Ananda Nilayam Ahsram – The Home of Happiness
«It is vital that when educating our children's brains,
we do not neglect to educate their hearts»
Odisha (Orissa) is currently one of the poorest states in India, with 32.5% of its inhabitants living below the poverty line, 10% higher than the national average. In the local news, it is not uncommon to read of children dying of malnutrition, or parents murdering their sons and daughters because they cannot cope with a large family. Child labour is rampant, indeed, Odisha has identified 215,000 child labourers in the state, which equals half of the total children in the state. A tenth of these are reported by a Government survey to be exposed to hazardous working conditions. For instance, many young girls are forced to earn their living through prostitution and begging, while other children are employed as domestic servants in major cities, where they are severely exploited and sometimes sexually abused. We must ask what the main causes of such practices are? The answers are primarily illiteracy and poverty.
Just over forty years ago, a little boy was born in the Village of Taraikela, in the state of Odisha. At a young age, already aware of the reality of those peers who were less lucky than him, he realized that in order to find happiness in life, one has to serve God, and in order to serve God, one has to serve the people. His name was Vishnu, and he was to become a great Yogi and a renowned spiritual teacher.
At the age of 15, Vishnu opened his first school, providing education to the untouchables, the lowest of the Hindu caste system, who are usually confined to despised jobs and stay illiterate for the entirety of their lives. Later on, Vishnu founded, among other numerous projects, the Seva Samadhi Trust in Odisha and the World Peace Yoga School in Rishikesh, of which part of the profit is invested in the former. It is the Seva Samadhi Trust which takes care of the Ananda Nilayam Ashram, literally meaning “Home of Happiness”, a school that is currently hosting 583 children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, 42 of whom are orphans and are offered free food and accommodation within the Ashram itself.
« Children are such an endangered chunk of Odisha's population » explains Yogi Vishnu. « Our goal at our Home of Happiness is to ensure our students live a just and righteous life regardless of how much their parents can afford. Besides this, we need to provide spiritual and moral education to the children, so that when they grow up they will help shape a better world in return ».
For this reason, in 2001, Vishnu's uncle, along with some other relatives, bought a piece of land in Taraikela Village. There, in the middle of a mango orchard, the school was built, where it has been educating poor children for over 15 years.
There are 26 teachers running the school, all of whom ask very little money, thus freeing the budget for the education of the children. The pupils range in age from 3 to 12, incorporating kindergarten and primary education. They not only learn the traditional subjects such as Sanskrit, English, Maths, Science, Geography, and Drawing, but also yoga, meditation, and other spiritual practices. A typical school day requires the children to wake up at 5am, practice yoga and meditation in the designated hall, chant together, have breakfast, attend normal classes from 10am to 4pm, sit again for the evening meditation, dine and rest.
Discipline is believed to be very important in the formation of a successful adult, and so are love and compassion. The students at the Ananda Nilayam Ashram are encouraged to become involved with many social, environmental, cultural, and religious activities. For example, occasional temples and public place clean-ups are organized, as well as frequent tree planting activities where the students give life to their tree and name it after themselves, thus enhancing a deeper connection with nature. Every month there are festivals and special days to celebrate, such as Gandhi's birthday on October 2nd, when children are taught the example of the Mahatma to gain inspiration.
« I want to become an engineer and create beautiful buildings like this all over the world, where children like me can find love and happiness » Vimal Kishan, age 9.
Other festivities include Children's Day, the birthday of Swami Vivekananda, the Celebration of Ganesha, Independence Day, the Hindu New Year, and many more. On Srikrishna Jayanti, the birthday of Krishna, the boys dress up as Lord Krishna, and the girls as his wife Radha and they walk together down the streets in a colourful and joyful procession. On the Day of Friendship, on August 18th, every child donates bracelets to people in the school and outside, as a sign of brotherhood. On Guru Dakshina Day, the students give flowers to their teachers as a gift for their passion and commitment. The teachers and the students at the Ananda Nilayam Ashram are connected like a family. In fact, teachers visit each student's family every year to create a relationship with them in order to better address the issues the schoolchildren are facing. The school itself also holds parents meetings on a monthly basis, where parents are given training to help them to transform their homes into more stimulating environments for their children.
Finally, once a year, the Ananda Nilayam Ashram welcomes the parents and whoever else wishes to attend for the Samarpana Divas. On this special day, everyone is encouraged to donate whatever they can to the school, even just a candy, to benefit from the act of giving itself. A part of the school material, including desks, chairs, TVs and computers, come from several donations made on this celebration. However, the majority of the costs to run the Ashram are covered by the World Peace School of Yoga, by occasional donations of yoga students, and by the 300-rupee fee that those families who can afford it, pay for their child's education.
Free, or extremely cheap education, is what is needed in a place where illiteracy and child labour are on the rise. The influx of western multinationals has spoiled the delicate balance of the indigenous populations, by locking up underpaid people in factories for long hours.
This is the context where a spark of hope has been lit up for those in need. There, Yogi Vishnu has founded the Ananda Nilayam Ashram to promote happiness, cultural understanding, equal rights and global peace.
« My goal » Yogi Vishnu concludes « is to train children to become world peace messengers or, as I prefer to call them, peace bombs. I strive for the children to develop a sense of compassion and to achieve the realization that we all are One. With the whole of my heart, I hope not for a Third World War, but for a First World Peace, which no religion, caste system, nationality, or race can ever defeat. »