Sivananda Math: Charity with a Difference

Sannyasi Karmadhara, Bihar

A mention of the words 'charitable institution' these days elicits a wide variety of responses, doubt and scepticism leading the list. We are reminded of the failed attempts of air conditioned armchair social servants and conference hopping foreign aid seekers often far removed from the grass root reality of their beneficiaries and generally out to make a career in the business called 'charity'. No thank you – it doesn't change anything in the long run.

Your misgivings are, therefore, understandable as you approach the headquarters of Sivananda Math in a village called Rikhia which is on the outskirts of the temple town of Deoghar in Bihar. The road to Rikhia provides a glimpse into the realities of that life. The green cover on the land is sparse and there are no indications of the existence of any system of irrigation. The occasional cluster of huts are a window to the life of the people of that area – the Santhalis. You can see that their lifestyle adheres to the basics of human need; a flimsy, mud-plastered hut housing a joint family, an occasional head of cattle, a few tools of trade, some pots and pans. Development and progress in their current sense seem to have bypassed this area. Occasional ruins of intended government schools and health centres are evidence of ill planned and uncommitted rural development policies of the state government. Farming on small land holdings seems to be the only activity of the area.

What would make even a charitable institution come to this far flung area, you wonder. The headquarters on arrival are a surprise. For all the work that you have heard Sivananda Math does, the three storeyed office complex 'Tribhuvan' seems modest. Yet the atmosphere of the place and the demeanour of the workers, all of them sannyasins (renunciates) and karma sannyasins (renunciate householders) gives you a feeling that this organization means business. In one accessible portion of the complex, a realized saint, Paramahamsa Satyananda Saraswati, is in sadhana, seemingly far removed from the activities of that organization.

Aims of Sivananda Math

Without losing much time you embark on your fact finding mission. What exactly is Sivananda Math? You learn that Sivananda Math (SM) is a social and charitable society founded by Paramahamsa Satyananda in 1984 at Munger on the banks of the Ganga in Bihar, in memory of his Guru, Swami Sivananda Saraswati of Rishikesh. Swami Satyananda was the founder director of Bihar School of Yoga and worked from there for the propagation of yoga amongst people of all countries, races and religions. He dedicated SM to the ideals of Swami Sivananda, that is to work among people with the precepts of service, seva, compassion, karuna, love, prem and affection, sneha. The aim of SM is clearly defined. It is to facilitate the growth of the weaker and underprivileged sections of society, especially in rural areas.

SM has been doing this from its new base in Rikhia since 1988 when Paramahamsa Satyananda renounced all that he had created in Munger and began to live in isolation in Rikhia. His disciple and successor, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, is the chief patron of SM. Armed with a band of dedicated sannyasins and the latest technological know-how, any work undertaken is carried out strictly in accordance with the ideals and discipline of the organization.

The main activities of SM are the distribution of free scholarships and course books for higher studies to deserving students; providing clothing and grain to the needy in times of difficulty and natural calamities; digging of wells and boring of tube wells to provide water for drinking and irrigation in rural areas; assistance to farmers in ploughing and watering of fields; construction of low cost houses for the homeless; gifting of livestock such as cows, bullocks and goats to the needy; providing free medical care by opening dispensaries and first aid centres, and providing free veterinary services. The list is by no means exhaustive since any project which may be necessary and desirable to further the aims and objectives of SM is undertaken.

Work as seva

You may wonder what SM's source of funds is, given that it has absolutely nothing to do with the government or other aid agencies. To answer your question, the charter of SM receives tremendous support, financial and otherwise, for its activities from well wishers and devotees of Paramahamsa Satyananda, all over the world. The essential difference between SM and other charitable organizations gradually dawns on you. The essence of this organization is not ideological, religious, political or cultural. It is spiritual. The work undertaken by SM has one basic motive – 'unconditional seva'. There are no careers to be made, no forums to be captured and no ideologies to be promoted. Seva is considered as sadhana by the sevak sannyasins and the means to one's salvation. Love for the guru and the desire to serve him in his mission provides SM with its workers as well as the capital to see the work through.

Promoting self-sufficiency

Having understood this difference, a question still remains – “What is special about the brand of charity undertaken by SM? Granted that it aims towards facilitating the growth of the rural society. But so do most charitable organizations. Given their abysmally low long term success rates, how does SM propose to be any different?” The answer to this lies in the clarity of approach of Paramahamsa Satyananda regarding the manner of disbursement of so called 'charity'. He explains that the motive behind the work of SM is to enable the recipient to break out of the stranglehold of poverty and be able to cater to the basic needs of his family. Charity should not lead to further dependence. In the rural community the basic need of a farmer is water for irrigation, a pair of bullocks for ploughing the field and a cow to ensure nutrition for the family. With these prerequisites for self-sufficiency the farmer will no longer need any more charity.

To this end, cows donated by devotees, disciples and well wishers of Paramahamsa Satyananda are distributed to farmers after careful veterinary examination. The recipient is given guidance regarding care for the cow. Similarly, pairs of bullocks are also given to farmers so that they may be able to plough their land for agriculture. In cases of need sannyasins drive tractors and plough the land too. When required, SM bores tube wells to water the fields of farmers. Work is underway to make a big reservoir in Rikhia using a perennial ground water source. Water will be drawn by pumps and transported wherever required through aluminium pipes clamped with hooks and then connected to sprinkler systems. The farmers will no longer be victims of the vagaries of monsoons. Seeds, fertilizers, saplings and other agricultural materials are also distributed in large quantities to the farmers.

Assistance not charity

Those villagers who do not own land are provided with work by SM which uses local labour for all its building construction and related work. SM makes initial investments to start small shops for villagers. Auto-rickshaws, cycle rickshaws, handcarts and sewing machines are given to villagers so that they may be able to earn a living. Students who go to town to study are given bicycles. Paramahamsa Satyananda calls these activities 'offering assistance' to one who is in need. He does not like to use the word 'charity' because he believes that charity is the mother of poverty.

The trait common to all these cases of assistance is that rather than dole out the finished product the assistance enables and requires the recipient to make an effort to achieve his ends. The assistance is a motivation to work, in contrast to the dole which breeds stagnation and dependence.

SM has records on its computer of every family in all villages in its vicinity, the family members and the assistance received. Thus it can monitor the performance of the recipients of assistance and advise them further.

You find that the prerequisite of making an effort also applies to receiving medical aid. Along with the medicines, the doctors of 'Sivananda Charitable Dispensary' ensure that the patients make an effort to maintain adequate personal and community hygiene. A permanent resident nursing sister heads the dispensary and free medical treatment is provided on a daily basis, for the local rural people. Many visiting doctors and specialists also come to offer their seva. Specialized cases are referred to specialists in cities who offer free treatment and operations. Other associates and well wishers take responsibility for providing complete medical care to patients with long standing diseases.

Expressing devotion to God

In addition to assistance and social service, there is another unique dimension to the work of SM. In the words of Paramahamsa Satyananda, “the concept of social service is giving aid to the needy in exigent circumstances. There is another type of giving, not with the attitude of helping a poor man but with the feeling of offering to the Lord”. Sri Swamiji sees offering to one's neighbours as the true expression of devotion to God.

SM, therefore, also works to uphold this expression of devotion. Mud houses constructed by SM are offered to villagers. The houses are made of raw, unbaked mud blocks made by a special compressor. The floor and walls are plastered with mud and the roof is thatched. All comforts of electricity can be installed in them. The houses are very economical and environmentally friendly. They have four rooms (10 feet x 10 feet each) with kitchen, verandah and boundary wall. Designed for village living, there is space for livestock and fuel in addition to separate areas for aged parents and the young crowd. In time SM plans to provide everyone around them with such houses.

Devotees and well wishers of Paramahamsa Satyananda come laden with articles of use to offer the neighbours of Sri Swamiji in Rikhia. Consignments of clothing, blankets, books, stationery, utensils, toys including cricket sets, football and other games for grown up children, is sorted into individual packets according to the needs of every family in the neighbourhood. The packets are loaded in a truck and distributed to the villagers as 'prasad' – an offering to the Lord himself.

Brides of the neighbouring villages going to their in-laws' house for the first time are given gold and silver jewellery, ornamental saree, wristwatch and cosmetics, all brought by devotees.

For the sevaks of SM, seva is sadhana. And when the motivating force behind them is a 'siddha saint' the 'charity' takes on a new and positive meaning.