Service as a Way of Life
The ideology of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission finds expression through their multifarious activities. These activities cover different areas of human need and social welfare such as education, health, rural development, self-employment, women’s welfare, inter-faith understanding, moral life, spiritual guidance, and relief to victims of calamities. All these activities are conducted as service, service to God in man. In the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, service is not restricted to a particular type of activity conducted at a particular time, but is a way of life. Even when the monks are not doing any service in the outside society, they do service within the monastic community. And there is no time limit or age limit for this. The monks continue to engage themselves in various service activities until they are incapacitated by illness or extreme old age.
Service as a way of life followed in Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission has certain distinctive features. Some of these features are mentioned below.
1. Selflessness, Sacrifice, Love: The principle of selflessness or unselfishness is an important teaching of the Holy Trio, and constitutes the very first step in the three main spiritual paths of Karma, Bhakti and Jnána. Monks of the Ramakrishna Order look upon their Sangha as the mystical body of Sri Ramakrishna, and they learn to merge their individual egos in the collective will of the Sangha. Furthermore, all their work and its fruit are offered as worship to the Lord. Individual members of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission do not claim credit for their actions; all credit goes to the Sangha. They engage themselves in service activities not for self-glorification but for the ‘greater glory’ of the Lord. Ramakrishna Order monks also follow the path of Jnana and, by the practice of self-analysis, learn to identify themselves with the Pratyagátman or Inner Self which is the unchanging inner witness of all thoughts and actions. Through all these means the monks learn to be unselfish and unegoistic.
As already mentioned, the ideal of service followed in Ramakrishna Movement is based on the principle Ùiva-jñáne jæva-sevá, to serve man as potentially Divine. It is not, however, easy to serve all, especially the poor and the sick, in a spirit of worship. This ideal of service calls for a lot of sacrifice, sacrifice of one’s time, energy, comforts, etc. It is these sacrifices which the members of Ramakrishna Movement undergo, without any expectation of reward, recognition or fame, that make their ideal of service authentic. The motivation for service and sacrifice is love. The love that flows through Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission is Divine Love — the pure, imperishable love of Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother and Swami Vivekananda for humanity. This Divine Love is the force holding together the Sangha, unifying monastic brothers and lay devotees.
2. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: These three great ideals of democracy, about which humanity has been dreaming and talking for centuries, are becoming a social reality, in a silent and unobtrusive way, in the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission circles. Swami Vivekananda has repeatedly stated, ‘Liberty is the first condition of growth.’ Freedom from religious bigotry, intolerance, hatred and superstitions, freedom from religious, social and racial prejudices, in a word, freedom of thought and belief — this is a central fact in the Ramakrishna Movement. Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission’s activities aim at the welfare of all people without any distinctions of caste, creed or race. The rich and the poor, the Brahmin and the Harijan, Hindus, Muslims, Christians — all are treated as children of the same Divine parents. These institutions follow Vivekananda’s view that social equality is to be brought about, not by a process of ‘levelling down’, but by ‘levelling up’, that is, not by pulling down those who are already up
but by raising up those who are down.
3. Excellence, Efficiency, Teamwork: These three qualities are generally associated with business enterprises, but they are the governing principles in all activities undertaken by Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission. Since all work is done as worship, and only the best things are offered to the Lord, the members of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission try to do their allotted work in the best way possible. Care is taken to avoid waste or loss of any kind. Other than the minimum necessary for the maintenance of the institutions and their inmates, all the resources are used for the welfare of society. Again, as the monks are united by the strong bond of monastic brotherhood, they find it easy and natural to work as a team, and this has contributed much to the success of the twin organizations.
4. Truthfulness, Honesty, Transparency: Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission scrupulously follow all statutory and contingent rules and conditions with regard to receiving and spending funds, which come mostly through public donations and government grants. Their accounts are regularly audited and made available to the public. Transparency in financial matters is a hallmark of the Math and Mission.
5. Social commitment without politics: In a democratic country which follows the principle of ‘Welfare State’, any kind of social service necessarily involves interaction with the Government. However, being a spiritual organization which aims at the spiritual regeneration of humanity, Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission maintain their position above active politics and political affiliations.
The main activities conducted by Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission are given below.
Relief and Rehabilitation Work: Right from 1897, when Ramakrishna Mission was founded, it has conducted extensive relief operations for the victims of natural disasters such as cyclone, flood, earthquake and fire almost every year and man-made calamities such as riots.
Medical Service: The Ramakrishna Math and Mission has 14 hospitals, and more than 100 outdoor dispensaries and more than 50 mobile dispensaries (which serve mostly in rural and tribal areas). The hospitals and dispensaries are situated in cities, towns, and even in little villages in the Himalayas and are meant primarily for the poor. Lakhs of patients were treated in these medical centres. Besides these, a considerable number of medical camps are organized, mostly in rural areas, where thousands of patients are treated, and many patients are operated on for cataract free of cost. The Ramakrishna Math and Mission run 7 nurses’ training centres where about 700 students are trained in nursing every year. Two old-age homes for men and one for women are also maintained.
Educational Work: The Ramakrishna Math and Mission run 1 university with 5 off-campus faculty centres, 7 colleges, including 1 Sanskrit college, more than 500 schools of different grades, 2 schools of languages, 4 polytechnics, 6 junior technical and industrial schools, 79 vocational training centres, 100 hostels, 6 orphanages, 2 centres for the disabled, 1 school of Vedic education, and 129 non-formal education centres.
Work in Rural and Tribal Areas: For rural and tribal people, the Ramakrishna Math and Mission run 2 institutes of agriculture and 8 rural development training institutes. Besides, farmers are taught improved methods of cultivation and also provided with agricultural inputs and financial help. Projects such as construction of toilets and pucca houses, wasteland development, holding farmers’ fairs, soil testing, planting of fruit and forest trees, etc are undertaken. Drinking water is provided by digging borewells and tube wells.
Welfare Work: Both the headquarters and its branches provide scholarships and stipends to a large number of students, medical aid to poor patients and monetary help to aged and destitute men and women. This was in addition to the huge sums spent by our educational institutions for the benefit of poor students and by the hospitals and dispensaries for the treatment of poor patients.
Work for Women: The twin organizations serve women through the maternity sections of their hospitals, an old-age home for women, schools of nursing, self-help groups and vocational training centres for rural women and providing monthly allowance to widows.
Activities for Youngsters: In all the educational institutions run by the Ramakrishna Math and Mission special attention is paid to character-building and spiritual orientation of students. Apart from this, many of the branch centres conduct programmes for youngsters which provide recreational, cultural and spiritual activities for them outside their school and college hours. The range of activities include chanting of hymns, devotional singing, participation in literary activities and games, instruction on character building and ethical life, telling stories about great people, etc.
Spreading Religion and Culture: This is accomplished through a large number of libraries, lectures, discourses and seminars, audio-visual units, exhibitions, museums, retreats, and publishing books, journals, etc. The Math and Mission publish 22 journals in 15 languages. Books on Vedanta, the message of Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda, spirituality and world religions in almost all the major languages of India and in some of the important languages of other countries are published from the 18 publication centres. In English alone more than 1,000 titles are brought out. Hundreds of titles have been brought out in almost all regional languages, including some tribal languages.
Spiritual Service: Almost every Math centre maintains a shrine dedicated to Sri Ramakrishna where ritualistic worship is offered to Him every day. At dusk árati is done along with congregational singing of vesper hymns and bhajans in which monks and devotees participate. On festival days and on the birthdays of Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother and Swami Vivekananda, special spiritual programmes are arranged in which thousands of people participate. The birthday of Lord Rama, Lord Krishna, Lord Buddha and Jesus Christ are observed in all our centres. Another form of spiritual service is talks and advice on spiritual topics given by heads of centres and other monks to devotees, and the retreats and bhakta-sammelans organized at the centres for the benefit of devotees. The most important form of spiritual service, however, is dikshá or spiritual initiation given by the President, Vice-Presidents and a few selected senior monks of Ramakrishna Order to sincere spiritual seekers.
Work Outside India: Swami Vivekananda was the first religious leader of India to spread Vedanta philosophy and spirituality in the West in an organized way. The seeds of thought that he sowed in the closing years of nineteenth century later sprouted and developed into what is known as ‘Vedanta Movement’ in the West. The first centre of Vedanta Society was started by Swamiji himself in New York in 1894. Now there are 13 such Vedanta Societies in the US. Outside the US also centres of Ramakrishna Math (and, in a few cases, centres of Ramakrishna Mission) have come into existence, invariably at the initiative of local devotees, in many of the cities in the West and in the East.
In most of the centres outside India, except Bangladesh, Fiji, South Africa and Sri Lanka, the main type of service conducted is spiritual. The Swamis in charge of these centres give discourses, classes and lectures on Vedanta scriptures and the message of Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother and Swami Vivekananda. Individual spiritual guidance is given to sincere seekers. The aim of this kind of service is to enable people to find ultimate fulfilment and meaning in life within their own socio-cultural and religious milieu. Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission do not conduct any kind of proselytizing activity.