By Swami Divyananda
This article was originally published in the January, 2008 edition of Prabuddha Bharata.
The service activities of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, inspired by the motto given by Swami Vivekananda—atmano mokshartham jagaddhitaya cha—have been steadily expanding, for the good of many, for the happiness of many. Besides the sannyasins and brahmacharins of the Order, a large number of devotees and admirers have dedicated themselves to this service, inspired by the ideology of “service to humans as worship of God”. Their stories of dedicated service are often inspiring. Prabuddha Bharata readers are familiar with Sri Swapan Adhikari, a sixty-two-year-old rickshaw puller who finds joy in supplying study materials to nearly two hundred poor school children every year from the savings of his hard labor (See Prabuddha Bharata, January 2006, 46).
During the local dengue epidemic in 2005–06, Sri Adhikari got a cassette made about the disease by two doctors, hired a loudspeaker set, and played the cassette as he drove his rickshaw through Balurghat to increase awareness about the disease and its preventive measures. He also organizes medical camps with more than half a dozen physicians and specialist doctors and arranges for free medicines for several hundred students and villagers. Once Swami Vivekananda told Swami Turiyananda, “Haribhai, I am still unable to understand anything of your so-called religion. But my heart has expanded very much, and I have learnt to feel.” Swamiji has also said, “To be good and to do good—that is the whole of religion.” Sri Swapan Adhikari exemplifies this idea of religiosity. He prays, “Bless me so that I may serve the poor till the end of my life.”
Many doctors are associated with the service activities of the Ramakrishna Mission. Dr Kamal Dawn, a general surgeon, and his colleagues have been actively involved in conducting medical camps in remote villages of Burdwan, Medinipur, and North Sunderbans in West Bengal. Dr Dawn would devote his Sundays and holidays for this and also arrange free surgeries at the district hospital. Hundreds of patients—many requiring very difficult surgeries—benefited from this. Equally important as the surgeries were the prayers that accompanied them.
Once, a patient from a tribal area was operated upon for enlargement of the prostate gland, but developed serious post-operative complications, requiring multiple blood transfusions. Dr Dawn had a renowned urosurgeon come and review the patient. He then said to me, “Maharaj, I am going to Mother’s house for a special prayer; you also pray, please.” His efforts and prayers did not go in vain. Such service is capable of eliciting profound responses from the people. This I have had many occasions to experience personally. Let me cite an instance. Once we got delayed in finishing our work at Sardarpara on the banks of the river Raimangal in the Sunderbans and could not return to Kolkata. So, three of us had to spend the night at the house of Sri Sentu Mandal. After having our supper in the light of a kerosene lamp, we retired to a room that had been made free for us to sleep in.
But the heat was oppressive, and after some time we quietly moved out to the courtyard with our mats to sleep in the open. I woke up early in the morning, when it was still dark, as we had to catch the first launch. To my surprise I found the whole family sleeping in the courtyard, surrounding us in a circle. I asked Sentu’s father the reason for this intriguing formation. His reply left me dumbstruck: “This place is notorious for tigers and snakes. You were obviously forced to move to the courtyard by the terrible heat, and fell asleep there. We did not want to disturb you. So, we thought if we encircled the three of you then a tiger or a snake could not reach you without our knowing!”
The dedication of many of the teachers serving at Ramakrishna Mission institutions has been a source of great inspiration to students. Professor P C Sen, who served as an honorary lecturer in physics at the Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandira, Belur, would teach students without any remuneration. He even refused the honorarium that the college offered him. Even at the age of eighty he would spend considerable time in the library. “I would be backdated if I did not study regularly,” he would say. This study enabled him to teach classes on virtually any branch of physics. He looked upon the students as gods and was always keen to help them solve problems.
Professor Jyotirmoy Chatterjee was another Vidyamandira teacher who used to take classes in the same spirit as a pujari would worship in a temple. “If you attend my classes attentively,” he would tell his students, “you need not consult books.” And he was true to his word; he made sure he presented all the important textual material in the classes, with detailed notes and drawings. And his handwriting on the blackboard would be as beautiful as his thoughts were systematic. He never had a harsh word for anybody. But his personal sacrifice, remarkable teaching skills, and love for the students made everybody restful and attentive in class. He appeared like a rishi.
Unfortunately, his young son, who was pursuing doctoral research in physics, passed away. The Vidyamandira vehicle which was to bring Prof. Chatterjee to college reached his home just a few minutes after he got the news of his son’s demise. Keeping his calm, he came to college and conducted his classes as usual. Neither the students nor his fellow teachers could notice anything unusual in his appearance or behavior. Only when Swami Tejasanandaji, the Vidyamandira principal, enquired about his family while he was signing the attendance register did he give out the news of his personal tragedy. How could he come to take classes on that day, the swami asked in astonishment. “They (the students) are my living sons, and examinations are knocking at the door,” Prof. Chatterjee replied.
Sri Bimal Tarafdar, a farmer from Nimtala village, North 24 Paraganas, provides another example of devotion directed into service. Once he heard two monks refer to Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi’s saying: ‘He who has wealth should distribute it, and he who has not, should do japa.” Sri Tarafdar started undertaking regular charitable work from that day onward. He had always had an inclination to serve poor and illiterate people, especially the sick. Now he started devoting a sizeable portion of his income and virtually all of his time to such activities. With the help of a doctor friend he started conducting free medical and eye camps for poor villagers in his own home. This would require him to vacate his residential rooms for a short while; he would have them properly fumigated for the camps. Scores of patients underwent successful eye operations at these camps. Medicines are also supplied free of charge.
Now, with stricter regulations for surgical camps in operation, Sri Tarafdar arranges for patients to be treated at the nearest medical college. Annual blood donation camps are another important part of the medical service he conducts. Sixty to seventy young men and women donate blood voluntarily at these camps. Swami Vivekananda has pointed out that educational and spiritual help are greater than mere physical help. Though he does not have much formal education, Sri Tarafdar is actively involved in these too. He has organized seminars on the lives and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, and Sri Sarada Devi during the traditional Basanti (Durga) puja at his homestead. These have been attended by people from all walks of life, both Hindus and Muslims.
Nimtala and nearby villages also have separate study circles for the elders, youth, and women. Poor students are provided aid to continue their studies. Hundreds of local villagers have also been inspired to take spiritual initiation to pursue their spiritual lives more intensely. A majority of these seekers are from poor families. There are also many subscribers to the Bengali spiritual monthly Udbodhan in these villages. Such works as the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda and the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna are also sold at subsidized rates. Organizing bhakta sammelans (devotee conventions) is another important activity that engages Sri Tarafdar’s attention. That such activity strikes a spontaneous cord of sympathy in others is indicated by the fact that virtually everyone in Sri Tarafdar’s large extended family appreciates and participates enthusiastically in these activities; and when he suffered a cardiac ailment requiring hospitalization, a large number of villagers prayed for his recovery.
Sri Sudhangshu Ghosh, a volunteer at the Ramakrishna Ashrama, Malda, also exemplifies the spirit of service. I can still recall the day when the vehicle carrying medical aid for poor ailing villagers left the ashrama, and a man of sixty who had missed it burst into tears saying, “Today I am deprived of serving God.’ The Milki High School, where Sri Ghosh served as a teacher, has numerous students hailing from poor families who have little means for getting individual training. Sri Ghosh would try to make sure that he was regular in attending to his students so that they derived maximum benefit from their schooling.
Now that he is retired, he is able to devote all his time and energy to the many service activities of the ashrama: flood relief (floods in Malda are an annual feature), teaching inmates of correctional homes, spreading the teachings of Swami Vivekananda in various schools— rural and urban, helping with mobile medical clinics, and serving at the community lunch for poor people. Age cannot deter him from carrying heavy loads on water-logged roads to reach people affected by floods. The challenge of delivering medical aid to remote areas may stall others, but not Sri Ghosh.
Service can prove infectious. In May 1990, a blood donation camp had been organized at Punyananda Vidyapith in Mayna village, East Medinipur. Numerous donors attended the camp despite the summer heat. A middle-aged woman went to one of the doctors in attendance and started weeping, “Am I only to take blood? Can I not donate too?” On being asked what the matter was, she continued, “My hemoglobin levels keep plummeting off and on, and then the doctors have to give me transfusions. My blood group is B negative. This is not a common group. On several occasions the boys of the village have had to go to Kolkata to get blood and save my life. Now that there is a camp right next door to me, I have come to donate blood; but the doctors are refusing me.”
The woman worked as a laborer and was clearly of frail health. But she could not restrain her tears at not being allowed to repay the debt of blood that she had incurred. We gave her a palm-leaf fan, and she went fanning the volunteers helping at the camp. She went on doing this throughout the duration of the camp, even as she herself got drenched in sweat. Seventy per cent of our body weight is made up of water. It appeared that though the doctors had refused to take her blood, she actually did manage to give much of it through the sweat of her toil. And she left us repeating her question: “Are we to always receive? Can we not give too?”