East & West alike, foreigners take pole positions in akharas
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In 1994, a physiotherapist and a hockey player from Sydney in Australia joined as a disciple of Swami Maheshwarananda of Rajasthan and was named Jasraj Puri. In about 20 years' time, he is now Swami Jasraj Puriji, a mahamandaleshwar (scholarly saint) of Mahanirvani akhara, under his Guru. He is among the increasing number of foreigners, who joined as disciples of their Gurus and are now coming up the hierarchy of the akharas (the religious orders of the Hindu religion).
To be a mahamandaleshwar in an akhara means being virtually among the top brass of a particular order. The mahamandaleshwars are not bound by any jurisdiction and, apart from running the affairs, keep visiting various places and deliver discourses.
For instance, Jasraj Puri handles various tasks of the ashram of his Guru, located in Pali district of Rajasthan. "There are schools, including a senior secondary school for girls. There is a 100-bed hospital and around four or five gaushalas (where cows are kept). I manage all these works," says Swami Jasraj, sitting at his Guru's camp in Sector-6, Kumbh Mela. Of course, he also travels to various parts of the world, including Eastern Europe, to deliver discourses on Yoga and religion. He also has a view on why the medium of instruction should be in Hindi, or other mother tongues within India.
There are other foreigners too, who have risen to the position of mahamandaleshwars under their Gurus over the past some time. Pilot Baba, for instance, was among the first to make a female disciple from Japan a mahamandaleshwar. She is now known as Keko Mata. Another woman from Russia, Swami Anand Lila Giri, was made mahamandaleshwar under Pilot Guru.
The Juna akhara, where foreigners are few in numbers, too has given the title of international Shri Mahant to Baba Rampuri, who had come from America and joined the order of Naga Sadhus more than 40 years ago.