EVENT In its 15th year, the Chinmaya Madurai’s Gita chanting competition has created a record with 10,000-plus registrations in and around the city, writes SOMA BASU

For the past five years I have been attending the Chinmaya Mission’s Gita chanting

competition for school students in Madurai. I can’t recite the shlokas but what attracts me is the mass chanting each year inside the auditorium of Setupati High School just before the district-level contest is thrown open.

The 500-plus children from five to 14 years sing with a devotion that comes to them naturally. What is both pleasing and surprising is the vocal technique they uniformly apply even after learning and practising separately and coming from different schools and backgrounds.

Every word is intoned. The recurring wave of pitch and rhythm is a musical landscape of sound. Parents and teachers also join in and after a point the aspect of competition fades. The fact that 85 per cent of the children are eliminated at the preliminary level and only 25 per cent of the finalists make it to the super-finals loses significance. What matters is that so many children show their willingness to learn and participate, and their intense reverence. They put their hearts into the recitation. The effort put in by each and every child, irrespective of religion, is evident.

This year’s round opens this Sunday on a high note. More than 10,000 students enrolled at the preliminary school round. The Acharya of Chinmaya Mission Madurai, Swami Sivayogananda, is obviously elated. He likens the reach to newspaper circulation and readership. “In every house or classroom where a child is learning, another individual is teaching and many more are listening. And,” he asserts, “all are subconsciously learning.”

After he started the Gita chanting competition in Madurai in 1998, for the first three years he single-handedly ran the show, visiting schools, selecting children and judging the finalists. In the first year, he approached 36 schools in and around the city, personally explaining to the institution heads how the “song of God” is germane to people of all temperaments and ages. It evoked 1500 responses.

The event gradually became one of the most popular annual events of Chimnaya Mission. More schools participated from within the city and neighbouring Rajapalayam, Melur, and Sivaganga districts. In subsequent years, the number of students participating from each school also increased. Such was the response this year that Swamiji was forced to restrict the number of schools to 22 as the total registrations crossed a whopping 10,000.

“We have penetrated into grassroots. We give opportunity to new schools and some old ones too who have a good performance record,” he says. He hopes to reach 100,000 students in the coming years. “Though I am continuing with the competition format to keep the interest alive,” says Swamiji, “the dearth of Sanskrit teachers in the city makes the task difficult.”

From 2001 he has been coaching housewives interested in learning the shlokas and has built a team of 56 volunteers who now judge the contest. But their number is woefully inadequate for the number of contestants. Yet the exercise has been conducted without interruption for 14 years. The cost of the event is taken care of by regular sponsors who chip in for the various prizes and certificates.

A highlight of the finals is the feast for the entire gathering -- students who qualify for the district round, their parents and teachers. Everybody is fed before the results are announced. Says Swami Sivayogananda, “We can as well announce the results and feed only the winners and their families. But I feel so many students put in their sincere efforts. Learning to chant the Gita is more important than to win prizes. The day has its own beauty.”

Sanskrit is a divine language. It produces beneficial sound waves that can calm the mind and also increase memory power, says Swamiji. Many participants of previous years have told him how by chanting the Gita, their thinking has become refined. That is the best compliment he gets. He also points out that winners over the years have been from different communities and religions and that by learning to chant and understand the Gita, every individual can make a difference to his or her life.

This year he received a surprise letter from the Head Master of Setupati School, who wrote that, because of the mass chanting by pure and innocent minds, he feels there is a good vibration within his school compound and believes that it is helping improve results.

“I am answerable to my conscience,” says Swamiji, “and am happy people are genuinely taking interest and feel the benefit of chanting. Our children should not lose the opportunity to learn the dynamic text.”

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to soma.basu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)