The darshan month of November-December 1994 had an enormous impact not only on Rikhia and the local residents, but also on those of us living at the Akhara. Many years ago Swamiji used to say 'yoga from shore to shore and door to door', and although he has left the APMB path, it was certainly Bhakti Yoga from shore to shore.
We thought we had worked out how to handle the donations quite well at the Akhara. Even the storeroom, which is called Prasad Kutir or Bholenath's Ready-Made Store, was ready, well-furnished with many shelves to accommodate donations. A carved chandan murti of Ganesh was installed and officially we were prepared. Swamiji had requested that prasad or offerings be labelled with the donor's name and address, so we set up a desk near the front gate.
The number of donations that arrived on the first day was absolutely overwhelming. What a thrilling task it became to take the prasad as quickly as possible because devotees were so excited to have Swamiji's darshan. We somehow managed to organise it all into some disorganised order at the desk, and after darshan devotees carried it to Prasad Kutir. Well, I thought, this is the first day and look at it all. What's to follow?
After a few days it became obvious that the room would not accommodate the incoming deluge. Where to go next? We created a system in some fashion to store the donations new and used clothes, books, stationery, games, toys, pots, pans, grains, etc. One day I sat alone amongst it all, rather bewildered by the quantity. The storeroom was almost full. I said to Swamiji, Where to put it now?, and he replied, Inside. At this I looked around and thought, Really, oh Swamiji, where?
We managed for a few days and then out of absolute necessity, Swamiji started using the staircase landings of the new building. These filled up rapidly as swamis lugged up the boxes and bundles of blankets and other bulky items. After the landings, the next available space was the Akhara and this solved the problem.
The donations were presented with such care and joy that it was a privilege to receive them for Swamiji. As his mission is to help his neighbours with basic needs, each donation, whether large or small, was an expression of the bhakta's devotion and love, so that Swamiji can fulfill his sankalpa of which we must all be part.
Every afternoon parcels were packed, while swamis and devotees sorted clothes according to age, sex etc. We imported swamis from Ganga Darshan and other outside ashrams who, with the akharites, made a fine team. There was a real juggle for space and Swamiji personally organised canvas shelters outside for sorting and folding. Working with us also were two pradhans (headmen) from two nearby villages.
Then, before things were even half sorted, Swamiji announced that we would start the first distribution. Panic! We began at first in some confusion. At night we could not work outside because of the feared Bholenath's presence. Nobody wants a surprise attack from the famous Bholenath so we all crammed inside, some sorting and unpacking and others preparing the family bundles.
I would like devotees to know that it was a pleasure to place such beautiful clothes in the family packages: warm woollen sweaters, lunghis (the basic dress for men), bright saris, shorts, long pants, pretty dresses, cuddly toys, shoes and socks, all wrapped up in a blanket with the family number attached to it. When bundles had been completed for a whole village, they were placed in the Akhara. Swami Sivananda's murti is housed there and I feel that a blessing to fulfill part of Swamiji's sankalpa was completed before the actual distribution.
Then came the day for distribution. The bundles were placed in number order on the tractor-trailer with extras such as pads, pens, ladies' jewellery, pots and toys, which are given with the package. All was made ready. It was an exciting time. The villagers knew we were coming. Finally, we climbed aboard with mridunga and various other musical instruments and set off outside the Akhara gate, singing a kirtan.
Our first stop was Nawadi village. The whole village of about 50 families was present, from the little children, wide-eyed and excited, to the elderly, faces well-worn by nature, picturesque characters viewing it all quietly. The place of distribution was also special. Usually we arranged things outside the mandir, murti or meeting area, but in this case we sat on the freshly cow dung-covered earth where the rice is dehusked.
In this beautiful setting the programme began with a kirtan by the villagers. Their style of kirtan is warm with a natural expression of devotion. One particular tribal group called Santhalis sang that they were pleased to see us and thanked us for the prasad. They are a very simple people with a wonderful sense of humour and innocence.
We kept a register with the family names and number, which seemed practical, but the experience was quite different. These village people do not always use the same name, and the women refuse to tell the husband's name because of tradition. It became a little confusing, but with the pradhan's help, we managed. It was important that the right family received the right bundle, as bundles had been arranged specifically for the individual family members.
With each bundle went a cooking pot, pad and pens, a toy for each child and something pretty for the ladies. The toys caused varied expressions of joy and a little fear as the children could not comprehend the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Barbie dolls, but cuddled and held close the fluffy soft toys. The boys delighted in the moving toys, racing cars, trucks, tractors, etc. Observing their bewilderment over these toys was a beautiful experience. The most fascinating experience for the children was a container of the very best imported chocolate pieces and nuts. What is it? was the question, but they quickly got the idea. It was something worth lining up for twice! This event ended the distribution. We said our Namo Narayans, and made our way back along the small track to the Akhara.
And so a month of distribution began. We covered all the 22 Rikhia villages, giving clothes personally to approximately 4,000 individuals. In winter an extra blanket and warm clothes is a great help to these simple people who live from the earth and with nature, exposed to all conditions. Apart from clothes, grains and seeds, we distributed cycles, rickshaws, thelas, sewing machines and store supplies, the idea being to create a small business or income which would make these people more independent and capable in life and in the community.
Swamiji was delighted when the first donation of a cow was given. He says that Lakshmi then enters the household. From the blessed cow comes fuel for cooking, milk, medicines such as cow's urine, cow dung for spreading on the floors and walls of the house and courtyard, and a sense of wealth. Many cows, bulls, calves and oxen were given.
Still this work is going on. Swamiji is forever creating new opportunities, small enterprises and encouragement through his own actions and totally positive attitude to life and the people. He says that he is not giving charity. No! Just some positive help so that the people can create a better quality of life for themselves through their own personal efforts.
After distribution to all the villages in Rikhia, and some outside the area, was completed, the shelves became empty. Swamiji wanted the last distribution to totally empty Prasad Kutir. He came into the kutir and said to me, Atmamuktananda, empty everything. When you empty yourself completely, God fills your heart.