Reverentially Revisiting Ramakrishna Mission on Epidemic, Spirituality and Empowerment


1st of May is celebrated as International Labour Day across the world. It is lesser known that on 1st of May in 1897 the Ramakrishna Mission was founded by Swami Vivekananda in Calcutta in the name of his revered Guru Ramakrishna Paramahansa. In fact, the inception of the Ramakrishna Mission constituted a landmark in the history of humanity for invoking spirituality and applying it for awakening the inherent divinity of human beings. Its employment of spirituality for serving people and the deprived humanity is commendable. That was why right from its foundation it engaged itself in serving the poor, spreading values of acceptance and tolerance among different faiths and empowering people through education, healthcare and numerous other social and cultural activities. It is instructive to note that it invokes spirituality to promote the ideals and ideas of entrepreneurship for making people economically self reliant.

Plague Manifesto

Today when the world is in the grip of Corona pandemic it is worthwhile to recall Swami Vivekananda who issued a Plague Manifesto in 1898, almost a year after the Ramakrishna Mission was founded. A few weeks after the Manifesto was drafted Calcutta was ravaged by plague epidemic. The contents of that manifesto were used by the monks of Ramakrishna Mission to educate people of Calcutta to take preventive measures to protect themselves from the deadly disease of plague.

That Manifesto originally drafted by Swamiji in Bengali and Hindi was distributed to people for empowering them with basic information and values to boost their spirit and save themselves from that scourge. It asked people of Calcutta to fall back on the Ramakrishna Mission at that time of crisis posing danger to health, human and economic security. The Manifesto appealed to people, “Brother, if there is no one to help you, then send information immediately to the servants of Shri Bhagavan Ramakrishna at Belur Math. There will be no dearth of help that is physically possible. By the grace of the Mother, monetary help will also be possible.” That empathy, humanism and service embodied in the aforementioned para is evocative of exemplary leadership humanity needs to address the global pandemic caused by novel Corona virus.

The Plague Manifesto drafted by Swami Vivekananda began by establishing kinship of monks of Ramakrishna Mission with the suffering people. The very first two paras of it offers lessons for twenty first century world which in face of pandemic of gigantic proportions is falling into fault lines caused by religion, nationality, race, sect and ethnicity and intensifying cleavages which come on the way of unity and solidarity so essential to face the Corona disaster. It is worthwhile to reproduce those paras.

“ We feel happy when you are happy, and we suffer when you suffer. Therefore, during these days of extreme adversity, we are striving and ceaselessly praying for your welfare and an easy way to save you from disease and the fear of an epidemic.

If that grave disease — fearing which both the high and the low, the rich and the poor are all fleeing the city — ever really comes in our midst, then even if we perish while serving and nursing you, we will consider ourselves fortunate because you are all embodiments of God. He who thinks otherwise — out of vanity, superstition or ignorance — offends God and incurs great sin. There is not the slightest doubt about it.”

Those two paras made it clear that he and brother monks of Ramakrishna Mission became plague warriors ready to sacrifice life to save victims of the epidemic whom Swami Vivekananda hailed as the embodiments of God.

Apart from remaining firmly with the suffering humanity in the trying times of epidemic Swamiji gave a call for action which constituted a gospel and practical blue print for maintaining cleanliness and hygiene to protect people from plague. His exhortations summed up in few paras of the Manifesto are worth quoting here.

“Come, let us give up this false fear and, having faith in the infinite compassion of God, gird our loins and enter the field of action. Let us live pure and clean lives. Disease, fear of an epidemic, etc., will vanish into thin air by His grace.

Always keep the house and its premises, the rooms, clothes, bed, drain, etc., clean.
Do not eat stale, spoiled food; take fresh and nutritious food instead. A weak body is more susceptible to disease.
Always keep the mind cheerful. Everyone will die once. Cowards suffer the pangs of death again and again, solely due to the fear in their own minds.

Fear never leaves those who earn their livelihoods by unethical means or who cause harm to others. Therefore, at this time when we face the great fear of death, desist from all such behaviour.

During the period of epidemic, abstain from anger and from lust — even if you are householders.”
Through that manifesto he appealed to people not to be actuated by rumors and assured that all those who would be treated in the hospital of the Mission would find a conducive atmosphere where their religion, caste and other identities would be honored.

Such a provision sounds so contemporary for our time when some bigoted people try to blame a community or sect for spreading corona infection and even some others are denied to earn their livelihood and get access to treatment in the name of faith.

The sensitivity and humanity embodied in the words of the manifesto that, “There will be no lack of effort in treating the afflicted patients in our hospital under our special care and supervision, paying full respect to religion, caste and the modesty (Purdah) of women” deserve to be the guiding spirit for practical action to deal with corona pandemic without taking into account religious or caste affiliations of the victims.
The Manifesto clearly stood by the poor and forlorn and categorically affirmed, “Let the wealthy run away! But we are poor; we understand the heartache of the poor. The Mother of the Universe is Herself the support of the helpless. The Mother is assuring us: “Fear not! Fear not!”

Such a stand of Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna Mission in the trials and tribulations caused by plague epidemic in 1898 assumes deeper significance for countering COVID pandemic of twenty first century world.

Sister Nivedita’s Special Role in Reaching out to the Victims of Plague

As the plague in Calcutta claimed more lives and triggered panic among people the Ramakrishna Mission set up a Committee of which Sister Nivedita, a western disciple of Swami Vivekananda, was its Secretary. She moved in the streets of the city, distributed papers urging people to maintain cleanliness and hygiene and got involved in many activities to prevent further spread of the epidemic. Her manifold and selfless work in the plague stricken Calcutta endeared her to the people and she became an angel of mercy. Sister Nivedita and Swami Sadananda of Ramakrishna Mission spearheaded the relief operation disregarding the danger of infection to themselves. In fact the way she rendered services to the victims of plague and reached out to the suffering humanity stunned the brother monks of Ramakrishna Mission. That record of shining and exemplary service of Sister Nivedita during plague epidemic made huge impact on mother Sarada, consort of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and her name is integral to the collective memory of people who reverentially recall her service and sacrifice.

Swami Vivekananda Linked Spread of Diabetes to Modern Civilization

While reflecting on epidemic and health I recall Swamiji’s writings on diabetes. We are all aware of the fact that human beings are getting increasingly plagued by lifestyle diseases. India itself has become the diabetic capital of the world. People of all age groups are now becoming victims of diabetes. In volume 5 of Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda Swamiji wrote that through materialism we would get diabetes and through spiritualism we would enjoy good health. Such revealing insights in the end of 19th century constituted a wakeup call for the entire humanity which is caught in the vicious cycle of materialism.

Yet again in the same volume I found two pages devoted to diabetes. Swamiji wrote that diabetes was spreading fast in towns of India. He very sharply observed that people who came from villages of Bengal to Calcutta found it fashionable to hire a carriage to move from one street to another and considered it prestigious to feed their children with food deeply fried in ghee and oil. Then he very pungently observed that “such Calcuttaised and civilized people were bound to get diabetes.” The extent of “Calcuttaisation” and spread of so called civilization have made us deeply realize their debilitating consequences for our health and life. It is striking that in the beginning of 20th century Swami Vivekananda made a sharp and searching analysis that unhealthy life style combined with modern civilisation would have consequences for health and well being of people. He, in fact, wrote that the ghost of diabetes could be exorcised by ascending the Himalayas and descending to the planes on foot. In other words Swamiji prescribed ample physical exercise to deal with diabetes which has emerged as a major life style disease and now considered a silent killer.

Spirituality as a Source of service and Empowerment

We all respectfully recall Swami Vivekananda who mesmerized the Western world through his spiritual discourses. He described himself as a socialist and combined in himself the deep understanding of Vedanta with thorough knowledge of modern science. The objective of Ramakrishna Mission as set out by Swamiji was to engage in spiritual and humanitarian activities without any regard to faith and political persuasion of people. The presence of Ramakrishna Mission in different parts of India and globe and its spiritual and humanitarian activities in numerous countries testify to its planetary significance.

It began in Kolkata in 1897 and now its numerous branches established in several countries radiate the message of Ramakrishna Paramhansa and provide a beaconing light to the weary humanity often torn asunder by incessant materialistic appetite.

When Swami Vivekananda came back to India after his triumphant trip to America a disciple asked him as to why he was not as eloquent in India as he was in the West in expounding the fundamental principles of Vedanta. He pointedly remarked that Indians were as much entitled to his spiritual wisdom as the Western people were. Therefore, the disciple requested him to deliver speeches on spirituality to vast masses of Indians living in length and breadth of our country. Swamiji with his deep understanding of Indian society answered that Indians who lacked access to education, health facilities and above all food did not deserve discourses on spirituality. He educated his disciple that the most important task in India was to reach out to the deprived and neglected masses and remove their suffering. Upon hearing such words of Swamiji the disciple then asked as to what was to be done in India to remove the sufferings of people? Swamiji then replied that those who claimed to be monks and sanyasis and those who mastered Vedanta should visit from village to village and teach people how to do business and engage themselves in trade and commerce. He very forcefully stated that if Sanyasis who claimed to have understood Vedanta failed to teach people how to do business then there was no meaning of their study of Vedanta. In other words, Swamiji linked spirituality with entrepreneurship for economic empowerment of people and their upliftment from poverty and degradation.

In fact, one of the objectives of Ramakrishna Mission is to teach people not only to be spiritually rich but also economically self-sufficient. Swamiji very clearly stated that the avowed objective of Ramakrishna Mission is woven around ‘Jiva is Shiva’. So it is this life affirming spirituality which defines Ramakrishna Mission as a vibrant spiritual entity incessantly engaged in serving the people of all faiths. Today when religion and religious values are being distorted and misused to promote hatred and violence Ramakrishna Mission stands as a shining example of acceptance, tolerance, harmony and reconciliation of diverse faiths.

What impresses a visitor to Ramakrishna Mission anywhere in the world is the location of meditation hall next to a library. It teaches us the fundamental lesson that pursuit of spirituality and scholarship can be combined together. Meditation is a method and process which does not necessarily tune its practitioner to the other worldly dimensions of life. It is very much linked to the life process of common people and, therefore, is inseparable from our day to day existence. Now modern studies conducted by world class scientists and doctors validate the spiritual proposition that consistent practice of meditation can prevent ageing by keeping both the ends of our chromosomes long and healthy. Professor Elizabeth Helen Blackburn, a Nobel laureate in medicine, conducted a study where she conclusively proved that non-physical factors such as meditation are as important as physical factors such as food and other material components for leading a healthy and fulfilling life. So what is being validated by modern science was understood by Swami Vivekananda long back and through Ramakrishna Mission he wanted to propagate that ancient wisdom to address the problems of modern life.

Ramakrishna Mission as a Confluence of Civilizations
The Ramakrishna Mission founded on 1st May, 1897 is now spearheading a movement to spread teachings of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Swami Vivekananda for spiritual regeneration and for promotion of health and well-being of our people.

It is mischievously said that increasingly instead of nations the civilizations would clash and there would be mounting hatred and disharmony among people professing diverse faiths. It was Prof. Samuel Huntington of Harvard University who coined the phrase ‘Clash of Civilization’ to denote the emerging phenomenon of world politics where different civilizations would fight among themselves. It is educative to note that Swami Vivekananda addressed the World Parliament of Religions on 9/11, 1893 and cautioned the world that “Sectarianism, bigotry and its horrible descendent fanaticism” had drenched the earth with human blood. He believed that there would be an end to fanaticism with the commencement of the World Parliament of Religions. The 9/11 associated with Swamiji’s life and work articulate unity of religions and unity of mankind. And the 9/11 of 2001 reminded us the gory phenomenon of violence unleashed by forces representing fanaticism. In 21st century world the increasing spread of violence and hatred in the name of religion would herald, in the words of Thomas Friedman, author of the book ‘The World is Flat’, a dark medieval era for mankind. To save the world from such a dark era we require the message of Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Swami Vivekananda. In fact, the Ramakrishna Mission is a splendid example of inter-faith harmony. The inspiring tradition of the Mission to uphold religious tolerance and respect for other faiths constitutes a standing refutation of the clash of civilization theory. Its founding objective to accept and tolerate all religions is the essence of secularism. It is extremely heartening to note that the Ramakrishna Mission celebrates not only major Hindu festivals but many other festivals associated with other faiths. Cyril Veliath of Sophia University writes that “Of the Hindu groups I have worked with I have found the Ramakrishna Mission to be the most tolerant and amenable to dialogue, and I believe that we Christians could not do better, than to cooperate wholeheartedly in their efforts towards inter-religious harmony.” This is a remarkable tribute to the ideals of harmony and co-existence represented by Ramakrishna Mission.

Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna Mission as Soft Power

The monks of the Ramakrishna Mission celebrate the values of renunciation which are embodied in the term Sanyas. In fact the principles of Sanyas which they follow are of abiding significance for our modern times. Let us be mindful of the fact that based on renunciation Swami Vivekananda could cast a spell on the Western world. At a time when materialism was at its ascendance he followed the ideals of renunciation and used them to teach common people to economically empower themselves. Much later it was Mahatma Gandhi who followed some principles of Sanyas to mobilise Indians to rise against colonial rule and exploitation. Both Swamiji and Mahatma Gandhi showed to rest of the world that through spiritualism and not ritualism the problems of the modern world could be addressed. And they successfully did it. Swamiji without any money or material wealth could shake the mighty Western society by expounding fundamentals of Vedanta. In fact, he represented what is now called the soft power of India.
Professor Joseph Nye Jr. of Harvard University became famous for using the term soft power. He stated that as opposed to hard power which is based on compulsion, coercion and arm twisting soft power is based on persuasion, attraction and exemplary conduct which would draw others towards the person who shows such conduct. What Swamiji did towards the end of 19th century in hugely attracting the Western world towards him because of his exemplary conduct, eloquent disposition of spirituality and his persuasive personality represented the soft power of India. The Ramakrishna Mission that he founded is carrying forward that tradition. In fact, it is a noble institution imbued with values of spirituality and service to humanity. Through its broad spectrum activities encompassing education, health care, cultural activities, tribal welfare, rural development and youth welfare it is providing leadership to rest of the country and indeed the world that through spiritualism and religion society can be peacefully and constructively changed. This is the true meaning of soft power which India is proud of. This rich soft power which the Ramakrishna Mission represents is the real strength of India. Of course, we need economic and material well being. Of course we need health and human security. But without spiritual regeneration all our physical advancements would prove to be a snare and hindrance on our progress.

I remember Late Shri K.R. Narayanan as the Vice-President of India visited Ramakrishna Mission to participate in its centenary celebrations in 1997 and had urged bureaucrats and political leaders to follow some principles of Sanyas to uphold the cause of probity and integrity in their conduct and service career. I think it was a sage counsel that people exercising political and administrative power should temper it with values of Sanyas which in its essence means restraint and discipline.

It is humbling to visit Ramakrishna Mission, a real place of pilgrimage and interfaith harmony in the Indian subcontinent.

Let the legacy of Ramakrishna Mission guide the present generation to get imbued with spiritualism to serve humanity, deepen cultural diversity and enrich the culture of acceptance and tolerance.

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