The history of the Ramakrishna Order’s relief services is as old as that of the Mission itself. Besides their multifarious permanent constructive works, from their very inception, the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission have been ever ready to promptly organise ameliorative and healing services whenever the nation has been faced with sudden calamities caused by freaks of nature, follies of men, or scourges of epidemics. Its relief activities have also extended well beyond Indian borders.
The Ramakrishna Mission began its first organised relief operation within two weeks of its being founded. Since then relief has been a major plank of the humanitarian service programmes of the Ramakrishna Mission. Relief has been undertaken almost every year on different scales and in different forms in one part of the country or the other in response to both natural and man-made disasters. Flood relief is the most common type of relief operation and over the years about 30 different types of relief have been provided. In dispensing relief, the Mission meets the immediate and the long-term needs of victims, irrespective of their caste, gender, ethnicity, religion or political persuasion. These immediate needs are met through primary relief, which takes the form of distributing food, clothing, medicines and other necessities and providing temporary shelters. Long-term needs on the other hand range from constructing -houses and shelters to economic rehabilitation and follow-up programmes.
In the first few years the Ramakrishna Mission’s relief operations were mainly provided in Bengal, with a couple of isolated operations elsewhere. Subsequently, relief operations were extended beyond the borders of Bengal to include famine relief in Puri in 1908-09, Benaras in 1916-17; flood relief in Amherst in 1920-21 and Akyab (Burma , now Myanmar) in 1926-27, in the South like Coimbatore, Tanjore, Salem and Travancore in 1924-25 and in the North like Vrindaban, Mathura and Dehradun in 1924-25; earthquake relief was provided in Dharmasala in 1905-06, in Pegu in 1930-31 and North Bihar in 1934. The branching out of relief operations coincided with the expansion of the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission through its branches across India. In the last 20 years, relief operations have also been provided abroad like in Russia, Brazil, Fiji, Sri Lanka and other places.
The Ramakrishna Mission draws its inspiration from the lives and experiences of Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886), Sri Sarada Devi (1853-1920) and Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). All three of them were also confronted with the ravaging effects of famine on the Indian people.
Sri Ramakrishna was exposed to two situations — one at Deoghar and another at Kalaighata — where he persuaded Mathura Mohan Biswas to feed and clothe the famine-stricken people of the locality. Sri Ramakrishna’s encounter with the poverty-stricken at Deoghar, in around 1868, were most probably the lingering victims of the great Orissa famine of 1866.
There is also some possibility that the famine-stricken, whom Sri Sarada Devi served as a young girl at her native village, were also the victims of the same Orissa famine that affected parts of Bengal.
Swami Vivekananda, during his itinerant days, travelled through areas that were ravaged by famines in the past. His wanderings through the western frontiers of Bengal, Bihar and Oudh/United Provinces, in 1888 and 1889, had all experienced famines from 1876 to 1879. His far more extensive travels from 1890 to 1893 took him through many locations that were ravaged by famines in the previous quarter of a century. Hence, Swami Vivekananda was keenly aware that famines were not only a constant curse in the Indian subcontinent during the British regime, but that the government machinery was lacklustre and inefficient in responding to these effectively. An article, published in The Statesman on September 9, 1901, carried the findings of the Sir Anthony MacDonnell Famine Commission, which reported: “Wherever there was failure it was due not so much to defects in the system of relief (government relief) as to the defects in the administration of it.” Later, after his participation at the World’s Parliament of Religions, Swami Vivekananda was catapulted on the world’s stage. This paved the way for mobilising a spiritually-centred organisation that would work for ameliorating the effects of famine and other forms of socio-economic injustices with a definitive philosophy.
Sri Ramakrishna used to say, “Man is Narayana Himself. If God can manifest Himself through an image, then why not through man also?” He declared very categorically that God-realisation is the aim of human life.
But the means to this are legion. “Does God exist only when the eyes are closed and cease to exist when the eyes are opened?” he observed. He also pointed out that “an empty stomach is no good for religion,” and himself took steps to mitigate such wants. Although he warned against philanthropy being demeaned by desire for name and fame, he commended selfless acts of charity as being ‘very noble’. He told Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the famous educationist and humanitarian: “Though work for the good of others belongs to rajas, yet this rajas has sattva for its basis and is not harmful. Suka and other sages cherished compassion in their minds to give people religious instruction, to teach them about God. You are distributing food and learning. That is good too. If these activities are done in a selfless spirit they lead to God.”
On another occasion, while explaining the essential doctrine of Vaishnava religion, Sri Ramakrishna said, “Compassion for all beings! … No, no, it is not compassion to the jiva, but service to the jiva as Shiva.”
It was this idea that Swami Vivekananda developed into his philosophy of social service In a letter to his disciple, Sharat Chandra Chakraborty, on 3 July 1897, Swamiji wrote:
Here is a peculiarity: when you serve a Jiva with the idea that he is Jiva, it is Daya (compassion) and not Prema (love); but when you serve him with the idea that he is the Self, that is Prema. That the Atman is the one object of love is known from Shruti, Smriti, and direct perception. … Our principle, therefore, should be love, and not compassion. … For us, it is not to pity but to serve. Ours is not the feeling of compassion but of love, and the feeling of Self in all.
He coined the term daridra-narayana, God in the form of the poor, and asked us to serve Him: “Where should you go to seek God—are not all the poor, the miserable, the weak, Gods? Why not worship them first?” This concept of ‘service as worship’ defines the outlook of the Ramakrishna Order in all its social-service undertakings.
Swami Vivekananda drew attention to four forms of service: “The gift of spirituality and spiritual knowledge is the highest, … the next gift is secular knowledge, … the next is the saving of life; and the fourth is the gift of food.” He had a comprehensive ‘developmental perspective’ even for famine relief.
When Swami Akhandanandaji Maharaj was involved in the Mission’s first famine relief, Swamiji wrote, “Akhandananda is working wonderfully at Mahula, but the system is not good. It seems they are frittering away their energies in one little village and that only doling out rice. I do not hear that any preaching has been done along with this helping. All the wealth of the world cannot help one little Indian village if the people are not taught to help themselves. Our work should be mainly educational, both moral and intellectual.” This holistic-empowerment perspective remains the binding vision of the Order to this day.
The empowerment that Swamiji conceived of was based on practical or applied Vedanta. The Upanishads, Swamiji pointed out, are a mine of strength, for they reveal the Atman, the source of all power. He emphasised that “these conceptions of the Vedanta must come out, must remain not only in the forest, not only in the cave, but they must come out to work at the bar and the bench, in the pulpit and in the cottage of the poor man. … [For] if the fisherman thinks that he is the Spirit, he will be a better fisherman; if the student thinks he is the Spirit, he will be a better student …, and so on.”
For the members of the Ramakrishna Order, service is “Vedanta in practice.” We need to serve others because their suffering is, in fact, our own. Making them happy is the only way we can make ourselves happy.
This is the spirit behind Ramakrishna Mission’s relief activities. This definitive philosophy, which combines immense idealism with immense practicality, is encapsulated in the motto of the Ramakrishna Order, which is ‘Atmano mokshartham jagat hitaya cha’ or ‘For personal spiritual emancipation and collective well-being.’ The immense idealism of the Vedanta philosophy which declares the divinity of man and the oneness of existence was combined with the immense practicality of identifying with this oneness of existence (or God) through service. In other words, monks and volunteers manifest their latent spirituality that culminates in unconditional individual freedom (Atmano-mokshartham) by serving God (or divinity) in man. Given that natural and man-made disasters disrupt the welfare in a community, relief is one of the most immediate and direct means of restoring the welfare (or Jagat hita) of an affected area.
In keeping the motto of Ramakrishna order “Serving God in poor and helpless” Ramakrishna Math, Bolpur which was known as Sri Ramkrishna Ashram, Bolpur conducted following relief services in past years:-
Distress relief : Inspired by the great idea of Swamiji – ‘To worship Man is to worship God’, our Ashrama extends its helping hands those who are in abject poverty and living in utterly distressed condition. The people are normally served with all types of garments, dry food, medicines etc. All these reliefs are done after getting a proper survey.
Winter Relief : Winter terribly hurts those who lack enough warm-clothing. We provide them winter garments, blankets etc.