If Nature was our Teacher, would things be different?

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

Parindeys: Mrunalini and Mohammad

Alivelihood: Conservation through community participation

Region: Dhamapur, Sindhudurg District, Maharashtra

What is the quest for truth? Is there a truth? Is truth a world that opens up possibilities, mistakes, retrospection, and direction? Syamantak University of Life is one such place, space, organization, commune, where truth guides living and learning. Born out of experience, this home consciously learns and unlearns through sustainable living and open education. Mrunalini came here at the age of three with her parents, Sachin and Meenal, and has had a unique journey of learning. Unlike most kids, she did not attend formal schooling. Her parents came here with a quest to understand how they could educate their child in a holistic way, and thus Syamantak University of Life came to be. Life is the circle in which all those who live on Earth are placed in, and the problems or obstacles that one witnesses in their life, becomes their syllabus for learning. The campus is located in Dhamapur, a village nestled snugly amidst lush historical forests and an ancient lake in the Malvan taluka of Sindhudurg district which lies in the Konkan belt of Maharashtra. The house that Mrunalini lives in was constructed by her great-great grandfather in 1931 before he moved to Kolhapur and settled there. Dr. Kalbag, founder of Vigyan Ashram and Sachin’s inspiration, had advised Sachin and Meenal to have their child to be brought up in a rural setting where she would learn the practicalities of life from her immediate surroundings. So, 76 years later, they set foot into a bat-ridden house, heeding Mrunalini’s great-grandfather’s advice.

Mrunalini while filming for the documentary being made on Dhamapur lake

This is about the time when the idea ‘School Without Walls’ (what University of Life was earlier known as) began to take shape and to set it into motion, and this family of 3 needed a larger group. That was when Mohammad, Syamantak’s first student, came to be a part of this idea. He was from a child care centre in Kondura, also in the same district. After completing his 10th standard, he did not know how to go ahead, but what he did know was he did not want to follow the crowd. He met Sachin at this phase of his life, and came back with him to Dhamapur. Here, for the first time, he was exposed to the concepts of open education, and sustainable living amongst others. He learnt the art of operating computers. Back in school, a computer was something he could only look at from the back of a class register, waiting for his turn, but would instead hear the bell ring, bringing the period to an end. At Syamantak, he thought of himself as a student for the first year. After that, he became a part of the rural and natural setting they lived in. He is now the managing trustee of Syamantak.

The foundation is 14 years old, with six people as part of the commune and interns from across the country and the globe joining in every now and then. Vishwas and Shobha are the other two who make up this small tight-knit bond of Syamantak. A homely and spiritual atmosphere is an important part of their value system, and the beginning of this value is a learning journey in itself. In that journey, University of Life evolved from a more technical & skill-based approach to place more value on relation building and togetherness. Every morning and evening, they dedicate a prayer session to their guru, out of gratitude for the guidance offered at challenging times.

Together, they take up a multitude of issues. Each issue that they deal with generally has an interesting backstory. For example, they had left a dropper in a fragrance bottle when they had been making hand-made soaps. The next day, it had burnt. This incident became a new topic of study: if synthetic chemicals were so harmful that a dropper could burn overnight, what happens to our skin? Why do we need perfumed soaps anyway, isn’t the purpose more important than the smell of it? What are the natural and safe alternatives to this problem? Similarly, other topics of practice, natural construction, cow rearing, cooking, legal studies, natural products, conservation, etc. came into their lives and realm of learning. Mrunalini kept close to these subjects of study, and through these, she indirectly learnt what one learns in watertight compartments at school – Math, Science, History, Geography, etc. She is now 17, and pursuing a distance education degree in Journalism. For her, opting for this course came organically with her lived experience. “Whenever it came to any issue, I would take up the drafting or writing part. These are skills I am good at, and it is something I enjoy doing. So for me, journalism came naturally,” recalls Mrunalini. She also states that there are multiple things she enjoys doing, like understanding legal terms, natural farming and natural construction, and these are skills that she perceives as a must for living a healthy life. “If I want to live a good life, I need to know a little about everything,” she asserts. A major challenge, which later transformed into a landmark moment, occurred when Syamantak received a notice from the Department of Education enquiring why Mrunalini was not admitted to school. In response, they filed a PIL in the High Court, which resulted in the setup of the “State Open Schooling Board” in the state of Maharashtra.