Men of god appear periodically on the earth to redeem and free humanity. That this is the purpose of their coming has been
acclaimed in all the religions of the world. What do they free humanity from? From misery and suffering. Sri Krishna declared in the Gita: Tesam aham samuddharta mrtyu samsara sagarat, ‘I am their Redeemer from the ocean of samsara which is death.’ Jesus Christ said: ‘Come unto Me, ye that are weary and heavy-laden, and I shall give thee rest.’ Buddha renounced the world and its pleasures urged by a compelling inner call to find a way out of sorrow for the whole of humankind. Swami Vivekananda, following his Master, Sri Ramakrishna, said time and again that he would be eager to come repeatedly to help humanity be free from sorrow.
The root cause of misery is ignorance, called avidya in the Vedanta philosophy. This is an age-old discovery made by all the great men of God, the Saviours of humanity. It logically follows, therefore, that to get rid of misery one should destroy ignorance. How does ignorance go? By knowledge. Ignorance is proverbially figured as darkness, and knowledge, as light. The light of knowledge dispels the darkness of ignorance. Darkness of a thousand years can be dispelled in a trice by striking a match, and, in exactly the same way, ignorance vanishes instantly with the dawn of knowledge, as Sri Ramakrishna was wont to say. ‘Those whose ignorance has been destroyed by the awakening of knowledge, have their knowledge shining as bright as the light of the sun’ (Gita, 5. 16). It is therefore that knowledge is considered very sacred: na hi jnanena sadrsam pavitram iha vidyate (Gita, 4. 38). And ‘this knowledge should be acquired from competent teachers (acharyas) by humility, by eager questioning, and by devoted service’ (Gita, 4. 34).
The method and process by which knowledge is traditionally acquired by a disciple from a teacher is called education. This knowledge or vidya has been classified into two types: apara-vidya and para-vidya — lower and higher knowledge. This division, however, does not imply superiority or inferiority of knowledge, but is a way of denoting its objective and subjective contents. Apara-vidya is knowledge of the objective universe, whereas para-vidya is knowledge of the Subject — the Knower, not as an agent of the process of knowing but as the Eternal Subject, the veritable embodiment of knowledge as Awareness or Consciousness. Materialistic sciences cultivated in the West concern themselves with the objective reality, that which is perceived, seen, and experienced. Spiritual science, called the Science of all sciences (sarva-vidya pratishtha) in the Upanishads, cultivated in the East, deals with the subjective reality, which is the Perceiver, the Seer, the Experiencer. The former, the objective reality, is known as the kshetra, the field of knowledge. The latter, the Subject, is called the kshetrajna, the Knower of this field. The knowledge of the kshetra is apara-vidya, and the realization of the Knower, the Self, the Atman, is para-vidya. The Orient has cultivated the science of para-vidya, while the Occident, the science of apara-vidya. Now comes the grand question, viz. is it possible to combine these two ideals and create a new order of civilization in which the best elements of both worlds, spiritual idealism and materialistic practicality, Eastern religion and Western science, inner realization and outer perception, are harmoniously blended ‘for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many’ — bahujana hitaya bahujana sukhaya? Swami Vivekananda (referred to hereafter as Swamiji), perhaps for the first time in the history of humankind, propounded a grand synthesis of the two ideals. And like the GUT (Grand Unification Theory) of modern physics, Swamiji believed this unification scheme, this harmonizing and mingling of the two ideals, would usher in a new world order. This is, in fact, an echo of the message in the Gita: Ksetra ksetrajnayor jnanam yat taj jnanam matam mama, ‘In My [Lord Krishna’s] view, that is real knowledge which combines the knowledge of both the outer (objective) and the inner (subjective) realities.’
Swamiji’s scheme of education should be understood in the light of his vision of a new world order as mentioned above. Through the lever of education he wanted to create a band of men and women who would combine in their lives the spiritual idealism of the East and the material practicality of the West. ‘Can you become an occidental of occidentals in your spirit of equality, freedom, work and energy, and at the same time a Hindu to the very backbone in religious culture and instinct?’ Swamiji asked. And he answered: ‘This is to be done, and we will do it. You are all born to do it.’ Swamiji’s aim in starting various educational institutions to teach the so-called secular subjects like modern sciences, technology, vocational-oriented sciences, arts, English, etc. on the one hand, and the so-called spiritual subjects like the ancient Upanishads, Sanskrit, Vedic literature, etc. on the other, was to create a complete human being, all-round and fully developed in the three ‘h’s — heart, head, and hand. It is in this light that his statement that Belur Math would ultimately blossom into a full-fledged university is to be understood. The entire history of the Ramakrishna Mission’s educational endeavour should be studied and comprehended against this vision of Swamiji.
The Gita talks about three essential things to be cultivated by every human being: yajna, dana, and tapas. Swamiji has spoken of these very things in the following terms: renunciation and service, and the fire of tapas that sustains them. By renunciation he did not so much mean sannyasa as tyaga (sacrifice). In fact, he said that tyaga and seva (service) are the national ideals, and that once we intensify India in these two channels, the rest would take care of itself. Both sacrifice and service imply unselfish love, which Swamiji felt was the only motive force at the back of all life and existence. This then is Swamiji’s method: tyaga and seva, corresponding to the Gita’s yajna and dana, with the fire of tapas as their constant sustaining force. And this is to be accomplished by a combination of the four yogas, viz. bhakti, jnána, karma, and dhyana. It means the combination of the heart to feel, the brain to conceive, the hands to work, and the power of concentration coupled with detachment, invigorating each of these.
Swamiji categorized dana into four kinds, viz. anna-dana, prana-dana, vidya-dana, and jnana-dana. They correspond to the annamaya (physical), pranamaya (vital), manomaya & vijnanamaya (mental & intellectual), and anandamaya (spiritual) dimensions of the human personality respectively. Accordingly, Swamiji’s plan of action for the Ramakrishna Mission’s karma-yajna is four-fold: relief and rehabilitation, health & hygiene, education, and spiritual service, conforming respectively to the four categories mentioned above. Here, we discuss the Ramakrishna Mission’s contribution in the field of imparting education — vidya-dana.
The following are the major types of institutions started at different times during the 108 years of Ramakrishna Mission’s existence to actualize Swamiji’s educational vision as described above:
- Schools: pre-primary, primary, secondary, higher secondary levels, imparting general education.
- Colleges: imparting graduate and post-graduate education in science, humanities (including languages), commerce, and vocation-oriented subjects, with facilities for higher research at the doctoral/post-doctoral level.
- Sanskrit schools: imparting knowledge of the Sanskrit language and literature at the secondary/higher secondary level.
- Sanskrit college: imparting knowledge of the Sanskrit language and literature at the graduate/post-graduate level.
- Vedic school: imparting Vedic education at the secondary/higher secondary level.
- Schools of languages: imparting knowledge of language skills in Indian and foreign languages.
- Teachers’ Training Colleges/Institutes: imparting teachers’ training at the basic/graduate/post-graduate level, with facilities for higher research in education at the doctoral/post-doctoral level.
- Junior technical & industrial schools: imparting technical and vocational education & training at the secondary/higher secondary level.
- Polytechnics: imparting technical education in various branches of engineering at the diploma level.
- Agricultural schools/institutes: imparting education/training in agriculture and horticulture at the diploma level.
- Librarianship training centre: imparting training in librarianship to rural trainees.
- Students’ Homes & Hostels: attached to residential schools/colleges/institutes run by the Mission as well as by others, attempted to be modelled on the guru-griha-vása system.
- Orphanages: housing destitute children and grown-up students, attempted to be modelled on the guru-griha-vása system.
- Blind Boys’ Academy & Centre for the Visually Handicapped: offering general education as well as training in music, agriculture, and several other crafts to the blind and visually handicapped boys.
- Computer Training Centres: imparting computer education and training to school and college students.
- Rural Development/Social Workers’ Training Institutes: imparting education for rural development work.
- Social Welfare & Integrated Rural Development Institutes: conducting research and evaluation studies, and integrated rural development projects, apart from giving training courses.
- Non-formal Education Centres: imparting literacy and adult education.
- A deemed university.
A few lakhs of students (children, men, and women) are being benefited every year through a few thousand institutions belonging to the above mentioned categories. The fundamental inspiration behind all of them is the educational vision of Swamiji. It is not our aim in this paper to present statistics, which can be found in the Annual General Report of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission. We would rather try to show:
- How attempts are being made to actualize Swamiji’s educational ideas and ideals through these institutions, and
- How the animating spirit and the struggles of the pioneers of these projects (which include Swamiji’s brother disciples, their disciples and followers) form the sustaining force behind these institutions.
One of the fundamental characteristics of the Ramakrishna Mission institutions imparting education, which in fact forms the very backbone of these institutions, is the active involvement and dedicated service of a large number of tyagis — the monks of the Mission. A large contingent of sannyasins and brahmacharins are actively engaged in imparting apara-vidya, the so-called secular education, and also education in true spirituality. This can be understood and appreciated only in the light of the above discussion on the unification of para and apara-vidya, which is an integral approach to education, and by realizing the vital importance of the personal influence of the teacher’s life on the taught and the role of tyagis in imparting knowledge.
Apart from Swamiji, the trendsetters in this regard among the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna were Swami Ramakrishnananda (founder of the Students’ Home in Madras) and Swami Turiyananda (inspirer of the Vidyapith project at Deoghar). It should be remembered that Swami Turiyananada was a traditional Vedantic sannyasin, eager to shy away from the world of duality into the inner realm of the Non-dual Spirit. He would rather remain absorbed in contemplation than throw away the precious inner resources in outgoing actions. When Swamiji tried earnestly to cajole his beloved ‘Haribhai’ (Swami Turiyananda) into some active ministration, initially the latter would have none of it. Finally, it was Swamiji’s tears that worked rather than his logic or philosophy. It is therefore a matter of great interest and inspiration to note this lion of Vedantic wisdom eager to start a concrete educational programme.
Swami Gambhirananda records in his History of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission that ‘his [Swami Turiyananda’s] fiery words caught the imagination of many, and most of all of Swami Sadbhavananda, then Brahmachari Vidyachaitanya, who, along with his friend Jnaneswarananda, planned to start a residential school.’ They had no money. Their only assets were enthusiasm, the message of Swami Vivekananda, and the belief in national self-assertion. And to help them with advice on educational matters, and also with a band of self-sacrificing young men, there was Swami Nirvedananda, the Founder-Secretary of the Ramakrishna Mission Students’ Home, Calcutta. Thus the idealism of the one and the executive ability of the other combined to give birth to the Ramakrishna Mission Vidyapith. It was first started in May 1922 at Mihijam (now Chittaranjan) and later shifted in the following January to Deoghar or Vaidyanath Dham, the famous pilgrim town. This institution is ‘typical of the way in which institutions sprang up in the wake of national upheaval.’ This is one of the earliest of the institutions meant to actualize Swamiji’s concept of guru-griha-vasa, with tyagis in charge of imparting life-giving education for character-building and man-making.
Another institution of a similar nature, which too had its birth about the same time, was the residential High School section of the Ramakrishna Mission Students’ Home at Madras. This Home, in itself, is one glorious example of the early attempts made by Swamiji’s brother disciples to actualize his vision of guru-griha-vasa. The Madras Students’ Home is a unique institution which seeks to realize a large number of Swamiji’s educational concepts. Character-building attempts form the keynote, for which the guru-griha-ashrama environment is preserved to a large extent by the tyagis, thanks to the South Indian orthodoxy. These tyagis, comprising monks and highly dedicated devotees of the Mission, constantly exert an unconscious influence on the boys residing with them. As a valuable means of acquiring knowledge, the antevasins (residential students) are taught concentration of mind through silent prayer, contemplation, and chanting of Vedic and other hymns. Apart from acquiring mere theoretical knowledge, the boys are trained to do almost all the work of the Home themselves — from sanitation and campus-cleaning to worship. Furthermore, the technical institute attached to the Home trains the boys in various branches of engineering and technology at the diploma level. By teaching the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and Swamiji’s Works, the spirit of true religion or spirituality is inculcated in the boys. By making them participate in the Mission’s philanthropic activities like relief work and free coaching of poor boys, etc., the idea that education should be productive of human welfare gets implanted in their young minds.
The Home was started by Swami Ramakrishnananda, whom Swamiji called the ‘Mother of the Math’ in praise of his chief passion for the performance of duties pertaining to the Math and Sri Ramakrishna’s worship and service. His chief lieutenant in this project was C. Ramaswamy Iyengar (whom he lovingly called Ramu). Ramu was dedication and unselfishness personified. Another of his unforgettable companion in shaping the Students’ Home project was C. Ramanujachariar (Ramanuju for short), a cousin of Ramu. On Ramanuju fell the mantle of becoming the Secretary when Ramu passed away in 1932. Ramu-Ramanuju were the twin souls fortunate to receive the transforming touch of Swami Ramakrishnananda’s personality in their dedicated service to the Students’ Home. The blessings of Shashi Maharaj (as Swami Ramakrishnananada used to be called) were enough to fill the heart of Ramu with tremendous zeal and an ‘impelling power’, as he himself wrote later. He got the Home formally dedicated by Shashi Maharaj on 17 February 1905, which then housed seven poor, destitute boys. However, the institution in its present form came into existence much later — in 1921. After the dedication ceremony and worship of Sri Guru Maharaj’s picture, Shashi Maharaj spoke the following memorable words, which epitomize Swamiji’s message for our institutions:
Anna-danam is spoken of as a maha-danam and is considered very sacred in our country. And vidya-danam is greater. But the greatest is the conferring of spiritual knowledge (jnana-danam). The harmonizing of all the three should be the aim of this Institution. May Sri Ramakrishna bless the undertaking with success.
Swami Brahmananda, the first President of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission and the spiritual son of Sri Ramakrishna, sought to fulfil in a humble way Swamiji’s cherished desire — the combination of the moral and spiritual disciplines of the Sanatana Dharma, the ancient religion of our country, with the advanced intellectual power and practical wisdom acquired through Western education, particularly its science and technology. He provided, as it were, the finishing touch to the shaping of the Students’ Home. Shashi Maharaj used to say that whatever Swami Brahmananda touched not only became pure, but also got purifying power. His towering spiritual personality infused fresh life and vigour in the Home.
In 1918 he laid the foundation of the new building of the Home, where it now stands. Later he declared it open on the sacred day of Akshaya Tritiya in 1921. He had chosen this day for the inauguration because Akshaya means ‘inexhaustible’, and any work begun on that day would flourish with inexhaustible resources and strength. Swami Brahmananda’s chief contribution to the growth of the Mission and its institutions (and the Home was no exception) was the creation of a rarefied and permanent spiritual atmosphere in them. This drew the dedicated workers, monastic and lay, into a current of purity and unselfishness as if by an unconscious power. On that memorable day of the opening ceremony, an eye-witness account by Ramaswamy Iyengar says that Swami Brahmananda stood meditating for some time to invoke the blessings of Sri Ramakrishna before entering the new building. He then entered by setting his right foot first across the threshold, when flowers were showered upon him and all around. Then he performed the abhishekam and initiated the worship of Sri Guru Maharaj. Soon after, he went into samadhi and remained still in that exalted mood of God-consciousness for a long time. Through that he transmitted to the institution spiritual influence and power to sustain it for ages. He stayed in the new premises of the Home for over a month in order to charge it with the spiritual power needed for the years to come. Ramu writes: ‘He created in the Home an atmosphere of love, gentleness, peace and spiritual fervour, which one feels palpably even today.’
Institutions, we should remember, are not just brick and mortar, nor are they just sophisticated infrastructure — the modern telephones and fax machines, computers, e-mail, and the internet. They are sustained by purity and unselfishness, and intellectual, moral, and spiritual power. Amidst the maddening pace of quantitative expansion of institutions in the present day, it behoves us to reverentially meditate on the beaming countenance of Swami Brahmananda standing in samadhi at the opening ceremony of the Madras Students’ Home, and on the soul-stirring, purifying, and penetrating spiritual atmosphere he created there for the benefit of the future generations. It is the collective responsibility of all of us not only to draw from, but also to sustain and contribute to, however little we can, this atmosphere of purity, morality, and spiritual power. Without this, the Mission’s institutions would run a great risk of degenerating into well-furnished and well-maintained store-houses of sophisticated, ultra-modern infrastructure. Let us all beware of this danger and pay heed to the following words of caution uttered by Swami Brahmananda at the inaugural ceremony of the Home in Madras in 1921:
Through the grace of Sri Guru Maharaj a palace has been built for the poor, and great is your responsibility now. You must ever be on your guard lest luxury or ease or a sense of self-sufficiency should creep into it, for they will tarnish the ideals for which the Home stands.
The Students’ Home in Madras, after becoming a force in itself, and after getting a full-fledged technical wing attached to it, addressed itself to the task of starting day schools of various grades. Although this is chronologically a much later development, occuring in history around 1932, we mention it at this point to show how the small seed sown by Swami Ramakrishnananda had by this time grown into a gigantic banyan tree — much like what Sri Ramakrishna had wanted Swamiji to become. Such is the enormous creative power of bhakti, of which we hear in Mahavir Hanuman’s exploits in the Ramayana. This group of schools gradually attained such a magnitude that for their efficient management they had to be consitituted into a separate Mission centre in 1948. At present this centre is called the Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama, having three higher secondary schools and three primary schools, including an English medium school.
Another institution which bears the stamp of Swami Ramakrishnananda’s inspiration is the one at Bangalore. Essentially it is a Math centre catering to the spiritual and cultural needs of the people. However, it also has a hostel for college boys, and a Vivekananda Balak Sangha and Yuvak Sangha giving sound theoretical and practical instructions to boys and youths in the spiritual and cultural heritage of India.
An institution similar to the Students’ Home in Madras was started in Calcutta. Begun initially in a rented house to provide coaching to the students, it gradually developed into an Ashrama. Later it got affiliated to the Ramakrishna Mission in the year 1919 with the blessings of the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna — Swamis Brahmananda, Shivananda, Premananda, Turiyananda, and Saradananda. It was popularly known as the Calcutta Students’ Home, to distinguish it from its counterpart at Madras. The guiding spirit behind the Calcutta Students’ Home was Swami Nirvedananda, a brilliant scholar and teacher, and an educationist of original thinking.
We now see Swamiji’s direct disciples becoming actively interested and enthusiastic about actualizing his vision. They were becoming more and more convinced that it was to fulfil Sri Ramakrishna’s divine command that Swamiji struggled all his life. The silent but overwhelming presence and inspiration of the Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi along with the commanding and awe-inspiring spiritual leadership of Swami Brahmananda as the President, time and again reaffirmed to doubting minds the fundamental belief and conviction that the service rendered by the Mission in the name of Sri Ramakrishna to suffering humanity was the veritable worship of God. Swami Turiyananda’s being initiated into active work by Swamiji’s loving persuasion has already been referred to. Another brother disciple of Swamiji who could not appreciate, in the early stages, Swamiji’s vision, but who, in the end, spoke fire while exhorting young monks of the Mission to give up their lives in trying to actualize Swamiji’s vision, was Swami Premananda. As an example, we quote below from one of Swami Premananda’s letters written to a devotee on 20 February 1917:
Establishing schools, spread of education, gift of vidya and jnana were the cherished desires of Swamiji. Try to accomplish these tasks as much as possible. Those fortunate souls who participate in this sacred work are gods on earth, though living in human bodies. They alone are selfless workers, their lives alone are meaningfully lived, they alone are blessed on this earth.… Believing in the power of the Lord’s blessed name, establish schools and educational institutions in each city, in each village, nay, in each locality, all over the country.
His work, more in line with that of Swamis Brahmananda and Turiyananda, was to mould the character of the workers and tune their minds to a high pitch of purity, dedication, unselfishness and devotion, which when done, ensured that the work would automatically follow as a logical consequence and in mathematical precision.
Another brother disciple of Swamiji was Swami Akhandananda. He was such a faithful lieutenant of Swamiji that his pioneering efforts in this direction hardly need be wondered at. His work started even while Swamiji was alive. He felt an irresistible urge to start an orphanage in the remote Sargachi village of Murshidabad district in West Bengal. This work was an offshoot of the famine relief work he was doing at Mahula in the same district. He started this with the blessings of Swamiji in the middle of 1897. It proved to be a glorious example of how love of God could be transformed into love for human beings, both high and low, learned and ignorant, rich and poor. Swami Akhandananda’s mind at that time was tuned to such a high pitch that whenever he saw any destitute, orphaned child suffering helplessly on the streets, he would pick it up and bring it to the newly started orphanage. While bathing the child with soap and warm water, he would chant the famous Purusha–suktam hymn of the Vedas, which is usually chanted at the time of bathing the Deity in the form of a Narayana–shila. While so doing, he would remain absorbed in a divine mood resulting from loving contemplation and worship of God. Here was for him the living God, the living Deity in human form, in flesh and blood, gracefully accepting his worship! In January 1899 he started educational activities for the general public in the form of a free school for literacy and non-formal education, which also included, as Swamiji wanted, vocational training for boys in weaving and carpentry to enable them stand on their own feet. Swami Akhandananda himself used to participate in weaving to encourage the villagers become self-dependent with regard to their own clothing.
Another pioneering work, this time in connection with the education of women, about which Swamiji spoke and wrote so much, was by Sister Nivedita. Nivedita had the unique privilege of receiving the blessings of the Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi, and of almost all the direct disciples of the Master. Furthermore, Swamiji himself specially trained her with great care and strictness for the task of working for the welfare of Indian women. The loving mercilessness with which Swamiji educated and trained her is a unique story in the history of spirituality and service. Through ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’, he was chastening, shaping, and equipping her for the unique task which she alone could take up. At the end of this arduous training, Swamiji dedicated her to the service of God and Mother India, thus transforming his Margot into ‘Nivedita of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda’, as she would joyfully call herself.
The Holy Mother sanctified both Belur Math and Nivedita’s Girls’ School on the eve of Kali Puja, i.e. 12 November 1898. Swamis Vivekananda, Brahmananda, and Saradananda also were present on that day at the public meeting held at Baghbazar in connection with the inauguration of the school. At the end of Master’s worship, which the Holy Mother herself performed, she prayed that ‘the blessings of the Great Mother of the universe might be upon the school and that the girls trained there be ideal girls.’ And of this blessing, Sister Nivedita later wrote: ‘I cannot imagine a grander omen than her blessing, spoken over the educated Hindu womanhood of the future.’ This marked the beginning of Sister Nivedita’s work for the education of Indian women. Swamiji was constantly inspiring his disciple, the Dedicated One, ‘to make some educational discovery, which would be qualitatively true and universally acceptable to the work of the modern education of Indian women.’ He blessed her that she should be filled with not only faith, but also with the burning enthusiasm she needed. Swamiji wanted her to become a consuming energy in the cause.
After working in the institution on an experimental basis with a small number of girls, Sister Nivedita felt convinced that the venture should expand into a bigger and more permanent scheme. To collect the funds needed for this expansion, she sailed for the West with Swamiji. After returning in the beginning of 1902, she resumed her school work with fresh vigour at the Bosepara Lane, Baghbazar, Calcutta. Sister Christine, one of the most beloved and devoted disciples of Swamiji, joined hands with Nivedita. Beginning as a children’s school with fifty girls in the first year, it was soon converted into a combined school admitting also the adult women of the locality, who came to learn reading, writing, and needle-work, etc. The History of the Ramakrishna Math & Ramakrishna Mission records:
The school had a high idealism both in the academic and spiritual sense, and it had a social value, since it aimed at training Indian women to take up their own education themselves, thus ensuring independence of action and development on national lines.
Sudhira Bose, sister of Swami Prajnananda, took charge of the school after Sister Nivedita and Sister Christine. She opened an ashrama division called Matri Mandir — a boarding school for the dedicated women workers of the school. It was blessed by the visit and stay of the Holy Mother and the good wishes of Swami Saradananda. The institution was formally affiliated to the Mission in 1918. This was the first institution started and managed entirely by women from its very inception untill Sister Sudhira’s death. It was a remarkable achievement in those days of conservatism and orthodoxy. Swamiji’s dictate that the problems of women should be solved by women themselves by providing them with proper education and practical training found concrete expression in this institution. ‘Hands off!’ were Swamiji’s words of caution to men eager to arrogate to themselves the role of self-appointed troubleshooters in regard to women’s problems. The Sister Nivedita Girls’ School was handed over to Ramakrishna Sarada Mission in 1963.
Another institution for women, having a history similar to that of the Sister Nivedita Girls’ School of Calcutta, is the Sarada Vidyalaya of Madras. With just four inmates under the care of Sister Subbalakshmi and her aunt Valambal Ammal, both child widows, it had a humble beginning in 1912 in a small ‘Home’ for child widows at Egmore, Madras. The Sarada Ladies’ Union, started by the Sister in the same year, inaugurated the Vidyalaya with twelve widows in a rented house at Triplicane in 1927. These girls received primary school teacher’s training and were enabled to stand on their own feet. The school grew steadily, and in 1938 the Mission took charge of the Vidyalaya at the request of Sister Subbalakshmi, amalgamating the then existing schools for girls in different parts of the city of Madras. The Sarada Vidyalaya is now the pride of Madras in the sphere of education for girls. It has two higher secondary schools with more than 5000 students, a middle school, a primary school, a pre-basic school, two hostels, and two libraries. As envisaged by Swamiji, it provides a high standard of education in modern subjects, along with moral and religious education.
Another educational complex that came into existence at the time of the national upheaval kindled by Mahatma Gandhi was the one at Perianaickenpalayam, Coimbatore. The moving spirit behind the creation of this complex was T. S. Avinashilingam, a devoted disciple of Mahapurush Maharaj (Swami Shivananda). He was also greatly influenced by the nationalistic ideals of Mahatma Gandhi, who, he believed, was a channel of Swamiji’s power. In 1930, at Coimbatore he started a Vidyalaya, then a boarding home for just three boys. In leaps and bounds it grew into a full-fledged residential school, which was affiliated to the Mission in 1934. Presently this institution is an enormous complex comprising a residential high school (in which integrated education is provided also to some blind boys along with others), a secondary grade teachers’ training institute, a higher secondary school, a senior basic school, an autonomous teachers’ training institute offering B.Ed., M.Ed., M.Phil., and Ph.D. courses in education and having a resource and development centre for the visually handicapped, an autonomous arts and science degree college, a college of physical education, an autonomous polytechnic, a school of agriculture, an industrial institute offering diploma courses, an industrial section imparting practical training to engineering students, and a library with an open access system containing more than a lakh of books and nearly 300 journals. The number of boys studying the various courses in this complex is more than 4000. In 2005, it celebrated its platinum jubilee. It has also been chosen by the Mission’s new-born deemed University (RKMVU) to act as its Specialized Faculty Centre. It would be focusing on the University’s one of the major thrust areas of Disability Management and Special Education. This is just to give an idea of how sincerity and dedication can transform any endeavour, however small or humble, into a gigantic one.
In the early forties, three other similar institutions were started in West Bengal: Saradapitha at Belur, the Boys’ Home at Rahara, and the Ashrama at Narendrapur. Each of them is now a huge educational complex, comprising a string of institutions. But more of this later. Let us now follow the chronology.
We have mentioned how educational institutions sprang up in the wake of the national upheaval of the second decade of the twentieth century. In the second half of Swami Brahmananda’s tenure as the President of the Ramakrishna Mission, the emphasis was on educational institutions. A few more of such institutions could be mentioned. One of them is the Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama at Sarisha, West Bengal. Started in 1917 as a meeting-place for the religious-minded people and a centre for rendering service to the needy, it became almost defunct in 1920 after the death of its chief organiser. It was revived in 1921 by Swami Ganeshananda as a small centre for medical service and primary education. It has since then developed beyond recognition. This enthusiastic and energetic monk, bold and tender-hearted, with an indomitable will, stood against all rural prejudices to start a school for girls with all the modern facilities available at that time. It included physical exercise and training, and open-air activities unthinkable for girls in those times, particularly in a predominantly rural area. Although the Swami died prematurely in the middle of 1941, the school grew from strength to strength, and its contribution in the field of secondary education for both boys and girls has been immense.
Two more large educational centres that came up during the twenties were at Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Jamshedpur (Tatangar). The History of the Ramakrishna Math & Ramakrishna Mission states:
The Ceylon Centre came to be organized under the Mission in 1924 by a process of coordination of diverse efforts conducted in different parts of the Island in the same line. Thus, with Colombo as the headquarters, where spiritual work too was carried on, there came to exist two schools in Trincomalee, two in Jaffna and five in Batticaloa, with a total strength of 1358 students on the rolls of all the five institutions by 1927.
The Vivekananda Society of Jamshedpur was originally started as a religious and philanthropic institution by some employees of Tata Iron and Steel Company. It was officially recognized by the Mission in 1927, and now it is a huge educational centre with several branch schools scattered over the entire city.
Around the same period, a remarkable educational effort in an entirely different kind of setting in the remote Khasi and Jaintia Hills in Assam was set in motion, quietly and unostentatiously, by Swami Prabhananda (Ketaki Maharaj). In those days of British rule, most of the hill areas in Assam were sealed off from the plains. The denationalization and conversion of the poor and illiterate tribal people in the hill areas was going on en masse under the patronage of the alien British Government, with everyone helplessly looking on. At this critical juncture came Ketaki Maharaj’s bold initiative to spread literacy among these tribal people and bring education along national lines, by national methods, to their doorsteps. A small beginning was made at Shella, near Shillong, with a primary school. It was soon upgraded to a middle English school. Other schools also grew up elsewhere in its wake. In 1929 a headquarters for all these institutions was established at Shillong, where Khasi boys could be accommodated for higher education. Although these efforts were like a drop in the ocean compared to the vast organized force of the foreign missionaries, it still succeeded in rousing in the Khasis faith in themselves and in bringing them in touch with the glorious cultural and spiritual heritage of our own country, as visualized by Swamiji. In February 2000, Shella, which is now a sub-centre of Cherrapunji Ashrama, celebrated its platinum jubilee.
The Mission’s educational work in Bangladesh, in places like Dhaka, Barisal, Sylhet, Habiganj, etc. deserves brief mention at this stage. The struggles of the pioneers at these places are now history, about which the present generation has little knowledge. Fortunately for us, some of the initial struggles in these places have been recorded by Swami Prabhananda (Varun Maharaj), presently a Trustee of the Ramakrishna Math and a member of the Governing Body of the Mission, who is well known for his thoroughly documented studies and research in the Mission’s history. The present reference is to his article in the Saradiya number (1996) of the journal Samaj Siksha published by the Lokasiksha Parishad of the Narendrapur Mission.
Habiganj is a small town in the Sylhet district, by the side of a small river called Khoyai. On the other side of this river is a village called Gosainnagar. There were a large number of cobbler families in this village. They were extremely poor. To boot, they were also lazy and averse to any hard labour. They eked out a meagre living by collecting cow and buffalo-skins from slaughter houses and selling them to the Muslim businessmen. Although belonging to the cobbler-caste, they did not know shoe-making, nor did they have any tools or instruments for that purpose. They were looked upon with great contempt by both the Hindu and Muslim communities on account of their illiteracy, superstition, and uncivilized way of life. When Gauri-Ma, a saintly woman-disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, visited Habiganj in 1914, she granted a few devotees mantra-diksha. Inspired by her, many devotees then started a Sri Ramakrishna Seva Samity at Habiganj.
Even before the Samity was started, some of the educated youths of Habiganj village had begun service activities for the illiterate cobbler folk. In this the pioneer was Sri Yogesh Chandra Datta, who later became Swami Ashokananda and headed the Mission’s Northern California Centre for a long time. He was then highly respected for his intellectual and spiritual attainments. This band of dedicated young men started a literacy campaign in the village with a night school. With the help of a lantern they used to go from house to house in that cobbler colony and literally catch hold of the slum children and bring them to school to study. From Habiganj, these young men used to cross the river to go to Gosainnagar village in the evenings to conduct their coaching classes. When the boat service used to be suspended during the rainy season on account of flood-tides, these young men would swim across the river. In later days, the monks of the Ramakrishna Mission used to do the same.
The workers of the Seva Samiti kept the night school going in spite of all odds. After some time, they felt that the helpless, illiterate cobbler-folk need to be helped with food and clothing too along with primary education. Mixing with them intimately and listening to their tales of woe, they first persuaded them to give up their surname of ‘Cobbler’ and assume, instead, the surname ‘Rishi’. This was in tune with Swamiji’s idea of giving back the masses their ‘lost individuality’. Health and hygiene education and necessary arrangements for clean living were also initiated. Along with this, they took care to see that professional training in cobbler skills was imparted to them in a scientific manner.
The founder-Secretary of the Seva Samiti, Tarak Chakravarty, joined the Ramakrishna Mission to become a monk. He was initiated into sannyasa and received his new name Swami Gopeswarananda. Later he became popularly known as ‘Gopeswar Maharaj’. Very soon the Habiganj Seva Samiti got affiliated to Belur Math as a branch of the Mission, and Gopeswar Maharaj took charge of this centre as its first Head. He started various schemes for the all-round welfare of these villagers and taught them to be self-reliant. Many of these ‘trained’ cobblers went over to places like Sylhet, Karimganj, Silchar, etc. and earned their living by using their acquired expertise. Gopeswar Maharaj was ably assisted by one Barada Chakravarty, who later became Swami Sukhadananda and headed the Mission’s Sargachi Centre for a long time. Also there was Debendra Das, who later became Swami Saumyananda and the Head of the Shillong Centre. Gopeswar Maharaj started a Cooperative Society for the cobblers and made it a rule that only literates would be admitted as its members. On account of this rule, there was a great demand for more night schools and the literacy rate increased in leaps and bounds. Seeing the great progress made by the Habiganj cobbler community, soon vocational training, centring round the night school, was organized also in the neighbouring villages of Charinou, Uchayil and others. Thus, the individual and collective lives of these simple village folk were metamorphosed by the honest and sincere efforts of these monks.
Swamiji had seen how the upper castes, particularly the brahmins, had monopolized knowledge by denying it to the lower castes, whom they despicably termed shudras and chandalas. This oppression of the lower castes by the egotistic brahmin scholars was practised in its most ugly form in some parts of South India. Pathetically the lower castes had been made to believe through centuries of oppression, neglect and hate that they had been born only to remain in an abject state of near-animality, that the Vedic and Upanishadic culture, and Sanskrit education were not for them! The savage inhumanity of organized priest-craft went to such an extent that these lower caste folk were made to feel that their very shadow would pollute the upper caste brahmins, for which they would do well to tie a bell to their ear to announce their approach while walking along the streets! Irony can go no further. In such a background, two exemplary attempts at all-round uplift of these unfortunate people were made by Swami Tyagishananda and Swami Nrisimhananda in Kerala.
Swami Tyagishananda began his educational service by starting a school named ‘Vivekodayam School’ in Thrissur town in 1915, even before he joined the Ramakrishna Order. In 1927 the school was shifted to a rural area called Puranattukara, about seven kilometres from Thrissur, mainly with the idea of serving the Harijan children of the place. It was affiliated to Belur Math in 1929. Two separate hostels, one for boys and another for girls were also started. The majority of inmates of the hostels were Harijan children. Tyagishananda was an erudite scholar but led a very simple and austere life. In 1934 Mahatma Gandhi visited the place and laid the foundation for the hostel and temple. In 1935 Tyagishananda left Thrissur to take charge of Bangalore Ashrama. The work for Harijans started by him is still being continued by the Ramakrishna Math, Thrissur, which has undergone much expansion in later years. It may also be mentioned here that in 1948 a new hostel and school for girls were started in a nearby campus, which was later affiliated to Sri Sarada Math, Dakshineswar.
Swami Nrisimhananda’s work began with a group of just four boys belonging to a Harijan family living in abject poverty. Along with literacy, he gave them vocational training so that they could earn their living and stand on their own feet. In two villages — Noornad and Adur — he carried on his work among the Harijans for nearly 45 years. The lepers, whom he had served with heartfelt devotion, made an earnest appeal to the Mission that, on his passing away, a small portion of his ashes should be sent to them to be preserved and worshipped as a holy relic. Such was the deep reverence and gratitude that these Harijan lepers bore towards this monk who was the nearest kith and kin of those whom society had condemned as untouchable wretches!
The work of the Mission among the Harijans living in the slums of Rambagan in North Calcutta is a revolution in the concept of integrated slum development and is an internationally recognized model for such projects. This work is now being carried on under the banner of the Vivekananda Social Welfare Centre, which is a part of the Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama, Narendrapur, West Bengal. This Ashrama is the product of the pioneering work and master-vision of Swami Lokeswarananda, who was one of the eminent educationists of the Mission. He was ably assisted by several of his brother monks and also lay devotees, among whom Sri Shiv Shankar Chakraborty deserves special mention. Started in 1943 in Calcutta and later shifted to Narendrapur, this huge educational complex, similar to the one at Coimbatore which we have already mentioned, is the pride of independent India. This complex now comprises a residential degree college, a residential secondary school (considered by the Government of India as a model school), a primary school, the Institute for Social Welfare and Integrated Rural Development called the Lokasiksha Parishad, the Vivekananda Social Welfare Centre, the residential Blind Boys’ Academy, and a department of technical and vocational education with the following units: a junior technical school, a school of automobile engineering, a commercial institute, and a motor mechanic training institute. Above all, the Lokasiksha Parishad is today functioning as one of the Specialized Faculty Centres of the Mission’s incipient deemed University. It will focus on the University’s one of the major thrust areas of integrated rural development, including tribal development.
As we are discussing about the educational activities run by the Mission, it is pertinent to mention two more of such institutions in West Bengal: the Ramakrishna Mission Saradapitha at Belur, and the Ramakrishna Mission Boys’ Home at Rahara.
The Saradapitha was started in 1941, with Vidyamandira, a degree college, as its nucleus. The name ‘Vidyamandira’ owes its origin to an utterance of Swami Vivekananda. In 1898, soon after his triumphal return from the West, Swamiji told one of his disciples in the course of an inspired talk:
Yonder plot of land on the south side of the [Belur] Math will be the centre of learning, where grammar, philosophy, science, literature…and English will be taught. This Temple of Learning [Vidyamandira] will be fashioned after the Tols of old days. But [he added] now we must lay their foundations on a broad basis, that is to say, we must introduce a good deal of change into it to suit the requirements of the times.
Swamiji also prophesied that Belur Math would ultimately develop into a full-fledged university. He perhaps had the Buddhist universities like Nalanda and Taxila in his mind. The Vidyamandira was therefore conceived of by its Founder-Secretary Swami Vimuktananda as the nucleus of the future ‘Vivekananda University’. We shall discuss the newly established university a little later. To continue the narration, the untiring endeavours of Swami Vimuktananda, who, as the Secretary, steered the Saradapitha from its inception in 1941 till his untimely death in 1966, should be specially remembered as the pioneering effort of the Ramakrishna Mission in the field of higher education. The Vidyamandira was fortunate to have Swami Tejasananda as its first Principal. His vivacity and dynamism at a time when a large dose of these qualities could hardly be expected were a great source of inspiration for the teachers and students who came in contact with him. The Saradapitha complex now comprises the following units: The Vidyamandira, a residential three-year degree college with a higher secondary section; the Sikshanamandira, a residential teachers’ training college; the Shilpamandira, a polytechnic running three-year diploma courses in civil, electrical, and mechanical enginnering; the Community Polytechnic, imparting vocational training in various trades, with a computer centre attached to it; the Shilpayatana, having two sub-units, namely, a junior technical school (ITI) and a higher secondary vocational section; the Shilpavidyalaya, a technical institute giving vocational training courses in various trades; the Janasikshamandira, having non-formal education centres, a free library, a mobile library, and a vocational training unit; and the Samaj Sevak Sikshanamandira, a free residential institution for training youths in rural development work. Like the Lokasiksha Parishad of the Naredrapur centre, the Samaj Sevak Sikshanamandira will be one of the Specialized Faculty Centres under the Mission’s newly established deemed University. It would focus on the University’s one of the major thrust areas, i.e. integrated rural development, including tribal development.
The Ramakrishna Mission Boys’ Home at Rahara is another educational complex comparable to those at Coimbatore, Narendrapur, and Belur. Started in 1943 in Calcutta, it was subsequently shifted to Rahara in the 24-Parganas district of West Bengal. It is a complex with a difference — it caters essentially to orphans and destitute or very poor boys. Swami Punyananda was its Founder-Secretary. He, along with Swamis Lokeswarananda and Vimuktananda, formed a trio, zealously founding and developing educational complexes in West Bengal almost simultaneously, one competing healthily with the other in the passion to serve God in man. The Rahara Boys’ Home now comprises the following units: an orphanage where general education and training in crafts are provided, a pre-basic (nursery) school, five sub-units of junior basic school, a junior high school, a degree college, a junior technical school with a higher secondary vocational institute, a vocational training unit, a rural librarianship training centre (residential), and a junior basic training institute (residential).
Swami Sambhavananda’s educational and cultural work in Mysore, in particular his master-plan of the Ramakrishna Vidyashala (a residential school), has been acclaimed as one of the outstanding efforts of its kind in free India. In accordance with Swamiji’s conception, all the ingredients needed for making of a complete man — with head, hand, and heart developed to full bloom — are integrated in its curriculum. A similar institution was founded in West Bengal in Purulia district through the efforts and vision of Swami Hiranmayananda. The residential school at Purulia too aims at giving a comprehensive education to its boys.
In connection with the work of Swami Sambhavananda, we need also to mention about the Ramakrishna Institute of Moral and Spiritual Education (RIMSE) started by him in Mysore. It is exclusively devoted to programmes imparting education and training to teacher-trainees as well as others interested in the cultural and spiritual heritage of India. RIMSE has been recognized by the Government of India as one of the pioneers in the sphere of value-based and value-oriented education, education for moral values, etc., with a well-thought-out syllabus and curriculum. Like Coimbatore, Narendrapur, and Saradapitha, it will be a Specialized Faculty Centre of the Mission’s deemed University. It would mainly focus on one of the major thrust areas, i.e. Indian spiritual and cultural heritage and value education.
Our narration on the subject of higher education would be incomplete without mentioning the Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda College at Madras. Started by a group of lay devotees in 1946 just in the twilight of the British rule in India, it mainly imparts education ‘on national lines, by national methods’, as conceived by Swamiji, integrating modern science and English education with the ancient Vedic and Sanskrit education. Over the years, this college has grown enormously in size and in quality. A recent survey, conducted in 1997 by India Today, rated it to be one of the ten best colleges in the country, which is not a mean achievement. It imparts education at the graduate and post-graduate levels, and its departments of Chemistry, Economics, Philosophy, Botany, and Sanskrit have research scholars working for their Doctorate degrees.
On the cultural side of the Mission’s activities, a pride of place is occupied by the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture at Gol Park, Calcutta. The pioneer of this project was Swami Nityaswarupananda, a monk of originality and vision. From its modest beginning in 1938, it has come a long way and has now grown into an important centre for learning and research, recognized as such by the University of Calcutta and the Indian Council for Social Science Research. It was created to actualize Swamiji’s vision of combining the best elements of Eastern and Western cultures by making scholars of both the worlds come together in friendly exchange of views. It also seeks to educate the younger generation on the glorious spiritual and cultural heritage of India. Its fully computerized library, having nearly two lakhs of books and more than four-hundred periodicals and journals, is one of the richest and the most modern in India. It also has a school of languages in which are taught 14 languages, both Indian and foreign. The international scholars’ house accommodates scholars from several countries, who come to India to study Indian culture and spirituality. There is a Research Wing on Indological Studies attached to the Institute. Seminars, symposia and lectures on various topics relating to culture, religion, and spirituality form the main fabric of the Institute’s life. The number of such lectures is well over 300 in a year, which shows that they are almost a daily affair.
Mention may be made here of a similar school of languages in Hyderabad, attached to the Ramakrishna Math there, as well as of the propagation of Indian culture and spirituality that was being done through the lectures of Swami Ranganathananda, the thirteenth President of the Order, who was a gifted speaker of international repute. As one of the Vice-Presidents, he stayed at the Hyderabad Ashrama till 1999, in which year the mantle of Presidentship of the Order was passed on to him. Then onwards he stayed at Belur Math till his mahasamadhi in 2005. During his stay at Hyderabad, his charismatic personality and presence drew thousands of people from all walks of life to the Hyderabad Ashrama. After his departure from there in 1999, the work of propagating Indian culture and spirituality continued through a new institute — Vivekananda Institute of Human Excellence.
To counter the continuing erosion of moral and spiritual values in every sphere of life and activity, an urgent need was felt by the Ramakrishna Math, Hyderabad, for starting an institute that would impart, in accordance with Swamiji’s plan, life-building, man-making, and nation-building education and training. With this aim the Vivekananda Institute of Human Excellence came into existence in the precincts of the Ramakrishna Math, Hyderabad, on 10 September 2000. It was inaugurated by Swami Ranganathananda, the then President of the Order.
The institute conducts various programmes to cater to the needs of a representative cross section of society like the youths, students, government employees, public sector undertakings, corporate bodies, and professionals like engineers, doctors, and others. Some of the major programmes are: Value orientation programmes for teachers, government employees, corporate employees and executives; educational motivation programmes for college students; confidence building courses; communication skills; art of self-improvement; meditation courses; personality development courses; courses to develop leadership qualities; special training for professionals like doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers and others; Vivekananda bala-vikasa programme; parents’ motivation courses; special value orientation programmes for rural groups; training in classical, instrumental and devotional music; self-awareness programmes, etc. Since the inception of this institute until this day (October 2005), more than two lakh candidates have been trained in different courses.
We have mentioned the Mission’s educational work among the tribals and the Harijans. Educating the masses was one of Swamiji’s pet ideas, and with him it was almost a passion. His aim in educating the masses was to bring the great spiritual ideas, the gems stored in our ancient books, within the reach of the ordinary person, including the fisherman, the pariah, and the chandala. His famous words were:
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, with the fishermen that are catching fish, and with the students that are studying. In one word, I want to make them popular. I want to bring out these ideas and let them be the common property of all, of every man in India, whether he knows the Sanskrit language or not.
The main obstacle in popularizing Vedanta, Swamiji felt, was the Sanskrit language, in which almost the entire ancient spiritual literature is written. To overcome this obstacle, Swamiji suggested that Vedantic ideas should be taught to the people in their own language, that is, in the vernacular. But then, he also emphasized the spread of Sanskrit education. He was bold enough to assert that:
Even the great Buddha made one false step when he stopped the Sanskrit language from being studied by the masses. The result was that, though his great ideas spread quickly far and wide, the prestige was missing. ‘Knowledge came, but the prestige was not there, culture was not there.’
This is very much like, for example, the study of science and technology in the English language. Spreading scientific and technical education in the vernaculars will perhaps make them spread faster and cover a wider area, but then the prestige will be lacking. For, in the modern world, particularly in the world of science and technology, English and prestige go together. So, along with the vernaculars, English should be equally emphasized in the modern context.
The Mission’s work in the spread of Sanskrit education has been, unfortunately, very meagre, compared to its work in other educational spheres. Language and communication skills are areas to which enough attention has not been paid in a systematic way. The time has perhaps come when this aspect of educational work needs to be taken up with dead seriousness, for, with the growth of hi-tech devices like computers, the internet, and so on, the world has shrunk so much that today effective communication forms the bed rock of success in any educational enterprise. Our younger generation is woefully lacking in this, and in-depth training in these skills is therefore urgent in the present age when Information Technology and Communications are the latest states-of-art. However, some work in imparting Sanskrit education is being done in Palai and Kalady, both in Kerala. No better place could be imagined for this work than Kerala, the birth place of the great Bhashyakara, Sri Shankaracharya. During his wandering days, it was in Kerala that Swamiji found, to his great surprise, women conversing fluently in Sanskrit.
There is a cultural difference between the tribal people in Meghalaya and those in Arunachal Pradesh. Meghalaya tribal society, like its counterparts in Kerala and Manipur, is matriarchal in character. It is the woman who rules. She shoulders all the responsibilities which would normally be borne by a man in the plains. After marriage, the groom leaves his home for good to live with the bride. The daughter, and not the son, inherits the parents’ property. The children take the surnames of the mother and not of the father.
During the 1960s, when the Ramakrishna Mission first took up educational and medical activities in the Siang District of Arunachal Pradesh (the northern borders of which touch Tibet/China), the literacy rate there was almost nil. Furthermore, in contrast to the tribal people of Meghalaya, the Mynyong tribes of Arunachal Pradesh have a patriarchal society. A sort of polyandry also prevailed there. But one important characteristic common to all the tribal communities is their unsophisticated simplicity and absolute frankness in dealings. They would detect with uncanny intuition any sort of ‘cleverness’ or ‘diplomatic tact’ and detest it from the bottom of their hearts. They therefore had an innate sense of honesty. The Mission schools at Along and Narottam Nagar in Arunachal Pradesh have gone fairly a long way in raising the educational standards of these tribal people.
The story of the tribal people at Narainpur, in the Bastar district of Chattisgarh, is even more pathetic. This place was originally called Abujhmarh (literally meaning ‘unknown land’). The tribal people in Abujhmarh did not even know how to cover their own bodies with clothes. Penetrating into this Abujhmarh, and creating the present Abujhmarh Tribal Service, a huge educational, cultural, and medical complex for tribal welfare and uplift, was a task meant only for bold and adventurous monks ‘fired with the zeal of holiness and fortified with eternal faith in the Lord, and nerved to lion’s courage by their sympathy for the poor, the fallen and the downtrodden.’ The Abujhmarh project was fortunate in getting as its pioneer one such monk in Swami Atmananda, who was then the Secretary in charge of the Raipur Centre of the Ramakrishna Mission. Unfortunately, the cruel jaws of death snatched him away untimely, when this tribal project had just begun to grow. But he will be remembered as a friend of these poor tribals, one who boldly initiated this project and executed it with the efficiency and daring of an army general.
Another institution, which is a major landmark in the Ramakrishna Mission’s century-old movement in the field of education, is the deemed university known as the Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda Educational and Research Institute (RKMVERI). Its genesis can be traced back to Swamiji’s prophetic utterance, made just two days before his mahasamadhi on 4 July 1902:
The spiritual impact that has come to Belur [Math] will last fifteen hundred years, and it will be a great university. Do not think I imagine it; I see it.
Today, after more than a century, with the establishment of a deemed university a concrete step has been initiated towards realizing Swamiji’s vision, marking a watershed in Ramakrishna Mission’s educational programme. It was formally inaugurated on 4 July 2005. Swamiji perhaps had, as stated earlier, the Buddhist universities like Nalanda and Taxila in his mind. In accordance with his ideas, this university imparts man-making and character-building education by combining the best elements of both the Eastern and the Western worlds. It would provide opportunities for education and research in the disciplines of arts, sciences, and spiritual subjects. The supplementary and inter-dependent character of these three disciplines will receive special emphasis.
It is an international university that operates through the branch-centres of Ramakrishna Mission in India and abroad. It is not a single institution located in a particular campus. It is rather a cluster of institutions, all of them belonging to the branches of Ramakrishna Mission with its headquarters at Belur Math. In this sense, this is a university with a difference — a unique experiment of its kind in India. It has four major thrust areas in which it operates. These areas are not usually covered or emphasized by other universities in India. They are:
- Disability management and special education
- Integrated rural development including tribal development
- Indian cultural and spiritual heritage and value education
- Disaster management including relief and rehabilitation
These areas are the major faculties of this university. Some of the branch-centres functioning efficiently in these areas are its Specialized Faculty Centres. For instance, the Ramakrishna Mission Vidyalaya, Coimbatore, is the Specialized Faculty Centre for the first thrust area mentioned above. Similar is the case with the other areas.
The first and foremost requirement of any country is educated men and women of impeccable character, with head, hand, and heart harmoniously developed, rather than mere knowledgeable and skilful engineers and doctors lacking in feeling and dedication. Such men and women, endowed with brilliant intellects, loving hearts, and efficient hands, educated in a new ethos of self-abandonment rather than self-aggrandizement, can resuscitate our country to her past glory, and through that effect the complete regeneration of humankind. This was Swamiji’s one of the cherished visions. It is to this end that this university is dedicated. This nascent university has thus silently set in motion a new movement. It aims at nothing short of an all-round development of humankind, which time alone will prove. Swamiji had prophesied:
The power that will have its rise from here [Belur Math] will flood the whole world and turn the course of men’s lives into different channels…
To be sure, through this university, a promising step has been taken towards fulfilling Swamiji’s millennium vision of flooding the globe with the light of education, universal harmony, and peace.
Swamiji wanted science and religion, poetry and philosophy, hitherto considered incompatible, to shake hands. He wanted a blending of the scientific temper and religious faith. The Board of Management of the new university therefore has started Vivekananda School of Fundamental Science and Philosophy, under which there would be a Vivekananda Research Centre, which will undertake research in Ramakrishna-Vivekananda philosophy, consciousness studies, fundamental sciences like theoretical physics, computer science, and pure mathematics. It also was inaugurated on 4 July 2005. It presently operates from Swami Vivekananda’s ancestral house in Calcutta, which became a new centre of the Order in October 2004.
We have now almost reached the end of our narration. Many more educational projects, big and small, which have grown in recent times into full-fledged branches of the Mission, have not been discussed here. An exhaustive list of centres of the Math and Mission doing educational work in some form or other, however small they may be, is given in the annexe to this paper.
The educational services rendered by the Math and the Mission, their vidyá-dána-yajða, is going on and growing steadily in size. There is great public appreciation of the work. There is also a tremendous demand for more institutions, more schools, colleges, students’ homes, hostels, and so on. This appreciaton and demand should make us all pause and reflect, and critically examine the strengths and weaknesses of the work. While there has been an enormous growth in quantity, has there been a corresponding and equal increase in quality? Is the Mission’s work outstanding by contrast only, given the unprecedented all-round degradation in standards, or is it truly a shining representative of the great ideals set before us by Swamiji? Is a sense of complacency creeping into the Mission workers because of this ‘shine-by-contrast’, or are they deeply aware of the chasm — which can be bridged only by pure, unselfish work — between ideal and practice, the very high ideal set before the Mission by Swamiji and the actual ground reality of how far they have been able to put it into practice?
The hundred years of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, and its stepping into the 21st century, is a time not only for rejoicing, but for deep reflection and self-analysis. How far have the Math and the Mission been able to actualize the educational vision of Swamiji? How far have they been able to adapt themselves to the changing times, while remaining uncompromising in their ideological struggle? Just as a tree has to be judged by its best fruit, even so, the strength of a chain is in its weakest link. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Mission’s attempts to realize the ideals that Swamiji set before it a hundred years ago? In short, would Swamiji be happy, if he were with us today in flesh and blood, to see the Math and the Mission going and growing in the way that it is? Are these twin organizations caught up in a rut of routine, in the glamour of examination results, in the repetitive exercises which every other institution does? Would their performance satisfy the soul of Swamiji who always wanted to cut across traditional lines and mediocrity and blaze new trails in the unexplored horizons of human excellence?
These are the few questions that now and then agitate the minds of those involved in Swamiji’s educational experiment. Their answers are not at all easy to find. The answers can, however, come through reverential meditation and introspection, through uncompromising devotion to Truth, and a commitment to the higher ideals of moral and spiritual excellence. Above all, the answers can come through an earnest prayer to the Supreme Divinity that pervades everything, that stirs every heart, impels every mind, and awakens our intuition of the Indwelling Spirit, the Antaryámin, who is of the nature of Infinite Existence, Infinite Awareness, and Infinite Joy.