Swami Vivekananda’s message of social service for the Youth of India
Youth is that wonderful time in life when energy is limitless, human creativity is at its best and the ’never say die’ spirit is at its peak. Today, one keeps seeing and reading about the achievements of hundreds of young people in practically all spheres of life. Demographically, the India of today is at its youngest best. Nearly 78% of our country’s population is less than 40 years old. Imagine the potential energy in these millions of young Indians and you can then fathom the fact that we could face any challenge as a Nation. But are we doing anything to internalize and understand the potential of this enormous power that could make us one of the leading Nations in the world, not just in material terms but also in every conceivable way that the human mind can think of?
Youth is also an impressionable age wherein we try to model our life against that of a ‘role model’ or ‘icon’. This is the time when one is ready to take on tasks however onerous they are; the time when our ideals can drive and determine one’s actions; the time when we believe that we can do anything under the sun. This is the time when we are easily motivated by the environment and by what we see and value around us. A few years ago, one reputed International magazine had written that India is possibly the only nation with so many young and educated people. They had written about a situation wherein India would have retired young people in a few years from now. While it does make one feel warm that our young are so capable of creating enormous wealth in such a short period of time, it also makes one wonder if ‘making wealth’ is the only value that is driving our young today. India is a land of tremendous contradictions. On one hand, one sees such enormous prosperity and wealth while on the other hand one-third of Indians go without a second meal every day. While India’s scientific achievements in the field of telecommunication, information technology and space is enviable, it makes one’s heart bleed when you know that only 10% of rural Indians have sanitation facilities and 22% of them are able to get potable water to drink. Even today nearly 42% of our children in the villages find it difficult to access schooling while many children are still labouring away in the fields and factories to make their family’s ends meet. While we are able to find solutions to all kinds of technical and software problems all over the world, we still are grappling with having nearly 25% of the world’s poor in our country. While we are finding more young achievers in the field of sports, music, arts, technology and wealth creation, we find very few young people leading us in the political and social arenas. Finding solutions to the complex social, economic, infrastructural, political and poverty-related problems is indeed a great challenge. This challenge needs enormous energy, a fresh perspective, a grandiose vision and superhuman effort. While on the one hand, we could safely say that our youth has the ability to meet and face up to these challenges, we also need to accept the difficult fact that this is not high on the list of their priorities. How do we get our young whose role models and icons today are mostly from the economic, technology, music, cinema and sports arenas to consider Nation-building as an important facet of our productive lives? How do we get them to address the myriad problems facing us? While there is no one correct way to do this, I feel that we need to begin by understanding our youth and the environment in which we live presently.
India has always idolized its icons and made has made their character into a national phenomena. During the early Vedic times, knowledge was all important and hence we placed our Rishis and hermits on the highest pedestal. Even kings would pay obeisance to them. We have people like Vishawamitra who was a King but whose ideal was to become a ‘Rajarishi’. Then came the phase wherein we began placing human valour higher than knowledge. This was the period of the Mahabharata, where the Kshatriya and his valour were worth emulating. We have examples from Karna to Ekalavya, a tribal in the forests hankering after knowledge of weaponry. We also have Brahmans like Dronacharya and Kripacharya, whose traditional pursuit was ‘knowledge’, becoming teachers and trainers of warriors. Gradually this value of ‘valour’ changed with the times to that of ‘Nationalism and patriotism’. This was the period of the British rule where every young man considered it a sacred duty to lay down his life for the motherland. From Bhagat Singh to Subhash Chandra Bose to Gandhi, the burning fire in every young one’s belly was to free this great motherland of ours from the slavery of the British. Today, the post independent India has a value system different from that of the past. Despite calling ourselves a ‘knowledge-based’ society, we have placed people making millions out of this ‘knowledge’ on a high pedestal and consider ‘money-making’ to be our single-minded aim. The tragedy is that while we do have a few icons worth emulating in making money, we have hundreds of others whose means do not justify their end. Today while the value of ‘creating wealth’ by itself is not demeaning, the way it is created is what my concern is. When your only ‘value’ is making money and not how you make it, what becomes the first casualty in society are our ‘VALUES’. We are having a dangerous environment today wherein our youth are increasingly being carried away by the attractions of crass consumerism and commercialization of human existence and they consider their life a success only if they ‘belong’ to this tribe of human achievers who are measuring their lives by how many millions they have made in the shortest possible time. The ‘how’ of making it has slipped the attention of many of them. Motivating them against this backdrop to consider the prospect of becoming a ‘Social Entrepreneur’ working for the thousands of deprived and disadvantaged fellow Indians is indeed more than a challenge. The key to the problem in my opinion lies in making our young understand that the real benefits of today’s material advances lies not just in ‘creating wealth’ but ensuring that we use it to make our society more egalitarian, more equitable and more socially and economically just. The more I think of this, the more I am convinced that the answer lies in the clarion call that Swami Vivekananda gave the young of this country more than a hundred years ago.
Swamiji addressed the issue by simplifying the whole problem of existence. He made National reconstruction with the ideals of ‘Tyaga’ and ‘Seva’ the most important purpose of living for the young. To the more discerning, he made this way of life a ‘spiritual pursuit’. The transience of human achievement and the impermanence of material wealth were of critical consideration to this thinking. What he attempted to do was to show us a higher reason to live, a higher ideal to live for and a higher state to reach within the limitations and boundaries of a human existence. He has, in very simple terms given the youth a higher ideal to strive for and in this striving he found answers to the material problems of the suffering millions. All that he wanted our youth to have was an ability to ‘feel’. He wanted that feeling for our downtrodden and the poor which would make us sleepless and make our heads reel and our hearts stop. In doing so, he had assured us that an indomitable power would come to us and we will be able to throw away all our self-concerns and place ourselves as servants of society and use our inner energy and will to transcend the problems of our human brethren. The only qualification that Swamiji wanted our youth to have was this wonderful ability to ‘feel’. To those who wanted to go beyond just feeling and take to concrete action – he gave this potent mantra. The power of the 3 P’s – Purity, Patience and Perseverance. These three words in my opinion are the qualities that every young person desiring to do social work needs to possess. Purity in thought word and deed. Patience to understand the dynamics of any community development activity and the fact that Society is always slow to understand and quick to label all such efforts. One also needs great perseverance to work in the complex settings of Indian society. Working with the realities of social, economic and political diversity needs enormous perseverance. Otherwise one could easily get fatigued and demotivated.
Swamiji was a great observer of the human mind and the human society at large. He understood that undertaking any social change needed enormous energy and will. Hence he called upon the youth to not only build up their mental energies, but their physical ones as well. He wanted ‘muscles of iron’ as well as ‘nerves of steel.’ He wanted the youth to possess indomitable will and the strength to drink up the ocean. What he wanted was to prepare the youth both physically and mentally to face the challenges that would lie ahead of social workers. He was also practical enough in warning the young of the pitfalls ahead and the way Society reacts to such endeavours. To quote him:
All good work has to go through three stages. First comes ridicule, then the stage of opposition and finally comes acceptance.
What the young need is the purity, patience and the perseverance to go through these stages in whatever they do. Society, though slow and sometimes treacherous in its reactions, finally comes around and accepts the good work that goes on for its own sake.
The young today are extremely result oriented and need to understand the reasons for what they need to do as well as the benefits of what they do. To them Swamiji had a simple formula. He laid down in clear and simple terms the three levels of service that one can do. The first is that of the Physical – taking care of the human body and undertaking activities to ameliorate human physical suffering. Running hospitals, orphanages, old-age homes and various income generation programs would qualify for this level. The next higher level was that of Intellectual service. Running schools, colleges and awareness and empowerment programs would operate at this level. And finally for the evolved – he prescribed the highest level of Spiritual service. He did not forget to warn us of the pitfalls of undertaking such service activities. He understood the human ego and its extraordinary potential for creating problems. He repeatedly warns us against placing ourselves higher than what we should. His famous quote of not standing on the pedestal and offering the poor man five cents is legendary. He clearly wanted the young to undertake these activities, not merely for the betterment of society but for the evolution and growth of the person undertaking the same. This to me is clearly the end of what he extolled the young towards. He saw the ‘means’ of serving society leading on to the ‘end’ of spiritual growth of the person doing it. And he so beautifully advised us to ‘Serve God in man’. All his philosophy so elegantly and simplistically packed into one statement, in such simple and lucid language that makes it at once achievable and attractive to the youth. This ideal not only looks within the reach of each one of us but makes it so emotionally appealing and motivating to undertake.
Understanding Swami Vivekananda and his message and putting it across to our youth would be the simplest way in which I feel that we could address many of the problems that India is facing today. Each young person could begin with himself; prepare himself for the work ahead by ensuring that his personality is well-shaped and rounded. He needs to ensure that his physical, mental, social and psychological faculties are well tuned to the work ahead. The young need direction and what greater focus than that of serving others! One also needs to understand that social service does not automatically translate as giving up all the worldly responsibilities and sitting half-clad and starving in a remote village. It begins with arousing one’s social conscience and translating this in practical terms into social action. One needs to be pragmatic and keep one’s needs and limitations in mind before embarking on any such activity. One needs to begin with oneself first and then gradually expand this reach concentrically to include more and more deserving persons. This is one of the ways that the success and practicality of our social actions can be demonstrated to the youth of today. Each young person can continue to be what he is – a technocrat, a scientist, an engineer or a doctor, etc. There is so much within the circle of our own small lives that we could do something about. The idea is to start with these small changes and incrementally build on them. This could easily be the recipe for larger and greater tasks ahead. Being a good and honest technocrat, scientist, engineer and a doctor itself is a good beginning. We could then expand to include more and more lives that we touch in our everyday existence. For those fortunate who are willing, capable and not limited by the demands of family and everyday mundane existence, they could take on more permanent projects and surge ahead in making social work their full-time aspiration. Balancing ‘work and life’ as good managers put it, need not be limited to the work atmosphere alone. We could easily extend this to the social realm too. By doing this, thousands of qualified and willing youth can be co-opted into spending quality time in more higher and nobler ventures. And finally what matters the most is the understanding that in undertaking social activities lies the answer not only to the problems of people around us, but also to our own inner problems and dilemmas.