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MIINDIA: INSPIRATIONAL MICHIGAN INDIAN
THE POWER IS INSIDE YOU!
Interview with Mrs. Sharada Kumar, Chinmaya Mission, Ann Arbor 
By Anupama Gopalakrishnan
Copyright: miindia.com

"Success or achievement is not the final goal. It is the 'spirit' in which you act that puts the seal of beauty upon your life" - Swami Chinmayananda (1916-1993)

Walking into the Hindu temple at Canton, I was surprised by a bunch of children who recited the Vedas impeccably in pure Sanskrit. It looked like a small workshop, but these children (most of them born and raised in the United States) are a regular feature at various Hindu temples within Michigan. Please welcome our "New US Indian Generation".

What does this workshop do? What are its goals? What is this concept that attracts the new generation immigrant parents to leave their children under the roots of one mission headed by a woman? My explorations lead me to a deeper and spiritual world of Chinmaya Mission.

 

The School of Thought: Bala Vihar, Program of Chinmaya Mission
The Woman: Sharada Kumar
The Objective: To provide a spiritual and cultural orientation to the children of the modern age.

As a simple married woman, Sharada came to New York, United States in 1970 (exactly 32 years ago). A former resident of Mumbai, she was a true linguist (Sharada can converse in 7-8 Indian languages) who was besotted by the teachings of Swami Chinmayananda. Inspired by his commanding flawless language and oratorical skills, his style of delivery and lively lectures, Mrs. Sharada Kumar decided to join his mission in early 1960's. Being very musically oriented, she began to chant the Bhagavad Gita in most of swami's lectures and official videos. 

This spiritual endeavor sparked an enthusiasm within Sharada's young mind. Mrs. Kumar was instrumental in organizing Swami Chinmayananda lectures in and around New York City. This spurted her involvement with the Asian Indian community. Upon the advice and insistence of Swami Chinmayananda, 1972-1973 saw the birth of Bala Vihar concept in New York.
 
Thus began her journey - Sharada started collecting data and got trained in India to be an official messenger of Hindu Scriptures in a common man's language. Due to circumstances, Mrs. Sharada Kumar moved bag and baggage to Michigan. 

New York's loss was Michigan's gain. In 1984, Mrs. Sharada Kumar started her first class of Bala Vihar with 6 children in the basement of her Ann Arbor home. This proved to be an instant hit.

This collective family effort ballooned to 60 children over a small period of time “Keeping with the space limitations, the whole project moved to Washtenaw Community College, Ypsilanti", she said.

On the request of Sant Keshav Das, year 1991-92 saw the growth of Bala Vihar in the Hindu Temple at Canton, Another school at Novi in 1995, gave birth to another in 1997 at Troy. Year 2000 witnessed its new chapter in Toledo. An estimated strength of nearly 100 kids in each school (Toledo being a new chapter has 30-40 children) proved a fact that Hindu scriptures did in fact take the Asian Indian community by storm. Parents who wanted to instill family values, the true Indian culture- its mysticism and heritage, knew that Mrs. Sharada Kumar's temple of learning was the obvious choice.

Every project launched would have its hurdles. The same was true for this spiritual venture. How do we get the children out of their game rooms, schoolrooms, computers etc? Why will children want Bala Vihar?

Mrs. Sharada Kumar resorted to the old way of bringing children into her home - she jokingly admits" I used to entice children with delicious prasadam- in the form of vadas, rice pudding etc." This was not all. Her own marketing and PR person was right within her household. Her young daughter ran into Indian families in supermarkets/grocery stores/ school etc and approached mothers and their children to join her mother's school. According to Mrs. Kumar, this really proved to be a hit!

No, Prasadam was not the only offering. Bala Vihar focused on a variety of students as it taught the intricacies of Hindu Scriptures in a common understandable language. The rationale of the Balavihar according to Mrs. Sharada Kumar is: 

  • To train the children and inculcate in them the reverence for our ancient culture, and inspire them to live up to it with correct understanding.
  • To generate a true affection in all contacts, inculcate personal discipline and a true spirit of leadership.
  • To mould their capacity to express and assert their individuality.
  • Cultivate and improve their creative abilities.
  • To help children to develop a healthy resistance against temptations in the atmosphere in which they grow.
  • To provide an atmosphere to grow with noble ideals, healthy emotions and physical discipline.

Mrs. Kumar opines that "my theory actually refers to that of Swami Chinmayananda about the fact that we are responsible in bringing the children into this environment and it is the noble duty of every parent to provide their children an opportunity to read/ discuss express and talk about Indian culture. This gives children a solid foundation and also makes the parents proud that their children are well equipped with correct and logical answers". 

At first Mrs. Kumar used to be a little disappointed person in spite of the fact that her school, her mission had been an instant success. The only factor that she was unsuccessful was to make people understand the value of family, the value of togetherness. She remarks "parents come and drop their children and leave. Come back at the end of the class and pick them up”. She questions the fact that church and a temple are both religious institutions and both the religions preach the same. Then why does a family make a collective effort of visiting the church every Sunday or any such day for a mass and why doesn't it happen here? Mrs. Kumar's biggest challenge was to bring the family together in a cause. She overcame this by asking the parents to come and attend the Bhagawad Gita classes while the children attend the Balavihar classes. Now it is a family oriented program.

Balavihar caters to educate children from ages 3 - 18 years. This school is categorized into groups based on age groups. The initial grades concentrate on identification of gods, teaching of bhajans, then moral stories are introduced, and Ramayanam, Bhagavatam. Mahabharatam, festivals, meaning behind every religious festival and rituals are taught. Symbolism of gods and religions, the philosophical aspect of the two great epics is also taught. As students reach their 9th grade, they venture into learning the concept of truth - Vedanta and the concept of Brahman. 


PRAHLADA GRADE: Preschool, Kindergarten
NACHIKETA GRADE 1 & 2
SHREE RAMA GRADE 3 & 4
VYASA GRADE 5 & 6
SHREE KRISHNA GRADE 7 & 8
VISHWAMITRA GRADE 9 & 10
CHINMAYA GRADE 11& 12

Note: (NAMES OF THESE CLASSES CHANGE FROM TIME TO TIME)



Social issues like why Hindus do not eat non-vegetarian, the logic behind customs bring forth a healthy conversation among children.
Students in the 11th grade are trained to be teachers and all 12th graders qualify to be teachers and they have the opportunity to start their own study groups. The basic concept of the Study Group is to study the scriptures by those who have curiosity/thirst to benefit from the perennial wisdom of the Rishis. 

What is read or heard, in order to take root, must be thought over (tat chintanam). The test of clear thinking is in the ability to express our thoughts clearly (tat kathanam). Again, whether our understanding is right and proper, is brought out in the rational and mutual discussion of the Study Group members (anyonya prabodhanam) Thus, to the sincere and diligent student, the Study Group technique provides an opportunity and a forum for gaining a deep and quick perspective of our scriptures. The forum, in the Sat Sangh atmosphere, also fosters and develops brotherly understanding amongst the members and strengthens the "One Family" concept.


Bala Vihar in Michigan under the strong leadership of one woman has definitely grown in its magnitude. From 6-7 kids in 1983 in a basement of a home to thousands graduating, this concept has literally been successful. This movement has definitely kindled New Hope for many parents of Indian descent. Overall there are 65 trained teachers. There are over 20 states in the country that run Bala Vihar - including Chicago, Washington, Houston, New Jersey, LA to name a few.

Where there are no desire prompted activities, there sits the master!
- Swami Chinmayananda

 

So what about Mrs. Kumar's marital life? What about family? Isn't Bala Vihar a family oriented concept? So how then, did Mrs. Kumar achieve a balance in her life?

Mrs. Kumar smiles. I knew she definitely had a logical answer behind my questions. "Juggling my time between family and spiritualism was in fact easy. If you think you would be unable to give 100% to your family if you have strong goals, think about it. Think again", she said, well - what? I asked. "Involve your family in what you are doing"- was the magical response. 

Umm, isn't that simple? Family involvement, making the family members feel very important goes a long way in attaining peace and happiness in the household. My husband's involvement with the Chnimaya Center in Ann Arbor, came after a bit of reluctance. One lecture by Swami Chinmayananda impressed him so much that he offered to help me.", said Mrs. Kumar.

Stressing and emphasizing on the element of family, she added “Unless the whole family as a unit does not participate, no project is successful, great benefits cannot be anticipated". 

Sharing a fun experience with miindia, Sharada Kumar mentioned that her daughter got married a few years ago at Bharatiya Temple in Troy. For this family project, she invited the whole Balavihar community and had the priest go through the marriage rituals step by step explaining to the children the concept behind a Hindu marriage. In short, it turned out to be a Bala Vihar event with around 250- 300 families as attendees.

The Chinmaya Mission called Avantika is located in a spacious, peaceful environment and provides various programs for people of all ages. Bala Vihar is just one program. The Devi group for women offers classes in Bhajans and teaches women chants of different shlokas, the Vedanta classes provides adults a meaningful way for meditation and deep probe into the concept of Hinduism and so on. The Pitamaha group is a forum for senior citizens to get together every other week. Counseling and community Reach-Out programs are becoming a very important aspect of the mission. Daily worship of Lord Shiva and special pujas for different festivals on a grand scale attracts a large number of people. 

According to Sharada, the children are also involved in various social work projects like Soup Kitchens, collecting funds for disaster relief by organizing walkathons etc.

Overall, Mrs. Sharada Kumar is a fulfilled satisfied person who is truly optimistic about the future. "if there is peace within all of us, we have to discover it". We can be happy in spite of the circumstances because there is divinity in each one of us. Each of us are comprised of the same matter and each of us have the potential to keep ourselves happy by sharing and learning.

Swami Chinmayananda always encouraged people learning, understanding and making their own effort in developing themselves. In other words, self-development.

And no doubt, the only inspiration and motivation for her success was Swami Chinmayananda whom she recalls sadly in 1993 when he passed away. "Swami used to visit the homes of ordinary people. All educated people could relate to him because of his elegance in speech, finesse in language and his simple approach to life. He was a total visionary", remarked Mrs. Kumar.

In her own words, she puts together her whole life experience in simple terms: "I find that if I had not been into this mission, I would have been groping in the dark, trying to figure a purpose/ a meaning in my life. I have within me this immense amount of energy and potential and this has kept me going throughout because “if you know where the power is, you should tap it instantly".


Mrs. Sharada Kumar additional to being the brainwave of Bala Vihar in Michigan under the aegis of Swami Chinmayananda has been working as a Biophysics Research Assistant at University of Michigan for the past 15 years. She teaches Carnatic Music/Bhajans and also actively participates and organizes discussions and lectures in Michigan. She is also an active member of the Hindu Students Council, University of Michigan. She participates in the Interfaith Round Table of Washtenaw County, where she is a coordinating committee member.
Sharada Kumar lives with her family in the north east side of Ann Arbor. Her husband, Viswa Kumar is a retired engineer who currently takes care of the administrative work of the ashram… Her two daughters, Aruna and Vidya are both doctors and work at John Hopkins hospital, Baltimore, MD, and Children’s National Medical center, Washington DC, respectively.
CHINMAYA MISSION’S ADDRESS:
CHINMAYA AVANTIKA, 4760 PACKARD, ANN ARBOR, MI 48108
734-434-1740 / e-mail sharada@chinmaya-aa.org
Web-site CHINMAYA-AA.ORG


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