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Dr Stevenson worked at the intersection of belief & science

Dr Stevenson endured an uphill struggle to institute real science in the study of the mind and mind-brain relations. Even though there was the absence of any evidence of a physical process by which a personality could outlive death and transfer to another body, previously half-closed minds found his research on reincarnation hard to refute.

Bhuvan Lall

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In the early 1930s, in the erudite Cheera Khana neighborhood of Old Delhi, a six-year-old girl named Shanti Devi frequently made disconcerting statements concerning her husband and her son. She claimed to have been married to a business person Kedar Nath living in Mathura, ninety miles south of Delhi, and recalled that she had died soon giving birth to a boy. Her parents, Prem Pyari and Rang Bahadur, perplexed by her assertions realised that their child perhaps remembered a past life. Discreetly they got the names and places mentioned by the small girl crosschecked. An exchange of letters authenticated that a shopkeeper from Mathura named Kedar Nath had lost his wife Lugdi after the birth of their son. And exactly one year, ten months, and seven days later Shanti Devi was born. Her contentions were accurate. A bit alarmed, the family initially decided to hush up the matter. However, their daughter was adamant and sought to visit her former home in Mathura. During an unpremeditated meeting with Kedar Nath, who impersonated to be someone else, Shanti Devi blushed on seeing ‘her husband’. In private she mentioned to Kedar Nath many incidents about his personal life that no one except Lugdi could have known. It became apparent to Kedar Nath that Shanti Devi was his wife Lugdi reborn. 

 At that stage, influential politicians intervened. A high-powered investigation committee headed by Deshbandhu Gupta, Neki Ram Sharma, and a leading lawyer Tara Chand Mathur, was formed to thoroughly examine the case under stringent preconditions to ensure credibility. On 15 November 1935, Shanti Devi and her family travelled to Mathura by train accompanied by the committee. On arrival at Mathura train station, Shanti Devi not only knew the precise route to her former home through the crowded lanes but also correctly identified the house, though it had been recently repainted in another colour. The girl also stunned everyone by recognising relatives, recounting incidents, remembering food habits, revealing secrets, and even recalling the existence of a well in the house.

On meeting Lugdi’s parents she burst into tears. Standing in the courtyard of a house in Mathura, the committee members witnessed both sets of her parents claim her future custody. At that moment truth was significantly stranger than fiction. Shanti Devi, saddened by the situation created by the memories of her past life, wisely turned her attention to the present and ultimately everyone accepted her decision. After returning to Delhi, the committee published its report, “An inquiry into the case of Shanti Devi”, endorsing that Shanti Devi had a life before this life and was undeniably Lugdi born-again. The astonishing verdict was extensively praised by the supporters of reincarnation and gained worldwide publicity. Almost immediately rationalists and scientists rubbished the findings as fraudulent and forged. Sceptics rejected the report as a mammoth multi-sided conspiracy among people from different families who cooperated in the deception. It was alleged the report fuelled superstitions in the age of modern science. 

Decades later, Dr Ian Pretyman Stevenson of the University of Virginia, and a globally known authority on reincarnation demonstrated otherwise. After extensively interviewing Shanti Devi, her family members, and some witnesses, he concluded, “My research indicates that she made at least twenty four statements of her memories that matched the verified facts.” Shanti Devi, an educationist, went on to live with her family and extensively spoke about her experiences before her life as Lugdi in Mathura. She claimed to be wedded to Kedar Nath and remained unmarried until her demise on 27 December 1987.

Earlier, fascinated by real-life case reports such as Shanti Devi, the Canada-born physician and psychiatrist Dr Stevenson had devoted his professional life studying children’s past-life memories. The tall and lanky, Dr Stevenson earned his medical degree from McGill University in Montreal in 1943, graduating at the top of his class with a gold medal. At the academically youthful age of thirty-eight, he was named Chair of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson. The maverick Dr Stevenson had already abandoned Dr Sigmund Freud’s accepted techniques as overly unscientific when he met with Aldous Huxley and read accounts of children recollecting memories of former lives. Over time he realised that the awareness of past lives might provide a third factor that could fill the gaps in human knowledge. He shifted his professional interests to the paranormal as a device to dissect the human psyche. From there onwards, Dr Stevenson was an academic who took the road less travelled by.

Instigated by the news reports of four or five cases of rebirth in India and two in nearby Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), he decided to travel to the East on an exploratory mission. Financially supported by Eileen Garrett of the Parapsychology Foundation, he landed in Delhi in August 1961 with a tape recorder and planned on documenting memories of previous lives. After recovering from the initial culture shock, over six weeks of all-day treks on dusty district roads he recorded twenty-five cases in India and seven more cases in Ceylon. In India, he was surprised at how easily cases could be found and learned that the idea of life before life and transmigration of consciousness was accepted in the Eastern spiritual traditions. In deep states of meditation and vivid dreams, it was said that previous births were communicated and this was an accepted fact for thousands of years. The tireless researcher was hooked and it became his life’s mission to investigate the paranormal and collect evidence indicative of reincarnation.

On his return to Charlottesville, Dr Stevenson published his first breakthrough work, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, which included many of the compelling studies he compiled during his travels, along with his examinations of their accounts. He wrote, “In the international census of cases suggestive of reincarnation which I have undertaken, I now have nearly six hundred cases listed.” It challenged entrenched assumptions and sold 50,000 copies. His revolutionary and well-reasoned work regarding rebirth attracted the attention of Chester Floyd Carlson, a well-known physicist, philanthropist, and the wealthy inventor of the Xeroxing copying process. Carlson’s endowment of one million dollars and a professorial chair gave Dr Stevenson a new lease of life. The visionary man created essentially a new field of research in an unorthodox domain. He set up a Division of Personality Studies (now Perceptual Studies) at the University of Virginia and its mission remains “the scientific empirical investigation of phenomena that suggest that currently accepted scientific assumptions and theories about the nature of mind or consciousness, and its relation to matter, may be incomplete.”

Over the next three decades, Dr Stevenson along with his team functioned in the systematic approach similar to NASA, MIT and other institutions devoted to scientific enquiry. They travelled across five continents logging an average of 55,000 miles every year. They collected nearly 3,000 cases of children who claimed to remember past lives. These included field trips to Alaska, where Dr Stevenson collected cases related to the question of survival after death from the Tlingit people. He also undertook the study of the unusual behaviour among Burmese children who reported having lived lives as Japanese soldiers killed there during World War II. Some of these children preferred wearing Japanese attire rather than the local clothes and eating partially cooked fish in Japanese style instead of the spicy Burmese food. They also displayed the industriousness and sense of purpose associated with the Japanese army men.

Dr Stevenson chose to only study children and not adults as he reasoned that children were unlikely to fabricate past life memories for financial gain or fame. With an encyclopedic knowledge of history, philosophy, and the natural sciences plus fluency in three languages he carefully verified the children’s accounts with witnesses and the assistance of many local interpreters. He searched for alternate ways to account for the child’s testimony and dismissed any cases of self-delusion or Venusian fantasy. The courtly and attentive Dr Stevenson gathered his evidence painstakingly and added police files, hospital records, autopsy reports, death certificates, and photographs to each case to effectively corroborate the explanations. He mostly functioned in foreign locations not visited previously and sometimes even under threats of physical harm. From all accounts, he preferred to work conscientiously rather than talk about his work. Through those years he authored more than 200 publications, and stated, “I think a rational person, if he wants, can believe in reincarnation on the basis of evidence.”

Evidently, Dr Stevenson was not the first rational person or Westerner to explore birth after death. It was a timeless area of study in the West. In ancient Greece, Plato presented accounts of life before life in his works like The Republic and described souls about to be reborn as choosing their future lives. In the nineteenth century, Schopenhauer took rebirth sincerely, and noted, “We find the doctrine (of reincarnation) springing from the earliest and noblest ages of the human race, always spread abroad on the earth as the belief of the great majority of mankind.” Even Voltaire observed that it is no more surprising to be born twice than once. In Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, Carl Jung penned that as a boy he recollected in great detail being a very old man in the eighteenth century. He wrote, “This concept of rebirth necessarily implies the continuity of personality… (that) one is able, at least potentially, to remember that one has lived through previous existences, and that these existences were one’s own.”

Yet right through his academic life, Dr Stevenson endured an uphill struggle to institute real science in the study of the mind and mind-brain relations. He did this in the face of acrimonious defiance by the scientific establishment. Detractors termed his research into the survival of personality after expiry as an enthusiast’s infatuation with Eastern philosophies. He encountered relentless scorn from colleagues who found him to be an embarrassment and his life’s work a colossal mistake. After years of ridicule from colleagues, in 1997, he produced his magnum opus, Reincarnation and Biology, a 2,268-page, two-volume classic in parapsychology. The extraordinary book cataloged 225 case reports of children who retained memories of previous lives and studied birthmarks in more than forty cases with verification of the location of the wounds from post-mortem reports. Even though there was the absence of any evidence of a physical process by which a personality could outlive death and transfer to another body, previously half-closed minds found his research on reincarnation hard to refute.

Finally, on the evening of his life, Dr Stevenson got the respect he deserved for his work. Max Planck, the father of quantum physics, saw merit in the possibility of a physical realm derived from the non-physical (consciousness). Even celebrity astronomer Carl Sagan, who usually debunked unscientific declarations, wrote: “There are three claims in the (parapsychology) field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study,” the third of which was “that young children sometimes report details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation”.

In some quarters Dr Stevenson was admired as the Galileo of his century for fearlessly pushing the boundaries of science. The trailblazing scientist was honoured with the presidencies of both the British and American Societies for Psychical Research. He was also the founding member of the Society for Scientific Exploration as well as its Journal of Scientific Exploration.

Well into his eighties, Dr Stevenson’s passion for work remained unabated and there were many more books to be written. In 2002, after his last trip to India, the uncrowned emperor in the field of parapsychology stepped down as the director of the Division of Perceptual Studies of the University of Virginia. Yet before retirement from active research, Dr Stevenson had an idea that would outlast him and conclusively prove his thesis. He purchased a Sargent and Greenleaf model combination lock from Brown’s Lock and Safe, a Charlottesville locksmith located a few miles from his home. He set the password himself and placed the lock in a drawer inside his office. He informed his associates that once on the other side of the grave he hoped to communicate the combination to a friend or loved one who could open the lock and prove that some part of Dr Stevenson had survived.

Then five years later on 8 February 2007, in the retirement community of Westminster-Canterbury of the Blue Ridge, in Charlottesville, Dr Stevenson’s heart suddenly stopped functioning. Death came to the intensely private person who had spent most of his life unlocking the secrets of life before life. He was 88. He had ended his last published paper, with the words, “Let no one think that I know the answer. I am still seeking.”

Perhaps one life was enough. Conceivably Dr Stevenson’s death provided him with the answer he sought while researching reincarnation. However, the combination lock he left behind in the office drawer has remained firmly locked till today.

Bhuvan Lall is the author of ‘The Man India Missed The Most: Subhas Chandra Bose’ and ‘The Great Indian Genius: Har Dayal’. He is currently writing ‘The Path of Gautama Buddha’. He can be contacted at writerlall@gmail.com.

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Opinion

DELHI UNIVERSITY UNDER A CLOUD IN ITS CENTENARY YEAR

Pankaj Vohra

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The country’s premier university, Delhi University, in its centenary year, is in the grip of a major crisis resulting from apparently “illegal and questionable actions” of the ministry for Human Resources Development. The major contentious issue is that the university has a person functioning as the acting Vice Chancellor without the requisite approval of the Visitor, in this case the President of India. Prof P.C. Joshi was appointed as the VC by the ministry following the superannuation of Prof Yogesh Tyagi, who spent the last few months of his tenure under suspension. The objection of those well conversant with the Delhi University Act, its Statutes and Ordinances is that the ministry could not have unilaterally appointed Prof Joshi to serve, even in an acting capacity, without the matter getting the Visitor’s nod.

Here too, there are some alarming serious views that emerge. The Vice Chancellor usually appoints his team of the PVC, the Dean of colleges and the Director, South Campus, soon after assuming office. Prof Tyagi had himself not followed many conventions and established practices in the university and when during the last year of his tenure appointed Prof Joshi as his PVC, he did not obtain the approval of even the Executive Council, which was merely informed, and also the appointment was done without the consent of the Visitor. In Delhi University, the practice has been that once the tenure of the VC ends, those appointed by him to assist him also have to go. In other words, their tenure is co-terminus with the office of the VC. Prof Tyagi retired on 9 March without being reinstated which itself raises many questions, and Prof Joshi was asked by the ministry to continue till such period, a new VC was appointed. In fact, his tenure would have automatically ended with that of Prof Tyagi and in that case, the Registrar should have convened a meeting of the EC to take stock of the situation and to seek the final advice from the Visitor in this regard.

As per knowledgable sources, the Registrar or the senior-most Professor of the university should have been asked to take over for the interim period or whoever the Visitor deemed fit to discharge the functions. Instead, Prof Joshi continued to perform the functions of the VC. The second problem that has arisen is that Prof Joshi also superannuated as professor in the university on 31 May, thus his continuation becomes questionable even on the above grounds. A PVC is appointed from among the professors in the university and if the person ceases to be a professor, how can he be the PVC or the acting VC. To make matters worse, the HRD ministry has not sent any file regarding the DU VC’s position and even the Search Committee has yet to be fully constituted for the appointment of a regular Vice Chancellor.

The DU Executive Council in its meeting had suggested a panel of seven names from which two were picked up by the Dean of Colleges; P.C. Joshi declared that he would not preside over the meeting since he was himself a candidate. The two names—Yogendra Narayan, former Defence Secretary and Secretary General of Rajya Sabha, and Prof Raj Kumar, Vice Chancellor of the Punjab University—exist only in a file that has not been sent to the Visitor to enable him to nominate his own nominee to make the search committee complete. This inordinate delay is on account of the ministry sitting over the DU issue deliberately or inadvertently.

Delhi University certainly does not need to be treated in such a shabby manner in its centenary year where the actions of the acting Vice Chancellor could be legally challenged. There are nearly 20 odd universities which do not have regular VCs and it is high time that the Prime Minister’s Office should intervene and get the matters sorted out. There are more than half-a-dozen ministers in the present government who are the alumnus of this prestigious institution which is crying for help.

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Opinion

LINKING SCHOOLS WITH HIGHER EDUCATION

Higher education needs to come forward in a big way to improve the quality of school education in general and secondary education in particular.

Prof. Ved Prakash

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The growth of higher education has to be synchronous with the school education in the long run. Although well recognised, it needs to be reiterated that the growth of education in most of the developing societies shows commensurate progress across elementary, secondary and post-secondary sectors of education. It has been substantiated through a number of longitudinal studies conducted across the globe. However, there seems to be some incongruity insofar as transition rates in Indian school system are concerned. It requires a whole series of corrective measures as it has serious policy implications for higher education in the country. One of the serious shortcomings of the Indian education system is the lack of linkage across different sectors of education. They have been working in isolation for long as if they have nothing to do with each other. Of them, the higher education sector is primarily responsible for this malaise as it has failed in providing desired level of academic support to its feeder sectors.

It is quite perplexing to find declining trends in transition rates across different sectors, while there is an upward trend in enrolment. Transition rates seem to be moving on a sliding scale as is evident from 2018-19 data. While the transition rates from primary to upper primary and from elementary to secondary are found to be 91 and 90 respectively, it is as low as 69 from secondary to higher secondary. An analysis of the District Information System for Education (DISE) data over a period of five years from 2014-19, reveals another kind of incongruity in transition rates across different sectors of school education. While it shows declining trends from primary to upper primary and elementary to secondary for three consecutive years in a row from 2015-18, a similar trend is seen only for a year (2016-17) in the case of secondary to higher secondary. If we are to attain 50% Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education within 2030, as envisaged in the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020, then it is necessary to ensure commensurate upturn in transition rates across all sectors of school education.

The declining trends of transition rates at school stage would continue to be the main impediments, if not addressed through academic interventions at school stage, to the overall growth of higher education. There are multiple reasons for these declining trends which need to be appreciated and appropriately addressed by the university system in a time bound manner. It is vital to understand that when students transit from one stage to another stage or change classes within or between schools, their teaching and learning are invariably calibrated in accordance with the intended learning outcomes. Some of the critical factors like acclimatisation of students with unacquainted ambience, their social and emotional adjustments are not given as much attention as they deserve. It is primarily because these aspects are not adequately addressed in our teacher training programs.

These problems get accentuated as students move upward because of the load of curriculum and lack of individualised instructions. It not only makes a negative impact on their learning but also affects their ability to withstand the academic pressure and the test of time leading to continuous decline in transition rates in all subsequent stages of education. There are also other factors like socio-personal, academic attainments, average annual dropout rates that contribute to declining trends. With an average annual dropout rate of about 17%, at secondary stage, the transition rate from secondary to post-secondary is going to be much less than the number of places available at that stage. Furthermore, all those who would graduate might not make the cut to higher education due to a variety of reasons like poor marks, fierce competitions, limited seats, financial constraints and several other family obligations.

It is evident that we are losing out a large number of learners at every stage of education and which is why we have been still struggling with the universalisation of elementary education, let alone universalisation of twelve years of schooling. Global experience shows that transitions are more successful in those schools where teachers ensure seamless learning by way of preventing vulnerable students from their disengagement with learning. Since there is an acute shortage of such schools in the entire country, urgent measures need to be taken to ensure seamless learning right from lower primary to senior secondary, without which it would not be possible to realise the goals that have been set in the NEP, 2020. This obviously requires, among others, policy interventions at the level of teacher preparation.

Transition rates across different stages of education can be improved substantially if institutions persistently focus as much on students’ adjustments and acclimatisation as on academic attainments. They need to proactively address curricular as well as social and personal issues of vulnerable students who would predominantly be from marginalised groups of the society. The curricular areas at school stage provide a feeder to the knowledge domains in higher education. Such disciplines, having poor enrolments at the school stage, need to be strengthened to improve the quality and intake in such disciplines so that the higher education system does not remain starved for want of appropriate intakes in those subjects of study. This would of course require proper attention and linkage between school education and higher education which is presently not as appreciable as it ought to be.

Interdisciplinary approach to education is a catchword expressing the reality of higher education in the current context. This orientation to education needs to be attempted through curriculum reforms at secondary education by avoiding insularity of subject disciplines. The current tendency of independent streams like science, commerce, humanities, medical and non-medical need to be merged in such a way that the students can choose from amongst various subjects which cut across physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences and mathematics. This would require a revisit to curriculum practices at the secondary stage which is generic to orientation to higher education. This is going to help improve the transition rates across different stages of school education. But these curricular changes cannot be accomplished without the active participation of eminent experts from higher education.

Higher education needs to come forward in a big way to improve the quality of school education in general and secondary education in particular. This can be done, among others, by organising continuous professional development programmes for school teachers in different subjects by the higher education system. School teachers need to be familiarised with the developments in curricular areas so that their focus remains on ensuring that nothing is taught which has to be unlearned at the higher education stage. It needs to be noted that major curriculum development projects which have influenced school education all over the world have emanated from the campuses of higher education institutions. This approach has also been instrumental in improving the quality of school education and that in-turn has provided a much better foundational edifice for curriculum reforms even at the higher education level. The higher education system in India is presently insulated from the school education sector in this regard and the gap that exists needs to be bridged through this strategy.

University departments in education, sciences, and social sciences need to generate innovations in pedagogy in the curricular areas of school education so that such an output provides a face-lift to teacher education which is so very vital for the overall qualitative improvement of both school and higher education. Another priority concern in education in the current context is Vocational Education and Training (VET) leading to skills development. Secondary education pass-outs should be one of the feeder streams to the vocational courses at the higher education level, at least in some areas, and it should also provide vertical mobility. Therefore, vocational education at the school stage needs to be strengthened. The present picture is not very encouraging and in its present form it is not going to provide vocational orientation to higher education which is the need of the hour.

There is a need for strengthening certain academic reforms such as semesterisation, choice-based credit system, comprehensive internal evaluation at school stage for the purpose of improving transition rates from school education to higher education. The present position indicates a lot of confusion and lack of will to implement such reforms even at the higher education stage in several universities. Another significant aspect that requires urgent attention is the reform at the level of teacher education. The Education Commission (1964-66) had made a significant recommendation of bringing teacher education for all stages of school education under the umbrella of the university system. This was done to provide a very vital interface between school education and higher education for a holistic and qualitative development of school education. This recommendation has not been implemented thus far. Perhaps the idea can be put to some scholarly discourse now to analyse the implications and possible strategies for realising the objectives in the larger interest of both the school and higher education.

India has the largest system of higher education in terms of number of institutions. But there is hardly any institution of higher learning, except the NCERT, which institutionalised the culture of active engagement with schools. The time has come when higher education institutions across the country should take proactive steps to improve the quality of school curriculum, pedagogical processes, assessment techniques and continuous professional development programmes. They should also undertake action research to improve academic attainments, organise motivational lectures, science exhibitions, summer schools and summer camps to improve the overall quality of school education without which Indian higher education will continue to remain woefully deficient both in quantity and quality.

The writer is former Chairman, UGC. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

AGRA HOSPITAL WHERE 22 PATIENTS DIED SHOULD BE CHARGED WITH MASS MURDER

Pankaj Vohra

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In a shocking revelation, the owner of a hospital in Agra has claimed on a video that went viral, that he had directed the oxygen supply to some patients to be discontinued for some time to determine, who all could survive without it. As a consequence of this ‘mock drill’ 22 patients died both in the Covid and non-Covid areas of the medical institution. Although the Uttar Pradesh authorities have ordered an inquiry to go into the claim and have suspended the licence of the hospital, yet a strong case is made against those responsible for this gross callous behaviour. If the inquiry establishes any kind of wrongdoing, the owner and all those involved in this brainless exercise should be charged with mass murder, and their case should be put before fast-track court to dispense justice.

These kinds of drills should only be carried under normal circumstances and with adequate precautions and close monitoring by the authorities. In any case, before embarking on this misadventure, the owner and others should have at least kept the district administration posted so they could have also deployed a backup plan.

The entire episode is bizarre and insane and if it had happened in a developed country, lawsuits would have ensured that the hospital authorities would have gone out of business for a long time. In any case, mock drills or real-time things do not mostly work when the actual situations occur. In the early 1980s, the Delhi Fire department learned for the first time that its equipment was inadequate to handle multi-storey fires after a huge blaze at the Gopala Towers at Rajendra Place broke out.

Helicopters that were deployed to pour water from above made things worse since the rotors fanned the fire further. It was in June and the Fire hoses could only go up to a particular height which was not sufficient to bring things under control. The Fire department did not have the requisite equipment to deal with the situation. It was only later that Snorkels and Turn Table ladders were acquired.

Even now, the Fire services in the NCR, particularly in Gurgaon need to be strengthened. With so many multi-storied structures, one shudders to think what would happen if some major untoward incident was to take place. The Disaster Management Committee and the Crisis Management Group, have meetings and plans which need to work when something actually happens.

One can recall that when the Indian Airlines aircraft was hijacked to Kandahar, the telephone numbers at the crisis management office were all found to be outdated. The preparations should factor in various aspects including the presence of multiple authorities that call the shots in the country. Delhi appears to be better prepared than most cities but its contradictions do not seem to be evident to the authorities.

There is an urgent need to review all the plans that have been put in place for any kind of emergency so that things don’t backfire at the apt time. Prevention is the best cure for most situations.

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Opinion

HOW MODI GOVERNMENT IS EMPOWERING FARM ECONOMY

It is time for India’s Opposition and pressure groups to wake up, smell the coffee and change their mindset because the agriculture reforms by the Narendra Modi government are pro-farmers and the new farm laws are indeed India’s ‘Glasnost’ moment, as these reforms will usher in greater transparency in the country’s farm sector. For this government, ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’, is not just a slogan.

Sanju Verma

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What has the Modi government done for the well-being of India’s farm community? This is a question that is often asked. Well, for starters, the government has been transferring cash directly to farmers. Over Rs 1.35 lakh crore has been paid (via PM-KISAN, since its inception, in December 2018) to over 12 crore farmers. From just 255 million tonnes in 2012-13, under an inept Congress regime, to 297.5 million tonnes in 2019-20 and 303.34 million tonnes of foodgrain production in 2020-21, is a vindication of how India’s self-sufficiency, with an exportable surplus in the foodgrain space, has added to India’s economic heft. The latest data available with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) shows wheat procurement crossed 418 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) till May 29, 2021, in the ongoing rabi marketing season (RMS), higher than 390 LMT in RMS 2019-20. The current year’s wheat procurement figure is the highest ever in post-independent India. This is also the first time that wheat procurement has crossed the 400 LMT mark. The record wheat procurement comes just after the all-time high procurement of paddy. In the 2020-21 Kharif marketing season (KMS), paddy procurement crossed 789 LMT, compared to 773 LMT in KMS 2019-20, according to FCI data.

Given the hue and cry over Minimum Support Price (MSP), it is only apt to ask, what has been the track record of the Modi government? Without an iota of doubt, the track record on MSP has been exemplary. Minimum Support Price (MSP) is a form of market intervention by the Central government, to insure agricultural producers against any sharp fall in farm prices. For the 2021-22 crop year, the Modi government raised the MSP of paddy (common variety) by Rs. 72, to Rs 1940 per quintal from Rs 1868 per quintal in the year-ago period. The MSP of Grade A variety of paddy has also been increased by Rs. 72 to Rs. 1960 per quintal this year from Rs. 1888 per quintal last year. Among coarse cereals, the government increased the MSP of jowar (hybrid) by Rs 118 to Rs 2738 per quintal from Rs 2620 per quintal last year.

A similar increase has been made in support price of jowar (Maldani) to Rs 2,758 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year. The government increased the support price of bajra by Rs 100 to Rs 2,250 per quintal from Rs 2,150 per quintal last year, while ragi support price has been increased by Rs 82 to Rs 3,377 per quintal from Rs 3,295 per quintal last year. The support price of maize has been increased marginally by Rs 20 to Rs 1,870 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year from Rs 1,850 per quintal last year. The government has made concerted efforts over the last few years to realign the MSPs in favour of oilseeds, pulses, and coarse cereals to encourage farmers to shift to the larger area under these crops and adopt the best technologies and farm practices, to correct the demand-supply imbalance. The added focus on Nutri-rich, Nutri-cereals is to incentivise their production in the areas, where rice-wheat cannot be grown without long-term adverse implications for groundwater table.

To boost pulses and oilseeds’ production and reduce the country’s dependence on imports, the government increased the support price of tur and urad dal by Rs 300 to Rs 6,300 per quintal each. Moong support price has been increased by Rs 79 to Rs 7,275 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year.

Among Kharif-grown oilseeds, the government increased the support price in the case of sesamum by Rs 452, to Rs 7,307 per quintal and that of groundnut by Rs 275 to Rs 5,550 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year. Sunflower seed MSP has been increased by Rs 130 to Rs 6,015 per quintal from Rs 5,885 per quintal. For oilseeds, the government has approved an ambitious plan for the free distribution of high-yielding varieties of seeds to the farmers for the Kharif season 2021 in the form of mini-kits.

The special Kharif programme will bring an additional 6.37 lakh hectare area under oilseeds and is likely to produce 120.26 lakh quintals of oilseeds and edible oil amounting to 24.36 lakh quintals. On fertilisers, retail prices of di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) recently rose in line with global markets, but the government increased the subsidy portion to ensure farmers continue to get the key soil nutrient at Rs 1,200 per bag. In effect, subsidy on DAP was raised by a massive 140% from Rs 500 to Rs 1,200 per bag.

Coming to the Modi government’s track record, the numbers speak for themselves. MSP payment to farmers for paddy rose by 2.4 times to Rs 4.95 lakh crore between 2014 and 2019 under the Modi government, as against only Rs 2.06 lakh crore, under the previous, Congress-led regime, between 2009 and 2014. MSP to farmers for wheat increased by 1.77 times during 2014-19, to Rs 2.97 lakh crore, compared to Rs 1.68 lakh crore in the 2009-14 period. MSP payment for pulses surged by a whopping 75 times under the Modi government to Rs 49,000 crore from 2014-19, compared to a measly Rs 645 crore, under the Congress-led UPA-2. Payment to farmers for Oilseeds and Copra also surged 10 times under the Modi government, to Rs 25,000 crore, during the last five years, in comparison to MSP payment of just Rs 2,460 crore, in the period from 2009 to 2014, under the Congress-led, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) establishment.

Has the Modi government been fair to farmers in Punjab? Well, the straight answer to that is a loud and clear, ‘yes’. In April and May 2021, a little over Rs 21,000 was paid to wheat-growing farmers as MSP, of which a solid Rs 8,200 crore was paid to farmers in Punjab alone. Do the farm bills dismantle the existing ‘APMC-Anaj Mandi’ structure? No, they do not. Going forward, farmers will have the choice and freedom to sell their produce either at APMC designated wholesale Mandis or in ‘Trade Areas’. There will be no taxes or levies of either State or Central government, on trade conducted in these ‘Trade Areas’, thereby reducing the cost of transaction in the entire food chain, from farm to fork. Hence, the whole narrative that ‘Trade Areas’ are anti-farmer is false.

Talking of farm infrastructure, the Modi government launched a new Agriculture Infrastructure Fund worth Rs/ 1 lakh crore, meant for setting up storage and processing facilities, which will help farmers get higher prices for their crops. The government launched the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana – a flagship scheme for focused development of the fisheries sector in the country, with an estimated investment of Rs. 20,050 crore during a period of the next five years. The Modi government also launched a Rs. 15,000 crore Animal Husbandry Infrastructure Development Fund with an interest subsidy scheme to promote investment by private players and MSMEs in dairy, meat processing, and animal feed plants, a move which is expected to create 35 lakh jobs. So the government has been working at strengthening farm infrastructure. This, along with the new Farm Laws (in abeyance temporarily), will boost the productivity of the agrarian sector to areas beyond just growing traditional crops like paddy or wheat.

The Farm Laws also allow for contract farming, whereby farmers can enter into contracts, at a predetermined price, even before the crop has been harvested, with private companies, aggregators, food processors, and exporters. This is an unprecedented reform, as it allows farmers to lock in a good price for their harvest and insulates them from any post-harvest, product-related, or price volatility. The formation of 10,000 Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) is on track. These FPOs are largely clusters or groups of farmers who are brought together so that credit and other assistance can be extended to them. There are already about 5000 FPOs in India, of which only a handful are private. More than 3900 FPOs are affiliated to NABARD or small farmers’ agri-business consortium (SFAC). Hence allegations of corporatisation and blanket privatisation of Indian agriculture are baseless.

Huge growth has been seen in the export of cereals with the export of non-basmati rice growing by 136.04% to $4794.54 million, wheat by 774.17% to $549.16 million, and other cereals (millets, maize, and other coarse gains) by 238.28% to $694.14 million in FY21. India’s agriculture exports (including marine and plantation products) have beaten the pandemic, registering a growth of 17.34% to $41.25 billion in 2020-21. In Rupee terms, the increase in agri exports is 22.62%, with exports during 2020-21 amounting to Rs 3.05 lakh crore as compared to Rs 2.49 lakh crore during 2019-20.

India’s agricultural and allied imports during 2019-20 were USD 20.64 billion and the corresponding figures for 2020-21 are $20.67 billion. Despite Covid, the balance of trade in agriculture has improved by 42.16% from $14.51 billion to $20.58 billion.

For agriculture products (excluding marine and plantation products), the growth is 28.36% with exports of $29.81 billion in 2020-21 as compared to $23.23 billion in 2019-20. India has been able to take advantage of the increased demand for staples during the Covid period. Huge growth has been seen in the export of cereals with the export of non-basmati rice growing by 136.04% to $4794.54 million; wheat by 774.17% to $549.16 million; and other cereals (millets, maize, and other coarse gains) by 238.28% to usd 694.14 million.

The organic exports during 2020-21 were $1,040 million as against $689 million in 2019-20, registering a growth of 50.94%. Organic exports include oil cake/meals, oilseeds, cereals and millets, spices and condiments, tea, medicinal plant products, dry fruits, sugar, pulses, coffee, etc. Exports have also taken place from several clusters for the first time. For instance, the export of fresh vegetables and mangoes from Varanasi and black rice from Chandauli has taken place for the first time, directly benefiting farmers of the area. Exports have also taken place from other clusters viz. oranges from Nagpur, bananas from Theni and Ananthpur, mangoes from Lucknow, etc. Despite the pandemic, export of fresh horticulture produce took place by multimodal mode, and consignments were shipped by air and sea to Dubai, London, and other destinations from these areas. Hand holding by the Modi government, to build market linkages, post-harvest value chains, and an institutional structure such as FPOs, enabled North East farmers to send their value-added products beyond the Indian borders. Cereal exports have done well during 2020-21. The country has been able to export to several countries for the first time. For example, rice has been exported to countries like Timor-Leste, Puerto Rico, Brazil, for the first time. Similarly, wheat has been exported to countries like Yemen, Indonesia, Bhutan, and other cereals have been exported to Sudan, Poland, Bolivia.

Sugarcane-growing farmers too have benefitted in a big way, via an export subsidy of Rs. 3500 crore that was announced last year. The FRP of sugarcane at Rs 285 is 175% if the cost of production. The decision to increase ethanol blending to 20% by 2025 and increase procurement and capacity build-up of ethanol from 38 crore litres in 2014 to 195 crore litres, are big moves. In-principle approval was given last year to 185 sugar mills and standalone distilleries to avail Rs. 12,500 crore of loans for capacity addition of about 468 crore litres of ethanol per annum, as part of Modi government’s efforts to achieve 20% blending with petrol. In the last two years alone, 70 ethanol projects were sanctioned loans of Rs 3600 crore. Under the ethanol interest subvention scheme for molasses-based distilleries, the government in September 2020 also opened a window for 30 days to invite more applications from sugar mills and distilleries. In the normal sugar season, about 320 lakh tonnes of sugar is produced against domestic consumption of 260 lakh tonnes.

This 60 lakh tonnes of surplus sugar which remains unsold, blocks funds of sugar mills to the tune of about Rs 19,000 crore every year, thereby affecting liquidity positions of sugar mills resulting in accumulation of cane price arrears of farmers, the ministry said.

To deal with surplus sugar stocks, the government is providing financial assistance to mills for the export of sweeteners.

However, India being a developing country can export sugar by extending financial assistance for marketing and transport only up to 2023 as per WTO arrangements. For long-term solution to deal with surplus sugar, the government has therefore been encouraging diversion of excess sugarcane and sugar to ethanol for supplying to Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs) for blending with petrol. The move would not only reduce import dependency on crude oil but will also enhance the income of sugarcane farmers.

Financial assistance is being extended by way of interest subvention for 5 years at a 6% rate of interest against the loans availed by sugar mills and distilleries from banks, for setting up their projects. The existing installed capacity of molasses-based distilleries has reached a massive, 426 crore litres. In 2020-21, the target has been to supply 325 crore litres of ethanol to OMCs for achieving 8.5% blending. In the next few years, with 20% ethanol blending with petrol, the Modi government will be able to reduce the import of crude oil, a step towards being Aatmanirbhar in the petroleum sector and this will also help in increasing the income of farmers and creating additional employment in distilleries.

To cut to the chase, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, famously said, “Mind is never a problem; Mindset is”. Well, it is time for India’s hapless opposition and pressure groups to wake up, smell the coffee and change their mindset, because the agri-reforms by the Modi government are pro farmers and the Farm Bills are indeed India’s “Glasnost” moment, as these reforms will usher in greater transparency, in India’s farm economy. For the Modi government, ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’, is not a mere slogan. The journey of the “Bharatiya Kisan” from being the “Annadata”, to also becoming the ‘Urjaadata’, is at the core of Modinomics.

The writer is an economist, national spokesperson of the BJP, and the bestselling author of ‘Truth & Dare: The Modi Dynamic’. Views expressed are her personal.

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HAS SECOND COVID-19 WAVE OPENED THE DOORS FOR OPPOSITION?

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s expertise at using strategic electoral cards to win elections has received a setback in the recently-held West Bengal Assembly elections. Ironically, while the second wave of the pandemic may be held accountable for diminishing the appeal of what was once projected as a Modi-wave, the West Bengal results convey a different message.

PM Modi needs to be on guard against strong state leaders. Voters have conveyed this by choosing to support Mamata Banerjee’s party in these polls. Clearly, regional parties with a firm base in their respective states and headed by popular leaders cannot be easily defeated and cornered by however strong national parties and their respective leaders are.

Of course, the coming year—with seven states heading for Assembly elections—may spell a different political scenario. Uttar Pradesh (UP), Punjab, and Gujarat are three of these states. While it is as yet too early to consider the prospects of BJP in UP and Gujarat, the return of Congress to power in Punjab cannot be ruled out.

In UP, a lot is dependent on how BJP’s rival parties play their cards. It may be recalled, during 2017 Assembly polls in UP, in a notable number of seats, total votes won by Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) exceeded those secured by BJP by more than 20,000 votes. While BJP won 312 seats, BSP and SP managed to get only 19 and 47 respectively. Yet, it cannot be missed, BSP won around 22% votes, SP- 21%, while BJP secured 39% votes. This hard reality apparently prompted SP and BSP to align during the 2019 parliamentary elections. While BJP retained its lead in 2019, it won 62 seats, nine lesser than it had secured in 2014; BSP won 10, SP five, and the Congress only one seat. Perhaps, had its two rivals not remained divided in the 2014 parliamentary elections and 2017 Assembly polls, BJP’s fate may have been decided by a lesser number of seats.

Undeniably, the impact of the Modi wave cannot be ignored in deciding the BJP’s luck; the Modi wave doesn’t seem to be at the peak currently. This has suffered substantially because of Covid-19. It has certainly limited the electoral appeal of master cards exercised by PM Modi while campaigning. This also includes his ‘Ayodhya card’. Success on this front helped him dominate headlines for some time. The same may be said about his government’s decision regarding Jammu & Kashmir’s status, Triple Talaq, and also the more controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Yet, the second wave of the Covid-19 may have left a majority of Indians too tensed to be distracted by these issues

But, PM Modi and his team are least likely to give up on their master card. This is partly suggested by the repeat telecast of the once highly popular serial Ramayana. Indians are as religious as they were when this serial was first telecast during the late eighties on government channel Doordarshan. Ninety percent of the Indian population, which includes non-Hindus also, sat glued to their TV screens to watch this serial. There were also reports of some devout persons viewing the serial as a religious exercise. Some groups would indulge in violence, if due to some reason, there was a powe-cut, disrupting the serial’s telecast.

That was in the eighties, more than three decades ago, when the communication boom had not hit India. Compared to several hundred channels now, there was only one channel in the eighties, and that too for select hours. Now, viewers have the option to switch on channels round the clock. Besides, several religious programmes, including serials, are available now but the question of each and/or all being given the ‘religious’ importance that Ramayana-serial was in the late eighties is as good as non-existent.

In addition, the mobile era had not yet entered the scene then. Nor had the computer followed by the Internet. So people had no access to various means of communication that they now have. From one angle, Narendra Modi has the advantage of using multiple means of communication to spread ‘news’ about his accomplishments. The same may be used to increase negative campaigns against his rivals. Unfortunately, for him, the Covid phase has substantially derailed the expected positive impact of these electoral strategies.

During his UP campaign, BJP leaders may well be expected to talk of BJP winning all the 403 assembly seats. But as suggested, a lot may be decided by rival parties’ nature of aligning and campaigning. It would be sensible of Congress to maintain a low profile in UP in the way it seems to have done in West Bengal. This once-dominant party needs to focus more on retaining its base in Punjab, as it has a long way to go in UP. Congress won only seven seats in 2017 and 6.25% votes. There is a view that in Bihar assembly polls, the political results may have been different had Congress not insisted on contesting from 70 seats. It won 19 seats. At present, Congress needs to give more importance to respecting the strength of BJP’s rivals and aligning with them accordingly, rather than displaying over-confidence about its reach

Covid’s phase 2 has caught the BJP off-guard and there may be fewer chances of much-tried strategic electoral cards bearing the same relevance for voters. Prime Minister Modi’s recent national address is an indicator of him acting so as not to let his mastery of over communication strategies go off-track and get derailed by the effects of the pandemic.

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THE ETERNAL LEGACY OF INDRA DEVI

In the late 1930s, Eugenie Peterson, aka Indra Devi, launched her yoga school in Shanghai and became the first person in modern history to bring the ancient Indian practice to China. Her compassionate efforts made yoga accessible to everyone. Today in many nations, Indra Devi remains a name synonymous with contemporary yoga.

Bhuvan Lall

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On a splendid morning in March 1948, Marilyn Monroe stepped into the studio at Columbia Pictures where a photographer awaited her arrival. Just a year earlier she had made her Hollywood debut with The Shocking Miss Pilgrim. Her screen-time was so short that if one blinked one would miss her part. Five more insignificant roles later, Columbia Studio boss Harry Cohn spotted potential in the youngster and decided to offer her a six-month contract. At the studio, Oscar-winning still photographer Edward Cronenweth, renowned for publicity shots of Hollywood’s biggest stars adjusted his lenses. As he looked through the viewfinder, he saw a woman more beautiful than most stars with cobalt blue eyes and golden blonde hair. That day, he didn’t realize that the black and white photographs he shot for Columbia would be prized by private collectors and museums for decades. For Marilyn Monroe effortlessly posed for him in a sequence of body postures and twisted like a pretzel. It was Yoga– an import from India that was gently conquering Hollywood.

In another part of Los Angeles, at 8806 Sunset Boulevard, in a room filled with Americans, an amazing woman stood on her head. Her acquired name was Indra Devi and she demonstrated ‘shirshasana’ or headstand. Then the woman, responsible for figuratively turning Hollywood upside down in a picture-perfect move, stood back on her feet. Diminutive in stature but not in grace she explained to her enthusiastic students, some of whom were celebrities, “Yoga is an art and science of living. Yoga in Sanskrit means union, in all its significances and dimensions. Through a certain amount of physical and mental disciplines, we can learn how to stay healthy, alert, receptive and to improve our perception of the external world to feel internally harmonized, with a better life condition and spiritual balance.” Indra Devi fashioned Yoga as India’s most prominent export to the world before information technology.

Indra Devi’s fascinating life story commenced on 12 May 1899 in Riga, Latvia. She began her life as Eugenie Peterson. She was the daughter of Vasili Pavlovich Peterson, a Swedish Banker, and Sasha Zitovich, a Russian aristocrat. Her parents divorced when she was one and in her youth, she enrolled in a drama school in Moscow. Then the ten days of October 1917 shook the world and wrecked Eugenie’s life. The Communist takeover forced Eugenie and her mother to flee Latvia overnight. Along with thousands of refugees, her family too was deprived of their wealth. To make ends meet, she employed her formal drama training and became a stage artist in Berlin’s theatres. After the unforeseen devastation of the Russian Revolution and the First World War, European nobility partly inspired by George Gurdjieff, the Greek-Armenian mystic, seriously turned towards eastern philosophies. In her early years, Eugenie stumbled upon 14 Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism, by American author William Walter Atkinson. From that moment onwards, her heart was set on discovering India. In 1926, Eugenie heard the charismatic Indian sage, Jiddu Krishnamurthy singing sacred Sanskrit hymns at Ommen, Holland. There was no turning back. She sold all her jewels, bid farewell to a fiancé, and on 17 November 1927, boarded a ship in Italy destined for India.

In India, Eugenie traveled across the country as a backpacker. Deeply immersed in Indian culture, she learned to wrap a sari, eat without tableware, relish vegetarian cuisine and speak Hindi. India was in the middle of the tumultuous freedom movement, and she paid homage to the leading lights of the period including Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and corresponded with Jawaharlal Nehru. Two years later on her second trip to India, she took lessons in classical dance. She performed in Bombay (Mumbai) the home of the nascent Indian film industry. In those early years besides finances, the filmdom was severely short of female actors. A major filmmaker Bhagwati Prasad Mishra witnessed the dance performance of Eugenie. He instantly cast the blue-eyed Russian girl as the heroine in his silent film, Sher-e-Arab (The Arabian Knight). Eugenie accepted the role since she had a history in theatre and needed money. Mishra gave her a screen name— Indra Devi (heavenly goddess). Later, she found herself on a film set in a gypsy skirt with a long, dark, braided wig and turban. Across from her was the hero of the film, the handsome rising star Prithviraj Kapoor. The success of Mishra’s Sher-e-Arab established her as the new star of the Indian cinema. Six films later, Eugenie’s tryst with stardom ended with the introduction of sound. Nonetheless, the brief star status automatically provided her with a brand name for the rest of her life.

Subsequently, Eugenie was courted by Jan Strakati, the middle-aged Commercial Attaché at the Czechoslovak Consulate in Bombay and soon they were husband and wife. In 1937 Eugenie bored of the predictable routines of a diplomat’s spouse experienced panic attacks that demanded medical attention. Later the couple was guests of Maharaja Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV, the philosopher-king of Mysore where the legendary yoga guru Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was the yogi-in-residence. Krishnamacharya was a remarkable man, who had vast knowledge of several disciplines and had studied Yoga from a master in Tibet. In 1935 with a ram-rod straight posture he openly demonstrated his ability to stop his heartbeat to a baffled French cardiologist Thérèse Brosse who certified it. At fifty, he had singlehandedly resurrected the millennia-old practice of Yoga. His most famous disciples were two teenagers, B.K.S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, who later established the Iyengar and Ashtanga schools. Eugenie keen to recover from her illness expressed a desire to learn Yoga from Krishnamacharya. But the Grand Master stood on the threshold of the Mysore yogashala (school) at the Jaganmohan Palace, and didn’t let her step in as he had never taught a female student or a westerner. The Maharaja of Mysore in an attempt to unify the East and the West intervened and Krishnamacharya ultimately relented. As the first foreigner and a woman to be admitted to the yogashala, Eugenie observed its strict discipline and severe lifestyle protocol. Krishnamacharya customarily denied his students meals if their performance was deemed inadequate. Eugenie later told the Yoga Journal, “He was very strict with me, thinking that I would not keep up with the regime that he imposed on me”. But even though she was in her late thirties she was equal to every challenge Krishnamacharya set for her. She gave up coffee and turned into a strict vegetarian. Krishnamacharya taught her about the importance of breathing properly, relaxation, diet, and the significance of fasting. The Yoga training was designed to strengthen her body with a series of poses, shoulder stands, headstands, breathing exercises in the Lotus pose, and meditative practice for quietening the mind. The year-long punishing schedule helped her regain her health and the panic attacks vanished. After Strakati was posted to Shanghai, Krishnamacharya directed Eugenie to take Yoga to the world and trained her to be a yoga teacher. With an appetite for adventure, she sailed for Shanghai and to her surprise remained calm right through the stormy journey. She now accepted her life’s mission to be the global ambassador of Yoga.

In the late 1930s, Eugenie in a sari boldly launched her Yoga school in Shanghai and became the first person in modern history to bring the ancient Indian practice to China. Her style of teaching Yoga was characterized by compassion that made it accessible to everyone. Americans and Russians stationed in Shanghai along with the curious Chinese population were her initial trainees. Gradually her Yoga classes in the Chinese language multiplied, and she relocated from modest apartments to the spacious bungalow of Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Then the World War Two interrupted her life and the Japanese army ordered her to teach the staff of the American Consulate who were incarcerated. After enduring the desolation of the war, the emotionally exhausted Strakati returned to Czechoslovakia. Eugenie traveled to India again. She lived in the Himalayas and published her first book on Yoga. Subsequently, Eugenie sought a new direction in her life. At almost fifty she recognized that teaching Yoga was her only pursuit. Globally it was viewed as a mystical journey, however, she perceived it as India’s invaluable gift to humanity. Deeply influenced by Swami Vivekananda’s sensational Chicago address at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893, Eugenie intuitively boarded the troop carrier USS General W. H. Gordon in Shanghai and crossed the Pacific. She was poised to be one of the twentieth century’s most influential women in the world of Yoga.

Americans were drawn towards Indian spiritual traditions for decades. After Vivekananda’s awe-inspiring lecture tours, Vedanta Centres sprung up across America with one located in Hollywood. In the 1920s Swami Yogananda Paramahansa arrived in California and declared, “I have always considered Los Angeles to be the Benares of America.” He created three Self Realization Fellowship Temples in the Los Angeles area with two at either end of Sunset Boulevard. Even Jiddu Krishnamurti established his home eighty miles northwest of Los Angeles in Ojai. Eugenie disembarked at San Francisco on 21 January 1947 and one year later unveiled her business on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood in Los Angeles. A modest billboard placed outside the Yoga studio stated “Indra Devi Yoga Classes”. It wasn’t easy initially. Still, the former Indian star persevered. As an accomplished practitioner, she judiciously presented Yoga on American soil as a defense against illness and aging. She also restructured the ancient discipline to appeal to American sensibilities with moderately challenging poses. The articulate teacher elegantly dressed in a light sari brought an exceptional freshness to the Yoga scene of the youth-obsessed and anxiety-driven Hollywood community. Regular saleswomen, factory workers, and famous stars with their perfectly coiffed hair flocked to her studio to embrace Yoga. She clarified in slight Russian accent that her reasonably priced classes were resolutely free of religion, and added, “Yoga has a very illuminating and practical message for our restless, insecure and spiritually forlorn world of today”. Soon her clients benefitting significantly from Yoga sat in lotus poses and did headstands at homes, offices, factory floors, on the beaches, and the film sets, to restore their energy and vitality. Over time Indra Devi became a Hollywood celebrity.

Strakati passed away in Czechoslovakia in early 1953 and Indra Devi married Dr. Siegrid Knauer who advocated preventive medicine instead of antibiotics. Four years later she received her American citizenship in her new legal name— Indra Devi. As the new-age power couple in Hollywood, Indra Devi and Dr. Knauer entertained many Californians interested in the eastern way of life at their Nichols Canyon home and Yoga Studio. These included Aldous Huxley, Greta Garbo, Igor Stravinsky and Jennifer Jones. In January 1955, she published the bestseller Forever Young Forever Healthy, and her biggest celebrity client, the film star Gloria Swanson’s endorsement asserted, “In her book, Indra Devi reveals her splendid path to wellbeing.” Indira Devi dedicated her second book Yoga for Americans (1959) to Swanson, and Yehudi Menuhin wrote the Foreword. Her books about Yoga as toolkits for work-life balance received nationwide acclaim. Marilyn Monroe who owned a copy claimed that Yoga improved her legs. Elizabeth Arden introduced Yoga elements in her fashionable saloons. Even superstar Elvis Presley sang, ‘Yoga is as yoga does.’ Till the arrival of gifted Indian yogis to American shores in the 1960s, Indra Devi was the practice’s cover girl nationwide.

Soon Indra Devi’s fame as an amazing yoga trainer reached the rest of the world. In 1960 she returned to her motherland Russia and Indian Ambassador K.P.S. Menon facilitated her meeting with the Soviet leadership at the Kremlin. Speaking fluent Russian at the reception, she assured Andrei Gromyko and Anastas Mikoyan that Yoga was not a religious practice but a method of holistic development. After her thought-provoking talk, Gromyko proposed a toast: “To Indra Devi… who opened our eyes to Yoga”. Eventually, Kremlin removed the ban on Yoga. Dr. Knauer died on 21 December 1984, and Indra Devi once again followed her inner voice and relocated to Argentina in February 1985. The rest of her years were spent zealously propagating Yoga through the ‘Fundacion Indra Devi’, in Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Egypt, Germany, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Russia, Spain, Uruguay, and the Philippines. In 1990, her appearance in a lotus pose while defining Yoga on a popular Russian TV show made her an instant celebrity and the next day she was mobbed on Moscow’s streets. Indra Devi celebrated her century on planet earth on 12 May 1999 in Buenos Aires with three thousand of her fans in attendance. By now, millions of her students worldwide affectionally called her Mataji (mother) and for Argentina, the Spanish-speaking teacher was a national treasure.

The global ambassador of Yoga lived through some significant moments of the twentieth century on four continents and acquired twelve tongues. Indra Devi passed away in Argentina on 25 April 2002, just short of 103. Right through her extraordinary life, Indra Devi leveraged her high-profile friendships to teach the world the form of Yoga she had mastered in the modest Mysore yogashala. Today in many nations, Indra Devi remains a name synonymous with contemporary Yoga.

Bhuvan Lall is the biographer of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Lala Har Dayal. He can be contacted at writerlall@ gmail.com.

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