By Life Positive
as told to Suma Varughese
Mrs Ajashree Birla, widow of Aditya Birla, exudes stability and contentment. Here are her secrets.
Philosophy of Life
My philosophy of life is simple. It is to live and let live. I am about 50 per cent successful in living this. I try and not interfere in other people’s work. Very often, small problems affect our equanimity, but this philosophy of tolerance helps me to weather these issues. It is important to recognize that others are different from you and have the right to their own views and attitude. I am also a great believer in self-acceptance. One has to learn to be kind and gentle to oneself, and accept oneself as one is. I think self-acceptance is the source of great strength.
I have a respected guruji, Shri Nandlal Pathak, a professor at Sophia College, from whom I learn the Gita, twice a week. The Gita has helped me cultivate detachment and to focus on effort and not fruit. It helps me to cope with the ups and downs of life. My family also holds a satsang every Wednesday attended mostly by my son’s (Kumar Mangalam Birla) family and his friends.
I recall a king who called his ministers and asked them to condense the philosophy of the land into one sentence he could live by. At last they told him, ‘This too shall pass.’ This wisdom gives me a great deal of comfort as it helps me to go through rough times without despairing and through good times without being complacent.
Everyday, I also chant the Gayatri mantra. It gives me peace and sets my mood right.
I have recently been studying Mahatma Gandhi. He succeeded in getting us Independence without violence. So I ask myself, why is violence needed? My family has been traditionally very aligned to Gandhian values. My parents and in-laws lived very frugal and principled lives. We have recently launched the Eternal Gandhi Multimedia Exposition to give young people an exposure to the Gandhian values of shanti, satya, ahimsa and ekta. The Expo uses technology magnificently to bring alive Gandhiji’s life and times. This is a project initiated by my son, Kumar Mangalam, and it is also very close to my heart.
I also read a great number of books by Deepak Chopra on the body-mind-spirit connection. These help me understand life at a deeper level and to approach it positively. I am also fortunate in having a few close friends who are the epitome of positive and optimistic thinking.
By birth and conviction, I am a vegetarian. I eat very small portions. I only have salads for lunch, and fruits in the evening. Dinner is a regular meal, but again, the portions are small. I exercise for one hour a day under the guidance of trainer Mickey Mehta. I also do yoga regularly.
Purpose of Life
I have still to discover that. However, I do not find myself too concerned about the past and the future. I flow with the present. Small things make me happy. Like reading a good book, for instance. Or playing with my grandchildren. Also some of the work I do gives me a great deal of satisfaction. Recently, my group built a hospital in Pune, the Aditya Birla Memorial Hospital. Designed to be a super specialty hospital, interestingly, it combines the best of allopathy, naturopathy and traditional systems of treatment under one roof. This is in alignment with our group’s and my own commitment to a holistic approach to life. We are also committed to the welfare of the underprivileged and have reserved 15 per cent of the beds for their use. I took 30 doctors from Mumbai and they were so appreciative of our efforts.
Working for Others
We work in around 3,700 villages and reach out annually to more than five million people. Of all the work I do, it is rural development that gives me the most satisfaction. We have discovered that people’s first need is to have potable water, followed by sustainable means of livelihood. Accordingly, we do a great deal of work in water management. This includes raising the ground water table, recharging the ground water, erection of bunds or structures that collect water instead of allowing it to seep away and finally, rainwater harvesting.
We also focus on creating Self-Help groups for women, which I am personally fascinated by. We motivate women to set up their groups and begin savings, however small, and then assist them with bank loans. We also train them in different vocations such as creating bamboo products, knitting, tailoring, weaving, etc. We have been able to assist more than 10,000 women through these groups.
Another activity that fulfills me is the work we do at the Archana Trust. This is a ladies trust that does a lot of work in the area of uplifting women and children. Once a year, the Trust awards female achievers. This year, I was head of the jury and I found it to be an inspiring and educative experience to be in touch with so many outstanding women.
A project that is close to my late husband’s and my heart is an orphanage we have been running for the past 27 years, called the Aditya Birla Center for the Welfare of Children at Chembur, Mumbai. The orphanage has a capacity of about 200-250 children. These are children who are brought in at the age of 14 or so and given the opportunity to learn livelihood skills through enrollment at industrial training institutes. The training period lasts for three years during which we take care of their every need. Our greatest reward is the transformation of these youngsters from street toughs to talented, God-fearing, good human beings.
Money is important. However, in our family we do not emphasize brand names to our children. I also didn’t believe in giving pocket money to children. My children were taught to value money and at the same time given what they wanted. There is no real way of gauging how much money is enough. It’s a difficult question. People would tend to say whatever is the comfort level.
I believe that money is also something to help others with. I try to follow Gandhiji’s principle of trusteeship in which the privileged held the money in trust for looking after the needs of the poor.
Right Relationship with Money
I think parents have to teach children. If parents are satisfied with what they have, children will learn to be so too. However, poverty has its own compulsions and we can never discount the importance of having enough money for medical purposes, for instance.
Children just learn values. I have never sat and told my son and daughter what values to adopt. Today, I myself really admire them for the way they have grown up. There is a lot of compassion and goodness in the family and children just absorb that. If we keep doing the right thing, they are bound to imbibe the right values from you. Ultimately, though, we can only do what we can do. Gandhiji’s own son was unhappy with him.
Relationship with India
Our Indian values are very good. Our affection for the family and the cultivation of charity. I also appreciate the fact that we are religious-minded and God fearing or God loving. I like our sense of tolerance and belief in destiny. I am very happy to be an Indian.
When Death Called
My husband, Aditya Birla, passed away from prostate cancer on October 1995. He showed tremendous courage. During the two years that he was diagnosed with the illness, he went to work regularly and no one knew that he was ill. He inducted our son Kumar Mangalam into the business immediately. He made him sit at every single meeting to ensure continuity.
Even when we had no hope of his recovery, we did not ask God – why us? We accepted God’s will unconditionally. Spirituality was my other source of strength. But my husband’s own positive mindset was my biggest support. His composure and acceptance enabled me to accept the situation too. I can never forget the memory of his smiling face even in the midst of pain and discomfort.
The Truths About Life
Human suffering is all-pervasive. No one is spared their share of pain. Wherever I go, among the rich or the poor, in India or abroad, among men or women, I have seen that each has their own problems and difficulties. This seems to be a law of life.
I also believe that whatever happens, life has to go on. Giving up is not an option. One must accept the situation and move on. This attitude has stood me in good stead in my own life.
I am happy with the way life has been for me. I would like to devote the rest of my life to doing as much work for society as I can. In this I am aided by the Corporate Communications team who support me in every way. My next project is to construct a temple in Pune.
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