Since childhood I had been fascinated by the Indian cricket team; not so much for their sporting skills as much for their ability to accommodate each other. I often wondered as a teenager how the eleven members of a team stayed and travelled together when their languages and cultures differed so much. India’s diverse culture has been shaped by many religions, languages, castes and customs; each of its twenty eight states has a unique diet, architecture, dance, music and ethnic traditions. How can these eleven be united; what do they talk and share; how does a south Indian communicate with a Sardar from North India who knows only the Hindi language? These questions intrigued me and I would devour cricket magazines to know how this highly heterogeneous group had men sharing friendships and camaraderie with each other.
The mystery got solved thirteen years ago when I joined the monastery (ashram) in Mumbai where I got a firsthand experience of living with different people. The Mumbai ashram started by Radhanath Swami in 1988 has over 150 full time monk apprentices (also known as brahmacharis) who serve, study scriptures, share the knowledge with others and devote their time to exclusively develop love for God. The members practise a variety of spiritual practises, including celibacy, joyfully.
Our ashram has a more exciting group than the Indian cricket team. A cricket team has only 11 to 14 members belonging to the various states from all over the country, but they hardly stay together for long; inclusions and omissions from the team is a common occurrence. However our ashram of monks is unique for we have over hundred distinctive individuals coming from not only the far and wide corners of India but also some of them are from foreign countries as well. This is an international team with each member having his own set of likes, dislikes and idiosyncrasies. Besides, once included in the team, they don’t leave that often; they are here to stay. What keeps them united and how they struggle and adjust with each other, sharing joys and sorrows in a bonding of loving friendship is a happy and instructive lesson to learn.
When I joined in March 1999, as a twenty six year old, I was amused to see the happy blending of dissimilarities. One particular contrast is fresh in memory:
Nityananda, a twenty five year old man is from a devotional, priestly family from Chennai, the Southern part of India. He is inclined to study scriptures deeply and is ambitious to share the message with all. His partner in temple cleaning services is Mathura Mohan, a forty five year old semi literate business man who hails from the Western corner of India, Rajasthan, bordering with Pakistan. He is more inclined to do physical services and is hard working. He doesn’t speak a word of English but Nityananda can’t converse in any other language with him. I would laugh a lot at their clumsy goof ups and innocent misunderstandings. Being older in age, Mathura Mohan often reprimanded Nityananda for his mistakes in services. However being unable to decipher the Hindi language, Nityananda often thought he was being appreciated and would repeat the mistake much to the annoyance of Mathura Mohan. Meanwhile most of us had a good time at their confusing interactions.
Today, thirteen years later they are good friends and Nityananda has picked up Hindi while Mathura Mohan now understands English. Both of them happily reminisce the old days and thank God, Krishna, for this wonderful arrangement. If not for a spiritual cause what would have ever bought us strangers together?