By Dr TARA SINGH
Noted scholar and spiritual leader, Swami Aksharananda was recognized by the United States Congress for his extra-ordinary work in the fields of education, culture and religion.
On Saturday September 16, 2017, at an elegant function in New York City, Swamiji was granted a Certificate of Recognition by Congressman Gregory Meeks. The Swamiji was grateful for that acknowledgement but insisted that his work is about giving people, especially the youth, a better chance to succeed in life. Swamji wants the spotlight to be on the youth for they are the ones who have to face the formidable challenges ahead.
The top Caribbean student at the 2013 Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) Examination, Rafena Mustapha, who secured 15 Grade I passes described Swami Aksharananda, founder and Principal of the famous Saraswati Vidya Niketan (SVN), as a visionary and a man with a defined mission. Swamiji has successfully challenged the traditional path of education in Guyana by infusing a cultural and humanitarian component into learning with such qualities as compassion, fearlessness, truth, forgiveness and non-injury.
Rafena has been sponsored by the SVN to study for a degree in Computer Science in New York. Also in New York are Bhawani Ramdeo who is studying for a degree in Biology, and Walica Deokinanan for a degree in Chemistry. All three students plan to return to Guyana to teach at the SVN. They are part of an incredible institution whose rise to academic prominence has been meteoric. When the SVN was declared open on September 5, 2002 on World Teacher’s Day, the enrollment was 35. Today, the enrollment has increased by more than 13 fold to 470. The SVN has produced several hundreds of graduates at CSEC and CAPE.
Swamiji explained to his audience that he was not happy decades ago with the Anglicization of schools, especially government run ones, like Bishop’s and Queens, and when he complained about the imposition of Christianity to the exclusion of other religions, he was greeted with rebuke, but he was not undaunted by those caustic remarks. Instead, that ignited his passion, widened his horizon and intensified his vision as he moved forward to give life to an idea whose time had come. The SVN was conceived, refined and put into action. It would take just a few years of existence to silent his critics, who didn’t give his model of education a chance to succeed. And ever since its opening, the sunshine has never ceased to shower its radiance upon the SVN.
Bringing high school education within the reach of disadvantaged students is an act of nobility. Swamiji has gone where others dared not tread. He has dedicated his intellect, life, and passion to the cause that is dearest to his heart, that is, the educational and spiritual advancement of his people and beyond. Education as a tool of enlightenment, is also an act of benevolence. To lift children out of poverty, hopelessness, and despair and place them into an environment of hope, expectation and opportunities for self-fulfillment, can literally be considered a miracle.
The chart below shows the performance of SVN against other High Schools. The SVN is ranked number 2 in the 11 Grade I category for 2016 as well as for the 12 Grade I category in 2017. Only Queens performed better than SVN. For the top 1% of students with 8 Grade I in 2016, SVN got 24 (15.3%) out of a total of 157 countrywide. In 2017, they got 15 (9.1%) out of the 164 countrywide. The academic performance of SVN dropped in 2017. Swamiji says that they will work hard to improve performance in 2018. Queens College’s performance also dropped in 2017 but not as much as SVN. Apart from 11 schools, the results of the other 15 were not announced.
Recognizing the significance of science and technology in education growth, the SVN has embarked upon the development of a $(US) 250,000 Science Laboratory. The building is 80% completed and the remaining 20% is expected to be completed in 6 months’ time. Swamiji also pointed out, as part of the SVN’s pursuit of compassion, that they also run an orphanage where they currently have 10 children. He invited members of the audience to sponsor these children. Hs plea was immediately realized; all the children have been sponsored by generous New Yorkers.
Swamiji expressed his deep gratitude to various people, Companies, and NGOs, including Dr Somdatt Mahabir, Ramesh Deochand, the Nirvana Foundation, Frank Singh of Marine Funding (who served as Chair), Ervin Appadu, Priya, Narharry Ghaness, Tony Subraj of Zara Realty Corp, Reggie Rawana as well as all the sponsors of the orphans. The audience was entertained by Freddie Ramcharran who serenaded them with Shri Mukesh Chand nostalgic melodies. Not to be outdone, was the singing prowess of Ervin Appadu and Ramesh Deochand.
How well SVN will live up to its name depends largely on the level of public support. Funds are always a huge challenge. The SVN does not get any subventions from the government, as is the case with both private primary and private secondary schools in Trinidad & Tobago. Furthermore, to add to the school’s financial burden is the requirement to pay 14% VAT on private education. Swamiji says this is badly hurting the poor and may deprive many students of a secondary education.
The SVN, with public support and with a passion to succeed, is developing the capacity to overcome challenges. Our warmest congratulations to Swamiji, students, teachers, donors and supporters.