I work as a college professor. I’ve taught more than a thousand students for over a decade. I’ve also observed how students progress from their freshman year to the senior year, and how they develop over their professional careers. I advise undergraduate, graduate students, and also alumni. I am also the co-editor of Hari Patrika this year, and I’ve had an opportunity to read through the reflections of Balavihar classes from pre-K through 12th grade. In this essay, I want to talk about how Balavihar classes not only introduce the rich Indian culture, heritage, and Vedantic knowledge to students, but also develop a character that in future will help our Balavihar students successfully navigate the challenges of the college experience and beyond.
University experience: a labyrinth of challenges and opportunities
Successful students are receptive to opportunities and make good use of them and are good at meeting the challenges well. In my experience, I’ve observed five factors that are common to all successful students:
Successful students have tremendous work ethic. They are attentive in the classroom, ask interesting questions, and their work is detail-oriented and comprehensive.
Successful students are unafraid to go to professor’s office hours; work effectively in teams; and seek out mentors.
Successful students show active involvement in student clubs and often take up leadership positions. They are good at attending networking events and participating in university-level competitions.
Successful students are conscious of issues that affect the world and are eager to find ways to solve problems. Recently, I worked as an advisor for a team that worked on solving Portland homelessness problem as an extra-curricular project.
Most of the students are surprised by the difficulty of expectations in college. The professors can be hard and demanding, adjustment to new place and culture is often difficult, and the expectations to complete the program and get internship and a job can really challenge the students. The successful students often manage these situations better and don’t let the stress get on top of them.
Balavihar: a character builder
Balavihar is a weekly gathering of children, that aims to enhance the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development of children at all levels. A typical class starts and ends with Sanskrit prayers and includes activities such as chanting, bhajans, stories of devotion and moral values, interactive discussions, and creative games. The classes are based on a special syllabi, with the goal to accomplish the rationale set by Swami Chinmayananda. Swami Tejomayananda explains, “the primary aim is to teach children to look at life as a game. Further, they must understand that even though life is viewed as a sport, every sport has rules, and discipline is important; just because it’s a game, it does not mean we can skip the rules.”
I will next summarize the curriculum at different grade levels (elementary, middle, and high-school) and discuss some important values Balavihar children acquire as part of this curriculum.
Kindergarten – 5th grade: Basic values through Alphabet safari, Bala Ramayana, Sri Hanuman, Bala Bhagavatam, Krishna Krishna everywhere, and Symbolism in Hinduism. Balavihar students learn that the Lord is present everywhere; acquire knowledge about the divine forms of Lord and the noble qualities one must pursue; and the symbolism behind the spiritual practices.
6th-8th grade: The middle schoolers learn about India, the Sacred Land, P.O.Box Mr. God, and Yato Dharma Tato Jaya. In these grades, the Balavihar students learn about the great cultural heritage of India; seeing God in everything and the ways to inculcate noble virtues and fight off evil tendencies; and understanding Dharma through the epic, Mahabharata.
9th-12th grade: The high schoolers learn about the core tenets of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita, and Self-Unfoldment. The students are exposed to the cream of Vedantic Knowledge and also the ways to apply the rich knowledge in their daily living.
Balavihar as a solid foundation for College and beyond
What Balavihar truly teaches is life-skills. The “life” refers to the Oneness of life everywhere, and “skills” refer to how to make the intelligent use of body, mind, and intellect in accomplishing goals. The “character” building is done primarily through the “philosophical foundation” to understand life and a “practical means” to work tirelessly, dedicatedly, and unselfishly.
Philosophical foundation (Jnana-Yoga)
The Balavihar children learn to view life as One life everywhere and devotion to the People is the devotion to the Supreme Self. The philosophical foundation teaches children “how to think” about life. A seventh grader, Shruthi Satyanath reflects “God is omnipresent, He is within/without us”. Another seventh grader, Gowri Ganesh writes, “knowledge, hardwork, determination are the keys that give you happiness”. One more reflection from Tanush Sistla, 7th grader suggests, “that to reach success, one must ignore the qualities held by most humans, like selfishness, ego, arrogance and so on. We must follow the Chariot of Dharma, which shows the many ways we must combat and defeat our evil qualities.”
Practical foundation (Karma-Yoga)
The practical foundation (Karma-Yoga) teaches children to apply the knowledge of “life” through practical means by working selflessly for the welfare of all. The Balavihar children in the academic year 2018-19 have worked on various projects such as cooking food for homeless shelter, conducting speech and debate camp, Lego robotics camp, and ESL tutoring.
Balavihar children learn to apply the knowledge experientially. Sanika Bedre, a 7th grader who served as an ESL tutor reflects, “this was an experience that would help me broaden my view on our community and at the same time, help other students improve themselves academically.” Vivek kumar, a 11th grader reflects on a public speaking workshop, “through this 3-day course, middle school students were introduced to the art of public speaking. Instructed by Kapil Varma, Aabhi Anand, and Vivek Kumar, the team of three utilized their experiences to deconstruct the fear of public speaking.” Maya Begde, our recent Balavihar graduate reflects, “I started Balavihar when I was 3. One of my earliest memories is actually going to the Oregon Food Bank to volunteer there with my parents. That experience taught me a few things which would become a recurring theme throughout my time here. The idea of giving back to those who are less fortunate than us, the idea of being an unselfish person and the notion of helping others.”
Connection between College and Balavihar
Earlier I have explained that work ethic, inter-personal skills, extra-curricular activities, conscious citizens, and resilience are the qualities of successful college students. Balavihar children, through their curriculum and experiential learning projects, gain the necessary skills to be successful in college and beyond. The curriculum makes them well-rounded and integrates their personalities so that they not only become disciplined to achieve success for themselves, but they constantly explore ways to make a difference to the communities they live and work in. I implore you to read the student and teacher reflections in our Hari Patrika to see for yourself the transformation Balavihar children have gone through in these years they spent at Chinmaya mission Portland. As Swami Chinmayananda says, “valuables come and go, but values come and grow!”. It’s precisely the investment in inculcating a good value system in our children which makes them reap character as reward and to become responsible and productive citizens of the world. It takes enormous work of selfless volunteers at Chinmaya mission who mould the Balavihar children from a very young age. It’s an effort worth investing in our younger generation!