Last week my wife and I left our children with their grandparents and travelled to Rajasthan, India, with a group of 86 Brits, 600 Americans and a handful from the rest of the world, to join more than 45,000 Indians in a very unique project.
We had gone to participate in a 7 day pilgrimage; a journey of self-discovery. We had all volunteered our time to a grassroots initiative in human and social development called ‘Swadhyay’, which literally means the study, knowledge and discovery of the self in Sanskrit.
We were tasked with going from person to person, from house to house, to meet, build bonds and establish a sense of common humanity with the people of Udaipur (the 5th largest city in Rajasthan). Udaipur is a very cultured, historical and proud place. The warmth, love, curiosity, respect and blessings we received from the people of Udaipur was incredible and beyond belief.
Every family we met had preserved many of its old customs and traditions, but are worried about the influence of globalization, materialism, self-centeredness and pop culture on their children and whether their centuries old unique culture will disappear within a generation. As we spoke and opened our hearts to each other we went from being complete strangers to extended family members within a week.
Thousands of volunteers from diverse walks of life had come together to meet people, young and old, of all races, castes and religions across all of Rajasthan. It is India’s largest state by area. It used to be home to the Indus Valley Civilization one of the world’s oldest, developed and most wide spread. Rajasthan’s economy is primarily agricultural; with a heavy exposure to metals & mining. The problem of famine and drought is deeply related with the economy of Rajasthan.
Between Jan 3rd and 9th, 48,000 Swadhyay volunteers visited 7,677 villages, towns and cities across the whole of Rajasthan. Collectively, we met with more than 400,000 families all over the state. We met everyone from the King and his ministers, to the people sweeping the streets; we went to schools, universities, businesses and homes; we met leaders, professors, teachers, students, children, cleaners, drivers, wrestlers, business owners, rich and poor, young and old.
Our purpose was not to pity the needy or to give them money, charity or other things but instead we wanted to inspire with love and ideas. We wanted to awaken their own self-respect, self-reliance and a sense of social responsibility. We had gone as much to open our own eyes and our hearts, to remove our prejudices and judgements, to bond and connect with people of all backgrounds, races, classes and beliefs. They were inspired in turn to offer their time, effort and skills in creative and collaborative projects that benefit their communities and contribute to their own self-improvement.
This ‘pay-it-forward’ approach was inspired by the teachings of Pandurang Shastri Athavale. More than 60 years ago Athavale put Human Dignity at the centre of his mission and devoted his life to inspiring one person at a time, to commit to changing themselves as the first step to changing the world. Peace, equality and unity are rooted within our own minds. During his lifetime he travelled from house to house, town to town, country to country with his message of common humanity, shared responsibility & collection action. He said “Politics, religion and economics alone cannot resolve the human predicament, because man needs to be transformed and this has to begin with the individual’s outlook towards himself and others”.
We did not go to preach or teach, to pity or rescue, we went to change our own outlook and over these 7 days our hearts melted, our barriers crumbled, our eyes opened and our minds were set free. We feel connected to the rest of humanity in a way we could never have imagined before. We have been transformed from the inside-out. We will never be the same again.