December 18th, 2014
Bold Giving at the Intersection of Faith & Philanthropy
By nature of what I do as a fashion model, as an ex MTV VJ (video jockey), and celebrity often in the spotlight, I feel the need to be a vocal role model. I need to let it be known that I am a bold giver so that I can encourage and inspire others to do the same. I have seen the power my decisions effect on others for example, in not endorsing skin fairness creams and having young girls write saying they now are able to embrace the colour of their skin.
I had a unique childhood, spending time between Rajasthan, India and the Midwest, where I completed high school. When I was in India, people had never heard of Nebraska. When I told my friends in Nebraska I was from India, they would ask me if I rode elephants. I told them I rode on a magic carpet! I often felt too western for Indian sensibilities and sometimes too Indian for western ways, but my father was very strict about holding onto our culture and tradition. For that I am grateful. I was born into an old aristocratic family with royal ties. There is a mantle of self-respect, grace and direction that comes from this heritage; it is not merely a privilege but a responsibility to work towards making the world a better place.
My father is very charismatic, often raising funds for children in need of surgery or education in the villages of India, and helping build Hindu temples in the U.S. & India. My mother would go to the holiest places near the Himalaya Mountains and buy 100 quality blankets and anonymously place them on the beggars sleeping on the streets. This is indelibly engraved in my heart. Although I respect anonymous giving, which is more the way of Hindu people, I feel I have a responsibility to speak up. I realize the power of media and entertainment and if harnessed correctly, I believe it can be an excellent way to affect change and influence society.
Along with the powerful example of my parents, another defining moment in my life was the loss of my best friend and subsequent discovery of Buddhism. After my best friend and four others were killed in a car accident in New Delhi, I was inspired by the grace and composure of my best friends’ mother, which she explained came from 26 years of Nichiren Buddhist practice, that I began to explore it. Embracing Nichiren Buddhism was one of the greatest things I’ve ever done. It’s much less of a religion than a life affirming philosophy with an ethos of empowerment. In Buddhism it’s not about just signing a check, it’s understanding that money has it’s own spiritual value. It’s knowing that we do not live in an insulated world, that each of us is a thread in a blanket of the fabric of life and if there is a hole in that fabric it affects everyone. It’s the knowledge that happiness is inextricably linked with others and that we must leave each person or place we encounter better than when we found it or them, working side by side. There is always more you can do and money can be used to do amazing things. Yet I am cognizant each and every day that titles, wealth, power and social standing mean nothing in the face of character, reputation and discipline. Nichiren Daishonin said, “Where there is unseen virtue, there is visible reward”.
In addition to compassion, my parents valued education, believing in its ability to liberate and empower. My whole lineage is academic. The question in my family is how can you NOT obtain a PhD!? While I did my first modeling campaign for Banana Republic in New York when I was 18, I went back and completed my university studies in India even as I started modeling there. I met the man who would become my husband, Satish Selvanathan, at a dinner party in London and we fell in love as we both pursued graduate studies at Columbia University. I was often reading my neuroscience and psychology books backstage between runway walks as I tried to juggle my academic and modeling careers. I knew Satish was the one because we were not arranged, as is often tradition, and based on a criteria of superficial similarities. We both had and continue to have a shared vision of what it means to work for ours and other people’s happiness, we are not busy looking at each other but in the same direction.
For our wedding gifts Satish and I asked people to make contributions to two charities that are dear to us rather than giving presents. Charitable giving outside the family is not common in our cultures. The two organizations we encouraged people to support were Concern Worldwide who’s mission is to help the world's poorest people to transform their lives and the Citizen Initiative Fund which does human rights and peace issue work. Satish is from Sri Lanka so we have a considerable concern for the people of his country.
On the last day of our wedding in India we were held hostage in Deogarh Mahal, Rajasthan.
For 16 hours we were held on the grounds of extortion with the threat of a gun to my head. As we negotiated, the vast cultural, socio-economic and religious differences between our captors and us caused something imperceptible to ignite within me. I realized in that moment that my mission was to channel the anger, hopelessness and sadness I felt at these differences to become a strong and educated voice for justice and human rights. Remaining silent about global issues both on the micro and macro levels was as good as committing or condoning the act itself. I completely eschewed the concept of “shame” and “honour” that prevents many people around the globe from speaking on issues that need to be spoken about thereby perpetuating problems. We are all human; mistakes are made; yet we always have compassion. Forgiveness work that I have participated in as a psychologist in Sierra Leone and Rwanda lay eloquent testimony to this.
In everything that ensued in the aftermath of this hostage situation, in the media and otherwise, I gained first-hand experience of legal, cultural, ethical and environmental factors that collide to give rise to global issues -- corruption and lawlessness, in this case. It was both a traumatic and transformational experience. Drawing on our Buddhist practice, my husband and I tried to follow the saying the you can “turn poison into medicine.”
Two amazing things came as a result of this experience. First, I was so moved by this experience, that I sat down and wrote my application in one sitting to the PhD program for the International Psychology program at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology with a specialization in trauma. I wrote straight from my heart about what happened and how it was tied to international psychology and trauma; how people, governments, society, social economic strata, religion, and caste came together in a volatile concoction. The dean called personally to offer my acceptance. My dissertation captured the top 1% Socio Economic Strata of South Asians and their interaction with trauma, philanthropy and ethos of living and giving.
The second thing that happened is that Satish and I founded the Bais-Selvanathan Foundation, which is aimed at corrective and supportive action for a host of anti-corruption activities and pro-humanity endeavors. We vowed to give voice to those that can't speak for them selves. I’m very proud to say our fund was the first to offer to pay the legal and medical fees for Nirbhaya who was a victim of the New Delhi gang rape case in 2012. We also spearheaded and catalyzed Indians to move and sign a petition against corruption in the sports ministry, specifically about sending tennis players to the 2012 Olympics. As a result of our efforts and pressure, the two qualified players were sent. There are many facets and aspects to philanthropy. One is good governance and the other is to assuage the doubts donors have about how funds are used and transparency. To that end, our foundation especially considers issues that revolve around corruption and character. We believe there is the letter of the law and as importantly, the spirit of the law.
What’s next for me? With the doctorate finished, I’m going to hang up the Jimmy Choos and ‘officially’ retire from entertainment. Any modeling or acting work I do after that will be donated to the Bais-Selvanathan Foundation. I plan to certify in running philanthropies from NYU, I would like to work with an organization such as Human Rights Watch to learn more about the issues I care so deeply about and go on to have my own psychology-based talk show coupled with on the ground, hands on work in post war countries.
I have always been challenged trying to balance my background, my education, and my career – to find my place in the world. I’ve finally realized that my goal is just to be the best version of myself…the world will come find me.
More on Anjhula Mya Bais:
Anjhula Mya Singh Bais is the founder of L'Officiel India magazine. L’Officiel India is a fashionable dialogue with holistic living, as it maps the future possibilities of ever evolving high-octane glamour, and remains a girl’s best friend with its spontaneity and creative prowess, becoming a tour de force in the world of sparkle. She recently interviewed Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in The "Face" of Facebook.