By Suma Varughese
‘Satyug is as sure as death’, says Dadi Prakash Mani, head of the Prajapita Brahma Kumaris Ishwariya Vishwa Vidyalaya. The 60-year-old woman-dominated order headquartered at Mt Abu in Rajasthan, India, abjures rites, rituals and idol worship and focuses on meditation and purity to bring people to soul consciousness, ushering in a golden age
With a last silent goodbye to the dazzling blue sky, crisp mountain air and our benevolent hosts, I shove my bag into the dickey of the video coach taking us back to Mumbai. I am conscious of walking with unusual care and precision, and I hug to myself the rest of my baggage: a newfound sense of purpose, rockhard focus and solemn stillness. Not a bad dividend for just four days spent at Gyan Sarovar, housing the Prajapita Bhahma Kumaris Ishwariya Vishwa Vidylaya’s Academy for a Better World, at Mount Abu in Rajasthan.
A youth festival on the value-based society had brought some thousand of us to this craggy mountain top, 4km from the headquarters of this 61-year-old spiritual movement (or World University as they prefer to call themselves). Looking down at the magnificent complex, I was impressed. Here was a thoroughly modern, hi-tech cluster of buildings. The sophisticated, elegant architecture with an edifice of brown sandstone, the high standards of construction and, above all, the state-of-the-art facilities conveyed an impressive drive for quality and completion without regard for expense or effort. I was to learn later that an open-fisted yet scrupulous employment of money and material, and regard for comfort and appearance characterized the Brahma Kumaris (BKs).
Abundance, not austerity, was their keynote. A public address system and close-circuit TV networked the vast complex. The main edifice contained a meditation hall and a conference hall, with a seating capacity of 1,800 people. Next to it was the training center, with 13 seminar rooms and offices for their internal operations. It also accommodated the Spiritual Applications Research Center which tries to correlate spiritual and scientific research. Residential enclaves dotted the landscape. At one end, facing an ornamental lake, was an elegant chalet for the dadis, the group of elderly women who run the organization.
Beautifully landscaped gardens provided a verdant background. The beauty of the surroundings was somewhat marred by the gaudy pennants on the walkways, and streamers and lights festooning the buildings. But a penchant for kitsch, I soon realized, was one of the few regrettable aspects of the BK culture. Over the next few days, I set out to understand and experience that culture. There was much to like about this quaint woman-dominated order, and little to reject, save their aesthetical flaws and the more arbitrary tenets of their philosophy. What I would principally remember them for was the sincerity, serenity and control that marked their actions, and their overwhelming sense of service. I have seldom felt as well looked after and cosseted as I did at Gyan Sarovar.
I recall Gayatribehn, 31, our escort to Mt Abu, coming to Ahmedabad station to receive us at 5 a.m., looking fresh, crisp and capable, and solicitously offering to carry my bag for me. That same sense of service rose to embrace us from all sides at Mt Abu. Dadi Prakash Mani, the strong faced immensely capable looking administrative head of the organization, set the tone for our stay at the inaugural function itself, when she fervently extended to us a welcome so warm that she hoped it would not be equaled even in the house of God. At the end of the function, she insisted on meeting all thousand of us, presenting each with a woolen shawl, and a delicious sweetmeat as prasad.
They have an endless supply of these delights, held in vast steel containers, which they liberally hand out at all meetings, pretty much like a real dadi (grandmother) would to her favorite grandchildren. Even the boarding and lodging facilities were munificent. The bedroom, which I shared with a delightful college principal from Madhya Pradesh, India, was well-furnished and comfortable, containing a well-sprung mattress and thick blanket.
Likewise, the food. The BKs adhere to a very satvic (ascetic) food code: vegetarian, and free of garlic, onions and chillies. ‘Yatha anna, tatha mana (whatever our food, likewise our mind),’ intoned the keeper of the prasad section, solemnly. Indeed, such is the importance they place on pure food that no one, including householder members, eat out. In the dining halls, their sense of service rose to new heights, as solicitous Brahma Kumars and Kumaris went from table to table, smilingly offering second helpings.
Such hospitality (somehow so Indian in character) is a reflection of their founder’s inclination, a one-time diamond merchant from Hyderabad, India, named Dada Lekh Raj. Known as Brahma Baba, he had often expressed the view that as a servant of God he was supposed to give to every guest ‘such comforts and care as should give him the feeling that it was the House of God’. The solicitude continued till the end.
At the close of the festival, some of the BK’s took us sightseeing to the breathtaking Delwara temples, ending with a picnic at a beautiful landscaped park (one of their many gifts to Mt Abu) called Peace Park, where we played some rousing games, the BKs danced the garba (an Indian folk dance), and all ate bhelpuri, a savoury Indian snack. And when they finally waved us goodbye, it was with packets of food for the journey.
Their spiritual intensity is an equally attractive feature of their character. The BKs are up at 3.30 a.m., and occupy themselves until 7.30 a.m. with Raj Yoga (their form of meditation). After a short break for breakfast and work (Karma Yoga), they assemble at 10.30 a.m. for one more Raj Yoga class. At five, they have a Gyan Yoga class, followed at 7 p.m. by another round of meditation and a spiritual service news class at 8.45 p.m. In between, the BKs must find time to look after visitors and guests.
All this often means a very long working day, yet their sense of service buoys them and keeps them going. Says Radhabehn, 38, attached to the Goregaon center in Mumbai: ‘Service to humanity gives me internal satisfaction and the feeling that I’ve made something of my life.’
Walking towards a group of ladies busy in the kitchen, Arvindbhai, 32, who mans the vegetable department, offered them a choice. Would they like to break for lunch or would they prefer to do seva (service)? In unison, the ladies chorused: ‘seva’. Nevertheless, Arvindbhai packed off the older ladies for lunch, and did so in style, summoning the lift to take them to the ground floor dining hall, and solicitously seeing them into it. What a lesson in labor management!
B.K. Gokak, 38, who looks after the accounts at Pandav Bhavan, a job which takes 14 to 15 hours a day, says: ‘I’m never tired or bored. I feel someone else is doing the work.’ Atmaprakash, 46, a gold medallist in M.Sc, sums it up: ‘This is a university. Those who help others honestly and sincerely make spiritual progress.’
The schedule for visitors was less rigorous, though we were given full exposure to their spiritual philosophy and practice. At 6.30 every morning, we would straggle bleary-eyed for a meditation session. The BK’s believe that it is impossible to meditate upon something one doesn’t know, and since they meditate not by watching the breath or the mind, or by using a mantra, but upon God, we were given a succinct picture of their version of divinity.
For a populist movement, their strain of spirituality is fairly pure. The emphasis is not on rites, rituals or idol worship, which they abjure, but on the fact that we are souls. Losing sight of that fact and falsely identifying with the body has caused all the evils of our times such as greed, anger, lust, they say. Retribution lies in moving towards greater soul consciousness and realizing the soul’s natural attributes such as joy, peace , love, harmony, balance.
One does this by contemplating upon God, the Supreme Soul, who, like us, is an incorporeal point of light to whom the BKs give the name Shiva. This Shiva, however, is not to be confused with the member of the triune godhead, who they call Shankar.
At the start of meditation, a red wall-lamp (all rooms, including guest bedrooms, are provided with these) is switched on, casting a lurid glow in the room, which supposedly resembles the color suffusing God’s domain. Paramdham. In the middle of the lamp issues a point of light upon which we are asked to gaze while the teacher intones a combination of guided visualizations and affirmations such as: ‘I am a soul. I am eternal, immortal, conceit,radiant and self-luminous…’
How effective is this meditation? Personally speaking. I found it difficult to concentrate open-eyed, yet did experience calm and greater stillness at the end of the 10 minutes. The BKs, naturally, report extraordinary results in concentration, personality development and spiritual prowess.
Says Atmaprakash: ‘I used to smoke and drink. Today, I have conquered 70 to 85 per cent of my vices. I’m now looking for perfection.’
Satish Kumar, 37, has never trained in music , yet he is today the chief songwriter of the organization. ‘It is the fruits of devotion,’ he says.
Theirs is a resolutely dualistic philosophy. The soul is eternal and has an existence of its own, and cannot therefore merge with the Supreme, they say, shooting down advaita, or the non-dualistic theory of Vedanta . Liberation, then, or going beyond the cycle of birth and death, is an impossibility. ‘The souls have to come down to act in the cosmic drama,’ they say.
This adherence to the tenets passed on by the revelations of their founder, Brahma Baba, is almost an ideology, and would conceivably come in the way of their own spiritual explorations. Perhaps it is this didacticism that keeps away the intellectual class, for most of their members are drawn from the middle class and the trading communities.
Says a teacher of Vedanta: ‘Their philosophy is not stimulating.’ Perhaps not, but insofar as the measure of a philosophy lies in its ability to transform a human being, determine his conduct, and help him lead his life effectively, theirs scores high.
The serenity and calm on the BKs’ faces is arresting. Particularly true of youngsters such as Kiran, 20, whose face shines with goodwill and joy. ‘Here our life is balanced spiritually, mentally and physically,’ she says. And their collective sense of efficiency and organization is superb.
The youth festival, a logistical nightmare, went ahead with clockwork precision and order, as indeed is true of the functioning of Gyan Sarovar. Their sense of cleanliness is equally laudable. The meditation hall was padded with a white quilt covering that miraculously remained white despite the trampling of thousands of feet. And their dazzling white outfits are a perfect advertisement for a detergent. The buildings are scrupulously clean.
‘You won’t find a cobweb anywhere,’ says Dadi Prakash Mani proudly. She adds: ‘Brahma Baba always said that cleanliness and truth attract each other.’ Cleanliness extends to their personal hygiene which stipulates baths twice a day even in the bitterest of winter. This feminine emphasis on good housekeeping and lavish hospitality is not accidental. One of the most unique aspects about the BKs’ is that it is managed by women. Dadi Prakash Mani is assisted in her administrative tasks by a core group of eight other dadis associated with the movement from its founding days. The women undertake the administrative and managerial duties, as well as the spiritual tutelage.
The men play a supporting role in the administration, shouldering heavy-duty functions such as driving, gardening, cooking. ‘This is probably one of the world’s biggest women’s spiritual organizations,’ says Karunabhai, in charge of the media cell, ‘and we’re very proud of the fact. Women excel in love, patience and tolerance , all of which are necessary in teaching something as difficult as spirituality.’ Considering that most of the BKs’ come from conservative middle class backgrounds, they enjoy remarkable role reversal within their movement.
Says Gayatribehn: ‘Our society is backward. Here girls can do something.’ That something can often be considerable. On the whole, the BKs’ radiate an aura of distinct self-reliance and formidable competence. Many display the spiritual maturity to fuse opposite qualities, being at once modest and self-contained, yet when necessary, daring and assertive. Free of inhibition or fear, they seem able to try their hands at anything, from giving extempore singing performances, to breaking into a garba, to explaining subtle spiritual concepts.
Here, in short, is the quintessential Indian woman, gentle as a dove and firm as a rock. Their training is largely responsible for their protean personalities. Gayatribehn, for instance, a resident of a small village near Ahmedabad, was sent immediately after her induction to Mumbai, and then given independent charge of the Andheri center within three years.
Says she: ‘I’d never even traveled overnight by train. And I learnt to live in a flat. At first I felt like a monkey.’ Today this poised and self-possessed young woman says: ‘I learnt to look after people. To give love. I feel I don’t need anyone’s help. I have a lot of faith in God and I have also learnt how to value myself. I feel that my talents are being used.’
Others report considerable spiritual progress. ‘My concentration and memory have improved. I can put my mind in four different directions at one time,’ says Radhabehn.
Their supremacy was inbuilt into the charter early on by Brahma Baba. ‘Baba told us that we were not women, but mothers, and our task was to awaken the world,’ says Dadi Manohar Indra, 73. Accordingly, as soon as he decided to liquidate his business, Brahma Baba constituted a managing committee of women, to whom he bequeathed all his wealth. Reportedly, such was his respect for women that when he came across a portrait of the goddess Lakshmi massaging the feet of her consort, Narayan, he asked an artist to wipe off the scene and ‘liberate Lakshmi’.
In their own gentle fashion, the BKs have exerted a similar liberating influence on the more traditional aspects of society, to whom empowerment of women is more palatable when spiritually sanctioned. Indeed, so gentle is the influence that far from resisting their leadership, the male members, Brahma Kumars, actively support it.
For B.K. Gokak, an Oriya who was introduced to the movement at the young age of 14, the movement’s chief attraction, apart from its spiritual thrust, was that it was run by women. ‘From the beginning I placed great value on mother love, and here was a family atmosphere. I could see the pure fraternal love between men and women here. So I decided to help the sisters.’
On their part, the women freely acknowledge their brothers. Says Dadi Prakash Mani: ‘Men are with us, giving their lives to the movement.’
Sitting later in the bus, on my way home, suffering the blood-splattered mindlessness of a martial arts film, that world of order, peace, harmony and service seemed far away. But the fact that it exists in microcosm, gives one new hope for the macrocosm and for a time when mankind will live in peace and harmony, when love and service will replace exploitation and greed, and where soul consciousness will transcend the materialism of our times.
For the BKs, this is no wistful, wishful hope. It is a palpable reality, albeit of the future. And indeed to bring about this heaven on earth is the self-appointed mission of this movement. The BKs see themselves as the midwives of Satyug (according to Hinduism —an era when Truth and Purity had reigned), here to help mankind transit from the strife-ridden coils of Kaliyug (the present era of darkness), into an era of peace and prosperity.
‘Satyug is certain as death ,’ says Dadi Prakash Mani, implacably. ‘As night must change to day, so Kaliyug must yield to Satyug.’ While there is an undeniable New Age ring to their vision, their inspiration is wholly indigenous, rooted in the Vedic concept of cyclical time, where yug or era follows yug.
Thus, according to the BKs, Satyug inevitable yields to a silver age and a copper age and finally the iron age (each lasting for 2,500 years) before the cycle starts again. Their mission has its root in the vision and visitations experienced by Dada Lekh Raj. Though he once used to be nattily dressed in three-piece suits and rubbed shoulders with royalty, he was a devout and upright man. In 1936, his increasingly contemplative temperament yielded a horrific vision of complete destruction and devastation. He saw the US and Europe blown up by a nuclear bomb and India driven by civil war, the culmination of Kaliyug.
A few days later, he experienced a visitation from Lord Shiva (the BKs believe that Shiva descended into him and henceforth began using him as a medium), followed by glorious visions of the coming Satyug, with its one dharma, one language and one world order. He was to set up this new world order, he was told. Subsequently, he liquidated his business and started daily satsangs at home, attracting a number of women and children. However, the rigorous code of conduct, which included vegetarian satvic food and strict celibacy, alarmed his rich business community. The escalating hostility forced him to relocate in Karachi, along with his disciples for whom he opened a school, which eventually became known as the Prajapita BKs Ishwariya Vishwa Vidyalaya.
In 1951, on invitation from the families of the Brahma Kumaris, they shifted to Mt Abu. Soon the BKs began disseminating their knowledge, opening centers wherever their families had settled down, in places such as Lucknow, Bombay and Delhi, cities within India. ‘We thought we had done a lot of work, but Baba said: `Children, this is nothing; you must awaken the world,’ recalls Dadi Manohar Indra. ‘We were unlettered, knew no foreign languages, yet wonderfully, people came to us from all over the world.’
Invited by NRI members, the sisters spread their message in Russia, Holland, Japan, until it reached 66 countries. Today, around 15,000 foreigners come to their headquarters each winter and their conference halls at Gyan Sarovar and Pandav Bhavan have facilities for simultaneous translationin 16 languages. Half a century after its inception, the mission has snowballed into a mass movement. It has 400,000 lay members, some 5,000 surrendered sisters and 1,000 men, and over4,500 centers in 66 countries.
‘We have told God that we will bring the whole world to soul consciousness,’ says Dadi Manohar Indra. ‘Before destruction, all must know God and purify the self.’ To this end, the BKs unleash a vast array of initiatives of which the youth festival was one. Their members are everywhere, holding meals to promote the concept of holistic health, and padayatras (journey by foot) across the country to create awareness of the evil effects of substance abuse. In addition, they hold yoga camps, conferences and workshops for professional groups such as psychiatrists and jurists. They have held innumerable national and international conferences on subjects such as peace, spirituality, global harmony and global co-operation. Their distinguished panelists have included heads of state.
For their mammoth efforts, they have been awarded a Peace Medal and six `Peace Messenger Awards’ by the UN. The group is also affiliated as an NGO with the Economic & Social Council of the UN and the UNICEF. Their latest initiative 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, for whom they hold regular workshops. Whatever the subject, the contents boil down to just one thing: the art and science of living.
They even have a curriculum, which encompasses subjects such as applied spiritual psychology, ethics, natural and human history, science of behavioural transformation. While the workshops concentrate on specific subjects, the BKs disseminate the general curriculum through the daily meditation classes held at all the centers, which are regularly attended by all members. The three fundamental tenets of their university are soul consciousness, egolessness and vicelessness, important attributes for the establishment of Satyug.
In the meantime, the BKs continue to take up new projects. Their J. Watumull Memorial Global Hospital and Research Centre, a charitable institution in Mt Abu offering holistic healing, became operational in 1991. And apart from the newly built Gyan Sarovar is their headquarters, Pandav Bhavan, which has departments for baking, flourmill, tailoring and printing. It also has a 3000-seat conference hall called Shanti Bhavan. But that palls in comparison with their latest edifice, a mammoth hall to seat 20,000 people at Taleti, on the plains of Abu Road.
The BKs believe that as the millennium approaches, and the calamities of Kaliyug assume more fearsome proportions, more and more will reach their doorstep, all of whom must be accommodated. So what horrors lie ahead of us and what will Satyug be like? The BKs have all the answers. The Kaliyug scenario is grim enough. America and much of Europe will be destroyed by a nuclear bomb, and Australia will become an island. Much of the earth’s land mass will be submerged. India will suffer a civil war. Mumbai will return to the sea. As time goes on, grain will become inedible and there will be no drinking water. Money will be valueless.
In order to withstand those days and give succor to the suffering, the BKs are urged to develop themselves and become spiritually powerful. But cheer up. All this is necessary for the glorious dawning of Satyug. And the prognosis is good. Laxmi and Narayan will be the ruling deities. Under them, all will live like a happy family, without regard for status and hierarchy. There will still be servants and masters, but the arrangements will be informal, as in a family. While some will be wealthier than others, all will be prosperous. There will be no courts, jails, judges or lawyers because there will be no criminals. Likewise, since all will be free of desires, there will be no accounting.
People give what they have and those who want take. The weather will be perpetual spring. Fruits of all flavors will ply year round, so that instead of cooking, all we will need is to use the juice of whatever flavored fruit we wish for. Cooking, if any, will be by solar power and planes, our main form of locomotion, will be sourced by atomic power. Birdsong will be as melodious as a musical instrument, and musical instruments themselves will play at a touch. Everyone will be an artist, and there will be an abundance of music, art and games.
Life spans will increase to 150 years on an average. Males will not have a beard. And yes, reproduction will transpire through yogic power and not sexual union. Now for the catch. Only 900,000 souls will make the grade. If you would like to be one of them, you know where to go and what to do.
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