His eyes are smiling as he hands the little girl a chocolate bar and sees her eyes light up; his photographic memory can recall the first names and faces of hundreds of devotees he hasn’t seen for many years; he delivers soaring ex tempo speeches which younger intellectuals would stumble on. He can quote from the Bhagwat Gita and from Thoreau with equal felicity.
At a gathering at New York’s Town Hall, thousands of followers and well-wishers had gathered to greet Dada JP Vaswani, spiritual head of the Sadhu Vaswani Mission, on his 90th birthday.
As Krishna Kumari, the working chairperson of the Mission, proclaimed, “Dada is ninety – no, nine years old!” Indeed, Dada, as he is fondly known, has kept his positive attitude, his sense of humor and his child-like joy so well that it’s hard to believe he’s 90.
“I don’t believe it myself,” he says laughing, his face unlined, his eyes shining, dressed as always in immaculate white. How does he look so calm, radiant, and peaceful? Could he share with our readers his secret for looking and feeling so wonderful at 90?
“The secret is always trying to live in the presence of Sri Krishna,” he says simply.
How does one do that? “That comes through abiyaas, through practice. As it is, God is just a word to so many people. There are some who get up in the morning, spend a few minutes in prayer and worship – their lips keep muttering certain words, their minds keep straying to places. Then they feel they’ve done their duty by God. They keep the ‘thakurs’ in their place and they go to their offices.
I believe the one message we need is to make God real to ourselves in our daily lives. God is our constant companion. We should walk with God, we should talk to God. We should seek his advice, his guidance at every step, at every round of life. As it is, the one disease that is increasing all over the world is the disease of loneliness. Why? Because we’ve cut ourselves off from God…All we need to do is close the eyes, shut out the world and call him with longing in the heart, and here he is, in front of us.”
Indeed, this oneness with God is at the core of the Sadhu Vaswani Mission (SVM) – an educational, religious and humanitarian organization based in Pune, India. It was founded in 1930 by Sadhu T.L.Vaswani and today has centers in India and many parts of the world. Dada JP Vaswani, who was born on August 2, 1918 in Hyderabad, gave up a shining academic future to follow his uncle and guru Sadhu Vaswani on the rocky path of service to the needy and the disenfranchised.
Dada has a magical touch where he can connect with just about everyone – be it scholars and swamis discussing intricate scriptures or teenagers conflicted about parental pressures. He has addressed august gatherings in the House of Commons and the United Nations, and also gone one on one with ordinary families in spiritual camps.
As Neelam Deo, Consul General of India in New York, points out, he is a gifted writer and orator, with over 100 books in English and Sindhi, his native language, and these have been translated into languages from French to Russian. Yet there is a special quality to his writing.
“He’s a thinker, a philosopher who’s written several books filled with practical wisdom and this is one of the features which characterize him, that he gives simple examples from every day life,” she says.
“ He recounts anecdotes that we all can identify with because these are the kind of things which happen to people like you, and to people like me. So we do not feel the wisdom that he imparts to us as something too rare and too difficult for us to grasp. When he speaks, he tells us something that we ourselves can easily understand and identify with, and be able to absorb into the way we think and the way we live.”
And that is Dada’s strength – the ability to translate complex issues of dharma and morality into simple language for ordinary mortals, into educating people about dharma. Indeed, under Dada, the Sadhu Vaswani Mission has focused on education as the agent for character building, inculcation of the devotion to service and Indian ideals, international understanding and the cultivation of the soul. The most important component of education at the Sadhu Vaswani Mission is the reverence toward all life.
“We should respect all life because there is only one life,” says Dada. “That same life flows into us, it flows into the animals, and it flows into the birds. This one life is asleep in the stones and the minerals; it stirs in the vegetables and the plants; it dreams in the birds and the animals; it wakes up in man.
There’s only one life, there’s only one breath. The breath that I am taking is the breath the animal is taking. You see, there is unity of life – but this man has forgotten.”
Indeed, at the Mission, Sadhu Vaswani’s birthday – November 25 – is observed as international meatless day. On this one day supporters pledge to give up all foods of violence – fish, flesh and fowl – honor this great saint of mercy.
Dada feels strongly about the environmental crisis that looms over our earth, pointing out that according to an estimate, every day 200,000 acres of rainforest are being destroyed; every day 13 -15 million tones of toxic waste are being dumped, most of which is cacogenic, in our air, in our water, and on our soil. He adds, “Every day about 120 species are becoming extinct, about 120 types of plants, animals which are the product of billions of years of evolutionary process, are gone forever.”
He points out that the Hindu way is not to exploit nature: “The true Hindu respects nature, worships nature. We begin our day by worshiping the Sun God; people laugh at us but that is the correct way. We call the earth Mother Earth. We worship the earth – we worship the cows as a representative of the animal kingdom. We have respect for all life.
This is what is missing today – we need to develop, we need to grow in respect for all life. Go back to the Hindu way of worshipping nature. People used to laugh at us, and say these are superstitious people. It was not superstition – it was the right way of handling nature. We have become scientific, we say. But science has taught us irreverence for nature.”
While Dada’s powerful message is all-encompassing and appeals to people across nations and cultures, it especially resonates with the Sindhi community, a people who lost their homeland of Sindh in the Partition of 1947. For this enterprising community scattered across the world, Dada Vaswani is guru and guide.
Raju Mukhi, who lives in St. Louis, MO, says, “ Dada has a universal appeal…he can speak to an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old with the same love and compassion…the love and compassion of a mother. He is the only visible personality who has been sowing the seeds of spirituality in the Sindhi community for over 50 years, with an all inclusive message to recharge the spiritual soul of the Sindhi community by keeping the language and rich culture alive.”
Dada is the moral compass for the Sindhi community, father and mother to a people bringing up their children away from a homeland to which they can never return. In spiritual camps held for entire families, he shows them the way to safeguarding the Sindhi culture, language and way of life for future generations.
Asked about the effect of television and violent computer games on children, he recommends parents participate more in their children’s lives: “The true parent of the child is the computer and TV screen. The parents are busy making money and if you ask them why, they say they are making money for their children, but in the bargain they are losing their children. I request the parents to take their children out at least twice a year to spend full time with them for a week or so. That will make them closer.”
What’s the most valuable thing that parents can pass to their children? Says Dada, “Faith and confidence. Faith in God, and confidence in self.”
A strong Hindu, he still sees the religion with an unbiased eye. “I think the great curse of the Hindu community is casteism – if you go to India, some parts of India especially – you will find terrible things being done in the name of caste,” he says. He points out that varna or caste was a sociological division in ancient India but it has different connotations now.
He says, “Society was divided into four varnas but each one was a Hindu; now we say the lower caste people cannot enter the temple. How is that possible? The temple is open for all, there is only one God.”
Dada also believes that Hinduism is so much more than just the rituals. “Ritualism is very much like the kindergarten class of a school but there are higher classes,” he says. “The vision of Hinduism is wonderful – the vision of ‘one in all’, the vision of the one breath. This one thing could bring about peace among the nations if understood properly and applied properly.”
How would he suggest this concept of one breath be inculcated in this world of warring nations and escalating terrorism?
“I believe the first thing that we need to do is to propagate this thought that all killing should be stopped: life is a gift of God,” he says. “Wherever I go, I take this message with me. Life is a gift of God; it is only God that has the right to take it away. We cannot take away the life of another because we cannot take away that which we cannot give. Since we cannot give life to a dead creature we have no right to take away the life of a living one.”
The Sadhu Vaswani Mission has started an organization called SAK – Stop All Killing. It is an effort to start at the grassroots and teach everyone the sanctity of all life.
Dada believes Hinduism is going through a transitional period, since India had been enslaved so long by invaders. “India has her freedom and Hinduism is going to shine in the splendor of the new morning sun. Now we are passing through the night but the morning sun will shine.”
What is the most valuable thing that Hinduism can give to the world? “The vision of the one in all. This you will not find anywhere else.”
What’s the one quality that everyone should try to cultivate? He says, “The quality of giving. The quality of sharing, of caring for others. That is what distinguishes a man from an animal.”
People often wonder what’s the best way to make the most use of our time on earth. Ask Dada for the mantra of a well-lived life, and he utters just two words: “Self knowledge’
“The difficulty with 99.9 percent of the people is that they have identified themselves with the bodies which they wear,” he says. “Hinduism tells us that the body is only a garment that you have worn. You are the wearer of the garment. Nobody thinks of that. So if we spent only five minutes, ten minutes or fifteen minutes every day trying to question ‘What am I?’, it will give a new color to your life.”
MISSION: SERVICE TO HUMANITY
The Sadhu Vaswani Mission in Pune is well-known for its work in education, medicine and service to humanity. Over 7000 students are educated in its schools and college, the Mira College which was adjudged the best college in the University of Pune for the year 2007-2008. It has now been given autonomous status and will one day develop into a university. Dada’s dream is to establish an independent university in Pune and the Mission has acquired 100 acres of land on the outskirts of the city for this purpose.
The Mission has four hospitals including a general hospital and others dedicated to eye care, heart and cancer care. Over 1800 free or concessional cardiac operations are conducted every year.
“Thousands and thousands of villagers lose their vision due to cataracts and are not respected by their families because they are not productive and become a burden,” says Krishna Kumari. “We have started the KK Eye Institute and have done over 20,000 cataract operations. Our buses go to the remote villages and pick up these people, give them hospitality for three days, perform the operations and then deliver them back to their homes.”
© Lavina Melwani
DADA’S HOMESPUN WISDOM
“Even as particles of dust cling to our clothes and we wash them with water and soap, even so there are particles of noise which cling to our hearts, to our minds and to our souls. They need to be cleansed every day in the waters of silence…silence is very much like a river – we need to go and take dips in the river of silence again and again and cleanse our hearts and our souls.”
“Do you respect those who can be of no help to you whatsoever? Then indeed are you a true pilgrim on the path – a pilgrim of peace.”
“Acceptance is not passive submission. Acceptance is active co-operation with the Will of God.”