It is both my honor and privilege that I and my family got to spend two days with the Samarasata Sewa Foundation (SSF) team traveling to some remote villages in both Krishna and Guntur districts in Andhra Pradesh during my past trip to India to see the work done by the foundation. Many core team members of SSF including the president Mr. Vishnuvu Talluru Garu and the long-term visionary of SSF Dr. Sarangapani Garu were gracious enough to accompany us on this trip. My dear friend Esther Dhanraj joined us on this 2-day tour. Before I even write about our 2-day hectic trip, I would like to write a little bit about SSF team members who were an absolute delight to be around. Genuineness and personability are the core traits of every SSF team member that we met. Dharma Parirakshana is not just a job or a hobby, but it is the very breath of these fabulous people. Their actions speak much more than their words and the spirit of service or Sewa bhava shines bright through their actions.
I am not a novice to the so-called “spiritual work” done by religious organizations. All through my growing years, I have been around people who claimed to be on a mission to “save” people. “Save from what?” – Save from sin, eternal damnation, and the horrors of hell – a hell where the maggots that are feeding on the decaying bodies of the dead never die and the fire that burns the dead never ceases nor is quenched as described in bible. One would think that people who claim to be on a mission to “save” others from the horrors of hell would be the very personification of love and compassion. But alas…it is seldom the case. SSF team members who do not make any tall claims such as “saving” people’s souls from hell and eternal damnation but spend their time helping simple folks to take care of their basic needs are who I found to be the very epitome of love and compassion.
During our 2-day trip, we participated in Pratyeka pujas in two villages, visited two temples that are constructed and managed by SSF team. We also visited two Bal Vikas Kendrams that are affiliated with these temples and spent time with children who attend these schools. We participated in a medical camp organized by SSF in our ancestral village. We joined in two Saamuhika Aartis and accompanied the local Dharma pracharaks in a door-to-door Dharma pracharam.
The word “Pratyeka” has no equivalent in English lexicon, and it can be loosely translated as special. Calling such a puja just “special” is an understatement. Participating in this puja helped me realize the importance of the work undertaken by SSF. I am no stranger to religious “conversion” ceremonies – dedication services to baptisms – I have seen them all. People being dunked into water tanks in the name of baptisms is something that I watched all through my growing years. The idea of getting dunked in the water to symbolically “rise again in christ” was so terrifying to me that I managed to not go through this baptism ordeal all through my journey as a Christian that lasted for over 3 decades. Only when I saw the warm celebration of coming home of these people to Hinduism through ceremonious Pratyeka puja did I understand the real meaning of “coming” home. What I once was made to believe was homecoming as part of converting to Christianity was anything but coming home. As a matter of fact, it was departing from the home. In more ways than one, it was a way of removing a person from his home. A home that was part of their identity and ancestry. A home that was part of their cultural and spiritual legacy. Snatching people away from their natural homes with the promise of a home in heaven is what Christian “homecoming” is all about. This “homecoming” of people who briefly got lured away from their natural homes due to false promises of miraculous healing and golden mansions in an imaginary heaven by Christian proselytizers through Pratyeka puja is the real homecoming. The setting of where these Pratyeka pujas were conducted made all the difference. The scents from the flowers, the burning camphor and the lighted incense sticks which were used during the puja filled the air with positivity. The chanting of mantras interspersed with the chimes of temple bells is a perfect setting to welcome anyone home, especially those who for a little while were led astray. Seeing women who were part of the Pratyeka adorned in colorful sarees with symbols of auspiciousness such as bangles, flowers, sindoor and chandanam made me shed silent tears of joy thinking of what these women must’ve been made to do as part of their ordeal of becoming Christians. Who knows better than me what each of these women was made to do to proclaim to the world that they were now “born-again” Christians? In most cases, women will be made to wear white colored clothes while taking baptism.This and the mandatory removal of sindoor to identify themselves as Christians are the hardest thing to do for most women who suddenly got lured into the Christian camp as the removal of sindoor and wearing a white saree have a different connotation for a Hindu woman. I have seen and known Hindu women converts who break down and cry when they narrate their “conversion” stories of how they sacrificed these symbols of mangalyam to become Christians.
The first Pratyeka puja was in Mulasthaneswara Swamy temple in a village called Tadikonda near Amaravati and the second one was in the Grama Devata temple of my ancestral village. A group of 7 people were warmly welcomed home to Hinduism in Tadikonda amidst chanting of mantras in front of the presiding deity of this historical temple which is believed to have been a place where Maha Shiva self -manifested (Swayambhu) Himself to Agastya Rishi. A group of 50+ plus SSF members took part in this Pratyeka puja. The pure love and affection that the SSF team members showered on these people who found their way back home to Hinduism was deeply felt and appreciated.
The second Pratyeka puja was conducted at Muthyalamma temple in Malkapuram (a village close to Jaggaiahpet in Krishna district) to bring 6 individuals back into Hindu Dharma. Conducting a puja such as this in a 2-year old Grama Devata` temple is no mean task. I had the humble privilege of taking part in the consecration of this temple which I did in the memory of my grandparents who were once patrons of the Grama Devata. This village has been an easy target to many Christian evangelical proselytizing groups. Conversion of my father to this alien religion some 40+ plus years ago flung the doors of this village wide open to Christian groups of various shades and shapes. Many conmen found their way to this village and each of them set a shop called church in this tiny village of 5000 odd people. This village is home to 10+ churches and the natural consequence of this is the breaking of people into factions with people from same families ending up in two warring factions. This small temple right in the middle of a community of people who have fallen prey to these divisive forces was a bold attempt by 10+ plus families left in Hindu fold out of about 500 families which took Christianity in the past 2-3 decades.
What SSF team members did after these Pratyeka pujas that ceremoniously welcomed both groups of people in these two villages is a testament to the labor of love of these incredible group of people. Each of these people had a story to tell as to how cheated they felt when they realized that the people who lured them away from their Hindu families with false promises of health and prosperity did so with an agenda of isolating these gullible people from their families to turn them into cash cows to support the greedy pastors and their families. Seeing SSF leaders lovingly embraced these people who broke down sobbing while narrating how they have been manipulated and exploited while in Christian fold made it clear that these hurt people who found their way back home are in safe hands. I could see that through their kind words backed with actions, SSF leadership assures people who are coming back to Hinduism that they were, are and will remain as integral and valuable members of Hindu society. The sensitivity that each of the SSF team members showed while taking care of the unique needs of these broken people who are homebound is what makes SSF’s work unique.
Visit to Temples, Bal Vikas Kendras, Dharma Pracharam and Saamuhika Aaratis
One can appreciate the work SSF has been doing for the past six years only by visiting the temples that are built and managed by this dedicated people. SSF has built 502 temples in a short span of two years in all the 13 districts of Andhra Pradesh. We were fortunate to visit two of these temples. Both temples had a Bal Vikas Kendra in the temple premises.
The first temple we visited was in a tribal hamlet in a village called Munugodu near Amaravati. We were welcomed by a huge group of devotees in the temple for us to come join them for Aarti. A group of 40+ plus children ranging from 4 yrs to 12 yrs were also patiently waiting for us to come and spend some time with them. There were two priests in that temple who hail from the tribal community. The sense of reverence and pride with which they conducted the puja and gave us all Aarti demonstrated how much they value having a temple in that not so developed hamlet. The hamlet mostly had thatched-roof homes, but it is the way they were singing Bhajans and offering the prayers to Deity in the temple that proved to us that these people are far richer than many so-called rich people. The children from these tribal families are well-mannered and respectful. Each of those children eagerly listened to us speaking to them. When asked what they want to become when they grow up, a bunch of them said that they want to grow up and become soldiers to fight for Bharat. What a contrast this was…!!! I grew up in Christian circles where Sunday School was major part of my life. What did we Christian children sing when we were growing up in the church? We sang songs announcing to the world that we will never march in the army, join the air force, or become part of a cavalry in the land that we live in as we are all soldiers in christ’s army. Such was brainwashing I was subjected to from the time I was a small child. I was thrilled to see SSF’s vision to ensure that the young children get trained in our samskaras which I am sure will solidify the children’s identities as Hindus. After interacting with children, we joined the SSF team in door-to-door Dharma pracharam. This community outreach is an integral part of an endeavor to strengthen the fabric of the society and SSF is doing a commendable job in reaching out to people who live in the most remote parts of Andhra Pradesh. SSF teams do door-to-door Dharma pracharam three times in a year which is going a long way in building strong and sustainable relationships with community members. Our next stop was at a Ramalayam where people were gathered for a puja followed by saamuhika aarati. SSF has incorporated this activity in all the temples and all the devotees gather at the temple on pournami days for this very vibrant event. The temple reverberated with the chimes of temple bells and chants of Jai Shree Ram. It was a beautiful sight to see everyone in the temple holding lighted Diyas in their hands. It was a treat of a special kind as the sky in this remote village looked like it was under the canopy of millions of twinkling stars along with the moon casting its cool light. The positive atmosphere in the temple truly uplifted our spirits.
The following day, we traveled to the farthest end of Krishna district to the villages bordering the newly carved out Telengana state. In addition to visit to a SSF temple and the attached Bala Vikas Kendram in a village called Kakaravai, we also took part in a medical camp organized by SSF in my ancestral village. A dedicated team of doctors did free checkups and distributed free medicines to close to 100 villagers who have limited access to quality medical care. The day ended with Prathyeka puja and Saamuhika aarati in the Muthyalamma temple that is built two years ago in the heavily christianized part of the village.
I and my family cherish the memories from this two-day trip. I urge each one of you to do all that you can to support SSF’s work. It is indeed a worthy cause that aims at rebuilding Hindu ecosystems amongst these humble people who are constantly bombarded with vicious forces that pose a threat to weaken the strong familial bonds which are essential for smooth functioning of larger societies in Bharat.
By Mary Suresh Iyer
(Mary Suresh Iyer is an ex- Christian who grew up in an evangelical church in India. Her journey out of Christianity started on seeing the pain of families which lost their precious children to the church. She is Human Resources Professional with over 20 years of experience in the teaching industry in the USA. She runs a coaching center for college entrance exams in addition to two non-denominational childcare centers.)