The Swadhyaya movement, which stresses respect for others, has a growing St. Petersburg chapter. It meets at a local church.
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2002
ST. PETERSBURG -- In the classrooms of a small Episcopal church, children and their teachers sit lotus-style on chairs arranged in circles. They are learning a philosophy that emphasizes respect for others, the virtue of looking beyond appearances and the importance of expressing gratitude to God. They also are being taught the language of their forebears.
These children are not Episcopalian. They are Hindu, and are members of the Swadhyaya movement (pronounced Swad-HI-ya), a sect little more than 50 years old.
Sunday mornings, while their Christian hosts worship in a nearby sanctuary, Swadhyayees chant and study in adjacent buildings at St. Bede's Episcopal Church, 2500 16th St. N.
The arrangement is treated with aplomb by the two vastly different religious communities. Sunday morning, as he strode past rows of shoes outside the rooms where the Swadhyayees met, a robed St. Bede's member barely paused as he said a cheery hello.
Inside the parish hall, where adult Swadhyayees sat on chairs or cross-legged on padded mats to view a videotape of their movement's founder, yellow paper stars hung from the ceiling and Christian-themed banners were on display.
For their Sunday session, the Swadhyayees had added garlanded portraits of Yogeshwar, the supreme being; the goddess Parvati; Lord Shiva, her husband; and Ganesh, the symbol of intelligence. There also was a picture of Pandurang Shastri Athavale, founder of the Swadhyaya movement.
Athavale, born in 1920 in a village near Bombay, India, is known to devotees as Dadaji, which means elder brother. He began his movement in villages near his birthplace. Using a handful of followers, he spread a message of love for God and mankind and developed the philosophy of Swadhyaya, which encourages people to recognize an inner god and change their negative behavior.
Athavale teaches that those who believe God is in others are able to develop a loving relationship with everyone around them. The benefit of this philosophy, Swadhyayees believe, is that social ills such as crime, prejudice and poverty are naturally reduced. Followers say that more than 20-million people, mostly in India, have been transformed by their spiritual leader's principles.
"He believes in the basic transformation of a person," said Dr. Samir Shah, whose wife, Shilpa, helps teach the children in the St. Petersburg community.
"He believes that if a person will change, then the families will change, then the world will change," Shah said.
In 1997, Athavale was awarded the Templeton Prize for progress in religion, joining a distinguished group that includes Mother Teresa, the Rev. Billy Graham, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ International.
The St. Petersburg Swadhyayees have met since the late 1980s. The group, one of 350 in the United States, started with two people. Today there are 50 families, which include many children. Members come from throughout Pinellas County, and most trace their roots to the midwestern Indian states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.
Dr. Kirti K. Patel, who has a practice in Largo, has been part of the movement since 1992.
"We lived our whole life in India, but you don't come to know this activity because it is going on so quietly. Then I came to this area, and then I came to know about it," he said.
He was particularly drawn to the movement because of Athavale's life and character "and the intense love he has for the human race," Patel said.
He also admires "his desire to bring man closer to man, irrespective of geography or religion, caste, creed or any race. He's truly working for that -- one divine family. Brotherhood under the fatherhood of God," Patel said.
During Sunday's gathering, a little boy softly recited his lessons -- to respect his teacher and his father. They are both like God, he said.
A teacher instructed students not to judge people by their appearance, but to appreciate their inner qualities. A coconut might not be attractive, she told them, but it is extremely valued, especially in India, where every part of it is used.
To illustrate her point further, she said, "Abraham Lincoln was not a very handsome man, but he was a good man."
In a classroom where teenagers met, a quote from Martin Luther King hung on a wall. "In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends," it read.
Across the room, another sign proclaimed, "Idol worship is a perfect science."
A videotape of Athavale's discourse played. For this younger audience, though, subtitles were used to translate the Hindi. At one point, he discussed the foolhardiness of those who refuse to believe in God.
"They forget that someone is holding the string of their life," he said, through the translation. "It is impossible for a thoughtful man to be an atheist."
When the tape finished, two adults led the teenagers in a discussion.
Jaimini Patel, 16, later spoke about her involvement in the movement.
"I grew up in this thing. It helps me with self-confidence, not to be, like, selfish," said the St. Petersburg High School student, who will join about 725 of her peers from around the United States at the movement's annual youth camp next month in Tampa.
"There are prayers that we do in the morning when you wake up and that is supposed to give us back our memories. And the one before you eat is to help you digest your food, and there is one to say before you go to sleep, to give you a good night's sleep," she said.
Ami Panara, 15, who is thinking of becoming a doctor like her father, said she became part of the St. Petersburg group about two years ago.
A student in the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High School, Ami said the principles of Swadhyaya guide her life. "A lot of it is respect and the way to treat people," she said.
Ravi N. Patel, who owns and manages the Howard Johnson at 4601 34th St. S, said the teachings of Swadhyaya benefit his community, especially the children.
"We see the results. We see the difference. It develops them in a positive way. It helps them to be better humans," said Patel, who attends the Sunday morning meetings at St. Bede's with his wife, Saroj, their two daughters and his parents.
"Somebody said about this movement," Shah said, "that it is a silent, but singing revolution."