An awe inspiring visit to a modern gurukul
The Afternoon | Column | Jan 2011

As someone who is not of spiritual bent I am inclined to avoid God men and ashrams. When I am in the mood for something uplifting I read poetry or seek wisdom in the books of philosophers. So when some years ago I met Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev in Davos, I saw him more as a man than a Guru. We chatted about the social work he was doing around his ashram near Coimbatore and he invited me to come and visit it if I was ever wandering by. After this first meeting I met him a few more times in Mumbai and Delhi and liked his modern and practical approach to the preservation of India’s ancient heritage. As someone who is passionate about the importance of keeping this magnificent legacy alive by teaching our children about it and making ordinary Indians understand what could be lost if we fail to preserve what remains I saw a kindred spirit in Sadguru but never went to his ashram till two weeks ago.

Thoughts of spirituality

A friend was going — more for reasons of weight loss than spirituality—and I decided to go along. So at an ungodly hour on a cold winter morning we boarded an Indian Airlines flight from Delhi that took more than three hours to get us to Coimbatore after stopping in Mumbai for what seemed like a needless amount of time. All thoughts of spirituality were dissipated by the leaning crews that swept through the cabin with noisy vacuum cleaners during our halt in Mumbai. Nobody could understand why we were being subjected to this needless exercise
so it was in irritable rather than spiritual frame that we arrived in Coimbatore.

Sadguru’s ashram is more than 30 kilometres from Coimbatore airport and on the way there I chatted with the Tamil businessman in whose car we traveled about the likely results of the elections to the Tamil Nadu assembly due in the next couple of months. He told me that he thought the 2G Spectrum scandal and sibling rivalries in the Karunananidhi clan had damaged DMK chances so in his view it was Jayalalithaa who was likely to be the next chief minister of our southernmost state. He sounded cheerful about this and in the week I spent in Tamil Nadu, I met others who sounded as cheered up by the prospect of Karunanidhi & family losing the next election.

The first thing I noticed about Sadguru’s ashram was its beautiful backdrop. It nestles in a reserved forest in the shadow of the Velangiri Hills where, I soon found out, Sadguru’s own Guru had‘ left his body’ along with other wise and spiritual beings. The second thing I noticed about the ashram was that although our accommodation was as basic as possible it was spotlessly clean. Earlier experiences with India’s spiritual haunts have left me permanently terrified of the squalor that usually characterises them.

After we unpacked we were led to a verandah in a garden filled with exotic tropical plants where lunch was being served. We ate the most delicious saatvic meal I have ever eaten and not one of us carnivores noticed for a moment the absence of animal flesh, garlic or onions. After lunch we started exploring the spiritual aspects of the Isha Ashram. I went on a guided tour of the premises, along with other newcomers, and found myself bedazzled by the spectacular temples that Sadguru has built.

One called the Dhyanalingam which looks like a Shiva temple but is in fact a place of meditation to whichever god you wish to worship. The Linga Bhairavi temple is more specific to a particular goddess but follows the same very modern architecture that involves a sense of open space rather than the usual clutter associated with older Indian temples. The most spectacular space in the temple complex was a sacred pond called the Tirath Kund in which Sadguru has built a mercury lingam that gives the water special properties.

Our spiritual instruction began the next day as we prepared to be initiated into the Shaambhavi Mahamundra. It was a spiritual boot camp. We woke at 5 a.m. to practice an hour of yoga followed by a short break for delicious saatvic breakfast after which we listened to Sadguru’s dissertations on spirituality till lunch time and then there was more yoga in the afternoon and breathing exercises that prepared us for the initiation that took place on the evening of the third day.

It was all very dramatic and awe inspiring and Sadguru sang beautiful mantras as we meditated but I confess to not yet having found myself firmly on the spiritual path. The fault is most robably mine because there were others there who wept with joy and gratitude after the initiation making me feel that I had missed something very important.

It is possible that I am too much involved in life’s more materialistic aspects to appreciate the joys of spirituality but what I was deeply impressed by were the two schools that Sadguru has created in his ashram. One is for fee-paying students who get an education similar to what they would have had they gone to the Doon School or Mayo College. But, there are definite Indian elements involved like an emphasis on Sanskrit and Indian traditions. What I found more impressive was the Isha Sanskriti School which offers a totally Indian education to children who come from less privileged backgrounds.

Something unique

It is a modern gurukul that teaches Sanskrit, English, Yoga, Kalairipittu and Bharatanatyam with the idea that children will specialize in whichever of these subjects they find most conducive to their natural talents. We need thousands of schools like this if we are to preserve what is left of our heritage. In the interests of ‘secularism’ most Indian schools exhibit a contempt for India’s ancient heritage that is truly shameful. So if Sadguru’s Isha Ashram had done nothing else than create the Isha Sanskriti School it would already have been enough. But, he has done much more. He has built an institution that is run almost entirely by volunteers who are drawn to the Isha Ashram because they believe that they can contribute their voluntary services to building something unique. Even to someone as spiritually challenged as me it was hard to come away from Sadguru’s ashram without being very impressed with what I saw. And, for the record, I continue to practice the Shambhavi Mahamudra in the hope that it will open spiritual doors for me somewhere along the way.

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