By Jamuna Rangachari
Sandeep Pandey, founder of the Asha Ashram, Lucknow, does not believe in God, yet his selfless work of upliftment and empowerment of the downtrodden is the essence of divinity
I believe in the Gandhian thinking,’ says Sandeep Pandey, Ramon Magsaysay award winner of 2002, ‘that once the path is chalked out, the means will follow.’ For Pandey, the path was to ‘shape the socio-economic-political future of the country’. In doing so, he has not only crafted a richly satisfying life work for himself, but in the process has been a saviour to countless of underprivileged children and adults in UP.
Born to India’s middle classes, Pandey studied at Benares Hindu University before going to the United States. While pursuing a Ph.D. in control theory at the University of California-Berkeley, he joined V.J.P. Srivatsava and Deepak Gupta to form Asha (Hope), to support education for poor children in India by tapping the resources of Indians abroad. The enterprising founders raised $10,000 in a year, an auspicious beginning for an organisation that now claims 36 North-American chapters and has disbursed nearly one million dollars for programmes in India. After launching Asha, Pandey himself returned to India, doctorate in hand. He taught briefly at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology and in 1993, left the institute to devote himself full-time to Asha.
An outcome of his vision is the Asha Ashram in Lalpur, outside Lucknow. There, students live and study among traditional artisans and engage in bee-keeping, vegetable gardening, and cottage industries. They follow a special Asha curriculum and fill the air with songs and stories that convey the school’s philosophy. The ashram also serves as a retreat for Asha workshops and provides simple health services for the community. He has also built Asha’s network in India to 12 chapters and linked its grassroots endeavours.
‘The voice of peace has to be louder,’ he observes, penetratingly. Denouncing a government plan to favour Hinduism in state schools, he called for an end to ‘the politics of revenge’. Warning against militarist nationalism, in 1999 he organised and led a 1,500-kilometer Global Peace March to protest India’s nuclear arms programme and vocally supported reconciliation between Indians and Pakistanis. Excerpts from an interview with him.
What was the turning point that made you return to India and quit your profession to take up a social cause?
I have been interested in social upliftment ever since my undergraduate days at BHU and nothing that I saw and experienced later, in the United States or in the middle class life of India, made me change my resolve.
Who have been the major influences in your life?
Mahatma Gandhi’s life has been the most enduring influence – I read and re-read his autobiography many times for inspiration and strength.
How did your family take to your decision and what has been the impact on their lives?
They have understood and supported me throughout. I met my wife, Arundhati, while taking part in the Sardar Sarovar Andolan. We both were jailed and it was then that we decided to get married, finding that our overall mission and goals in life are the same. After marriage, Arundhati continued in the valley. Later, when we had children, she shifted to Lucknow and now helps me in my projects.
What would you describe as your personal philosophy?
I do not believe in God and have not felt the need for any spiritual practice.
A saying put up in Baba Amte’s ashram best describes my guiding philosophy in life…
‘I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see, I sought my god, but my god eluded me, and then I sought my sisters and my brothers, and in them I found all three.’
Don’t you think children need religious or spiritual instruction?
Not really. I believe what is needed is an education that equips one to lead life happily and be a useful member of society. We, at Asha, adopt a model that is called Sah-Astiwad or Jeevan Vidya, that was propagated by Shri Nagraj of Amarkantak.
Jeevan Vidya identifies two distinct and independent components in a human being – the material body and the consciousness (‘jeevan’ or ‘chaitanya’). The needs of the material body are material in nature and are fulfilled by the material world. The needs of the ‘jeevan’ or ‘chaitanya’ are knowledge of the self, the body, the family, society, nature and the larger universe in a manner that could evolve a way of living for the harmonious realisation of all six levels.
Only an individual who has both sets of needs fulfilled can be described as a happy individual. A happy individual would be a source of happiness for other individuals.
Hence, the objective of our education system is two-fold:
o Swawalamban – to equip the individual with skills which will allow him/her to fulfill all the material needs of his/her family.
o Samajikta – to help the individual acquire knowledge of the self, the body, family, society, nature and the larger universe.
People do feel the need to pray and communicate with God. Wouldn’t you agree?
Perhaps. However, most of the people I work with, poor Dalits, are so busy fulfilling their basic needs that they hardly have any time for anything else. Visits to the temple, if any, are considered to be social events. Meditation is hardly ever practised. Their sustenance comes only from caring, loving human relationships.
The reason could be that their life is much less complicated – they are busy solving real problems. The middle and upper classes, on the other hand, have a lot of artificial problems created by themselves and the society in which they live. To resolve these, they turn to spirituality.
Have you ever felt frustrated at the challenges you must have faced?
Yes, there are challenges. When we started, most people here thought that we were Christian missionaries, as we welcomed Dalits, ate with them, and allowed them in our kitchen too. We, however, just carried on and did not bother about the allegations.
Political parties have also interfered.
However, I have never felt frustrated. I just carry on. The strength that I need, I get from my principles.
What are the changes you have been able to introduce?
People have recognised the ashram as a place they can turn to at any time – for all their needs – social, legal and personal. That is the greatest achievement. The ashram, as you can see, is open, without walls or security. We wish to be available at all times to people.
Here, in UP, people have a habit of carrying firearms – more as a prestige symbol than anything else. We have stuck to our principle of not allowing these in the ashram and gradually, even the panchayats have stopped using them.
We have heard that you did not accept the Magsaysay award. Is this true?
I did not refuse the award, but yes, I declined the monetary part of it. It was the time we were protesting against the US intervention in Iraq and I did not feel morally justified in accepting money from the same government.
Besides, our ashram functions in the traditional ‘ashram’ mould – of the people, by the people and for the people. We much prefer working with our local resources and meeting our needs locally. This is the true test of the effectiveness of our mission.
Would you say the world in general and India in particular is following the right path today?
The world is going on a path of violence – which it has to retreat from, sooner or later. As far as India is concerned, the new economic policy does not take into account the interests of the poor. We, in our own way, are trying to combat this by supporting the right to information act and helping people protest against unjust practices.
As I walk away, I look again at the children, the people sitting comfortably, and Sandeep Pandey, leading a meeting, resolving various issues of the village.
I think back on the images of Mahatma Gandhi, Kabir, Swami Ramdas, Jesus, Rabindranath Tagore, Shirdi Sai Baba, Jesus Christ and others in the ashram. ‘Icons of people who strove for social progress in one way or the other,’ Pandey calls them. Yes, they would have approved.
God must be smiling too, at the man who leads a godly life without calling himself religious or spiritual and wishing that more of us would turn to Him, by turning to our fellow beings.
Contact: 0522-234 7365, 238 2 333;
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Asha for Education [External Link]
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