Sivananda Balak Ashram – the Jewel of Bhuj

Swami Mudraroopa Saraswati

Great events, infused with divine blessings and bathed in guru’s grace, happen on rare occasions. It was my good luck to be blessed with the opportunity to witness and be a part of one such event. This was the Guru Poornima celebration which marked the inauguration of Sivananda Balak Ashram in Bhuj, Gujarat. Sivananda Balak Ashram represents the materialization of the sankalpa of Swami Sivananda to establish an ashram that will be fully devoted to children, a place in which children will have an opportunity to grow, develop and learn in the spiritual atmosphere of a traditional ashram environment.

Why Bhuj? In January 2001, Bhuj, the capital of Kacch District, Gujarat, was hit by a devastating earthquake that claimed 21,000 lives. In a few devastating minutes, many more were left injured, without homes and dearest ones. Thousands of children were among them. Their lives were suddenly and brutally changed, shattered into pieces. They needed protection, care and guidance, and above all love, which governments alone could not provide. Sivananda Math, drawing inspiration and guidance from Swami Satyananda, came forward to help the needy. It undertook the task of establishing a balak ashram, a children’s ashram, there – a ray of new hope, of new life for the distressed children of Bhuj.

With divine blessings, and through the hard work of Gujarati masons and everyone else involved, the Sivananda Balak Ashram was constructed in just eight months. On the outskirts of the city, it is situated in a serene, peaceful and natural environment, with only the lights of Bhuj twinkling far away in the night. When I first entered the balak ashram, I experienced an atmosphere of peace and joy. A constant breeze from the surrounding hills takes care of the heat of the day, and the mosquitoes at night. The nights are quiet and tranquil, as in Rikhia.

There are two ochre-coloured dormitory buildings which can house 100 children, accompanied by a practical kitchen block with spacious dining rooms. A big sadhana hall can accommodate 500 students in a yoga class. Closer to the ashram gate is a tile-roofed reception-cum-office building, and next to it is a smaller building for grown-up residents: caretakers, yoga teachers, guests etc. A little apart, in a separate enclosure, is the sparkling white Paramahamsa Jyoti, Paramahamsaji’s and Swami Niranjan’s kutir, of intricate architecture, their home when they come to the balak ashram. Over 2,000 coconut, date, badam, mango, neem and other trees have been planted all over the ashram compound.

Inaugurated during the Guru Poornima celebrations, Sivananda Balak Ashram has 21 young residents, all boys, and others will soon follow. The youngest child is in class 2, the eldest in class 10 and the majority are in classes 5–7. Some are parentless, some have been left with one parent only, and some have parents who were disabled in the earthquake and therefore are not able to look after them.

All the children’s needs – from board, lodging and clothing, to educational expenses and medical care – are provided by Sivananda Math. The boys are being lovingly looked after by Jignasus Gyanshakti and Premananda. The face of Gyanshakti is a mixture of joy, and sometimes stress, of a mother with 21 children – and all of them boys! Sannyasi Arpanmurti has been appointed as the resident yoga teacher.

The boys’ dress code is red kurta (shirt) and white pants, so it was easy to spot them during the Guru Poornima program – tiny red dots running around in play, or getting together in a cluster only to move a little later in a line towards the kitchen, or towards the sadhana hall to attend the program.

Their day begins at 5 a.m. (the only time in the day when it is quiet in their dormitory), some of them savouring the last minutes of night rest in shashankasana before heading to the shower block. After bathing and tidying their rooms, they attend a yoga class at 6 a.m., followed by breakfast. Then they are provided with transportation to school. They return hungry, so lunch is first, followed by study time, play and karma yoga. After dinner at 6 p.m., they attend an evening program of kirtan, bhajan and chanting.

During the Guru Poornima celebration, they proved to know quite a few of the kirtans and bhajans already, and were ready to sing them on any occasion. They showed a knack for dancing also – on the first day of the Guru Poornima celebration, during the musical performance of powerful Kaachi music, as the atmosphere was heating up, they spontaneously got up, all as one, and started dancing, freely and naturally, in front of Swamiji. Of course, it was only a matter of minutes before everybody else was on their feet, dancing in joy.

Those days belonged to them – it was their Guru Poornima celebration, in their ashram, with their Swamiji. And Swamiji was with them whenever possible. Twice he took them for a visit to the nearby ancient temple of Ma Tapakeshwari, hidden in rocky hills, where the road going past the ashram ends. There they chanted together the 32 names of Durga, Hanuman Chalisa and Devi Suktam, and then climbed the hills, exploring caves and the summit. Throughout the drive to and from the temple, the bus was resonating with the sound of kirtans, led by the children and Swamiji in turn.

On 2nd July, Guru Poornima day, after Swamiji performed Paduka Pooja, all the children came one by one and performed pooja themselves, devotedly paying their respects to Swami Sivananda. Some of them had to be lifted up by Swami Shankarananda, since they were too small to reach the paduka altar. After that, during the rest of the ceremony, they were fully engaged in assisting others to perform pooja, with full responsibility, fulfilling their duties in a simple and natural way, as only children can do. A short break during pooja they used for – guess what – dancing to the rhythm of kirtan, of course!.

Trying to capture photographs of them was one of the most joyful and at the same time most challenging tasks I’ve had. Quick as lightning, they would spot me and gather round making faces and laughingly ‘posing’, and the chance for a natural shot was gone.

After receiving their Guru Poornima prasad from Swamiji, they had to remain seated and participate in the program, with their prasad kits in front of them, hardly able to resist checking on the spot what was inside. Only occasionally would a head disappear into the big jute bag, but exploring would be quickly interrupted by Gyanshakti, reminding them to keep their attention on the program. After the program I went to their rooms – books, stationery items, toys were all over the place, new clothing was tried on and new games experimented with – all at the same time – it was as busy as a beehive.

The morning after Guru Poornima, we were all preparing to leave. Swamiji called the boys to Paramahamsa Jyoti to see them once more. One boy, Ramesh, wrapped his arms around me, his head at my navel, saying in a quiet voice, “Today is my birthday.” It was his 11th birthday, and he went to each and everyone and did the same. Soon he had an express birthday party.

When our caravan of cars approached the ashram gate, the children blocked the road, forming a chain with their bodies, holding each other’s hands. Hiding their sorrow in laughter, they wouldn’t let Swamiji leave, and he got out of his car to farewell them once again. A moment later, as our car slowly moved through the cordon of singing children, our hands touching, and finally out through the gate of Sivananda Balak Ashram, I had the following thoughts.

By a twist of fate, these children had lost almost everything, apart from their own lives – their parents, homes, childhood. To find out how they might have felt, all we have to do is go backward in time, to the tender age of our own childhood, and imagine ourselves in the same situation, and find out how it feels. But then, by another twist of fate and their good karmas, these children came into contact with and received the love, care and kripa (grace) of saints and God-realized souls. Instead of being helpless, distressed victims of the elements, they will grow up in a yogic environment, imbibing yoga as a way of life naturally, and will become creative, contented and responsible members of society.

At the time of receiving Guru Poornima prasad from Swamiji, each boy expressed what he would like to become in life – musician, cricket player, doctor, lawyer, teacher. Sivananda Math will certainly provide them with the best of opportunities to pursue their goals, and with the personal qualities to achieve them.

The grace of the guru was pouring into Sivananda Balak Ashram. It was in the air we breathed, in the food we ate and the water we drank, and in the sound of the chanting and satsang. It was available to all, and it manifested with great spontaneity and naturalness in the young residents of the balak ashram. Chanting of mantras, kirtan, havan, satsang – all these events were strung together, like the pearls on the rosary of continual joy and spiritual upliftment.

I felt privileged to have had this experience, and to have been one tiny dot (pixel) in the whole big picture. My inspiration to serve tripled. And in the heart the wish was born to return again to this ‘Jewel of Bhuj’.