Beni Prasad Bhatt, manager of KHEL Charities, on how the spiritual practice of Yoga inspired him to help others and how it helps him find the emotional balance to work with impoverished communities in India.
I have been working for KHEL (Kindness, Health, Education, and Laughter) for more than 30 years. Our mission is to help poor people in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, in India, have basic needs like water, food, medical care, and education. We have a school for children in our community and sponsor graduates to continue their education in college and at trade schools like nursing. We have many other programs and also help leprosy patients who are treated badly by society. I am KHEL’s manager, and I work with all our staff, teachers, school children, their families, and other people in the community who have any problems and need help. They are all from different backgrounds, ethnic groups, religions, and economic status. We try to work with them, not focusing our own beliefs or what we think, but on their beliefs and what they think.
My Yoga spiritual practice has helped me learn how to work with community. In India, Yoga does not mean physical exercises but a spiritual path. It is a kind of Hinduism, but not only Hinduism. Yoga is about finding balance inside yourself.
When I was a teenager, I was living in the city of Dehradun. I was a very aggressive type of person and used to get into a lot of fights. I did not have much education and was doing some work for Maji (Mrs. Lalita Arya, KHEL’s founder) as a housepainter. Panditji (Dr. Usharbudh Arya, her husband, who later took the renounciate name of Swami Veda Bharati) offered me a job accompanying him on a spiritual retreat into the Himalayas. I knew Panditji was a Hindu priest and Yoga teacher because I had seen him doing religious ceremonies at their home. He would be staying in a cave on this retreat for some kind of spiritual practice of seclusion and silence; he needed someone to bring him food. I was not interested in religion or spirituality at this time, but it seemed like an easy job.
We stayed 45 days in the Himalayas. Panditji stayed in a very old cave about 4 km from Gangotri, a small town near the headwaters of the holy Ganga (Ganges) River. Daytime was fine with me because I would go into the town to get food, but from when it got dark until morning, it was very difficult to stay. No one was there to talk to me since Panditji was in seclusion and did not speak at all. At the time, the Cricket World Cup was going on. I had a radio in my tent, so at night I would listen to find out what was happening. I kept the volume low, but in the mornings, Panditji would mention that he had heard some radio sound at night and asked me if I had also heard it. I lied and said no. After a week, I was so bored that all I wanted was to leave; but then I thought, Panditji is relying on me. I stayed.
Those 45 days changed me. Without even speaking to me, Panditji taught me so much. This was a turning point in my life, and the memories of it are golden. One change that happened is that after we returned from the spiritual retreat, I began to visit my home village in the mountains. Before that, like most young people, I only valued life in the city. Now I am part of my village and family in the mountains.
As I found my spiritual path, I began to care more about helping others. KHEL was only a small project then, and I was hired to help. We mostly distributed food and blankets and sometimes helped people pay to see a doctor when they got sick. I did not have any experience with this work. I made many mistakes, but instead of firing me, Ammaji and Panditji would ask me to sit with them. They would ask what happened and we would talk about it. We did not only talk about whatever mistake had happened, but about my feelings and intentions. Learning to do this work and learning a spiritual path was the same to them, and to me. They also helped me go to school and get formal education. I now have a Master’s degree. KHEL has continued to grow; we now work to help people internationally, including those who live in underserved communities in the USA.
I have learned many ways to be spiritual; one is to become a means to help others. I am inspired by my spirituality, but my work is to lessen problems and to respect others’ beliefs. What we believe and what we practice should never cause us to have bias in working with people from other communities. This takes time to learn, but when we start to practice then we really learn it. I try to work in selfless service as much I can, within my capabilities. As my wife is a local political figure and social worker, she also deals with lots of people and tries to help them with their problems. Sometimes I get a chance to be with her and see the day-to-day problems she faces in her work. This is very helpful for me also. I learn many things from her. Doing good work is important to both of us, and we try to teach it to our children.
The education, formal training with my job, and my spiritual beliefs helped me understand community work. While working to provide services to people who live in extreme poverty, most of the time we are emotionally involved. It is hard work to do because sometimes we can help and sometimes we cannot. It is hard to work with people who are suffering without having many emotions: we do the work because we feel the need to help; but if we feel too much then we cannot do the work properly. When we are able to help someone we feel happiness, relief, and other positive emotions; but if we cannot help (and sometimes we cannot help), we feel a range of negative emotions—guilt, sadness, regret, sometimes confusion. It can be hard to accept, but we cannot do or fix everything; we all have our limitations. Panditji used to say: Do not be so excited in your happy moments, and do not break down or sorrow in your weak moments. Try to be the same in all moments. This is balance. I try to follow Panditji’s words in life, though it is not always easy to do so. But I know that the work—and not how we feel about it—is most important.
Beni Prasad Bhatt is the general manager for KHEL Charities, where he oversees all India-based projects and activities. He has worked there for over 30 years. Beni has a Masters Degree in Commerce and speaks four languages.
Saumya Arya Haas, who curates the Called to Work series, has an ALB in Religious Studies from Harvard University. She is a priestess of Hinduism and of Vodou, and writes for various media outlets, including Huffington Post, State of Formation, and the Good Men Project. Her family founded KHEL Charities, where she began volunteering when she was 10 years old. Saumya has worked for several interfaith organizations as a dialogue facilitator and advisor regarding diversity, inclusiveness, and intergroup cooperation; this work has taken her everywhere from West Africa to the White House.