By Rachel Valenzuela-Ours May 19, 2016
Each year, CIIS honors an individual whose life exemplifies the selfless service modeled by its founders, Haridas and Bina Chaudhuri. In 2016, we presented the award to Acharya Shunya Pratichi Mathur.
At the age of nine, Acharya Shunya Pratichi Mathur answered a question that would shape the course of her life. "I was asked, ‘To whom do you belong?' and my response, ‘I belong to satyam [truth],' allowed me to initiate my education."
With that answer, Shunya began 14 years of rigorous instruction in the body of wisdom contained in the Vedas and Upanishads, along with the Vedic sciences of Ayurveda and Yoga. Her grandfather, Vedic master Baba Ayodhya Nath, was her teacher. "Living with him was perpetual education," Shunya says. "He would impart the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, or Oneness Consciousness, in the mornings to select students-including me. In the evenings, he would offer public discourses on universal dharma and a healthy Ayurvedic and Yogic lifestyle.
Shunya's grandfather carried on the teachings and charitable work of his father, Vedic scholar, yogi, and renowned Hindu saint Sadhu Paramatma Shanti Prakash.
When Shunya was 22, her grandfather chose her to continue his work. "Every guru chooses a successor, and I was his," she says. "I was the first female acharya [spiritual leader] in my family's ancient lineage." At 31, Shunya came to the United States and began offering Ayurvedic consultations and advice along with spiritual teachings from Vedanta and Yoga.
Central to Ayurvedic medicine is the concept that three forces, doshas, govern our health. Each dosha corresponds to elements found in nature, and each is present, to varying degrees, in all people. Ayurveda uses nutrition, lifestyle change, herbal medicine, spiritual counseling, meditation, and other modalities to soothe doshic imbalances, which can manifest in disease if left untreated.
"We must be careful to avoid promoting Ayurveda merely as a disease management model," Shunya cautions. "The rishis [sages] were not consumed with disease consciousness. They were concerned with promoting health.
"Ayurveda is perhaps our only system of wellness that corroborates the state of ideal health with experience of a transpersonal, unity consciousness. True health, thus, is moksha [spiritual liberation]."
Growing a Gurukulam
Shunya's teaching evolved into Vedika Global, the Emeryville gurukulam Shunya founded in 2008. "Gurukulam literally means ‘family of the teacher,'" Shunya explains. "Students become like an extended family." Today, Vedika offers weekly classes in Vedanta and Vedic scriptural study, a series of herbalism and cooking workshops, a two-month Ayurvedic self-care course, and advanced clinical training in Ayurvedic medicine.
"We are the first school outside of India to offer five years of Ayurvedic medical education, and perhaps the first school in the world to offer in-depth Ayurvedic culinary instruction," she continues. "The more than 200 recipes we teach to Vedika Global students previously lay forgotten or neglected in ancient Vedic and Ayurvedic texts. We realized that it was up to us to bring them back into everyday kitchens, where they are transforming lives."
The Forgotten Gem
Before British rule, gurukula were India's primary educational institution. "We were forced to disown our indigenous knowledge, including the gurukulam model of education," Shunya explains.
"I was fortunate to be born in one of the last few families who are the grass-roots custodians of Vedic knowledge," she says. "I was simply being who I am and teaching what I know to be valid, and I realized I was holding on to a gem that had been forgotten: the gurukulam model."
"I hope that the success of Vedika Global has an impact upon Indian policymakers and maybe even UNESCO, which can be approached to protect the gurukulam methodology as a unique element of India's heritage," Shunya says.
Compassion in Action
Shunya founded the World Seva Foundation to further extend the reach of Vedika Global's work. The Foundation has undertaken two projects in Ayodhya, Shunya's ancestral home: one that provides clothing, meals, health care, and counseling to elderly homeless women, and another that offers Ayurvedic and Yogic education, medical care, and counseling to orphaned tribal children.
Shunya extends her advocacy through her leadership of the California Association of Ayurvedic Medicine (CAAM). As CAAM's president since 2012, she has led statewide efforts to advance the field through legislative advocacy and increased collaboration between Ayurvedic educational institutions.
The Mature Education
"I find natural alignment with Sri Aurobindo's vision of integral education and the expression of that vision at CIIS," Shunya says. "I really believe that integral education is the mature education. It should be the default, yet it's very rare that we invite students to unveil their true potential by integrating body, mind, and soul."
"At CIIS, I see that students learn the knowledge of their particular domain and gain self-knowledge in the process," she continues. "The gurukulam model has been attempting to orchestrate a similar outcome, so this alignment is most heartening to note."
Shunya has her own academic aspirations. "One of my dreams is to create a world-class university on the Vedic sciences," she says. She draws inspiration from Nalanda, the ancient university where Buddhist and Vedic teachings flourished side by side for hundreds of years and Ayurveda was a mandatory subject. "It may be a project that manifests over several lifetimes!" she laughs.
In the shorter term, Sounds True Publishing will release Shunya's first book, Ayurveda Lifestyle Wisdom, next spring.
Rachel Valenzuela-Ours is Administrative Coordinator for the CIIS Center for Psychedelic Therapies and Research.