By Shailaja Ganguly
How an unassuming head of the Chitrapur Saraswat Math rallied his people towards humanity and God.
It was a crucial turning point. Success, applause and prosperity could not quell that definite unease, that growing certainty that this just was not enough. I found my normal composure interrupted repeatedly by questions like “Who am I and what am I seeking?” “If there is a larger purpose to my life, who will help me to find it?”
This was how I found myself at a ‘guided meditation’ session being conducted by Shri Sadyojat Shankarashram Swamiji. Swamiji has been the 11th spiritual head of Shri Chitrapur Math since 1997, overseeing the spiritual destiny of the 25,000-odd Chitrapur Saraswats scattered all over the globe.
But having married outside the community and busy with the acrobat act of balancing a joint family lifestyle and a demanding career, I had no desire to rediscover my roots. Not until now.
In the decade that followed, I saw how a patient and compassionate teacher meets each pupil at his or her level, listens without interrupting, dwells on every individual’s potential alone and instructs gently till each one is able to acknowledge the lacunae, the shortcomings within and start the uphill trek towards resolving them. I also realised how much easier this painful process becomes when the instructor has an abundant sense of humour and inspires love because he himself lives a 20-hour day, with ‘overtime’ thrown in, ironically, on Sundays and holidays when crowds gather for an audience and advice.
Under his tutelage, I flushed out the irrelevant excess from my life, and began to see my role in the bigger picture. My compassion went beyond the hurried flinging of an odd coin into a grimy hand at a traffic light. I began to reach out to the less privileged, caste, class no bar. What was true of me, was true of everyone. A newly resurgent community was inspired to address the needs of the poor in Shirali, a verdant coastal town in Karnataka, where the Chitrapur Math is based. The first high school in Shirali (Srivalli High School) soon opened to the public. Under Swamiji’s eagle-eyed monitoring, volunteers are pooling time, skills and resources in vital areas like free medical aid (Srivalli Clinic), woman empowerment (Samvit Sudha) and self-help schemes for local farmers and tribals (Parimochan). Watching a long line of grateful farmers, preceded by a tiny ‘band baaja’ repertoire, come with basketsful of choice produce to offer to the Math, I know it is possible to visualise this planet as one loving, mutually co-operative and large-hearted happy family.
Excerpts from the interview:
Are spirituality and social responsibility two sides of the same coin?
For a spiritual aspirant, yes, the two go hand in hand. In order to stabilise your spiritual search, you must, in whatever capacity possible, try to bring about some change for the better in the lives of at least a few people around you.
|Through group seva, a mild person learns to become more assertive, while the loudmouth automatically tones down.|
Is this how the Srivalli High School or Samvit Sudha came into being?
Yes, there were many people who came forward with the desire to contribute to some socially relevant project. Shirali had no high school and children had to either trudge to the next village, or drop out because their parents could not afford to give them a higher education. The high school project was funded entirely by the Kulkarni Trust founded by the US-based Kulkarni family. Many talented individuals from different spheres come regularly and share their expertise with these children. Samvit Sudha was the first project we began in 1999. By learning a skill and earning an independent income the local women got an opportunity to live with dignity. This Centre has won the Motibhai Doshi Award for its contribution to woman empowerment.
The Parimochan Project has reached out to 600 families which comprise not only villagers, but tribals as well. The expertise is provided by BAIF.
|Swamiji lovingly communing wth the ashram’s cows|
In each of these while the donors are Saraswats, the criterion for the recipients is only need-based, not their caste or religious preference.
How does voluntary work done with no motive of personal gain help a seeker?
Seva brings about purification and strengthens your connection with the Divine. A seeker may not be alert enough to receive psychic and spiritual insights till he or she has ‘opened up’ so to speak, by this form of sadhana (spiritual practice). A lot of inner strength and awareness is therefore needed before one can fully understand the more subtle principles of spiritual inquiry.
Through group seva, a mild person learns to become more assertive, while the loudmouth automatically tones down. When you are in seva mode, the first basic idea is to overcome the ego which keeps hampering your progress by telling you “I have been insulted” or “I have not been taken seriously” or “I did this work and someone else has taken the credit” and so on.
Masters who have achieved the highest state, performed a great amount of arduous tapas or penance. Tapas requires tyaga, sacrifice. Evolve your tapas from your daily routine. When you make a resolve and adhere to it, your action becomes tapas, which in turn gives you the capacity for bhakti, devotion. Correct perception, reading good books, associating with saints all help to open your heart to the Divine. When there is tapas, bhakti and understanding, grace flows and the ego gets eliminated. Thus, by becoming egoless you don’t become a moron. Instead, you get charged with Divine Love, and start listening and learning. So the tendency to dwell on other people’s limitations and faults should be eliminated. It is only when you have made place in your heart that the Lord can enter it.
|Meditation is the cornerstone of sadhana. It is an absolute must for awakening your sankalpa-shakti, for strengthening your will.|
How important is physical fitness for a spiritual aspirant?
It is of paramount importance. Many youngsters today are overweight and unhealthy. If you do not keep fit through proper diet and exercise you cannot take on the rigors of sadhana. You cannot become a serious seeker.
|Students at the Srivalli High School fine-tuning their computer skills|
What is the role of meditation in one’s quest?
Meditation is the cornerstone of sadhana. It is an absolute must for awakening your sankalpa-shakti, for strengthening your resolve, your will power. When you make a resolve and abide by it, you learn to draw strength from your own inner resources. Even if you are able to prevent all impending things from encroaching upon the present for just five minutes, you can begin to feel your connection with your Higher Self. Gradually, you will see how this conscious training of body and mind begins to permeate and enhance all the other activities in your life as well. The restlessness which makes a sedentary person adopt a bad posture, become irritable or constantly project negativity will vanish, resulting in poise and calmness of mind.
Can meditation change the entire course of your life and usher positive change even in unrelated areas?
Certainly. Apart from its power to lead you on towards higher truths, the process of meditation is designed to create a feeling of mental calm, equipoise. This foundation is a must if you want to evolve further. All the preliminaries like warm-ups, exercise, pranayam also have to be done at the same pace with the same ease. Only then will they prepare the aspirant’s body and mind to receive what comes next.
Regular meditation has been scientifically proven to be beneficial for good health. For instance, it has been known to lower the blood pressure in hypertensive persons. People who meditate are able to draw a lot of enthusiasm and inspiration for daily activities and as a result, their efficiency improves. Students, for example, are able to keep pre-exam panic attacks at bay. Meditation also gives you the strength to digest many an unpleasant reality. Of course, all this does not happen in an instant. That is why regularity is a must.
Do you recommend specific dos and don’ts for a serious aspirant?
Moderation in everything is, of course, the key to fitness of body and mind. Maintaining regular timings and food habits helps digestion. But the one thing I insist all sadhaks must practice is – never talk negatively about the food on your plate, or during a meal. Instead, begin with a prayer offering gratitude and eat with the awareness that this nutrition will provide me with the positive energy and vitality to pursue my goals. Respect the food you consume. Stuffing it into the mouth while you are engrossed in a TV programme is not advisable at all.
|Om sweet om: Students at the Math’s Vedic pathsala|
You have created self-expression platforms called Prarthana and Yuvadhara for children and young adults. How has this helped?
The need to create a space for nurturing values and building a strong cultural foundation arose when I met many parents who felt that their children were not developing as they would have liked them to, in spite of being sent to the best schools. Today we have 36 Prarthana centres where children are keen to attend and are finding the learning process very enjoyable, because the scope and content of the syllabus has been carefully chalked out and the teachers have the vision and training to inspire the group. The young adults who form the Yuvadhara are becoming increasingly interested and involved in the many camps we conduct and also in all activities and social projects of the Math. They are becoming visibly proud of their roots. This is very fulfilling.
You regularly observe ‘mouna’ or non-verbalisation. How does it help? Would you advise it for us as well?
It is tremendously effective in intensifying sadhana and is one of the best ways to conserve energy. It is healing too, because a silent person begins to recognise the set patterns of arguments and counter-arguments one gets into and begins to rise above them.
Finally, how important is it for the seeker to have a guru, a master?
A guru is indispensable. This has been the distinctive mark of sanatana dharma. The guru has the capacity to understand the ability and potential of each disciple and to guide him or her accordingly. When you seek perfection in any field you need a personal instructor, don’t you? The sahajata or an easy, informal bonding between the guru and his students has existed from the time when children were sent to the guru’s ‘ashram’ to stay there and imbibe knowledge.
Shailaja Ganguly is a script writer, anchor for radio, TV, live recitals, and inflight music; and a staunch devotee of yoga, children and the present moment.
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