Suraj and Sagar –
Pawns in the Hands of Nature or Clay to be Molded by Nurture?
Suraj and Sagar. Sun and Ocean. The orphan sons of a gardener from Nepal who came to India to find work to feed his family. Their mother died in the village a few years ago. No one remembers the date. No one knows the cause. She was sick and she died. Another grain of sand that slipped, unnoticed, through the fingers of time. Their father, Maali [Hindi for gardener] continued to live in the slum village outside of Delhi, barely eking out a living for his children. Until last month when he didn’t wake up one morning.
Suraj and Sagar. Sun and Ocean. Their ages? Perhaps six and eight. Perhaps eight and ten. Perhaps nine and eleven. No one knows. Their papers? Their documents? Just a receipt for the cremation of their father, torn and taped back together by their closest family relative, a distant uncle who took them in temporarily following the death of their father. “Do they have a birth certificate? Any papers from any school they’ve ever attended? Anything?” I ask, trying to complete the necessary formalities. “No, Ma’am” their uncle answers. “They’ve never been to school. The only paper we’ve got is the cremation certificate. I could give you my identity card if you need a copy of that.”
Suraj and Sagar. Nepali born, uprooted at a young age, slum raised, unschooled, illiterate, orphaned, voiceless. We spend hours together before I hear a word from either of them. Questions are unanswered or answered by nods of the head. And so hungry. The pile of rice that Sagar puts on his plate his second day here is more than I could eat in a week. He is less than a third my size.
Week One: Immersed in the new environment –
Does Nurture Stand a Chance
Against the Losing Hand that Nature has Already Dealt Them?
Suraj, the younger of the two, is sitting in the aarti ceremony, high on the steps just above Swamiji, a drop in the ocean of yellow clad boys singing and clapping to the devotional music. It is his second day here, and his eyes are fixed on his dupatta (the small cotton scarf the rishikumars wear over their left shoulders) which he is folding and refolding in his lap. The yellow dupattas are lined on one side with red and on the other side with green. When folded properly, the yellow and green meet each other in the middle and form a pattern. Suraj’s has come unfolded and he folds and refolds it, oblivious to all else around him, fully focused on making that red meet green. I, too, lose awareness of my surroundings as I watch him. His single-mindedness engulfs me. Folding and refolding. Yellow, red, green, red, yellow, green, green….how does that accordion fold work? Suddenly he looks up. I cannot avert my gaze quickly enough, and he sees me watching him. Rather than the anxiety, shyness, shame or fear I had expected to see in his eyes, they flash with joy. A huge, tooth-filled smile washes across his small dark face. His eyes glisten and shine. Someone is watching him. Someone cares. He is not alone.
Then, as I had expected, the veil of shyness wraps itself over his face and he lowers his eyes back down to the intractable dupatta. But the connection has been made and every few moments he carefully raises his gaze to see if my eyes are still upon him. Of course they are. Is it only my imagination, or do his movements now seem more measured, more thoughtful, less chaotic?
Mary Ainsworth conducted a famous study of attachment in young children. Mothers would come into a room with their young children. The room was full of toys, and the mother was instructed to sit in a chair at one end of the room. The examiner then left the room. The healthier the attachment between mother and child, the more freely the child would wander the room, engage in play and busy himself with other tasks while occasionally glancing up to reassure himself that Mother was still there. Those with unhealthy attachments either refused to leave the comfort of Mother’s lap, denying themselves the opportunity to explore and play in the room full of toys, or they thrust themselves into play, oblivious and indifferent to Mother’s presence.
Was it possible that Suraj and I, in this brief moment on the banks of Ganga, as the sound of Swamiji’s sacred chanting filled the air, was it possible we were establishing for him a “healthy attachment”? Was it possible that the trauma could be un-done? Could that exuberance become a permanent part of his nature? Or was he destined to a life of crime, unemployment and pathology?
Suraj and Sagar. Sun and Ocean. Doomed and destined to be another statistic of the causal connection between poverty, abandonment and trauma with pathology, crime and violence? Lives pre-determined by the tragic events of their formative years? Was that sparkle, that shine I saw in Suraj’s eyes just a projection of my own happiness? Had my own attachment convinced me that a mutual one existed? Was my own desire to believe that we were providing a loving, caring, nurturing environment blinding me to the inevitability of his descent into some form of PTSD?
Sagar giggles, saliva spitting from the empty space where his two front teeth used to be. His adult teeth will soon fill the gap. Can he really be ten and just getting his second set of teeth? He is sitting on the floor of my office with some of the other rishikumars as I show them the digital photos of their drama performance last month. The rishikumars had put on a performance in honor of Lord Krishna’s birthday, dressing up as Krishna, Radha and the other gopis (milkmaids who were devoted to Krishna). Suraj is on my lap, a place no self-respecting boy of his age would be in this country, but his classmates instinctively understand and spare him any ridicule. As photo after photo of young boys dressed as ladies flashes across my screen, I test Suraj “Do you know Satish?” I point at a picture of young boy wearing a wig of long hair and a lady’s gown. He nods and turns his head to point to Satish – now wigless and in his normal dhoti – standing next to my chair. “Have you made friends with Puneet? And Basant?” More pictures of the young boys dressed as milk-maids fill my screen. Suraj nods while Sagar giggles at the images of his new friends dressed up in such elaborate costumes.
“Would you like to play in the drama next year?” I ask them, and they both smile affirmatively. “It’s time for dinner,” Satish reminds me as he leads them gently out of my office and toward the dining hall, his fourteen year old hand protectively on Sagar’s shoulder.
Statistics and Theories of Pathology
Versus Experience at Parmarth Gurukul
Are we Deluding Ourselves or Really Creating Something New?
Suraj and Sagar. How much of their destiny is in our hands? Are we foolish, presumptuous, arrogant to think we can make a significant difference? Are the dice not already thrown by this age? What will become of them?
According to statistics on orphans in Russia, seventy percent of orphaned boys will enter a life of crime. I could not find the data, but I suspect the statistics are similar in most other countries. It is common knowledge that rates of poverty lead to higher rates of violence and crime. Volumes of psychological, sociological and demographic studies paint a clear picture of the relationship between abandonment, abuse, neglect and trauma in early childhood with extraordinarily high rates of pathology. The spectrum of symptoms runs from withdrawal to aggression, those who turn inward and those who act outward. Neither is healthy, and frequently the same patients spend their lives on a see-saw between the extremes.
There is a consensus in Western psychoanalytic thought and theory that children who have been traumatized, abandoned, neglected and abused need therapy. Of course arguments abound regarding which is the best type of therapy. Art therapists say art. Music therapists say music. Touch therapists say touch.
Psychodynamic therapists say talk or play. But the consensus is otherwise clear: without specific intervention these children are heading for a life of depression, substance abuse, crime, psychosis or worse.
Are we at the ashram negligent in our duties to these 150 young boys, every one of whom has been abandoned, abused, neglected, rejected and/or traumatized? There is no counseling. There is no “therapy.” No one is encouraged to act out or draw or discuss any aspect of their lives prior to coming here. We do not take them in our arms and rock them to sleep or “re-parent” them in any conscious way (other than occasional rare cases such as my personal attachment to Suraj and Sagar). There is not a particularly high care-giver to child ratio. None of the teachers, warden or staff has any training in psychological counseling or trauma.
As noble as the project of the orphanage may be, I have watched it from the beginning for pathology. Born, raised and schooled in the West, a student in a traditional doctoral program, I believed fervently that unless we instituted proper methods of treatment, these children would decompensate. One hundred fifty young boys from impoverished backgrounds, some actual orphans, some with one parent, the rest virtual orphans (those whose parents may be alive but cannot properly care for them). All have experienced what the West would categorize as trauma or neglect or abuse. As committed to the project as I’ve been since the beginning, I have felt many times like a scientist, staring into her crucible, waiting for the chemical mixture inside to explode. It could not be, I reasoned, that 150 out of 150 boys are exceptions to the rule.
Our project has been running now for more than seven years and we have not had a single instance of any pathology or symptom of any form of PTSD. We’ve never had a black eye. We’ve never had a bloody nose. We’ve never had a temper tantrum. We’ve never had a suicide attempt.
At 6:45 every morning the grounds of the ashram come alive with the sound of their full throated singing, as they walk — filed neatly but not militarily — down to the Ganges for their morning bath and then to the temple for prayers before breakfast; singing, singing the glories of God, different songs led by different boys each day, as the sun rises over the Himalayas.
After a day of study and play, evening sees them back on the banks of the Ganges, the stars of the sunset prayer ceremony. They are Swamiji’s orchestra – each a personal tuba, piccolo, flute or saxophone. In tune, out of tune, in the correct sur (octave) or much too high or low they sing. Unabashedly. Eyes closed. Bodies swaying. Hands clapping louder than the amplified tablas. They lead the guests, visitors and local people in an hour of ecstasy.
An Objective Measure, Perhaps, Of Health
“One hundred percent passed,” the head acharya (teacher) tells me excitedly. “No one failed.” The government of India annual exam results have come back and he was anxious about the results of the boys. One hundred percent passed. Boys whose parents are illiterate. Boys from mountain villages unreachable by motorable road. Boys who had never held a book in their hands. Passed? All of them? The behavior problems, the slow learners, those whose parents had dismissed them as useless. They all passed. Tiny seeds of potentiality, previously buried deep within an infertile ground, who now seem to have received the exact right amount of sun, water and nutrients to blossom. Will Suraj and Sagar also blossom? Will they pass next year also? As of now they cannot even write their own names. Will eight months be enough to bring them up to some level of par?
Aspects of the Parmarth Gurukul that May Be “Therapy”,
Leading to Health, Joy and Stability
Rather than Pathology and Despair
In further writings I will talk, in depth, about the numerous spiritual aspects which, I believe, play a crucial and enormous healing role for these boys, supplanting the need for therapy and achieving even longer lasting and more widespread results.
However, in this essay I would like to examine just a few aspects, with regard to a recent book written by Dr. Phil Zimbardo titled The Lucifer Effect, which testifies to the role of the situation in determining an individual’s behavior and self-perception. It presents profound and compelling evidence for the role of nurture in the ubiquitous nature/nurture debate.
In detailed examinations of a wide range of situations from the Holocaust to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal to aggression in children, Zimbardo explains the crucial factors inherent in a situation which significantly increase or decrease the chance of certain behaviors on the part of the people involved. For example, by-standers are much less likely to intervene in an emergency if they are only one of a crowd. Same person, same situation, same emergency. But the likelihood of heroic intervention decreases sharply as the size of the crowd increases. “Someone else will take care of it,” we seem to assume. Further, a simple factor such as being in a rush can turn an otherwise good Samaritan into an unwitting yet callous conspirator to crime.
There are several topics that Dr. Zimbardo raises which speak directly to my lingering concern about a potential eruption of pathology in our gurukul. Although in the majority of his cases the subjects engage in mal-adaptive behavior, I believe the same principles may be applicable in increasing the likelihood of adaptive behavior.
Before beginning to talk about a few of the specific situational principles, there is a study to which Dr. Zimbardo refers that sets the stage for analyzing our presumptions of what is healthy and pathological.
Who Is Sick, Anyway?
A Stanford researcher and seven of his colleagues wanted to test the basis for diagnosis of pathology in mental hospitals. They each went to a different hospital with a single complaint: hearing of noises, thuds or voices. No other complaints. No other symptoms. Just an occasional hearing of unexplained noises, thuds or voices. Every single of one of them was immediately admitted with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. From the moment of admission, they acted completely normal. No more noises. No more thuds. No more voices. Their actions, words and interactions with staff were all sane, professional, congenial and exactly as they would have behaved outside of the hospital. The researchers were testing to see how long it would take the hospital staff to realize that the new patient did not really belong in a mental hospital. The answer was never! Despite numerous explanations to the staff, no one at any of the hospitals believed that these patients had merely conducted an experiment. It actually took several weeks and the involvement of lawyers to get them out. Amazingly, even after the lawyers’ involvement, each of the eight discharge slips read, “Schizophrenia in remission.”
A single symptom, reported once, not even manifest before the doctor’s eyes but simply self-reported and then rescinded is enough to put us in the box of pathological. Even when we suddenly recover no one is prepared to accept that perhaps we were not sick in the first place, but rather misunderstood. If concepts of sickness and health, functional and dys-functional, normal and pathological are as murky as this, then perhaps – I tell myself – there may not actually be a volcanic eruption brewing. Perhaps the pathology I cannot see is not actually lurking in their subconscious, but really nonexistent.
How then (turning our attention to the principles Zimbardo raises) might it be that these children are escaping the grips of anxiety, tension, violence, detachment which are the hallmarks of orphaned, abandoned and abused children in other parts of the world?
In his detailed examination of the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo discussed the impact of uniform. The experiment took a random sampling of normal, non-pathological, stable, ordinary young men and – in a period of less than a week – turned most of them into either cruel “guards” or self-protective, complacent, withdrawn, submissive “prisoners.” The dark glasses and billy clubs given to the guards provided them anonymity as well as a symbol of power which, coupled with their appointed role as “guard” and virtually free reign to rule as they saw fit, led them to engage in abuses that mirrored those wrought upon the Iraqi prisoners by the Abu Grahib soldiers.
Humiliation, starvation, sleep deprivation and physical punishment – all became the status quo in a few short days at the Stanford Prison in picturesque Palo Alto. The “prisoners”, stripped of their rights and individuality, also quickly adapted to the role. Half – naked, dressed in a short prison gown and ladies’ stocking over their hair, known by a number rather than a name, at the mercy of the guards, these vibrant, robust young men became so withdrawn, submissive, depressed and “helpless” that the experiment had to be cut short by less than half its duration.
That simple shift in uniform and identity, as incredible as it sounds, seems to have had an enormous impact on their self-perception. The young college men in the Stanford Prison Experiment “became” brutal guards or withdrawn prisoners by donning the clothes and internalizing the roles. These shifts in personality – even when they knew it was an experiment – have had, in several cases, lasting effects decades later.
The importance of uniform and assigned role in personal self-identity is a crucial theme of Zimbardo’s book and of innumerable earlier psychological studies. The power of identities and labels may be much greater than we realize. They seem to serve as molds into which our personality flows like wet clay. Every teacher and parent knows that if you tell a child, “you are stupid” enough times, that child, regardless of the innate genius with which he may have come into this world, sure enough, will become “stupid.” Numerous studies have shown that students whom teachers believe to be smart (whether they are really smart or whether a clever experimenter has simply led the teacher to believe they are so) actually outperform their peers on exams. We become, it seems, the roles which are handed to us.
Uniform of Rishikumar at Parmarth Gurukul
The majority of the research has been done on the negative effects of uniforms and titles, but could the flip side also hold true? Just as Dr. Zimbardo turned nice, ordinary college students into heartless brutes by giving them dark glasses and calling them “guards”, could we turn abandoned, impoverished, traumatized young boys into healthy, adaptive, self-confident, caring young men by giving them yellow dhotis and calling them “rishikumars”?
Zimbardo says, “Some roles are insidious, are not just scripts that we enact only from time to time; they can become who we are most of the time. They are internalized even as we initially acknowledge them as artificial, temporary and situationally bound. We become father, mother, son, daughter, neighbor, boss, worker, helper, healer, whore, soldier, beggar man, thief and many more.” (p. 214) Is it possible that these boys, by playing the role and wearing the costume of “rishikumar” for long enough actually become that rishikumar?
Upon entering the Parmarth gurukul, the boys remove their dirty, torn, street clothes and don brand new bright yellow dhotis and kurtas, the traditional dress of spiritual seekers, priests and religious leaders. They immediately become a “rishikumar”. Rishis are the sages and saints who live in the Himalayas engaged in sadhana and meditation. A kumar is a young boy. So the rishikumars are the young boys who lived with and studied under the rishis. They are no longer orphans. They are no longer poor. They are no longer pitiable and worthless. They are no longer the unwanted, extra child whom the parents have deemed not worth feeding. They are now rishikumars.
I believe the uniform – not just that it is different from torn pants but that it is symbolic of spiritual beings – and the positive title are important parts of the molds of health and happiness into which these young boys’ personalities flow. But, there must be more. A yellow dhoti and new title are not enough to undo the defining pain of abuse and abandonment. Simply turning Suraj and Sagar into Rishisuraj and Rishisagar cannot possibly cause more than a dent in the suffering their small bodies, impressionable minds and tender hearts have had to endure.
Social Modeling and the Importance of Association
In Dr. Zimbardo’s book, another important aspect of the power of the situation lies in what he calls social modeling. We fashion our own behavior as well as our perception of proper behavior on those around us. This is particularly true in new and unfamiliar situations. What is even more fascinating, however, is that not only do we model our behavior on those around us, but we actually conform in thought as well. Muzafer Sherif and Solomon Asch are two of the earliest and most famous names in the literature on social conformity in thought and action. Through a variety of experiments they showed the overwhelming propensity of participants to not only behave/answer according to how others have behaved/answered but actually to change their own perceptions accordingly.
If, for example, we are shown a flash of blue light and asked what color it is, we will say blue. But, if prior to our answer, we hear 10 other “participants” (really confederates) say the light was green, chances are we will also say it is green. However, not only will we SAY it was green but we will change our perception of the color to actually believe it was green.
It appears that going along with the norm is one of the most powerful and compelling social forces. C.S. Lewis has said it beautifully, “I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods…one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside….Of all the passions the passion for the inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”
Zimbardo goes on to give numerous examples of ways in which people conform to the group’s ideology, in studies ranging from those as innocuous as determining the size of a line to studies as foreboding as Milgrim’s famous studies on delivering electrical shocks.
We know, in everyday life, the power of association. Previously obedient and studious children who get mixed up with the wrong company are very likely to become rebellious and belligerent. Every recovering alcoholic is warned against hanging out with his old, drinking buddies; the implicit pressure to conform is too great.
In Indian culture there is great emphasis put on the concept of “satsang.” It translates loosely as “good association.” Parents bring their children to holy places not just for their children to receive blessings but mainly for them to be in the company of holy, spiritual people, even temporarily. It seems that being in an environment of piety actually makes us feel that we are pious people. The longer we spend in a particular environment, surrounded by like-minded people, the more our own self-identity changes to reflect the norms of the group.
Social Modeling at the Parmarth Gurukul
Can these concepts be extended to our young boys? If Suraj and Sagar had been put into an orphanage filled with bitter, desperate, depressed children in an atmosphere that fostered disengagement and indifference, would they too become disengaged, indifferent and depressed? Will the atmosphere of joy, togetherness, spirituality, celebration, song and piety here at our gurukul seep into their cells? Will it change not only their behavior but also their very sense of Self? Sure they will clap their hands and sing in aarti. Everyone claps and sings in aarti. Older children will tell them to. The pressure to conform will be great. But will their hearts clap or only their hands? Will their hearts sing or only their tongues? Will the song — the joy, the love, the devotion of the song – be able to affect the very cells of their being? Will they become joyful by singing joyfully?
In America we are taught the song, “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.” There must be a reason, other than the easy lyrics, that generations of camps and schools have taught this song to groups of children. Could it be that by clapping our hands along with our classmates we actually become happy? Could it work in both directions? I am happy so I clap my hands. I clap my hands so I become happy.
Can Suraj and Sagar clap joy back into their hearts? Can they sing hope back into their hearts? Can they smile meaning back into their lives?
Week Two –
Nurture Outshines Nature: They Have “Become” Rishikumars
It is Ganesh Chatturthi, the day where statues of Lord Ganesh, beautifully sculpted in clay are immersed in the Ganges, after 10 days of being joyfully worshipped. It is pouring rain and the sound of “Ganapati Bappa Moriya” becomes the music to which the rain falls as accompaniment. “Ganapati Bappa Moriya,” the children chant, at the top of their lungs, wet hands clapping, as they follow the procession down to the banks of the Ganges for the sunset immersion. “Ganapati Bappa Moriya.” It is a lively, joyful chant in praise of Lord Ganesh. They are carrying their steel dinner plates as they’re coming from their living quarters, and directly from the ceremony they will go straight to the dining hall for dinner. As they march past the dining hall, they rush inside, drop off their plates and then run back out to catch up with the procession.
I am standing in the doorway of our reception area overlooking the pathway the children take from the dining hall to the river banks. Lured by the heavenly smell of the rain and the sound of the chanting children, I have come to stand and witness the beauty. One by one the children run past my doorway, empty handed after dropping off their plates, as they rush to catch up with the others. I’m standing, quietly watching these beautiful children. They are drenched already but don’t even notice, as the summer rain continues to fall.
Suddenly I see Sagar run out of the dining hall; his back is to me as he skips down the path down to the river. He is dancing and prancing on the wet pathway, his soaked hair plastered to his face, his hands flying joyfully in the air. “Ganapati Bappa Moriya,” he’s shouting. Suddenly he turns around, pulled perhaps by the tears welling up in my eyes. He stops, folds his hands carefully and properly into “namaskar”, bows deeply at the waist in my direction, flashes me a smile that could be a billboard for Crest toothpaste if only his teeth were actually present and white, and then turns and continues running down to the river….. My question has answered itself. Yes, he has sung the hope back into his heart. Ganapati Bappa Moriya….It seems, for the moment, Sagar’s obstacles have been removed. The ocean is full.
- Ainsworth, M. and Bowlby, J. (1965). Child Care and the Growth of Love. London: Penguin Books.
- Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of Attachment. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Thompson, A.E. & Kaplan, C.A. “Childhood Emotional Abuse”. British Journal of Psychiatry. 168 (1996) 143-148
- Zimbardo, Phil, The Lucifer Effect (New York: Random House. 2007).
 The elephant headed God worshipped as the remover of obstacles, also called Ganapati