Tanu Kallivayalil talks to Gautam Chaitanya, the monk from Melbourne, who feels that becoming a brahmchari was the best decision in his life. He talks about how he helps people find happiness and meaning in their lives, and how parents trust him because he is a brahmachari, and teenagers trust his advice because he was born and brought up here.
“Brahmachari means student. Here we talk about a monastic student. One who is on the path of sanyas or monk in training,” says Gautam Chaitanya, who decided to go down this path around 20 years ago.
Born and brought up in Melbourne, he wears yellow robes, and a dhoti and kurta, and says that taking this path has a major impact on one’s life. “We renounce family and career, and we serve the cause of the organisation, which is primarily to spread the knowledge of Hinduism,” he says.
He describes his growing up as very ordinary. He studied, played sports on the side, and life moved on. He feels that some of this changed when his father died when he was 12 after being diagnosed with cancer.
“I got curious about life after death,” he says, speaking of his father’s death.
His parents were always suggesting that he attend classes. His father was a very religious man and attended Chinmaya Mission’s weekly classes on the Bhagvad Gita. It was his mother who first brought him to the Mission. “It was only when I was studying at Melbourne University that I started attending the classes,” he says.
“I was keen to know more about the culture. I had been raised here, but I was keen to know more about the roots of the culture. I thought the Bhagvat Gita was going to give me that answer,” he says, and adds that he did not attend these classes wanting to become a brahmachari – that came much later.
Apart from the death of his father, another incident that had an impact on his decision was a youth camp that he attended, which was held by Swami Swaroopananda. “It was about the pursuit of permanent happiness. The Bhagvat Gita gave a lot of tips on how to master the mind. I found this to be practical. I found it very empowering that I could start seeing how to deal with every situation of my life. You could be actively in control of the happiness in your life,” he says.
It was then that he went to India to their ashram. “The mission offers a two-year course. You sit in the ashram for two years and you study the scriptures, Sanskrit, yoga, meditation and so on. At the end, you then have an option to join the ashram full-time and thus become a monk or return to your previous lifestyle. If you want to become a monk, you need the permission of your parents,” he says.
His mother was initially reluctant but soon came around. There were two other boys who joined the course along with him. “One went on to be posted in Sydney, and the other in New Zealand,” he says.
The ashram had a gruelling schedule, says Gautamji. “Your day starts at 4 and finish at 10 at night. It can be taken up by those inquisitive about knowledge of the scriptures and Hinduism. They can do the two years of study and not take the path of renunciation. They need the interest. They need to be introverted and reflective,” he says, when asked about what kind of people are suited to this path in life.
“In the scheme of things, it is a massive lifestyle choice. Iam used to it now.Very few people would take this lifestyle, very few will survive it,” he adds.
Gautamji finished this course in 2004 and was posted back to Melbourne because there was an ashram here. “I teach adults, youth and teenagers. I mainly focus on adults and the youth. In a week, I teach about nine different classes, and then do pooja as well,” he says.
The organisation is there to facilitate you in your path in life. The local one is in Templestowe. It’s basically a residential home, says Gautamji. It’s a large property with a prayer room for 100 people, with smaller side rooms that serve as classes. The organisation runs a family programme in which families are split according to age groups and taught.
The classes go for an hour and a half. In that time, Gautamji goes through the Bhagvat Gita verse by verse. He not only explains the Geeta but also on how to apply it practically in their lives.
“Your mind is the key to your happiness and sorrow. Your entire happiness and sorrow in life depends on your state of mind and that being the case, we help you understand techniques of how to master the mind. It’s through a few paths such as bhakti, devotion and through service,” he says.
Gautamji says the problems he deals with are those that affect all of us living in an affluent culture. “Depression, the inability to cope with life. It all has to do with the inability to manage our minds so we don’t know how to face problems in life. We work directly with those sorts of things,” he says.
Gautamji also addresses depression, anxiety, and anger management. We don’t teach rituals, we talk about the vision of your life. “It helps you start thinking about what you want to be ten years from now. We find out what your short term goals are so that you can achieve your long term goal. It’s also about learning what the place of these goals are, what their purpose is and how to manage them,” he says.
Different age groups have different issues.With teenagers, they get clarity about what they want, and confidence. The classes also deal with cross-cultural confusion. “We address those directly. I take an annual workshop for all the team, and I look specifically at these issues. It talks about our sense of identity and how to uphold Indian heritage in a western society,” he says.
Gautamji finds that parents trust him to talk to their teenagers because he has an Indian background, and teenagers feel he understands them better because he was born and brought up here. “I can talk to them about the issues they have when their parents are asking them to do something uncool,” he says. He says families benefit as a whole from this exercise because they then have a common goal and direction.
With adults, he finds that he deals with helping them find motivation beyond the mundane. “What is the high vision beyond family? A lot of people get awakened and inspired beyond that. They really connect and resonate,” he says.
He says that getting positive feedback from students is a great feeling. “I find it really rewarding. I feel becoming a brahmchari one of the best decisions I’ve made. I’m enjoying it every day,” he says.
It’s easy to understand why the classes are full, and the waiting lists long. “Although the main centre is in Templestowe, there are seven other centres, which are basically peoples’ houses where they run the activities,” says Gautamji.
The Mission itself has around 300 ashrams all over the world. “There are two in Australia. Then we have ashrams in Hong Kong, Middle East, France, Kenya, and Durban. South America is the only place that we don’t have one. We even have a centre in China,” he says.
Gautam Chaitanya is working on a book about the various aspects of Hindu culture. He hopes that it will be released in February.