Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Sisters and Brothers of the Forest


Sisters and Brothers of the Forest

By Elizabeth Usha Harding

“Please fasten your seatbelts,” said a flight attendant over the PA system.  “We’ll be landing shortly at Swami Vivekananda International Airport in Raipur.” Wow!  I was amazed to hear that the city of Raipur named their airport after Swami Vivekananda. 

Swamiji lived in Raipur from 1877 to 1879 when his father Viswanath Dutta, an attorney at the Kolkata High Court, was transferred there.  At that time, there were no good schools in Raipur, and the fourteen-year-old Naren (who later became the famous Swami Vivekananda) spent time at home learning from his father and discussing spiritual topics.  I remembered a story I had read about young Naren traveling in the countryside near Raipur in a bullock cart when the sight of a large bee hive caused him to go into a deep spiritual ecstasy.

People in Raipur are proud that India’s national hero lived there for two years.  Besides naming their airport after Swamiji, they also erected a gigantic statue of Swamiji sitting in meditation pose, overlooking a lake in the heart of the city.  Some say that the years Swamiji spent in Raipur were a turning point in his spiritual life.   Raipur is the capital city of the recently created state Chhattisgarh.  This land of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh was made sacred by the feet of Lord Ram, Sita and Lakshman who lived and walked through these forests after being banished from their royal palace in Ayodhya.  It is a land I’ve wanted to visit for a long time.

When I boarded the Chhattisgarh Sampark Kranti Express in Raipur, my heart was filled with anticipation.  I took a seat next to the window.  Soon after the train left the station, the landscape changed from industrial to rural.  Gently rocked by the movement of the train, my mind was entranced by the landscape of meadows, forests, streams and lush, green hills.  The scenery was so beautiful.  I imagined Lord Ram and Lakshman walking through this forest collecting wood while Sita Devi, wading in the shallow water of a crystal-clear stream, washed berries and fruit she had collected.  I also imagined forest dwellers coming by and humbly offering their service.  Surely, the royals had a lot to learn from them about how to survive and sustain themselves in the jungle.

My daydream broke when it was time to get off at Pendra Road.  I was on my way to Amarkantak, the sacred mountain where gods, saints, rishis and every-day pilgrims come to do tapasya.  Swami Viswatmananda, head of the Ramakrishna Kutir Amarkantak, had sent a jeep with a driver to pick me up at the station.  We drove along a narrow country road up steep inclines and through a dense forest that is home to monkeys, bears, tigers and other wild animals.  We made our way around sharp hairpin curves, and when we reached the plateau, I got my first glimpse of the holy river Narmada.  It is said that you need to take a bath in the Ganga in order to become purified, but you only need to look at the Narmada for all your sins to fly away.  My heart was leaping with joy, filled with contentment.  There was nothing I wanted more at the moment than to breathe in this spiritual atmosphere.
Ramakrishna Kutir Ashrama at Amarkantak

The driver opened an iron gate and parked the car in front of the temple at the Ramakrishna Kutir ashrama.  I climbed up the steps to the shrine room to bow to Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother and Swamiji.   

Ramakrishna Kutir was started by Swami Atmananda, a charismatic monk of the Ramakrishna Order, and dedicated in 1979 by Swami Gambhirananda, the 11th president of the Order.  Inspired by Swami Atmananda, Swami Viswatmananda - this is his proper name but everybody calls him Jayram Maharaj - has lovingly taken care of this ashram for the past 36 years.

Over the next few days I visited the Narmada Kund and several other ancient, holy places.  I felt carefree and happy.  And then something happened that started to turn my Western cultural understanding upside down.  Lord Shiva showed me His bleeding heart as it were.

Journey to the Source

The Ramakrishna Kutir is located in the tribal area of Amarkantak, and there is a school for tribal children nearby.  Every afternoon hordes of tribal children come to the ashram to play and pester Jayram Maharaj for “lozenges” (candies).  They have no shoes, and their school uniforms are shabby.  Girls wear a white blouse and blue frock, and boys wear a whitish shirt and blue half pants.  When it gets cold in Amarkantak, Jayram Maharaj opens up his storage room to teachers from the tribal school who hand out sweaters to the children.  Not only children but tribal women also come and receive provisions and chadders.  I learned that Swami himself makes frequent trips to a wholesale place in Bilaspur - a treacherous 5-hour trip over a terrible road – where he purchases colorful sweaters, dresses, pants, school bags, pencils and pads for the tribal children.
Jayram Maharaj handing out shawls to tribal women

At night, I heard angry shouts that broke the serenity of the flowing Narmada.  “The tribal men get drunk and then get abusive,” said Jayram Maharaj.  Fights break out, and the drunken, upset men often leave their families.  Crammed into ramshackle houses, women have to bring up their children alone, scratching together meager means.  A large percentage of the children who frequent the ashram in the afternoon grow up without fathers.  

So many questions came to my mind.  How did all of this happen?  How did these tribal people, who had lived harmoniously for thousands of years in the forest, come to be in such a lowly condition?

Tribal living quarters
As I pondered these questions, I was reminded that indigenous people worldwide have been living under threat.  The emphasis of their ideology is different from that of modern Western thinking.  They consider the ground on which they stand to be sacred.  Their connection to their land kindles a deep reverence to nature – springs, rivers, mountains, forests, plants and animals.  Their relationship with nature weaves a rich and complex tapestry of culture.  The Earth is alive and feels what we do to her.  In the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, for instance, tribal people still prefer to use wooden ploughs because they believe iron ploughs will hurt the earth.  

In stark contrast, modern society values global capitalism which cares more about power and shareholder profits than about protecting natural resources.  “You’ve been trying to instruct us to be capitalists ever since you got here,” said Onondaga Faith-Keeper Oren Lyons, a respected Native American elder.  “We don’t value what you value."
In my quest to find answers, I found my pilgrimage to heaven leading straight into the heart of darkness.  Swami Vivekananda often pointed out that the affluence of the West largely comes at the expense of the indigenous people.  I, too, share the blame because I am part of this modern culture that displaces native and tribal people, without guilt, in the name of progress and makes them dependent on things they previously never needed.  I use consumer products that likely have been manufactured using raw materials obtained by illegal mining that poisons the land of forest dwellers.  I must admit I have not paid enough attention to the plight of tribal people.  And this plight is not unique to India.  Horrific things have been done to indigenous people in North and South America, Africa, Australia, the Philippines and other regions in the world. 

Adivasis, literally meaning ‘original inhabitants,’ is an umbrella term for the more than 600 distinct tribes that live in the jungles and hills of India.  They have to fight today for the right to live on land they have called home for centuries.  These Adivasis don’t understand the modern land ownership system of parcels and titles.  They have always lived there.  So the land belongs to them.  How can you buy or sell the sky?  How can you buy the warmth of the land, the freshness of air, or the sparkle of water?  The government tells them that their land does not belong to them and regularly forces them to leave, thereby threatening their survival.  The government calls Adivasis “Scheduled Tribes,” a term for people formally acknowledged by national legislation.  These are the people that modern “progress” has left behind.

The Narmada river at Amarkantak

As the source of the Narmada, Amarkantak is naturally also the home of Lord Shiva.  So many pilgrims on the way to take a dip in the Narmada Kund and to have darshan of Lord Amarkanteshwar Shiva drive past the make-shift huts of tribal communities.  Their fancy air-conditioned cars don’t stop.  “The poor, the illiterate, the ignorant, the afflicted – let these be your God,” Swami Vivekananda used to say.  “Know that service to these is the highest religion.  He who sees Shiva in the poor, the weak and the diseased really worships Shiva!” 

Amarkantak is in Madhya Pradesh, and looking across a gorge, one can see the state of Chhattisgarh, home to perhaps the largest and oldest tribal communities in central India.

There is a story in the Ramayana about an old woman from the Nishada tribal community by the name of Shabari who lived in a hut in the forest.  Nishada is the name of a kingdom mentioned in the Mahabarata which belonged to th tribe of the same name.  Today, a small town called Shivrinarayan located near Bilaspur, marks the area where Shabari lived.  Lord Ram and Lakshman stopped unexpectedly by her hut.  “My Lord, I have nothing to offer you but my heart and a few berries I had picked earlier,” said Shabari with tears in her eyes.  Lakshman tried to stop Lord Ram from eating the berries since Shabari had tasted each one of them to make sure they were sweet enough for offering to her beloved guest.  Putting some berries into his mouth, Lord Ram said, “Nothing equals these berries offered with such devotion.”

Sisters and Brothers of the Forest

Chhattisgarh is among the greenest states in India with 44 percent of its total area forested and contains diverse flora with more than 80 species of medicinal plants.  This land is blessed with beautiful and rugged mountain views, deep gorges, dense forests and wild flowers.  A variety of wild animals roam the country – bears, tigers, deer, monkeys, birds, wild boars, panthers, snakes, wild dogs, hyenas and crocodiles.  There are many wild bee hives and giant ant hills reaching up to twelve feet high.

In spite of this abundance and beauty, Chhattisgarh is among the states with the lowest standards of living in India.  Poverty is widespread.  More than half of the rural and urban tribal populations are extremely poor.  They were pushed into poverty, never making a transition to the modern way of life.

The largest tribal communities in central India are Gonds and Gond subgroups who have a population of over four million, according to a recent government study.  Gonds are predominantly Hindus and like to live in groups in the forest or in small villages.  They are famous for handicrafts made from bamboo, cane and metal.  Tribal people were the first metal smiths in India, and they still continue to  forge and hammer metal using age-old processes.  Besides known for creative handicrafts, they possess a special skill in theiir knowledge of medicinal plants which has been handed down through generations. 

Opinions differ on the origin of the Gonds.  Some scholars believe that they came from the South of India while others believe that their origins lie in the area around Amarkantak.  A Gond legend traces their origin to Lingo Pen, who later became known and worshiped as Badadev.  One day an artist awoke in the mind of Badadev who created various creatures and humans from the filth he found on Badadev’s body.  The Gonds love to tell stories.  They are very creative and fond of poetry, riddles, dancing and singing.  Gonds have learned to keep to themselves because some of their traditions are controversial to Hindu society, attracting the attention of tourists and scholars.  They have a practice called ghotul in which unmarried teenagers live together in a dormitory for some time, allowing them to select their mate and gain experience for setting up a household.  Divorces and widow remarriages are common, but adultery is strictly forbidden. 

A sub group of the Gonds are the Baigas, who mainly live in the dense forest and hilly regions of Madhya Pradesh.  They consider themselves servants of the Earth and kings of the forest.  They perform priestly worship services.  Before sowing season, Baigas often perform soil worship for the Gonds and other tribes.  They also prepare seeds for them.  Baiga women are fond of tattooing.

Another important tribal community are the Bheels, who are mostly spread throughout Madhya Pradesh.  Bheels consider Eklavya of the Nishada tribe to be their ancestor, and they are regarded as a warrior caste.  The Mahabharata tells the story of Eklavya wanting to study archery from Dronacharya but was denied because he belonged to a tribe.  Deeply hurt, Eklavya returned home with a resolve to master archery.  He created a mud statue of Drona and, before the image, began a disciplined program of self-study over many years. He developed into an archer of exceptional prowess.

Other major tribal groups are the Bhatras and Dhurvaas.  They live in the Bastar and Raipur regions of Chhattisgarh.  Bhatra women enjoy a high status in their society.  Bhatra girls have full freedom to choose their husbands.  In the Dhurvaa tribe, women also enjoy a high standing and are responsible for most of the family maintenance.  Dhurvaas make their living through agriculture, hunting, selling handicrafts made with cane and gathering forest products.  Their festivals involve animal sacrifices to propitiate their village goddess.  Tobacco and an intoxicating liquor made from mahuva flowers are a must for such celebrations. 

Trees are sacred in tribal communities, especially the mahuva tree, which is also known as the “Butter Tree.”  Tribal people worship this tree as the home of Baba Goraknath. It is sacrilegious to cut it down.  Mahuva trees have large thick leaves and scented, sweet-tasting, pulpy flowers that grow near the ends of the branches.  These flowers can be dried and preserved and used as food.  The seeds from the fruit are rich in oil that is used for cooking and for making soap. 

Mahuva liquor is also used by the Abujhmar tribe, who live deep in the forests in Narainpur Tehsil of the Bastar districts in southern Chhattisgarh.  Since they live in isolation and avoid contact with outsiders, they have retained much of their customs, traditions and values.  They hunt with spears and arrows and cultivate land without ploughing the Earth, lest they inflict pain on her body.  They protect tigers from poachers. Although regarded as less civilized than other Gonds, they far surpass them in strength and ability.  They have a strong sense of community and value equality and brotherhood.  

Each tribal group has its own rich and distinct culture, its own dialect, dress, eating habits, and rituals.  What is common among tribes is the simple and natural way of life that has changed little over centuries.  Marriages tend to take place within the tribe.  Festivals involve group dances. Participants wear colorful costumes, ornaments and bright headgear made of beads, shells, bones, feathers and mixed metals.  Each tribe has its own festivals, but all major tribes show up at the Bastar Dassera festival at the Devi Danteshwari temple, near Jagdalpur.  This temple is considered one of the fifty-two Shakti Peetams.

Devi Danteshwari

The Bastar Dassera festival is worth mentioning in more detail.  Beginning on the new moon in the month of Shravan, Bastar Dassera lasts over 75 days and ends on the thirteenth day of the bright moon in the month of Ashwin.  The focus of the festival is Devi Maoli and her sisters. Devi Maoli is Bastar’s native deity, revered as the elder sister of Devi Danteshwari, the family goddess of the ruling Kakatiya family.  Though the festival has its roots in Hinduism, it has assimilated many tribal elements.  

Bastar Dassera involves the participation of diverse tribes, each of whom is assigned a specific task.  Tribal carpenters come from the Beda Umargaon village to build a two-tiered chariot, and tribal villagers from Karanji, Kesarpal and Sonabal gather to twine the massive ropes that pull the chariot.  During the festival, young tribal members from Kachorapati and Agarwara pull a smaller chariot while the larger chariot is pulled by Maria tribal members from Killepal who wear bison-horned head dresses.  The task of singing hymns at all rituals is the job of the Munda tribal members from the Potanar village.  A chosen tribal girl gets assigned to swing on a bed of thorns during the festival, and a young tribal man is designated to hold vigil for nine days while buried shoulder-deep.

One of the most awaited events during Bastar Dassera is the ratha yatra.  An outsider may consider these chariots primitive but they are made with great pride.  The festival starts with the worship of the wood that will be used to build the chariots.  Only ancient tools are used.  Modern tools are taboo.  When one sees these chariots pulled by over 400 Maria tribal members - who usually live in isolation in the dense forest - one gets a powerful visual of tribal faith and ingenuity.  

Haat bazars are another occasion for tribal people to socialize.  These are weekly markets in rural areas where people go to purchase supplies for the week.  The Amarkantak haat bazar is held Sunday afternoons between 3 and 5 pm near the Narmada Devi temple on a vacant lot where large yatra buses normally park.  Villagers sit on the ground and display their produce on a cloth spread out in front of them.  You have to bring your own bag to carry the produce.  Jayram Maharaj had asked me to purchase vegetables since he was planning a bandhara (feast) the next day.  I had great fun pushing through the crowd and purchasing fresh vegetables and fruit for the cook at the Ramakrishna Kutir, but I did not bargain.  Seeing the poverty of the villagers, I gave them the price they asked for.

     Tribal Despair in Perspective

To understand the cause of why tribal people are passing through a difficult time, one needs to go back to the early 20th century.  At that time, the government opened many tribal regions to non-tribals who received free ownership of land in return for cultivating it.  Tribal people never had formal land titles for their ancestral land, and by the time they understood that they needed these, they often lost the opportunity to lay claim to their land.  The British and post-independence regimes belatedly realized the necessity to protect tribal communities from outsiders and prohibit the sale of tribal lands.

By the 1970s, many tribal peoples had lost their land.  Outsiders simply squatted on their land or lobbied governments to classify them as tribal.  A resident non-tribal shopkeeper became a permanent feature in many tribal villages, often selling goods on credit and demanding high interest.  Many fell so deeply into debt that they had to mortgage their land. 

Government policies on forest reserves equally affected tribal peoples profoundly.  Exploitation of forests has often meant allowing outsiders to cut large areas of trees while the original tribal inhabitants were prevented from cutting.   Tribal people in Bastar had ownership rights over the trees on their land for centuries.  A wide-spread scam in the 1990s allowed timber merchants to buy tribal lands, leading to large-scale felling of trees.  In Amarkantak alone, the forest has been decimated since Jayram Maharaj arrived 35 years ago.  “When I came, the jungle around the ashram was thick,” he said.

India needs more energy, and Chhattisgarh is the main source for India’s electricity and steel.  Tribal communities lost hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest land due to dams on the sacred river Narmada.  A recent mega steel plant project worth Rs 18,000 crore in the Dantewada District has drawn much opposition from tribal members in the area. The Steel Authority of India said that this plant will provide employment and pave the way for development. 

“We got to know about it a month ago through the press,” said a tribal farmer.  “We do not trust them.  We are not educated.  Even if the plant comes up, they will not employ us because we are illiterate.”   Another said, “This land is our God.  The land, the forest, water, trees are our gods.  We get cured by the plants in the forest.  How can we give all this up?”

Tribal people are proud of the way they live.  They do not want charity, just the right to live their lives on the land they have called home for centuries.  An indigenous person without land is no longer indigenous.  Tribal people want development in terms of colleges and vocational training.  Currently, there is only one tribal university in India. It is located in Amarkantak and was established by the Indira Gandhi National Tribal University Act in 2007.  Fully funded by the Government of India, this university was started to give tribal students access to higher education.  Regional campuses aim to preserve tribal art, culture and knowledge of medicinal plants. 

Poverty and illiteracy have made tribal people fair game for powerful parties.  On one side, the Government is actively trying to recruit tribal members into their paramilitary force, and on the other, the  Naxal Maoists have also tried to recruit them.   As the Government fights the Naxals, and the Naxals fight the Government, tribal members are caught in between their cross fire. 

 The district of Bastar is most affected by this conflict. The population of Bastar is 70% tribal and has the lowest standard of living in India.  Bastar and Dantewada are the most illiterate districts.  Tribal members living there suffer heartbreaking pain from extreme poverty.

“My God, the Poor - My God, the Miserable”

            When Jayram Maharaj told me that he was giving a bandhara for tribal girls coming from Bastar, I expected to see them dressed in poor clothes with poverty written all over their faces.  Instead, they poured out of the bus handsomely dressed in red-and-white checkered school uniforms.  They had come on a yatra with their teacher all the way from the Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama in Narainpur which is about a six-hour drive south of Raipur.  After lunch and some rest, the girls filed into the shrine room upstairs.  They sat down neatly and started to sing bhajans in perfect unison.  Their powerful voices echoed throughout the ashram, and even at the gate you could hear, “Ramakrishna sharanam, Ramakrishna sharanam, Ramakrishna sharanam, sharane.

Tribal girls from the Ramakrishna Mission Narainpur

After arati, the girls got ready to go back to Narainpur.  Jayram Maharaj told me that he had to fight with the corrupt bus driver who demanded 1,000 rupees more than what was originally agreed.  When the teacher accompanying the girls was ready to pay this amount from her salary, I quickly offered 1,000 rupees.  I will never forget the surprised, overwhelmed and relieved expression of this superb teacher who had taught these tribal girls so well.  Truly, the gift lies in giving.  These girls were a shining light in the darkness.  They gave me hope that something positive could happen to the tribal population of Chhattisgarh.

“Who hears the cry of the poor, the afflicted?”  Addressing the suffering of India’s poor, Swami Vivekananda’s roar can still be heard over the land.  “The poor are the Narayanas. They must be served with food and education.  Him I call a Mahatman whose heart bleeds for the poor!”

Swami Atmananda Maharaj
Tulendra, who later became Swami Atmananda, heard the call.  When he was in high school in Raipur, he saw a photo in a friend’s book of Swami Vivekananda taken at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago.  In the early 1940s, people in Madhya Pradesh were unfamiliar with Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother and Swamiji.  Though Tulendra did not know who the person in the photo was, just looking at the photo had a profound impact on him and he yearned for more information.  He had to wait until he went to college in Nagpur in 1945 and stayed at the Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama Students’ Home.  There, he immersed himself so deeply in Ramakrishna and Vivekananda literature that he wanted to give up the material world and join the Order.  His mantra guru, Swami Virajananda, asked Tulendra to first develop his intellectual and mental abilities and encouraged him to complete his university education.  Tulendra was a brilliant student and possessed all the abilities for a successful career and social standing, but his passion for following the teachings of Swami Vivekananda and for serving the poor drowned out any desire for worldly life.

Tulendra was exposed to spiritual life and the importance of serving humankind early on.  His father Dhaniram was a great devotee of Lord Ram.  He moved with his family to Vardha in Gujarat to follow Gandhiji.  Often when Gandhiji went for a walk, little Tulendra would hold his hand or his staff.    
Little Tulendra pulling Gandhiji by his staff

When Gandhiji went to jail, Dhaniram also was arrested, leaving Tulendra’s mother Bhagyawati Devi to take care of the family.   During these difficult days, Tulendra formed a strong bond with his mother.  He did not want to leave his family without her permission but was afraid she might stop him in his resolve to become a monk.  One day after dinner, he said, “I’m going now.”  His mother replied in her customary manner, “Sure, go ahead.”  He said this three times and each time received the same response.  With that, Tulendra left his family and was on his way to a life of renunciation and service to mankind.

Tulendra was initiated into brahmacharya by Swami Shankarananda and given the name of Brahmachari Tejachaitanya.  He spent many intense years of spiritual development but felt that his progress was incomplete.  There was a burning desire in his heart to start an ashram dedicated to Swami Vivekananda in Raipur, the city where Swamiji lived in his early life.  He knew he was not ready yet.  Taking a leave of absence, he went to the Himalayas and spent time with Swami Purushottamananda, who lived in a small kutir about 15 miles above Hrishikesh.  Swami Purushottamananda was a direct disciple of Swami Brahmananda and had received sannyas from Swami Shivananda.  He was now approximately 80 years old.   

Rev. Swami Purushottamananda Puri
Every day at 3pm Swami Purushottamananda would come out of his kutir and go into the nearby Vashishta Cave where he would give discourses.  To get to the cave in those days, one had to walk through rugged and dense forest teeming with wildlife. 

“Feel, feel for others!” Swami Puroshottamananda used to say.  “Do not search for happiness outside.  A man embraces a lady and gets happiness.  What is the cause?  For a moment, his mind becomes calm and quiet.  So he feels happy.  He thinks it is from the lady, but really, it is from inside that he becomes happy. Every time you get happiness, you are getting it not from external things but from within and within alone.  Please note this carefully.  Search inside alone.”

Swami Purushottamananda often asked the spellbound devotees around him, “Who are you, after all, my friend?  Every day, you say ‘I’, ‘I’ a thousand times.  Find out what is this ‘I.’ Now I shall take you very quickly to the real ‘I.’ Do you understand that the seer is always separate from the object seen?  I am seeing you, but I am not you.  I am separate from you.  I am seeing my body.  I am not the body.  You can say boldly and fearlessly that ‘I am not the body.’ I am seeing my mind, my buddhi, my ego.  Therefore, the Rishis have said, ‘I am not the body, nor the mind, nor the Antahkarana.  I am that happiness – Sat Chit Ananda.”

Swami Purushottamananda was a hard task master.  The Swami asked Brahmachari Tejachaitanya, who was afraid of wild animals, to stay at the cave alone at night.  “There is nothing to fear,” said Swami Purushottamananda.  “If death must come, one can be killed by wild animals in the middle of the day.  If it is not supposed to happen, wild animals can come in the middle of the night and sit close by without hurting you.”  This teaching made the young brahmachari more confident but he soon had to pass an even tougher test.  Swami Purushottamananda asked him to deliver a letter at midnight to a home half a mile away through thick jungle.  As he walked in the black of night, he heard tigers growl, but putting his fear aside, he delivered the letter.  On the way back, Brahmachari Tejachaitanya felt elated.  He had conquered his fear and understood what Swami Purushottamananda had taught him.  He spent the rest of the night wandering in the jungle, singing and feeling immense joy.

Brahmachari Tejachaitanya had conquered fear.  He now was strong and ready to work.  He left the Himalayas and returned to Raipur.  Strengthened by dreams he had of Swami Vivekananda and Swami Trigunatitananda both encouraging him to start an ashram, he established an office of the Ramakrishna Seva Samiti in Raipur and began giving discourses.  He had a dynamic personality which attracted many capable people. 

On the auspicious day of Buddha Purnima in 1960, he went to Amarkantak and took the vow of sannyas in front of the Siddheswar Shiva lingam in the Narmada Devi temple compound.  Taking the name Swami Atmananda, he went after his goal of establishing a Vivekananda Center in Raipur with greater zeal.  In 1961 the State Administration allotted a large piece of land for the ashram, and by 1963 a student center, a Vivekananda library and a Vivekananda hospital were opened.  Swami Atmananda also started a quarterly publication called Vivek Jyoti in 1963.

During this time, many Hindus fleeing genocide in East Pakistan sought refuge in Madhya Pradesh.  Resettlement camps were set up in Dandakaranya, and Swami Atmananda spent large sums of money from the Vivekananda ashram funds for this purpose.  Swami Gambhirananda came from Belur Math to inspect the work that had been done in the camps.  Swami Atmananda accompanied him, and together they toured the camps as well as tribal areas in Bastar.

Swami Atmanandaji Maharaj
Swami Atmananda knew Chhattisgarh very well.  He had traveled to many areas in the state over several years.  On one such trip he reached a remote area inhabited entirely by tribal people.  There he saw something that troubled him deeply.  Tribal women were drinking water from the same pond with  dogs and other animals.  “Can we not help these people live a human existence?” asked Swami Atmananda.  “Are they not our brothers and sisters?  How can we allow them to lead such difficult lives?”  Thus, the seed was planted.  A significant part of Swami Atmananda’s life would be spent in the service of the poor and tribal communities.
On the birthday of Holy Mother Sarada Devi, Swami Atmananda was given formal sanyas by President Maharaj Swami Vireshwarananda at Belur Math, and the Raipur ashram was brought into the Ramakrishna Mission and re-named Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda Ashram.

Swami Atmananda had a track record of service to others in Chhattisgarh, and the state administration had great regard for his work.  The Swami worked with local and state officials to ensure that tribal welfare would formally become a part of the state’s 5-year plan.  The year of 1985 was a significant year for tribal people in Bastar.  The government allocated Rs 2 crores and 42 acres for tribal welfare.

Ramakrishna in the Heart of Tribal Land

The Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama Narainpur was set up in 1985 for the upliftment of the tribal people of Abujhmarh who lived in the surrounding 4,000 square kilometers.  The Mission started a village development program that included schools and fair-price shops.  The Mission also installed water pumps, provided malaria medicine, and built roads.  In order to help young tribal members out of poverty and give them confidence, a Vivekananda Tribal Youth Education Center run by the Mission provided them with education and training. 

Women’s education was a topic of great importance for Swami Vivekananda.  Taking Swamiji’s words: “India’s progress can never be complete without the education of women,” Swami Atmananda took it upon himself to ensure that tribal women had educational opportunities and grew up in a healthy environment.  He started an organization called VISHWAS (Vivekananda Institute for Social Health Welfare and Service) to provide educational opportunities to women and girls from tribal regions.  With the help of an educator friend, he started residential schools for tribal girls to teach various subjects including their own culture, puja, prayers, bhajans and kirtan.  The girls also were encouraged to play sports.  This curriculum was set up to give the tribal girls confidence and make them self-reliant.

The girls that chanted so beautifully during arati at the Ramakrishna Kutir in Amarkantak are the outcome of the efforts at the Ramakrishna Narainpur Ashram.  Unfortunately Swami Atmananda could not see the results of his untiring work.  He died in a car accident while returning from Bhopal to Raipur in 1989.

“The Narainpur school is only attended by tribal members,” said Swami Satyarupananda, head of the Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda Ashrama, Raipur.  “We started with 9 or 10 students and now have over a thousand students and five branches in the forest.  When our tribal boys pass from our school, they are able to make a living.”
Swami Satyarupananda

I couldn’t help but ask the Swami how the Order deals with the troubles between the Government’s paramilitary force and the Naxal Maoists.  “We have no conflict,” said the Swami with a smile.  “We get good will from all.  We are doing good to people.  We ask for no money, we give education, food and clothes.  We bring Sri Ramakrishna,  Holy Mother and Swamiji to the tribes.  They see Sri Ramakrishna, but we do not disturb their belief in their goddess Danteshwari. ”

I never met Swami Atmananda, but I can see him in the deeds and people he left behind.  His magnetic personality attracted many people, and according to Jayram Maharaj, he started some twenty centers including Amarkantak, Raipur, Indore, Omkareshwar, Narainpur, and Bilaspur.  He is responsible for many young men entering the Order and take to spiritual life.   Jayram Maharaj told me that Swami Atmananda did not initiate, but I could see his influence in the great work being done quietly at the Amarkantak ashrama.

“Swami Atmananda was a charismatic speaker,” said Jayram Maharaj.  “He had a very positive outlook and a very sweet voice.  He sang very well and was fond of going to the forest to sit for meditation and see wild animals.  One night, Swami Atmananda was sleeping outside on the veranda when he woke up smelling a peculiar odor.  He found a tiger sleeping next to him and when he called out for others to take cover, the tiger got startled and ran into the jungle.” 
Dr.Om Prakash Verma and Jairam Maharaj at the tribal school Raipur
 Two of Swami Atmananda’s younger brothers joined the Ramakrishna Order and became monks - Swami Nikhilatmananda and the late Swami Tyagatmananda, both of whom at one time headed the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission Sevashrama in Allahabad.  The Swami’s youngest brother, Dr. Om Prakash Verma, fulfilled the Swami’s dream for building a memorial for Swami Vivekananda in Raipur.  “After Swami Atmananda’s death, we established the Vivekananda Vidyapith in Raipur,” said Dr. Verma.  “We started the Vidyapith as a residential school in 1994 with about 15 students.  Today, we have about 400 residential students.”

Swami Bhaskaranandaji Maharaj
Swami Bhaskarananda, head of the Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama in Ujjain, was at the Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama in Narainpur from its inception in 1985 and stayed there for 12 years.  “I had a golden opportunity to be with Swami Atmananda for a couple of years,” said Swami Bhaskarananda.  “He was a dynamic Swami with the tender heart of a mother.  He wanted to elevate tribal children to the standards of modern society and to give the children good facilities and environment.  They also learned to chant difficult stotras very nicely.” 

            Change is inevitable.  In order to thrive in the modern world, tribal people have to adapt, which comes with a compromise.  “With all these developments,” said Swami Bhaskarananda, “we have disturbed their culture, simplicity and honesty, but as a result, tribal students often become doctors and engineers.”  

There was much on my mind when my pilgrimage to Amarkantak ended and I returned to America.  I learned that I should be more conscious of where I put my values, and with sensitivity and tenderness, I should build deeper relationships with people and the land on which we live.  Our sisters and brothers in the forest need help.

“The world is in need of those whose life is one burning love, selfless,” said Swami Vivekananda.  “That love will make every word tell like a thunderbolt.  Bold words and bolder deeds are what we want.  Awake, awake great ones!  The world is burning with misery.  Can you sleep?”

Largest statue of a seated Swami Vivekananda is in central Raipur


  1. Usha mataji,
    I stumbled upon your blog via the site Mother's Courtyard where there was a link to your blog. I feel blessed to have done so. I have seen your book on Ma Kali at many Vedanta centers in the US and also in India but did not know you were the author.
    You article about Swami Gambhirananda and your palpable devotion to him was uplifting and moving beyond words.
    I enjoyed your article on Mexico. I have been to the same Anthropological museum in Mexico City in 1996. Like you I also reflected on how India managed to subsume the Islamic and European cultures while still retaining their essence. Some of the Islamic conquests rivaled the Spanish in their cruelty. Perhaps the answer lies in the depth to which ancient monks in India saturated the whole country in religious ideas by traveling, in addition to the many saints and holy householders in virtually every district of the country. Just offering my guess.
    Reading your blogs was a pleasure and reveals to us your deep love of India, Ma Kali, Ma Sarada, Sri Ramakrishna, and Swamiji.
    Respectful pranams and heartfelt regards, love, best wishes to you. I am fortunate to have made your acquaintance even if electronically.

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