In the first of a two-part interview, Swami Mitrananda ji of Chinmaya Mission, Chennai, talks about his quest as a seeker and the initiatives of Chinmaya Mission to recontextualise Vedanta and make it accessible and appealing to young people
Swami Mitrananda ji is Advisor, All India Chinmaya Yuva Kendra (AICHYK), the global youth wing of the Chinmaya Mission. Inspired by the Truth in which his Master Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda ji, stood rooted, he took up the study of ancient Hindu philosophy at Sandeepany Sadhanalaya in Mumbai, in 1989.
Swami Mitranada ji has dedicated his life to Seva for humanity, and travels all over the country and South East Asia, conveying the profound Vedantic Truth with elegant simplicity and clarity. He is a highly sought-after speaker in corporate circles, and has delivered management-related talks to various leading corporates in the country.
Chinmaya Mission, Chennai, successfully completed The Marg Chennai Family Quiz, a mass scale project created by Swami Mitrananda, to enable and enrich family harmony, which reached out to 77,000 families of Chennai within the span of a year, from May 8, 2009, to May 8, 2010.
Swami Mitrananda ji has an impressive youth following, because of the innovative methodologies he adopts in making the ancient wisdom of Hindu dharma extraordinarily accessible and appealing to young people. Under his leadership, the Chinmaya Yuva Kendra took up two mega projects vis-à-vis, the nationwide Awakening Indians to India quiz program and the Youth Empowerment Programme.
Through the Awakening Indians to India quiz programme, Chinmaya Mission has reached out to 5 lakh youth across the nation and thus, conducted the largest ever quiz in the sub-continent. Swami Mitrandnda ji designed one of the flagship programmes of Chinmaya Mission—Youth Empowerment Programme (YEP) to create an army of highly empowered and dynamic youngsters to implement socially relevant work in different parts of Bharat and abroad. He has represented Bharat at the Global Forum of Faith-based Organisations for Population and Development organised by UNFPA in Turkey in October 2008.
Q 1.) You’ve had an abiding relationship with the Chinmaya Mission even as a child. Can you tell us about your personal quest as a seeker?
Chinmaya Mission is an organisation that reaches out to people across all age groups. We have different wings: Sishu Vihar for toddlers; Bala Vihar for young children; Yuva Kendra for youth; Adult Study Group and Vanaprastha. So, people from all age groups can have access to spiritual knowledge.
As a child, I was part of the Bala Vihar. My parents were devotees of Gurudev Chinmayananda ji and they introduced me to Bala Vihar. Even as a kid I had met Gurudev on several occasions. However, over the years, I was unable to attend Bala Vihar regularly as my father’s transferable job took us to several places.
However, I got back more actively as a teenager (16 or 17 years old) when I became associated with the Yuva Kendra. That was also an age where one could ask questions; one could enquire. As a child in Bala Vihar, one could only accept what was told to you – the values and principles. But the enquiry could happen only when I got to the Yuva Kendra.
Q 2.) Did you find a qualitative difference in the texture of your enquiry as a teenager? What were the challenges and how did you address it?
There was a transition period from Bala Vihar to Yuva Kendra. I went off the track of Chinmaya Mission, Samskar etc. when I was 17 or 18 years. Although I did come back to Yuva Kendra, there were very atheistic, non believing type of questions I struggled with and brought it up with Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda ji. He was one of the best persons to address those questions because he himself was at first a non believer.
Q 3.) Can you give us an example of one of those questions that you grappled with?
You challenge God, basically. You don’t understand the Law of Karma. If you don’t understand the Law of Karma, the entire authority goes to the Lord, the Doer. Then you challenge, “Why is He doing this?” So, the first approach would be, “Is God right? Is He correct in doing this?”
When we think God is someone sitting up somewhere, governing the world and then He runs the show, there is injustice in the world and He is not fair. So, basically you don’t see God as impartial. You see Him as partial. When these kinds of questions come, there is anger towards God. So, when you probe further into these questions, you end up saying, “There is no God! It is foolish!”
So, anger is first, and then when you probe, there is denial. So, I was in that kind of a state. I went back and my sister dragged me to meet Gurudev and talk with him. He understood where these questions come from because he himself was like that! So, he explained to me you don’t have to believe in any God; but there is something called Power, which your own actions manifest as results. So, he tried to tell me the Law of Karma!
That explanation became clear. Then Gurudev called me asked if I could attend one of the Chinmaya camps at Sidbhari, in the Himalayan foothills. I was 19 years old then and began to regularly attend these camps. Those camps made a big, big impact. I was fortunate to attend many camps in Sidbhari.
One of the camps that made me really think about joining the Chinmaya Mission full time was a camp where Gurudev explained a text called Viveka Choodamani by Adi Shankara. It was a marathon camp for 45 days in which 400-500 youngsters participated. He gave three lectures a day and half an hour meditation in the morning. I was the only person from Chennai at the camp. Being with Gurudev in the Himalayas for 45 days was a tremendous experience.
It was thus focused enquiry with his lectures. So, at the end of the camp when I decided I should give it a try, I sat with this question in the Himalayas: This is my life now! What is the best I can do with it? That was the question for which I wanted to find out the answers. I had got Vedantic inputs, worldly inputs, quite a few things that were needed and so I stayed with the question. I felt that I could walk this Path!
So, I went to Gurudev Swamiji and told him my intention. He laughed it away and said, “Go back to Chennai! There’s work there and I am coming there.” The next Vedanta course for monks was to begin after one year and when I expressed my desire to join the monkhood, he just brushed it off!
While in Chennai, Swami Chinmayananda ji visited my home and even had a couple of conversations with my father and sister about my desire to become a monk. Yet he never said anything directly to me. And I was waiting for the confirmation from him.
In December 1988, we had a camp in Kochi, attended by 200 youngsters. I was hoping he’d say something about this. On the last day, he looked at me and said, “OK! Go!” He didn’t speak much. But I knew what he meant.
Prior to this he was in Chennai (after I had expressed my desire to join the Vedanta course). There were several youngsters interacting with him. He enquired about each of their academic pursuits and advised them to study further. However, when he came to me and I told him I was doing my under graduation (English), he merely said, “That will do!”
That cryptic remark meant that the minimum requirement to join Sandeepany, the monastery where we get trained to become a monk, was graduation.
Q 4.) In your journey with the Chinmaya Mission, you’ve spearheaded several innovative initiatives with your vision and leadership. Can you tell us about your involvement with the Chinmaya Yuva Kendra?
My first posting as a monk was at the Chinmaya Mission in Salem. I was there for two years and started the Chinmaya Vidyalaya there. Gurudev attained Mahasamadhi two years after I was initiated. However, in one of his last letters written to Shri Narayan Bhatia, Chief Executive of Chinmaya Mission Trust, was that I should now shift from Salem to Chennai.
I thus shifted to Chennai in 1993. While at Salem, I began working with youth and continued with that engagement in Chennai. While I also began to travel to Far East and Asia for lectures on the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads, the focus on Chennai was on youth. In 1999. I was given the responsibility of the national youth programme and subsequently went on to lead the Chinmaya Yuva Kendra team for the next 18 years.
While Chennai traditionally has had a strong youth wing of the Chinmaya Mission, this was not so in other centres across the nation. I discovered that in many places they needed someone who was not a monk to anchor the programme. People felt that the saffron-clad monk was the best choice to teach the youth because they felt that a monk was highly evolved; however, they do not connect with people and sometimes what they speak is not practical and the gap is wide between the teacher and taught. Hence, I thought that the youth need better mentors who are just a few years elder to them. On assessing such needs, we started the Youth Empowerment Programme (YEP) .
As part of YEP, we invited young graduates to come and serve Bharat for a year. We trained these young leaders in a curriculum built on leadership skills based on Bharatiya culture and spirituality. When this young graduate, who is hardly 20 or 21 years old, goes back to serve the community, somebody who is 15 years old looks up to him as someone who is just a few years older to him and discover that they could connect better!
This is where we brought in a major change in the Chinmaya Mission with the YEP, where young leaders were created to inspire youngsters. This is one of our flagship programmes and more than 1000 youngsters in the country and abroad have graduated from this programme.
Q 5.) What is the pedagogy of the Youth Empowerment Programme?
We start with the various kinds of questions young people frequently ask and try to respond to it from answers/solutions from our culture. What is spirituality talking about it? Once this analysis is made, then we definitely have Hindu dharma culture and spirituality combined. We then come up with a way to teach this in a way that they understand. What are the methods we should adopt to convey this particular thing with innovative methodology?
Q 6.) Can you tell us about your experiential outdoor programmes that are built on the principle of embodied learning ?
Our ancient Gurukula system of education itself was based on this principle. When a student goes to the Gurukula, he has to cook food. He has to collect the ingredients required for food—Bhavati bhikshandehi! He cooks, takes care of cattle, does farming and also studies the highest Knowledge—Vedanta and Science. Imagine the physical activity involved in cooking your own food, cleaning up the place, taking care of the cattle and the farm!
In contemporary schools, do we do all this? Our outdoor activity today is sports! Our outdoor activity in life was completely different. We had all these responsibilities and Knowledge. When a human mind goes out and exhausts itself and its energy, burns its energy through intense physical activities, it burns your physical energy. Then your mind is ready to listen. The rajas is burnt; the tamas is burnt. When the rajo guna and tamo guna are subdued for the day, you are in sattvic state and hence most receptive.
When I work with youth in camps, we would typically start the day with five rounds of running. Without exhausting the rajo and tamo guna for the day, the person will be restless, especially in a class. This is the Indic approach to understanding the mind through the triguna (Rajo, Tamo and Sattva guna). External activities are thus required to monetarily raise the sattva to increase and enhance receptivity.
If we visit a temple, we would trek to the temple! Once they come back after such physically exhausting activities, they are available fully with their minds free! Sattvic thoughts have to be imparted when we raise Sattva guna. The policy for guiding youth is based on exhausting tamas and rajas and create the sattivic mind for optimal receptivity. However, the tamo and rajo guna for life can never be exhausted.
Q 7.) How does Chinmaya Mission plan to scale up its activities across different age groups?
The human resource we have at the Mission is always less; the vision is always vast. When we do our training for monkhood every two years, from a group of 30, it filters down to 20-25 monks. Then from this pool, we need to select someone who can cater to children, adults, corporates and senior citizens. To find persons with a temperament to work across age groups is a huge challenge. As monks we are always short of hands; the work is large. So, our strategy is to build on where we are strong now and wherever possible, expand to another centre. Chinmaya Mission works with a long term vision with a sustainability plan.
Hence, we always check—What is our strength? What is our prakriti svabhava as an organisation? Our strength is to preserve these three books: Prasthana traya— Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and Brahma Sutras. These three books are essential for a human to evolve to the Divine. So, we make sure that these three books are well preserved and handed over traditionally to some one to carry it forward.
Q 8.) In your talks, you have the elusive quality of making Vedanta very accessible and recontextualise it in a contemporary context. How do you do this?
My Guru was a brilliant man. Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda ji was an outstanding teacher, who simplifies stuff. His method of teaching was simple yet incisive. We are all chips off that block! So, we carry that trait here and there a bit and so that’s what you see!
For example, Self (Atman) is moving (chala) and also non-moving (achala). As the Self within, the life force which is all pervading, it has no movement. But because of it , everything around it is moving. Thus, it has two qualities.
My teacher, Swami Chinmayananda ji, would quote this example: a dog is standing and wagging its tail. Except the tail which is moving, the rest of its body does not move. Gurudev used this memorable example to demystify a complex concept that we would break our heads over! As I am talking, my hands are moving, my mouth is moving. But there is something within me which is watching . He used to bring in such examples to guide us.
It is well known that if you were around Swami Chinmayananda ji, every breath around him is a teaching. For example, I was with a group of teenagers who were with him at the Chennai Central Railway Station. As Swamiji got ready to board a train, a goods train was passing by on the other track. He pointed to the passing train and asked us to notice the gaps between each compartment. Between two compartments, through the gap you could see what was on the other side. He also added, “This is what you have to do in meditation. Between two thoughts there is a gap… If you can see through the gap, you see the Self behind the thought.”
He was a teacher of this calibre. So, being with him and learning from him, we ,naturally, learnt how to connect effectively. And Vedanta, itself, is very practical. When you listen to a lecture, the input (shravana) which has gone into you, you will reflect upon (manana) later. When you reflect, those ideas become clear. Then, around you, anywhere, you can see the same thing existing. Then it becomes easy to connect. As a teacher , we must be able to break it down so that the student can apply it in his or her life that day itself. Keeping this in mind, when you address a text or topic, this will naturally emerge.
(To be continued…)
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