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Garbhvigyan sanskar: The womb whisperers

Karishma Narwani (standing) overseeing the ‘havan’ being performed for Asmita Gediya and her husband.  (Priyanka Parashar/Mint)Premium
Karishma Narwani (standing) overseeing the ‘havan’ being performed for Asmita Gediya and her husband. (Priyanka Parashar/Mint)

  • Gujarat’s Garbhvigyan Anusandhan Kendra advocates a programme that bases itself on Ayurveda, and guarantees couples the ‘perfect progeny’
  • Perhaps what seems to be the kendra’s most striking claim, however, is its assurance that it can “upgrade” and “repair” the hereditary dysfunctional genes

Asmita Gediya sits cross-legged on the ground. Fire crackles in a sacred urn before her as a priestess in a pale-yellow sari reads out Vedic mantras. The air is dry and warm; the sun has climbed high up in the sky. Gediya nervously scrunches the pleats of her rose-hued sari in her lap, trying to pay attention to the mantras, and then readjusts the pallu that has slipped from her head and fallen to her shoulders.

It’s mid-April and the 29-year-old and her husband have travelled 25 km to perform a havan which will help build an imaginary “suraksha kavach" (safety armour) for her child. After trying for three years, Gediya is now two months pregnant.

The havan is taking place in a small village called Lakhabawal, on the outskirts of Jamnagar, Gujarat. Two years ago, it was adopted by the Garbhvigyan Anusandhan Kendra, an institution affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS’) health wing, Arogya Bharti, and was subsequently renamed Ved Garbh Vihar (a Vedic sanctuary for the womb). Encompassing a cluster of five small cottages and a neighbouring gaushala (cow-shed), Ved Garbh Vihar is a place where married couples are encouraged to come and stay for a few days, particularly if they wish to conceive.

A few feet away from the cottages—which are surrounded by tall trees and a family of herbal plants: tulsi, jambura, and nirgudi—is a platform under a thatched roof, where havans are performed regularly and gods invoked in order to call upon the surrounding “divine spirits" (in the form of children) to take seat in a woman’s womb, as well as to later “assist" in the nourishment of the foetus.

The Gediyas are the newest entrants to the Garbhvigyan Anusandhan Kendra, which guarantees that it can help young couples produce “super" babies. Headquartered in Jamnagar since 2004, it has 10 centres across India (seven of which are in Gujarat, including Gandhidham and Surat). The kendra’s director, Karishma Mohandas Narwani, claims that even if a couple is short, dark in complexion, and, of average intelligence, their child could be taller, fairer, and possibly a “genius", if the couple follows their programme.

Referenced heavily from Charak Samhita, the ancient Ayurveda scripture, the kendra has a strict programme under which couples must adopt a regulated diet, drink medicinal concoctions and make yoga intrinsic to their lifestyle. But the blueprint to have the “perfect" progeny also includes Sanskar Vidhi, a three-stage havan over nine months.

When I met the Gediyas, they were performing the second stage, which is a ritual performed between one-and-a-half to two months of pregnancy. The 2-hour ceremony is done to ensure the unborn baby develops “good qualities".

The first stage is performed before conception. “Called Garbhadhan Samskar, it is done to invite the most divine spirit to take place in the mother’s womb," Narwani explains, standing near the cow-shed. “It is important to have the gaushala nearby—where there are cows, naturally there will be divine spirits."

Narwani, with her sharp jaw and tightly plaited hair, has an air of self-assurance. She claims to have experience of close to 800 cases where she has helped young women produce the ‘most ideal’ offspring.

In August 1982, People magazine published an article on Joseph Susedik and his wife, living in Ohio, who had developed “The Susedik Method", where the mother could teach alphabets, numbers and social studies to the foetus by talking “right to the womb". It was a method adopted by the Susediks, whose four daughters, the magazine observed, had “150-plus IQs".

The kendra too relies on an intensive womb-tutoring programme. Perhaps what seems to be the kendra’s most striking claim, however, is its assurance that not only can they “upgrade" genes through Ayurveda, but even “repair" the hereditary dysfunctional ones.

Bishaka Rathore, who joined the programme on the advice of her mother.
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Bishaka Rathore, who joined the programme on the advice of her mother. (Priyanka Parashar/Mint)

Dream a little dream

“I want a child who is world No.1—the best of the best. This is what all parents dream of," Gediya tells me. The havan has just ended. There is a determination in Gediya’s voice. It’s almost as though she is instructing her unborn child to pay attention. “My child should be healthy, talented, sanskari (cultured). I want the child to be an all-rounder, good in all fields."

While the kendra’s motives to resurrect Ayurveda and its benefits may fit into the narrative of wanting to re-adopt India’s age-old healthcare systems, its concentrated push for couples to have “super" and “genius" babies is where the narrative swerves towards questionable territory.

Couples are charged anywhere between 20,000-70,000, depending on the case. Those who cannot afford it are encouraged to visit Prabhaben Arogya Kendra, an RSS-run NGO (also helmed by Narwani) that provides free and low-cost health services to the underprivileged.

To subscribe to a programme that promises an “all-rounder" child however, is not for the faint-hearted. It’s an arduous uphill climb that begins 90 days ahead of conception.

The Gediyas had to undergo panchakarma therapy (or internal body cleansing) and a strict gastronomic detox to improve the quality of the sperm and ovum. At the end of three months, an astrologer sits down to assess birth charts and mark out an auspicious period of five days. It’s during this time that the couple is asked to try and conceive in one of the cottages at Ved Garbh Vihar. “Depending on the planetary movements, as well as Asmita’s ovulation cycle, the couple is informed what day, time and muhurat would be ideal and when the surrounding cosmic energy is at its highest," Narwani explains.

Hitesh Jani.
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Hitesh Jani. (Priyanka Parashar/Mint)

Where planets, religion and science align

Once pregnant, everything is regimented for the woman—from what she must eat and wear, to what she can read and watch. Even the colour of her clothes, right down to the jewellery she wears, is dependent on the movement of the planets.

Mythili Sarathy, 31, who heads the human resource department at Reliance Industries Ltd, Jamnagar met Narwani in 2016 during one the kendra’s awareness-raising campaigns. Although 25 days pregnant at the time, Sarathy, who believes in the wealth that Ayurveda can offer, decided to follow Narwani’s prescription to the letter.

“Every month, one particular planet impacts your foetus," she says. We are sitting in her living room: Images of Hindu deities are tacked to the walls; toys of all shapes and sizes—an oversized bear, a purple hippo—are stacked haphazardly in a corner. In the background, devotional Carnatic music is playing on the television. Sarathy’s two-year old daughter, Yashodhara, is asleep in one of the rooms. When she wakes up, Yashodhara is surprisingly quiet and undemanding; she takes her time being introduced to the strangers in her house.

“Each planet’s rays will differ," Sarathy continues while taking Yashodhara in her lap. “For the baby to get the maximum benefit from the impact of the planet, you have to wear the metal that will absorb those radiations. So, one month I wore pearl, another month it was silver, and so on." During her pregnancy, she was asked to spend time listening to Indian classical music, paint, and watch classical dance; the qualities she wanted in her child. “Today, my daughter has an interest in all these things," Sarathy says.

Religion sits at the core of this programme. Expecting mothers are given music CDs with pre-recorded Sanskrit shlokas, suktas and mantras, verses from the Ramayan as well as the Omkara chant. They are encouraged to read the Mahabharata as well as the Bhagvada Gita.

An instruction manual, a book titled In The Womb—Divine Journey Of 9 Months is given to women who subscribe to the programme—it advises them to listen to specific devotional music according to the ritus (seasons) and the prahara (time of the day/night). This heavily didactic curriculum seems to give women moral and religious counsel.

Narwani clarifies that people of different faiths are welcome to participate. Anyone can approach them through their website and there is no particular screening process. However, since the rituals are so intrinsically and unbendingly Hindu, the programme is not religiously diverse, even though its champions claim it is. “I have made one Muslim couple do all this," she says. “They did it because they wanted to have the best progeny. We told them that this is the vidhi and for this you have to chant this mantra, so they have to follow it. There have been people (from the community) who have refused to do this as well and that’s okay."

Mythili Sarathy with her daughter.
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Mythili Sarathy with her daughter. (Priyanka Parashar/Mint)

Repairing the irreparable?

With a bachelor’s in Ayurvedic medicine and surgery (BAMS) from Gujarat Ayurved University, Jamnagar (1999), Narwani studied under Hitesh Jani, a panchakarma specialist and a professor at the institution. Somewhere between 2003-04, while consulting at the Prabhaben Arogya Kendra, both Narwani and Jani were approached by a couple from the Ahir community with an unconventional request.

They were thalassemia minors and had lost their first child, who had been born as thalassemia major. “The couple was uneducated, underprivileged and feared losing another child. They wanted our help," explains Jani.

We are seated in his clinic in Jamnagar called Ved Garbha, which functions as the corporate arm of the Garbhvigyan Anusandhan Kendra.

“Our sacred Hindu scriptures state that we can change a genetic disorder at the DNA level," continues Jani. “While we cannot repair the parents’ main genes, their future offspring’s genes—before it develops, before it surfaces—we can temporarily repair the DNA, well before conception, so that the new genes which will be made for the child will not have the disorder. This is our claim."

After careful referencing from the shastras, the couple was given a tailor-made plan. The next child the couple conceived, Jani says, was a healthy one. “It was our first case through trial and error, and we had been successful. It was quite motivating for us." Since then, Jani and Narwani have promised couples with hereditary complications that they can give birth to healthy babies.

Is it possible, though, to have a recessive gene that has been passed down through countless generations, be repaired momentarily in order to conceive a child? Ranjana Sharma, an obstetrics and gynaecology specialist and consultant at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, Delhi, who has over 40 years of experience, says it’s highly unlikely. “If you are thalassemia minor and your partner is a thalassemia minor as well, in every conception there is only a 25% chance that your child will be a thalassemia major baby," she says. “In addition, there is a 50% chance you will have a thalassemia minor baby and a 25% chance that it will be a completely normal baby." For Sharma, Jani’s claims are baseless, and therefore, the kendra should not take credit.

Medha Jhawar, who subscribed to the programme.
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Medha Jhawar, who subscribed to the programme. (Priyanka Parashar/Mint)

The Best Product For A Price?

On the day of the havan, as the afternoon sun beat down on us, Narwani invited me to see the cottages. Ved Garbh Vihar is often referred to as an eco-village, but the cottages are equipped with air conditioners. She sat down on the bed, switched on the air conditioner, and opened her laptop to show her PowerPoint presentation to me. It’s the same presentation she has projected countless times on blank school walls belonging to the RSS’ education wing Vidya Bharati (which has branches across Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh).

During her talks, Narwani often cites references from the Mahabharat as anecdotal evidence for her cause. “Abhimanyu learnt the knowledge of how to break the Chakravyuha when he was in his mother’s womb. So, if you want to give your child knowledge, it can happen when it is in the womb," she says.

She gives the example of one of her clients: Aarti Changani, who wanted to have a child who excelled in sports. The first time Changani met Narwani was in 2009. “At that time, Dr Karishma asked me, ‘What kind of child do you want?’ And I wondered why she had asked such a question," Changani recalls, admitting she was taken aback. “I had never heard that one could get exactly the kind of child one dreamt of." She was advised to immerse herself in the sports universe. From following various sporting disciplines to poring over magazines and watching athletic games, Changani did it all. “Football, cricket, kabaddi, I watched everything," she says. “I even used to step out in the evenings to watch children play kho-kho."

“Now her nine-year-old daughter, Hiya, is a skating champion," Narwani says. “She has won over 25 gold medals." Changani has herself been a national gold medallist in high jump. Could it be possible, then, that her child inherited her athletic traits? “It is possible," Changani admits, carefully mulling over the question, “but not to this extent."

In recent years, there has been a rising interest in alternative birthing practices. From birthing pools to hiring professional doulas, people are willing to try different therapies and practices in order to have the best experience. Divya Deswal is a certified doula (birthing coach) with an experience of almost 20 years. As a professional who has been working with pre and perinatal psychology (APPPAH, USA), I ask her to comment on the garbhvigyan sanskar programme advertised by the kendra. “In terms of its ethos, (modern) science is now proving that all the fundamentals of health that were put down in our scriptures are by far accurate," Deswal says over a video call. “Research around the world shows that yes, there is consciousness in the baby, what we eat affects the baby, a mother’s emotions also affect the baby," she lists. “So, all this is not a new concept at all. However, our scriptures are not the legacy of a particular group of people, nor can the group patent it. They are there for everybody."

What she finds problematic however, is the manner in which the benefits of garbhvigyan sanskar have been advertised. “It’s the marketing of it which I find to be odd," she says. “To seek good health for your child should be every parent’s objective and they are willing to work for it. But to sell this in terms of raising a child’s IQ is where I think something is seriously wrong," she says.“Here, they are pandering to the fear of people, or the desires of people, for this need of a child who has no value other than its virtues or skills," she argues.

While garbhvigyan is yet to gather momentum nationally, the fact that it exists and has couples subscribing to the programme says something. As Deswal opines, “Why is (the kendra) selling it like that? Perhaps because there is a demand for it, which is kind of a failure of society, if you ask me."

We have to then examine our society, and why we sometimes see our babies as products. What pushes our insatiable need for control, not only over our own lives, but over the very soul, marrow and brawn of children yet to come?

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