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Vipul Shaha: Journeying Back to the Roots

Nuggets From Awakin Talks Conversation With Vipul Shaha

Today at Awakin Talks, Bhumika opened with an old english song that never seems to get old “Someday over the rainbow”. Here are some nuggets from the call with Vipul Shaha a seeker, educator and volunteer at heart.

Vipul began the call by taking us all through a brief mindfulness practice and later connecting with our inner child.

About Early Childhood:

  • Vipul opened his thoughts with this quote “You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.” from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
  • When I think of going back to the roots, I think of what are the seeds I was born with? The journey is of coming back to the roots of this civilization, to the land I was born, family I was born into. It is a multilayered journey.
  • I grew up in the village and as a child, I was fond of trees, gardening, nature and spending time with the extended family. As a five year old kid with this quest, I spent a lot of time with grandfather and asked him questions on life after death, karma and stories from the Jain mythology.
  • Despite inner resistance of going to school, they (family) made sure I comply one way or the other. Went to local village school, the idea was to be rooted in the local language, culture. Somewhere in the process of schooling felt de-rooted from my pure essence.
Early Influences:
  • Grandfather was my hero, my best friend. He was a freedom fighter, he worked along with Mahatma Gandhi. He shared stories of his youth, when he was 18 – 19 years old how he launched into the freedom movement. That continuously inspired me leaving me with the questions like - what is the call of our times?, what gave him that courage, that fearlessness and that simplicity that he imbibed? Because of him got introduced to Gandhi and his book Hind Swaraj has been quiet inspirational.
  • After 10th grade father sent me to America as a cultural exchange student. This another time when I felt de-rooted in a way – a fifteen year old from a village of India sent to the west. I was quiet glamorized by the west and was disorienting coming back to India. But as they say a fish does not know what the water is till it is taken out of water. I felt lost and empty as a young teenager.
  • I would say the most defining moment came for me when I attended a vipassana course when I was 17 with Acharya Goenka-ji. I had a glimpse of a sense of oneness and expansive love for all, it didn’t last very long, but it changed me. A strong anchor since has been the daily (meditation) practice.
  • A gap year after school and venturing into yoga, naturopathy, ayurveda and travel arrived as a precious gift. Got a glimpse into the thought of overall well being.
  • Teach for India (fellowship) was another life changing experience of breaking free from my privileged bubble to connect and contribute in a different setting. It became clear for me that it is the love for children and the difference one can really make by working with young hearts and minds. This led to an inquiry into education and higher studies at Harvard. However, this boomeranged I started questioning the very basis of education – why do we educate and how does it fit into the larger socio-economic narratives of today’s times. So, that brought me to read J Krishnamurthi’s writing on education, Gandhiji’s Nai Taleem, Sri Aurobindo, Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda and all the gems of India who have thought deeply about holistic education.
  • Came back to India and set off on an unlearning journey spending time with indigenous communities, turning off my phone and computer and working on the land. I call this a journey from Harvard to Heartwork. This created a deeper aspiration for a more holistic balance.
  • Sahyadri School and Valley School were other major milestones in life where I took environment classes. Most of my classes were under a tree, on a tree and out in nature. “Flowering in goodness, and awakening the intelligence” this is the invitation that J Krishnamurthi is really offering to each educator.
Question – I was struck by your grandfather’s journey and how he lives on. The roots that one develops while selflessly serving are timeless, they jump across generations and live on. Your father who recently went on a 2000 km pilgrimage and has spent consciously decided to spend his time for many decades serving in a village vs living in an urban city speaks of these values living on.

Is there some story that comes to your mind of your grandparents or parents that is alive and kicking that set you on the path?
  • I will share a story of my grandfather that spontaneously comes to me. I spent a lot of time with him as I grew up. I happened to be there in his last (times). Both my grandparents had decided that they wouldn’t want to got to the hospital during their last times. In the Jain tradition they follow certain Niyamas (observances) and gradually reduce the food intake. He lived a very moderate life and as he approached his last, he was very present and in his senses. I was sitting at his feet and witnessing as he was breathing his last (breadth). There was no trace of sadness, pain or grief. It was almost like a transference where his entire life came alive for me in that moment. In that moment I told him, grandfather, ‘I promise you that I am going to carry forward the mantle. I promise to live the life you have left behind, the principles with which you have led the life’. It was not something that was thought through, it just came in that moment and that very moment I had an interview with Teach For India fellowship. This set me on this path of working on education and finally bringing alive the child within me.
Question – That is a wonderful inheritance of values that is not imposed but practiced in his life with deep sincerity. And, it does not fail to move others around you. My next question is that in a village life there is a system that still exists which is beyond the transactional nature of things. Despite the day to day affairs of certain level of transactions, there is a larger tapping of other forms of capital that happens in the village. Whereas a city life epitomizes one form of behaviour where they put all eggs in one basket at look at money as an only form of capital and value. What would draw a youth to a rurban (rural + urban) kind of life in today’s context?
  • This is an important question. I will first tell what education is doing to a village. I became an export material in my village, like a non-resident villager. It kind of takes you of your cultural context and puts you in an abstracted kind of setting. You are learning all about the world out there but not so much about the roots and your immediate reality. And, now the media is so influential, all the glamour, growth, material aspiration and economic forces takes them out of the village. I get a sense of nostalgia when I go back to the village. I topped all scores in school and all the other kids who scored well, none of them live in the village. It is just that the villages are not only exporting raw material and resources but the local youth talent.
  • It is very hard. I am very privileged to be able to come back. Luckily my parents are very strongly rooted in a close knit village community. So, I have that base. I feel that the need of the hour is that village youth finds opportunity to work and have a quality of life in the village. Can the best of both co-exist. Some of the elements of rural life are clean air, water, leisure, social support system. If young people are mentored and offered opportunities to create innovative livelihoods. With proper use of technology a lot of opportunities can come up, just like a couple of friends who have turned to organic farming and have a market in Pune which is a few kilometers away.
  • There is a lot of longing for village youth to come back, because village youth otherwise are neither in the village nor in the city. We are like lost souls in between somewhere. People like who see value in both can become the bridge and can find our own unique support to get them on their own feet. Villages like Mendhalekha come to mind which have become very self reliant in decision making.
  • I see that my father became one such village champion, who was trained as an architect and could very well settle in Pune but decided to settle down in the village. In the process he has revived the local sacred grooves, forested a hill, running this elderly facility and in so many ways is actively contributing to the socio economic needs of the village.
Question – You spoke of blossoming of the heart and blossoming of the intelligence. This intelligence is the confluence of the head, hand, heart and the spirit, something that arises on its own. On the other the entire western system is to cultivate the brain. Infect one would say that any sort of molding of children would require an effort, a cultivation, a practice. But if you see the way J Krishnamurthy articulating it is as if a blossoming happens with spontaneity on its own. To someone who does not understand this wholly it feels like a contradiction. In your understanding of educating with the heart, is there space for cultivation, effort, practice?
  • I am really inspired by J Krishnamurthy’s vision of education. He is asking nothing short of a radical fundamental shift in the human consciousness as a part of education. So, the ask is big. But the beauty of vision is that he does not give a road map. It is really left to the conscious parent/educator. By that he means that the educator really sees for himself the roots of his conditioning and all the influences that have formed us. Am I established in love so that it might naturally ripple out. So, when I stepped into these environments, I found it to be golden opportunity to know myself and to go there with a beginners mind, a learning mind.
  • Children teach us so much if we hold a receptive field where learning blossoms. Fundamental is the relationship that you nurture with each child. And, borrowing words from Krishnamurthy as as he says, ‘in the mirror of those relationships one begins to understand oneself.”
  • Kids are already very attuned and they are already in love, they are creative and spontaneous. I found a lot of hope working with children as they sense something around whats happening. They are the ones who hold me accountable. Once there is love for whatever you are teaching, kids will come up with strategies to meet the basic requirements of an exam system. But one can go much beyond.
Question – Is there a story that comes to your mind of interaction with children.
  • A girl from class 8 or 9 was very fond of dogs. Her parents had to pick her up from school. She asked them to stop the car when she saw some puppies dumped by the road side. She asked her father to find a local organization that could adopt these puppies. And, she made it happen.
  • There were many children who would take care of plants and animals on campus. They were naturally attuned. When we went to the Himalayas, we were walking for 5 – 6 days and children were picking trash on all the way. They had many sacks full of trash besides their own luggage. Nobody asked them to do that, but they did it.
  • Like on campus if I borrowed someone’s motorbike they would say, why not walk. They would always hold me accountable. They are in tune with the rising ecological awareness. We just needs to create opportunities for them to blossom.
  • What also really worked was that we ran this 21 days kindness challenge and 21 days green living challenge. Very inspiring stories came through that. We did many experiments around that. We would cook in the forests and create opportunities for learning, loving and practicing silence with nature.
Question – And, that (practicing silence) is not difficult with kids (laughs.. ) with kids?
  • It takes embodying it. On days I was agitated it would ripple out, I could clearly see the class was haywire. On days I was centered and grounded the energy in the classroom was very different. It is like a beautiful dance, it is not just the words you exchange but there something happening beneath that layer of words.
Question – You were bitten by hundreds and hundreds of honey bees. You went up on a banyan tree and mistakenly stroked a honey comb and they all came running behind you. You had to be hospitalized in the ICU. How did you process that? I am just mirroring back that question to you that when you are in that silence everything that comes up is an opportunity to enhance the depth of that silence. Would like to share more about that near death experience? What is the role of misery / suffering in shaping our journeys?
  • I have this fascination for banyan trees. I might have been one in a previous life or would love to be one the future. Banyan tree has this thing of continuously expanding its roots. So, have a natural connect with that tree
  • So, yes the incidence was a shock and trauma physically and mentally. The pain was unbearable. On my way to the hospital somehow my whole life came in front and all the loved ones in life, all the relationships that I had taken for granted and had not expressed enough love towards them. Suddenly what matter in life just came up. And, this was not an intellectual exercise and it came from a deep compelling force in the heart. This might be the end and I have not even told my mom how grateful for the love she has offered. So, felt that urge to express that love and really value the relationships in the family and all the kids in valley, the teachers and the entire community.
  • Everyone was praying for me. There was so much goodwill that saw me through that time.
  • I also felt that there is no point in being traumatized. Somewhere after two weeks something took me back to that banyan tree. I sat in silence, I saw the dead honey bees. Because they die once they sting you. I felt very sad that because of my mistake they had to sacrifice their life. I very sincerely apologized and hugged the tree. What it brought out was deep compassion and value for life.
  • And, since then I have this new found fascination for honey bees. We watched a documentary on honeybees with my students, I paint them and just look at the importance they hold in maintaining our food systems.
Question – You have been having quiet time sessions you practiced with your family during this Covid lock down period. You chose to have 25 – 30 deep listening sessions with your family. Often times we see that in these near relationships, we are unexposed and naked and sometimes that is not a good sight. Infect it is an experimental ground to see if we have truly progressed on the path at all. Reminds me of the Ramdass quote that, “if you think you have realized, go spend a week with your family.” So if you can share a bit more about your experiments and practices with your family.
  • One tries to do many different things but we have to realize that we have to go together. The child in me wanted to rebel against being schooled. I started this as a reaction. There was a phase when I wanted to just be away from the family and find my own path. I almost started judging everything they do. I know better kind of an attitude, having explored the world, so to say!
  • It is a humbling realization that we have to rise together and that it is not easy. The real crucible is the family, it is the training ground. So, lockdown turned out to be a blessing in disguise, almost felt like sitting with the fire so to say, because there is no escape. The 20 months we were together offered a beautiful opportunity to really push through some of the very difficult dynamics.
  • I started assuming that I know everyone in the family and this is the way things are and certain patterns get set. The opportunity was for us to sit everyday in silence together and choose a theme or a topic to reflect upon like – where do I need to seek forgiveness from the family, what do I feel grateful for, what are my dreams etc.
  • This was a time for reintegration for me. The journey continues by initially spending time with ourselves and then strike a very heart to heart dialogue with the other.
  • Now, this practice has set in as a culture in the family when we have to take an important decision so that we respond instead of speaking from a charge. We all take turns to listen. We are not interjecting but sharing and listening to each other.
  • We then start to find where there is point of difference and where there is point of contact. And, we realize that everyone means well at a fundamental level and at the level of strategy their might be a difference. The bond is that of love and if we can tap into that then new possibilities begin to open up. What seems to be paradoxes fundamentally seems to have the same thing in mind.
Question - What would you say would be your guiding light while going through and choosing experiences in life? If you can share a practice to be more connected to the self what would that be?
  • Interestingly the guiding light has evolved the course of time. Like as a kid my guiding light was curiosity which somewhere got snubbed in the process of schooling. Then the guiding light became scores (exam marks), and then it became, career success and then travel. But more recently it has become holistic living, working on myself and the opportunity to serve. I often ask myself is my decision driven by fear, anger, greed or is it driven by love.
  • In terms of practices, different things work for different people. For me it is the daily yoga vipassana practice. But I would encourage each one to really experiment at arriving at mindfulness and awareness through movement, art, gardening – so many pathways to knowing oneself.
Question – Have you ever rethought on the idea of going back to the village?
  • My conviction to live in the village grows by the day. By village I do not want to limit it geographically. And, here I am also not romanticizing a village. Here I would like to say that what element of a conscious community can we cultivate, wherever we are.
  • For me luckily I have a village base, but that does not mean city folks do not have a chance. The movement can be both ways. Can our cities also become groups of small villages. What elements of village life can be brought into city life. For me the real motivation is to co-create a conscious community of people to live with.
Question - And, do you think that it is the privileged who can think of going back to the village and do you think that is a conscious decision to simplify or is it a reaction?
  • The Krishnamurthy school attracts the upper middle class, but there are so many other experiments happening at grassroots like Marudam in Thiruvannamalai, Adharshila in Madhya Pradesh, School without walls near Ratnagiri or the Nai Taleem School in Wardha. One has to see where one is best suited and called to contribute and bring the best elements of all the exposure we have had.
  • I feel I owe a debt to give back to my village in some form or way. I do not want to be exported out, that in some way is a silent prayer in the heart.
  • And for city people with all the work constraints and life, how can one connect to rural India. One may not have a base in villages, but can one find a farmer on the fringe of the city and connect with him. Like last week me and my friends went to a village nearby and connected with the farmer and offered shramdana, just the labor of love. It brings back dignity in their life. Someone showing genuine interest life. There are people in the city who do not own land in the village and want to start somewhere, so they can maybe go every week and volunteer in the village and connect as equals.
Question – How to connect children with nature during the pandemic?
  • It depends on your context, but could be as simple as terrace gardening, connecting with nature in the local park or on the street. There is nature everywhere, it could be just looking at the sun set from the terrace. It can be an invitation to step into our own selves and have that natural connect. The child already has that love for nature, how can we cultivate it within the constraints we have – it could just be stories from nature. So many possibilities.
To conclude
  • I am just a representative or a voice of many unsung heroes who are already doing a lot of dedicated work on the ground, very invisible. I had the privilege to be in many of those places and I look at this as an opportunity to remember them in this space.
  • As a teacher in me, I would invite each one of us to find time in silence and connect with nature and ourselves.

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