In December 2013, a group of 10 students and faculty from the University of Oregon, Eugene, USA, spent 15 days (December 8 to 22) in Puducherry, hosted by the Sri Aurobindo Society (SAS). The group was headed by Dr SurendraSubramani, a senior professor with the Family and Human Services (FHS) programme who also works as Diversity Coordinator in the College of Education at the University of Oregon. Due to his long affiliation with the SAS and his continued devotion to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and their teachings, he has been instrumental in inspiring his students with a global perspective on spirituality and education. On this visit, he was accompanied by thecollege events coordinator, an adjunct yoga instructor, and a retired professor. Theages of the ten undergraduates ranged from 20 to 22 years, four of whom are senior and four junior FHS students. Twostudents are majoring in Economics and International Studies respectively.
The studentsrepresented varied social and cultural backgrounds and strata of the American society. The long selection process was based on the students’ personal goals, capabilities, and eagerness to learn, among other defining qualities. The selected students were given a 10-week-long preparatory period, where they were introduced to the food, value system, cultural nuances and beliefs of the community they were to be a part of for their short stay in India. This was also crucial for an open perspective and social sensitivity the students needed to foster,both for personal growth and developed understanding of an ancient culture during the course of their visit to Puducherry and for their lives ahead in an increasingly globalized world.
SASis engaged in many developmentalactivities in and around Puducherry.As a part of theirlearning experience,the students were introduced to these activities at various locations to help them benefit from the training and education models the Society and its affiliates have established. These and other efforts of SAS coordinating team included helping the students’ develop and further understand India, its culture, spirituality, and ideology in the short timeframe of just 14 days.
To ensure fitness of mind as well as body, the group was given an introduction to science and practice of asana and pranayama by Ramassamy, who is a trained yogi from the prestigious Bihar School of Yoga. The group was given the chance to practice their sun salutations, often facing the rising sun on the majestic Puducherry coastline. Reflecting on the morning energies, a member observed how refreshed, relaxed, and focused she felt whilst carrying on in the day’s programmes after the daily yogasanas.
As a part of introductions to Sri Aurobindo, the Ashram, the Society and their various activities, Shivakumar (youth coordinator) gave a presentation to the group about Integral Yoga and as a faction of thatthe Human Body. This was an interactive experience which was geared towards motivating the youth to put greater emphasis on reflection of a subject or question, rather than racing to the answer—which has become the mainstream formula of attaining knowledge in the rest of the world. This method not only opened the audience’s mind to the spiritual teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, but also made the visitors feel comfortable with their own ideas and prior knowledge on spirituality and the worldly perception it creates. Once acclimatized to their surroundings, the group explored the city.
There is no journey like the exploration within oneself. With the help of Harvinder (Director,India Council for Integral Education [ICIE]), the students were able to embark on a path they knew little about. The Self is an immense entity, they learned, and to wander into this subject, concentration exercises were taught and practiced. To stimulate such introspection, the Oregonians were asked questions such as “What’s the most precious thing in your life?” or “What most inspires you about yourself?” These discussions sometimes brought tears to the circle and often laughter reverberated in the atmosphere. Regardless of the ranging emotional climate, there was always a sense of ascension in the air. These deep self-examinations were often accompanied by light-hearted but important cultural explorative inquiries such as“how to get fewer chillies in food?” and “what do the tilaks on the forehead mean?”
During the first week of their stay, the students were introduced to the special children of SatyaSpecial School. Chitra Shah (Director and Treasurer) introduced herself by leading with her own story of courage and disappointment towards the treatment meted out to vulnerable and oppressed sections of India. Satya is an institution that works within Pondicherry and 44 villages of India, attempting to reduce stigma associated with any kind of physical or mental disability, spreading knowledge on the ways in which correct education and training can counter any infirmity and providingmaterial and emotional aid and efforts to reduce suffering both for special children and their families. The University of Oregon students got to see first-hand education on hydrotherapy, motor skills management, speech therapy and many other modern relevant practices to educate and train the students at Satya. One could see that the warm interaction and rapport between the participants and Satya students was instant and wonderful because of the wide smiles on all the newly found friends and the easy interface they shared through their stay in India. The visitors chose to visit Satya School at least once every day which showed how much they appreciated and admired the work being carried out at Satya.
Time spent at Satyam centre of Sri Aurobindo Rural & Village Action and Movement (SARVAM), Society’s integrated village development program, was inarguably one of the most joyful experiences of the visitors’days in India. This rural program has developed from within, by and for the community with very capable support and assistance from SARVAM coordinators and volunteers. It was very motivating for the UO students to see an alternate method of education that has taken such giant steps toward meeting the potential of the young SARVAM students. A beautiful diffusion of cultures took place. While the SARVAM kids played kickball and made American friendship bracelets, the Americans walked away with bindis on their foreheads and reminisces of genuine affection in their hearts.
Some of the oft-repeated comments on SARVAM were as follows:
• One of the most joyful experiences of my life
• I think it is safe to say that it’s one of the best experiences of our lives
• Learned a lot
• Children taught me what sincere love looks like…