By Abshishek Thakore
Abhishek Thakore rhapsodises about Fireflies Intercultural Centre, a unique and verdant ashram nestled in the outskirts of Bengaluru
It was love at first sight.
We had just booked a space for Relead (the leadership retreat my movement, Blue Ribbons, holds) in Bengaluru. I was quite satisfied with the space we had selected – its location, facilities and food.
I was done with my admin chores, but I had rented a car for the entire day. There was one last place on my list that I hadn’t visited. Just ahead of the Art of Living Ashram was Fireflies Ashram.
With time on my hands, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to check it out. An inconspicuous turn off the Kanakpura road took me into a village and further towards this space.
If you have read The Celestine Prophecy, this was just like the moment when James Redfield stumbles into the awe-inspiring Viciente Lodge.
The cobble-stoned pathway snaked into a verdant collage of greens and browns. Mysterious figures peered curiously out of the stone sculptures as I made my way inwards.
The main hall had a gathering in progress. I peeked in, only to find that the speaker was a friend I knew for many years. I would later find out that these talks were the “February Dialogues”, which bring together the ecology community every year to the Ashram.
It didn’t matter anymore. I was already awestruck,
The immediate crush I had felt blossomed into a full blown affair. We decided to do half of our retreat at Fireflies, and cancelled a part of our booking at the earlier venue.
The next year, we did five out of the six days of Relead at Fireflies. And for the last few years, we do it only at Fireflies. But why?
Fireflies to me is a deep dive into the lap of nature. Not nature that has been trimmed and tamed, curated for anthropocentric pursuit, but of a wild and raw variety. There is an unmistakable presence of the Feminine. The sculptures, the guiding philosophy and the unforgettable Sita Mandir – each of these epitomise the Mother herself, the Gaia.
Siddhartha, a fellow traveller who founded this space, seems like a quintessential seeker. But beneath the surface are complex and fascinating layers – several decades of leading labour movements across India, a past filled with revolutionary ideas and a present resonant with his creative response to his questions – Fireflies.
He calls it an ashram without a guru, in stark contrast to the ashram set up by his neighbour, Sri Sri. Fireflies is a smaller and more intimate space where a chorus of many voices and views make the melody.
The crickets can suddenly start cheering you as you walk under them at night. The perennially happy frogs greet you in toilets sometimes with their croaking. The insects and birds sing their predator-prey songs, each blending seamlessly into the other.
The filter coffee and open dining room is a perfect companion to conversations about existential dilemmas. The nights can be eerie for some, and our young participants walk around the campus scaring each other, or watching fireflies in silence. The space also has an amphitheatre and an auditorium, along with tiny little nooks and corners where one can sit by oneself or with others.
I remember a session on Death that we did in the stark darkness of the Sita temple courtyard. Being exposed to the wild, and without the comfort of light brings us into contact with our primal fears. Shadows creep in from behind and we look squarely into the eyes of our mortality. Only a space like Fireflies could allow such a process to unfold.
Other fond memories include the times when the campus was drenched in the rains, or when we were stunned by spectacular sunsets or rainbows, and encounters with the unconventional seekers who find themselves at Fireflies.
One of the highlights of our programmes was when Siddhartha would take us around the campus, intimately introducing us to each sculpture. Commissioned by Siddhartha, some of these are mind-stretching – Jesus dancing as Natraj, for example.
The last sculpture on this path is the one of two birds.
One bird is eating and the other watching – symbolising the human experience. One bird represents the part that enjoys the sweet and sour experiences of life. The other, the Higher Self, watches in detachment.
And that is what a space like Fireflies really does to me.
It invites me into its arms to explore myself – my shadows and joys, my valleys and summits. At the same time, it gives space for me to witness my preoccupation with the drama of my life.In its silences, I have heard my voice. Under its leafy shadows, I have discovered my glow.
About the author : Abhishek Thakore is a stand-up philosopher, full-time lover of life, and the founder of The Blue Ribbon Movement.
“Hope is a gift that is given us”
Father Prashant Olelekar interviews Siddhartha, the founder of Fireflies
Fireflies Intercultural Centre nestles among trees in a village on the outskirts of Bangalore. I was invited to facilitate meditation at the annual February Dialogues which draws about 100 people from India and abroad who are committed to pioneering ventures for the bright future of Mother Earth. It was a pleasure and privilege to facilitate meditation sessions not only every morning but also interspersed and integrated with the daily schedule, thus offering a holistic approach to the conference. Excerpts from an interview with Siddhartha.
Why did you choose to be detached from any claim to ‘guru’ship?
Fireflies is an ashram without a guru to underline the fact that we must each find our own way, and not rely on somebody else to guide us.
Sometimes we say that if there is at all a guru at Fireflies, it is the Earth. Nature is in full bloom at Fireflies, some of it as wilderness. Here we deeply respect the Earth. If you ask a village woman what the Earth is, she will say it is ‘bhoomi thai’ or ‘Earth mother’. Perhaps she says this because the Earth nourishes her just like a mother would. But in a modern evolutionary sense we have all evolved from the Earth; so the Earth is our first mother. We have not only co-evolved with the mountains, oceans and streams but also with all other living forms.
Unfortunately, we have today made the Earth ‘real-estate’, ‘resource’, and ‘property’, a commodity to be bought and sold on the market. Since we have lost the sense of sacredness we will continue to ruthlessly exploit it as a mere commodity. Climate change, which threatens to eliminate all life on the planet, is the direct result of this loss of sacredness.
At Fireflies, each step we take on the earth is a respectful one, for it is communicating with our first mother. Walking becomes a form of meditation on our interconnectedness with nature.
Besides the deep love and respect for nature what are the other qualities that are highlighted?
The first among them is compassion. In the Buddhist sense of the term, compassion has to do with love and respect for the dignity of all human beings. Caring for others should come naturally to us since we are all inter-connected as human beings. But our pursuit of individual self-advancement often makes us oblivious of our relationship with each other.
Compassion leads us to believe in a just social order, where all human beings have the basic necessities of life. Too many people all over the world have been excluded from their basic rights. There might be enough food available in the market but children still go hungry. This is clearly wrong. And, of course, compassion cannot exclude our relatives in creation to whom we are inextricably connected: the trees, the birds, the rivers, the stars and galaxies.
Any visitor to FireFlies is struck by the artistic quality of the whole environment. What inspired the creation of the sculptures and buildings?
Long ago the poet John Keats said, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”. He goes on to say: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. Fireflies is in complete agreement with Keats. While the trees, flowers and birds have created a natural haven, we have also endeavoured to enhance this effect. No building is taller than a tree, and the brick blends with the earth. There is a large collection of granite sculptures strewn amidst the trees; and paintings of the sages of India adorn the walls of the meditation hall.
Imagination, creativity, beauty and freedom all go together. Life is not only walking, it is also dancing. It is not only prose, it is also poetry.
You do not seem to promote any particular religion yet there is a pervasive spiritual atmosphere. How do you explain this?
We say that our spirituality is not vertical but horizontal. Vertical spirituality is all about your own peace and harmony, regardless of the plight of the world. It is about you below and your connection with the God above. It is about your moksha, your nirvana. The ‘other’ does not necessarily figure in this. Horizontal spirituality is about your sense of togetherness with other human beings, your capacity to feel their joys and sorrows just as much as your own joys and sorrows. The horizontal also keeps you close to the earth, to nature, unlike the vertical which shoots off into the skies. The horizontal thus keeps you connected to other human beings and the Earth. There are several spiritual practices at Fireflies and each one is free to evolve her or his practices. But an underlying practice is to keep the springs of compassion flowing in the midst of our daily activities. This means being sensitive to each other, sensitive to the larger world we live in. Apart from this we experience the joy of being in the midst of nature and feel its healing energy which has evolved from insight, poetry and beauty.
There are some other very interesting projects that Fireflies is involved in. Could you give us a brief idea?
When the Kabini dam was built and the forest was declared the Rajiv Gandhi National Park, the Fireflies-based Pipal Tree organisation helped develop a non-violent campaign to save the tribals from being evicted. At present they are running a hostel at Kabini just outside the forest for children of tribals and poor farmers studying in the local school and also working directly with farmers in H.D. Kote taluka of Mysore district. As part of its advocacy programme, Pipal Tree is collaborating with other agricultural networks to promote food security especially millet farming in the dryland regions. Pipal Tree holds regular programmes with students from several foreign universities on topics related to sustainable development. Meeting Rivers is a global peace forum to promote social and ecological renewal of religions and spiritualities through publications, conferences and networking. The annual February Dialogues on relevant themes related to Sustainability is a conference attended by creative ecological thinkers and practitioners from India and abroad.
What gives you hope at a time when the global crisis seems to be worsening?
Many of us dream of a world without poverty and environmental decay. The massive challenges of overcoming poverty are daunting. Climate change is an even more difficult challenge to deal with. It is easy to give up hope in such a situation. But the notion of nishkama karma from the Bhagavad Gita urges us to act without awaiting the fruits of our action. We act because it is right and moral to do so, not because we will live to see the results of our action. Every little positive act that we undertake kindles hope within us. In the end hope is a gift that is given us. To some it comes naturally, to others it comes with persistence. In its most compassionate form it is the bodhisattva who is just about to be enlightened but decides to postpone the event till all other beings are enlightened. We can all become little bodhisattvas, experiencing our little nirvanas and postponing the bigger one for the larger social good.
And finally, why did you choose the name ‘Fireflies’?
It comes from the knowledge that life is both the visible and the invisible. You see it and you don’t. Just like the blink of a firefly.
About the author : Father Prashant Olalekar is the head of Dept. of interreligious studies, St. Xaviers college. He is a facilitator of Body Wisdom practises.
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