Some people are blessed and some people are lucky - I'm not sure what it was in my case, probably both. For one year of my life I had the divine opportunity of living in the home of Paramahamsa Satyananda at Sri Panchdashnam Paramahamsa Alakh Bara, Rikhia.
I call it Paramahamsaji's home, because that is what it is and he oversees every minute detail of life there like a woman oversees the details of her household. Every person who passes through the gates of Paramahamsa Alakh Bara does so as the guest of Paramahamsaji. A lot of these people who pass through the gates are the local people, Paramahamsaji's neighbours. They are his neighbours in the true sense of the word and he fully lives the maxim: "Love thy neighbour as thy self."
When Paramahamsaji moved to Rikhia, in the heart of what is probably the poorest and most neglected area of India, he had the vision of making available to his neighbours whatever was available to him. This meant adequate shelter, food, clothing, education, self-sufficiency and a sense of purpose in life. Ever since then, he has been doing this through the vehicle of Sivananda Math - a social service organization created in loving memory of his guru, Swami Sivanandaji. This care for and support of those in need around him has been a major focus of Paramahamsaji's sadhana over the past ten years.
There are several dozen villages in the panchayat (district) of Rikhia, and Paramahamsaji gives particular attention to these immediate villages. Each village contains anywhere from fifteen to two hundred families, each consisting of up to fifteen family members. Paramahamsaji knows the minute details of most of the family structures, from ages, employment details and educational level of the members, to how much land and livestock they have. He is particularly aware of situations where there is sickness, disability or other special needs within a family.
Most of the families in these villages are large and almost all depend on agriculture for their livelihood. The level of education is poor, literacy levels are amongst the lowest in the world and before this current generation it was almost unheard of for a girl to get any education at all. Children work from a very young age and girls are married off before they even know what the word means. Awareness of issues of health and hygiene are negligible, infant mortality is high and life expectancy is short. Most families have less land than they need to support themselves, homes are small, poorly built and often shared with livestock. Ninety-nine percent of homes are without electricity or running water and often the water supply is far off, irregular and unhygienic. Summers in Rikhia are extremely hot, winters can be freezing and monsoon rains are often erratic.
The quality of life of these people certainly leaves a lot to be desired. It is the massive task of improving his neighbours' quality of life that Paramahamsaji has chosen to tackle. And he is not tackling it with Band-Aid solutions but through support for every aspect of their society.
At the grass roots level, there is support for the farmer in the form of distribution of tools and seeds several times a year. There is support in the form of education and encouragement. At the beginning of the farming season, there is donation of oxen. The candidates are carefully screened to check that their need is genuine and to be certain that they will take good care of the ox. When the recipients return from the market with their newly chosen ox, they always stop by at the Akhara. I don't think I ever saw a farmer without tears of pride and joy in his eyes at the moment of showing off his new ox.
There is an irrigation scheme under development to help farmers through those times when the rains are late, erratic or do not provide enough water. What looks a lot like a swimming pool is actually a large reservoir fed by a very deep submersible pump, through which fields in the surrounding area, up to ten kilometres away, can be irrigated. Tube wells are also installed by Sivananda Math, providing clean drinking water, essential for the health and well-being of the local community.
As part of Paramahamsaji's 'Green Rikhia' project there is distribution of trees to villagers. The local villagers are approached and asked what they need and what they feel they can realistically use. This is then assessed, bearing in mind the size of their land and whether the trees will be protected by fences, etc. There is then a distribution of trees, village by village, with the villagers being informed how to plant and take care of their new trees. It is such a sight to see a person walking down the road with a basket full of small trees on their head and a smile on their face!
Cows have been another major way of supporting the local people. Suitable candidates for receiving a cow are brought to the Akhara for training in how to feed the cow, how to milk it and how to deal with medical problems. Cows bring a real sense of hope to the villagers; they are a valuable source of income through the sale of milk and other associated products, but they are also seen as very auspicious and to have a cow in the household is seen as a real blessing.
Other means of livelihood are also offered to the villagers in the way of rickshaws, cycle thelas, shops and sewing machines. These items move the local people away from dependency and charity and give them the means of supporting themselves, a sense of hope, purpose and dignity.
There has also been the building of homes. It is very important to Paramahamsaji that his neighbours have access to the same quality of housing as he has. There is a beautiful story of Paramahamsaji having a vision of a widow in a neighbouring village whose house had been burnt down and sending a team of people to build her a new house.
To tackle the problems of health, infant mortality and life expectancy Paramahamsaji has a free medical clinic that runs out of the Alakh Bara. This clinic provides free medical treatment, advice and education for the local people, with people also coming from up to one hundred kilometres away to access the facilities. The clinic is open six days a week from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., but in actual fact the door is never closed; those timings are just the formal ones and no one in need is ever turned away. The locals start to queue at 4 a.m., with those coming from further afield sometimes spending the night outside the gates so as to get in first when the clinic opens. There is a special TB clinic, giving long-term support to TB patients. Treatment for TB is expensive and would otherwise be completely out of the question for the people in this area. TB patients also receive support in the form of nutritional supplements, ghee, milk powder and fruits. As do expectant and breastfeeding mothers and the elderly. A new venture has just started in conjunction with Rotary to provide eye camps on the premises of the Akhara. These will provide operations for up to fifty persons at a time, treating cataracts and preventing blindness.
Paramahamsaji is keenly aware of those sectors of the community that are particularly neglected. In the areas around Rikhia, these are the elderly, the widowed and the handicapped. For elderly men there is the stipend scheme. On the sixteenth of every month, from early morning you see them assembling outside the Akhara gates to come and receive their allowance of Rs. 201. This allowance enables these men to contribute physically to their household rather than feeling that they are a burden. Such is the attention of Paramahamsaji that if any of these seventy or so men don't turn up to receive their payment, he doesn't send it off with their neighbour or even their wife or brother. Instead he sends someone from the Akhara to see the man, find out if he is okay and deliver his stipend to him personally. For widowed women, who are usually the outcasts of their society, he has a special role; he pays them to help him with his sadhana. These women come to the ashram every day to learn to read and write and chant the Ramayana. Paramahamsaji sees this as valuable work and pays them the equivalent of the daily wage. For the handicapped, there are the incredible tricycles, like our wheelchairs, but more amazing - only India could have a device like this that allows a handicapped person to power it with such minimal effort.
It is Paramahamsaji's belief that for a society to change you have to work with the children. He places a very big emphasis on education, providing scholarships for particularly bright or needy children and also providing necessary educational materials, textbooks, stationery and toys for every child in the Rikhia panchayat through distribution of these materials in every school at least twice a year. To encourage families to allow their girls to go on to high school, girls are provided with bicycles to travel the often long distances involved in getting to a high school. Paramahamsaji has a special interest in seeing that the girls receive as much education as possible and has set up English classes in the Akhara for the local girls. The girls are divided into three different classes according to their level of proficiency. Some have been learning for almost two years and can speak English quite well. But the real success of this program can be seen in the levels of confidence of these girls and in their perception of their hopes for the future.
Every year Paramahamsaji hosts the Jhulan program, which is especially for his neighbours. The program lasts for nine days, each day beginning around 4 p.m. and finishing around 9p.m. The celebration focuses on the childhood of Krishna. It is a festival that holds particular favour in the Rikhia area. There are hours of kirtan; the local people leading most of it with great fervour, with Paramahamsaji sitting right in their midst. There are also two beautiful swings set up with Radha and Krishna set upon one and baby Krishna on another. The local people, sometimes over a thousand per night, trail through, each one taking a turn to gently, and with absolute devotion, pull on the string of Krishna's swings (jhulans). During this event, each day a full village is invited to a sumptuous sit down meal, the likes of which they would otherwise never even dream about. And you thought this kind of thing only happened in the days of the Ramayana!
The real icing on the cake is Sita Kalyanam. To me this is the festival of giving. During Sita Kalyanam each member of each family in every village in the Rikhia panchayat is given a full set of new clothes, good quality used clothes, kitchen utensils, toys, books and whatever else is there to give. Paramahamsaji personally oversees the preparation of these bundles of items, each wrapped in a new blanket. The bundles are prepared from lists containing information about the structure of every family, the ages and gender of every member. Once these bundles are prepared they are taken to Paramahamsaji and unwrapped for his inspection. They are then prepared and re-prepared until they meet his level of satisfaction. They must contain only the best that it is possible to give. Anyone who has ever worked in Prasad Kutir in Rikhia will tell you of the care and joy that goes into making up these bundles.
Usually these bundles are made up during the program of Sita Kalyanam, but last year Paramahamsaji wanted them to be all done and distributed before the beginning of the program. So in the couple of weeks preceding Sita Kalyanam, after a full day of work and other preparations, those of us staying in the Akhara would all traipse off to Prasad Kutir until late in the evening to partake in the delightful activity of choosing clothing, matching outfits and trying to imagine whether that fifteen year old girl would prefer jeans or the more traditional salwar kurta outfit. It was truly inspiring watching young Indian guys going through the pile of sari blouses looking for just the right colour to match the sari they had just chosen for their bundle and then fighting for it with the next guy who had decided that was the one he wanted.
Sita Kalyanam is also the occasion for the giving of a bridal suitcase to every newly married girl in the village. These suitcases contain things that even princesses dream of. There is a beautiful bridal sari for the girl, a new set of clothes for her husband, woollen items, toiletries, bangles, Ramayana, shoes, plate, bowl and glass, and a brand new full set of bridal jewellery made of gold. Paramahamsaji thinks of these young girls as his daughters and nothing is too good to be included in the bridal suitcases. Swami Niranjan and Swami Satsangi oversee the packing of each and every suitcase, with the final inspection being done by Paramahamsaji himself.
Sita Kalyanam is also the time when bicycles, tricycles, rickshaws, thelas, handcarts, sewing machines, shops, cows, and anything and everything is given. Anyone who has ever attended the Sita Kalyanam program knows that no one ever leaves empty-hearted or empty-handed. There is a gift for everyone, be it a new sari, a Ramayana, a shawl, a shirt, a book or a whole new means of livelihood, not to mention the hearts full of inspiration, direction and purpose with which people leave.
One year I worked on the prasad table receiving the donations that go into the bundles for distribution. People gave donations according to their means, one giving a truckload of items, another a sari or a bag of rice. There was one old man who really grabbed my heart. I watched him approach the table and I thought he was going to be one of the ones who came and asked for something for himself, perhaps a new shirt or a blanket. But when he got to the table he reached into his faded worn shoulder bag and extracted a brand new dhoti and extended it in his shaky hand. As I looked at his own old torn dhoti and his patched jumper, I almost hesitated in taking it from him and then my eyes met his and I saw the look of joy and pride in them. Here was someone who truly understood that it is in giving that we receive. What a beautiful gift that old man gave me in his lesson that year.
This is the lesson that Paramahamsaji gives during Sita Kalyanam and every day of the year. This is what I saw during my time in Rikhia: give, give and keep on giving. There was never any question that what we had available to give would run out, and it never did. The more Paramahamsaji gave, the more came to be given.
This is some of the story of Sivananda Math in Rikhia, but it is only part. Paramahamsaji never stops thinking of ways to improve the quality of his neighbours' lives and the list of Sivananda Math's projects grows every day. And every day you can see the changes in the villages around Rikhia. You can see it in the green of the fields, in the strength of the houses, in the confidence of the girls riding their bicycles to school, in the rosy cheeks of the children and the shininess of the newly married young women. But mostly you can see it in the hearts of each and every person, in that glow that emanates from knowing that someone cares for you, someone is watching you, anticipating your needs, helping you meet the challenges of your life and drawing out the very best in you.