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Remembering the Mahatma today – An article that appeared in today’s Vijaya Karnataka, 2nd Oct 2018

October 2, 2018 2 comments

Vij Kar Oct 2 2018 Gandhi

Read the English version of this article here…

The entire nation will be celebrating the whole of this coming year remembering Mahatma Gandhi as part of his 150 birth anniversary celebrations. For many like me born in independent India, Gandhi and his life were introduced to us as part of our school curriculum. To us, he was the ‘father of the nation’ whose birthday we celebrated each year and remembered him for securing us our freedom from the British. This limited view of Gandhi is what I carried for a long time till I began to understand him, his life and his message a little deeper.

My life’s work in the space of human development, especially among the indigenous tribals of Mysuru district was inspired by the transformational message of Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi. If Swami Vivekananda asked the youth of India to have Seva (service) and Tyaga (Sacrifice) as our National ideals, it was the message of Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satya  (Truth)that attracted me to Gandhi. I saw in him someone more than the freedom fighter that my teachers had described him as. He was a politician, a strategist, a philosopher a humanist, a spiritual seeker, a scientist, a shrewd manager, a difficult husband & father, a social worker, an activist, a saint and a patriot all rolled into one. It was difficult for someone like me to comprehend the magnitude of his life, his personality and the fact that he meant so much to so many different people. Einstein’s words that people in the future would scarcely believe that such a person in flesh and blood walked upon this earth, resonated with me.

For Gandhi, the ideals of Ahimsa and Satya were not something borrowed from the scriptural wisdom of ancient India. For him, practice of these values was spiritual sadhana on the one hand and political action on the other. The shrewd strategist that he was, he fashioned the practice of them into powerful weapons to be used in his fight against the British. Gandhi’s demanding expression of these ideals that he believed in, made him someone that one could easily admire but rarely imitate. He redefined political morality and public probity to such high standards, that the politicians of today pale in comparison to what he stood for. Gandhi believed that morality was not a fancy aspiration but an essential ingredient for the exercise of political leadership.

For Gandhi, human existence was an extraordinary opportunity not to be wasted in ordinary pursuits. Seeking God was the very purpose of such an existence and he uniquely transformed his own personal spiritual journey into a quest for societal progress. Gandhi understood that ‘man’ was the building block of society and ensuring a value driven existence at the personal level will necessarily transform into a healthy society. He used symbolism to very powerful effect in communicating the centrality of this message. Whether it was Charaka (spinning wheel) & home spun khadi, natural medicine, his concepts of need vs greed, his food habits or daily tasks reflecting self-reliance – he ensured that one needed to start with oneself before expecting any major social transformation. Today, all that we are left with are the symbols bereft of the philosophical message that Gandhi gave us.

Gandhiji intelligently addressed the issue of inspiring people to engage in social upliftment and national reconstruction. His famous quote ‘The best way to find oneself is to lose yourself in the service of others’ wonderfully captures this intent of his. To the more discerning, he made living for ‘others’ a ‘spiritual pursuit’. The transience of human achievement and the impermanence of material wealth were of critical consideration to this thinking. What he attempted to demonstrate by his lifestyle was to show us a higher reason to live and a higher state to reach within the limitations and boundaries of a human existence. He has, in very simple terms given us a higher ideal to strive for and in this striving he found answers to the material problems of the suffering millions too. In doing so, he had assured us that an indomitable power would come to us and we will be able to throw away all our concerns for ourselves and place ourselves as servants of society and use our inner energy and will to transcend the problems of our human brethren.

Gandhi believed that poverty was the worst form of violence and wanted the person in the last mile to participate in the economic well-being of the nation. When we are celebrating India’s growth story, we need to understand that our dream for India should not be mere 8% growth alone, but development that is inclusive, participatory and encompasses India’s rural areas. Without romanticizing Gandhi, we need to understand how rural India has been left out of our growth story and how the Indian economy today has become urban-centric and urban driven. While Gandhian cottage industry has lost much of its relevance, his economic beliefs in ‘small being beautiful’ has not. We now need to integrate his thoughts in making sure that the toiling millions are not left out of the economic bandwagon. His ideas of micro-enterprises need to see the light of the day as Rural Social Business units that are driven by the land based economy. Beyond mere economic growth and creating jobs & business ownership, such enterprises will also ensure improved social status of rural communities, reduce urban migration and enhance the quality of life in rural areas in line with what Gandhi had hoped.

Another oft repeated cliché in today’s India is ‘Satyagraha’ (a form of non-violent protest made popular by Gandhi who used it as a political tool in his fight for independence) and many have started equating common street protests and narrow political dissents to one of Gandhi’s most powerful methods. The essential difference is that Gandhi based his Satyagraha on a spiritual platform and never saw it as an instrument of blackmail or manipulation. Gandhi saw it as a demanding responsibility and not mere sloganeering or waving the National flag. He saw it as a means of moral transformation and self-purification. In Gandhi’s views, a true satyagrahi lived his values deep from within and displayed no hatred or dislike towards any person or system. All that the Satyagrahi has is a deep and engaging love for truth and keeps expressing his views till he can achieve his intended end by not just peaceful means but also by constant self-analysis of his methods and actions. In the Gandhian understanding of peaceful non-violence, there was no space for self-aggrandizement or for the theatrics that we keep seeing in the public arena today. Gandhi was clear in not just the meaning but also the spirit of ‘Satyagraha’ and was always conscious that ‘Satya’ and ‘Aagraha’ went together.

Celebrating 150 years is the time for us to go beyond mere intellectualization of Gandhi and his message or building a Swacch Bharat (Clean India Campaign). Keeping aside petty political debates over who are the natural inheritors of his philosophy, it is time for our politicians and people to pause and reflect on what made Gandhi, the Mahatma. We need to be constantly aware of our commitment to love, peace, non-violence and truth on an individual level and strive to live it in all small actions that we perform. Living his message on a daily basis for all our lives is the only way to realize the India of Gandhi’s dreams. And that can happen only when we awaken the Mahatma in each one of us.

-Balu

From here and there…

September 23, 2018 3 comments

Many a friend has asked me about my regular visits to the US and about the teaching I do here. One oft repeated question has been, ‘What are the major similarities & differences that you see between the two countries? ‘ And knowing my background, another question usually asked is about my continued commitment to the causes I espouse back home in India and how it relates to my visiting the US?

India, as Swami Vivekananda put it is the Punyabhumi (holy land) and the Karmabhumi (land of one’s work) for me. The last 35 years has seen me live and work amidst the most challenging circumstances in the area abutting the Bandipur Tiger Reserve; spend the last few years in Mysuru engaging in Leadership training and Policy Research; and teach & train on Leadership around the world including the USA. It has seen me found two non-profits and one of them has grown to be one of India’s largest and well-known development organizations and the other is creating its own name in the area of participatory research & citizen centric policy advocacy. India has not just been home to me and has laid the foundation for my way of thinking but has given me the very purpose for my existence. To me India, or if I were to relate emotionally, ‘Bharat’ – is a land rich in civilizational history. It has taught me to be a Hindu in its truest interpretation – someone who lives embracing the whole world as one and constantly tries to see God in everything and everyone. It is this spirit of Hinduism that has given me the understanding of not just tolerance but that of universal acceptance – of religions, ideas, ideologies and countries – with all their differences and similarities. It is the Indian thought and ethos that has given me the ability to see ‘separateness in togetherness’ & ‘togetherness in separateness’. It is these thoughts that help me not just embrace Global citizenship but continually give me the energy to live and spread the message of ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’ (the world is one family). Growing up in a typical Indian middle-class family gave me the values that helps me be flexible but yet grounded. It has taught me to be resilient in moments of distress & crisis while not rejoicing or getting overwhelmed with emotion when things go one’s way. The spirit of collectivism which is embedded in the National identity has helped shape my character and served as the foundation of my organizational work. And my source of strength comes from one of India’s greatest sons – Swami Vivekananda, but for whose life and message, mine would have not been worth living. It is from his message that I draw inspiration for all that I have done and continue to do. Whether it was the journey of finding myself in the service of others, in the idea of my building organizations or my economic thought, my social change theories or my views on human development – they all are expressions of this message of Swami Vivekananda. It is his message of reciprocity & interdependence that led me to explore what India has to offer to the world and what India could also receive from the World. This is what has led me to some of the things I am doing today – whether it is crafting leadership training and curriculum driven by the message of the Gita or our Upanishads; teaching in Ivy leagues or training Corporate leaders from around the world. For it is my belief that the world can be made into a better place only by extraordinary people who take it on themselves to exercise the kind of leadership that goes beyond the SELF and is willing not just to focus on ‘external nature’ but also look inwards into our own ‘internal nature’.

It is this conviction that is now driving me to visit several countries and the most visited is the United States. I find that the USA is still a country where we can find several similarities in terms of what India stands for and is challenged by in today’s current reality. Whether it is the spirit of democratic governance or that of ‘voice’ and its expression; the constant search for meaning amidst the rush for material comforts; or the struggle for balancing human development and the state of the environment…we have a lot to give and learn from each other. Swami Vivekananda always maintained that we need to learn practical everyday management from the West while giving them our Vedantic knowledge. While much of this continues to be true even today, I feel that we have a lot to offer in terms of leadership knowledge while at the same time looking for what we can learn from here. Though I have been coming here for more than 3 decades, I have never stopped being fascinated by the ‘eye for detail’ that people have when they are executing projects. Whether it is elaborate planning, meticulous execution or timely evaluation – I have been impressed by how and why they do all this. Though people here are trained to be self-led individuals, one cannot but be impressed by the spirit of community action that pervades. Whether it is the number of non-profits or the philanthropy that ordinary people indulge in or participating in several civic events voluntarily, or the love & warmth that generally pervades – we do have a lot to learn from all this. Whether it is dignity of labour, or the spirit of enterprise or the quest for perfection and the levels of trust in society, the way natural beauty & resources are preserved and conserved – it is up to us to pick what we want to learn from.

While every country and civilization have its own share of ‘historical & ideological garbage’ and problems, it is up to us to focus on the positive and explore what mutual learnings each one has to bring to the table. It is always easy to criticize and blame, explain away why the ‘other’ is different and should not exist; why everyone needs to be & think like us’ to make things better – but finally we need to remember that we need to find ways to bring people together, not discover means to separate them every day and in everything that we do. Global citizenship can no longer by the cliché that it has now come to become; it has to be a way of life. And my conviction is that there are two countries that can make this happen – India and the USA – working together and crafting the narrative for this globally. It is when people & leaders from these two countries learn to see beyond their differences and come together with the common purpose of making lives better – not just for their citizens but for everyone on this planet – can we hope to find  peace & harmony, make development sustainable, reduce inequality & make  poverty obsolete and create all that is good & wonderful for all of us.

-Balu

SVYM’s development paradigm & the mobile vegetable store…

July 22, 2018 4 comments

It was nearly 6 years ago that I had first written about Rathnamma, a street vendor who made her living by selling greens and vegetables in Mysuru. One of the actions that emerged from this experience of having spent some time with her was the project of working with street vendors. From collectivizing them and forming Self-Help Groups, to extending credit facilities and giving them the training to manage their finances, to empowering them to negotiate with the local power structures; the SVYM team worked hard to ensure that their human and social capital was constantly expanded. Along with these activities maturing and stabilizing, I too had moved on and laid down office at SVYM. This meant that I was not aware of how our work had changed the lives of the people that we worked with, till a pleasant encounter with Siddappa helped me understand the lasting impact that SVYM had created.

My wife Bindu and I were returning back from our morning walk when we found enroute an auto selling fresh vegetables. Though, this looked like a regular auto, it had been modified by Siddappa into a mobile vegetable store. As Bindu was wrapping up her purchases, Siddappa recognized me and mentioned that he was part of the SHG initiated by SVYM for street vendors and his life had changed over the last several years. He proudly told me that he now had a consistent and near-certain daily income of INR 500 after deducting all his expenses. He also now owned the auto and his working day was fully under his control. What made one feel truly happy was he mentioning that his older daughter was now studying in the second year Bachelor of Science program, while his son was in the eight standard. His life had truly transformed, and he and his family could now look forward to a more meaningful future. Our efforts at building his human and social capital were now seeing economic consequences.

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It is experiences like these that serve to reaffirm our conviction in the development paradigm of SVYM. SVYM believes that the development process is inter-generational and does not happen overnight. We strongly believe that development is best manifest by the constant expansion of human capabilities. While economic growth is necessary and a part of our vision for a strong nation, we believe that our primary efforts need to be focused on building the human and social capital of people. We are convinced that this will enable the creation and management of the economic capital that will ensue. Not only has Siddappa expanded his own capabilities but is slowly building the equity that his children will benefit from. From a personal viewpoint, I not only felt emotionally fulfilled but intellectually reaffirmed too.

-Balu

Categories: General, Musings, Story of SVYM

Teaching values

July 2, 2018 2 comments

This is a talk that i gave sometime ago at the National Teachers Conference that was organized by the Sathya Sai Group of Institutions at Muddenahalli, Karnataka.  The theme of the conference was ‘Value Education’.

The talk can be heard from on Youtube on my channel at Talk on Value Education

Balu

Categories: Musings

Mysuru gave me a spiritual foundation, purpose in life

April 10, 2018 Comments off
Categories: Musings

SPB – not just a musical legend!

March 8, 2018 8 comments

SVYM’s founding was based on the inspirational message of ‘Tyaga’ (Sacrifice) and ‘Seva’ (Service) propounded by Swami Vivekananda. All the work of our last 34 years is based on these foundational principles and our activities are driven by the undercurrent philosophy of ‘Seeing God in man’. This is best reflected in the Palliative Care Program that SVYM has been running from 2009. Started in a small way, the program today covers close to 200 patients across the city of Mysuru and its suburbs and is striving to help people who are terminally sick, live their last days in dignity.

While the services offered at the doorsteps of needy people costs us around INR 16000 annually, we are constantly looking to finding donors and volunteers who can helps us in expanding this program. Ensuring acute medical care in an Institutional setting to terminally ill patients is also a critical component of Palliative Care and we thought of adding a Hospice facility at Mysuru. Our team was undeterred by the fact that this would require huge resources and they decided to mobilize it through our annual fund raising musical event. This event called ‘Swaranubhuti’ has already seen two earlier editions and helped mobilize the resources needed for home based palliative care. Creating a Hospice meant much more than what our earlier programs had generated and the team decided to request the renowned singer, Mr S P Balasubramaniam (popularly known as SPB) to support the initiative. Ramakrishna Mudre met and apprised him of our activities and what we do and he agreed to sing at this event. A singer of SPB’s repute must be getting innumerable requests to sing for charitable causes and he agreeing to do this for us without a moment’s hesitation left me much more than impressed. Swaranubhuti-2018 was thus planned and it was decided to hold the event in Bengaluru on the 4th of March 2018.

This day will now remain a day that will be permanently etched in my memory. Not merely for listening to a musical legend but for something that I find it difficult to describe in mere words. Here was a man who has sung more than 40,000 songs in 15 different Indian languages in his lifetime – and not for a moment did he allow any of the adulation or the recognition get in the way of the larger purpose of participating in a program that wanted to help people live & die in dignity. He was clear on why he was doing what he was doing. The thought of participating as a family member along with several other committed people wanting to help other fellow human beings was so evident in everything he spoke and did.

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As I watched and listened to him, I realized that he was not merely a singer who has achieved the status of a ‘legend’. This was truly an intensely spiritual man in the pursuit of a higher purpose – that of actually seeing god in every person that he interacted with. Whether it was the fellow musicians on stage or the young compere – he only had good things to say about each of them. He was constantly looking to bring out the best in everyone present – whether it was himself, or the attending musicians and even the audience. For someone who teaches leadership in different places around the world, this was possibly the best class in leadership that I have attended. The qualities of compassion, seeing only the positive, constantly demanding perfection of oneself and those around you, being disciplined, never allowing one to become the work at the center, staying focused on the larger purpose and never allowing one’s ego come in the way of one’s existence – all this and more was there for me to see and learn from this great person.

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And more than anything else, this was not a mere show that he was presenting to the audience. It was more than evident that this was the way he lived, and it was his natural and authentic self. For someone who has reached such a high stature to be so simple; for someone who has the world at his feet to be so humble is something that is unbelievable. But SPB is all this and more. He is a true humanist, a spiritual seeker and one who oozes divinity in his singing and in his very existence. We at SVYM were not just privileged to have someone like him support our work; I think he gives us the living inspiration of Swami Vivekananda’s message. And I consider myself truly fortunate that I was treated to not just a auditory feast, but to be in the presence of a spiritual giant who made himself so ordinary by making everyone around him become extraordinary. Sir, we salute you and thank you for being with us, for inspiring us to do more and for your message of never forgetting that we are mere instruments in the hands of God…

-Balu

 

Categories: General, Musings

Remembering a Saint…going down memory lane!

March 5, 2018 8 comments

Social media and online news today makes it real time for us to get to know what happens in different parts of the world. Whether it is real news or fake, good or bad, all it takes is a moment before the notification on one’s phone tells us what is happening. The message that I got on the 28th was not just sad but something that left a sense of emptiness within me. As I sat coming to terms with the several emotions that I was feeling, I remembered how 30 years ago, HH Shri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal, the Shankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham had come visiting to our small dispensary at Brahmagiri.

It was early October 1987 and the three of us – Devaraj Acharya (presently in the UK and a founding member of the SVYM of UK), Ramesh S.S. (presently working as Professor of Medicine at K.R.Hospital, Mysuru) and I were holding on to the SVYM flag with great difficulty. We were running out of our meagre monthly stipend as Interns (or house surgeons as we were known then) and our motivation was also running low. We had stationed ourselves in the watchman’s shed at the old Inspection Bungalow at Beechanahalli and were yet to get the clinic at Brahmagiri up and going. Things were not looking good and only the embarrassment of failure and being ridiculed by friends and foes alike prevented us from returning to Mysuru. As luck would have it, the doctor working in the hospital run by the Ramakrishna Ashram at Ponampet quit and they were not able to find a replacement. Swami Veetamohanandaji, the President of this ashram met me in Mysuru (currently he serves as the Head of the Vedanta Center in Gretz, France) and wanted to know if I could refer anyone to work as a doctor on an ad hoc basis. It was the silver lining that I was looking for. I told him that two doctors would come to Ponampet and would be happy to manage the hospital at least for the next one or two months.

Back in Beechanahalli (where the Kabini dam is located), I told a relieved Devaraj and Ramesh that they could now lead a comfortable life at least for the next 2 months and could do some doctoring too! Both left for Ponampet and I stayed back to hold fort. My mind was blank and I could not figure out what to do. The next 15 days were possibly the greatest test of my resolve to undertake rural service. Here I was, a young intern who believed that he could make a difference. The only problem was that SVYM and I were completely broke. I would wake up each day hoping that something would happen to give me back my sinking courage and fill me with hope and encouragement. I still remember the long walk of nearly 16 km one way to reach Brahmagiri to oversee the construction of a toilet that the Zilla Panchayath (called Zilla Parishad then) was building for us. Whenever my rationed finances permitted me, I would travel by bus till Begur and then walk to Brahmagiri. This was few and far between. Lunch was indeed a luxury and wholly depended on the generosity of Karunakar, who was the caretaker at the Traveller’s Bungalow of the forest department. These were the times I felt like giving up and even today I wonder what kept me going then. But for the inspiring words of Swami Vivekananda that I would read every day, I am sure I would have closed shop and returned. It is now hard to imagine what I would have ended up doing if I had done that then.

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HH Shri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal (1935-2018)

One of those days, I had come to Mysuru and was reading the newspaper at the Ramakrishna Vidyashala and came across a news item that the Shankaracharya of Kanchi Peetham (or Mutt), Shri Jayendra Saraswathi had abdicated the Mutt and was in the Talacauvery area in Madikeri. What caught my attention was the fact that he had told the interviewer that he felt shackled by the orthodoxy of the Mutt and wanted to initiate a movement for the regeneration of India based on the ideals of Swami Vivekananda. I immediately shot off a post card to him, explaining what I was doing and suggested that he help us if he was indeed serious about it. I expected that he would never even read my letter, leave alone respond to it. It was a spur-of-the-moment gesture by a frustrated and tired young man who gave vent to his feelings and that was that. What indeed surprised me was that I got a reply from the Mutt. He had by then returned to the Mutt on the persuasion of his devotees and the senior Acharya. The Srikaryam (administrator) had written to me asking me to come to Kanchipuram to meet Shri Jayendra Saraswathi and share with him what I was doing . It was indeed a welcome break and I borrowed Rs.400 from Swami Sureshananda and reached Kanchipuram via Bangalore the next morning.  I reached Kanchipuram by bus very early in the morning. It was around 4 am and I did not have enough money to take a hotel room for myself. Not knowing what to do, I started walking towards the Mutt and was there within the next 20 min. The doors were obviously closed and I just walked ahead. One of the houses down the road had an open and inviting front yard and I just walked in and lay down.

I must have fallen asleep, for I was awakened by an elderly lady (Iyer maami – as she is called in Tamil) who was quite surprised to see a stranger sleeping in her yard. She was gracious enough not to scream and politely asked who I was and what I was doing there. I told her that I was here to see the Shankaracharya and was waiting for the Mutt doors to open. This kind-hearted lady then invited me in and gave me a cup of steaming coffee. On getting to know my background, her family offered that I rest, bathe and have breakfast with them. Sometimes, poverty can limit your sense of dignity and I did not even wait to be pressed to accept their generosity.  Around 7 am, I strolled into the Mutt and found the Shankaracharya giving darshan and prasad to a long line of his devotees. I too stood in line and introduced myself and told him that he had asked to see me. He invited me into his room and heard my story. After an hour of listening patiently, he asked if I would like to walk with him to the Kamakshi Temple.  Here I was, a 22-year old idealist walking alongside a man, whose generosity and support I was to experience later. It never occurred to me that this very man was revered and worshiped by thousands of devotees and he could with his mere wish, command extraordinary resources to help us. After returning to the Mutt, he suddenly switched to speaking in Kannada and asked me about my needs. I just blurted out that I would need his support to serve the forest-based tribes in and around Brahmagiri. He sat pensive for a moment and then told me that he had to verify my credentials. He told me that one of his devotees by name Chandramouli lived in Bangalore and that I needed to meet and take him along to Brahmagiri. Chandramouli would then report back to the Shankaracharya about my work. If his assessment were to be satisfactory, then he would consider supporting me.

I thought that this was indeed fair and rushed back to Bangalore. The same evening I met Chandramouli who had been spoken to by the Shankaracharya and told about his assignment. I requested him to visit us the very next day and pleaded with him to come with me. He agreed and offered to drive down, but warned me that he needed to return to Bangalore the same day.  Chandramouli was a very devout person. After a morning pooja at a Ganesha temple near his house, we set out to Brahmagiri in his new Fiat car. Chandramouli did not believe in driving at less than 100 km per hour and in those days, this was an adventure which I did not exactly relish! As we neared Kengal on the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway, Chandramouli noticed that there were celebrations going on at the famous Hanuman temple located there. He swung his car towards the temple and declared that we would take a break to have darshan. He was now convinced that the festivities at the temple were a good omen and a signal that I could be trusted.  We reached Brahmagiri at around 1 pm. The drive on the bumpy road had tired him out and he did not want to spend too much time there. All that he remarked was that it would be difficult to work in that god-forsaken place! We hardly spent 15 minutes there and drove back. On the way back, he insisted on having his ‘tiffin and coffee’ at his favourite Dasaprakash Hotel at Mysore. We reached Bangalore around 8 pm. I insisted that he speak to the Shankaracharya immediately and update him on our visit.

The next morning, I set out once again to Kanchipuram. By evening I was with the Shankaracharya, who informed me that he had heard from Chandramouli. He asked me what kind of support I was expecting from him. This was indeed an unexpected question and I was unsure how to ask him for money or for anything else. Would he consider me greedy? Would he think that I was there only to get his financial support? As all these questions raced through my mind, I decided that I would ask for a princely sum of Rs.1000! After all, I had to borrow money to reach Kanchi and my first priority was to return it! Even before I could ask him for anything specific, he asked me if Rs 100,000 would help in starting the work. He also matter-of-factly told me that he would ask the Trustee of the Golden Jubilee Charitable Trust in Chennai to give me the money and a Jeep for my use in the forest. It took a while for this generous offer to sink in. He gave me the address of the Trust and I left for Chennai in a daze.

In Chennai, with the help of my uncle Mr.Narasimhan, I went to the Trust and met the Trustee. He gave me a DD for Rs 100,000 and told me to meet Mr. Ravi for the vehicle. Ravi showed me an old broken down stationary ‘Trekker’. I was indeed disappointed. This vehicle did not look like it was road worthy and I was crest fallen. But then beggars can’t be choosers. This Trekker needed repairs, a new set of tyres, new battery and everything except the shell and the engine. Using the name of the Shankaracharya and his credibility, I managed to find donors in Chennai with Ravi’s help and got the vehicle moving. My uncle volunteered to drive it down along with me to Brahmagiri. We left for Bangalore early one morning and as we neared Bangalore, the vehicle broke down. The first expense that I incurred with the donation given by the Shankaracharya was to get this Trekker repaired again in Bangalore. After a couple of days, I drove this vehicle to Ponampet where Devaraj and Ramesh were still staying. Imagine their shock, when they saw me getting off an old vehicle and announcing that it was ours and that we could now return to Brahmagiri in style! We left to Brahmagiri the next day and the vehicle broke down again as soon as we reached there. By then, I had realized that I was flogging a dead horse and decided to make this vehicle our temporary home. The ‘Trekker’ stood there motionless for a few months more, till the Shankaracharya visited us in 1988.

The support given by HH Sri Jayendra Saraswathi will possibly be one of the most significant events in the history of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement. But for his support, we may not have been able to set up and start the Brahmagiri clinic (in those days, we used to call it the Jan Kalyan Tribal Health Center). I became a regular visitor to the Kanchi Mutt and used to meet with him at least once a month. Apart from the usual updates from my end, we used to have such wonderful conversations – from development to politics to the economy of India to Karma Yoga! He had a wonderful sense of humour too and it was such a joy to interact with him and just be seated in his room as he went about conversing with the several thousand people who came to get his darshan and blessings. He was not the Shankaracharya in the traditional sense and differed from his Guru the revered ‘Maha Periyava’. He was a monk, a humanist, a philanthropist, a mentor and several other things all rolled into one. Not just the traditional Dharmic Guru that the whole country revered him as, but also the social reformer that India desperately needed.

It was during one of my many such visits that he mentioned that he was going to give us Rs.5000 every month and that he would do so for the next 5 years. He told me that I needed to use those 5 years to build the organization and go beyond depending on him. While I might not have understood the far-sightedness of his actions then, today I must say that we have been able to grow only because we never became dependant on any one person, donor agency or the Government for financial assistance. True to his word, he gave us Rs.5000 per month for 2 years and then raised it to Rs.7000 per month for the subsequent 3 years.

More than the money, his support reinforced in me the belief that all good work will eventually find support. It also gave me access to a wide network of his devotees. His association gave Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement the legitimacy and much needed credibility at a time when we were small and hardly known. It gave us the exposure and visibility that helped shape public opinion about us.  My repeated visits and interactions with the Shankaracharya helped me learn and understand a lot of things. I was amazed at the level of compassion and concern that he could generate for his fellow human beings. I was a witness to his generosity – many occasions where he would respond spontaneously from the heart to pleas for help. Once I asked him if he had been let down by somebody whom he trusted. His explanation was simple. He told me that the question of being let down comes only when you expect something in return from people whom you support. His point of view was that you support somebody because you are placed in the position of being able to do so. The moment you expect the other person to use your support wisely and benefit from it, then it means being attached to the fruits of your actions. Here I was, being explained the concept of Bhagavad Gita and Karma Yoga in such simple and pragmatic fashion.

HH KCH

Unveiling the plaque at Kenchanahalli for the Hospital that was built there

He visited us in August 1988 to lay the foundation for the hospital that we proposed to build at Kenchanahalli. He also visited our clinic at Brahmagiri and the campus at Hosahalli. He had brought along with him hundreds of expensive sarees that people had gifted to the Kamakshi temple. I still remember that day. It was raining and there was no road to our campus at Hosahalli then. One had to walk in the slush to reach there. Much to the chagrin of his attenders, he alighted from his vehicle and started to walk along with me. Along the way, he told me how people were blinded by faith. He told me that people were willing to spend thousands of rupees on expensive sarees for the Goddess, but were unwilling to buy clothes for the poor who needed it more. He said that he was making sure that the sarees were reaching the ‘real gods’.  At Brahmagiri, he noticed the broken down ‘Trekker’ and without hesitation, called his driver Rama and told him to hand over a Jeep which was part of his entourage. But people in his coterie created a ruckus and told him that they would need the Jeep to get back to Kanchipuram. He then asked me to come to Kanchipuram and collect the vehicle.  Despite the rains, the foundation laying program was great fun. Vivek and Seetharam had laboured for 3-4 days, walking each day from Brahmagiri to Kenchanahalli to oversee the preparations and it turned out to be the beginning of our collective journey.

Several years later, when I was at Harvard, I suddenly got a call from him asking me to come to India and meet him. Even before I could respond, he mentioned that several of his devotees were having a event in Bengaluru and he wanted to felicitate me on that occasion. Though I was in Bengaluru when the event happened, I could not receive the award that he bestowed on me as my father had just then passed away.

Some of the many memorable moments that I spent with the Shankaracharya during his visits to our centers

The years have now rolled on and fate and many forces with vested interests conspired to humiliate and marginalize this extraordinary person. From being arrested to being acquitted by the court, from being courted by thousands to being side-lined, from being worshiped to being ignored – he saw it all. But the inner strength, poise, humour and equanimity that he displayed is something that has always stood out for me. For me and several like me, he was not just the upholder of the Hindu Dharma, but the very incarnation of it. He was not just a monk at whose feet you prostrated, but someone who inspired you to take on the cause of National reconstruction for one’s own inner spiritual evolution. Though millions of his devotees will miss his smiling presence, what remains testimony to his life and times are the many social development activities that he initiated and supported.

-Balu

 

Categories: General, Musings