of thousands of patients have been treated till date for eye ailments and thousands of cataract operations have been performed.
Free medical dispensaries are being run at various places by Sri Sathya Sai Seva organizations. Blood donation camps are organized by these and their medical teams visit orphanages, old age homes and leprosy homes to conduct medical checkups on a continuing basis. Sri Sathya Sai General Hospitals at Prasanthi Nilayam and Whitefield, Bangalore, are run by a team of dedicated professionals. These hospitals provide excellent patient care facilities to all, free of cost. Even heart surgeries and valve replacement are done entirely free of cost, as most of the patients are from socially and economically weaker backgrounds.
In the area of education, the Trust runs schools and institutes of higher learning that do not charge for tuition or room and board (there may be a small charge for room and board at the university level). The thread that runs through the gamut of all activities of the educational institutes is that education is for life and not merely for earning a living. Apart from academics, students are molded in a spirit of sacrifice and service to the community.
The Trust also undertakes distribution of clothes and food to the poor, rehabilitation programs for orphans, village upliftment programs and educational scholarships for the disabled, and construction and renovation of community halls, schools, temples in a number of villages.
"Consider service as the best spiritual discipline (sadhana), but do not believe that you can reform or reshape the world," says Baba. Even so, through the various programs inspired by him, a part of the world is slowly but surely getting reshaped.
Art of Joyful Seva
Sudharshana Kriya and of course, Sri Sri Ravishankar. This is what one usually associates the Art of Living Foundation (AOLF) with. Perhaps not enough is known about the seva activities carried out by the Foundation, under the aegis of International Association for Human Values (IAHV). The IAHV operates an active social empowerment program with the aim of uplifting individuals and communities.
"Seva is our own inner joy pouring forth into action. It is not compulsory duty or uncomfortable obligation, but a natural state of mind. We come to realize that the true measure of our lives is not how much we have gained for ourselves, but how much we have given to others," says Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
An integral part of the '5H' program implemented by IAHV is the Nav Chetna Shibir, or new consciousness camp, which has been designed by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for the impoverished and the disadvantaged in villages and the urban areas. In a few short sessions, participants learn breathing and sound relaxation techniques, relevant knowledge and social awareness connected to the 5H points of action - Homes, Health, Hygiene, Harmony in Diversity and Human Values.
Why teach breathing techniques along with social awareness, one might wonder. The idea is to mold the mind first. As these techniques clear stress from the system, the mind gains the clarity to identify and solve problems and does not get bogged down with the magnitude of the task. The training workshops also help forge a sense of community within the group so that they become a more cohesive unit. Known in diverse places such as North and Central America, Africa and various parts of Asia as the Breath-Water-Sound workshop, this program has inspired people to take up various community projects successfully.
A complementary initiative is the YLTP (Youth Leadership Training Program) that focuses on developing confident and dynamic youth leaders who can become engines of transformation across rural India. This holistic training imparts skills to youth to become socially and economically independent and transforms them into empowered rural entrepreneurs. The trained yuvacharyas, as they are called, are instrumental in implementing the 5H programin villages.
he Foundation has adopted around 25,000 villages in India and trained over 25,710 youth in the YLTP program. The Foundation has conducted 28,857 cleanliness campaigns and 2,857 medical camps in the past two years. For a better environment, projects such as plantation of trees, smokeless chullas, borewells, oakpits, drainages, gobar gas plants are undertaken.
Other than these organized programs and initiatives, whenever there is an urgent need, AOL volunteers rush to help. After the tsunami, they formed a trauma relief cell to help the victims overcome the shock and give them much-needed emotional solace. Through the efforts of the Art of Living network worldwide, the Foundation has shipped out Rs 150 crores worth of relief material to Sri Lanka and the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
Similar relief and rehabilitation work has also been carried out effectively after the Gujarat earthquake, 9/11 tragedy, Orissa hurricanes, Iraq war, Kosovo war and recently, the floods in Mumbai, where the AOLF and IAHV were named nodal points for relief operations by the Maharashtra state government. The entire operations were carried out by volunteers, who responded to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's message, "Service is to see what is needed; to be available to respond to the situation, and to be willing to jump in."
From Amma, with Love
"Pray with your heart, work with your hands," was the simple instruction given by Mata Amritanandamayi to her followers in the wake of the December 2004 tsunami. They responded with open hearts and selfless seva, which saw her ashram provide free food, shelter, medical aid and emotional support to thousands. More recently, Amma, as she is popularly known the world over, has again responded to another natural calamity - the Hurricane Katrina in the US - by spearheading relief operations to be conducted by her ashram in the US.
Amma's rise to eminence as a spiritual master has been accompanied by her growing humanitarian work. For her, the two are inseparable. "We can never close our eyes to the world in the name of spirituality," she has said.
"Self-realisation is the ability to see ourselves in all beings. This is the third eye through which you see, even while your two eyes are wide open. We should be able to love and serve others, seeing ourselves in them. This is the fulfillment of spiritual practice."
The great desire to relieve humanity's misery, which began with little Sudhamani (Amma's childhood name) giving away her family's food to the poor and caring for the old and the destitute, has now flowered into a huge international network of social activities that cover the social, medical, educational, environmental and spiritual realms. Amma's personal inspiration and guidance has motivated individuals to acts of service that range from setting up soup kitchens to feed the hungry and the 'Circle of Love' programme to help with emotional support to those in need. It has also inspired massive public welfare projects like the Amritakuteeram project to provide free housing to the poor that has till now built 25,000 homes, the Amrita Niketanam and Balamandiram where orphans are cared for, a monthly pension plan for poor women, Amrita Nidhi, that benefits 50,000 women every month, among many others.
When she travels, huge gatherings spring around Amma. It is during these, as she hugs every person that comes to her, that Amma comes in touch with the needs of the common people. She listens to them with compassion, and then responds by devising ways in which to alleviate their suffering. For instance, poor patients in urgent need of medical attention led her to found the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS) to provide affordable, highly-specialised healthcare to the poor. This 800-bed tertiary referral hospital offers sophisticated medical care, specialized services and procedures not generally available at hospitals, and 50 per cent of treatments conducted here are charitable. Similarly, coming to know of the legal hassles faced by the poor, Amma has started a new charitable project, the Amrita Kripa Neeti Pratishtan, which aims to provide free legal aid to the poor and disadvantaged. This legal cell already has 1,008 lawyers registered to engage in this work.
Amma's educational projects are at similarly astounding scales. Started with the aim of providing a holistic component to modern education, the Amrita Institute of Technology and Science (AITEC), the Amrita Institute of Management (AIM) and the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS) with its medical college, pharmacy college and nursing school together constitute Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham (Amrita University). Amma's view of nature as manifestation of God led to the founding of GreenFriends, which plants 100,000 saplings in Kerala every year.
Amma's humanitarian work received the Gandhi-King Award in 2002. All her amazing work has been achieved through her unerring belief in the simple yet powerful dictum, "Real devotion to God is to be compassionate towards the poor and the suffering. Feed those who are hungry, help the destitute, console those who are sad, give relief to those in pain, be charitable towards everyone." This is also Amma's message to us.
Websites: www.ammachi.org, www.amritapuri.org
The Final Freedom
In the cold confines of an American prison, a lean Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev addresses an impassive crowd. "You need to understand. I do not look upon you as prisoners. I look upon you as human beings. Circumstances are such that you are here. You did these things with your hands. But others out there do these things with their minds. The only difference is that you cannot see them. They are equally imprisoned by the mind."
A thaw is immediately palpable. The hard men begin to sit up, focus, listen closely as the Sadhguru speaks of the divine within them. Locked up as they are from other human beings, the idea of being human, let alone divine, seems far-fetched. But to the Sadhguru they are possibilities of peaceful, joyous human beings.
Inner Freedom For The Imprisoned, the prison outreach programme designed by Jaggi Vasudev has been conducted successfully for over a decade now. It was first held at the Coimbatore Jail in 1992, the same year the Sadhguru and his followers founded the Isha Yoga Centre and Ashram at the foothills of the sacred Velliangiri Mountains at Poondi near Coimbatore, India.
In the first session 67 convicts serving life terms had life-transforming experiences. The most violent inmates admitted to becoming peaceable and sleeping peacefully at night. "The persistent restlessness within has quelled," they marvelled to those in charge. By the end of the programme, it wasn't unusual to see these hardened men weeping like babies in the arms of the guru, in gratitude, humility, thankfulness for an insight into what they could become.
Given its success, Inner Freedom is now a compulsory part of prison curriculum. The seven-day workshop is routinely scheduled once every month and eagerly participated in by the inmates. The officials are often ncredulous at the change in their charges who, after each session, become more non-violent, cooperative and amenable. Emotionally and mentally they become more stable. Responsibility, acceptance and communication skills are enhanced. This helps them brave the bleakness of prison life and aids the transition into normal society once they are released.
In the programme, apart from talks and discussions with the Sadhguru, the prisoners are taught Isha Yoga techniques to gain access to that reservoir of peace and freedom within. They begin by learning the sun salutation. This 12-position movement flow takes them through a full body workout, and awakens their energies for meeting the day. After the sun salutation they rest in shavasana. This simple position of lying on the back with palms open and facing upward is a doorway for them to have, possibly for the first time in their lives, the experience of there being a little distance between who they believe themselves to be, wholly fashioned on past experience, and who they really are in the present moment.
Beyond the entrenched images they carry of themselves, the Sadhguru gently guides them to look within, into that inner sanctorum where peacefulness is born, regardless of outside circumstances. "Responsibility extends beyond the boundaries of your own bodies and minds. If you can be responsive to the world whatever the situation, then you can be alive to yourself and others," he tells them. "You can choose how to respond to life rather than just react to it. Every moment, you are offered the choice to be a joyous human being."
Jaggi Vasudev's life endeavour has been to help individuals break through imprisonments of mind and ego and to ease into their natural state of freedom, love and joy. He has synthesised the techniques of meditation and pranayam into a dynamic programme called Isha Yoga that allows people to engineer their inner energies and bring them into balance. His yogic prescriptions to attain what he calls the "natural self" are experiential and can be easily integrated into one's daily life. The Sadhguru's form of yoga does not require physical agility or previous knowledge or experience with yoga, making it easier for it to be taught in prisons.
Harbingers of Satyug
It was a youth festival at the Gyan Sarovar, a beautiful complex of the Prajapita Brahma Kumaris Ishwariya Vishwa Vidyalaya, a Mount Abu-based spiritual movement. A white-clad Brahma Kumar, as the surrendered male section of the movement is referred to, was supervising a group of women rolling perfectly round chappatis to feed the 1000-strong youth contingent. The clock was moving towards 12 o'clock and he asked the women whether they would like to break for lunch or continue with the seva. In unison and without a pause, the women sang out, "Seva".
Seva is the keynote of this unique woman-centred mass movement that has over 700,000 lay followers, 650 centres all over the world and thousands of surrendered Brahma Kumaris and Kumars. Founded by a former diamond merchant Dada Lekh Raj in Hyderabad, Sind, in around 1940, the movement shifted to its present base in Mount Abu in 1951.
The raison d'etre of the movement and its activities derive from their founder's searing vision of kaliyug. He saw the US and Europe blown up by a nuclear bomb and India riven by civil war. Later, through a visitation of Shiva, he understood that his mission was to lead the world into satyug. It is this mission that inspires and generates the movement's manifold activities.
Says one of the clutch of elderly women called dadis who spearhead the movement, "We have told God that we will bring the whole world to soul consciousness. Before destruction, all must know God and purify the self."
The dadis are the original Brahma Kumaris, selected and trained by the founder, also known as Brahma Baba. Dadi Prakashmani, a strong-jawed woman with massive dignity, is the head of the movement assisted by Janki Dadi. A strong emphasis on spiritual growth, cleanliness, hospitality and service are some of the values inculcated in this 'spiritual university.'
The main thrust of their activities revolves around promoting spiritual awareness in society. To this end, they undertake numerous projects such as holding melas to promote the concept of holistic health and padayatras (journeys by foot) warning against drug abuse. They hold yoga camps and numerous national and international conferences on peace, spirituality, global harmony and global co-operation. Their latest project is an initiative to generate spiritual values in society. Lakhs of participants across the country were asked to make a list of their weaknesses and strengths and to take a vow to transform their weaknesses into strengths.
Last year the group floated a Shanti project in which participants were asked to list how many minutes a day they could give up to the practice of Shanti and to vow to keep it. In Mumbai, the group has transformed 20 decrepit and seedy municipal gardens into verdant and beautiful peace parks, where weary urbanites can learn to unwind and meditate. The group has also taken over two municipal hospitals in Mahim and Andheri and transformed them into spiritual zones of love and care.
Perhaps one of their most powerful initiatives is the establishment of the Raj Yoga Education & Research Foundation which divides society into roughly 13 professional and special interest groups such as scientists, engineers, doctors, educationists, media, businessmen, politicians, farmers, women and youth. Regular workshops that are oriented towards infusing these livelihoods with spiritual ideas and perspective are conducted for each of these groups in their Mount Abu headquarters. Free lodging and board are munificently provided.
The centrepiece of their efforts is their method of meditation called Raja Yoga. This is taught at all programmes and centres. It is an open-eyed meditation with the focus on a point of light within a red lamp. The rosy glow emanated by the red lamp is their imaginative rendition of paradise. The point of light is the representation of God, who, they say, is a point of light, jyotir linga.
The meditation is accompanied by guided visualisations and affirmations such as, "I am a soul. I am eternal, immortal, conscient, radiant and self-luminous."
In their zeal to cater to larger and larger crowds, the group keeps expanding their seating and accommodation arrangements. Recently, they launched a hall to seat 20,000 people at Taleti, on the plains of Abu Road. This has now been outranked by a peace park at Mount Abu where around 50,000 people can participate in day-long activities. Given their determination to girdle the world with spiritual awareness perhaps we can hope for a less traumatic and more peaceful transition into satyug.
In the month of November, New Delhi will unveil its newest and one of its most elaborate landmarks, the Akshardham, an architectural and aesthetic marvel, and a monument in testimony of Lord Swaminarayan, the founder of the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Sanstha (BAPS), the group behind Akshardham.
This is only one among hundreds of epic projects that include the construction of beautiful traditional temples and monuments, promotion of spiritual festivals and fairs, upliftment of the marginalised and rehabilitation of disaster victims and zones, that arise from the movement's commitment to spiritualising society. Indeed they call themselves a socio-spiritual movement and take their cue from their present 81-year-old head, Pramukh Swami's, motto, "In the joy of others lies our own. In the progress of others rests our own. In the good of others is our own."
This acknowledgement of the interconnection between individual and collective welfare, more associated with Buddhism, is one of the many ways this relatively new movement cast along traditional Vaishnava bhakti lines, seamlessly blends the best of tradition and modernity.
The BAPS is one of the many breakaway sections of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya stemming from Gujarat. This fast-growing organisation has over a million members all over the world, 350 temples, 1,100 centres, 1,700 youth forums, 2,300 child forums and 625 centres for women. Founded around 200 years ago by Sahajanand Swami (later called waminarayan), it is influenced by the reformatory zeal of its founder who set in motion wide-ranging social changes such as topping animal sacrifice, removing caste restrictions on memberships, and putting a stop to sati and female foeticide. He also furthered the cause of education for members of both sexes.
Today, the BAPS involves itself in a wide range of activities that begins with the uplift and development of its own members. elf-development programmes emphasising effective communication and learning as well as the pursuit of family harmony are vigorously promoted by the organisation, quite apart from the traditional emphasis on pujas and prayers. This apart, they have a network of educational institutions in London, Gondal, Ahmedabad, and a range of hostels for young college students.
Other initiatives include dowry-free marriages, well-recharging, de-addiction drives and disaster management. The organisation is also deeply involved in the uplift of local adivasis, providing free ambulance and medical camps, and distribution of free notebooks and medicines. It has opened 209 centres, 30 temples in that region, and a boarding school in Ukai, South Gujarat. It has also actively assisted during all the major disasters to strike Western India. The earthquake that decimated many parts of Kutch in 2000 has prompted sweeping relief measures including the rehabilitation of many towns.
The BAPS is also justly famous for its beautiful temples all over India as well as in London, Nairobi and Huston, all carved and sculpted by traditional sthapithas. The ones in India are made from pink sandstone and their filigreed resplendence is breathtaking.
The reason for these elaborate projects, says the Pramukh Swami, is "to encourage mass participation and inspire people towards nobler living."
The Akshardhams, both the first one in Ahmedabad and the to-be-launched monument in New Delhi, are a cross between a museum and a fair. Through the use of high technology such as integrovision vision and animotronix, the life story of Lord Swaminarayan is graphically retold, and spiritual ideas and concepts explained.
The BAPS has its headquarters in Ahmedabad, a vast complex holding a temple, a hospital offering subsidised medical care, plus accommodation for the sadhus and a guesthouse. The sadhus, who wear splendid saffron turbans and robes, practise eight-fold chastity, which prohibits interaction with women. This may seem like a regressive measure, but the women members are at peace with this stipulation and willingly keep out of their way, resorting to written communication. It is the presence of the sadhus, many of who are highly educated MBAs and graduates from foreign universities, that creates such fervour and faith among the devotees. "These are really true saints," exclaims one. "They don't touch money or women. They are so open-hearted and friendly, I fell in love with them."
The movement's philosophy is based on Ramanujacharya's vishishtadvaita and revolves around the existence of five eternal entities: jiva (self), ishwara (deities), maya (flux), akshar (abode of God) and purushottam or parabrahman (the supreme reality). It is the last which is the ultimate reality and the source of the others.
With their rational, humanistic and yet ardent faith the BAPS members have infused spiritual values and care into a world much n need of them.
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