The five of us bounced along in the blue-green van that seemed to have no shocks, twisting around curves on the dusty roads that snaked through the rocky hills outside Tumkur, India. A Beatles tape played on the van’s cassette player. The bobbing plastic figurines of Hindu deities that populated the dashboard seemed to beebop to the beat. We weren’t sure where we were going, but our hosts in Tumkur said there was a place we just had to see, someone we just had to meet. They said you couldn’t be so close to Swamiji and not take advantage of the opportunity. . .
In Monday’s blog entry I mentioned the “two most fascinating people I have met.” I wrote a little about one of them they.n. Today’s post about meeting the other “most fascinating person I’ve met,”
In 1993, I was chosen to go to with five other “outstanding young adults” (surely there must have been a mistake!) to Bangalore, India on a Group Study Exchange. One day we took a trip to the nearby town of Tumkur. While we were there we had the chance to visit the Sree Siddaganga Mutt run by Dr. Sree Sree Shivakumara Swamiji.
The Mutt is a spiritual center with a boys’ residential and educational institution outside of Tumkur. At the time, it was home to over 5000(!) boys. We were told about something about the place as we approached it in the van. The boys are all from rural families; 2000 are orphans. No one is turned away, regardless of caste or finances. They are provided with a place to live and with education available from primary to post-doctorate(!). The president of one of the Tumkur Rotary Clubs, we were told, is an attorney who grew up there. So did our exchange coordinator in Bangalore.
As we entered the grounds, the amazing thing was the apparent harmony. As we approached, we saw groups of boys walking along the road, playing cricket, or just talking in groups. When we got to the complex of buildings and left the van, we were eyed very curiously but none of the children did anything to attract attention. The boys all looked healthy and happy. At the time I worked for the Department of Juvenile Justice, and I couldn’t imagine DJJ or any private provider being able to operate a facility for even five hundred boys . . . but 5000?
We were shown to what must have been the administrative building, about the size of a moderate ranch house. After removing our shoes, we were taken inside a cluttered office and showed to our seats. Shortly, an elderly gentleman entered followed by a few other folks who must have worked there. At first we thought the older man must be Swamiji, but it turned out he wasn’t elderly enough. He told us that Swamiji is 85 and has been a holy man for 60 years. He only sleeps 4 hours a night. The man also told us the place is supported entirely by donations. Because of the success of former residents, they were financially very sound.
There was a rustling as the people who worked at the place all stood up. So did we. Swamiji slowly entered wearing an saffron robe. He looked every day of 85 years, and was heavy-lidded like someone who only slept four hours a night. But he smiled at us, and sat down at his letter-strewn desk. Swamiji did not say much. But the words he practically mumbled in heavily accented English were compelling. He spoke about the necessity of doing away with the caste system and the discrimination it fostered- he sounded like an American Civil Rights leader from the sixties. He talked about how crucial it was that every boy be made to feel at home and important. He answered a couple of questions. (Mine – What is the most important thing done here? Answer- Education.)
There was something about Swamiji that was compelling. An aura of serenity and wisdom enveloped him. We were with him for less than half an hour, but his presence lasted much longer. I wasn’t sure if it was actually spiritual or just his rarefied humanity combined with the extraordinary place, but I was touched deeply by the audience with him that day. At the time I was spiritually at best an agnostic. During my month in India I affirmed that I was no Hindu or Buddhist. But that brief time with Swamiji helped to open me to something, a greater (anything is greater than zero) potentiality of accepting that there was some goodness, something beyond the temporal that I had yet to discover.
It wan’t long before the hosts who brought us said we had to go. Swamiji gave us each an apple and we were out the door.
As we left the building, we stepped into a sea of children. The boys were apparently gathering on the streets for evening prayers (there was a stage at the end of the street where we were told Swamiji would lead the service). As we left many of the boys crowded around the door and a few reached out their hands. Being a cynical American I thought they were asking for money or something. But then I noticed that the hands were held with palms to the side, not up – they just wanted to shake hands. The trip to the van was sort of like being politicians after a campaign rally, especially for one of the other visitors and I who seemed to get most caught up in the handshaking. Hundreds of smiling boys approached to have their hands shaken. When we did make it back to the van, we took pictures for which they posed and grinned. We were all touched by that place. Who knows what they thought of us?
The next day, we went back to Sree Siddaganga Mutt because Rotary (who sponsored the Group Study Exchange) wanted pictures of us with Swamiji. It turned out it was some kind of religious holiday – something about the end of “winter” (it was 90+ degrees) – so Swamiji was on a stage in front of a few thousand people. We were led through the crowd and onto the stage, lined up behind Swamiji, and pictures were taken. Our exchange leader said a few words to the crowd, then we each paid our respects to Swamiji with a Namaste, and left back through the crowd. Certainly a unique experience. Here’s a picture (I’m in the middle with the mustache and sunglasses. Swamiji is seated in front of me just to my right):
According to the website of Sree Siddaganga Mutt, Swamiji is still going strong at 105.