There are two sides to social work; one involves doing good for the sake of others and the other involves performing service for your own purification. Whatever you do for others, in the end it reaches God. You dedicate it to God, not to human beings. You are just a medium; God is the One who gets it. Hindus, Christians and Muslims all hold this same view and say the same thing.
A householder who is only interested in family and children in his life can also be an agent of service. However, what should be the main concern in life for a person who has left home and has nothing to do with spouse, children or family? If he does not care about food, soap, toothpaste or blankets, if he has no worry or necessity, then he should become a medium for all others. This is a very important point. People do not have a responsibility just to their family; they also have a responsibility towards society. I am not just responsible for my institution; I also have a social responsibility.
We must accomplish that social responsibility either from the spiritual perspective by becoming a medium of God or by working for the welfare of others by using our wealth. This choice depends on your belief. Those who are spiritually inclined will think according to the first perspective, and the modern people will think, ‘Okay, a part of my income will go towards the welfare of others.’ This is all right for householders since they need to keep a balance between social and family obligations. A sannyasin, however, does not have any family responsibility. He should not have any friend; he should have no relationship with anyone. He should care only for others, especially those who do not have anyone to look after them. A young person can look after himself, but a sick, old person cannot look after himself. Social responsibility should begin with such people.
Social responsibility is necessary because we have an obligation towards society. In ancient times, this was called a rina or karmic debt: a debt to God, a debt to the sages, a debt to the parents, a debt to all forms of life, and a debt to humankind. These five debts are called social obligations in modern language, and you will never be free from them. Every individual is indebted to society. If there is no society there will be no safety. You will have to pay your debt to society, but what will you do and how will you do it? There should be a way, a medium. The lofty souls, the wise ones and the sadhus are the mediums. We can fulfil our societal obligations through the sadhus. I am sitting here. If you want to give cattle, who will you give them to? I know who needs them. If you want to give a bicycle, who will you give it to? You do not know, but I know which girl should be given one. Since the time I arrived here, all the girls have started studying. They have become so enthusiastic.
The biggest mistake in our society is that five hundred litres of milk will be offered in a temple, yet no one will give five litres of milk to a sick man. A person thinks, ‘I will not be blessed by giving this sick man milk; however, if I offer five hundred litres of milk to Shiva, he will be pleased and my case will be dismissed from court.’ This is the faith! People’s faith has lost direction. Faith can also be channelled in the right direction. My guru, Swami Sivananda, used to say that helping others does not just mean that you are giving them medicine or clothes. The real meaning of helping others is that you are cleaning yourself. When you help someone, where does this act take place? It takes place in the mind, which becomes purified. It is only when your mind is pure and your mirror is clean that you will be able to see your face.
The one that you worship in the temple, in stone, in paper, is no one else but you. However, you aren't able to forget yourself; you aren't able to forget that you are an old woman, a shopkeeper, a businessman, an industrialist, or an employee. You won’t be able to see yourself as God, because you are convinced that you are an old lady. That is why you worship Shiva, because you are convinced he is God. However, when your heart becomes clean, a mirror begins to shine and shows that the God in that rock is false, and that the truth is that He is no one else but you.
In the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas, the Upanishads and in countless holy books, this is what is written from beginning to end. Our religion says the same thing. I do not criticize worship of the form, for that is also one way. Gods, goddesses, asana, pranayama, meditation, concentration, self-control or whatever you do, that is a way. I do not criticize the path, but it is a path only, and not the destination. It is a means, not the end.
When we worship Shiva, Rama, Ganesha or Devi, we do so not as the means but as the end. It is necessary to do so. By believing them to be the goal, eventually their true nature is understood. We are unable to see the truth. Why? It is due to an absence of affection, love, compassion and devotion: the affection that exists between brother and sister, the love between man and woman, the compassion that a happy man feels for an unhappy one, and the devotion that we feel for the power of God. Affection, love, compassion and devotion, the four of these soften life. The way iron melts when it is heated and can be given any shape; in the same way, to melt this hard heart, to soften it, these four are necessary.
Rabindranath Tagore said, “Soften your prana with affection, love, compassion and devotion.” Here the word prana means your entire life, not the breath. Your prana is not soft, your life is not soft. If your children, spouse or close relatives were in pain, wouldn't you worry about them? Of course you would, yet you would not care about your neighbours. If you heard about their problems, you would say, “Do you want me to call the doctor? Should I telephone him?” You may give money or lend him your car, you may do a lot of things, still you would not have the same feelings you would have for your spouse and children.
In Vedanta, to be able to see yourself in all living beings is called atmabhava. Atmabhava is explained in the Ishavasya Upanishad, the Kathopanishad and all the Upanishads. It is also written in the Bhagavad Gita (6:29):
Sarvabhutasthamatmanam sarvabhutaani chaatmani;
Ikshate yogayuktaatma sarvatra samadarshanah.
The impartial individual, immersed in yoga, sees all living beings in himself and himself in all living beings.
This is the way to atmabhava. However, it is very difficult to practise. Usually you think, ‘I have no connection to others; she is not my wife, he is not my son or my brother, he is not from my caste or religion, nor from my village, and I have nothing to gain from him.’
To feel the pain of another man in distress is possible only for the great souls. Their hearts are moved, Sant hridaya navanita samana – “A sage’s heart is as soft as freshly churned butter.” An ordinary person’s heart is moved only by those they know and love, or those they have been friends with for years. If someone has obliged you in some way, then it is natural to care about that person. However, if you feel that way for someone who has never belonged to you, then that is paropkara, working for the welfare of others, and it purifies the soul.
17 September 1997, Rikhiapeeth