New Internationalist

Close encounter of the human kind

Man praying [Related Image]
A haven of peace in the modern world Vinoth Chandar under a Creative Commons Licence

Poonthottam is an ayurvedic ashram in Kerala founded by a charismatic vaidyan or healer named Vaidya. P.M.S Raveendranath. People come here to be treated for serious ailments. It’s an oasis of peace and serenity. But most ashrams are. What’s different here is that it manages to retain the old world charm and values of a bygone era. And even more unbelievable is that this little haven exists in the middle of a driven, pushy, get-rich-quick, ostentatious, flashy, gold jewellery laden world which most of Kerala descended into after the great Gulf exodus began in the 1970s.

In Poonthottam, patients wake up to a melodious chanting of prayers and mantras from the little courtyard temple with a warm, calming, mind relaxing ambience. The woman responsible for this lovely daily awakening is always dressed in traditional Kerala white when she performs her morning puja or worship. Her face is serene. She radiates an aura I associate with an India of some decades ago, not easy to find these days.

We have a conversation with her. Or rather, we listen bemused. We ask her about her family.

She moved to Poonthottam after her husband died, as her daughter and son are now grown up and have flown the nest. Her face is neither young nor old. Yet she doesn’t seem middle-aged. Rather there’s a timeless quality about her, which I’ve sometimes seen in Catholic, Buddhist and Jain nuns. In the truly spiritual ones, not the institutionalized religious women who pursue money or power in different ways. Her daughter has a PhD, a doctorate in Sanskrit, one of the world’s most ancient languages. I’m impressed. It’s rare to find young people from middle class backgrounds who don’t rush to engineering, doctoring or lawyering. The average modern young Indian would think of Sanskrit as archaic. Not much money in it. Like an academic with Latin in the Western world.

‘So does your daughter teach in the university?’ we ask. ‘Oh no’, she says. ‘I’ve tried to inculcate in my children the love for knowledge. If you chase a university job, you do it for the money and you lose the quest, the desire for true knowledge. After all there is only so much money you can use or spend.

‘People here lock their valuables in an almirah [wardrobe] and keep the key under their pillow at night. But when you die you can’t take even a tiny fragment of your precious key with you. No matter how rich or famous or clever you are you cannot, no human being can take it with them. So why spend your life chasing wealth? I hope my children have imbibed this value and internalized it. The people who chase money and fame can never really be happy. Can they?’

Her philosophy seemed so rational and profound. Yet so simple. And one could see that she truly believed in it.

After she left, we looked at each other bereft of words. Life would be so much nicer, the world a much better place, if more people thought like this. Believed in something higher, something more important than the pursuit of wealth and power that most of us live for. Made me think of the 1970s. Of John Lennon. Of ‘Imagine’. And a time when many of us believed in a world of possibilities. Of visions and dreams. Another world does exist. In tiny pockets of this earth.

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