THE contradictions are stark and rather baffling. The recommendation for his Indira Gandhi award for national integration describes him as "an engineer by qualification; a sanyasi dedicated to character training". His visiting card proclaims "Never Give In, Never Give Up". "If I was an Indian I would have brought some glory to my country," says Guru Freddy, the scraggly 'sanyasi' who dresses in olive green overalls and saffron. And who wields a double-barrel gun and an Olympic bow with the same ease with which he holds forth on the Gita and Vedanta.
Yet, he is a naturalised Indian who in the last decade has trained 25,000 people in rock climbing, river crossing, trekking and night navigation through jungles. And his Nataraja Gurukula Nature Awareness and Adventure Academy, 30 km south of Bangalore, is today an unavoidable pit-stop for the Indian army, paratroopers, paramilitary, police and outfits like the NCC and scouts, youth from adventure institutes, de-addiction organisations and slums. The objective: motivating the mind and building character through adventure and physical conditioning.
"Rock climbing and mountaineering are the best methods for character training as they need strong individual effort. And the collective effort involved teaches co-ordination and co-operation," explains Guru Freddy, 61, née Freddy R.M. Van Der Borght, aka 'soldier-swami' and 'English-swami' to the villagers of nearby Somanahalli. "If the mind is strong, then the body automatically becomes strong and vice versa. That's one of the reasons why gurukulas trained disciples physically before the shastras were taught. How could they teach the shastras to people who have no discipline?"
Going by the numbers who seek to undergo the strenuous training schedule devised by Freddy and his team of a dozen trainers—all sanyasis and sanyasins, Indian and foreign—there is a huge demand for Freddy's "body-mind-character" school of thought. "As a guru," says Freddy in his European-accented English, "I need to address problems leading to the decline of our society. And the three basic issues here are character of the youth, destruction of nature and national integration."
And the serene 16 acres over which the gurukula is spread in Somanahalli's Silent Valley bordering the Bannerghatta National Park and sundry hills seem custom-made for the course. Participants are lodged in hutments, with each hutment having just one participant from a particular state. Those who want to live with friends from the same state are given a ticket back home.
For the big boys from the armed forces and police, there is an obstacle course described by more than one senior army officer as one of the best in the country. Besides which, all participants have to plant saplings around the gurukula, a programme that has resulted in 30,000 new trees that have converted the once barren patch of earth into a veritable jungle.
"We have been successful in attracting the armed forces because I know the psychology of training," says Freddy. "They train people like a bunch of sheep without activating the minds of individuals." He explains that the forces most often succeed in group effort in the line of their duty but are in trouble when they need individuals to volunteer for specific tasks.
HIS methods to overcome the problem: boost individuals by complimenting their abilities. Or abuse people, make them angry and motivate them negatively. Says Freddy: "Everyone wants to be somebody. And these are the methods Krishna used to get Arjuna out of his lethargy and resignation in the Mahabharatha."
The Belgian multi-discipline engineer had come to India in 1969. Employed in a shipyard and working for insurance companies, Freddy, third of seven sons, was supposed to join the Catholic clergy according to Belgian custom. But since the "church was interested more in criticising other religions than teaching their own", Freddy left, and in 1960 was attracted by the philosophy of Narayanaguru, a Kerala-based ascetic.
Freddy drove to India in his Volkswagen minibus doing 1,000 km a day and spent years studying Indian scriptures and teaching students in Kerala's Kannur district. The flowing white-bearded Indophile was forced to move out of Kerala in 1983 as the gurukula there was acquired by the government for a naval base. Freddy and his first 18 disciples zeroed in on the barren patch of land in Somanahalli. And, while living in a cave for several years, went about developing the place into a self-sustainable economy. Which in itself is a story of natural farming, forestry, low-cost housing, mechanical workshops, gobar gas plants, a dispensary, library, and a mini-reservoir.
A self-taught inventor with a full-fledged workshop on the campus, Freddy has built a metal bullockcart with brakes, a grain feeding machine, a water pump that works on wind-energy and generates 6,000 watts of electricity, and also a jeep built around a Mahindra engine. And, with his penchant for adventure, Freddy and his disciples took mountaineering and rock climbing courses from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute before starting the youth camps.
The rest, it seems, is the story of an effort to live happily ever after. Or as Freddy says: "I don't calculate or see anything I've done as an achievement. The only goal I have is to be happy. No one wants to be unhappy. And, of course, I am happy, otherwise I'd not be sitting here."