The Sri Dattagiri Maharaj Vedic Pathashala located in an ashram in the Bardipur village of Telangana has an ambience just like any other ashram - quiet and peaceful. As I walk in, a priest welcomes me and pleasantries are exchanged, as well as visiting cards and e-mail ids.
(Entrance to the pathshala)
The pathashala or school which is situated in a remote village off the Mumbai Highway in Medak district might at first appear to be like any other ashram. "We established this ashram around 55 years ago and we teach the children the vedas and the mantras and offer a course that trains them in becoming a priest themselves, if they like," says Sri M. Sideshwara Swamiji, one of the chief priests at the ashram.
But the uniqueness of the ashram lies in the fact that religion and caste are not taken into consideration for admission. In Hinduism, the post of a priest has always been conventionally held by a Brahmin and this ashram emphasises on changing that mentality.
The best example of this is Naveen Naik, a shy student at the school. Naveen, who just turned 14 in April, is a tribal boy from Narsapur in the Marpalli mandal of Ranga Reddy district, who is working his way into a field which is largely dominated by the caste system.
"I studied till eighth standard and I wanted to become a pujari (priest) but no one would take me until I found this ashram. I have been here for almost one year and I have another three years before I complete this course," says Naveen.
(Naveen with Sideshwara Swamiji)
Though this may not mean much to a person in a metropolis, it is a huge step forward when it comes to abolishing caste-based discrimination that is prevalent in India.
Naveen comes from a humble background. His father, Raju Naik, is a daily wage labourer and has fought a lot of social stigma to ensure that his son would become a priest someday.
"Naveen is probably one of our brightest students and has learnt the scriptures really quickly. Our main task at this vedic pathashala is to instill the fact that everyone is equal and that caste and religion should not come in the way of a child eager to learn," Sideshwara says.
The pathashala even has some Christian and Muslim graduates who study the scriptures out of interest.
"Religious tolerance is very necessary in today's world. As far as the vedas are concerned, anyone who has read it sincerely will notice that there are no clauses where it specifies that only a Hindu or a Brahmin is worthy. That originated from us, not from the scriptures," he says.
(Students studying the vedas)
Photos of the founder of the temple, Sri Sri Dattagiri Maharaj, whose legend includes numerous tales of healing and supernatural ability is naked in every one of them.
When quizzed, Sideshwara grins and says, "The Maharaj was considered a bit eccentric by some people as he never wore any clothes after attaining enlightenment. The essence was to forgo all materialistic attachment, and be one with his soul."
(Sri Sri Dattagiri Maharaj)
Currently as many as 60 students are studying in the school and they plan to take 30 more students for the next academic year. It is a four-year course, with an exam after each year.
"It's like any other educational institute but our criterion for selection is only the child's sincerity to learn. Everything else is secondary. The problem with human nature is that people will not learn, unless it benefits them with materialistic results. Knowledge should not be viewed that way," Sideshwara adds.
The ashram also sees visitors from Karnataka and Maharashtra besides Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
"What we try to teach here is not religion. It is simple humanity and the understanding that we are all made up of the same flesh, blood and bones. No one is above or beneath you and it is these concepts that we put into the children so that they always remember that in life, no matter where they end up," Sideshwara says.
(This story was first published on May 5, 2015)