Growing Up Interfaith in Ahmedabad

by Vicki Garlock on December 9, 2015

Reena Ginwala

Those who work with children know their immense capacity to live from a place of love. This is especially true when they are placed in an environment of exploration, sharing, and listening. Reena Ginwala of the Samvedana Trust creates just such an environment when working with underserved kids in Ahmedabad, a city of about 7 million people in the Gujarat region of western India. Samvedana is a non-profit organization striving for an integrated and holistic development of slums, with a special focus on children’s education, health and welfare.

Reena has a remarkable ability to bridge the still-resonant images of the mystic Kabir 600 years ago with modern-day principles of non-violent communication and to make these teachings appropriate for a variety of ages. Hearing the passion and enthusiasm in Reena’s voice, it is easy to imagine how she elicits such deep emotions in the kids participating in her programs.

Kabir Sets the Pace
Kabir was a 15th century poet who lived in the northern part of India along the banks of the Ganges. Ironically, he is claimed by both Hinduism and Islam, since he was critical of various practices in both traditions that he viewed as misguided or even hypocritical. As a mystic, he urged everyone to seek within for that divine spark of love and compassion:

If you want the truth, I’ll tell you the truth: 
Listen to the secret sound, the real sound, which is inside you. 

A rendering of Kabir
Graphic: Allspirit

As a poet, he is known for his rich imagery and for composing in the everyday Hindi of his time. Handed down orally until the 17th century, when a written compilation first appeared, Kabir’s couplets are well-known throughout the world. They appear in the foundational sacred text of Sikhism (the Guru Granth Sahib), in modern-day textbooks of India, and in various songs still sung in the cities and villages of South Asia.

The details of Kabir’s life are sketchy, though he may well have been raised an interfaith child. He was probably born into a family of Muslim weavers; some say his parents were recent converts to Islam who still retained many Hindu practices in their daily lives. We have evidence that Kabir was a disciple of the Bhakti poet-saint, Swami Ramananda, and most scholars agree that Kabir’s views were influential in the Bhakti movement, a Hindu tradition emphasizing devotion and love.

Whatever the details, Kabir was familiar enough with Hinduism, Islam and their texts (principally the Vedas and the Qur’an) to identify what he didn’t like about them! In particular, Kabir denounced the caste system and believed in the equality of all. His critique did nothing to discourage those who revere him as a saint. In fact, both a Muslim mazar (mausoleum) and a Hindu samadhi mandir (temple to commemorate the dead) can be found in Maghar, the city of Kabir’s death.

Starting with the Youngest
Reena Ginwala in Ahmedabad builds on Kabir’s lasting legacy when working with kids in the city’s slums. In one program, she shares the writings of Kabir, emphasizing his message of peace and love with 50 elementary-school kids as part of their camp experience. One of the couplets she uses is…

So what if you are big, like the date palm;
It gives no shade to the traveler, nor are its fruits within reach.

The kids discuss the “date palms” present in their everyday lives – those people, institutions, and agencies that fail to share the wealth or to show compassion to those in need. Following the discussion, they draw their own depictions of the images evoked by Kabir’s poetry. Finally, in small groups they produce brief skits.

Reena described the final scene of one of their skits this way, “Magic happened. It happened spontaneously during their portrayal of the Kabir dohe (couplet). The child playing the tall tree leaned down toward the child playing the mango tree. Then the child playing the mango tree reached out and held the hand of the child playing the tall tree…Kabir was brought alive.”

A summer festival drama performance
Photo: Reena Ginwala

At the end of the week, parents, police officers, and other government officials are invited to an art exhibit where the kids’ creative efforts are put on display. Reena described what drives her to work this way: “These children face scarcity much of the time, which makes it difficult to find space for examining social interactions.

“We wanted them to experience abundance. We fed them healthy food and gave them opportunities to express themselves. By allowing them to step into abundance, we were able to see their natural tendencies of leadership and creativity emerge.”

An added bonus for Reena was that high-schoolers from more affluent neighborhoods in Ahmedabad serve as volunteer assistants for the camp program. Kabir says,

Keep a critic near you, set up a home for him in your courtyard!
He washes you clean, without soap and water.

The experience allows them to recognize how they judge others, often without really noticing it.

Being Listened To
Reena uses a slightly different approach for the high school kids. She begins these sessions by simply listening to them. She wants to empower them, to restore their dignity by convincing them that what they say matters and that it’s OK to ask for things. Like all teenagers, however, they need to be reminded of what is truly most important in life. As Reena put it, “We want them to recognize that support can come from inside themselves and from reaching out to other people. It’s not just about fancy cars and electronic gadgets.”

Growing up together at Samvedana
Photo: Reena Ginwala

With this group, Reena shares the principles of non-violent communication, exemplified by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. The teens take on the roles of various authority figures, including neighbors, parents, teachers, and government leaders. Through various activities, they learn to recognize communication that relies on blaming and judging, and they are given opportunities to practice communication strategies focusing more on feelings and needs as opposed to demands.

Learning Goes On

Writing and drawing a Kabir dohe, that is, couplet
Photo: Reena Ginwala

Reena is sure that her life’s work involves helping youth but sees no reason to limit herself to those in school. In a couple of weeks, she will help coordinate the Uniting for Peace Youth Festival at Mahindra United World College of Pune, in India. Young adults, aged 16-30, will come together for a three-day program on fostering peace. They will examine theories of conflict and sources of tension as they build their skills in community organization, non-violent communication, and conflict resolution. It will be a true interfaith endeavor as participants arrive from various locations in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, including Afghanistan, Iran, and Kashmir. They will represent various religions traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, and Jainism.

If the old adage is true – that children are our future – Reena Ginwala, the Samvedana Trust, and various other institutions working with them are doing their best to ensure a bright tomorrow. Here, the light is already shining for all to see. “These kids experience difficulties in their lives, yes, but they grow up in community, and they are so eager to learn….They have an immense sense of resilience and the ability to smile….You see, children all over the world have that special gift, and adults have so much to learn from them.”

[This article was first published in the November, 2015 issue of The Interfaith Observer. The theme was Exploring Interreligious Relations and Interfaith Culture.]

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