Inspiration in suffering
Writer: Basil Foo
Published: Fri, 29 Jun 2012
Faced with the horrors of war, Swami Satyananda was inspired to look beyond the differences which separated people and made humanity inflict violence upon each other.
Entrance to the Pure Life Society.
However, before forming the Pure Life Society in 1949, the Hindu monk was a novitiate in the Ramakrishna Mission, a global volunteer organisation.
It was then that he observed the effect of Japanese forces occupying Malaya, when the invading army constructed the Siam-Burma Border Railway.
To build the railway, which later became infamously known as “Death Railway”, thousands of male Indian workers from Malayan rubber estates were forced into labour.
“The Japanese went into the estates and took the heads of families. They brought their lorries and just beat them into it,” said Datin Paduka Mother A Mangalam.
The current president of the Pure Life Society, Mangalam, fondly called Mother by her students, co-founded the society with Satyananda, who was her spiritual mentor.
She said the Swami got involved in relief efforts for the families of the workers, most of whom died due to harsh conditions during the railway construction.
“He went to see the condition of the labourers at the Death Railway. He found how badly those people were abused. That inspired him.”
She said as there were many children left in the lurch after their fathers did not return, Satyananda started homes in Batu Gajah, Taiping, Penang and Singapore to house them.
Birth of an idea
Upon his arrival in Kuala Lumpur after the Pacific War ended, the monk was inspired to establish a society which could alleviate pain and suffering regardless of race or religion.
“He felt there should be no religious or racial discrimination among the people because war starts from within, from the mind of man,” Mother said.
It was then that Satyananda conceptualized the Pure Life Society, an organization which could bring together people from different communities.
Mother explained that wherever the Swami would be invited to speak, he espoused values of unity between different religious groups.
“The Buddhists used to invite him and he spoke in those terms. He spoke of Buddhism in a universal view. The Hindus used to invite him, he did the same thing,” she said, adding that Satyananda has also been invited to speak in Presbyterian and Anglican churches and an Islamic college in Klang.
(Back row, L-R) executive assistant to Mother Mangalam Geetha Madhavan, Pure Life Society honourary secretary S Supramaniam, Mother Mangalam, and Pure Life Society chief administrator Koh Kok Kiong with some of the children at the home. They are standing in front of the society’s logo and a portrait of the society’s founder Swami Satyananda.
Pure Life Society honourary secretary S Supramaniam elaborated that their activities since the demise of the Swami in 1961 have been centered on his ideals.
“He (Satyananda) went to give talks outside on inter-faith matters, why we should be united and move away from bigotry. We want to have that as a legacy for him,” he said.
He added that the Swami’s ideas were so sought after, that even then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman invited him for discussions during the formation of the education system.
In explaining more about the monk’s ideas, Mother said people’s minds could be moulded and trained to look beyond prejudice.
“The human mind has stages. In the beginning is the sleeping stage where, like at birth, a child doesn’t recognise people in terms of colour, it’s very innocent,” she said.
That first level of consciousness is the Tamasic stage, which is stated in a Hindu scripture called the Bhagavad Gita
She observed that Malaysians once thought that way during the formation of the country after Independence.
The second Rajasic stage, she called the active, aggressive, and knowing stage, when differences between various communities become apparent.
“That was a time when politics came creeping into the arena, when people started to see themselves as different in colour and race,” she said.
Mother then admitted that Malaysians are finally, albeit slowly, moving towards the third stage, the Sattvic stage of mind.
This stage is where society becomes more calm, composed and not only tolerating but being appreciative of differences.
“That state is when you know that whatever it is, colour is only skin deep. Within us is the same red blood, the same skeleton, everything.”
She added that in the third stage, there is also a certain degree of saintliness in people, when they feel brotherly towards one another.
Putting thoughts into action
“What happened was, he (Satyananda) felt it was not enough that people talk about unity, harmony, peace, but we should reflect it in our actions,” Mother said.
The Pure Life Society, which many associate as the home for orphans at 6th mile, Jalan Puchong, Kuala Lumpur, was formed in 1949.
To walk the talk, volunteers were recruited to get involved in the society’s efforts to help orphaned children like setting up schools and vocational centres.
“We have a school here (in Puchong), and we had another school put up in Brickfields. It was known as Sekolah Satyananda and catered mainly for school dropouts,” Mother said.
As there were insufficient teachers due to the shift from an English to Bahasa Malaysia medium of teaching back then, the school started offering vocational training instead.
The society had also built another school building which was taken over by a school in the Sungai Buloh estate which had collapsed during a storm.
“The school in the estate collapsed, so they had to occupy a building close by. We had one building ready for vocational training and they stepped into that,” she explained.
As Malaya was fairly poor at the time and resources for constructing new school facilities was sparse, the society allowed the cash-strapped estate school to stay.
Interestingly, the society is controlled by an Act of Parliament called The Pure Life Society (Shuddha Samajam) Incorporation Ordinance, 1957.
“We have to go by the law, by whatever is stated in the Act. If we want to start anything, it must come within the objectives, if not, it’s against the law,” Mother said.
According to the Act, which governs their activities, the general purpose of the society includes training workers for carrying out educational and social work.
They also have to establish and maintain orphanages, workshops, educational institutions and houses for the invalid.
“In the beginning, the 1950s, we had a lot of handiwork. We sent (the children) for plumbing, courses in gardening, these are good work experiences for them,” she said.
The society also provides their children in the home along Jalan Puchong with living skills like learning how to cook by doing kitchen duties.
They are also taught sewing, attend self-defence classes, dancing, and a variety of other extramural activities to ensure they are well-rounded individuals when they are released.
“We have 34 full-time staff. We have drivers, cooks, house mothers, house assistants, and clerical staff from the finance section and public relations section,” she added.
Coping with changes
Mother lamented on how the rate of voluntarism work in society has waned ever since the country became more developed over the decades and people’s incomes rose.
“The spirit of voluntarism is lacking, it has been lacking since the country became affluent from the 1980s. Money, than the urge to serve, became the motivator.”
She reminisced how those who came to offer their services at the society used to do so without asking for payment.
There are currently several tutors who visit the society to teach school syllabus subjects to the children.
“They come and we pay them a certain amount per hour. They payment rate is the same for tutors of dancing, self-defence, and all the extramural activities,” she said.
Despite making payments to attract temporary workers from outside of the society, Mother said they were still in need of more help.
She plans to better spread the word to the community around them in Puchong, in the hope of drawing interested individuals to commit to the work the society is doing.
Mother also noticed that due to the change in times, not only orphans but children from broken homes have come to the society for shelter.
“Here there are more children with single parents than orphans, children that are abused, who only have single mothers or single fathers,” she said.
Because of the high rate of neglected and abandoned children, the society is planning to educate young couples on their responsibilities before becoming parents.
Mother insists the couples should take married life more seriously and now includes the matter in her talks at forums on social and religious issues.
She plans to also compile her talks and release them in book-form soon.
“We are trying to put up vocational schools again because it’s very important,” Mother said.
She said the daily hands-on work which the society’s children are doing have taught them invaluable work experiences which cannot be provided by books.
She explained that books only meant memorising and would only help a child to get A’s in examinations.
“Once they get out of school, they find themselves useless. That’s why today there are so many people who get into entrepreneur businesses,” she said.
The society has in its possession another 2.02 hectares of land in Kuala Selangor which it plans to utilise to build a vocational school.
Mother also shed light into some of the reasons children might find themselves ending up in shelter homes.
“Today you have lots of problems among the youth because of the type of education they receive,” she said.
She saw that it was very rare to find a child mugging books at a table today as that type of education is now unsuitable and is a reason why children may go astray.
She said it was an idea she had, which she will put forward to the society’s committee, to slowly channel their children towards more work-specific experiences.