The Kanyas of Rikhia

Swami Kriyabhava Saraswati

Everybody who visits Rikhia ashram these days is being touched in some way by the vibrant presence of the 'kanyas of Rikhia'. The concept began as one of the many projects of Sivananda Math to help meet the needs of Sri Swamiji's neighbours in Rikhia. English classes began for a selected few girls and rapidly expanded to enable more children to benefit from this unique opportunity. The 'kanyas of Rikhia' now number 487 girls, aged between six and fourteen, who represent all the families in Rikhia panchayat. These girls were all born after Sri Swamiji came to this area.

The kanyas attend English classes five days a week, which are a mixture of spoken and written language development with an emphasis on communication. The classes include games, songs and many forms of creative expression. The aim is not merely language development but holistic personality development.

The English classes at Alakh Bara are quite unique and integral. They are practical and based more on the needs and receptivity of the children rather than attempting to impose a rigid syllabus. It is a unique system of teaching conceived by Sri Swamiji.

We have recognized some fundamental differences in these children's approach to learning in comparison to Western educated children. They learn and progress as a collective group and are more concerned that the entire class progresses rather than as individuals competing against each other. This communal approach allows the gifts of all the girls to be expressed so that each can excel in their own way. The youngest and newest girls are fostered and encouraged by the others and very quickly they too begin to 'shine'.

A feature of the classes is that there are comparatively very few 'teachers' involved, rather it is the senior students who teach the younger children. During classes a chorus of"A, B, C . . ." can be heard resounding throughout the ashram. The senior girls diligently ensure that even the youngest members of the group are progressing in English. Dramatic changes are noticed in the kanyas after only a few months of regularly attending classes - there are more smiles, laughs, expressions of joy and self-confidence; this is a true credit to them all.

The kanyas of Rikhia have become a regular feature of ashram life in the Alakh Bara. Their presence brings life and joy that only children can share. We are all constantly surprised as they reveal more of their capabilities. Now they can not only manage themselves through a system of 'monitors', but they also play a pivotal role in managing the large events and programs conducted in the Alakh Bara.

The kanyas were the hosts of Sita Kalyanam 2003. They guided guests from all over the world in all aspects of the program; from distribution of prasad and seating, to leading the kirtans, prayers, Ramayana Path and arati. The girls excelled in the coordination of serving thousands of guests their daily prasad (lunch). One could not help but be moved as they were asked in clear English, "Would you like some more rice?" For these girls it was an opportunity to develop the skills and self-confidence which will improve their quality of life.

These girls have an abundance of hidden potentials and abilities that they are being allowed to express through their increasing role in ashram activities. Swami Satsangi has directly guided finer aspects of their training such as chanting of various spiritual scriptures, singing kirtan and giving speeches, giving them much of her time, encouragement and inspiration. If you were to ask any of the kanyas who their role model is, they would immediately reply, "Swami Satsangi". As a result of this guidance the girls can now confidently lead Ramayana Path, Shanti Path and fluently chant spiritual texts. They have established a reputation as being excellent kirtanists, as demonstrated during Krishna Jhoolan and Sita Kalyanam 2003. The kanyas confidently lead audiences through an extensive repertoire of dynamic kirtans, consequently capturing the hearts of all. From their example we too can learn to express our devotion and joy with childlike innocence and simplicity.

When we pass by any of the surrounding villages, not only does a chorus of "Good morning" and "Namo Narayan" echo across the fields, but also the sound of kirtans. The girls happily sing their favourite kirtans as they play and work in their homes. It is through the voices of these children that the ancient tradition of kirtan is being revived and spread once again in rural India.

By nurturing and developing these girls, Sri Swamiji is planting seeds for the future, as these kanyas will be the mothers of the next generation. We will only begin to understand the extent of Sri Swamiji's vision as the seeds being planted now germinate and grow to their full potential. As mothers, these girls will be better equipped to 'give' to their children, as they will have an expanded understanding of themselves and the world.

These girls are the adopted children of Sri Swamiji and have received many gifts in the form of school uniforms, books, stationery and toys which are generously donated from all over the world. However, the greatest gift they are receiving is their 'exposure' to the ashram environment. Through this they are expanding their views of themselves, their capacities, and their dreams and goals for the future. Many of these girls are skilled assistants to their families with the farming, livestock and domestic duties. Now if you were to ask them what they also want to do when they grow up, they have ideas ranging from being a nurse, English teacher, tailor, social worker, housewife, engineer, businesswoman, to sannyasin! The reality is that for most their contribution to society will be as mothers of the next generation. Through their contact with Sri Swamiji and the ashram these girls will be mothers with expanded awareness and will rise to the challenge of guiding the children of the future.

The kanyas of Rikhia are 'spirited' to say the least. They can be noisy and playful at times, and quiet and concentrated at others. They are a group of dynamic and capable children who through the trust and grace of Sri Swamiji are being able to express their innate potential. Their regular contact with the ashram provides a safe environment for them to develop and grow.

The kanyas bring colour and light not only to the whole of Rikhia, but to the whole world through the inspiration they brought into the lives of the thousands of people who met them during Sita Kalyanam. With the grace of Sri Swamiji this light will continue to shine ever brighter and will lead us all towards a brighter future.

We hope that through the example being set here by Sri Swamiji, you too will be inspired to uplift the lives of those who are needy in your own community. As seen here in Rikhia, it does not require too much time, energy or resources - rather it is the act of 'giving' to others in even the smallest way that can produce such profound transformations. We all need to expand our concept of 'giving' from merely material giving to include the giving of encouragement, support and trust. If everyone begins to 'give' according to their capacity in their own community then together we can spread warmth and hope into the darkest corners of the world.