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How A Travelling Swami Leaped From Martial Arts To Meditation

 

Swami Purnachaitanya from The Art of Living is well-known for his command over Vedic chanting. He has excelled in various forms of martial arts, but his heart lies in seva. He travels and conducts programmes throughout India to spread the message of the need for a peaceful society free from stress and violence. He is a trainer for a number of The Art of Living courses, including courses for youth and professionals, as well as special training programmes such as the Youth Leadership Training Program (YLTP). During an e-interaction, he tells Pratyasha Nithin about his first introduction to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, his spiritual journey, and how yoga helps in overcoming stress.

How can an individual establish himself in the self?

That is the whole spiritual journey. The roads are many, but the goal is one and the same. And to find out what road is most suited for you, and to be able to reach properly and safely, one requires a Guru. To try and put this whole journey in a few words here would not be doing justice to the rishis who have written scriptures on this topic.

On life before joining The Art of Living:

I was born in Leyden, a small town in Netherlands, and introduced to meditation and satsang at the age of four. Since my mother is from India and my father has a Christian background, I was introduced to spiritual teachings from both the East and West. My parents were introduced to meditation during their studies when participating in a transcendental meditation programme of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. They started practising at home and became vegetarian. My brother and I were raised in the same manner.

From an early age, I had a keen interest in the Eastern philosophies and cultures. My interest led me to the practice of a wide range of martial arts, but over the years, I realised that human values, philosophies and meditation attracted me more than fighting skills. I was quite good at martial arts, but just like a few other times in life when I was excelling in something and had to choose whether I wanted to fully dedicate myself to it, I felt that it is not what I have come here to do in this life. There was something different, something more important, more purposeful waiting for me. I was waiting for it and looking for it. I was looking for someone who could teach me. I was looking for a true enlightened master.

At 16, during a public programme organised by The Art of Living, I met Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The meeting would change my life. I knew that I had found the spiritual teacher I had been looking for. I participated in various programmes of The Art of Living, and was introduced to the ancient practices of yoga, pranayam, meditation, as well as Vedic wisdom. I realised that serving and working for the benefit of others and society at large was much more fulfilling than anything else.

In 2007, after obtaining a university degree in languages and cultures of India and Tibet, as well as in journalism and new media, I decided to dedicate my life to the service of others. I left for The Art of Living International Centre in Bangalore where I joined as a full-time volunteer.

On how meditation and satsang helped while growing up:

We used to meditate at home, once or twice a week for a few years, but when we grew up, it was discontinued due to various reasons. The urge to learn more about it was there. The urge made me look for it at many places. In many ways, I was a lot like my friends, playing the same games, sports and having similar hobbies. However, I used to, even at a small age, stay true to my ideals and values, like eating only vegetarian food, not being interested in trying addictions like smoking or drugs, and not doing things that went against my conscience. Even if people offered or tried to persuade me, I was, somehow, very clear about what I would and would not do. My mother has played a very important role in bringing me up this way.

On spiritual similarities and differences between the East and West: 

The way I have felt it is that the philosophies and teachings I came across in the West, also when studying these in high school, were mental concepts and ideas. The ancient teachings and wisdom of the East are much more connected to our experience and practically applicable and relevant to our lives. It is like the difference between ‘knowledge’ that is intellectual, and ‘wisdom’ that comes to our experience. The difference between ‘talking about meditation’ and ‘experiencing’ it.

On joining The Art of Living:

A few months after meeting Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for the first time, the first Art of Living programme for youth was organised in the Netherlands. I joined the programme where we learned some practical wisdom, some asanas and breathing techniques, and more. I really liked it, and a few months later, I went to Germany for a residential programme of The Art of Living with youth from all over the world. A few times a year, whenever my holidays and savings would allow, I would attend a programme in the Netherlands, or in our European headquarters in Germany. This allowed me to meet Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar at least once a year. I started volunteering, helping out in organising programmes and joining some local service activities. After completing my university studies and working for some time, I decided to dedicate my life to service and going deeper into this ancient knowledge and practice. I have travelled extensively in India and to other countries, to teach programmes of The Art of Living and initiate service projects.

On the kind of yoga and meditation he teaches at The Art of Living: 

The kind that is accessible and easy to practice; that which gives people practical benefits and a profound experience, and which translates the beautiful teachings of the ancient scriptures on these topics into practical experience. We teach a complete form of yoga in our Sri Sri Yoga programmes, which is not just limited to asanas and pranayama (hatha yoga). We also introduce people to meditation (raja yoga), service (karma yoga), devotion (bhakti yoga) and wisdom (jnana yoga). We also teach people an effortless technique that allows them to go deep in meditation through their own practice in Sahaj Samadhi Meditation.

On how yoga assists in overcoming stress:

Yoga is not just asanas. It includes breathing techniques (pranayama), meditation and practical wisdom. A simple way to define stress is ‘what is happening right now, is not okay’, not being at ease with the current situation. Usually, this happens when we have too much to do, and not enough time or energy to do it, or when things do not go the way we wanted or hoped. Managing the mind through the mind is very difficult, just like trying to remember something does not help you to remember it. Rather, the moment you let go of the effort and stop trying to remember, you suddenly remember it. In the same way, especially in today’s world where life is speeding and we are exposed to more and more impressions every day, we need some practical tools to relax the mind to manage the mind and our emotions and to see things in a broader perspective. Pranayama and meditation are very important and effective tools here, and modern research in many prominent institutions has confirmed the same for all those who still had their doubts about the practical benefits of these practises. And when a person is peaceful, relaxed, and at ease, he or she automatically displays human values. When you are peaceful and a person falls down in front of you, you automatically pick him or her up and ask if they are okay. But if you are stressed and in a hurry, if someone falls down in front of you, you might even scold them for the same. So, the more stressed a society becomes, the more indifference, violence and prejudice we see. The more peaceful it becomes, crimes reduce and human values come up.

On the core philosophy of The Art of Living:

The core philosophy of The Art of Living is that we are all part of a One World Family, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. All our programmes are aimed at transforming society by transforming the individual, working towards a violence-free and stress-free world where we live together, celebrating the diversity, instead of making that a cause for conflict. India has, for centuries, been an example to the world with people from all different walks of life, cultures and religions living together peacefully, and these values, like harmony in diversity, are all part of the ancient Vedic tradition. Like that, there are many ancient traditions that are scientific, meaningful and beneficial, even in today’s world, but in many places, people have forgotten about these, have moved away from them, or are no longer aware of its true purpose and significance. One of the activities I am involved in is organising programmes to explore these practises and rediscover their beauty, purpose and significance.

On the importance of a guru in an individual’s spiritual journey:

I am referring to the spiritual Guru or enlightened master. We can have gurus (teachers) for different arts and other fields. It is said that it is very difficult, almost impossible, for a spiritual seeker or ‘sadhak’ to progress on the spiritual path and reach the goal if one does not have a Guru. The Guru is the one who has realised, who has reached the goal, and has come to take you by the hand and also lead you there. He knows the difficulties, the obstacles, and how to overcome them. There are many books, scriptures, and many people giving pravachans (sermons), but it is like someone giving you a description of how to drive from Delhi to Mumbai. If a road is blocked, or some of the landmarks have changed or disappeared, you will not be able to reach, as the description cannot help you there. However, if someone who knows the road is sitting next to you in the car, and there is some problem with the route, he can tell you “we were supposed to go right here, but as the road is blocked, we can take this other road, and we will reach at the same place”. If we need a teacher for simple things like learning how to read and write, or drive a car, would we not need a very special teacher to help us understand our mind and consciousness, and life itself?

On how seva brings satisfaction:

Seva means service — selfless service. It is doing something for others without expecting anything in return. There is no personal gain involved and exactly because of that it gives a different kind of satisfaction. It is you rejoicing in the fact that you have been able to give something, to help someone and to contribute. Seva gives our life a true purpose.

On how technology helps in spreading Vedic knowledge:

Technology is a blessing, as it allows us to connect much more easily. Instead of only being able to interact with or teach people who are physically able to come and meet me, I can simultaneously connect with friends, students and other people from across the world. In this way, many people who otherwise might have never had access to this beautiful knowledge, have benefitted.

On how chanting helps in keeping the mind calm:

The very definition of the word mantra in Sanskrit is ‘mananat trayate iti mantra’, which means ‘that which protects the mind’  or ‘that which allows you to transcend the mind’ is called mantra. Thoughts in the mind are nothing but vibrations, energy impulses, and the charged sounds that are mantras, when used in the proper manner, are very effective at charging the mind with positive vibrations, raising your energy and awareness, and quieting the random chattering of the mind. There are so many more benefits, but more than listing them out here, I would like to invite people to come and experience it for themselves.

A fond memory: 

Once, when travelling in the interior areas of Andhra Pradesh, we passed by a place where one of our schools that provide free and value-based education in rural and tribal areas, was being constructed. The area was also affected by Naxalite activities and there was no other functioning school in the region, so some of our volunteers came together and started a school there. Now, a proper building was being constructed, and on our way to another village, we stopped by to see the progress. The headmaster requested us to halt there for half an hour or so on our way back. He told us that the children, their parents, as well as other villagers would really like to meet us. We agreed and we reached there after dark. We had a small satsang, sang some devotional songs with them, spoke a few words, and shared the blessings of Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. When we were about to leave, a very old lady came up to me and requested me to wait, as she wanted to bring something for us. We waited for some time, but as it was already dark and the area was not considered safe to travel at night, we finally decided to leave. We drove for five minutes, until suddenly we saw a small boy on the road in front of us, gesturing us to stop the car. He must have been just a few years old, and I recognised that he was the grandson of  the old lady, who had come to the satsang. We then saw the old lady climbing up from the side of the road and realised her house was down there. She came up to me with tears in her eyes, and gave me a pumpkin. She explained that she felt a little bad because she did not know we were coming, and had not been able to receive us properly. She said that the pumpkin was the only thing she could offer. We tried to persuade her, saying it really was not necessary, but she insisted. This old lady, with little means, insisted on giving the one thing she had, to some strangers, showed me so clearly how the ancient values and traditions are still very much alive in this country, and it is humbling to see such love and devotion. There are many such stories.

On happiness, wealth, comfort and health:  

I guess those who are intelligent will realise that spending your health trying to gain wealth and comfort, and spending most of the wealth in trying to gain back that health is not a wise thing to do. Happiness is not the same as comfort, and in trying to be comfortable, do not lose happiness. True happiness cannot be found outside. It lies within you. It is your nature and it is available whenever your mind is peaceful. You can have all the wealth, power and respect in the world, but if your mind is disturbed or body diseased, you cannot enjoy it. Meditation is tapping into the peace, joy and enthusiasm. So make it a point to take out at least 20 minutes every morning and evening to reconnect with your self, and you will find a positive effect on your health, peace of mind, relationships and work performance.

 

— Swami Purnachaitanya blogs at www.swamipurnachaitanya.com

The interview has been conducted with inputs from Nithin Sridhar.

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