By David Warden
Editor of Humanistically Speaking
In this article, David tells the amazing story of the humanist sadhu Swami Manavatavadi and his pioneering school for street kids in Kurukshetra, India.
I first made contact with Swami Manavatavadi in 2003 as a result of an advert I placed in International Humanist News with the aim of cultivating friendships between our humanist group in Dorset and similar groups around the world. At first, we spoke on the telephone and then I met him in London in early 2004. I came to know him as ‘Swamiji’ and he addressed me as ‘Devendraji’. This Indian name was derived from an anagram of my name, the letters of ‘David Warden’ re-arranged into ‘Devinder Wad’. Swamiji informed me that the names ‘Devinder’ and ‘Devendra’ are the same, and that it means ‘Ruler of Paradise’. I felt that Swamiji was a kindred spirit and we became very good friends. We were almost the same age and we had both reached a stage of non-theistic enlightenment in our youth. My ‘enlightenment’ came after three years study of religion at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. I was enchanted by Swamiji’s story of enlightenment in the Himalayas following a six thousand mile journey on foot.
Swamiji was born in in 1960 in Jagatsinghpur, Odisha, in Eastern India. His father was a school inspector and his uncle was an engineer. Swamiji was his parents’ eldest son – he had two younger brothers and three sisters. His original name was Satya Nandan. He later adopted the name ‘Swami’ meaning ‘master over oneself’ and ‘Manavatavadi’ meaning ‘humanist’ or ‘humanitarian’. At the age of eight, he became an entrepreneur selling poetry. The printer took 60 rupees and Swamiji sold his poetry books for 250 rupees, making a good profit! As he was his parents’ eldest son, family expectations were high, and he felt unworthy. He was regularly beaten at school for not doing his homework, but he was the only boy in class who knew about gravity! All children in India are told stories about wandering sadhus (holy men and women) who detach themselves from society in order to achieve ‘moksha’ (spiritual liberation). Swamiji was attracted to this way of life and he ran away from home at the age of eleven. Whilst travelling by train, someone stole his money while he was sleeping. So he worked as a labourer for two months in Vishakhapatnam. Within fifteen days he was promoted to supervisor. He also worked in Chennai as a machine operator in a nuts and bolts factory for two months.
Becoming a sadhu
On arrival in Rameswaram he decided to become a sadhu which means taking a vow to lead a selfless life, to acquire wisdom and serve others, but not attached to any particular religion. He gave away all his money and belongings and wore white robes. He then embarked on a programme of sadhanas, which means living in adverse conditions, living without money and without a regular supply of food, in both hot and cold climates without adequate facilities. In search of a guru, he walked 2,000 miles from Kanyakumari at the southernmost tip of India along the east coast via Kolkata to Badrinath in the Himalayas. He lived in the jungles and fed himself on leaves, bark, and berries. This trek took ten months. His second trek – another 2,000 miles – took him back to Kanyakumari. His third trek – another 2,000 miles! – took him to Vizianagaram where, at the age of thirteen, he was initiated by a wandering nagasanyassi into Sankaracharya (a religious title used by monks in the Advaita Vedanta tradition). The initiation process involved shaving his head, reciting mantras, and being sprinkled with water. He then he adopted the saffron-coloured robe. (In many Indian spiritual traditions, saffron robes are worn by renunciates or monks to signify their renunciation of worldly life.) After three months, he set out for the north again, living in the jungles in western India, and eventually reaching the Himalayas where he lived for three months in icy conditions wearing very little clothing.
It was here on Paohanli Peak in Sikkim that he achieved clarity of mind about ishwara (the innermost nature of reality), atma (the life-force), and moksha (liberation), concluding that gods and goddesses are superstitions which arise in the human mind. In effect, he became a humanist but he did not know at this stage that there were any other humanists in the world. During his time in the jungle he did not speak to anyone, and consequently he forgot his primary language (Odia). When he returned to society, he had to make a conscious effort to recall the English and Hindi he had learnt as a child.
“Prayer paralyses the intellect, conscience, sense of self-respect, and willpower.” Swami Manavatavadi
Suicidal thoughts and the Bertrand Russell connection
At the age of fifteen (1975), Swamiji felt there was little point in continuing to live and he went to the Ganges to drown himself. He was followed by Swami Shantananda Rajhansa, who persuaded him not to give up on life but to visit Dr Guljian Lal Kohli, an educational philosopher who had been a friend of Bertrand Russell. Swamiji had two letters in his possession written by Bertrand Russell to Dr Kohli. He went to meet Dr Kohli in Ranchi in Eastern India and stayed with him for twenty-one days. He then settled in Kheribrahmanan village near Kurukshetra, where he lived for five years under the shade of a teak tree.
Creating his first Humanitarian Foundation, aged 16
At the age of sixteen (1976), he created a Humanitarian Foundation. He taught children the regular school syllabus and ethics in the style of Maharshi Dhaumya in order to cultivate their self-respect. He also travelled around the country (sadhus can travel free on trains!) giving talks in universities and bar councils, schools and colleges, about his ideas about ethics and the futility of religious beliefs. He tried to inspire people to lead a natural life based on the laws of nature. Students of all ages came to him for help with English, maths and natural sciences (he was self-taught through natural curiosity), and through this activity he earned an income. In 1986 he acquired a plot of land and built a hut from mud and bricks. His Humanitarian Foundation was renamed The International School of Humanitarian Thoughts and Practice, also known as Kids’ Kingdom Un-Orphanage from 2006. (The term 'un-orphanage' is meant to convey the idea that, at Kids' Kingdom, street children can experience connection with a community and nurturing support.) In 1991, Swamiji came into contact with the family of Sadvi Asha Manav (Deviji). Deviji dedicated her life to working in the school. She made contact with child beggars in the town, and motivated them and their parents to begin their education. She taught them Hindi, maths, and elementary English.
4th World Atheist Congress at the Atheist Centre in Vijayawada
In 1996, Swamiji attended the 4th World Atheist Congress at the Atheist Centre in Vijayawada, where he learned of the existence of the worldwide atheist and humanist community. In the same year, he flew to Mexico and spoke at the World Humanist Conference in Mexico City. In 1999, he spoke at the World Humanist Congress in Mumbai. In 2002, he attended the World Humanist Congress in Amsterdam (the 50th anniversary of Humanists International), and he became an associate member of Humanists International (formerly known as the International Humanist and Ethical Union). In the same year, he spoke at a World Federalist Movement conference at Imperial College, London, on global democracy.
Visit to India
In October 2004, I visited Kurukshetra with my husband John Hubbard. We participated in the traditional ‘Celebrating the Dedication to Children’ Function on 23rd October and we addressed the children and adults gathered there. On subsequent days, we visited Kheribrahmanan village, near Kurukshetra, where Swamiji had lived for five years after returning from his forest-wandering life. On 26th October, we visited Haryana Governor House at Chandigarh with Swamiji to attend a lunch and discussion with His Excellency Dr. A.R. Kidwai. On 27th, we bade farewell to Kids’ Kingdom, and with Swamiji as our guide we visited Mathura, Vrindavan, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and Agra Fort. On October 28th we returned to Delhi where, unfortunately, I became ill after eating a water chestnut from a roadside vendor. I stayed in the hotel room whilst John and Swamiji visited Lal Quilla, Purana Quilla, Qutub Minar, and Gandhi Samadhi. A doctor cured me of my tummy troubles and on the 29th we flew back to London.
“Religion is a well-arranged system designed by cunning individuals to destroy the simple and natural tendency of reasoning and rationality in people of average intellect.” Swami Manavatavadi
On 22nd March 2006, His Excellency Dr. A.R. Kidwai laid the Foundation Stone of the Kids’ Kingdom Building. Around 450 people, including the Vice-Chancellor of Kurukshetra University, the Chief Architect of Haryana, and many other dignitaries, participated in this function and community lunch arranged by Deviji. The plan was to erect a four-storey building on the site with facilities for the 'Un-orphanage' and a school. Humanist friends from England, Canada, the USA and elsewhere, as well as local supporters, provided support to Kids’ Kingdom, despite religious and political opposition and harassment from Brahmin neighbours. The European Humanist Federation and Humanists UK sent letters of support to the authorities when help was needed.
Later that year, in October 2006, I made my second brief visit to Kurukshetra. The purpose of the trip was to attend a conference on ‘Humanism as the Solution to Contemporary Problems of Humanity’ and to find out how Kids’ Kingdom was progressing. I was very impressed to find that a smart new building had been erected on the site, which could provide basic accommodation for a substantial number of orphans from the Kashmir earthquake disaster region. I met three boys from Kashmir – Firdosh (age 14), Akib (age 13) and Irfan (age 12) who all lost their fathers in the earthquake. They had been living in very precarious conditions before their arrival in Kurukshetra, with scarcely enough food to survive. Conditions at Kids’ Kingdom were basic but their main happiness lay in being regularly fed with large quantities of home-cooked food! During the day they learnt Hindi script, played games and did odd jobs around the compound, including washing their own clothes on a stone slab with soap and brush. At night they slept on the floor. The boys were from a Muslim background and they were still in telephone contact with surviving family members. Swamiji did not try to argue with them about Muslim beliefs, but he gently encouraged them to develop their reasoning ability – for example, by getting them to appreciate that their food was being provided by Deviji, not by Allah.
Helping Dalit children
Kids’ Kingdom changes lives. Its motto is ‘the rousing of reason and the increase of self-reliance’. Many of the children who attend are from the lowest Dalit ‘untouchable’ caste and live in local slums. Kids’ Kingdom is called an ‘Un-Orphanage’. Few of the children are orphans in the literal sense (having no parents) but Kids’ Kingdom gives them a chance to escape from street life, and an incentive to develop their minds and skills for a better future.
Kids’ Kingdom is a charitable foundation which runs entirely on donations. It provides elementary ‘after-school’ education in an informal atmosphere for primary-aged children. Classes in English, maths, science and IT run from 4.00-7.00pm in the evening. For some children, this is their only education. For others, Kids’ Kingdom is an enjoyable addition to the regular school day. The school attracts over 100 children.
We were all shocked and saddened when we heard the news that Mahadevi, a student teacher at Kids’ Kingdom until April 2013, was apparently abducted by a Maoist gang. The authorities seemed powerless or unwilling to pursue her case. The children remembered her as an elder sister, friend, swimming coach, and teacher of compassion and courage.
Many people in the West initially assumed, on meeting him, that Swami Manavatavadi was a Buddhist monk because of his orange robes. I always explained that he was initiated into a Hindu tradition at the age of thirteen and he became a sadhu, which involves taking a vow to lead a selfless life, acquire wisdom and serve others. By the time he was fifteen he had given up any belief in supernatural religion, but he maintained his ethic of selfless service to humanity.
Over the years, Dorset Humanists and other humanist groups around the world helped to provide funds, school bags, uniforms, laptops and desks for the children. Swamiji visited Dorset Humanists in January 2004 and August 2014, after we attended the World Humanist Congress in Oxford.
Swamiji was always inviting me to make a return visit to Kurukshetra, but I became very busy with work responsibilities. On 6th March 2015, he sent me an email in which he wrote: ‘My assassination or even natural death wouldn't make any hindrance in continuing the cause of the Kids' Kingdom’. He explained that Deviji had been in charge of Kids’ Kingdom since 1994. Swamiji had a very keen sense of humour. When I wrote, ‘I hope it does not happen for a long time’ he replied, ‘…you have established connections with the tortoise god who is very powerful to give protection to lives. So you are going to make me immortal so that I would have more time to suffer and lead a more painful life for long.’
My ‘connection with the tortoise god’ did not help. On 26th June 2018, I received news of Swamiji’s death from natural causes. He was a kindred spirit and a very dear friend. His legacy and inspiration lives on at the school in Kurukshetra. I am in contact with Sangharsh who is an associate of the school.