The philosophy of relief
For us to truly emerge from the ongoing crisis, every Indian must be concerned about the safety of society at large and must be prepared to make sacrifices for the greater good
The year was 1868. Mathuramohan Biswas, the landlord who looked after the Dakshineswar estate near Calcutta, decided to undertake a pilgrimage to Varanasi, in the company of Sri Ramakrishna, the priest-saint of the temple. In the course of this journey, as they traversed the land known as Jharkhand, they passed through a village inhabited by the Santhals of the area. The famished inhabitants pleaded to the touring party for food and essentials. Mathuramohan, concerned about the expenses of the imminent pilgrimage, did not pay much heed to them and decided to proceed on their fixed route. Ramakrishna, however, requested Mathuramohan to arrange for food, oil and clothing for the poor villagers, even at the expense of the elaborate journey of the large party. No prudent advice of the 'zamindar' could dissuade the saint and Mathuramohan finally had to give in to the demand.
Traditional Vedantic practices had long considered work (and service) as only a preliminary step to the elevated practice of discrimination. The Bhagavad Gita had spoken about selfless work, of the offering of the fruits of work to the 'Viraat', the omnipresent God who dwells in all creatures. Despite this, the path of work was earmarked to be trodden by worldly people still ignorant of higher knowledge. It was left to Swami Vivekananda to declare work (karma), unselfishly performed, as a bridge to highest realisation. He boldly declared that it was vain to seek for God in temples and churches, even while ignoring his presence in the multitude of men and women. Not satisfied with mere theory, he laid this out as the golden motto for the organisation founded by him in 1897. 'Atmano mokartham jogat hitaya cha' — for the sake of one's liberation and the welfare of the world as well. Ramakrishna Mission was founded by him, soon to have branches in India and abroad. The monks of this organisation would serve mankind and consider the path of unselfish work as a definite bridge to spiritual upliftment.
Epidemics and famines were common in India, before the independence of the country in 1947. In the course of his conversation with admirers in 1897, Swami Vivekananda, on his return from the West, spoke about the British rulers publishing a list of 70 lakh people who died in a terrible famine in Central India. During the period 1898-1900, the plague epidemic wreaked havoc in Calcutta and Bengal. The newly set up organisation, the Ramakrishna Mission, under the guidance of Swami Vivekananda, offered undaunted service under the leadership of Sister Nivedita and Swami Sadananda, both disciples of Vivekananda. The Mission stood by the people of the city, thereby infusing hope and courage in them when they were gripped by panic. Around this time, Swami Akhandananda, another disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, started working among the poor Muslims and Hindus of Murshidabad district and, who, in course of time set up an orphanage for children there.
In today's world, a newfangled disease, COVID-19, has necessitated 'lockdown' in countries worldwide. This confinement of people, across all countries, has resulted in a reorientation of values for the society as a whole. Men and women are now, perforce, required to reassess themselves while living only in the company of family members. Domestic chores have now to be performed by the family members themselves, making them self-sufficient. The indiscriminate consumerism, too, is being assessed anew so that the non-essentials in one's life are dispensed with. The reckless destruction of nature and wildlife long warned against by environmentalist groups, is now being heeded seriously. Hygienic habits, cleanliness, and the like, are also being insisted upon by doctors and health workers.
The contamination by the disease of lakhs of people and the consequent death of many near and dear ones has left a grim void in society, a scar which will be difficult to heal shortly. People of the modern world, armed with the internet had started thinking of themselves as omniscient. Instead, suddenly, as the fear of a contagious disease grips society, the cold inevitability of death seems all too near for them. Unsure about the next steps to be taken, the governments have groped in the dark. There is a balance to be struck between — on the one hand, confining people indoors to prevent the spread of the disease and on the other hand, trying to solve the problem of near starvation because of unemployment. The society and country need to be steered cautiously in this turmoil, so that they can again come back to a state of normalcy, at the end of this stressful period. India could certainly overcome the present crisis within some months. But for this to be done with the least collateral damage, the people of the country need to give up thoughts of individual safety alone and think of the society at large — of sacrificing oneself for the welfare of all.
The writer is the Secretary at the Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama, Malda