Interview: Swami Mitrananda – Chinmaya Mission
‘You can’t tell the young people to withdraw from the world – that is for sanyasis, not for the young guys who want to live in the world’
Swami Mitrananda of Chinmaya Mission is a dynamic disciple of Gurudev H H Swami Chinmayananda and an inspiring tutor, daring adventurer, vibrant speaker, creative writer, vigilant administrator & a mentor for many youngsters and adults across the world. He has delivered Management related spiritual-talks to various leading corporate-houses and addressed top-brass business forums. Swamiji is very popular amongst the youth and the elders of south-east Asia, UK, Spain and USA as a non-conventional teacher, an inspiring speaker and a modern thinker. As the mastermind behind the breakthrough Youth Empowerment Program in India, thanks to which hundreds of youths have been inspired and empowered to serve and in turn empower millions of others, he typically uses powerful tools such as outdoor experiential learning, adventure, travel, biking, car rallies, theatre, writing and creativity to convey the profound messages in the scriptures, propelling individuals to tap into their hidden potential.
Currently visiting Mauritius, he will be giving discourses on the Bhagavad Gita and address college students as well as other groups, covering the following themes : Living Life to the Full Potential (School talks), Discover your Potential to Perform (Youth Camp), Balance Mind, Body& Atman (Sociocultural), Spiritual Skills for Good Governance (Corporate). Dr N Gopee spoke to him about the empowerment of youth to face the future.
* You have been interacting with youth and students both in India and in different parts of the world. Do you find something in common with the local ones you have met as regards their attitude and mindset?
I approach youth with the understanding that that they are all at a very difficult age to deal with, because they really don’t have the wisdom and think they know it all! So the way I approach is to make them do what I want but in the way they like to do it, their way.
* How does this work out?
– In many different ways; for example, if I want them to go to a temple up on a hill, I won’t tell them to walk up the stairs, but take them another way, so it’s a trek they come for, but will end up at the temple. You need to combine it that way. Another example is bhajans (devotional songs). Many of them may not be inspired by bhajans or do not know singing. So instead of asking them to sing in praise of the Lord, I ask them to script a bhajan which is a way to make them think about qualities they admire in the Lord. They have to find the words, follow a particular metre and method, then to tune it: at the end it is theirs, they own it, and therefore they will sing proudly.
* That’s an interesting approach.
– Again let’s say I want them to study the Kathopanishad, I won’t tell come I will teach you Kathopanishad! I propose them to write a play about death, for that is what the Kathopanishad is about, to explain to people what is death. The title also reflects that, for example ‘Do you want a ticket for death?’ Then I say that the source material for your play should be Kathopanishad, which is a dialogue between Lord Yama and Nachiketas – the seeker and death discussing. The thoughts are very direct, and the kids have to read the book, pick up the slokas (verses), understand what they mean. So, when I take classes on Kathopanishad they would be very attentive because they have to write the play.
* Since we have taken the example of death, youth may not have faced the phenomenon, and for that matter even adults who have done so, there is generally fear of death, or they are confused about it. Isn’t that so?
– It depends, because some people who have lived very well are not afraid when death comes, some are even waiting for death. But some are scared because they feel they have not lived enough and they want more. Many people are scared because they do not know what is there on the other side. But also everything that you tightly hold on to, that is dear to you is snatched away from you in no time – power, position, wealth, people — leaving you naked so to speak. So if you have no such attachment, then you will never be scared of death.
* When people ask ‘what is death’, what is your reply?
– Death is the gross body (physical body) being disconnected from the subtle body (mental body or inner equipment). In yoga philosophy we have sukshmasharir (subtle body), karanasharir (causal body), sthulasharir (gross body). So when the subtle body disassociates from the gross body, that is death. Generally people say the atman or the soul left the body, but the atman is all-pervading and does not go anywhere, that is it does not leave. It is only the subtle body or inner equipment that leaves the gross body at death, carrying with it the memories or life impressions also known as vasanas.
* The corollary to this is what is life, and how should people live their lives?
– Once you have given them an idea about death, then they turn around and understand what life is from such a profound wisdom spoken some 7000 years, and begin to take pride in the content of the book, realising that they are the descendants of that tradition.
Knowing that they belong to a culture which is so ancient and so deep, and which has discussed these things, inspires them.
* In general, with all that is happening in the world, conflicts and other signs of decline, added to the greater attraction of people towards material things, do you see any hope that the world will continue go on in a sustainable way? How do you see the youth in the world’s future, do they represent the hope?
– They are the future, but reaching them with the right approach is what is important. If we do that we will find that they are very good. As Pujya Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda used to say, ‘youth are not useless, they are used less!’
We do have hope – I see results coming out, I know many bright youngsters who are very clear about their goals in life, and how to face it. We have reached out to a lot of youth and they are responding very strongly.
* When it comes to India, there is talk about the demographic dividend of India represented by the youth. Do you feel that this demographic dividend is going to carry India forward, that we do not need to despair given the myriad problems that India faces?
– What is far more important is how we channelize this demographic dividend (the young people) in the right direction. Now with a good government at the centre, in the last five years many people have turned towards something nice, and that’s absolutely positive. People are clear today that they can get into politics and make a change, and I have found that the youth are very keen to join in. They really look forward to life!
* There is always talk about materialism and spirituality, in opposition to each other. Is it because youth are becoming rooted in spiritual values that they feel motivated to becoming engaged – even in politics – and bring about change?
– See, if we tell young people that materialism is not against spirituality, they are fine – and really speaking it is not. Everyone comes into this world with their vasanas, their past karma, which you have to exhaust, and it can only be exhausted in matter. So tell them that they’d better exhaust it here, otherwise if they understand spirituality wrongly they will be living in suppression.
Once they have understood that they are meant to exhaust their vasanas and if they exhaust it well then they are free. Once they get this spiritual understanding, they go out into the world and exhaust their vasanas. Pujya Gurudev used to give the example of chewing a gum: enjoy it thoroughly, then when there is no more essence left you just spit it out!
Similarly, ‘chew’ the world and when the time has come to ‘spit’ it out, just do it, that is get detached from it. You can’t tell the young people to withdraw from the world – that is for sanyasis, not for the young guys who want to live in the world, so they’d better be involved with the world. Live well with this understanding, transcend it and move on!
* So then what does spirituality bring to their lives?
– Spirituality makes them live their lives to their full potential. They get to understand that this is a science which tells me to live my life well, which guides me to bring out my full potential, so once they connect with us they get the message that great opportunity awaits them to live to their full potential.
* Based on your encounter so far, what message would you like to give to the youth living in this small, isolated island?
– We should only guide the young people to live their life fully, they should understand this is all inclusive, spirituality is not exclusive. Remember that the dialogue in the Bhagavad Gita is between two householders, Krishna and Arjuna – they were not sanyasis! – so it’s a dialogue for people living here. Once we make them understand that the content of the Gita is contemporary, for people living here and not in the Himalayas, then the kids will open up better.
* Finally Swamiji, tell us something about the Chinmaya University which has been set up recently, in what way is it different from a conventional university?
– It is like a regular university teaching all contemporary subjects, but along with ancient wisdom, ancient knowledge and tradition. Take the BBA degree for example, the value addition is ‘Gita and Management Principles’, and it’s a huge success in that kids start seeing that it is a book which is so relevant today, and this is a great opening for them. So we teach a contemporary syllabus along with ancient wisdom.
* And do you think this model can be replicated in regular universities?
– What Pujya Gurudev envisaged was that this university should be a bridge between the West and the East, a bridge between tradition and technology, a bridge between pundit and public, between shastra and science. So let’s build that bridge.
* Published in print edition on 30 August 2019