It’s an unlikely story: a lush, ecological paradise in the middle of a desert. Kanha Shanti Vanam, the global headquarters of the Heartfulness Institute, emerges from the barren landscape like a mirage. A few hundred sprawling acres of dense forest, rich soil and an abundance of greenery is situated, almost improbably, just forty kilometers outside the bustling and smog-filled city of Hyderabad.
In Kanha, the trees arch gracefully overhead as they hang heavy with fruit ripe for plucking; stars sweep across the night sky, undiluted by any light pollution. The breeze is gentle and scented sweetly by the gardens bursting with colorful flowers weaving amongst the rows of endangered plants. Amidst it all, there is a striking sense of peace, simplicity, and profound connection with the natural world all around you.
Kanha opened its gates in 2017 with a world-changing vision: to create a modern model of a sustainable spiritual life guided by innovative technology in conservation and ecology. It’s a global center of spirituality unlike any other, built to be a refuge not only for the soul but for nature as well, allowing people to tune into their inner and outer worlds. Looking around, it’s easy to forget that before the ashram was introduced to the world as a fertile sanctuary, it was home to nothing more than endless acres of dry and barren land. So how did a physical and spiritual oasis take root here?
The first obstacle to transforming the land was enriching and nourishing the soil’s fertility. This was achieved by implementing a combination of traditional farming techniques. This emphasis on using natural farming methods and treating the Earth gently is rooted in the ethos of Kanha. Over the past few years, it has yielded incredibly fertile soil that is a sanctuary to the crops and gardens.
By the time we arrived in the summer of 2022, Kanha was in full vibrant form. We had planned our visit primarily as a spiritual retreat, to recharge, reflect, and connect within ourselves. We did not anticipate the surprising role that nature and connecting with our surroundings would play in our spiritual growth that summer.
Mornings in Kanha often began with a walk, as we explored new parts of its beauty each day. But more than just morning strolls, each outing was an eye-opening lesson on the true nature and culture of Kanha. Each morning brought with it a new understanding of how powerful nature could be, and how monumental change could be created through peace and compassion.
We began with the hydroponic farms, where the initial water constraints of the area and an emphasis on prioritizing natural techniques led to Kanha becoming a leader in innovative farming techniques. Kanha is currently home to seven hydroponic farms that are able to grow vegetation year round, without the use of any fungicides or pesticides. This culture of agriculture was vastly different from anything we had experienced in the States. We had grown accustomed to the same fruits and vegetables being available year round, which meant depending on imported produce that had been treated by pesticides and various treatments at every stage of its life cycle. Here the attitude towards produce was slower and much more purposeful. In Kanha, the natural course of the seasons determined what would grow when, and cuisine came in and out of season in time with what was growing. When you’re here it’s almost impossible to escape the draw of the ecosystem all around you. Every part of life in Kanha is intimately connected to the nature that surrounds it, even when it comes to mealtime!
As we continued to explore, we learned that the trees lining Kanha’s pathways had been rescued from various construction and road-widening projects around the city. The Heartfulness Tree Conservation Center and the Heartyculture Nursery worked tirelessly to cultivate rare and endangered plants that were on the verge of extinction. Over six acres of land are dedicated solely to this cause, providing plenty of space for the two hundred thousand fragile saplings to take root.
Like many things at Kanha, it’s an ecological project rooted in a spiritual purpose. There is a real socio-cultural, educational, and environmental value in preserving biodiversity, but there is also a spiritual one. Every unique species of flora and fauna holds irreplaceable, intrinsic value. They each play a small part in contributing to the natural balance of the larger ecosystem and thus, in preserving biodiversity, we also help to create greater harmony and balance in our natural surroundings.
That feeling of balance emanates past the garden walls of Kanha and into the rhythm of day-to-day life. Life revolves around the values of simplicity, spirituality, and connection. Everything is conserved and used to its fullest extent, from water to food waste to energy. People are mindful that when they take a full plate, they return an empty one. Water is collected along roadside canals when it rains, used in homes, and then returned to the Earth to nourish new plants in their growth. Early morning meditations were often accompanied by a chorus of birdsong, the sounds of different endangered species of birds or the pitter patter of rain during monsoon. Understanding and experiencing the different parts of these sustainability efforts created a profound sense of harmony, connection and ultimately peace within us.
We are not the only ones to have observed this connection between sustainability and peace; in fact, it is an ongoing area of research. Hiroshima University recently conducted a study which displayed the interconnected nature of “environmentalism and Positive Peace, as well as how improvements in one area can aid improvements in the other.” As we continue to tune into the natural world around us, helping it to grow and thrive, we find profound connections to something within us as well.
Protecting our ecosystems and doing our best to preserve the natural world are increasingly important missions for all humanity as the effects of climate change become ever present. The fact remains that abundant natural resources and secure ecosystems around the world are cornerstones of stable and healthy communities. Sometimes, thinking about the overwhelming work ahead, it can feel like a losing battle. But as we envision the world we want to live in and leave behind, we look at Kanha as a symbol of spirituality and sustainability. And most importantly, a reminder of the powerful changes that can take place when a community comes together to create peace.