An unusual school dedicated to training new generations of Saivite Hindu priests is situated in a sheltered corner of the cosmopolitan Art of Living campus founded by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar on the outskirts of Bengaluru, India. One of Sri Sri’s early aspirations was to recreate the ancient gurukulam system of priest training in a manner suited to modern times. Now, eighteen years later, the resulting gurukulam has found resounding success.
BY CHOODIE SHIVARAM, BENGALURU
AMID THE SERENE SURROUNDINGS OF Kanakapura village, about 19 miles from the city of Bengaluru, sits the 65-acre central campus of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living (AOL) ashram. This vast teaching and service center teems with devotees from around the world, engaged in its innumerable activities. Along with hundreds of acres of adjoining ashram properties, it is a city unto itself.
Tucked away from the main activity center is the campus of the Veda Agama Samskrutha Maha Patashala, Sri Sri Gurukulam. Here, in the lush greenery deep inside the ashram, over 300 students of varying ages are learning our ancient scriptures as they train to become temple priests. While 95 are studying the four Vedas, our focus is the 210 who are studying the Agamas, the scriptures that guide traditional temple worship.
At the entrance to the campus is the temple of Pratapa Ganapathy, Lord of Learning, in a large open-air roofed pavilion. The temple is surrounded by classrooms—spacious thatched huts called kuteeras made of bamboo and bricks, well ventilated and placed well apart. Each is named after a rishi. We feel a powerful sense of joy and serenity on entering the school. The air reverberates with the chanting of slokas from all directions.
Though the students range in age from nine to nineteen, there is no cacophony of mindless chatter, no childish running around as they move from the living quarters to their classrooms. Dressed in spotless white shirts and dhotis, they walk in a disciplined line with happy smiles on their faces.
Mrs. Bhanumathi Narasimhan, Chairperson of the Patashala, recounts the school’s evolution: “We started Ved Vigyan Maha Vidya Peeth School for Veda in 1981 to provide a scientific reappraisal of the Vedas. We added Agama study after Sundaramurthy Sivam Sivachariyar joined us in 1995.” In 2002, the Veda Agama Samskrutha Maha Patashala (Pāṭhaśālā) was founded and placed under his stewardship. It is exclusively dedicated to learning the Saivagama tradition and rituals connected with temple worship.
The gurukulam follows the pattern of the ancient schools where students lived in the home of the guru. It traces its genesis to Kailash Ashrama Mahasamsthana, founded in 1960 by Sri Tiruchi Mahaswamiji at Rajarajeshwarinagar, Bengaluru. Sundaramurthy, an alumnus of that gurukulam and devoted student of Tiruchi Mahaswamiji, relates, “I studied at Sri Kailash Ashram Patashala and grew up under the grace of Mahaswamiji. Sri Sri Ravishankar used to regularly visit the ashram and had a close association with Tiruchi Mahaswamiji. During his visits he would talk to us. In the early days, before starting this Art of Living ashram, he used to regularly perform Devi puja on a grand scale at his residence in Jayanagar on Fridays. During one of these celebrations, he invited Mahaswamiji to his house, and I had gone along. Then in 1994 Sri Sri planned a grand Chandi Homa at his ashram and requested Mahaswamiji to send us to perform it. Thereafter, every year we would come to the AOL ashram to perform Chandi Homa. Thus started my association with Sri Sri and AOL.”
The original Veda Patashala catered to learning Rig and Yajur Vedas, serving about 100 students. This was not a residential program; students also attended regular school and took their lessons in Vedas during the mornings and evenings.
The Gurukulam Revival
INDIA’S TRADITIONAL SCHOOLING SYSTEM, THE GURUKULAM, IS A profound repository not only of invaluable educational content, but the very traditions and culture of Sanatana Dharma. Through history, gurukulams transferred knowledge in a highly defined process from generation to generation. Fundamental to the system is the guru-disciple relationship, a sacred bond that ensures effective learning. The guru is responsible for the intellectual, moral and spiritual growth of his students.
From 800 ce onward, continuous invasions forced the gurukulams to retreat and shield themselves behind closed doors. The British in particular made every effort to shut down this indigenous system and replace it with their own, which eventually overshadowed the gurukulam system. During their rule, countless Indians, including political leaders, were the product of their fashionable imported system of education. Even today, the British system prevails in India.
The late 20th century saw a newfound interest in and revival of the nearly lost indigenous system. Much credit goes to the spiritual gurus who set up gurukulams at their ashrams to train disciples in-house. Newer gurukulams gained in popularity as part of an overall resurgence of Hindu values and traditions. Parents sending their children to the schools were eager to give their offspring what they themselves had missed—the ancient Indian experience of education. Many gurukulams exist today in India, and elsewhere, too. Each has its unique curriculum and ideology, but all help to foster the current revival of Hindu awareness, including its scriptures, traditions, learning methods and the Sanskrit language.
In particular, priest training in South India today is accomplished in a variety of ways. At one end of the spectrum, temple priests train at home their children and sometimes those of associate priests. Larger temples have formal schools for priesthood candidates. Some such schools, like that of Pichai Gurukkal in Pillaiyarpati are supplying highly trained priests who work in temples around the world.
The Agama Patashala at the Art of Living Ashram and the Tirupati Temple Patashala in Andhra Pradesh are working to take the training a step further, having earned certification to grant university degrees that are recognized by their state’s higher education system. For graduating priests, this results in higher pay and greater respect and social standing in the community.
There are hundreds of thousands of Hindu temple around the world, and each is in need of one, sometimes a dozen or more, competent pujaris. The authenticity of worship and the proper management of temples rests on the shoulders of the priest in charge. As new temples are built, the need grows. The padashalas are the only proper path to achieving this.
Sundaramurthy continues: “In 1999, Sri Sri said he wanted me to start a gurukulam in the Saivagama tradition. Saiva Agama has sections not only for performing worship such as puja and fire homa but also for teaching the philosophy behind these rituals. Sri Sri wanted to train youngsters to understand the significance of rituals, why they are done, and know how to perform them perfectly without any omissions.
“At first I was hesitant and questioned whether I had the capability to shoulder such a huge responsibility. But Sri Sri had confidence in me. In 2002, seven years after I came here, we started this Agama patashala as a residential program, with 15 students. This gave us direction and momentum. We knew it was important to establish a center for knowledge. I felt it was a virtuous deed to teach children and instill our traditional knowledge systems in them.”
Recreating the Training System
A huge void was created in India when the traditional practices were replaced by Western education. The hereditary vocation of temple priests in particular has dwindled. Most priests nowadays have little or no proper training in priesthood, having chosen the profession out of necessity—even though the salaries of priests are deplorable.
AOL’s Veda Agama Samskrutha Maha Patashala, along with other patashalas, is helping to shoulder the huge responsibility of removing that void by training priests qualified to create a bridge between the devotee and the Divine—priests who are knowledgeable in the Agamas, who can dispel misinformation and put back on track the lost values of Sanatana Dharma.
Starting with just 15 students and three faculty members 18 years ago, the gurukulam has grown to 219 students and over 40 full- or part-time faculty members who are training students at various levels. Currently 114 students are preparing for the bachelor of arts program, 45 for their masters, five pursuing their MPhil and two are working on their PhD. Now serving in temples in their own community and around the globe are the 450 students who have already graduated. Among them, 72 students graduated as Acharyas, with Master’s degree in Saivagama.
The gurukulam is not run on a commercial model; tuition, accommodation and the entire welfare of students throughout their stay is free of charge. Some 50 to 60 applications are received every year. There is no restriction on the number admitted, but a screening committee assesses each applicant to understand his intention and level of commitment. Most students belong to the Sivachariyar community and desire to continue in the priestly family profession.
“We don’t want to turn away a deserving student,” says Dr. V. Abhirama Sundaram, senior faculty and member of the school’s governing board. “Sri Sri’s aim is to create a thousand Sivachariyars.” Dr. Sundaram is an Associate Professor at Vivekananda College, Chennai.
On selection, students are ritually initiated into the gurukulam to purify them, in the diksha ceremony mandated in the Agamas. A mantra is given to the student along with a new name that gives him a spiritual identity. In this two-day program, every student is individually initiated into the mantra by the guru. “Some of them display an immediate change in their personality after receiving diksha,” says Sundaramurthy. “It’s like a new energy has been infused into them. Receiving diksha puts them on a self-imposed regimen, performing sandhyavandana (certain rituals and Vedic recitation done three times a day), meditation and other practices. This automatically provides them a firm grip on their personality. Diksha gives them the strength to receive what is taught.”
The screening process ensures that in each classroom the standard of understanding and IQ levels of students is nearly uniform. “In each class we want students to be on the same wavelength, irrespective of age. During the entry interview, we evaluate a student’s capability to receive what is taught. Hence there is no room for competition and jealousy,” explains Abhirama. “We follow a zigzag pattern where a class can have a nine-year-old and a fourteen-year-old together. Age doesn’t matter; the yardstick is whether the student is able to be absorb what is being taught. That is why we are able to manage.”
DURING MY VISITS TO THE GURUKULAM, I CAN SEE THAT THE children are very comfortable with Sundaramurthy Sivam and his wife. Dr. Abhirama Sundaram comments to me, “He is a meticulous person; I have not before found such a dedicated and qualified man. He keeps a very hectic schedule from 5:30 am to midnight. Often he takes rounds in the middle of the night to see that things are in order and the boys safe. He takes personal care of each one of them.” In a special interview, Sundaramurthy shared the following insights on founding the school 19 years ago.
“The responsibility of taking care of the children is a huge challenge. Right from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed at night, it’s our responsibility to ensure they are safe and happy. They would have been brought up with so much love and attention in their homes. We should ensure that they get adjusted to the gurukulam and the system here. We should be able to give them that love and attention. Once they are in class, their minds are occupied with lessons, but later their minds switch off and they become homesick. All issues relating to behavior of the students come to me alone. Patience and forgiveness are the keys to maintaining harmony, and I have always practiced this.
“In traditional homes like ours, we had our grandfather teaching us and transferring the rich traditional knowledge. So I felt I should engage in teaching and perform this duty of knowledge transfer. Even as a teenager I had this dream of starting a patashala. I never imagined that one day I would be starting a gurukulam on such a large scale. When Sri Sri gave me this opportunity, it was like materializing my dream.
“In the initial days of the patashala, we had a space crunch. The classroom was small, and it also served as the residential area. We had around 100 children, and managing everything was not easy. We were also learning how to run a gurukulam. The children did not adjust easily; they missed the comforts of home. We had to counsel and motivate them about why they were here and what the future held. When their morale would run low, it was a big challenge for us to raise their spirits high and keep them motivated. That could be done only with loving care and gentleness. But all these problems were stepping stones to building the gurukulam. Today we are completely competent to face any challenge. We are able to plan well.
“In the first year, in some cases involving certain incidents from students, there would be times when the thought would cross my mind, ‘Why did I agree to shoulder this responsibility?’ But we had the support of parents who let us discipline the boys and take corrective measures. They encouraged us to make the gurukulam a success. …When the gurukulam was started, the surrounding area was still under development. Civic facilities were sparse, and commuting was next to impossible. Transport facilities from the city were erratic. Students returning from their home town had to spend the entire night at the bus stand and would reach the ashram only in the morning. There were no mobile phones; contacting traveling students was impossible. Until they reached the ashram, we would be worried for their safety.
“When I’m away, my wife keeps a watchful eye on the children, their health, studies, behavior and whether they are doing their work properly. When they engage in seva (gardening, cleaning the surroundings, upkeep of the gurukulam), my wife monitors them. She also takes care of being a hostess to the teachers and visitors.
“Parents have come back to us saying that when the boys go home they bring about a healthy change by creating an atmosphere of calmness and sanctity. They have become so meticulous that they influence their parents to adapt a routine of timeliness, proper eating habits, cleanliness, frugality and not wasting time on frivolous things. Parents have come back and told us how they have changed for the better because of the children.
“Some children refuse to go home for vacation. In such cases, we let them stay here. But we do counsel them and tell them how important being with family is, to spend time with parents and siblings. We don’t want them to get alienated from the family. In case there are any family functions and celebrations, we send them home to be part of the events.
“When I was age 11, my grandfather directed me to study the Vedas. It was not just the verses and pronunciation; I was trained to watch and observe the guru, the expressions on his face that gave meaning to what he was chanting. Without expression, learning is incomplete. One cannot learn from the Internet or mobile phone. Learning from a guru embeds it into us emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. With such learning, even if a student is awakened from deep sleep and asked to chant, he will do so without error.
“To follow and practice what we inherit from our lineage, from our forefathers, is important. It is our primary duty. We have a commitment to continue the practices of the community we belong to in order to preserve its traditions. We also have a social responsibility: we become a bridge between people and the practice of rituals. We have to teach other priests to perform the rituals without shortcomings, to bring the worship to people in its correct form. We have to do good to society, not just live for ourselves.”
Thorough Training and Education
Running a traditional gurukulam in a world dominated by modernity and urban attractions is no easy feat. Abhirama explains, “To the best of our ability we are conducting lectures on the real facets of our tradition. The main problem today is we fail to understand the value of our own practices and their significance. As Swami Vivekananda rightly said, we are working like slaves, not as a master. So in our own way we are highlighting the significance of our traditions to our boys so that they will be torch bearers to society, so they will propagate the right values.
“Once the boys are well equipped,” he continues, “they can counter any argument with facts and logic confidently. Why is there a problem of religious conversion? Because we do not know the Bhagavad Gita or Ramayana or Mahabharata. Earlier, when we lived in joint families, our grandmothers would tell us stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata. Now the responsibility is on the elders to educate themselves and then lead the youngsters. Children are inquisitive and will not accept things blindly. We must tell them in a convincing way.”
The patashala’s six-year course comprises one year of primary education followed by five years during which students are empowered with the knowledge of Vedas, Agamas, astrology, Saiva Siddhanta, music, yoga, Thirumurai, Shilpa Shastra, and Sanskrit.
Besides their religious curriculum, students are trained to be computer competent. The gurukulam introduces students to the essentials of modern education to keep them globally engaged. Sports is a strong part of their extracurricular activity.
Graduating students receive the title Sivagama Vidyanidhi, which is equivalent to a bachelor of arts degree. “Students are given practical training in making arrangements for kumbhabhishekam, Chandi (a form of Parvati) homas, Yajnashala preparation, puja vidhis—virtually every aspect of worship,” explains Sundaramurthy. “Besides qualifying in the exams conducted by our gurukulam, students are simultaneously prepared for Saivagama exams conducted by HR&CE Tamil Nadu government, Sanskrit exams by Samskrutha Bharathi Trust and Rashtriya Samskri Sansthan, Delhi.” On clearing the Sanskrit examination conducted by the Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments, the government of Karnataka, and Maharaja College of Mysore, students acquire the title Sivagama Pravara.
The gurukulam has been recognized for its outstanding quality of education and students. In 2015 the first set of 45 students received their post-graduation in Saivagama in association with the prestigious Sri Venkateshwara Vedic University, TTD Tirupati. The then vice chancellor, Dr. Devanathan, told Abhirama that this was the first time in the history of the university that more than 40 students had graduated in Saivagama.
There are plans to elevate the gurukulam to a deemed university exclusively for Vedic and Agamic studies. Sri Sri aspires to make the school a full-fledged autonomous institution with higher studies in Saivagama. The patashala’s governing council is pursuing an affiliation with Karnataka Sanskrit University to start a new bachelor of arts program in Saivagama.
Up until 2019, the Sanskrit College at Madras University had permitted students of the gurukulam to appear as private candidates. In 2015, a postgraduate student of the gurukulam secured the first rank.
Corporal punishment is forbidden at the gurukulam. In the first two years, students are normally not punished at all, only spoken with. For persistent issues, mild punishments like time out or staying outside the class may be used. But most often, according to Abhirama, erring students are counseled. “That works well almost all the time. In the case of senior boys, if we find anything amiss we call their parents and keep them informed of the boy’s behavior and counsel him in their presence. If we find that his behavior disturbs others, the boy is removed, but that’s quite rare.” In its 18 years of existence not a single student has voluntarily dropped out of the gurukulam, and only in the beginning years were a few expelled.
Students are divided into groups of six or seven. They are provided a complete schedule of activities. A senior student is assigned as leader; his task is to monitor and mentor his juniors. He sees that they stick to the proper sleep schedules, follow the daily routines and do their studies.
Separately organized teams of students are assigned responsibilities in rotation—assisting in the kitchen, sweeping the surroundings, cleaning the classrooms, serving food and other chores. This is how traditional gurukulams functioned. “Each team is a mixed group of students from different classes. Here the most junior students will not be directly entrusted with work, but will be trained. This system creates a healthy rapport and sustains a disciplined system of personality development,” Sundaramurthy explains.
Ragging and bullying are strongly discouraged, and students caught doing either are corrected. “The leaders are trained and sensitized about handling children. In choosing a leader, we look at his personality and nature. We choose only boys who have the right attitude and personality. Every alternate day the principal meets the leaders and receives their feedback. He silently monitors everyone at the gurukulam, keeping a watchful eye,” states Abhirama.
The greatest challenge faced by all educational institutions today is students’ access to gadgets and technology and the ensuing addictions that are possible. In the sacred environs of the gurukulam, these would become a huge risk in contrast to the culture and philosophy of the institution if not controlled. “Our whole program is so tight that it gives no room for distractions. No cell phones, not even a watch. And students are not allowed to accept gifts,” Mrs. Bhanumathi informs us.
Abhirama adds, “The gurukulam is tucked away in the interiors of the Art of Living campus. It is next to Sri Sri’s private residence. There is heavy security; one has to pass through multiple gates from the main campus. So students moving around independently is impossible. Also, because of our experience, we are able to detect any behavioral aberration instantaneously—body language is a give-away. We have strict norms restricting the use of mobile phones. It is a herculean task for us, but thanks to the environment and atmosphere in this gurukulam we have been able to manage.”
On visits home, of course, the children are exposed to mobile phones, cinema and cricket (which is practically a religion in India); but that all gets curtailed when they return to the gurukulam. The gurukulam does arrange for screening cartoons, mythological and historical value-based films once a month to give the students a recreational experience.
Over 60 percent of the students at the gurukulam are from economically weaker backgrounds, and many carry emotional baggage. The faculty at the gurukulam are sensitive to these issues and handle the students with care and love, especially at first.
“For the initial two years,” Abhirama elucidates, “it’s a very difficult task for us. We have a mix of streams. Some parents send their children here because of their inability to bring them up or send them to any other school owing to poverty. They may have no knowledge of the importance of shastras. Sometimes there is complete ignorance of what a gurukulam is. Others, such as village priests without a decent income, may send their children just to learn how to do pujas and assist them in the temple. They are not particular about the background knowledge; just being competent to perform rituals is enough. Other parents send their children with the ambition of making them highly qualified scholars in our shastras; these students are seeking a quality education to gain knowledge of the Vedas and Agamas.”
As in any other institution, the gurukulam conducts test and exams at every level, monthly, quarterly and half yearly. There is a controller of examinations and an entire section dedicated to the examination and evaluation processes. “Most schools conduct two to three examinations, but we conduct 21 examinations in the span of six years,” explains Raj Kumar Sivam, coordinator at the principal’s office.
Graduation and Beyond
The gurukulam’s graduation ceremony, held every two years, is a grand event attended by eminent personalities. Forty to sixty students, two batches, graduate together. During the gurukulam’s first graduation in 2010, Swami Dayananada Saraswati addressed the crowd: “If anyone wants to start a gurukulam, they must come and see this gurukulam. This is a model for any Vedagama Patashala.” At Swami’s suggestion, the patashala added more subjects to the curriculum, including logic, mimamsa (interpretation of Vedic texts), astrology and tarka (debate).
The gurukulam is today regarded as a premier institution with an outstanding faculty of luminaries and scholars. Students who have graduated come back and teach at the institution for at least one year out of gratitude. A few stay on as faculty.
Job placement after graduation is 100 percent. Some students go back to their ancestral temples and fulfill the duties of priest; others take posts in India or abroad. Mrs. Bhanumathi relates proudly, “Our boys are placed well as soon as they graduate; they are in Orissa, Nepal, US, London and Canada. Immediately after graduation they are fully equipped to stand on their own feet. They are doing well. When I visited US, I discovered that the one priest I met was an alumni of our gurukulam, and he drives a Lexus! People praise him so much, and we feel elated. Our students walk out of the gurukulam as competent priests, and that speaks volumes about the leadership here.”
The gurukulam is also at the forefront of research and publication, encouraging students to go beyond their syllabus and delve into other documents to enhance learning. Resulting research papers are published by the gurukulam for the benefit of students as well as for the literary repository. Nearly 50 books have been published to date in this way. “Students well versed in desktop publishing and typing help us in with such publishing in the research wing. Former students working abroad provide financial support,” explains Abhirama.
The gurukulam was entrusted with the responsibility of editing over 11 manuscripts of the Sahasragama, a part of Saiva Agama. “We are honored to have been entrusted with this prestigious work,” proclaims Abhirama. “Copying from the original manuscript is an elaborate task requiring unique skills. With the help of the National Manuscript Mission we conducted a short-term course in manuscriptology to train and orient students to read manuscripts.”
“What do you expect from students when they leave?” we asked Abhirama. “Sri Sri always said don’t expect anything,” he replies, “only do your duty properly. So, we don’t expect anything from our students. But we have an objective: to make them the best Sivachariyars they can be. They should be the torchbearers for our intangible culture. They should work with utmost devotion, dedication, perfection and be model citizens of this country. That is our objective. When I go to class and teach, I want my students to be contributors, not in the form of money; I want them to come back and teach. We want them to contribute to the learning and progress of their juniors. In this vein, some graduates have expressed their desire to help us in research. One of our old students, Arun Kumar, who secured the first rank in post-graduation, is now teaching the higher classes. Our principal always tells our old students to keep coming back to the gurukulam and contribute, to spend some time with the students and impart whatever they can, to be mentors.”
The gurukulam infuses in its students a sense of belonging, the feeling that the institution belongs to them. That sense of responsibility is evident as I watch them move around the premises. Pride is writ large on their faces. This gurukulam is made not merely of building materials, it is made up of souls, of sentiment and attachment to learning and sharing.
Gurukulam graduates are of pedigree quality. Immediately after graduation, temples are waiting to engage them. Many are going back to their hometown or hereditary temples and have been able to resuscitate them. The Veda Agama Samskrutha Maha Patashala is a temple in itself, an edifice that will protect, preserve and propagate the traditional priestly practices. Sanatana Dharma is in safe hands here.
Dr. S. Shanmukha Shivachariar, one of the governing council members, sums it up nicely: “The fruits will be seen in another two decades when these children from the gurukula with strong foundations of our texts will be performing pujas in temples, infusing new energy. There will be a whole generation of priests from this school who will be able to guide devotees in the right direction, and there will be a huge improvement in the way pujas are performed. The seed has been sown here.”