Warmly accepting others, and being accepted, as a fellow human being beyond religious identities and labels is one of the many wonderful things I learnt during my stay at a Christian Interfaith Ashram.
Surrounded by tall trees and bushes bursting with flowers, the chirping of birds, the excited shrieks of squirrels, the barking of friendly dogs and the occasional braying of a donkey, I must confess I felt I was in something like Paradise! Waking up to a window-view of abundant greenery outside every morning was a dream come true! As it is said, God places you in the right place and the right time and for a right reason. So, here I was in the beautiful Vidyavanam Ashram, a Catholic-run interfaith spiritual centre a little distance from the Bannerghatta National Park in Bangalore.
Father Antony Kalliath, a Catholic priest who is in charge of Vidyavanam (‘Forest of Wisdom’) Ashram, is a man with a golden heart. He has opened the doors of the ashram to all, irrespective of faith and community. I must admit that with my Muslim name, I was initially a wee bit apprehensive about how I would be accepted. Going by the notorious reputation that Muslims have earned owing to the misdeeds of some violent terrorists, my heart sometimes skips a beat now and then when people of other faiths get to know that I follow Islam because I wonder what on earth they must be imagining. But the kindness and welcome I received from Fr. Antony and everyone else at the ashram was overwhelming! Believe me, to be accepted as a fellow human being so warmly is very humbling.
The day I got to the ashram, the hot herbal tea I sipped in the spick and span dining room gave instant relief to my sore throat, which I had brought along with me from the city. The amazingly efficient way the two bubbly girls, Bineeta and her cousin sister Surbhi, handled the kitchen filled me with a sense of awe and admiration. Being a horrible cook myself, I wondered how they managed to rustle up super meals three times a day right on time for the ashram folks. Strolling along the silent pathways in the ashram helped me enjoy one of my favourite hobbies”of talking to animals and birds, although I don’t know if they understood the names I gave them! So, I was very glad to spot ‘Black Forest’, the pitch black cat, ‘Happy’ the horse and ‘Dazzle’ the donkey who were grazing outside the gate, and many colorful butterflies and tiny birds fluttering about! The ashram is also host to Blacky, Jimmy and Julie, three beautiful dogs who are bestowed with abundant love by Father Antony and other ashram inmates.
The ashram is abundantly green, and so other life-forms, like caterpillars, lizards, beetles, chameleons and even snakes have also made their home here. I ought to consider myself very lucky that I got to see ‘Discover Channel’ and ‘Animal Planet’ live every day here, all for free!
Life in the ashram is unhurried, yet time here can be spent very meaningfully. Waking up for the fajr prayer and then breakfast, it was wonderful to sit on a stone bench in the splendid outside, chopping vegetables for our lunch (The simple and wonderfully nutritious vegetarian meals here are excellent for the soul, mind and the body, I discovered!). Taking a relaxed stroll in the evening, followed by early dinner and prayers, is a great way to wind up the day!
Truly, the whole earth is a prayer-mat, and this I really experienced sitting in the chapel of the ashram at the morning Mass with the Fathers and Nuns. A wonderful way to begin the day is by wishing peace to each other, as they do at Mass. Being in the company of spiritually-minded people, you feel all the more tranquil!
Being at the ashram I was blessed to be able to meet some wonderful people and learn good things from them. One such person is Father Babu, a Catholic priest with many years of experience teaching in schools. He is a very knowledgeable person, and you can chat with him on a wide range of subjects, from making movies to Mars! He is the author of several books, including a collection of poems and a novel that might soon be made into a feature film! You might be able to spot him busy in the kitchen churning out mango pickle, and the same evening he can also guide you through a meditation on the universe in the chapel. I gained a great deal from this wonderful meditation session that he conducted so ably, which provided fascinating insights into how glorious God and vast His creation are and how small we are and how humble we ought to be!
The ashram is an island of tranquility, and serious spiritual seekers find their way here even from across ‘the seven seas’. That’s how I was able to meet Sister Sutisa, a Catholic nun from Thailand, who was here for a two-month stay to reflect and pray. Working for women and children who are trafficked and abused in Thailand, this energetic sister shared with us some bits of her story of struggle, of how from a girl from an economically poor family she went on to become a nun working for women’s rights!
Heard of tawakkul, complete faith in God? I was glad to witness this here in the form of Brother Nixon. Having completed several years of priestly education, he set off as a wanderer for over a year across the country with no pennies in his pocket. “People are good. They help you, and I have experienced the hand of Providence guarding me all the time”, he says, sharing his life-story. Happy spending his time gardening and taking care of other ashram needs, Brother Nixon is a gentle person who wants to help the poor and simply be himself.
And there’s Soman ji, an ever-smiling person who knows not just how to plant trees but also how make the ashramites feel comfortable with his ever-helpful nature.
People say home is where one is born, but I feel home is where one feels at peace, happy in heart and soul. At Vidyavanam Ashram, I felt very much at home very tranquil. It helped me focus more deeply on my purpose of life. I thank God and the Ashram for this blessing!