In Rikhia, the sixteenth is not like any other day of the month. On this day you can be sure to hear singing and clapping to the accompaniment of the Mahamantra. Inside the yajnashala hall all are happily chanting the kirtan 'Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna'. The people inside are the so-called 'old age pensioners', or as Sri Swamiji has called them, his 'co-travellers'. Today, as they come out of the yajnashala, they carry a bag of rice, their monthly pension and a big smile. In other months, they receive umbrellas, clothes, blankets, all in accordance with the season.
As Sri Swamiji says, "It is such a long way from here to the abode of God. It will be so hot on the way, we will all need an umbrella. On the way we may smoke a few little bidis (cigarettes) and have some nuts' as well, because the road is so long, and the biggest thing is that nobody knows the way. We are all travelling to our original home. We are here in this world for fifty to eighty years. Then, ultimately, we have to return home."
This prasad distribution has continued every month since 1999, after the death of Bholenath (Sri Swamiji's dog and faithful Panchagni companion) on the 16th October. As the old men appear at the gate with a stick in one hand and their prasad in the other, you cannot help but be absolutely amazed by their luminous smiling faces greeting everyone around them - the newcomers on the road, the man on the gate, the sannyasins, the visitors from abroad. Greetings go to the unknown and the known alike, and the surrounding world is delighted by their joyous, childlike expressions. One makes little jumps as he dances out the gate, still singing the kirtan. Another, with very stiff legs, holds tight to his bamboo stick, his only support. In similar fashion, these 'Goldies' from the age group sixty to eighty years come slowly through the doorway, one by one.
I remember what I have heard about these poor villagers. Swami Niranjan told us, "When Sri Swamiji first came to this area, these people did not have any food or clothing." "And no bidis either," added Sri Swamiji. "Cigarettes were not available at all. Now, even that is available. If there are no bidis, then there is no life for elderly people, no life at all. If there are some puffs and pegs from the bottle, then one can enjoy life. But these people had, literally speaking, nothing!"
These people had no roof over their head to protect them from the heavy rainfall; no blankets to keep them warm on the very cold winter nights when the temperature drops down to two to three degrees centigrade; no fan, not even an umbrella to protect them or to keep them comfortable in the months of May and June when the temperature easily reaches fifty degrees centigrade. How did they survive with no food, no way of making a living, hardly any clothes to cover their naked bodies, year after year, witnessing the loss of those who could not survive the hardships of nature?
One old man came to Sri Swamiji and said, "Before you came, I did not know if my children would get food or go to bed hungry. Now that problem is no longer haunting us." In our modern society we cannot even grasp the type of life they used to lead, their will to live and the strength they must have had to survive. My heart quivers and my head bows in respect to these warriors, unknown to the world.
From the time the ashram took form, the process was set in motion. Searching out every living being, prasad was distributed to the tiny, forgotten population of Rikhia panchayat and the surrounding areas. Houses were built, fields were ploughed, clothes and medicines were distributed, and the campaign begun against tuberculosis, as a new life began for the people of rural Rikhia. Now the work is continuing on a larger scale and TB has been practically wiped out. This once 'God-forsaken' hamlet has found a place on the world map. The whole world comes here now. As Sri Swamiji says, "The people of this area had nothing. It was a desolate place. My neighbours had no hope for the future. Now the whole area is humming with life."
Sri Swamiji has also reminded us very strongly, "These simple village people are the actual load bearers of society, just like the beams, columns and foundations that bear the load of a house. The windows, doors, furniture and decorations don't carry any of the load. We are that extra stuff, the filling, or you may say that we are the actual load! In fact, people like us are a burden on society." For that reason, it is our duty to sustain society in all parts of the world, to care for the common folk on a worldwide basis. A house without a proper foundation is sure to fall apart. The same applies to these villagers who are simple but strong. If they do not last, we will suffer. If they do not get proper support, it will harm us and society in general.
What exactly will happen when we do not take care of the villagers? If the gap between those who have and those who have not continues, sooner or later this division will fracture society. The have-nots will be compelled to satisfy their needs by taking directly from those who do. This has been the case in many societies, both in the past and in the present day also, with escalating crime rates and social violence. Sri Swamiji has said that they will break into our homes and take by force what we have not shared with them from our hearts, thus causing great imbalance, disorder and disaster.
These villagers are now well skilled in different works like plumbing, carpentry, construction and farming. They do most of the building and maintenance work in the ashram. Still, you can see a man in his late sixties, slender of build, with his bullocks tied to the plough, toiling in the blazing sun. He ekes out a meagre existence from his little piece of dry land, preparing it for the rice which is planted in June-July, when the first shower of rain is eagerly awaited. Sri Swamiji tells us, "Often I go for a stroll to these villages. The people watch out for me and the children say 'Good morning'. If somehow they miss seeing me, the children shout at their parents, 'Mummy, Papa, Swamiji has gone past.' It is not because I give them anything. As a matter of fact, love is quite reciprocal. When you love someone, you receive the same amount of love in return. If I ignore you, then you are bound to ignore me too."
These humble villagers, and the beautiful relationship between them and Sri Swamiji has inspired me to write: "Have you seen the morning sun, lighting up the streets of Rikhia, chasing away the black night with its infinite light? It sheds this light on everyone, the poor, the weak, the young and strong. A new day has begun for the old, middle-aged and young. Here comes Sri Swamiji, dressed in his geru robes, lighting up the road. He brings a greeting, 'Namo Narayana', and a cheerful smile. He gives us hope and spreads his light, blessing us all from time to time. Prosperity in abundance he gives freely from his hand. Here is a man of Rikhia town, living in a simple dwelling, along with his family, he has his own dear cow. They all work hard for a living. In the long day, there is no time for sleeping. The work must be done. The work is done by everyone. So, how can you tell us you are lonely, and that for you the sun does not shine? Let us take you by the hand and lead you through the paths of Rikhia. We'll show you something to make you change your mind."