This article is a part of the series on a free school run by the Art of Living volunteers in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh.

A small cold finger poked me awake, jerking me out of my woolly dreams on that cool morning. I struggled to open my eyes against the first rays of the morning sun. Standing by my bed and grinning cheerfully was Vedanta. “Wake up, its 6, time for morning prayers”, he says and skips out as gaily as he had entered.

As I step out of my room into the open arena, I encounter 60 children lined up against the majestic backdrop of the hills, braving the chill and doing their Surya Namaskars. Yoga, meditation, chantings are part of morning prayers for the hostel residents of Sri Sri Seva Mandir, Guntur. Interestingly, milking the cow is also part of the morning routine, taken in turn by the students.

The classes are conducted not just within the confines of a closed classroom but also in the lap of nature, in the open grounds, enabling the children to take in the nature as they focus on the task of gearing up for an academic future. Just as the Guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar believes that education is incomplete unless it is well-rounded and holistic, the school endorses a similar view too.

It is thus not surprising to see students in the evenings indulging in organic farming, cooking, cleaning and taking care of the pets. Participation in these tasks starts from the tender age of seven, with each assigned responsibilities based on age and capacity. In short, it is not just imparting the three R's (reading, writing and arithmetic) in nature’s lap, but one that blends, understands and infuses nature into ones soul by being a natural part of it.

But chores, academics are not the only syllabi offered by Sri Sri Seva Mandir. Dance, music, sports are an integral part of this education, with weekends especially devoted to celebration. It is definitely not by accident that children passing out of middle school and moving on to other schools in the district shine to the point of drawing attention to their unique capabilities and sharp mind. And shining they do, not amongst a handful of students but a vast number that can surpass a couple of thousand.

A story to be told

What is striking is the fact that these children residing in the hostel are abandoned, orphaned children, some of whom were picked by the police and handed over to the school. And each has a poignant story to tell.

For instance, the orphaned Vedanta, a child of HIV infected parents, would be forced to fetch cigarettes, alcohol and drugs by the older inmates of the place where he earlier resided. Not to mention the offer of a share in the same, to force him into the same addiction. He was also taught to dismantle wheels of all kinds of vehicles which would later be sold.

But that was Vedanta before the arms of Sri Sri Gyan Mandir hostel enveloped him with love and care. Today, he is a totally different child smiling through all that past.

“Not too long back, he spoke of an intense urge to break apart a wheel. We allowed him. But that was the last time a broken tyre was attributed to him. Yet on another occasion he disturbed a beehive by flinging a stone only to have them sting him mercilessly. With his swollen face he came up and asked me not to punish him further; stated that the stinging was punishment enough”, says Madam Maa with smile, adding “we still have to make him view his dirt covered face in the mirror to persuade him to take that shower.”

But what you see now is a sensitive, humorous child who believes in living life to the full, in the right way, one who would be first to lend his hand to lift anyone, physically or emotionally.

Vedanta is not the only exception. There are plenty who hail from similar HIV infected abandoned families, parents lost to Naxal encounters, rescued from child marriages, or merely abandoned because of acute poverty.

Going a step further

Not only have these children put their past behind and successfully rebuilt their lives, they have also started extending their growing arm to causes that fall beyond the purview of the school campus. For, a 400 year old Shiva temple in Guntur owes its restoration to these tiny yet strong arms and willing minds that strive to make a difference.

“The school took the project of restoring the temple, yet local help was needed to make the dream a reality. It was left to the children to convince their parents to be part of the initiative. What transpired was a powerful movement that culminated in the restoration of the temple and the ancient culture of the village”, says Maa.

What is the secret of this huge transformation, an urge to make a difference?

“It is the environment created in the school where they are taught to grow amidst nature, respecting it; the spiritual as well as practical education imparted, the extra-curricular activities provided, the awareness brought in about the country’s culture, social values, the diversity and all of this offered without sacrificing the imparting of the three essential R's. It is in short a holistic education addressing the mind, body and spirit, the way The Art of Living does”, says Maa.

Indeed, it is the manner of education imparted, from the very bottom, addressing the most pathetically abandoned; the orphaned children and making the difference where it matters most.

Writer : Monica Patel

Care for Children is a program under the non-profit organization, the Art of Living Foundation. We help raise funds for the tuition-free Art of Living schools in India. As a non-profit program, we keep our expenses very low so that we can educate more underprivileged children through these schools.