by Brahmacharini Suniti Chaitanya
The following is a two-part interview with Brahmachari Uddhav Chaitanya that appeared in the July 2003 and January 2004 issues of the CMW Newsletter:
The newest acharya in Chinmaya Mission West (CMW) is Brahmachari Uddhav Chaitanya, who is posted in Chinmaya Mission Dallas. He is new only to CMW, because if you talk to him for 30 seconds, you will see how clear he is on the Mission and its vision.
What struck me most when I first met Uddhavji was his adaptability. He had been at Chinmaya Mission Dallas for only six months, yet he already sounded like a connoisseur on Starbucks coffee options–macchiato, latte, mocha, etc.–and joked about making Chamakam, a hymn to Lord Siva, into a rap. Now, more than a year later, his astute assimilation of pop culture and his reasons for doing so are clearly seen in the rapidly growing Dallas center. Around 150 adults regularly attend his weekly study groups, and many others, of all age groups, benefit from the amazing number and variety of his classes. He is multi-talented in glass painting, Tanjore painting, Ayurveda treatments, acupressure, volleyball, and cricket.
Uddhavji studied at Sandeepany in Mumbai 1993-1995, and served in Chinmaya Mission Vijayawada up until last year. I had the chance to interview Uddhavji after a children’s art and culture camp, and he kindly shared his thoughts and experiences of past and present.
CMWN: In Vijayawada, you were instrumental in the growth of CHYK. For almost five years, you had over 100 CHYKs regularly attending your weekly class. Are there any tips you can give to our CHYK class teachers to further motivate them and their students?
Uddhavji: Many of the youth today think that religion has nothing to do with life, when it has everything to do with life. The CHYK sevak must go to their level and see life as they see it. Watch what they eat, drink, see, hear, and laugh about. Then bring the Vedāntic teachings to them in their own language. Once there is a rapport, and they are in tune and ready to absorb, teach them higher Vedantic texts.
CMWN: What are some of your favorite books?
Uddhavji: The Dancing Wu Lee Masters, which has nothing to do with dancing. It is a beautiful illustration of the cosmos. Another favorite is The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. I follow it as my bible. It clearly illustrates Vedānta through the life of the Master.
CMWN: Before entering the spiritual path, you were, as many youth would chide, normal–watching movies, listening to pop music, etc. After studying at Sandeepany, how did your views change?
Uddhavji: At this point in time, the mind is tuned to Vedānta. Therefore, it is very easy to give a more significant meaning to many songs that were once just for fun. Now, finding some philosophical meaning or duty-related message is natural. Initially, we tune our minds to spirituality by listening only to Bhagavad Gita or nāma smaranam, but eventually we start seeking the Lord in all sounds.
CMWN: You have traveled a lot in the Himalayas, alone and as a guide for Chinmaya devotees (youth and family groups). Would you share some memorable experiences?
Uddhavji:Once, in Gomukh, I met a young sādhu who lived in Tapovan, which is about seven miles above Gomukh. He was just 15 years old and had been living in the caves for a few years. He needed absolutely nothing and just lived in God’s grace.
Another time, I met with an accident and desperately needed some warmth. Shri Vyaas Giri Maharaj gave me some herbal tea that immediately warmed me. He then explained that very few know how to tap into the power of herbs, and that this tea actually had in it everything a human required to live a healthy life. His message was very beautiful: the Lord provides us with everything, but we often don’t know how to use what He has given.
CMWN: What do you find most inspiring in Chinmaya Mission?
Uddhavji: Pujya Gurudev and Pujya Guruji. I sometimes think that Gurudev’s work in establishing the Mission was easier than Guruji’s work of maintaining and spreading Gurudev’s Mission and vision. There is a personality difference in our Pujya Gurudev and Pujya Guruji, but they are equally awe-inspiring.
CMWN: What are your goals at Chinmaya Mission Dallas?
Uddhavji: Whether it is in Vijayawada or Dallas, serving Gurudev and living to fulfill His vision is the only goal.
CMWN: Everyone has goals, but not everyone achieves their goals. Often, the greatest obstacle is our mind and its mood swings. What strategy would you recommend in better focusing the mind?
Uddhavji: Keep your day busy and the mind occupied. In the ashram we were taught there is no holiday. When the mind is occupied fully, at the end of the day, it just naturally and effortlessly sleeps. Sometimes it may stay busy in shastra vichara or puja. At other times, we can occupy it with some useful work like gardening. This way there will no time for the mind to swing.
CMWN: Who have been some of your greatest role models to date and in what ways?
Uddhavji: Pujya Gurudev: He is my everything my role model, my guide. I learned most from him just by being with him for those five years that I was a CHYK. By seeing him, by following him around like a shadow. I learned much more by being with him as a CHYK than at any other time, in any other way. There is no one who has influenced my life more than Gurudev.
My mother and father have also influenced me greatly as a person. I feel that if I am a brahmachari in Chinmaya Mission today, it is because of two reasons: 1) Guru-krpā (Guru’s grace) and 2) the samskāras that my parents instilled in me – love and caring from my Mom, and discipline from my Dad. (Pauses) Yeah, they have influenced my life a lot.
And if someone’s teachings really touched or brought about a drastic change in my life, it would be the teachings of Papa Ramdas. His book In Search of God gave a new depth to my understanding of spirituality. It changed my whole perception of spiritual life. This happened while I was going through the brahmachari course. There was another brahmachari who had this book and I just happened to read it. I still treasure the experience of having read it there it was an amazing experience.
CMWN: What are some of your most memorable moments during your brahmachari training course?
Uddhavji: Every moment of my stay at the Sandeepany ashram in Mumbai is memorable and greatly treasured. In fact, when I look back at my past in its entirety, the only portion that is strikingly vivid is the two-year period spent at Sandeepany. I can recollect every moment and every day of my time there like it all happened just yesterday. It’s like all those memories are on the tips of my fingers.
One aspect that greatly molded my thinking process during those two years, apart from the daily classes, was the opportunity we all got to go to different schools and address different age groups. This helped greatly in teaching us how to continue the same topic at different levels. It gave me the chance to discipline and streamline my thoughts, and to learn to speak cohesively. It was really great training for fieldwork.
During the course I also got the chance to be and work with Swami Maheshanandaji (then Brahmachari Shivji), who was managing the whole ashram (in charge of all supplies, maintenance, etc.). I was amazed to see how one person could do the work of a dozen people put together. His work ranged from carpentry to plumbing to cooking to general maintenance, to grocery shopping . . . and all this he would do so readily and easily because of his immense and intense love for Gurudev.
The work I did with Shivji included cooking, plumbing, sewing, and cleaning the acharyas’ kutirs (residences) before their arrival. I learned from him how to work at different levels, with different types of people, and with all types of work. I learned that it’s not the type of work that matters when you are working for Gurudev all his work is equally great.
In fact, when I was first posted in Vijayawada, I had to manage so many different aspects of the center from the yajnas to the ashram to the newsletter. All that time, I was thinking of and thanking my beloved Shivji.
CMWN: There are many Chinmaya Mission devotees who have attended the mini-brahmachari course: the Dharma Sevak Course. How valuable do you think this can be for the average householder?
Uddhavji: The Dharma Sevak Course is a brilliant idea. I think it was first conceived by Swamini Sharadapriyanandaji. I have seen three types of the Dharma Sevak Course: one was the year-long course conducted by Sharada Amma; another was the three-month course that was held while we were studying in the brahmachari course; and the third was the two-week course I recently attended in Piercy, California.
The main purpose behind this course, in whichever format, is to better train householder sevaks to work in Chinmaya Mission with greater inspiration and clarity. And of course, as a result, their personal spiritual sādhanā is enhanced and reaches higher levels.
In my personal opinion, I think that such Dharma Sevak Courses should be promoted more vigorously, even if an individual does not spend as much time later on as expected in Mission work. Such courses will undoubtedly change each participant’s thinking and way of life.
CMWN: What are your views on the new E-Vedānta Correspondence Course?
Uddhavji: Adaptability is the key to survival. To propagate Vedāntic teachings through new technologies and cyberspace communication is a natural outcome. It is expected. This type of course will naturally reach out to more people and I think people all over the world are waiting for it. Currently, the Internet offers a lot of information that is incorrect or unclear, and I think Chinmaya Mission’s e-courses will be greatly welcome and appreciated.
CMWN: How did you come into Chinmaya Mission?
Uddhavji: Baap re, it is such a long story. (Long pause and deep breath) I first met Gurudev around 1989. It was a strange experience. I was a great soccer fan and our team used to practice on our college grounds. One day, when we arrived for our regular evening practice session, we found a huge shamiana. There was this massive setup all across our soccer field and the whole of the college campus. We asked around and found out that there was some Swamiji who was going to be speaking on Bhagavad Gita. We were all angry and disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to practice. But still, a few of our team members, including myself, decided to stay back just out of curiosity to see who this Swamiji was, what he was going to say, what these talks were all about.
We were all seated on our motorcycles in the parking lot, where we could hear Gurudev, but we could barely see him. While he was speaking on the dais, my friends and I continued discussing and arguing about religion, saints, and India in general. We got to the topic of whether or not Swamis like Gurudev can read people’s minds, and right then, there was complete silence . . . and Gurudev was looking straight at us. After about 30 seconds, he shrugged his shoulders, laughed mockingly, and said, “Some of you think that I can read minds. But believe me, friends, I cannot”.
We felt like we had been struck by lightning. We got off our bikes and walked over to some empty space by the bookstall so we could hear and see him better. You might say it was a sort of promotion to get from the parking lot to the bookstall.
By the end of the talk, one of my friends and I felt like meeting Gurudev personally. The next day, I went early and alone, and sat in the front row. That’s how it started.
CMWN: And how did you decide to become a brahmachari?
Uddhavji: There was a journal that I kept not a daily diary just a journal of general thoughts. Three years after joining CHYK, attending Gurudev’s yajnas, and moving closely with him, I wrote in my journal, Why should I toil to earn and live a wasteful life? Why don’t I help people instead and let Gurudev help me?.
CMWN: Did you have any specific technique for memorizing ślokas or learning Sanskrit?
Uddhavji: No. It just happened by Guru’s grace that I was and am able to remember ślokas very well. Sanskrit I had learned in school and college for about ten years. I can maneuver myself in Sanskrit with ease, to a certain extent.
CMWN: Your talks at the most recent Dharma Sevak Course in California were highly acclaimed by many attendees. What aspects do you feel make people relate to your talks so well?
Uddhavji: Gurudev’s blessings make everything possible. I can’t pinpoint anything specific that this is what people related to well. People say that when I speak on Vedānta, I am very blunt, straightforward. This is because I am always speaking aloud to myself when I am giving a talk. Maybe this is what appeals to them.
CMWN: With which age groups are you most comfortable working?
Uddhavji: Any age group is fine. I think I can relate to all ages at their levels. But after coming to the US, what took a longer time for me was to relate better to children and youth specifically. I needed to first learn what they see, how they think, what they listen to, and of course, their lingo.
CMWN: Are you currently working on any special projects?
Uddhavji: Right now at Chinmaya Mission Dallas we are trying to start more classes and activities for university students. We weren’t able to cater much to this age group before, so hopefully this will take off in a big way.
CMWN: Is there any other project or idea that you would like to work on?
Uddhavji: Yes. It has to do with spreading Hinduism in India’s rural masses. The roots of Hinduism are in India. But being an Indian doesn’t mean you know what Hinduism is because it is so greatly misinterpreted today. I feel that a concentrated effort has to be applied in India, especially in the rural areas, to educate the masses.
But in order to do this, we have to first understand and address the social, educational, medical, cultural, and economic needs of the masses first. There are millions who are impoverished, illiterate, superstitious, and without medical care. And unless we cater to their various basic needs first, most of them will not be able to make time in their lives for spirituality. How easy is it to listen to talks on the Gītā while suffering from poverty and malnutrition?
Ideally, I feel every Mission center should have an ashram with a temple, to cater to people’s spiritual unfoldment; a hospital, to cater to their medical and health issues; a school, to cater to children’s educational growth; and vocational programs to train people to reap maximum benefit from their regional resources, and to stand tall and independent–this is to cater to their financial needs. If I was in India, this is something I would really want to be involved in.
CMWN: What do you like to do in your down time?
Uddhavji: I don’t have much down time to begin with. But in India, I would go for long walks on the beach or the riverside. I paint, sketch, and listen to all types of music. After coming here, I’ve also started gardening.
CMWN: Do you have any personal favorite festival or holiday tradition?
Uddhavji: All festivals that maintain our cultural traditions are very dear to me. My personal favorites are Navarātri and Ganeśa Chaturthī. And of course Sivarātri, Rāma Navamī, Janmāśtamī . . . you get the picture!
CMWN: Do you sing?
Uddhavji: Never. (Laughs) Yeah, actually, I do–in the shower.
CMWN: Did you ever want to learn to sing?
Uddhavji: I had tried for two years to study under a great, learned singer at Vijayawada. Then finally she gave up, saying, Swamiji, why do you want to spoil your talks with your singing?
CMWN: You enjoy playing around with gadgets. Which gadgets and technological advancements have you found to be a blessing in your work?
Uddhavji: I love any and all compact gadgets with multifarious functions. The most effective ones that have eased my workload and allowed for better and faster communication are my computer and the Internet. I find that working in the Mission and trying to cater to so many people from so many backgrounds, in so many places, is now much easier. We don’t live on an island. It helps to be able to be in touch with people and developments all around the world.
CMWN: What keeps you motivated in life, in general?
Uddhavji: Love. Deep down it’s just love. Love for Gurudev. Love for his children.
CMWN: What views or methods would you recommend for others to stay motivated?
Uddhavji: Life is one big Cartoon Network. Enjoy it.
CMWN: Have you always been an optimist?
Uddhavji: Yes, I have always been an optimist––by default. I didn’t make an effort. I’m just like that.
CMWN: What makes you happy and what makes you sad?
Uddhavji: The sense of independent existence makes me happy: to exist joyfully without any worldly limitations or bindings. Dependency is strange and painful.
CMWN: What moves you or touches you deeply?
Uddhavji: Gurudev’s love and compassion. It is constant.
CMWN: Vedānta describes life as a drama. As an actor, what characters have you enjoyed playing?
Uddhavji: Uddhav Chaitanya. All of it. It’s not anything about being Uddhav as such. The Lord has decided that I play this role, so I love playing this role. It’s that simple.
CMWN: So what are some facets of Uddhav Chaitanya?
Uddhavji: This I can’t say.
CMWN: Brahmacharis tend to keep their personal lives private. How hard is it for you to do this, considering that you spend so much time working with people?
Uddhavji: Gurudev says, When you deal with people, deal with your heart. And when you deal with yourself, deal with your head. So what people need is your love, not your personal Mahābhārata.
CMWN: Many spiritual seekers who are householders ask you how to withdraw from the world and become more introvert. What advice do you give to them?
Uddhavji: In fact, I tell them not to withdraw. Enjoy the party. People understand spirituality in different ways. I define spirituality as the ability to stay in the world, without the mind becoming worldly, dedicating our lives to a higher cause (to know the Truth), and recognizing that every part of this universe is divine.
We can be with people, but we don’t have to become political. We can have our sentiments, but we don’t have to become sentimental. We can learn to live gracefully.
CMWN: What specific places of spiritual retreat do you feel drawn to?
Uddhavji: The Himalayas. Specifically Mother Ganga and places like Gangotri and Gomukh. I have a great passion to roam about in the Himalayas. There are also a few untouched forests in South India where I would just love to get lost.
CMWN: Would you share some behind-the-scenes stories from your recent trip to Mount Kailasa?
Uddhavji: (Laughing) Watch the DVD. It’ll be on sale soon. The one thing that I felt most intensely when I was there was an immense sense of peace and fullness. There is a force there that makes even the most extroverted person naturally glide into silence. (To order the DVD on Mount Kailasa, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)