Service Organisations in India - Article by Dr.M.Lakshmi Kumari

Dr. M. Lakshmi Kumari

Voluntary social action has vitality in it.  It is born out of the conviction of the volunteer to serve in a selfless spirit as sadhana without fear of punishment or greed for gain.  The inner force called voluntariness or enthusiasm invests man with tremendous energy.  Swami Vivekananda tells us that even fools can achieve great things if the job is after their heart.

The Vivekananda Kendra prayer has put this idea succinctly:
Yadasma bhirangi krtam punya karyam
Tavaivasisa Purnatam tatprayatu.

“This holy task which we have accepted (voluntarily) by thy blessing, let it find its fruition.”

The soul of selfless action is that it is done willingly.  Even a meritorious act should not be thrust into the unwilling shoulders of a worker.

A volunteer then, is a positive-minded, skilful, selfless worker, who does his socially useful work without any attachment, and it with spontaneity.

Such workers coming together around a common ideal with a common programme for the good of the society form a voluntary organisation.

The roots of organised voluntary selfless service lie in the Vedas.  The Atharva Veda Samhita says:

Sangacchadvam Samvadadhvam
Samvo manamsi janatam
Deva bhagam yatha purve
Sanjana na mupasate.

“Be thou all of one mind, be thou all of one thought, for, in the days of yore, the Gods being of one mind, were enabled to receive oblations.  That the Gods can be worshipped by men is because they are of one mind.”

The master-organisers of society and builders of organisations with a purpose, namely Buddha and Shankara, saw the great secret of organisation.  They built organisations of selfless workers, organisations of great strength.  Buddha’s Bikshu Sanghas went across the shores of India to China, Japan, Tibet, Russia, Siberia, Burma and Siam teaching men and women the concept of morality, through religious organisation, the idea of ‘Church.’  Sankara founded the Yati Sangha, the association of ascetics, the tenfold association named Dasanami Sampradaya.

Then came a long line of social reformers, spiritual workers, all voluntary organisers of great inner strength and social contribution – Ramanuja, Nanak, Chaitanya, Kabir, Dadu, Alwars and Nayanmars, whose activities covered the entire spectrum of social work.

Sri Krishna, who himself is an ideal volunteer, describes the qualities of one in the celebrated verse.

“Muktasango Anahamvadi Dhrtyutsaha Samanvitah Siddyasiddhyor nirvikarah Karta Satvikaucyate” – “The one without any attachment, or a sense of ego, one who is firm and enthusiastic, equal in success and failure, such a worker is described as sattvic.”

According to the Gita, the ideal worker is known for his skill (Kausalya), non-attachment, selflessness and love.  This worker does not require any personal reward.  He continues to serve the society, for various interesting reasons which Sri Krishna lists.

Sage Manu praises voluntary action and commends it as the only action that will stand the test of time.  Anything done through coercion will come to nought.

“Balad dattam balad bhuktam
Balad yaccapi lekhikam
Sarvam balakrtam artham
Akrtan Manurabravit.”

“Whatever is forcibly given, forcibly enjoyed, forcibly got written, all these are as good as not done.”

Such a man motivated by his inner self lives for his ideals dies for his ideals, finds out new ways of achieving his goal, overcoming a thousand difficulties, suffering a thousand insults and injuries.  But he cannot remain without giving expression to his burning inner urge.  A Kamban who would write an immortal epic, the Ramayana, would say he did it because he “loved doing it.”  A Tulasidasa writing his deathless jewel of a Bhakti Poem, Rama Charita Manas, will attribute his work to “Svantahsukhaya,” for the sake of inner comfort.

India’s freedom struggle and its attendant renaissance were marked by intense voluntary activities throwing up great social reformers, poets, social workers, political activists, economic workers, organisers, spiritual sadhakas and innovators.  From Rajaram Mohan Roy to Ramana and Gandhi, a galaxy of volunteers came on the Indian social scene, leaving no aspect of human endeavour untouched by voluntary spirit.  Great experiments in political organisations, village work, organising sannyasins, youth, women, constructive voluntary workers were done in a systematic manner.  Political activists such as Gokhale, Tilak and Gandhi, social reformers such as Rajaram Mohan Roy, Ranade and others, spiritual teachers such as Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, Dayananda Saraswati, Ramana, Aurobindo and Vinoba Bhave, workers in the economic field such as  Bharatan Kumarappa, with Gandhiji contributing to all the fields, came on to light up the stage.

Modern Indian voluntary organisations owe their spirit and body to the two master-organisers, Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi.

Swami Vivekananda classifies workers as (i).  Those who work motivated by fear, fear of public opinion, fear of loss, fear of punishment, fear of hell, fear of discomfort – as tamasik workers, (ii).  Those who work because of a sense of greed, for name, fame, social position, money, heaven, comfort, and (iii).  Those who work because it is the nature of man to act in a selfless manner for the good of his fellow-beings.

To Swami Vivekananda, the ideal volunteer is a mild Hindu, with a sattvika calmness.  The voluntary social reformers should be men of infinite sympathy and patience, because reform is not demolition but a renovation.  The volunteer should have as his motto, “Elevate the masses without injuring their religion.”  The three prerequisites for a volunteer (reformer) are, first, feeling from the heart because love opens the most impossible gates, second, the volunteer should know the remedy, and third, his motives should be pure and his will indomitable.  He should take a vow to devote his entire life for the cause and have the faith, the shraddha of a Nachiketa.  Steeled with renunciation and vairagya, these volunteers should worship God through service to fellow human beings.

Swamiji being a master-organiser has a lot to say about organisations, leadership qualities and the basis of an organisation.

Once Swami Vivekananda told an old lady in America that he had the greatest temptation of his life in America.  She liked to tease him a bit and said, “Who is the Swami?”  He burst out laughing and said, “Oh, it is not a lady, it is organisation….”  In the States he saw how much could be accomplished by organising work.  Yet, he was doubtful about just what type of organisation would be acceptable to Indian character and he gave a great deal of thought and study on how to adopt what seemed good to him in the Western world to the best advantage of his own people.

Swamiji said: “Discover the secret of perennial organisation.  Set up a machine as it will go on automatically no matter who lives or dies.  We Indians suffer from a great defect, namely, we cannot make a permanent organisation – and the reason is that we never like to share power with others and never think of what will come after we are gone.”  According to Swami Vivekananda, the secret of power lies in unity and organisation.  “Therefore, to make a great future India, the whole secret lies in organisation, accumulation of power, co-ordination of wills.”  The volunteer has to work, ‘building up on the common ground of religion, bringing out life-giving common principles.  Religion has great unifying power.”

“Where are the men?  That is the question.  Men, men are wanted, everything else will be ready, but strong, vigorous, believing young men, sincere to the back-bone are wanted.”

Talking on Individuals, Nations and Institutions, Swamiji says:

“All healthy social changes are the manifestation of the spiritual forces within and if these are strong and well adjusted, society will arrange itself accordingly.  Each individual has to work out his own salvation.  There is no other way and so also with nations.  Again, the great institutions of every nation are the conditions of its very existence and cannot be transformed by the mould of any other race.  Until higher institutions have been evolved, any attempt to break the old ones will be disastrous.  Growth is always gradual.  It is very easy to point out the defects of institutions, all being more or less imperfect, but he is the real benefactor of humanity who helps the individual to overcome his imperfections, under whatever institution he may live.  The individuals being raised, the nation and its institutions are bound to rise….”

With the arrival of Gandhiji and Vinobaji on the India public scene, voluntary action in India got a new breath of life.  They envisaged a great role for voluntary effort in India’s development.

For Gandhiji, a volunteer is a person who can on his own restrict his wants so that his time, energy and wealth can be spent for the good of others.  Gandhiji believed that voluntary action can spread to the fields of city and village administration, for providing full employment to all people, to bring about social equality, to decentralise political and economic power, to organise co-operative movements, to bring about harmony of religions and in all economic and productive fields, village protection, etc., to the entire spectrum of human activities, in short.

Gandhiji also talked of a political system when all decisions flow upward from the common man.  In the new world order of freedom from the oppression from over-centralised tyrannical state, India will have significant contribution to make.  “An India awakened and free has a message of peace and goodwill to a groaning world.”

“I feel in the innermost recesses of my heart, that the world is sick unto death of blood spilling.  The world is seeking a way out, and I flatter myself with the belief that perhaps it will be the privilege of the ancient land of India to show the way out to the hungering world.”

A few volunteers collecting together can form a truly democratic structure free from exploitation.  It is only in small units real democracy can work and provide a field for the full growth of the individual.  The larger the units the lesser the scope for individual initiative and freedom.  Larger organisations tend to curb the individuals and smaller groups, as they would work for uniformity and regimentation, ultimately resulting in stagnation and decay.  Lasting world peace can be achieved by building smaller decentralised units.

All these go to show that India has a great genius for voluntary action and voluntary institution building and State that is anything but overcentralised or oppressive.  Throughout history the voluntary organisation survived.  With the arrival of Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi new life was breathed into our old channels.  Individuals, institutions and freedom and creativity can blossom if only Indians start creating social models of voluntary organisations in greater number covering a wider variety of activities.

The Founder of Vivekananda Kendra and the spirit behind the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, Man. Eknath Ranade’s ideas of organisation building are beautifully summarised in his unique book, ‘Sadhana of Service.’  Eknathji himself being a master organiser, the book is of great practical worth.

“For a volunteer to serve the society in a selfless spirit, the motivation can spring from his patriotic, spiritual or social urge.  What is vital is that it should be a positive urge and not a negative escapist’s route from his failures in his life.  The spiritual desire in life can be a sublimation of the worldly desires of the worker.  A life with a purpose, a mission, and a sense of values becomes a disciplined life.  A systematic arrangement of habits and routines mark such a person.  He should realise that the organisation is not opposed to his personal freedom.”

Eknathji described a cadre-based organisation as an association of like-minded persons - for ideology is thicker than blood.  Here, work continues irrespective of any individual; even when a worker falls on the way, work continues.  Quoting from the Gita, Eknathji eloquently describes the qualities of an ideal volunteer, a sattvic karta, and cautions the worker about the pitfalls and traps on the road.

Adjustments with co-workers, obedience to the organisation, tolerance and love and finally self-motivation mark the inspired worker.  Simplicity and caution, discretion and lokasangraha are his ingrained traits.

An ideal voluntary organisation should have a well-defined motto or goal.  Selfless volunteers should translate the pious motto into concrete, socially useful action.  There should be regular public contact and there should be a broad-based financial support from the people.  A worker has to be selected and trained properly.  Proper reporting, feed-back, supervision and regular refresher training are all important to keep the worker linked organically to the central organisation.

The period of Indian renaissance and freedom struggle threw up a number of voluntary organisations working in many fields of National life.  The Sarvodaya Movement, the Ramakrishna Movement, the R.S.S. and a few others grew very large in size and in the scope of their activities.  The public in India came round to accept voluntary organisations as an important factor of social scenario.  In certain fields such as education and arts excellence  became the hallmark of voluntary action.  Swami Vivekananda’s institutions work in the fields of spirituality, social service, economic activities, education, etc.  Gandhiji and Vinoba took voluntary action to political, social, economic and spiritual fields.  The R.S.S. activities encompass all fields of national life.

With the passage of time, voluntary service in India is getting more and more standardised and varied.  Professionalism has crept in.  The Satya Sai Movement, the Chinmaya Mission, etc. are doing marvellous work.

A large number of small or medium-scale voluntary organisations have come up.  Being compact in size, they are cohesive, autonomous and they have the advantage of flexibility of approach, quicker decision-making period, work culture, and easy acclimitisation to local problems and opportunities.  They do have a sense of commitment.

In all these, the volunteer wields moral authority born out of his selflessness.  He provides the image and leadership to the group.  These voluntary organisations set up examples of self-sacrifice, remove local tensions, promote co-operation, community awareness and save villagers from exploitation.  Such groups bring out the creative urge in individuals and function as a social force to promote social equality.  The voluntariness of the movement elevates the moral and spiritual fibre of the community.

But then voluntary organisations in India are not without their quota of problems.  Scarcity of dedicated, selfless workers, is a constraint every organisation has to live with.  Lack of assured funds, premature death of a very dynamic person spearheading the activities, constant pressures from below, loss of flexibility of functioning, lack of democratisation, increasing institutionalisation, lack of technical training and competence, conflicts with bureaucracy, lack of good secretarial facilities and accounts and uneven geographical spread pose challenges to the efficiency of voluntary bodies.  In some, availability of funds dictate the type of activities taken up and not local needs.

As time passes on, three significant trends are visible:  (a). Voluntary organisations are becoming more and more professional.  (b). The concept of a paid worker is becoming a reality within the organisation.  (c). Fields like scientific research, archaeology, environment bastions of state action, are getting thrown open to voluntary action.  (d). Industrial houses have taken to developmental activities among the poor people living near their units.  Charity, a sense of duty and expediency has become the ‘motive’ force of voluntary actions.

India’s voluntary action groups of medium size are now working in the fields of agriculture, village industries, education, forest and wildlife, consumer protection, irrigation, non-conventional energy sources, backward classes and their minimum needs, science and technology, animal husbandry and livestock, labour and rehabilitation, youth affairs and sports, health and family welfare, rural development, public amenities, legal aspects of environment and other fields.  They work under a wide variety of geographical area of operation with a kaleidoscope of target groups.  Their funds emanate from equally variegated sources.  They too employ a wide variety of professional staff.

We have to remember that the soul of voluntary action is its voluntariness.  Voluntary action is selfless goodness.  It is a positive force in the society enhancing the very worth of the society.  This action involves tyaga, the source of nectar, all sweetness, according to our Vedic tradition.

Tyagenieika Amritatwamanasu.

Man attains immortality through sacrifice only.  This ‘amritatwa,’ the willingness to sacrifice one’s all for the good of the society is the essence of man.  To subject this spontaneous, humane, inherent motivation in man to do good and be good, to clinical dissection of analysis is a futile exercise.  Man is inherently good.  Amritasyaputra - child of immortality he is.  To search for motives in him, is to recast the words of the critic, “Motive hunting of a motiveless benignity.”  Man’s goodness simply cannot be explained.  It is inherent in him according to Indian tradition.

But compel man to be good.  The devil will express itself through him.  Compulsion and goodness go ill together.  That is why Vinobaji calls compulsion - cultural aggression.  This becomes counter productive.

A man began to give large doses of codliver oil to his big dog because he had been told that the stuff was good for dogs.  Each day he would hold the head of the protesting dog between his knees, force its jaws open and pour the liquid down its throat.

One day the dog broke loose and spilt the oil on the floor.  Then to the man’s great surprise it returned back to lick the spoon.  That is when he discovered that what the dog has been fighting was not the oil but his method of administering it.

Great lessons are lost because the method of imparting them was unacceptable to the receiver.  Hence Manu’s warning against compulsion.

May the concept of voluntary action grow in this country serving our poor people at their doors, elevating both the person who serves and the cause that is served.

Parasparam bhavayanta sreyah paramavapsyatha - “serving one another may both of you flourish” - Gita-3-11.