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Agents of social transformation

Author: KG Suresh
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: October 6, 2014
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/oped/agents-of-social-transformation.html

Religious institutions are not only engaged in spiritual teachings, moral education, yoga or meditation techniques. They are involved in massive charitable activities ranging from building houses to running schools and cow-shelters

 While Prime Minister Narendra Modi was winning friends and influencing people in the United States last week, in a sleepy village sandwiched between the Ashtamudi lake and the Arabian Sea in far away Kollam district of Kerala, lakhs of devotees from across the country and the world were queuing up to get a glimpse of Ámma’ or Mata Amritanandamayi, on her 61st birthday and seek her blessings.

 In the words of former Union Minister Arif Mohammed Khan, who was present at the Amritavarsham celebrations at Amritapuri, the spiritual headquarters of Mata Amritanandamayi Math, perhaps no other religious leader belonging to any faith personally embraces and interacts with each of his or her devotees as Amma does. Among the lakhs, not only foreigners were fascinated by Indian spirituality but also people from all walks of life and strata of society, including the poorest of the poor.

 Apart from the lakhs of devotees who converge at the idyllic venue, the headquarter is home to about 4,000 permanent residents, including hundreds of non-resident Indians who have given up their lucrative careers abroad to serve the society and the nation through Amma’s mission. Forsaking good things of life, these young men and women, some even with their families, live in small flats in the campus and engage in meaningful research in areas ranging from medicine to biotechnology with the objective of serving the mankind.

 It was no wonder then that Amma’s birthday celebrations witnessed the presence of the who’s who of national and Kerala politics and society, from Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and his Cabinet colleagues as also Shree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam supremo V Natesan.

 While Mr Rajnath Singh did seek Amma’s blessings for eliminating the scourge of terrorism, it is not yet clear whether his visit to the Ashram was merely meant as a goodwill gesture given the fact that she has the capacity to influence a sizable chunk of voters in the politically crucial southern State and no political party including the Left can afford to antagonise her.

 With the National Democratic Alliance Government led by Prime Minister Modi embarking on several ambitious schemes aimed at changing the face of India, it is important that the political leadership takes into confidence the nation’s spiritual teachers from across the religious spectrum to make a massive impact at the ground level. In a deeply religious country such as ours, these spiritual gurus hold immense sway over the masses at large and can tremendously contribute to change mindsets, which is so critical for the success of these missions. No amount of incentives or penalties can motivate Government servants to go beyond the call of duty than a clarion call from these religious leaders whose words are Gospel truth for the innumerable devotees.

 One distinctly remembers how the United Nations Children’s Fund, World Health Organisation and Central and State Government agencies were finding it difficult to penetrate some pockets in western Uttar Pradesh, including Aligarh, which were resisting pulse polio immunisation due to myths, unsubstantiated rumours and mischief by sections of Urdu language press. It was then that officials decided to reach out to influencers, including maulvis of local mosques. Once these religious clerics were convinced, it did not take time for the agencies to access the local populace and make the programme a grand success in the region. Such is the impact of religious clerics and leaders in our country.

 It is also important to realise that these religious institutions are not just engaged in spiritual teachings, moral education, rituals, yoga or meditation techniques, as is widely believed. They are involved in massive charitable activities ranging from building houses to running schools, cow-shelters, orphanages and hospitals.

 A visit to the annual Hindu Spiritual and Service Fair, organised by the Global Foundation for Civilisational Harmony (India) in Chennai every year is an eye-opener to the extent of humanitarian activities engaged in by these organisations across the country and the world.

 The consolidated data of philanthropic work done by the Hindu spiritual organisations which participated in the HSS fair 2012 , showed that some 98 organisations out of the 160 organisations which participated in the fair alone ran over one lakh educational institutions, thousands of hospitals and medical centres and rural development projects among others, an unparalleled initiative of implementing on their own, without any State budgetary support.

 This apart, these organisations have been from time to time taking up burning issues of the day. In the wake of the Nirbhaya incident, the women’s wing of Prajapita Brahma Kumaris Ishwariya Vishwa Vidyalaya launched an all-India campaign on ‘Woman Safety — Our Safety’ and ‘Save Women-Save Nation’.

 This joint campaign aimed at creating public awareness and sensitisation against atrocities, abuse, injustice, deprivation, discrimination, ill-treatment and violence in all forms perpetrated on women at all levels of society — whether at home, workplace, community or during socio-cultural and religious rites and rituals.

 Come December, every year, thousands of students and youth from across Gujarat and the country head to a sprawling rural retreat in the remote Pransla village in Upleta taluka of Rajkot district, just 60 kilometres from Porbandar, the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi.

 The Rashtra Katha Shibir, where nothing but pure, undiluted patriotism, cultural awareness and scientific temperament are inculcated among the participating youth, not only attracts personnel from the Armed Forces such as Border Security Force but also distinguished leaders from all walks of life.

 A brain child of Swami Dharambandhu, who originally hails from Tamil Nadu and heads the Shri Vedic Mission Trust, the camp aims to inculcate patriotic spirit and spread the rich Indian culture among the country’s youth and other citizens. “We wish to highlight India’s contribution to world civilisation in the context of scientific and technological advances and connect every Indian to the country’s glorious heritage and culture and to motivate them to remain committed to India’s progress in all fields,” says the young swami, a yoga practitioner, who shuns all kinds of publicity, does not wear saffron robes and often moves around in track suits.

 Mata Amritanandamayi’s own ‘Embracing the World’ project has already constructed 45,000 homes as part of a goal of one lakh homes for the homeless throughout India. This includes houses for the tsunami-affected in southern India and the flood- affected in Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir.

 Much before the launch of the ‘Swachch Bharat Abhiyan’, Amma had launched the ‘Amala Bharatam Campaign’. The impact can be gauged from the fact that within three days of her taking up the task of cleaning up the surroundings of Sabarimala, the abode of Lord Ayyappa and the largest pilgrimage centre in Kerala, 5,097 volunteers participated in the initiative, collecting 50,000 bags of waste in 72 hours and turning the area clean.

 While non-governmental organisations have been partners in official initiatives for long, the NDA Government, which does not suffer from any pseudo-secular inhibitions, should involve spiritual organisations of all faiths and harness their energy and influence to convert its path-breaking initiatives, in areas ranging from sanitation to health and education, into mass movements and make them a grand success.

(The author is Senior Fellow and Editor at Vivekananda International Foundation)
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