Written by Pradeep Krishnan
About two years ago, reading an article in an English daily about ‘Sthitaprajna,’ a man-made forest retreat and the Satvik vegan movement, both founded by Shri Shankar Narayan in Byndoor, Karnataka, prompted me to visit and experience the unique place.
However, the sudden spread of the Covid 19 pandemic delayed the trip. Finally, on 26 June, 2022, on a cool and windy dawn, amidst drizzles, my wife Sreelakshmi and I got down at the Mookambika road (Byndoor) railway station. At once, a fair young boy in blue T-shirt and jeans rushed towards us quipping, “Are you not Mr. Pradeep Krishnan from Kerala?” Soon, Shri Ram, Shankar Narayan’s 24 year old son, an IT professional, drove us through the beautiful western ghat road with tall trees on both sides and the faraway scenic faraway blue Kodachadri hills. Amidst monsoon showers, the car slowly moved through the narrow serpentine ghat road with twists, turns and bumps, here and there, taking an hour to cover the 14 Km distance to reach the place.
In the junction where a thin muddy road to the left leads to the sanctuary, holding an umbrella, Shankar Narayan ji, in spotless white shirt and dhoti, smilingly welcomed us to his abode. At a glance, he looked like a Gandhian of yesteryears, often seen in history books. As the pathway had become unmotorable due to recent heavy rains, we got down from the car and crossed a narrow stream on foot to enter the three-acre man-made forest.
The incessant drizzles, chill weather, tall trees all around, chirping of birds, rattling of insects, little forest flowers of yellow, blue and white here and there at once thrilled us. Soon we were ushered in to the simple tile-roofed cottage, Dhyana, a 1000 square feet hall, with three feet high raised cement platforms on all the four side walls to be used as a cot to sleep in which mats and pillows were arranged in rows. In the adjacent kitchen, guests are allowed to cook vegan food. After resting for a while, Shankar Narayan took us around the forest he himself had meticulously cultivated by sowing seeds of 2000 plants and trees, of which many are fruit-bearing. He said that wild animals such as deer, nilgai, boar, porcupine, peacock, bonnet macaque, Indian giant squirrels, gray langurs, mongoose, owls and rabbits are regular visitors to this jungle. While roaming around the woods, we could see hornbills waiting for their prey rubbing their yellow beaks in trees, a couple of Malabar giant squirrels enjoying a ripe jackfruit and a barrel of monkeys jumping from tree to tree. In the couple of rain-water retention ponds, little birds were bathing and drinking water.
Every year, during August, Shankar Narayan, addressed as Forest Father, organizes the Satvik Vegan Festival, with participants from all over the globe listening to talks, enjoying music, tasting vegan dishes, taking out forest walks and village visits. The aim of the event is to take the vegan message to political, religious and business leaders, media and the general public.
In a message, Sri Narendra Modi, Prime Minister, wrote, “Ahinsa Parmo Dharma and Atmavat sarva-bhuteshu are the golden concepts of our ancestral culture. Mahatmaji followed it throughout his life and Mahavir made it mandatory for modern man of Satvik Style. Veganism is the way to wellness and an honor of the holy soul. To honor the right to live for every creature on earth is the ethical responsibility of mankind.” About the uniqueness of a Vegan Forest, he quipped, “Generally, forest grows on its own. But here, it is grown by human efforts. When human efforts are involved, people may use animal manure, chemical fertilizers, and animals in various forms. Here no animal manure or animals are used. And when humans do some efforts, they carry expectations. Here, everything was done without any expectations and hence no human emotions are involved.” When asked about the difference between veganism and satvik veganism, he said, “While in veganism, the practice of non-violence is restricted to animals, in satvik veganism, practice of ahimsa extends even to plants and humans. We also strive to practice truthfulness, simplicity, polite behaviour etc.” After wandering for about an hour inside the vibrant and lively campus, free of pollution (water, air, noise, light and human), he offered sumptuous lunch with rice, dal, fruits, payasam (pudding) and coconut butter milk. “People can come and stay here but with an advance appointment. There are no servants and no fixed facilities. It’s a compromise between a forest and a civilized life. There are no fixed charges, though a voluntary contribution is accepted,” said the 56-year-old. Later in the evening, sitting in the open veranda, overlooking two beautiful peacocks dancing in the rain, Shankar Narayan ji talked to us about his life, mission and the Satvik Vegan movement that he had initiated. In 1989, reading Mahatma Gandhi’s auto-biography ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth,’ he too stopped drinking milk, commencing his vegan journey.
Then in 2006, the advice given by Dada J P Vaswani, “To Win the Competition, withdraw from the Competition,” influenced his spiritual journey. Later, inspired by the visits to Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad and Sadhana Forest, Auroville, he quit the job and started planting different types of trees, which have now become quite big. While working abroad, when Shankar ji came to know through the internet abou “The Vegan Society of England’ and its principles, he decided to become a vegan and later initiated the Indian Vegan Society in 2004 (renamed as Satvik Vegan Society). When asked about the advantages of a vegan diet, he said, “As it is original and natural it is the one meant for a man to thrive. As it is conducive to all humans, anyone who follows a vegan diet will have not only better health, but also helps to prevent or minimize cruelty to animals and contribute to the preservation and prosperity of the environment.”
Along with the practice of Veganism, Shankar ji also stress the importance to Sathya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, Aparigraha, etc., saying that the ancient Indian values were evolved to bring the best out of man and his society. He is of the view that the values of ‘yama,’ stated in the ashtanga yoga such as ahimsa (not to hurt/harm anyone), sathya (tell the truth), asteya (non-stealing) brahmacharya (non-cheating) and aparigraha (non-accumulation of wealth) are to be practiced. “If we don’t practice any of these values, it affects us as well as others. A person, who sees God in others or who believes that the same God who created him also created others, and that all living beings are our brothers and sisters, must include all these values in his life,” he added. He is of the view that the human anatomy is conducive only for a vegan diet and it gives optimum output from a human body, right from the brain through all sensory organs, salivary glands, teeth, digestive tracts and the elimination mechanism, is made for plant foods. When argued whether a vegan diet may result in serious physical and cognitive impairment in the body, Shankarji explained that no one; vegans, vegetarians and non-vegetarians have a perfect body as all will experience difficulties and deficiencies. “And, food is not the only problem plaguing humans. We have all the artificiality and unnatural activities in life resulting in endless sufferings and diseases that no solution seems to be perfect. However, a healthy vegan diet with a more natural simple satvik lifestyle, living in harmony with nature without greed, will not have any shortcoming,” he suggested. To the argument of non-vegetarians that sustainable, ecological and harmonious animal production is really a solution for the “world food problem, he said that such contentions come from people who are selfish and refuse to ponder issues from a holistic point of view. According to him, there can’t be a ‘sustainable, ecological and harmonious animal production’ as long as we need to feed animals to grow. “In spite of having enough plant foods to feed 3 times the current human population, we have food problems because we feed the food, which we can eat directly, to animals to produce animal food.
Therefore, animal production is not only unethical but also unsustainable as we use several units of plant food to produce one unit of animal food,” he contended. He is of the firm view that the practice of Satvik Veganism would definitely help to establish equilibrium on earth. He suggested that by eating only healthy vegan food, one does not interfere in the lives of animals and thus avoids cruelty to them, by not cutting forests to produce plant foods to feed animals to produce animal food, it helps the environment and we become healthy. He is of the view that Satvik Vegans give importance to values; leading a simple life, using polite language, avoid skirmishes and thus helps to remain in peace and social harmony. On the role of diet in human character and behavior, he has this to say, “There is a saying ‘we are what we eat.’ As our body is made up of what we eat, vegan foods ensure calm and soft behaviour. When one eats meat of animals bred in horrendous environment and killed brutally, he unknowingly injects into the body all the sufferings of the beasts. This ‘suffering’ is reflected in ones acts and deeds, creating a vicious circle of miseries. All the agonies of modern life have a direct link to our deeds to the animals, especially for food. While satvik vegan food, creates a cycle of happiness, animal food, creates a cycle of agonies.” Sankar ji lamented that from childhood, elders’ resort to force feed animal food. If we bring up our children with healthy plant food, satvik and complimentary lifestyle without competing with others, along with a polite and non-aggressive behavior and language, people can live a happy and peaceful life even in these strife ridden times. He urges all to assess every action, whether eating or speaking or doing something, and to become strong individuals without blindly imitating others. When we have strong individuals who do good only, we will have a good home, village, town, country and the world. “When we have sensible and selfless people, who see holistically and want the good of every being on the earth, as our leaders, whether it is religious or spiritual or political, we can guide the world towards a better order,” he hoped.