Ashray of Varanasi, A Small Heaven on Earth
Ashray gives warmth of human love and care and an opportunity to break free from their bondage and relive their life with dignity as free children of God.
“Casting devils is reserved to shamans and sorcerers” say rural inhabitants around Varanasi. It is because “the sorcerers are intermediaries between the human world and the spirit world.” They are said to treat any kind of sickness by mending the soul. They alleviate traumas affecting the human soul and ameliorate the physical body of the individual to the wholeness. In order to drive away hard knocks of life that haunt them, the illiterate and educated seek sorcerers and dazzling wizards. The rural population still continues to believe in sorcery and black magic.
After many foiled attempts by sorcerers, mentally instable are brought to Ashray, situated in the outskirts of Varanasi. Ashray, which literally means shelter, is a simple enclosed structure in the premises of Matridham Ashram, in Varanasi. It is a shelter for the hapless and broken. It shelters the mentally challenged. These are considered a burden to their own families. Ashray gives warmth of human love, service and care and love of God. It gives an opportunity to break free from their bondage and relive their life with dignity as free children of God. Ashray welcomes people of all castes, colour, creed and gender. It is a place where once one reaches, she forgets the past and begins to live a new life.
The neighbours look upon contemptuously the family if a member is insane or possessed by evil spirit. If they are poor and nothing to eat, no one bothers them. No one is ready to render a help. They are deprived of monetary help from their neighbors and relatives, and relationship is curtailed. None likes to visit them. Destiny of that family is doomed.
Renu (24), a married woman, used to abuse everyone at home in the neighbourhood, broke things and one day climbed her neighbour’s terrace to commit suicide. She used to scream, “Devil is slitting inside my throat.” She even hurt her mother and sisters. Her eyes remained opened throughout. Thus she was brought to Ashray saying she is possessed by some evil spirit. She ran away from home. Having spent a few weeks in the Ashray, life of this illiterate girl changed. As she was convalescing, she learnt the prayers and hymns. Today she quotes verses from the Holy Bible. Renu is five month pregnant. It is incredible that although an evil possessed family is scornfully looked down upon in the rural villages, Renu’s in-laws accept her as their own. Sanjay, a sari designer, despite Renu’s sickness, came forward to marry her.
“It is easy to make someone insane in the society but difficult to bring the person to normalcy” commented Panchami, an MSW student of Varanasi on the occassion of Ashray Diwas, a colourful evening organized to mark Ashray’s six years of existence. Panchami comes along with four other students from Mahatma Gandhi Vidyapeeth to render voluntary service to the inmates as part of their fieldwork.
Sishu Gupta was brought to the Ashray as a drug addict. He used to yell and scream. When his sisters visited him on the occasion of rakshabandhan, they were moved to tears seeing him in his normal senses.
“I used to beat others due to mental instability,” says Deepak Kumar and “I lived outside home. I wandered naked, abused everyone and even tore my clothes. I was taken to different sorcerers. I was brought to Ashray in fetters. Sisters in Ashray removed my chains, bathed me, and fed me. I attacked my co-imamates in the Ashray too. Love and compassion in Ashray healed me.”
On the day his wife left him, Guddu became mad and ran away from home. He wandered around the neighbouring villages. Not finding him, his parents thought he had been lost or dead. Some good samritan brought him to Ashray. After spending months in the Ashray, he started regaining his senses. He uttered his village name. Ashray staff took him to his village forty k.m. away from Varanasi city. He was handed over to his parents. Today he goes for his daily work. He is healthy and hoping to marry again.
Poonam narrates, “I was in love with a boy and he proposed to marry me. Whenever I thought of him, I was blinded in love and shouted for him. My family members used to beat me and called me mad. I was chained for many days and was deprived of food and drink. People used to say that I was possessed by devil. I was taken to shamans in many places. Later my family members came to know about Ashray and I was brought here. Now I am alright”
Inmates of Ashray are counseled every month. Sister Sibil of the Queen of the Apsotles, who spends two days each with the inmates counseling them, narrates that death or divorce, dysfunctional family life, feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, anxiety, anger, loneliness, social standard expectations, parental abuse and constant scolding are some of the major reasons make these unfortunate people to lose the balance of their mind. There are also patients who have destructive tendencies due to excess consumption of drugs. They develop reactive syndrome. Arun Kumar says, “I was a drug addict. I was not in my senses.” Many men who are chronic drug abusers often suffer from a serious mental disorder. Unaware of its negative consequences, they mentally retard, says Sr. Sibil.
Financial liability is another responsible cause for the mental health hazards. Hereditary problems, guilt feeling, deep sorrow of having lost somebody in the family, jealousy, pride and stubbornness cause them to reach this stage says Sister Ann Deepti of Franciscan Clarist Congregation. She, with the collaboration of the members of her religious community, takes care of Ashray and its inmates.
Most people have wrong understanding of life itself. Excessive ambition, intellectual rivalry, overwork, the dual inner tendencies-extrovert and introvert-vying with each other, are all detrimental to peace of mind. Ramji Prajapati, an employee in Cinni fan company lost his job. He lost his senses. He used to beat his wife. So much money was spent on religious rituals and medicines for his healing. Today he is happy with wife and children living a normal life.
Ashray is an offshoot of the Matri Dham prayer centre. The inmates regularly take part in prayer. It is through prayer, love, meditation, encouragement and recreation, the mentally ill are healed and rehabilitated. When they return home, the family members share with the Ashray staff their joy of seeing their dear ones in sound health. Doctors of the mental hospital and the district hospital and the staff nurses render a great service to Ashray. Patients are enrolled in the hospital and are granted their due privileges.
Ashray strives to give life to the lifeless that become a burden to the society by providing a healing touch differently. It empowers its inmates with skills, trade and profession for a better living. The seekers in the Ashram relishes the delicious pickle and murabbas (Sweetmeat made of fruits) prepared by the inmates. The inmates also make incense sticks for liturgical purposes. The staff of the Ashray frequently visit the healed ones rehabilitating in their homes. There are also programme arranged for the rehabilitated. It includes regular meetings for the parents of the inmates every month. Advocate Surender Charan, the legal advisor of Ashray, informs parents their responsibilities in taking care of their loved ones at any cost such as cleanliness, timely food and medicine and urge them to spend time with them and speak respectfully. He exhorts them not to use any derogatory terms.
The centre enjoys the support, collaboration and goodwill of many organizations. Swamy Anildev, the founder of Ashray, has a vision to build a larger home to accommodate many more, especially those from the streets too.
The inmates are of different characters. Sister Deepti says that all those who want to work for mentally challenged people require perseverance. She reiterates, “Prayer is the power amidst adversity. I was slapped by the inmates many times. That is the real time when the strength of my mind was examined.” In fact needs Socrates’ principle of self- control and Aristotelian code of anger-expression.
During the past six years, 407 patients went back to their homes healed and they continue a normal life. Some of them, both men and women, got married. And for some it is long-lost castaways scanning the horizon from the courtyard of Ashray. Today there are thirty inmates both men and women.
Members of different organizations, university students and schools children come and spend their time with the inmates to give them hope. They entertain, teach yoga exercises, conduct games and even teach songs and dramas. Sr. Ancy, a novice, says that being in the midst of the inmates are moments of joy.
“We see what we want to see, we hear what we want to hear. Often our eyes do not see people in need, or we ignore those who are needy. True spirituality opens our eyes to the suffering and the needy,” says Swami Anil Dev, the founder of Ashray.
Source: CRI, Ajesh IMS