Swami Sivananda gave us the three steps to take in the spiritual march forward: serve, love and give. These three steps can be seen in action in the activities of Sivananda Math at Rikhia, the residence of Swami Satyananda, where through tireless effort and application the entire Rikhia panchayat is being provided for and uplifted, both materially and spiritually. Sivananda Math was founded by Swami Satyananda at Munger in 1984 in memory of his guru, Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh. Its aim is to facilitate the growth of the weaker and underdeveloped sections of society, especially in rural areas, by following the precepts of seva (service), karuna (compassion), prem (love) and sneha (affection).
On 28th April, the residents of Ganga Darshan had an opportunity to see another example of the expression and application of seva that is the foundation of the Bihar Yoga tradition, with a visit from the children of Sivananda Balakashram in Bhuj, Gujarat. After the devastating earthquake five years ago, Swami Niranjanananda went to Gujarat and after observing the extent of the destruction, a decision was taken and a commitment made to alleviate the suffering by helping children who had been orphaned, or left with only one parent, or otherwise in need. The gurukul in Kutchh, founded by Sivananda Math and known as Sivananda Balakashram (children's ashram), is the result.
To live in a gurukul means to live in the family of the guru, and the guru undertakes the responsibility for the upbringing, education and well-being of his family members. The first group of children, 19 boys aged between 7 and 14, arrived at the Balakashram on 2nd June 2004. The idea was to begin with small groups of children, so that proper attention and care can be given, allowing them to adjust and become established and secure in their new lives. Now these children will be ready to help the 20 new arrivals expected in June 2005.
The daily routine is similar to the ashram lifestyle, but it is specific to the needs and requirements of small children. They have morning class at 6 to 6.30 a.m., where they learn asanas, pranayama and chanting. The children now know many of the bhajans from 'Siddha Prarthana' by heart, so often they will choose the ones they want to chant. 'Guru Stotram' and 'Suno dil Ko' are among their favourites. Asana practice begins with three to five rounds of tadasana, tiryaka tadasana and kati chakrasana, followed by surya namaskara, then shavasana. The animal poses are also incorporated and of course the children practise being a tiger, a lion or a cobra with all their natural enthusiasm and sense of fun. Pranayama is kept very simple with nadi shodhana in the ratio of 1:1 for five rounds and five rounds of bhramari.
After breakfast they go to school, which in India starts early and finishes early, so they are home before the real heat of the day. Once they return they have lunch and then rest until 3 p.m. when they have a snack is followed by study time from 3.30 to 5.30. After study they play games for an hour; cricket is a great favourite, as are volleyball and football. After dinner there is an hour of kirtan and bhajans. Then again there is some time to study or read, and they all have milk and a yoga nidra class before bed. Yoga nidra is also simple, following the process of preparation and relaxation, sankalpa, body rotation, breath awareness and then visualisation. Both rapid and sequential visualisations are used, but the sequential story telling method is used more often.
The children all attend a local school where they learn Hindi, Gujarati, Sanskrit, maths, science, history and geology. Before coming to the Balakashram most of the children had never been to school, as they came from villages without the facilities to provide what we know as a usual children's education. They couldn't read or write and they didn't know any Hindi or any English as they spoke only their local language, Kutchhi. While they were with us at Ganga Darshan, their exam results were distributed during an evening program. This was the very first time they had ever sat a proper exam, and every child passed, six with merit, gaining a place in their class.
In the Balakashram there are two big dormitory rooms and the senior boys study in one, while the juniors use another. Study is done together, with discussion and interactions. Often the elder group of boys will help the youngsters when they are interested in learning something additional to their set homework, or when they need quizzing and correcting on different points.
The children came to Ganga Darshan by train, a 50-hour journey from Bhuj to Jamalpur. Except for when they were sleeping, the children sang and chanted all the way; they were so excited. They were even chanting the Bhagavad Gita, the twelfth chapter of which they know by heart. All these children come from very rural areas where the lifestyle is simple and still largely uninfluenced by the modern and technological developments of today. Before coming to the Balakashram, most had not used a toothbrush or toothpaste, instead using the natural and freely available version, neem. Instead of asking the westerners at Ganga Darshan, "Which country are you from?" which is the usual question, the children wanted to know, "Which village do you come from?" because it was through this simple village identity that they perceived the world. But within just a few days of mixing with the different nationalities, they were greeting us with "Ciao" and laughing at their new jokes, mixing Hindi, Italian, Spanish and English all together.
At Ganga Darshan they had asana and chanting classes and learnt some karate as well. During their whole stay, not one child was seen crying or upset. As a group, they were always cheerful, laughing and joking, and while the quieter ones had the space to remain quiet, there was no sadness.
The elder children looked after the younger ones spontaneously, not by being bossy, but just by keeping an eye on them. The children all ate together. At meal times they would receive their food along with the other residents and sit down together in orderly lines, and without any supervision or interference from any adults they would wait patiently until all were seated and then chant Shanti Path together before beginning to eat. This they managed even on the day when we had sweets at lunch!
On the 12th May, with a havan in Jyoti Mandir, Swamiji gave all the children spiritual names. In the morning, they were ready and waiting outside, in their best clothes, all scrubbed and shiny looking. Some of the residents were carrying bags to the Main Building, when all of a sudden they were surrounded by hands tugging at the bags and pleading to help. It was like being swept along by Hanuman and all the monkeys! What could have been quite a process was managed in one trip, in about three minutes. The children were so happy to help that one might assume they had already received their initiation, but as soon as the job was completed, they all raced off again to be ready for Swamiji.
Our evening program on their last night was a little piece of magic. After the chanting, the kirtanists were getting ready, and one small boy crept up to sit fascinated beside the guitar player. Then another came, and then another. Three little boys sitting spellbound beside a guitar. Then another came up to encourage the drummer and offer some assistance! Then another came up beside the manjira and other percussion instruments, just to help out! Before you knew it, they were all up, dancing and singing and clapping. The joy was unstoppable, starting as a trickle and ending up as a great fountain. Soon we were all dragged up to dance and the courtyard in front of the Main Building was like both paradise and a playground.
On the last morning, there were 54 pieces of luggage to be organised and lined up in front of the Main Building. There were 19 children, each with water bottle, hat and shoes, all the essentials. They were called into Jyoti Mandir, where after chanting of the Shanti mantras, tikka was applied and prasad distributed. When the trekkers arrived, the luggage was piled on and the children got in. It was then that they showed us how to say goodbye properly. Not one complained that they didn't want to go. Of course, they tried to drag some of the swamis into the trekkers with them, but instead of getting upset, or crying, spontaneously they started singing, and yelling "Prem se bolo" - 'say it with love'. They probably sang and chanted all the way back.
The final words should really belong to the children. This is their favourite chant, which they were singing as they drove out the gates:
Hari Hari Hari Om
Swamiji ko lagte ache kaun?
Bhuj ke bache aur kaun!
Hari Hari Hari Om
Who does Swamiji really like?
The Bhuj kids, who else!