The Kanyas and Batuks of Rikhia

Swami Kriyabhava Saraswati, Australia

The kanyas and batuks of Rikhia now number 952. With a near even split of 461 batuks and 491 kanyas, they represent every village and every family within the Rikhia panchayat. After a large intake of children in January 2006, nearly all the eligible children aged between 6–12 years from Rikhia panchayat have been adopted into the ever expanding family of Sri Swamiji.

These children have all been born since Sri Swamiji came to Rikhia and they are the children of his neighbours that he has pledged to uplift. Upliftment does not mean ordinary charity. As Sri Swamiji has said, “Charity is the mother of poverty,” and true to his word, he is not fostering a culture reliant on dependency. Rather, through the kanyas and batuks he is laying the foundation for a prosperous future as these children are receiving an education and aid in its broadest sense. They are being fostered and guided to become self-confident and independent. One day these children will become parents and conscious members of their community. As parents they will demand that their children have access to education and receive the opportunities they were exposed to. As community members they will be better equipped to make informed decisions and to play an active role in creating a prosperous future.

Swami Satsangi watches vigilantly over the children of Sri Swamiji and personally directs all aspects of their activities and management. She repeatedly assures parents that the ashram asks nothing from them in return, except that their children attend classes daily. After being with the kanyas and batuks for over four years, I am seeing the truth and the reason behind this mandate in those children who are most regular in their integration with the ashram and its activities. With regular exposure, their innate qualities of purity, intelligence and creativity become the predominant expression of their nature.

The kanyas and batuks are increasingly playing an integral role as hosts of all activities and programs conducted in Rikhia. The thousands of guests and devotees who attend the various programs throughout the year often comment on the poise and confidence of the kanyas and batuks as they conduct all aspects of proceedings from announcements and chanting, to escorting and seating guests, book distribution, tilak and pooja. The children are diligent at their respective duties. A common query from them before any big program is: “Teacher, what is my duty?” During Sita Kalyanam, they have excelled as hosts of this grand event – their contagious enthusiasm is felt by all as they are ever ready to guide and direct the thousands of visitors. They are the hands and eyes of Sri Swamiji and his presence is felt through their willingness to serve. Prasad taken in the Rikhia kitchen during large programs such as the recent Navaratri is under the direction of the ‘Bhoj’ team who confidently directed serving. At every step you meet the smiling faces of children who through their involvement are gaining greater awareness of themselves and those around them.

Sometimes the lines between who is the giver and who is the receiver become blurred. Ashram residents often wonder who is learning more, the children from us or we from the children. As the kanyas and batuks become an increasingly integral part of Rikhia ashram, we are being guided by their example to reconnect with the innocence within and to experience that joy of ‘being’ that children remind us of. Through this mutual relationship of giving and receiving, the kanyas and batuks have an opportunity to experience a balanced and holistic childhood – wherein they can express the beauty and innocence of being children.

These children lead very busy lives. A typical day begins early, especially during the hotter months when many of the household chores are done in the cooler morning hours. After fulfilling some of their household responsibilities, they may come for their surya namaskara class at the ashram, which can be up to 3–4 kilometres from their homes. At 6.30 a.m. they then attend their local schools until 11 a.m. After school they return home and take up their share of responsibilities such as caring for younger siblings, tending to livestock, fetching water and many of the numerous activities of maintaining a household. From 2.30 p.m. they begin flooding back to the ashram for their half hour English class. More advanced students attend their own class and then stay to ‘assist’ as teachers for beginners’ classes. Between 2.30–5.30 p.m. English classes are conducted for all 952 children. After English classes some children then move on to the computer room for their computer class. During this time some children also manage a session with local tutors to assist their school studies or a game of cricket in the fields!

At 5.45 p.m. it’s back to the ashram for the evening kirtan and chanting program. After seating the guests and fulfilling their duties, it’s time for them to enjoy. As the kirtans build up slowly they struggle to contain their joy and often dance with abandon, losing themselves in the rhythm and mantras. After returning home, they have homework and studies to do. These children are often on the go for 16 hours or more – finding balance between home, school, ashram and play is a challenge they rise to and conquer.

This reality is well known to Sri Swamiji who spoke in a satsang several years ago about the hardships borne by these children from a very tender age which rob them of a chance to enjoy the innocent joys of childhood. Being in the ashram has given them an opportunity to regain these joys, which will help them in their later life.

Sri Swamiji has a very encompassing vision as regards the kanyas and batuks. He has, in fact, gone a step further and made arrangements to show them various films. This idea has taken shape in the form of Sunday afternoon film showings in the Sadhana Hall, Yajnashala. The kanyas and batuks are all invited to attend and have been shown a wide variety of films including ‘Harry Potter’, nature documentaries and the new release Hanuman animation. They are vocal and expressive in their appreciation of the films and a surprise favourite was the ‘Laurel and Hardy’ series that had them roaring with laughter. The films are hot topics of conversation for the following week as they retell certain scenes. Despite their rural surroundings, the kanyas and batuks can truly be said to have the ‘best of both worlds’. As Sri Swamiji has rightly pointed out, “You see, at least under this pretext the children will not visit the hatia, the local marketplace, during this interval. And what are they being exposed to in the hatia? To loafers, gambling, smoking and lecherousness. Staying here, they discover exciting and newer dimensions of life and learn ways to make their life holistic, satisfying and successful.”

The Sadhana Hall, Yajnashala, is a central point for many of the children’s activities – it’s also their cinema and dance hall where they can express without inhibitions in their unique way to the fast paced kirtans. Sri Swamiji has aptly summed this up while saying, “These children have become God-intoxicated and they, in turn, intoxicate all those listening to their kirtans, who also start dancing to their tune!” The announcement “The words of our next kirtan are . . . “ is often followed with joyous claps of approval and well-justified anticipation.

The sheer number of kanyas and batuks, nearing 1,000, can often seem overwhelming – a sea of smiles and curious, inquisitive eyes. But as their teacher I challenge myself daily to meet and see them all as individuals, each as the child of Sri Swamiji with their own needs and potentials. The range of activities opened to them here, at the ashram in Rikhia, in a non-competitive way enables each child to establish their identity as an individual and to excel, whether in English language, kirtan, dance, computer, yoga, performing duties during programs or assisting in management as class or village monitors.

The kanyas and batuks are given the opportunity to attend daily half hour interactive English classes where basic English is taught along with games, songs and much laughter. The English classes conducted for the kanyas and batuks are a progressive series beginning from class 1 to class 6. The kanyas of class 6 are currently exploring various styles of writing such as journalistic, descriptive and emotive. They are able to converse in English and are keen to be corrected of any mistakes in their use of the language. This solid foundation in English will open many opportunities previously unimaginable to them. Their dreams and hopes for their futures are varied but I can assure you they have goals and direction that through the grace of Sri Swamiji they will be able to pursue. Their hopes for the future cross spectrums of becoming social workers, doctors, farmers, business women/men, inspectors and parents. The dreams of these children represent a huge change here in Rikhia where previously thoughts beyond daily survival and sustenance were impossible. The hopes of the kanyas and batuks demonstrate prosperity and expanding awareness of a community – a brighter future of opportunity is being created by the dreams of these children.

Computer classes are another expanding area of education for the kanyas and batuks. Selected students are taught how to navigate programs such as Word and Excel. They particularly love exploring Power Point and creating invitations and pictures. The senior class has begun creating a syllabus so that they can be the teachers of future beginners’ classes. They are also involved in helping to write and print program announcements, which are practical applications of their skills.

Since January 2006, a new aspect of yogic education is being imparted to the batuks of Rikhia in the form of daily surya namaskara classes. In the early hours of the morning, the selected 50 boys leave their homes to attend their class which is a combination of asanas and Surya mantras. When Sri Swamiji first began this class the reaction from the boys was mixed. Many were thrilled, others were unsure what yoga was, but all were curious and willing. Over the last several months their commitment has deepened as has their experiences in these classes.

Under the direct guidance of Swami Satsangi, a core group has been expertly trained with impeccable timing and pronunciation and can now confidently lead Ramayana chanting, Bhagavad Gita, Vedic mantras, bhajans and an extensive range of much loved kirtans that take audiences through experiences of ecstasy and devotion. Their pronunciation of Sanskrit stotras is better than that of life long trained pandits and the purity and innocence of their voices guide people back to that well of bhakti within us all. All guests and visitors who come to Rikhia leave with many memories, but definitely some of their fondest are of the dynamic kirtans sung by the kanyas and batuks accompanied by spontaneous dancers whose unique style and freedom of expression is not easily forgotten.

As individuals, the kanyas and batuks are opening to their own potentials and to the opportunities around them. As a group, they can be overwhelming in their ceaseless energy – however, they are beginning to take a unique form as older children help guide and discipline younger ones and create structures and guide- lines that they themselves implement during classes and programs. The concept of older children guiding the younger and newer students is continually being fostered. By allowing older students to be involved in establishing and implementing guidelines of behaviour and discipline, they are developing an internal structure of management which is without bias and practical. Evidence of its effectiveness is starting to be seen as these children sit through four hour programs (which challenges the self-discipline of most adults and sannyasins), with relatively few ‘teachers’ supervising them.

Sri Swamiji often repeats the mantra “Give, Give, Give.” He has perfected this mandate from Swami Sivananda in the way he so openly, generously and continuously gives to the kanyas and batuks. This is made possible by the generous donations received from devotees around the world. The children keep receiving all their educational requirements as prasad from the ashram – including school bags, books, stationery and school uniforms complete with ties, belts, shoes, cardigans for winter months, umbrellas and also chocolates on a regular basis. The kanyas and batuks receive many sets of designer clothing each year which, despite the rural environment, they manage to keep in impeccable condition. On a visit to Rikhia you may see them proudly wearing their Spanish, Chennai or Rajasthani outfits.

These children live in the villages that surround Rikhia ashram – before you reach the ashram you will be welcomed by many greetings of 'Namo Narayan' from across fields and from mud huts. This is the official greeting used in the ashram and is often among the first words spoken by the children of Rikhia after 'Ma'. The kanyas and batuks welcome all to Rikhia and guide them towards the ashram, ‘their ashram’, with their chorus of 'Namo Narayan'.

So if you ever come to Rikhia and a bright-eyed child greets you with 'Namo Narayan' and then asks “What is your name?” and “Where do you live?”, be assured that you have been fortunate to meet one of the kanyas/batuks of Rikhia, the blessed children of Sri Swamiji. This simple conversation is a glimpse of the seeds being sown here in Rikhia. These humble beginnings are signs of a new prosperous future for these children and generations to come. A future that they will be free to create for themselves based on awareness and opportunity. It all starts with A, B, C. Sri Swamiji holds the vision and the seeds have been planted. We just have to be patient and watch as each seed blossoms and grows to its full potential.