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 Relief and Rehabilitation

The history of the Ramakrishna Order’s relief services is as old as that of the Mission itself. Besides their multifarious permanent constructive works, from their very inception, the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission have been ever ready to promptly organize ameliorative and healing services whenever the nation has been faced with sudden calamities caused by freaks of nature, follies of men, or scourges of epidemics. Its relief activities have also extended well beyond Indian borders. 

The Order’s first organized relief work was started by Swami Akhandananda just two weeks after the Mission was founded by Swami Vivekananda on 1 May 1897. Swami Akhandananda drew inspiration for his humanitarian services primarily from Sri Ramakrishna himself. The Master used to say, ‘If God can be worshipped in an image, can He not be worshipped in a living person?’ Swami Akhandananda literally transformed relief and rehabilitation into acts of worship. 

Basic Approach 

To date the Ramakrishna Mission and Math have together conducted hundreds of relief works in India, Burma, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, during calamities and hardships issuing from such a variety of causes as famines, floods, fires, epidemics, cyclones, tornados, riots, earth­quakes, landslides and droughts. Relief works for evacuees and refugees were carried out on a very large scale during some of the worst national calamities. Apart from these, hundreds of small relief works are conducted throughout the year by various Centres wherever local needs arise.  

After helping people to survive the devastating calamities caused by nature and human folly, the movement is often faced with the urgency of rehabilitating the suffering people. Within the last decade the Mission has done rehabilitation work worth crores of rupees in various parts of India. In large-scale rehabilitation certain service logistics can be handled only by the government machinery. But the Rama­krish­na Mission brings to bear a philosophy of work and methodology of service that has a unique place in the overall national disaster-­management framework.  

Nearly a hundred and ten years of uninterrupted service have given the Mission the experience and expertise from which scores of other organizations have drawn lessons. It is pleasing to note that there are many other organizations which conduct relief operations in India today. In 1897, when the Ramakrishna Mission started its first relief work, there were hardly any other organized services in the field. It was in fact a pioneering activity of the movement.
There have been many recent developments of far-reaching significance in the field of disaster management. In the first place, primary relief is now considered only a small part of relief—it is neither the first step nor the last. Disaster preparedness is now of primary concern. Considerable resources are presently
being devoted to anticipate and warn susceptible populations about impending disasters. Mitigation of the effects of disaster through prior planning, prompt and efficient rescue and relief, and socio-economic and psychological rehabilitation of the victims are all important priorities. Incorporation of efficient developmental models and environmental safeguards in the rehabilitation programme are also important issues. The Ramakrishna Mission tries to realistically address many of these issues in its relief and rehabilitation programmes.

Some key elements of the Order�s approach to and methodology of relief are:

     Worship of God in humans as the guiding ideal.
     Strictly apolitical conduct of activities and avoidance of populist publicity.
    Financial accountability through detailed records of the sources and utilization of funds.
     Reaching out to the most needy through careful field surveys.
   No discrimination on religious, ethnic, sectional or other grounds.
  Involvement of local people in planning as well as implementation of specific programmes.
   Rapid and efficient provision of services and use of current technology wherever feasible.
  Time-bound programmes and avoidance of ‘indiscriminate charity’ to prevent wastage of resources and dependence among bene­ficiaries.
    Participatory approach involving monks, volunteers and technical experts.
Focus on development—socio-econo­mic, environmental and cultural—empowerment, and preventive strategies in rehabilitation.


The Philosophy of Service

Sri Ramakrishna used to say, ‘Man is Narayana Himself. If God can manifest Himself through an image, then why not through man also?’ He declared very categorically that God-realization is the aim of human life. But the means to this are legion. ‘Does God exist only when the eyes are closed and cease to exist when the eyes are opened?’ he observed. He also pointed out that ‘an empty stomach is no good for religion’, and himself took steps to mitigate such wants. Although he warned against philanthropy being demeaned by desire for name and fame, he commended selfless acts of charity as being ‘very noble’. He told Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the famous educationist and humanitarian, ‘Though work for the good of others belongs to rajas, yet this rajas has sattva for its basis and is not harmful. Suka and other sages cherished compassion in their minds to give people religious instruction, to teach them about God. You are distributing food and learning. That is good too. If these activities are done in a selfless spirit they lead to God.’

 On another occasion, while explaining the essential doctrine of Vaishnava religion, he said, ‘Compassion for all beings! … No, no, it is not compassion to the jiva, but service to the jiva as Shiva.’ It was this idea that Swami Vivekananda developed into his philosophy of social service. In a letter to his disciple, Sharat Chandra Chakraborty, on 3 July 1897, Swamiji wrote:

 Here is a peculiarity: when you serve a Jiva with the idea that he is Jiva, it is Daya (compassion) and not Prema (love); but when you serve him with the idea that he is the Self, that is Prema. That the Atman is the one object of love is known from Shruti, Smriti, and direct perception. … Our principle, therefore, should be love, and not compassion. … For us, it is not to pity but to serve. Ours is not the feeling of compassion but of love, and the feeling of Self in all.

 He coined the term daridra-narayana, God in the form of the poor, and asked us to serve Him: ‘Where should you go to seek God—are not all the poor, the miserable, the weak, Gods? Why not worship them first?’ This concept of ‘service as worship’ defines the outlook of the Ramakri­shna Order in all its social-service undertakings.

 Swami Vivekananda drew attention to four forms of service: ‘The gift of spirituality and spiritual knowledge is the highest, … the next gift is secular knowledge, … the next is the saving of life; and the fourth is the gift of food.’ He had a comprehensive ‘developmental perspective’ even for famine relief. When Swami Akhandananda was involved in the Mission’s first famine relief, Swamiji wrote, ‘Akhand­ananda is working wonderfully at Mahula, but the system is not good. It seems they are frittering away their energies in one little village and that only doling out rice. I do not hear that any preaching has been done along with this helping. All the wealth of the world cannot help one little Indian village if the people are not taught to help themselves. Our work should be mainly educational, both moral and intellectual.’ This holistic-empowerment perspective remains the binding vision of the Order to this day.  

The empowerment that Swamiji conceived of was based on practical or applied Vedanta. The Upanishads, Swamiji pointed out, are a mine of strength, for they reveal the Atman, the source of all power. He emphasized that ‘these conceptions of the Vedanta must come out, must remain not only in the forest, not only in the cave, but they must come out to work at the bar and the bench, in the pulpit and in the cottage of the poor man. … [For] if the fisherman thinks that he is the Spirit, he will be a better fisherman; if the student thinks he is the Spirit, he will be a better student …, and so on.’ For the members of the Ramakrishna Order, service is ‘Vedanta in practice’. We need to serve others because their suffering is, in fact, our own. Making them happy is the only way we can make ourselves happy.

This is the spirit behind Ramakrishna Mission’s relief activities.