When I arrived with Swami Satyananda at Rikhia, an obscure village in Jharkhand, I felt as if I was slipping back into the 16th century. You could not get more backward than that; there was simply no trace of the 20th century, no roads, no electricity, no phones, no newspapers, no cars, no busy streets, no hospitals, a few dilapidated schools looking desolate with only a few ragged unkempt children, wearing torn and tattered clothing.
That was the Rikhia we entered on 21st September 1989. Swami Satyananda had chosen this place for his life of seclusion according to a mandate he had received while performing austerities at the jyotir lingam of Shiva at Tryambakeshwar near Mumbai. Soon after he arrived, Sri Swamiji plunged into sadhana and undertook the sankalpa of performing many arduous practices such as panchagni and mantra anushthana.
It was during this time that our neighbours began knocking on our door for help. They were hungry, they needed medicines, shelter and clothing. The very basics that we take so much for granted were unavailable to them. We started helping them in whatever way we could and help started pouring in. Our work began in full swing when in 1995, Swami Satyananda, accepting it as the will of God, gave us the green signal to start this work in earnest in an organized and systematic manner, with the attitude of an aradhana, or worship of God in living form.
Today, when you see the same place and the people, especially the children, you may not believe the condition they were in hardly ten years ago. They would qualify perfectly for a before and after advertisement, if you know what I mean!
How did it all happen? The very same children, who at that time did not have the confidence to look you in the eye and answer a simple question like “What is your name?” are today at the helm of the Rikhia ashram, speaking wonderful English, designing the ashram calendars, conducting all its multifarious programs, singing soul stirring kirtans, conducting yajnas with perfect intonation of Sanskrit mantras which would make even a pandit sit up and listen.
When I look back to the time when a young village girl knocked on our door and shyly asked to learn English and we hesitantly started to teach her ‘abc’, I am amazed to see how the small seed sown on that day has flourished into this giant tree of over 1,500 children that are ever on the increase. Mind you, these children come from impoverished homes. They are the unfortunate, neglects of society, who have been condemned to a life worse than the animals that affluent members of society rear as pets in their homes. They do not have even the basic amenities that a child needs like a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, comb and towel, or even a toilet where they can bathe in privacy. This, to my mind, is the main achievement of Rikhia because these children have literally risen out of the doldrums.
Rikhia was an experiment, based on the philosophy of Swami Satyananda, that education is a process of unfoldment from within, not something you borrow from outside, which becomes possible when the child is exposed to a positive environment and receives trust, encouragement, recognition, responsibility and love, as in a gurukul system of education.
Sri Swamiji always says that when you contribute to the growth of an otherwise useless person and make him capable, that is a big achievement and accomplishment. Anyone can get things done by trained professionals, but then what is your contribution in that? Instead, if you make a person who is otherwise a total reject into someone useful, that is a big service you have done for him.
With these words in mind we took up the challenge at Rikhia. We started with the girls because they were the most neglected in the community. The parents did not even consider it necessary to send them to school or educate them. These little girls were doomed to a life of doing odd jobs at homes which perhaps no one else cared to do. In other words, they were considered good for nothing or a burden on the family.
With his wonderful ways, Swami Satyananda changed all that. He gave them the name ‘kanya’, which immediately exalted their position in the minds of everyone as kanya worship is an integral part of Indian society, so much so that every Indian rich or poor, educated or illiterate, has utmost faith in the ritual of kanya pooja. To my mind that worked wonders for them, for some deep-rooted change began to occur just by this recognition given to them.
The method we used was first of all to allow them their own free space without making any demands on them to come regularly. In other words, they should want to come out of their own sweet will. Then arose the question of what we should teach them.
Yoga was the natural option as we were all trained yoga teachers and we all knew how beneficial yoga would be for their expansion of mind. But then we decided to ask them what they wanted to learn, instead of imposing our choices on them. Imagine our surprise when they said English! Those ragged, snotty-nosed kids, who could not even speak their own mother tongue properly, wanted to learn the most sophisticated language of our age.
So the English lessons started. Sometimes they came, sometimes they didn’t. But we did not react to that. One fine morning when the kids had not turned up, some of us sannyasins were chanting the morning prayers in Sanskrit, followed by kirtan, when a few of them turned up and asked to join in. They liked it so much that they began to come regularly and soon learnt all the chants and kirtans effortlessly.
Gradually, we noticed a marked change in their confidence levels. They responded better, they looked brighter, they moved with ease, grace and poise. They became more and more enthusiastic about all their activities and thus learnt quicker. The chanting of mantras had worked wonders for expanding the frontiers of their mind, making them more receptive to the unfoldment of knowledge.
After all, expansion of mind is that phenomenon which opens all the unseen locks of the mind that prevent the removal of ignorance. This was taking place in these children through the constant chanting of Sanskrit mantras. Sanskrit is a phonetic language based purely on sound frequency. In that respect, it differs from other languages which have developed for the purpose of communication.
Through the medium of sound, Sanskrit activates energy centres located in the mouth, throat, nasal tract, epiglottis and tongue, which are directly linked to higher centres in the brain. To achieve this, the only requirement is that the pronunciation should be perfect and the chanting should be regular. They fulfilled both these conditions and we can see the results.
The chanting of mantras and kirtan is an integral part of nada yoga which utilizes dhvani, or sound, to awaken the inner potential. Along with nada yoga, we introduced them to the ritual of yajna, which is a fire ceremony performed with the chanting of mantras. These simple methods have worked wonders for them.
Today the attendance of girls in the nearby school is one hundred percent and they carry away all the prizes for distinction in all subjects. With this marked improvement in the kanyas, we then decided to include the little boys as well or else the girls of Rikhia would soon begin to overshadow them. Swami Satyananda named them ‘batuks’, as the batuk too plays an important role in the kanya worship and this has created a wonderful competitive spirit between them.
Today their minds have opened up to a whole new world out there. They can hope, aspire, dream and even become what they dream to be. Previously, they were like the proverbial frog in the well that could not even imagine a world beyond the walls of the well where he was born, lived and died. All this was possible only because a very special person, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, happened to step into their lives one fine afternoon in 1989 and started the establishment of a gurukul system of education.