From a veritable swamp to a thriving place of beauty, learning
QUOTE: ‘…driving a tractor for agricultural purposes is a fine art, needing much experience, and Swamiji did not know the difference between the brakes, the throttle, and the clutch’ – Swami Bhajananandaji Maharaj
AT THE inauguration of the US$300,000 Cove and John Ashram Zara Learning Centre two Saturdays ago, MC Saisenarine Kowlessar spoke of his alma mater thus:
“When, in 1955, Guru Swami Purnanandaji Maharaj came to Guyana to establish a branch of the Guyana Sevashram Sangha, no-one in their wildest imagination would have believed that a place that was a veritable swamp could have been transformed to what it is today — a place of beauty and a place of art.
“No-one could have believed that a swamp could have become a holy place of this magnitude, and not only a holy place, but also a place where education is being provided to the masses of Guyana.
“This Ashram has contributed in no single measure towards the social, cultural, and educational landscape of this country.”
The former Finance Minister told his audience that they were all sitting on hallowed grounds, because the Ashram is a holy and noble place of worship and of learning; grounds which he said had become sacred by the blood, sweat and tears of the monks and disciples who worked towards optimizing the potential and the promise offered in the precepts on which forms the basis of the Sangha’s work and mission across the world. This was prefacing his introduction of Swami Bhajananandaji Maharaj, spiritual head of the Toronto branch of the Sangha, who began his life as a sanyasi at the Cove and John Ashram, at a time when there was little infrastructure and much work to be done to clear lands and construct buildings, with a primary need of garnering funds, all of which the learned Swamiji engaged in, and could relate with a clarity of memory that, more than any other, tells of the saga of effort and achievement that has fructified in the institution as we know it today.
Kowlessar said that as a little boy, he witnessed the hard work of the Swami at the Ashram, driving the tractor to plough the lands; pushing the wheelbarrow laden with building materials; never disdaining to do a job, no matter how hard, or how demeaning it may seem to others. He related that the Swami, who was then a young Bramchari, and his guru, never wasted anything, and would pick up the little bricks and wash them with the help of the boys, so that they could make concrete for the buildings after he had finished a full day of teaching Hindi and English Literature. Saise described him as one of the best teachers of his time, and a wonderful human being who has spent the major part of his life doing seva (giving service to humanity), which is the essence of the Hindu religion… indeed, of every religion.
Place in History
In measured tones, after he had welcomed the dignitaries and thanked those responsible for the many recent developments at the Ashram, and those whose largesse was instrumental in making the Zara Learning Centre a reality – primarily Jay and Sylvia Sobraj, Naresh Singh, and Shravan Budhu, His Holiness reflected briefly on bygone days, when he first entered the portals of the Ashram and began the life of an ascetic.
According to the learned Monk, the history of the Ashram is the history of Guyana. Although the Swami said that he would not use the occasion to speak of the grand and glorious history of this great country that we are all citizens of, because he was constrained by time, he yet provided much insight, through his recollections of life at the Ashram when he was a young acolyte; on the travails endured by those who were determined to make a success of the Ashram.
Swamiji spoke of the delight of the monks from India, who were amazed that those of the Indian Diaspora, who had dispersed across continents had, decades later, still retained their cultural heritage and their religions with supreme devotion and intensity, and said that Swami Purnanandaji Maharaj envisioned the youths of Guyana being educated and extricated from their burdens of servility.
According to Swamiji, the building currently housing the Hindu College, which was inaugurated by the then colonial Governor in 1956, was the nucleus of the Ashram, and was initially known as the East Coast High School, which was a non-sectarian school, open to children from every denomination and race, without distinction of any kind.
Describing his guru as a firm believer of interfaith activities who held many interfaith conferences in the compound of the Ashram, Swamiji said that Swami Purnanandaji, because of this conviction, allowed the children of the various faiths to pray as per the teachings of their own religions in the Hindu College, which was unprecedented in the history of Guyana, because the vision of the founding guru of the Ashram was to disseminate education with respect, love, and compassion and sympathy for all humanity.
Elucidating on his usage of the words ‘compassion and sympathy’, Swamiji said that in those days, there was severe scarcity of money, and Swami Purnanandaji had to use innovative and cost-cutting ways to stretch the meagre funds of the Ashram. He said that the Guruji used to cook for approximately ninety boys, using the most primitive methods, starting from 2 am, and finishing just about time for the boys to have lunch.
The money he saved from not having to pay a cook went toward scholarships for the poorer boys, because, although the fees of the school were barely nominal, many persons could not afford even that much, and thus he mentored everyone who came to the Ashram in pursuit of an education.
In a further effort to meet the financial needs of the Ashram, and the educational needs of the children, through thrift and much sacrifice, Guruji bought thirty acres of rice lands, with none of the thirteen monks knowing about planting rice.
Swamiji related that he was the bramchari selected to drive the tractor to plough the lands. He was given a few minutes instruction to learn to drive the tractor in order to plough the fields. He instead ploughed down all the outhouses on his first attempt, because driving a tractor for agricultural purposes is a fine art, needing much experience, and Swamiji did not know the difference between the brakes, the throttle, and the clutch.
Swamiji narrated to his enthralled audience that the boys with rich parents, on realizing the hard work involved, sent telegrams to themselves from the nearby post office, saying someone in the family was ill, so Guruji sent them home with escorts, because the lack of telephones meant he could not check their stories.
Swamiji said he did not mind the backbreaking work, because the proceeds from the rice fields provided scholarships for poor boys to attend the high school. He related that educating their children, especially girls, was an alien concept to villagers of all races then, so the monks went from house to house, encouraging the parents to send their children to school. There was much resistance, because the families were large and the hands of the boys were needed for labour, while the girls had to look after the little ones and do household chores. But gradually the monks prevailed, and their efforts gathered momentum. Today, the scholars from the Ashram hold powerful positions all across the globe, many periodically returning, especially during Shiva Ratri, to restore their soul at the wellspring of peace and the ambience of tranquility emanating from the Ashram.
Swamiji said that Guruji changed the concept that girl children have to be married off at the earliest with his vision and his drive to have girl children empowered through education. He alluded to the galaxy of Indian women who have shaped the educational and developmental future of India, a
nd who had also helped to wrest the political freedom of India because of their education.
Pleasures of reading
Swamiji said: “Swami Purnanandaji is no more, but the ways of the Lord is inscrutable, and arriving from the United States of America came Shravan Budhu, Naresh Singh, Jay and Sylvia Sobraj of the Zara Group of Companies, who are continuing the concretization of the vision of Swami Purnanandaji in disseminating education through this new-age technology.”
“If you want a good friend, then keep a good book,” adjured Swamiji, who lamented the fact that children are forgetting the pleasures of reading, and lauded the initiatives of all those who are contributing to literacy at the Ashram.
“This is the vision that we continue”, said Swamiji. He continued, “ I pray and hope that, in the same way Swami Purnanandaji worked indefatigably, with an invincible spirit and a conviction of his whole soul to create this Ashram, which is not only a monastery, but an educational institution where we reach out to everyone in the community, from the smallest child to the oldest person.”
Swami Bhajananandaji Maharaj was born on April 11, 1944 in Adelphi Village, East Canje, Berbice to Brahmanaic parents and named Shivasankar Maharaj Misir. His father was trained in panditii work by his Indian-born Brahmanaic grandfather, Pandit Sadhar Maharaj Misir.
From his earliest memories, Swamiji had found solace and a special joy in the Mandir (temple) which his grandfather had built behind his home to serve the indentured servants occupying the logies in his community. He recalled spending most of his days studying, reading, memorizing the religious texts, meditating, and sometimes even sleeping in the Mandir, which he described as being integral to his very existence. When the Mandir was relocated, he said, the pain he felt was almost physical, and he would sit in the trees or lay on the ground, trying to recapture the feelings that meditation in the Mandir had generated.
One day, a relative took him on a train ride to visit the Cove and John Ashram, and from since then, there was no turning back.
On his return home he implored his parents to allow him to become a sanyasi at the Ashram, to no avail, but one morning in March of 1961 he woke up at 2 a.m. and, holding his shoes in hand, crept past his pregnant and sleeping mother, caught the early bus to the railway station, and, remembering his first railway journey, bought a ticket and caught a train to a fateful journey in service of mankind, relinquishing material comfort and family ties in the process.
Swamiji said that some people have a calling from God to serve their fellow man, and this may take many forms. According to Swamiji, the Zara family, especially Jay, Naresh, Sylvia, and Shravan, are a part of this God-ordained mission, and they are now ingrained into the history of the Ashram.