“Let the natural warmth of your soul clear the fog in your life. It will reveal your true beauty and bring true joy.” ~Arun Sardana, Founder, karuna
Do you ever ask yourself existential questions like “What’s the purpose of my life?” or “How can I find more meaning in my life?” or simply “Why am I here?” These are the questions that led Arun Sardana to his life’s purpose—karuna, a social enterprise dedicated to helping break the vicious cycle of poverty and abuse. If you are reading this and can relate to this line of inquiry, then you are not alone. The good news is that the answer lies within us. All we have to do is to connect with it. Perhaps Arun’s story will light a spark that will lead you to your life’s purpose. Below is an insightful one-on-one interview with Arun on his karuna journey.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today, Arun. So readers can obviously learn more about karuna from the website and from our social media, but I would love for you to start by sharing with us in your own words what karuna is and what your goals are for the enterprise.
Arun: “Karuna” is a Sanskrit word that means the compassionate and selfless desire to remove suffering. Buddha, after his enlightenment, preached that karuna was one of the key ingredients in not only removing the suffering of others but also the pain and anguish we feel ourselves. In other words, the simple acts of compassion for others and the self have the power to remove suffering from this world. It is this central concept that is the heartbeat of our social enterprise. karuna is on a mission to create one of the biggest waves of compassion that this world has ever seen. We are a movement. Our ultimate goal is to make this world a happier place by breaking the vicious cycle of poverty and abuse. We plan to do this by empowering children, youth, and women who have suffered unspeakable abuse, abandonment, neglect, trafficking, and other tragedies in their lives.
That sounds like a noble goal. However, it is also an ambitious one. How do you plan to accomplish this mission?
Arun: My father used to say that people will tell you that you cannot change the world. But he also stressed that changing the world of a few is how it all starts. The domino effect does the rest. So, the answer is simpler than one would think. We believe that all people harbor unbound compassion, and once it’s unleashed, it can change the world. So, in order to do just that, we are building a social enterprise that is designed as a modern-day Robin Hood model. We are creating highly immersive and transformative journeys based on evidence-based science and ancient wisdom. We will offer these to everyone at very affordable prices through a highly customized digital platform during COVID-19 and then combine them with in-person experiences when travel can safely resume. These journeys will equip people to manage life’s challenges that create anxiety, loneliness, stress, burnout, and other forms of suffering. Ten percent of the sales and fifty percent of the net profits would then be channeled into the karuna happiness foundation, which will, in turn, issue grants to organizations that are aligned with karuna’s mission. In other words, karuna is wellbeing in 360 degrees triggered by a spark of compassion.
What drove you to start karuna?
Arun: This is a long story because it spans my entire life and perhaps several lives before it. The simple answer to your question is that karuna was born of my personal existential crisis. Allow me to explain briefly.
I was born in India in a fairy religious, very loving, but somewhat turbulent family. Money was always a challenge, and I watched my father struggle every single day to provide for his family like any loving father would want to. Unfortunately, that created family conflicts and drove my father into a deep depression and incalculable stress. Ultimately, he suffered a stroke and decided he did not want to live in his body anymore because it was “damaged.” He committed suicide in 1988 when I was 23 years old. I found him and tried to give him CPR, but I could not revive him. For reasons related to my religious beliefs, I blamed myself for his death for 28 years. During this time, my life took several turns that ultimately would lead me to karuna.
I arrived in the US six months after my father died, got married a couple of years later, became a father to two of the most beautiful and amazing women in this world, and achieved the elusive American Dream. Despite all the comforts, I felt empty and dead inside. About 10 years into my marriage, I started feeling a gaping hole in my heart and wondered why I was here. What was the meaning of my life? This quest led me through several moments of awakening and then an event happened in 2014 that completely changed the course of my life.
In order to “run away” from my life, I volunteered at an orphanage in Costa Rica in April 2014. On the third day into my one week of volunteering, I discovered that this compound was not an orphanage. It was a safe house for sexually and physically abused girls. That knowledge totally broke me. I could not understand the injustice between these innocent souls and my daughters. My heart truly ached perhaps because this realization triggered the trauma of my own childhood sexual abuse. Something had to be done, I decided that week.
So I started a three-year project with an organization called SOS Children’s Villages in Costa Rica. There were about 300 children in three different villages. Ninety-seven percent of them had been physically or sexually abused. The results of this program over the three years just blew everyone’s minds. Children and their caregivers were flourishing like never before in the 40-year history of this organization. Now the big question was what do we do with this? How do we scale it? This is where I decided I needed to study the science behind this brain—what happens to a child’s psyche during chronic abuse and whether the disastrous effects of these traumas could be reversed durably.
I enrolled in the Master’s of Clinical Psychology program at Teachers College, Columbia University, at this amazing institute called Spirituality, Mind, Body Institute (SMBI). While I was discovering and getting excited about the science of positive psychology, I had a personal transformational experience during a meditation led by an energy healer who was a visiting scholar. I met my father in this meditation. The vision is clear to me today as it was over four years ago. Six months later, in another meditation, my father’s “messengers,” dressed in the same white shirt he was wearing when he died, left me with the most profound message—that my life had to be dedicated to helping heal children who were suffering. That was it. karuna was born in that meditation.
What lessons have you learned from the development of karuna?
Arun: The biggest lesson for me has been that when I witnessed the suffering of others, these children, dissolve with simple acts of compassion, love, and care, I found that I had started to heal also. Now clearly, I have to do my own work which is ongoing—it always is.
Is it any coincidence that the name “karuna” has your name “Arun” in it?
Arun: (Laughter) That’s another strange story. Honestly, neither did I first notice this fact nor did any of my daughters, my friends, my colleagues—hardly anyone. I came face to face with this reality only after the tattoo had been inscribed on my left arm. I jokingly told Jesse, the tattoo artist, that I was perhaps the most narcissistic person on earth since I literally and permanently had my name inscribed on my arm.
What pieces of guidance or wisdom have been most useful or important to you on your journey that you would like to share with others?
Arun: Based on my very limited personal journey, I believe there are three important lessons that I have learned. First, I believe that when you ask the universe to help you, when you ask for guidance, but not for specific things or a specific way in which you want something to work out, the Universe always delivers. So, opening up to possibilities and maintaining faith and humility during the process is a powerful way to discover your life’s purpose. Second, I believe that giving is far more powerful in creating inner peace and true joy than receiving. What is even more amazing is that the gift of compassion is all one needs to give. What comes back as inner peace is beyond anything I have ever experienced. And finally, I believe that we must practice surrender actively. What I mean by that is that we human beings are too short-sighted and get easily upset when our “dreams” don’t become a reality. Little do we realize that all transformations generally are born from adverse situations. So, failed dreams generally carry the seeds of powerful transformations that can lead us to true happiness.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Arun: Nature and travel are my true loves. I love hiking in the mountains, meditating by the ocean as the sun is rising or setting, and forest bathing, and recently, I have taken up road bicycling, and I love it. I also enjoy soulful music, cooking (for others), and tasting the earth through a good wine. I am a social butterfly, so I love to be around people. Most of all, I enjoy a good, hearty belly laughter!
If others would like to connect with you, how can they do so?
Arun: That’s easy - just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.