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Acharya Pranavananda Maharaj was born in 1896 on the auspicious full-moon day in the month of Maghi (February 28) in Bajitpur, in what is now Bangladesh. The boot of British colonialism rested firmly on India's neck and the masses were being mobilized to foment independence. That same year Gandhi moved to South Africa to begin the fight for the rights of Indians and only three years had passed since Swami Vivekananda's triumphant appearance at the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. The boy's birth would later be interpreted as fulfilling India's desperate call for great leaders.
Nicknamed Vinode, "source of joy," by his parents, the child grew into a strapping youth, fully six-foot, six-inches tall and renowned for his physical strength. His preferred exercise was swinging two clubs, weighing one maund (37 kilos) each, for hundreds of repetitions at a time (a total of 5,000 a day), before settling back into meditation. He rejected his family's fish-eating diet and, despite their pleadings, became a vegetarian living mostly on milk and potatoes. That sounds severe, but the US Department of Agriculture claims, "such a diet would supply almost all of the food elements necessary for the maintenance of the human body."
Early on, his ability to organize his fellow youth to help the poor attracted the attention of British authorities, who had to be convinced by the school that he was just a gentle 11-year-old doing nothing wrong. At 17 years of age, he sought out Baba Gambhiranathji a great yogi of the Natha Sampradaya, and underwent five years of intense sadhana and tapas. Finally, in 1916, he had a tremendous vision of his life's mission and vowed to someday establish the Bharat Sevashram Sangha. So insistent was his talk of liberating the country from the British, the police surveilled his activities and he spent a brief stint in jail.
In January 1924, at age 28, he was initiated into sannyas, Hindu monasticism, by Swami Govindananandagiri and received the name Acharya Swami Pranavananadaji Maharaj. A month later, a group of his young followers also took sannyas. As part of the Dasanami orders of Adi Shankara, they formed the core group of the BSS. The monks are Saivites, though Acharya did not favor making such distinctions among Hindus.
Over time, Acharya set up a 12- to 14-year monastic training program. Aspirants to monastic life spend their first two years as a volunteer worker under the close guidance of a senior monk. Those who qualify are given the sacred thread ceremony, and undergo further training to prepare them for initiation as a sannyasin. The monks, strict about celibacy, strive to always do their work in groups. They are pure vegetarians who do not take onion, garlic, coffee or tea. Occasionally an aspirant will leave the ashram and marry. Swami Biswatmananda, BSS chief coordinator, said, "All such sannyas aspirants who choose a householder's life later come and repent their decision. But they cannot be accepted back."
Swami Parameshananda of the New York BSS center explained their training program. "Based on his svadharma [personal innate tendencies and inclinations], he is assigned responsibilities whereby he grows and matures naturally. It is for this reason the Sangha is a complete body. Some monks become great speakers and some great cooks, etc., all without sacrificing their spiritual life. Acharya, as their guru, guides the Sangha from behind the curtain."
Acharya Pranavananda set lofty goals for his eager band. He felt that sannyasins, and perhaps only sannyasins, could save Hindu dharma. "The Hindus are not so much in need of ideas and ideals," he declared, "as they are in need of strength, unity, organization, power of self-defense and a will for self-expansion. Ideas and ideals they have enough; they have enough of plans and programs. But everything has become meaningless for want of strength and energy. The entire Hindu population is to be vitalized by an infusion of tremendous energy."
Acharya wrote to one of his monks: "Man possesses unlimited strength, infinite capacity for work and boundless perseverance. It is because they cannot always realize that, most of them are so miserably inert. Since it is necessary to set before the country a new ideal of 'sannyasi,' a number of monks like you have to shed every drop of blood to purge the highly corrupt state prevailing in the country, by forgetting all thoughts of personal ease and comforts in the supreme cause of the Great Liberation of the world. You are to stimulate a good deal of activity among the monks of India now lying idle if the stigma that is now attached to them is to be removed. The more men come into contact with you, the more they will be attracted and deeply impressed by your wonderful stamina and strength, manliness and manhood and your tremendous capacity for action. You are heroes in the field of action and should not waste your time over ordinary matters. A man who is born must die. And each one shall depart when his term is over."
As guru, he warned his monks to not hold personal agendas: "If each acts according to his own plans and ideas, then disunity, dissensions, divisions and disputes will step in. If, heedless of others' ideas and feelings, the monks go on with their individual ideas and desires, then the enormous strength of the Sangha will fall to pieces. The monks must relentlessly sink their own whims and hobbies in the great will of the guru and must behave according to His commandments, teachings and injunctions. Then and only then will the will and power of the guru work smoothly through all."
In 1924 Acharya set up "mobile preaching units," which today number seven. These are groups of ten or more sadhus that carry Acharya's teaching to the masses. They travel with a team of musicians who perform bhajan and kirtans. They are on the road for a year at a time, traveling by train to save money. They gather each year in Banaras for Durga Puja and to consult and coordinate the coming year.
In the morning from 6 to 9am, all the sadhus go door to door preaching and collecting funds for the BSS work. In the evenings, they conduct bhajan, kirtan and satsang. The collections are a main source of income for the organization. When calamity strikes, the preaching groups head up relief missions with other volunteers.
In 1927, Acharya officially formed the Bharat Sevashram Sangha, with the monks as the trustees, led by him. This compact chain of command allows the massive organization to shift focus easily in response to urgent situations. Bharat, of course, means India; seva means physical and spiritual service; ashram implies a system based on the ideals and practice of renunciation, self-control, truth, continence and honest labor; and sangha means a fellowship or brotherhood. Acharya choose the word sangha in part because of its association with Buddha and the Buddhist Sangha of monks, with a longevity of 2,500 years.
The BSS mission statement stresses service and education: perpetuation of the monastic community; moral and spiritual regeneration; service to humanity, irrespective of caste, creed or national origin; spread of moral, spiritual and physical education; reconstruction of Hindu society; teaching of yoga and related health science subjects; education through moral and spiritual publications; tribal welfare and uplifting of the weaker sections of society.
Acharya's zeal and early activities set the pattern for the BSS. In the 1920s, Bengal suffered a famine. Acharya and his close disciples, along with 500 students, went door to door collecting cash and rice for distribution in the famine-struck areas of the Sunderban region. Their efficient success attracted public notice and support.
Acharya's goal was to eradicate untouchability from Bengal and to unite the so-called backward Hindus with the mainstream Hindus, as part of his drive for independence. He felt the divisions of Hindu society helped keep the British in power. His message was one of developing or reclaiming strength and power.
The Bengal region was crucial to Britain's hold on India. Acharya encouraged and inspired the freedom movement here, though he did not directly engage in revolutionary activities. He did skillfully engineer the development of village defense forces, rakshidal, and their successful use to suppress communal violence. He believed that proper preparations for self-defense by the Hindus would create security and forestall violent outbreaks. He criticized Gandhi's nonviolent approach, which he found too passive.
Going from village to village, he got Hindus of all castes to enjoy food together. As a result, untouchability is today less of an issue in Bengal than elsewhere in India. Similarly, he performed yagnas in the villages and invited everyone, including the women and lower castes, to chant the Vedic mantras with him.
In 1935, Acharya developed the concept of Hindu Milan Mandirs, which BSS translates as "great religious meeting place." These centers for daily worship and teaching are run by family devotees under the guidance of the sadhus. If support is sufficient, they may acquire land and a dedicated building. Acharya intended that the Mandirs serve as a common center for all Hindus, including the untouchables and tribals, to work in unity and cooperation.
He encouraged householders to seek initiation. No preparatory study was required, but the person must be a Hindu and have faith in the Hindu scriptures, the teachings of Acharya and the BSS organization. In his time, Acharya personally initiated large numbers of people. Today, candidates usually come to the Kolkata main ashram and speak directly with the senior monk. After ascertaining their sincerity, he sets a date for the initiation and gives them mantras to chant in preparation. He explains to them that after the initiation they should be pure vegetarians and do regular japa and meditation. They are enjoined to maintain a high standard of cleanliness and conscientiously fulfill the duties of householder life.
The mantra given at initiation, to be kept secret, is generally aligned with the devotee's personal Deity. A worshiper of Siva, for example, might be given the mantra "Aum Namasivaya." Usually, the general secretary or an authorized senior monk gives the initiation. In the event the candidate cannot travel to Kolkata, any of the monks may be authorized by the headquarters to give the initiation.
The Milan Mandir, Acharya directed, should be a center of religious awakening, social reform and cultural revival, including reconversion of Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. A single Mandir might today have 50 to 500 devotees, and some have developed into full-fledged BSS centers with monastics in residence. There are more than 500 Mandirs worldwide today. When convenient, the preaching parties stay at Hindu Milan Mandirs or BSS centers; but they also venture into new areas, staying at temples or homes of householders.
BSS has reconversion efforts in areas where Christian missionaries are active. Through a havan or yagna (a purifying fire ceremony), 30 or 40 supplicants at a time are welcomed back into Hinduism. Acharya pointed out that the ancient Hindu rishis converted millions and accommodated them into society, expanding Hindu society in large increments. He lamented, "The Hindu society, as it stands at present, is still steeped in meaningless superstitions and conservatism and is not ready to tolerate re-conversion and re-accommodation of the renegades and the tribals. What is needed is to wake up the sleeping masses." The BSS has been criticized and attacked by some for its reconversion activities.
Acharya observed in his life, "After a thousand years' slumber, the Hindus are bound to get up. I shall compel each one of them to count his beads by saying, 'I am a Hindu,' 'I am a Hindu.' I shall infuse in them great strength. The Hindu has learning, intelligence, wealth and capability. They also form the majority; and when there is unity among themselves, they will become indomitable in the world. Through the Mandir, all the problems of the Hindu families and society will be solved."
Disaster relief has been a BSS speciality from its founding. They are able to mobilize thousands of volunteers within hours of putting out a call. According to Swami Biswatmananda, "When Bangladesh became independent in 1971 and millions of refugees swarmed into India, our swamis took jeeps into the 16 districts of Bangladesh itself to distribute relief material."
BSS has seven ashrams in Bangladesh, managed by 11 swamis. Swami observes, "Life for Hindus in Bangladesh is gradually becoming better. There is less pressure under the new government. A few years back, things were not that good. But we are not able to do reconversion work there. Swami Pranavananda remains a respected figure in Bangladesh, and all school children read his life story in their textbook. Unfortunately, the work suffers from lack of government support and public donations.
Today the BSS is established in dozens of countries of the Indian diaspora. These include Fiji, UK, Central and South America (Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, etc.), US and Canada. They have been particularly effective and popular in Guyana, which has produced more than 15 monks, including Swami Nirliptananda of the London branch and Swami Parameshananda (both of whom assisted with this article) of New York. The current president of Guyana, Bharrat Jagdeo, once taught in a BSS school and remains friendly with the organization. BSS holds consultative status as a NGO with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
In early December, 2010, this reporter was instructed by Hinduism Today to prepare a feature story on the organization. This would not be my first encounter with BSS. In researching earlier Hinduism Today articles, I have had the exceeding good fortune and blessings to attend over the last decades all four Kumbha Melas: at Prayag, Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar. At each, I visited the large BSS camp promoting Acharya's teachings and the organization's work. At the Kumbha Melas, the BSS is most prominent not for their religious work but for their team of lifeguards. These expert young swimmers, wearing saffron-colored banners around their bodies, work closely with the official river police to ensure the safety of pilgrims taking their holy bath. Such service, I was to soon discover, is typical of the BSS mission of stepping in where help is needed most.
My research began at the BSS main ashram, in the Ballygunge area of South Kolkata. When it was first established, the land was completely undeveloped. Now, it is a posh, upscale community, with the ashram occupying over an acre of prime land. Entering through an unexpectedly narrow corridor, the visitor finds an expansive area containing the temple, large reception hall, administrative offices and quarters for the monks.
Shortly after my arrival, I participated in the evening arati, with hundreds of devotees and 20 of the monks of all age groups performing the worship and chanting the Vedic mantras. I soon met Swami Biswatmananda, the headquarters' chief coordinator, who took several hours out of his busy schedule to answer questions and introduce me to Swami Abhayananda, a senior monk serving as BSS Joint Secretary. The latter swamiji explained the thinking behind their style of worship:"During the Muslim rule, our people were separated from our scriptures. Gargi, a lady, was an expert on Vedas, yet we started saying that women could not study and recite Vedas. Then it was said that only brahmins could study Vedas, and no one else could. Others who tried to study were mistreated and punished. But Acharya Pranavananda said that everyone is entitled to study Vedas and everybody can recite 'Aum.' He said everybody could participate in the performance of yagnas or havans, including reciting the mantras and making offerings. Every Sunday we conduct such a yagna at each of our centers."
The next day, I met Swami Buddhananda, who is BSS General Secretary and one of the few remaining direct disciples of Acharya. Eighty-eight and suffering from various ailments, he delighted in showing me a charming photo on his wall (see page 20) of himself at the age of ten with Acharya. "Early in life, I realized that this was the path for me," he said. "When I used to go to my home, I felt as if someone had compelled me to go. However, when I was in the ashram, I felt at home; I felt that this is where I belong. Since my childhood, I understood this. I came in touch with Acharya in a very natural manner. Acharya Maharaj told me that I was connected to him for many past births." Just as this article was going to press, I was informed that Swami Buddhananda had passed away--my interview with him the last he was to give.
Later, I was shown the rooms that house the portraits of Acharya's direct disciples, men who had joined Acharya while still young and spent their entire lives in service of the Sangha. Each was garlanded with fresh flowers, and the perfume of incense filled the rooms. Householders and monks alike visit these rooms to seek blessings.
In the evening, I visited the BSS training center in the Gaudiya colony of South Kolkata, about ten kilometers from the headquarters. This center, where 50 monks are in training, is located on several acres of land, with a Siva temple in the middle. When I arrived, a dozen brahmacharis, beginning monks, were reciting slokas from the Bhagavad Gita as part of their evening routine, then singing bhajans.
Swami Girishananda, who heads this center, explained that in addition to the monastic training, the center provides medical assistance, an ambulance service for the needy, a computer training center and a hostel for 20 school children ages 10 to 15. The children attend government schools, and they receive religious education at the center. They even perform some of the temple ceremonies. Swamiji said, "We try to teach them and treat them with love. There is no physical punishment given to the children, even when they do not strictly follow the rules."
I spoke with Sevak Biswajeet, 31, a brahmachari trainee from Assam who joined BSS in 2009. He explained, "I am a graduate and have studied many religious books. After I realized that this world is an illusion, I decided to leave the world and come here. Now I have no connection with my parents. I want to attain God in this very birth. When I was connected to the world, I faced so many problems and sorrows. But now I feel God is always with me, and that keeps me blissful."
Sevak Shishir, 29, also from Assam, joined in 2007. He told me, "By joining BSS, I am able to serve the guru, society and country. Lord Krishna has said in the Gita that by leaving the world, you come under His shelter. This has also inspired me to take this path, and I am very happy with my decision. No family wants their child to leave home and become a sannyasin. But then everybody has his own samskaras (tendencies). India has hundreds of millions of people, but how many choose this path? So far as I am concerned, God and Acharya Maharaj have brought me here."
The next day, I was driven to the outskirts of Kolkata to visit BSS's huge 500-bed hospital which serves the city residents and the poor villagers of the adjacent Twenty Four Parganas district. Though the hospital opened just last year, the outpatient department already handles 1,000 patients a day. Brahmachari Suranjan Maharaj, one of the young monks looking after this project, told me the Sangha has hospitals and clinics all over India, but this is their first big multi-specialty facility. It stands on a large plot of land slated for future expansion.
On December 14, I took the early morning train to Jamshedpur, accompanied by Swami Bishnu Maharaj, a young BSS sadhu and photographer. Jamshedpur, or "Steel City," was built in the 1920s by Jamshedji Tata as a huge industrial complex near the area's iron mines. The BSS center here began as a Milan Mandir and developed into a seven-acre campus with a temple, four schools and residences. According to Swami Shivaroopananda, the senior monk here, they have nearly 2,400 students commuting from their homes--675 in English medium schools and over 1,700 in Bengali schools. In addition, student hostels house 520 tribal children, including children from what are called the "primitive tribes."
The "tribal" people, by way of clarification, are those original inhabitants of India who maintained a tribal culture of living in the forests, practicing limited agriculture and having no fixed homes. Many of them have been influenced to a great extent by modern civilization--if it is accurate to call our culture "modern" and theirs "primitive." After all, it is they who maintained ecological harmony with nature for millennia. In general, tribals now practice more agriculture and have set up permanent housing.
The truly primitive tribal people are different. They are still trying to live as they have for the last several thousand years. However, their very existence is threatened by the encroachment on their forests, the onslaught of modern disease and alcohol abuse. It is to this group of primitive tribals that BSS has done its most outstanding and innovative outreach, likely saving them from extinction. The free resident school here is part of that program. BSS has succeeded where the government has failed. Even the Catholics turned over one of their tribal projects in this area to the BSS rather than let it fail.
We traveled next to the Sunder Nagar Tribal Girls School, about 20 km from Jamshepur. Founded in 2006 as the first school in the state just for tribal girls, it has 100 students and is completely free. It is an exemplary school, neat, clean and obviously well run by its elderly managers, Ashish Ranjan Dasgupta and his wife, Anubha. The girls have learned to chant Vedic mantras and have adjusted to the BSS vegetarian diet. Ashish Dasgupta told me, "They are all tribal and primitive tribal girls. Some of their tribes have already disappeared, and others are just fading away. These children come from the areas which are affected by the Maoist insurgency--and may even include some children of the Maoist leaders." The girls I spoke with were smart and confident, a good sign of the quality of training they are receiving at the BSS school.
The school was built with funds from the Indian Government's Ministry of Tribal Welfare. I learned that the BSS has always had mixed feelings about accepting government aid. Prior to independence, the British had, of course, no interest in helping the group. Initial relations with the Congress Party in the 1950s were not smooth; BSS was regarded as too Hindu for the party's taste, and, in any case, the government is particular about whom it allows to deal with the tribals. Their willingness now to work with BSS is a strong endorsement. In recent years, the organization has cautiously accepted state funding for some of its education projects.
Acharya also warned the monks not to accept donations from rich people which came with strings attached. Far better, he counseled them, to collect small donations from those who gave freely, expect nothing in return and will not interfere with the work.
Leaving the girls' school, we went to a tribal craft center run by Vinod Murmu and his wife under the auspices of BSS. Acharya set up many such craft centers during his lifetime to provide backward Hindu communities a means of income.
Murmu related his story: "My mother was a leprosy patient. Though her disease was being treated, still she was already disfigured. The villagers were so afraid the disease might spread to others that they burned down our house and forced us to run away. The BSS swamis took care of my mother and educated my sister and myself. After my schooling was complete, I was sent to Ludhiana in Punjab to learn knitting. Now I run this knitting center and teach the skill to my tribal people."
The last stop of our day was a leprosy center run by BSS in the Burma Mines area of Jamshedpur. It was begun with government aid, but that was later withdrawn. Swami Devobratananda explained that when the government deemed that leprosy had been eradicated, it ceased funding the work--leaving existing lepers without help. A local industrialist, Raj Kumar Agarwal, stepped in, but the center's upkeep has suffered. Patients' stories here were much the same as Murmu's. Durlabh Gope, head of the colony, told me, "Our own families abandoned us, but BSS has treated us as if we were their own."
We returned in late evening to the Jamshedpur main center. I was impressed to see the temple full of tribal boys joined in the chanting of mantras and singing of bhajans, in stark comparison to their brethren in the big cities who spend their evenings watching soap operas on television.
The next day would be quite special, as we were traveling into Sabarnagar, one of the primitive tribal areas. Not many years ago, visitors would have been met with warning shots from unclad tribal archers! On our way, we stopped at Debanki village, 40 km from Jamshedpur, to visit a boys school and adjacent handloom weaving center. Another 80 km into the forest, we arrived at Sabarnagar. The area was quiet, with hardly a vehicle or even a bullock cart in sight, not to mention any sign of electricity or running water.
Swami Devabratananda offered some background: "Fifty years ago, the government tried to care for the tribals of the area; but, they made little progress, and finally asked BSS to take over. We drafted a program to train the men in agriculture and the women in weaving, and to educate the children. We started with just 50 families. Once the Sabar community saw that those families were earning an income, tribe members from distant villages started to come here. They are doing very well. Today, those who used to live naked are making clothes for others." In the successful handloom center here, we saw a dozen looms worked by women with young children by their side.
Swami explained that BSS helps the women open bank accounts in which to deposit part of their income. "Families which once did not have even a bowl of rice to spare now have a savings account. This is the singular achievement of BSS."
The work has not been easy. With their traditional life completely disrupted, the tribal men took to drinking cheap country liquor all day. The swamis have managed to instill in them enough discipline that they come to work on time and at least confine their drinking to the evening hours.
Previous attempts to introduce the tribals to agriculture here were hampered by the lack of irrigation water. After the BSS installed a well and pump, farming became more successful. Some of the tribals earn 50 rupees a day working the farm. They are delighted with the job, as there are few opportunities for them anywhere else.
Rajeshwar Giri, headmaster of the school in Jamshedpur, explained, "Tribals have their own castes or communities, and all of them have their own separate puja systems. Mostly it is our Hindu Gods that they worship, but with different names. Many of these tribes worship their own kula devatas [local or family Deities]. However, the kids here learn to participate in the pujas at the temple and listen to the discourses."
Sarthi Mardey, an arts teacher at the Hindi-medium girls' school in Jamshedpur, herself a tribal, explained, "We as tribals worship mother nature. We worship the trees and the leaves. We also celebrate Diwali and Durga Puja. We worship Mara Guru, who is Siva, and even the five Pandavas of the Mahabharata. We find ourselves closer to Hindus and Hinduism. I feel it is wrong to mislead the tribals and try to convince them that they are closer to any religion other than Hinduism. Once the children have studied in this school, they will be very confident about themselves and not easily converted."
From Sabarnagar, we traveled two hours to Ghatshila, a small township surrounded by forests and graced by the Subaranrekha River. Here the BSS has 42 acres of land with two schools, one for 150 boys and one for 110 girls, a weaving center, a luggage factory and several agricultural projects, including mushroom production. According to Brahmachari Vikas, head of the project, the luggage center is thriving. BSS has its own retail outlets for the products, and sales are good, with retail prices ranging from Rs. 20 to Rs. 400.
The next day, in Jamshedpur, we visited the English-medium, coed BSS Pranav Children World, with 700 students and classes up to the tenth standard. It was here the photo on the opening spread of this article was taken with Swami Shivaroopananda. This school, catering to a somewhat more prosperous clientele, charges Rs. 400 per month per child--less than any other private school in the area. I saw a large number of parents outside the office of the principal, Sumita Dey, all trying to enroll their children. Many wanted their children there specifically because it was run by the dedicated BSS team of Hindu swamis.
Dey said, "Most of our teachers are spiritually inclined, and that is helpful in inculcating good moral values in the children. Corporal punishment is absolutely banned. No sticks are used to discipline the children. Instead, we talk to the child and explain that breaking the discipline is not good for them. We also look into their home life and see if something there is affecting their behavior. In an extreme case, we may suspend the child; but even then, after a few days, the child may come back reformed." Several children reported to me that due to the religious and moral education at school, they have become better behaved and more courteous with their parents and teachers.
The dedication and commitment of Achary's disciples are slowly revolutionizing the lives of the tribal communities through education. Who is to judge whether this new way of life is better than what they have lived for thousands of years? But it is certain that the old way is gone, and a life of poverty and alcoholism should not be the sole alternative.
During my visit with the BSS, I had an unusually direct experience of the swamis' detachment and dedication. One night, while interviewing some young volunteers in Swami Biswatmananda's room in the Kolkata headquarters, I was informed that one of the elder swamis had passed away. His body had just been brought to the temple a few yards from me. When Swami Biswatmananda came to pay his respects to the departed soul, I asked if I should leave off the interviews. I was firmly told, "Carry on."
The scene was reminiscent of Acharya's own passing, at which time there were 82 monastics in his order. On his deathbed, he decreed that none of the monks, even Swami Satchidananda, who was to succeed him as president of the Sangha, was to leave his present tasks to be near Acharya. They were told to carry on, regardless of their affection for him. And so also this elderly swami, in the ancient tradition of sannyas, was honored in his passing but not mourned. His brother monks paused but briefly before being told, as I was, to "Carry on." At that moment, I felt as if Acharya himself had uttered those potent words which sum up his whole philosophy of karma yoga.
Swami Parameshananda: sw_parameshananda _@_ hotmail.com