When Purnendu Goswami invited parents to send their children to the free school he had opened with his brothers, he expected them to jump at the chance. Education is hard to come by for poor children in India. The families he approached were mired in poverty--some were homeless--and he was offering their children an education, clothing, hot meals, and a roof over their heads, all free of charge. More than that, he was offering them an opportunity. There are no Horatio Alger stories among the poor of India. In all but the most exceptional cases, poverty is a life sentence and an inheritance. The children of poor parents are almost always destined to a lifetime of poverty. Education is the only way out.
Yet, to Purnendu's dismay, many of the parents he spoke with hesitated. The problem was that their sons and daughters--even those not yet 10 years old--were all working. They washed dishes in hotels, sold small items by the sides of roads, ran errands for shopkeepers, swept floors. Their parents were caught in a terrible trap: The money earned from their childrens' work helped their families survive. Sending them to school meant having even less.
Still, some gradually came around. The school grew, and eventually thrived. Today, it has over 150 students, from Kindergarten through India's grade 5.
"What made some parents finally agree?" I asked him as we watched the children playing raucously in their small playground.
"I asked the parents one thing," he replied. "Do you want your children to have the same life you do? The answer was unanimously no."
The free school is only one of the activities of the nonprofit Bindu Sewa Sansthan in Vrindavan. Purnendu and his brothers----Yoshendu and Swami Balendu--run an ashram, give classes in yoga, practice Ayurvedic medicine, and offer spiritual counseling. Although the trappings of Hindu practice pervade the atmosphere of the center--Swami Balendu once meditated alone in a cave for three years--their work is decidedly nondenominational. "Swamiji doesn't want to be anybody's guru or master," says their website at jaisiyaram.com. "He just wants to be a friend and share love."
This spirit of friendship and love is everywhere at the Bindu Sewa Sansthan. For three nights, we were treated as honored guests at the center's ashram. Our furnishings were sparse, the facilities minimal, the food simple, homemade, and delicious. Purnendu watched over us with the openhearted hospitality and generosity of a traditional Indian host, waiting to eat until we had all been fed and fulfilling each of our many requests with the same gracious reminder: "This is your home!"
But it was the children who touched our hearts the most. My students joined in as the kids did their morning yoga, sat in on their classes, and played with them during recess.
"I've never seen a more earnest group of children in my life," one of my students remarked. It was true: Even the five-year-olds were not just well behaved but eager. And the teachers, some of them barely out of their teens, were dedicated, compassionate, patient, and skilled.
We've seen some of the most extraordinary sights India has to offer--ancient temples, lavish palaces, and gardens of stunning beauty--but this school was our most remarkable experience yet. When we get home, we'll have tales of monkeys and cows, chanting and dancing, miserable slums and grand monuments. But I think it will be the children at Bindu we remember most clearly.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...