End of last year, I had the opportunity to attend RSS’s NRI camp in Indore, aptly named Vishva Sangh Shibir (VSS). My association with Sangh began only in mid-2014 and that too in a very informal casual measure, due to a chanced meeting with a dynamic young PhD student in Hong Kong, Abhishek Upadhyay. Abhishek comes from the Sangh background. He suggested I should visit HK shakha and see for myself what RSS really is. So I did and I liked the fellow Sanghis enough to continue visiting whenever work and travel permitted. But this was going to be my first formal RSS camp ever. I really didn’t know what to expect.
As Indore approached, I was already having second thoughts about my decision to attend the camp. Thankfully sense prevailed and I went along. I am glad I did, in the next few days my life was going to change, forever! I got off the train and a young man with a big VSS board took me to the meeting point, where I met my first set of co-shibirarthis.
If that mix of a group I met at the station was anything to go by, I was going to have quite an experience at the camp, at least from the diversity point of view. There were 2 people from Kenya, one of them was a beautiful Marwari girl in her mid-20s, and this was already her 3rd camp (to note: VSS camps happen once every 5 years!). There was a young man in early 30s from Russia; a businessman from Thailand; a couple from Chicago; and one other elderly couple from UK with their very suave looking daughter (This woman, super humble and nice, as it turns out, has a celebrity status amongst the hi-flyer fashionistas of Mumbai and London, something I found out only recently, after Facebook befriending!).
As we reached the venue, more people came my way. There were about 750 total participants, ~300 of which were women and ~50 kids. They came from all walks of life. There were PhDs, Post Docs in Pure Sciences, Nuclear Chemistry, Theology, Humanities and Sanskrit; there were Doctors, Biochemists, Neurosurgeons, Bankers, Engineers, Film Makers, Indologists, Home makers and many young aspiring students.
They came from across the globe, from UK, US, Australia, Africa, Middle East, Canada, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, European Union and also Botswana, Suriname, Fiji. To put things into perspective, overseas RSS, i.e. HSS (Hindu Svayamsevak Sangh) has shakhas running in over 49 countries across the global where people of Indian origin live.
Amongst other things, what I found extremely encouraging, was meeting some people who conversed in Sanskrit as their first language. Not something they grew up with, but had managed to learn and live in the past few years.
But why are these people here? So many of them being second generation Indians, unlike me (I am a fraud NRI as most of you know, in the sense I am born and brought up in desh), these guys did not really have the “janmbhoomi” connection to India? The answer to this, I was to shortly find out.
Venue and Arrangements
The camp was held at Emerald Heights International School in Indore. As we entered the block, there were signboards of Vishwa Sangh Shibir everywhere, but what caught my eye was the HSS logo proclaiming “Svayamev Mrugendrata (स्वयमेव मृगेन्द्रता) and the VSS logo, which said “Vayam Vishwam Jagaryem (वयं विश्वं जागरयेम्)”. The significance of the two, I was to understand only later.
Emerald Heights International is a huge residential school and extremely well done. Our sessions were to be held in the educational block and accommodation was arranged in the residential block. Rooms, bathrooms were simple, but spic and span.
Over 200 local karyakartas (men and women, from in and around Indore) had been working for over a year planning and arranging for this event, ensuring every need of ours was taken care of. Every day they woke up before us and slept after us (if at all), but not once did we see them not smiling. None of them was getting a dime paid for the work, instead that had taken time off from their regular jobs and their families just to be at the camp and serve. Some commendable and inspiring discipline, humility and Seva bhav was on display.
For all the criticism we’ve seen of RSS in mainstream media, one thing has always stood out – the selfless service of RSS volunteers in times of any natural or man-made calamity. What I saw at the camp was but a brief purview of the same.
No information regarding the agenda of the camp was given to use prior to reaching the venue hence I knew not what lay ahead of me. Post registration, we were handed over the schedule. The day was to start with the assembly at 6:30 AM and end at 10:15 PM. Gosh! This is how our day looked (Day 2 onwards)
6:30 AM to 8:30 AM: Morning session started with Prarthana and Amrut Vachan (words of wisdom) followed by some physical activity, we could choose one amongst Yoga, Niyudh (a form of Indian martial art) or Kabaddi.
9:15 AM to 12:00 PM: Pre-lunch sessions usually involved knowledge and information sharing about various HSS activities and programs across the globe, what has worked well, what can be done better.
2:15 PM to 3:30 PM: Post lunch slot was for poster sessions where in various groups associated with Sangh, working in varied areas would provide a sneak peek into their activities (eg. Vanvasi Kalyan Kendra, World Hindu Congress, Vijnana Bharati, Samskrit Bharati, Seva Bharati, Rashtriya Muslim manch etc.). There were also interactive sessions exploring issues related to Conversions, South Asia politics, Media attitude in India and abroad, Challenges faced by NRIs in their respective countries and how to approach them.
3:45 PM to 5:00 PM: This was the Shakha time. Here I saw how a typical shakha is run. We would start with an assembly and then play games. The games themselves are not just physical exercise but are so designed to teach team work, strategy and sportsmanship. The morning and the evening physical activities sessions are separate for men and women (justifiably so), the rest were common.
6:15 PM to 7:30 PM: The pre-dinner lecture series had impressive lineup of speakers on each day (SumitraTai Mahajan – Speaker of Loksabha, Mohanji Bhagvat – RSS Sarsanghchalak Krishna Gopalji and Shri Bhaiyyaji Joshi – Sah Sarsanghchalak, Shanta Akka and AlkaTai Inamdar – Sarsanghachalak and Sah Sarsanghchalak of Sevika Samiti, G Madhavan Nair – Director of ISRO’s Chandrayan mission). Topics were wide ranging. including – Living in sync with the Nature, Hindu renaissance through the Bhakti movement, Hindu values to foster global peace, Character sketch of Balasaheb Deoras – the 3rd Sarsanghchalak of RSS.
8:00 PM to 10:15 PM: Dinner followed by entertainment programmes
To ensure that everybody could understand and participate in the sessions, most were run in parallel in English and Hindi. For some specific topic related to Sri Lanka and Malaysia, sessions were conducted in Tamil as well.
Personally, the 5 days as VSS (technically 4.5 days), were nothing less than overwhelming. There were so many inspiring people around, people like you and I, but people with a mission in life, those who knew what their larger goal was, and were striving to get there against all odds. For what? Only so that they could leave a better society for the next generation, only so that they could help make a few lives happier, only because they believe it is their moral responsibility to leave a positive impact on the community and the society, at large. In an atmosphere like this, one is bound to question her own motivations and aspirations in life, the journey so far and journey yet to come. There was so much churn going on, that one afternoon I cried feeling more lost than ever. I hope that feeling stays with me and helps me find my larger goal.
Anyway, what I do want to share with you are my key takeaways about RSS, based on my experience at the camp and the association of the last 1.5 years.
Observations and takeaways:
- RSS/HSS lives by “Syavamev Mrugendrata”. This sankrit phrase literally translates into “You are your own leader”. A lot of the organizations now affiliated with RSS (and there are lots in every field), have been conceptualized and started by some Syavamsevak who took the lead. When someone shows the initiative to lead, and has a genuine cause, the organization stands by him/her to shape the venture further. Some examples of such organizations/forums being World Hindu Economic Forum, Samskrit Bharati, Vijnana Bharati, Vivekanda Foundation, India Foundation, ICCS etc.
- RSS genuinely believes in “Vayam Vishvam Jagaryem” (Let us awaken the world). This is evident in every literature coming from Sangh, in every lecture I have heard and in every activity they undertake. Essentially, this means, that India has the potential to bring humanistic, spiritual solutions to resolve social conflicts and it is indeed our responsibility to do so by preaching symbiotic living to the world at large. However, we Hindus have to first know, understand and live our own value systems. An ideal Hindu way of life is based on Chaturvidha Purusharth – Kama, Artha , Dharma, Moksha – which implies that material and spiritual progress have to go hand in hand in order to establish a just and happy society. Earning money is important, but that should be done using correct means. And once one’s needs are satisfied, this money should be utilized for the greater good of the society. Using natural resources for material gains is important, but one must be careful to take only as much as needed, while ensuring preservation of the ecosystem. Today, more than ever, the world needs to live by these principles for longer term social and ecological welfare.
- While being a cultural organization, proud of Indic knowledge systems, RSS doesn’t promote mindless practice of rituals just because it has been done before. It has been working on the ground to eradicate caste biases. In one of the lectures, Bhaiyyaji Joshi blasted ritualists. Here’s what he had to say “Our forefathers worshipped the trees, this was a gesture to preserve and protect nature. Today, in cities we have replaced worshiping of trees by cutting tree branches for worshiping, as trees are rarely found in cities. How ridiculous can that be? The entire purpose of the worship is lost if for mere ritual we are going to cut the branch”
- RSS is a very pragmatic organization, not a religious extremist as MSM would have us believe. In one other lecture, a senior VHP leader, Swami Vigyanandji categorically stated “The more Puja a person does, the more backward he is. We should rather strive for prosperity. Today we are 16% of world population but only 3% of its GDP; the day we become 16% of the World GDP, respect and recognition will come our way. Of course, we have to achieve this through hardwork and collective effort”. Swamiji is the founder of the World Hindu Economic Forum, the objective of which is to promote networking amongst businessmen and women of Indian origin across the globe, for mutual co-operation and benefit.
- RSS’s pragmatism is also evident in its genuine initiative of reaching out to different communities, who feel threatened by it. The fear is completely unfounded as RSS believes in leading a live fearing none, and frightening none. What it does emphasize though is mutual respect and loyalty to country. Rashtriya Muslim Manch has been active for over a decade now working tirelessly amongst muslim brethen. Early this year, RSS also stated its intent of setting up Isai manch to have open dialogues on various issues with Christian community in India. RSS knows and believes that for the Nation to succeed, we will all have to work together as Indians.
- The spirit of equality of all is evident in Sangh as nowhere else. Over the course of the Shibir, apart from the senior leaders of RSS, many senior BJP leaders also stopped by, including Amit Shah, Ram Madhav, Sushma Swaraj and others. But no one had any special privilege. They walked around like us, ate like us sitting in the same pandal and were treated like us. Rather it was us the naïve participants (me included) who were super enthusiastic about celebrity spotting and were crowding around to get pictures taken. From Sangh, itself, we were all treated equals.
- RSS is anything but “misogynist/chauvinist”. Rashtriya Sevika Samiti (or Hindu Sevika Samiti) is the global counterpart of Sangh that reaches out to women. The reason for distinction is more “pull oriented”. In India and even outside, parents still are more willing to let their daughters join groups run and managed by women, especially if the activities include sports and self defence. Samiti strives to make women confident, self-reliant and also ideal mothers and wives who can manage their families and homes well. I got a chance to meet some senior Samiti leaders like Alka Tai, Chanda Tai and Sita Didi. I was amazed at how strong willed, assertive and committed they were, while being empathetic and loving. Moreover, the Samiti Adhyakshaas get the same respect from karyakartas like any Sangh Pracharak would. My personal experience is nothing less than gratifying. I have been extremely well treated, well respected for what I am, in my short association with Sangh.
- To understand RSS, one HAS to meet and interact with its Pracharaks. Pracharaks are senior karyakartas who have made Sangh their mission and dedicated their lives for the cause of community and nation building. If I had to use one word to describe them, I would say “Sthitpragya” – those of stable intellect. It shows on their faces. Tell them whatever, and you’d never succeed to get them agitated, irrespective of the topic. I was fortunate to get a chance to meet so many of them at the camp. I asked them the trick of being so cool headed when people like us get heated up even during Facebook discussions. Two responses I specifically want to share
- Chandrakantji: “We are not here to convert anyone forcibly, we are here to converse. People will listen to us only if they understand what we have to say and if they see value in what we say; aggression only scares. But more importantly, we have to lead by our own example, we represent Sangh. People will trust our words, if they trust our intentions, and that is key”
- Ramji: “When one believes in the cause, one has to keep emotions out of it. Be it Sangh or outside, not everything happens as we want it to be. If we get too emotional, we lose sight of the goal and the conviction becomes weak. My loyalty is to the goal, not any person, not any organization. Then why do I need to get emotional or aggressive. If anything it will make us less effective”
Related to the above, one more incident comes to mind, when Raviji, another senior Pracharak was visiting Hong Kong some months back. We were discussing media bias in India and some of us got super agitated over the entire issue. Raviji heard it all and then replied “Forget media, why do you have so much negativity? Who is it going to help, if anything you are adding to the media negativity? Can you think of a positive way of dealing with this? Can you continue spreading the positive message and doing positive work, however hostile be the situation around? You must, after all this is what we Svayamsevaks stand for”. That day I knew I had gotten into something deep and the way out may not be easy after all.
There was so much I learnt in these 5 days at VSS, that I can keep writing. It has truly been an experience to cherish. But before closing, I do owe you one answer, on why these NRIs were in Indore. I’ll tell you what I was told –
“For second generation Indian origin community abroad, there is always an identity dilemma. The way they live at home, the cultural values they are exposed to, do not necessarily gel with what they see outside their homes. These youngsters are brimming with questions about what does it mean to be a Hindu? Why do we have so many Gods and so many festivals, and not one book and one God/prophet like the majority outside? Unlike Christianity and Islam, there is no widespread religious network they can look upto. This vacuum is where HSS fits in, and helps them navigate through their multitude questions, making them confident and assertive individuals, comfortable in their Hindu identity.”
All I have written above is based on my personal experience with Sangh, which has largely been very positive. Of course not all karyakartas have evolved into Pracharak mentality yet, some are more emotional than the others. But then, that is true of the society in general. Extremism is neither a Sangh policy nor prevalent doctrine in the organization.
A question that lingered on in my mind post the camp was “How much of the Sangh ideology has changed in the last 50 years? What were its founding principles?” So I decided to review some of the literature which lays out the ideology of Sangh. I am going through Golwalkar Guruji’s “Bunch of Thoughts” currently. I have to say, the consistency is commendable. If an objective assessment were to be made of Golwalkar Guruji’s ideas, he would surely emerge as tall social thinkers of our times. But on that, I will write in more detail at a later point, when I am a little more informed.
ॐ शान्ति |