Where Religion and Secularism Meet: An All Girls School in Ahmedabad

 

https://youtu.be/ivXinHdnY5Q

Video by Roda Osman

 

Written by Ana Singh

AHMEDABAD – On most days, Dr. Nita Shah feels like she is the mother of 400 girls. She helps them with their homework, with making their beds and comforts them when they are homesick. In fact, many of the girls at her school, SV Randesan, call her “Ma.”

“She is naturally like that,” said her assistant principal, Bharat Mavadia.

And if she is the mother, Mavadia is the father figure on campus. “I just picked up the role that was then required,” he said. “I needed to be the disciplinarian guy.”

SV Randesan, a residential boarding school in Ahmedabad for girls in fifth through twelfth grades has nearly doubled in size since it first opened its doors two years ago. With 370 current students, there is no plan to stop growing. Instead, over the next few years the school hopes to have 1,000 students.

“There was a demand from parents for a school which could accommodate under-privileged girls,” said Shah. “They live at their remote locations villages where good educational systems are not there.” The majority of the students receive some form of financial assistance and many of the girls from poor rural areas are given access to a free education.

Financial aid for the school is made possible through the Swaminarayan branch of Hinduism. But despite the religious affiliation, the school prides itself on providing a traditional secular education to its students. The classrooms are enhanced by the state of the art facility and fully equipped with the latest technologies. “Having technology helps get our students ahead,” said Mavadia.

Technology is one of the ways in which SV Randesan is trying to empower its students from underprivileged backgrounds. Literacy, especially among girls and women, is woefully low in India. The overall literacy rate for women in India is 39 percent in comparison to a 64 percent literacy rate for men. As a result there are 200 million illiterate women in India.  Educational disparities for women become even more exaggerated in rural areas where only 31 percent of all women are literate. In urban areas the literacy rate among women is drastically higher at 64 percent.

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A few of the girls inside their dormitories

Ana Singh

Besides poor job prospects, low illiteracy rates have other societal implications for Indian women. Thirty-eight percent of illiterate married women were married below the age of 18 in comparison to the 23 percent of literate women who got married below the legal age according to the most recent census data. One of the intentions of both the school is to give girls and young women access to education in the hopes that they can achieve financial success without depending on an underage marriage for security.

In addition to providing a quality education for young girls, SV Randesan also emphasizes values such as honesty, obedience and good behavior, both in and outside of the classroom. Although all school lessons are secular, these values connect back to the teachings of the Swaminarayan faith. “From religion there this value system which will make individual a better citizen,” said Shah.

The obedience and good citizenship of the girls is especially apparent inside the dormitories. In every room, all the beds are perfectly made and not a single article of clothing lingers on the floor. Across from the dormitories, in the aarti room, a large chart containing a daily checklist of good behavior hangs on the wall. But this checklist was not the doing of a teacher or a school administrator. Instead the mastermind behind the chart was none other than an eager young student.

 

Like the rest of the school, the cafeteria is brand new and impeccably clean. In long tables, many younger girls could be seen finishing up their lunches. One of the girls, Mahima Gohil, 11, was eager to chat about her experience at SV Randesan.

“My favorite class is chemistry,” said Mahima. Her English is good considering that when she arrived at the school less than a year ago, she could not speak the language. Like all other students at SV Randesan, Mahima’s schedule begins at seven in the morning and ends at nine in the evening.

 

The 14-hour day extends beyond the confines of the classroom. The girls participate in dance, play time aarti, a Hindu religious ritual of worship. [Also included in the schedule is a compulsory hour of yoga. “It helps me with my schedule,” Mahima said.

 

Shah also spoke of the benefits of yoga. “Their bodies and mind are totally different. It helps them settle,” said Shah.

 

In contrast to the younger girls who sit at the tables and talk in excited chatters, several young women calmly stand in line waiting for their turn to receive food from the lunch buffet. The women are members of the first graduating class of an intensive four-month long vocational training program. The program provides English classes and computer training to young women ages 21 to 27 in the hopes that these young women will be able to find jobs and be independent without feeling pressured to be married.

A devoted follower of the Swaminarayan faith, Shah is clearly guided by the ethos of her own faith. In addition to her position as principle, she takes on a more nurturing role to her younger students especially to the new ones who are unaccustomed to living away from home and need extra attention during the day and sometimes in the late hours of the night.

But the additional hours spent comforting a homesick child does not seem to bother Shah in the slightest, “So you know becoming a parent of 400 girls. Don't you think it is very interesting for anybody who really want to see some good things in life?” she asked with a slight smile.


Sufi Shrine Diversity

With so much of the world's conflict stemming from religion, this Sufi shrine has created a space where all faiths meet and worship side by side. The following piece is an audio story about how Nizamuddin shrine in New Delhi creates a welcoming space for believers of all faiths and tourist to enjoy Qwalli music and build a spiritual connection to their higher power.


Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me an (Indian) Match

 

Elizabeth VanMetre

 

NEW DELHI – Gopal Suri didn’t plan to be a matchmaker or, as he calls himself, a marriage broker. For years he worked in the hotel business. But in 1992, after he found husbands for his five sisters, the career fell into his lap. It was something that he knew he could do and something that India needed.

Seventy-five  percent of of Indian marriages are arranged by families, according to a survey conducted by IPSOS.

 There was a time when “arranged marriages”  meant fathers going door-to-door in the family’s village looking for the right match. But today, with more Indians living in cities and more young people leaving home for school and employment, it is more complicated.

 

Suri does his best to retain a traditional, old-world style. The moment you sit down in his office  he offers you tea and food. He insists there is no discussion  before a cup of chai is shared,  a practice he observes with his clients as well. He is an older man with a bald shiny head. He constantly wears a big smile his face and never seems to stop laughing. Suri boasts that he had never had a marriage he had brokered fail, although there have been some broken engagements. It’s something he is very proud of. It is a sweet sentiment but one impossible to verify. He has arranged hundreds of matches.

 

The going rate for someone looking for help from Suri varies depending on services included and how much the family has to spend. While he doesn’t share his going rate, he he works families who make between 5 million to 50 million rupees (about $8,000 to $800,000 US dollars) annually . The Hindu Times estimates that the going rate for marriage brokers is between 15 thousand to 31 thousand rupees ($300 to $500 US dollars). This amount is constitutes a big chuck of a typical middle class Indians family’s annual salary.

 

Suri’s business, A to Z Matchmaking, is down a long strip mall hallway tucked inside a shopping arcade inside the Hyatt Regency in Delhi. The office is small and is separated into two different sections by an installed wall. One side sits a few chairs and a table. It’s a bit of a waiting area. On the other side is a desk with four chairs.. A TV sits on a table behind the desk. This is where the Gopal Suri, the founder of the agency, provides services to around 10 clients a day.

 

Suri specializes in helping middle and upper income Hindus and Sikh families find mates for their sons and daughters. With over one billion people in India, this is a daunting task. Suri says there are an abundance of families that he provides services for--so many that he doesn’t have time to take holidays or weekends off. He estimates that he sees about 10 clients a day, which leads to around 200 weddings a year.

 

It’s 6 p.m. on a recent spring day and his last family of the day arrives.

The family was  originally from Delhi but moved to Dubai when the father found work there in the hotel business.  The husband and wife seem friendly. Their son is going to look at profiles today with his parents to find his wife. The mother’s wedding ring spills off her ring finger onto her pinky and middle with large blinding diamonds. Each family member is decked out in designer clothing. The 24-year-old crosses his leg showcasing his Gucci shoes. He has a fresh haircut, average height. He smiles a lot and exudes a cool confidence.

 

This isn’t their first meeting with Suri. The parents have stopped by privately before. The family has filled out their preferences in an online form that states what they hope for in a wife for their son. “Women’s family usually want the financial security and they want educated people for their daughter,” Suri says. “Most males need a very good faced girl. They are about the looks.”

 

The son also shares his caste, Kshatriyas, and his religion, Hindu. He will not be shown any matches in a different caste or religion, even if they are a perfect in every other aspect. “Everyone wants to do their relationship in their religion only,” Suri says. “They won’t go apart from their religion. Social taboo is big here. No one has come to me so far that is an Indian Hindu and wants to get married to a Muslim or Christian.”

 

The way Suri sees it, if people wanted to get married to someone of a different religion they would be doing it without their parent’s approval and would be a “love marriage,” a term coined to identify couples who get married without it being arranged by their families.

 

“Love doesn’t see caste,” he explains. But he says love for most will come after themarriage and is not a priority when it comes to finding matches. While religion plays a large role in the matches clients will see, Suri says most people aren’t looking for the most religious of mates-- he says spirituality matters the most. He says you are born with your religion and it is “given to you by your parents.” Spirituality is something “that you know yourself and yourself only,” he adds.

 

Today the family, which asked not to be identified by name in this article, will begin looking at actual profiles of eligible women for the first time. Suri has some of his own picks lined up and assured the family they will be pleased. Each girl’s profile will be shown on the small TV screen behind Suri’s desk that’s connected to his laptop. The son doesn’t seem nervous, just a bit annoyed at his mother who is asking him to focus. And it begins.

 

The first photo posted on the screen is of a short woman with long hair and a round face. She looks young and the photos appear to be taken professionally.

 

As soon as the photo pops up he says, “no.”

 

“Really look at her. Can we see more pictures?” his mother says while his father glances up then goes back to scrolling on his cellphone.

“I don’t like her. Move on,” the son counters.

 

And the process moves on. After awhile he finally agrees to see a profile of one of the women. She is tall, possibly taller than he is. She wears heavy eye make-up and her first photo appears to be a selfie that reveals  a large portion of her collarbone. She looks long and lean. More skin is exposed in this photo than the other profiles.

 

He sits up straight in his chair and leans forward, taking more of an interest than with the other women. There’s a lot of information laid out about her like details of her family, including that her mother died. It also lists her personal likes and dislikes.

 

He says “yes.”

 

His mom seems unsure.

 

“Yes?” she asks. “She doesn’t have a mother. Lets pass.”

 

He looks frustrated and slumps back in his chair, crosses his arms and stares at the ceiling. They pass.

 

While keeping the tradition alive, Suri knows that this new method is far from traditional. He says that while the families have the final say, the children are getting a lot more say into their matches. That being said, parents are still very involved during the process, which he thinks is very important.

 

“In arranged marriages parents are always there,” he says. “They have seen the ups and downs of marriage. They have some experience on that kind of relationship. They are involved they will be supporting the couple.”

 

Dating websites like https://www.bharatmatrimony.com/ boast that they help thousands of people find partners a month. Suri does warn that even though they may be fast and less expensive, they have major drawbacks.

 

“Online dating profiles are not good,” he says. “Cheats are [on] there. They fill out a profile even though they are married. There is no authenticity. You are wasting your time. You are wasting your emotions.”

 

Suri double-checks every profile before he adds it to his database. He makes sure that they are single, they are telling the truth about their religion and caste and that their financials add up. He says he has lot of methods of doing this including checking in “with his sources.”

 

By the end of the appointment the mother seemed to remove herself from the process of find her son a wife, at least temporarily.  She walked to the makeshift room so her son could look at matches without getting frustrated by her. Eventually his father joins her.

The son has gone through all the matches.

After the appointment ends, Suri will contact  the families that have been chosen. If the female’s family is interested in meeting the match, he will arrange a meeting of the parents, then of their kids. If the arrangement is successful, there will be a wedding—and he usually receives a wedding invite in the mail.


Ragini Shankar: Playing in Harmony with God

Ragini Shankar in Concert. Video by Thea Piltzecker

 

 

RISHIKESH – Ragini Shankar, sitting with her legs folded under her on the small stage, takes her violin, raises it up and flips it over so that the top, known as the scroll,  rests on one leg. The violin, a gift from her maternal grandmother, is more than an instrument in her hands, she says. It is an extension of her very being. The audience can sense this even before she starts to play. Shankar looks out and smiles as she raises her bow to the strings.  A sound akin to a melodic human voice fills the hall. Is it Shankar or her violin that we hear? The two seem inseparable.

Ragini plays the violin in a North Indian classical style known as “Hindustani,” but since she left a career as an engineer, she has spent much of her time collaborating with International artists - cellist, singers and tabla players - creating a fusion of Indian and Western classical music, and in the process, Shankar has become an international ambassador for Indian music.

On a cool spring night in March, Shankar, accompanied by the tabla player Shubh Maharaj, performed Indian ragas for our Columbia group on the rooftop of a hotel in Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganges. The private concert came on the eve of a concert tour of the United States that would take Shankar to major cities like New York, Boston and Houston. The tour saw her playing at small, intimate venues like the Baithak Center in Boston and the Arthur Zankel Music Center at Skidmore college. Ragini says she enjoy playing in America because the sounds are always new to the audience.

Over breakfast the morning after the private concert in Rishikesh and on a long bus ride to New Delhi, Shankar spoke about her musical and journey, her embrace of the violin and her ambitions for the future.

Watching the tabla player and Ragini riff off each other, it becomes clear that Indian sacred music is a combination of score and improvisation, realism and faith. With that in mind, its success rests on a number of factors: the relationship between the musician and instrument, the interplay between the musicians themselves and their personal relationships with the divine. Ragini explains that her name comes from the root word “raga,”  which means melody in Sanskrit and she laughs when it’s suggested that her name alone had her destined for musical greatness.

Classical music

As a brisk breeze rolls over the stage above the Ganges she slows down the cadence of the bow across the strings,  looks up and smiles again at the audience before bursting into a playful construction of ascending notes. She’s playing a raga, and every raga is intended to evoke a certain emotion in the listener: tranquility, devotion, eroticism, comedy, pathos, heroism, wrathful, terrifying, odious and wondrous according to the Bharat Natya Shastra, a sacred Hindu text dedicated to the performing arts.  In this case, it seems to  “color” the listener with joy and delight.

The word raga first appears in the Bhagavad Gita where it points to a certain heightened psychological state. Ragini’s sometimes ghastly, but often cheerful tunes seem to lull our group into a blissful state of mind.  Her performance routine is almost meditative; her face holds an expression of deep joy and concentration. So do the faces of her audience.

To her, the stage is sacred. Her violin is her connection to what she calls “a great force in the universe.”

When she plays, Ragini says that her mind is focused on one thing: the flow of energy. She believes that her energy precedes her; she is “introduced” to the audience by her aura even before she speaks or plays. Every time before she plays, she pauses for a moment and allows the feeling of extreme gratitude to permeate through her bones. This allows her to consistently perform at her best and carry on the legacy that she’s inherited coming from a long line of musicians.

She likes to believe she chose this path in life, but she acknowledges that family, and possible even the divine,  had a strong hand in the way her story has unfolded. She was s educated in engineering from the University of Mumbai, and had been determined to follow this professional path but she realized that the decision had already been made for her, she was to carry on the musical tradition of her ancestors. Growing up, playing the violin was a job, but by the time she’d finished her engineering studies, it had become a passion, a passion that allowed her to ease into a career she truly loves. Her career has taken her to the United States, Canada, Singapore, Dubai, and countless religious festivals throughout her home state of India. She was born in Kerala, in the south of India, but now resides in its capital city, Mumbai.  

The bar is high for Ragini, who surprisingly can’t read Western music. In the West, the violin is tuned to GDAE, whereas Ragini’s violin is tuned to EBEB. Ragini describes her style as fusion, drawing mainly from classical Hindustani music. Her grandmother is Padmabhushan Dr. N. Rajam, her mother Dr. Sangeeta Shankar. She’s the eighth generation in a long line of musicians. Both have created a legacy as India’s most celebrated musicians. Ragini refers to her grandmother and mother as guru-ji, having been raised on the collective knowledge and talent of the two. She inherited violin, which she considers sacred,  from ancestors.  She knows attachment to the physical is frowned upon, but she feels her connection to the inanimate violin. She started playing at age 3, but it was only at age 11 when she switched from practicing to truly enjoying the music she was creating. In the morning, she prays, eats breakfast and then practices and in the afternoon, she makes sure she resumes practice around four o'clock, because the energy in the universe is very high at that time. On a given day, she will practice for anywhere from four to eight hours a day.  

Classical music

Ragini is Hindu, and her devotion to music is what she would call “the highest expression of life.” Creating something out of nothing is her way of practicing bhakti. “When you create something that has never existed before, you are experiencing the divine,” she believes. To her, the creative process is meaningless without a sense of bhakti. Bhakti is to immerse yourself in something and entirely devote your energy and mind to it, and to Ragini’s mind, there is nothing that requires more devotion that art. “Bhakti comes through performing wholeheartedly,” she says. She also believes that the vibrations she creates with her instrument have the power to charge people, to energize people.

A crisp breeze rushed through the small crowd fixated on the young artist. The moon glistened off the rolling Ganges, and a hollow note emanated from the rooftop. It was the closing note to Ragini’s performance; the note hangs there, with varying pitch, like a question. Will Ragini bequeath her musical legacy to a ninth generation?

The next day, on a bus barrelling down a busy Indian highway, horns blaring, she answers the question with a similar smile to the one she puts on while she performs. She pauses for a second to consider the question.  “If it is willed, it will happen,” she says.


Buddhism Resurgent: A Small Dalit Community is Finding a Way to Escape the Caste System

AHMEDABAD – Across the street from Ahmedabad’s New Cloth Market, a dosa vendor named Sunil Gagnath Sabkale watches over a fragile Buddhist temple that is sacred to the hundreds of Buddhists whose parents converted to the faith from Hinduism decades ago.

A thin bamboo fence separates it from the busy, dusty street and chaotic rush of rickshaws and eager shoppers.

The temple itself is a small courtyard with a flimsy bamboo shelter built around a painted statue of the Buddha. A flower garland is draped on a hanging canvas depiction of B.R. Ambedkar, a prominent activist and writer of the country’s constitution. Ambedkar, a victim of caste-based discrimination, is also known for converting from Hinduism, the country’s dominant faith, to Buddhism, a minority faith that represents less than 1 percent of the total population, according to the 2011 census.

His decision to convert and publicly denounce the caste system sparked a Neo-Buddhist revival in 1950s India that encouraged thousands of Dalits, like Sabkale’s family, to leave Hinduism behind in pursuit of a caste-free life.

Though carefully maintained, the temple exudes an air of temporality – of impermanence. Thin wire and plastic ties holds the bamboo together. The shelter around the Buddha statue is lopsided. This temple is only eight years old, and is thought of by the local Buddhists as a temporary replacement until the government fulfills its promise to replace it with a more sturdy structure.

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The dosa hut stands outside of the New Cloth Market. Photo by Nicole Einbinder.

The last two decades have witnessed a resurgence of interest in Buddhism by the Dalit community, said Deepak Dhammadarshi, 31, the media and publicity officer of Manuski Trust, a human rights organization based on the teachings of Ambedkar. Dhammadarshi converted to Buddhism when he was 18. Mass conversion ceremonies occurred this past October, with over 300 conversions across the state of Gujarat — the direct response to a surge of caste-based violence.

“Our people who experienced atrocities are turning to Buddhism because they know the root of the problem is their identity,” Dhammadarshi said. “As long as they remain Dalits and untouchables, they are going to get this treatment of humiliation and discrimination and violence.”

This type of conversion carries legal ramifications. In 2003, the Gujarat government passed the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, which outlawed converting or attempts to convert. Under this act, those who are converted must receive prior permission from the District Magistrate. However, in 2006, an amendment was added to the bill that grouped Jains and Buddhists with Hindus. In this, legally, a Hindu converting to a Buddhist would be permitted – but would still be considered a faith under the Hindu umbrella, which individuals such as the Hindu Dalits are trying to escape.

Throughout India, Dalits have converted to other faiths, notably Christianity, to remove themselves from the caste system. Most Christian converts are from the states of Goa and Tamil Nadu. While many Buddhist converts and teaching centers are in the state of Maharashtra, the Gujarati Dalit movement has also gained strength in response to caste-based violence, according to Mangesh Dahiwale, 42, trustee of the Manuski Trust.

In July, upper-caste Hindu men attacked a Dalit family in the town of Una over allegations that they skinned a cow. And in Mumbai, a Dalit teenager was killed for flirting with a girl from the upper-caste. In the years 2013 and 2014, there was an almost 20 percent increase in crimes against Dalits, according to the 2015 report released by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. Dalit women are particularly targeted, with a nearly 50 percent increase of rape cases against them in the past decade.

“We don’t resort to violence but the non-violent means of the Buddha,” Dahiwale said. “When people were beaten up and accused of skinning that cow, our people came in large numbers in the streets. We weren’t carrying guns or any weapons, our only ammunition was the Buddhist flag.”

For Manjula Pradeep, 47, a human rights activist from Gujarat and former director of the Dalit activist organization Navsarjan Trust, her decision to formally convert to Buddhism last year with around 200 other converts occurred after years of struggling as an atheist in a Hindu family. She said that growing up, she often felt anger because of the restrictions placed upon her as a woman in Hindu culture. In 2001, her father forced her out of the family’s home.

A decade later, as he lay on his deathbed, Pradeep said she realized she couldn’t remain bitter toward her father. “When he passed away, the first thing I did was meditation and that totally changed my life,” she said. “Slowly, I started reading more about Buddha.”

Pradeep described her decision to embrace Buddhism in December as an emotional, but challenging, moment. That night, her mother called and proclaimed she was no longer her daughter because she wasn’t a Hindu.

Pradeep also faced hostility at her organization as a female leader and Buddhist convert. Shortly after converting, she was asked to leave her position. She is currently the consultant of Manuski Trust.

“I feel very privileged for becoming a Buddhist,” she said, despite the challenges. “The last thing I had to do in my life was get out of Hinduism. I don’t want to be labeled as a Hindu activist, but a Dalit activist.”

In Gujarat, the situation of conversion is especially precarious, given the state’s role with Hindutva, the right-wing Hindu nationalist movement often associated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP party and the rise of an intolerant climate between the Hindu majority and minority faiths. In 2002, when Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat, major riots broke out in the state, resulting in the deaths of around 1,000 people, mostly Muslim, and displacement of hundreds of thousands.

“Being a Dalit in Gujarat, you cannot challenge the religious connotations,” Pradeep said. “Fear among Dalits is a major issue and they are living with a level of insecurity. If they want to live in a fundamental Hindu society, they have to follow these norms and customs.”

Though this positivity emanates from members of the faith, there are still obvious hardships faced by these individuals. This is particularly seen in the 450 second-generation Buddhists, like Sabkale, originally from the state of Maharashtra, who work at or near Ahmedabad’s New Cloth Market across from their temporary temple set-up. They are employed as laborers, loading the trucks and preparing the material sold in the bustling bazaar.

The original temple, which was constructed in 1975 by a community of newly converted Marathi Buddhists, was destroyed in an infrastructure project by the municipal government to make way for housing projects. When the authorities came to demolish the temple, Buddhists stood in front of it to protect it, according to Sabkale. He said that the police came and beat them, including his sister-in-law, Anjana Samadham, and her cousin, both of whom where badly injured.

In the aftermath of the attack, the police told ambulances to not assist the beaten, Sabkale said.

The community was given $150,000 and a promise to rebuild the structure and replace the original idol, which was removed during the demolition. Though the Buddhists remain optimistic that this will happen, signs point to a grimmer reality. It is legitimate in India for the government to remove temples and shrines, even Hindu ones, for infrastructure projects, and, according to Giresh Gupta, an author and guide living in Ahmedabad, the replacement will never come.

In the words of Ratnakar Kosambi, 75, his decision to convert to Buddhism decades ago and teach his children and grandchildren the tenets of the faith was worth it. Now the regional chairman of the Triratna Buddhist Order in Ahmedabad, he says that despite the challenges of being a Gujarati Buddhist, Buddhism gives him peace of mind.

“I was searching for something higher. And when I came to Buddhism, I was immediately satisfied,” he said. “I am a free man.”

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Ratnakar Kosambi in his home library. Photo by Nicole Einbinder.

 

This article was published on the Religion News Service here: http://religionnews.com/2017/05/11/a-dalit-community-looks-to-escape-the-caste-system-by-converting-to-buddhism/