Yuva Hindi Sansthan partners with NYU; Wins FULBRIGHT-HAYS; Conducts  Study Tour India for US Educators

Study Group at the BHU Hindi Seminar. PHOTO: Courtesy Ashok Ojha

The one month Study Tour, of the YHS-NYU FULBRIGHT-HAYS GPA SHORT-TERM HINDI LANGUAGE CURRICULUM DEVELOPMENT PROJECT, began on February 26, 2024, when a dozen US educators boarded a New Delhi bound United Airlines flight at Newark, NJ. The tour was organized under an award granted by the US Department of Education jointly to YHS-NYU to provide first hand experience about Indian culture and traditions to language educators from the United States. The participants were trained for collecting authentic, cultural products, at various locations in India and at the same time attend cultural workshops conducted by Indian experts. The program’s academic director Prof. Gabriela Nik Ilieva, Clinical Professor, South Asian Linguistics, Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, New York University and the Project Director Ashok Ojha led the tour. The thematic focus of the project was, ‘Living with Contentment in a Material World: Mindful living or wellness traditions in India’. Traveling from one location to another the group members were engaged in critically examining socio-cultural issues and learned the culture of various communities. Hindi learning session s were held daily when discussions were held to review field trip activities.

The group attended a lunch-on reception hosted by the Kendriya Hindi Sansthan, a Govt. of India institution engaged in teaching Hindi to foreign students. On February 29th, the group left for Rishikesh located in the foothills of the Himalayas. The local host was an Ashram called ‘Arsh Vidya Gurukulum’, established by late Swami Dayananda Saraswati. The Ashram is located on the banks of holy river Ganga, that offers an ideal backdrop for relaxation and Wellness. The chairperson of the AVG, Swami Sakshartananda, delivered an introductory lecture on ‘Mindfulness’ and ‘Santosha’ as defined in ancient Vedic scripture. The group explored the practices and perspectives of the sadhus, some of whom have dedicated their lives for preservation of nature. We met a sadhu named Pipaleshwar Maharaj, who lived under a Peepal tree, built a temple there, to protect an age-old tree.

Our second destination was Lucknow, the capital city of the largest state of India, Uttar Pradesh.We flew to Lucknow from Dehradun. Lucknow University has established a ‘Happy Thinking Lab’. The Vice Chancellor briefed us about the lab set up in the Psychology department.  of the university. The university also organized interesting cultural activities including Kathak performances, traditional storytelling sessions and a  one act play depicting the social challenges female students face in the campuses of Indian universities.

Study Group members pose for a photo with the stupa in Sarnath as a backdrop. PHOTO: Courtesy Ashok Ojha

The group then traveled to its third destination, Varanasi and its twin city Sarnath, the place known as the site of Buddha’s first sermon after he got enlightenment in Bodh Gaya. In Varanasi, we visited the Hindi Department of Banaras Hindu University, our local host. The department organized a seminar on traditional practices observed in the Indian society. We visited a village named ‘Lamahi’, where the most respected Hindi author of the 20th century, Premchand, was born and lived. One of Premchand’s stories, ‘Eidgah’, was the subject of analysis at a workshop organized by the Women’s College of BHU. Our local coordinators conducted a walking tour of the narrow lanes of Varanasi that offered new light on the traditions of India. We visited the homes of legendary people, such as, Bharatendu Harishchandra, the doyen of Hindi language, who lived there in the Nineteenth Century. Our group members took a boat trip on the Ganga River and witnessed huge crowds in the ghats, who gathered for the a holy dip. The festival of ‘Mahashivaratri’ was celebrated as devotees headed to temples for  ‘Darshan’ of Lord Shiva. We visited women handicraft workers at the Assi ghat, where the participants interacted with craftswomen.

We visited Sarnath where a thousands-years-old Stupa narrates the stories of ancient times about Emperor Ashoka, who left his throne to become a Buddhist monk and wandered in search of happiness (sukh). In order to propagate the teachings of Buddha for helping the mankind, he built 84 thousand stupas, only a handful of those remaining intact today- one of which is in Sarnath. The stupas reflect Buddha’s first insights about human life, the ideas of impermanence and the Middle Path offering the right steps to avoid extremes. Next morning we visited the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, established at the behest of the Dalai Lama after he made India his home, where we listened to Buddhist monks and learned about mindfulness and wellness as defined in the Tibetan traditions.

Our next stop was Kolkata. During our week long stay in Kolkata we explored several socio-cultural factors which helped unpack mindful living. We first visited Belur Math, where monks follow the path of happiness shown by Ramkrishna Paramhans and Swami Vivekananda. Soon after we were exploring the literary traditions of the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore at Thakur Bari, the birthplace of Rabindranath Tagore. We learned Tagore’s ideas of global vs. national harmony while interacting with the Hindi speaking migrant workers, the legendary hand rickshaw pullers and taxi drivers. We visited the campus of Shantiniketan, also known as ‘Vishwa Bharati’, that implements the vision of Tagore as there are no exams, only learning through practice of art and culture take place at ‘Shantiniketan’. The university organized varieties of cultural performances based on Rabindra Sangeet.

Our final destination was Madhubani, Bihar, where we experienced art as an expression of the understanding of the laws of the universe and human life. Here, the artistic expressions by women were displayed through artistic paintings with vivid colors. From the walls of Madhubani Railway Station to local residents’ homes, paintings are an integral part. We were immersed into cultural activities at Madhubani and later at Rajnagar ruins that provided backdrops of local culture including the ‘celebration of joy’ (khushi manaanaa). Madhubani art, also called Mithila art is recognized for its unique representation of local ideas of the balance between the universe and human life on a mythological and ecological level. The township of Madhubani is also home of half a dozen women artistes who have been honored with India’s greatest civilian award, the Padma awards, for their artistic expressions in paintings. These paintings are adorned by national organizations of Art, such as, the Indira Gandhi National Center of the Arts. We met Buwwa Devi and Dulari Devi, both awardees of PadmaShri,  at their homes. They conducted workshops for us. These local artists use local organic materials to create their paintings: plants to mix colors, cow dung to treat the paper and bamboo sticks to serve as brushes. The abundance of nature and visually presented creation mythological narratives is an essential feature of Madhubani paintings. Some of the most popular images are the sun, the moon, birds and animals, the sacred Tulsi plant and Banyan tree. The art is an expression of local understanding of how the universe was created and exists in balance and harmony. Mithila artists have made paintings on independence, peace, marriage, etc. Examining these paintings and discussing their topics with the local artists shed light on their understanding of wellness and mindfulness.

We returned to Delhi on March 25, 2024. The group members boarded a United flight to return to the USA.

(Ashok Ojha is the Program Director, FY 23 YHS-NYU Fulbright-Hays GPA Curriculum Development Project, and President of the Yuva Hindi Sansthan and Hindi Sangam Foundation)



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