— Swami Vireshananda —
The inception of the Ramakrishna Mission is a momentous event in Indian history. The Mission brought about the national renaissance in India which ultimately culminated in political freedom. It also caused widespread social awareness and ini-tiated a mass educational movement across the length and breadth of the country. It gave a new gospel of service to Indian society through dedicated and well-organized service centres, poverty alleviation projects, hospitals, and relief and rehabilitation work. All these spectacular achievements had a spiritual undercurrent that nourished and sustained the organization. This spiritual stream in the form of Sri Ramakrishna catalysed the awakening of spiritual consciousness throughout the world. Ramakrishna Mission is but a wonderful mechanism of selfless service and spirituality that originated from, owes its existence to, and is an embodiment of, Sri Ramakrishna—the great source of perpetual spirituality.
Ramakrishna Mission, in reality, is Sri Ramakrishna’s Mission. It is his puṇya saṅkalpa, the sacred resolution, that has taken the concrete form of this organisation. Every one of its activities is the representation of one of the facets of Sri Ramakrishna’s multifarious spiritual ideal; each of its members is working hard and tirelessly trying to put into practice his vision of serving God in human beings. Hence, Ramakrishna Mission is nothing but the unrelenting continuance of Sri Ramakrishna’s Spiritual Mission, which he conducted throughout his lifetime.
How far relevant is the extensive service being rendered by the Ramakrishna Mission in this modern period? How pertinent and important is the role of the Mission and its activities in the 21st century? What are the new challenges the Mission is facing while dealing with the rapidly changing social and economic conditions in India and elsewhere? How is the Ramakrishna Mission responding and orienting itself to this evolving situation? How beneficial and efficacious will be the activities of the Ramakrishna Mission in the coming decades of the present century? These are some of the germane issues, not only important from the historical viewpoint, but also closely related to the direction in which the Mission has to expand its sphere of influence in the coming decades.
Evolution of the Service Activities of Ramakrishna Mission
Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda gave a new gospel of service based on the Vedantic ideal of seeing God in Man. The ground-breaking idea of ‘serving God in man’ captured the imagination of the Indian intelligentsia and common folk alike, and opened a new vista of service and spirituality on the Indian horizon. The great contribution of the Ramakrishna Mission is in actualising this ideal and showing the world how to practise it in day-to-day life.
The famous French savant and Nobel laureate, Romain Rolland, beautifully captures this effect of Swami Vivekananda’s teachings:
He had a genius for arresting words and burning phrases, hammered white hot in the forge of his soul, so that they transpierced thousands. The one that made the deepest impression was the famous phrase: Daridra-Narayana (the beggar God). … ‘The only God that exists, the only Gods in whom I believe… my God the miserable, my God the poor of all races.’ It may justly be said that India’s destiny was changed by him, and that his teaching re-echoed throughout Humanity. …
So India was hauled out of the shifting sands of barren speculation, wherein she had been engulfed for centuries, by the hand of one of her own Sannyasins; and the result was that the whole reservoir of mysticism, sleeping beneath, broke its bounds, and spread by a series of great ripples into action. …
Whatever the part played in this reawakening by the three generations of trumpeters during the previous century (the greatest of whom we salute, the genial precursor Ram Mohan Roy), the decisive call was the trumpet blast of the lectures delivered at Colombo and Madras [by Swami Vivekananda].
Through this ideal of ‘Service of God in Man’, Ramakrishna Mission became the front-runner to the spiritual and social revolution in India during the 20th century.
Each period has its own conditions and requirements. 19th century India was ridden with utter poverty, a series of man-made and natural calamities, social inequality, political subjugation, the lack of a universal education system, and the absence of economic opportunities. In the last few years of the 19th century, the Ramakrishna Mission, with its meagre human and financial resources, arranged some relief works including the plague medical relief in Kolkata and also the drought relief in Murshidabad district of Bengal. These were spearheaded by Sister Nivedita and Swami Akhandananda respectively. Swami Vivekananda inspired and guided these initial service endeavours. Then, in course of time, permanent medical facilities were established by the monks of the Ramakrishna Mission in the pilgrimage places of Kashi, Haridwar, and Vrindavan. Subsequently, relief was provided to the refugees during the Second World War and the partition of India and to those who were severely affected by natural calamities like drought, floods, communal clashes, fire, and the like.
Later, the Ramakrishna Mission became a front-runner in providing quality and nationalistic education to thousands of students coming from the middle-class and poor sections of society including refugee children. It rendered yeomen service in the time of partition by opening orphanages and schools. The educational work of the Mission which commenced humbly in the pre-independence period made major headway after the independence with the establishment of huge educational institutions across the country.
The Mission successfully expanded its relief activities into several major rehabilitation projects spending a huge amount of money. The earthquake rehabilitation project in Latur (Maharastra) (1993), Orissa super-cyclone rehabilitation project (1999), Andhra Pradesh cyclone rehabilitation project (1999–2000), and Gujarat earthquake rehabilitation project (2001)—are glowing illustrations of the efficient planning and effective execution of housing projects undertaken by the Ramakrishna Mission.
In recent years, especially during the 150th birthday celebration of Swami Vivekananda (2012–13), the Ramakrishna Mission undertook several mass educational and welfare programmes such as values education projects and Gadhadhar Abhyudhaya Prakalpa (GAP), an integrated child welfare scheme. Special projects were executed targeting socially and economically backward sections of society. Some of the programmes like GAP are still continuing with the financial help of donors.
Many centres of the Ramakrishna Mission are extending their service endeavours in diversified areas according to the needs of the time. The institutes of Human Excellence, youth and student counselling, skill-development programmes, languages and computer learning centres, and the provisions for self-development and self-employment—are some of the fields, in which Ramakrishna Mission is expanding its service activities in recent times.
Ramakrishna Mission has also been recognised as a fitting instrument in bringing about a silent educational and social revolution in many parts of India. The non-sectarian and non-political nature of the work has been appreciated by several international agencies like UNESCO and others.
There have been tremendous changes in the Indian scenario in the last 125 years since the inception of the Ramakrishna Mission. The onslaught of materialism in Indian society through all these years has transformed it to a great extent. The innumerable problems that Western society is infested with have also made their way into Indian society. Excessive consumerism and sensuality are intimidating Indian society more than ever before. The overwhelming digital technology that has penetrated society is another cause of deep concern. Many Indians, following the footsteps of Western society, are leading mechanical lives, altogether forgetting their rich spiritual heritage and uniquely tolerant religious culture.
The psychological and social maladies which were unheard of in the past have crept into modern society. The youth and students are suffering from stress and anxiety-related problems due to the unbridled worldliness encompassing society today. There is an urgent need for proper guidance for our youth, who have fallen into the vicious circle of money-making and sensual pleasure.
Despite rapid improvement in economic and social conditions, India is still suffering from the age-old ailments of poverty, social evils like caste discrimination and its offshoots—violence and injustice, rampant corruption, and degradation in ethical and spiritual values. Due to the wide disparity between the haves and the have-nots, there is growing frustration in the lower classes. It has caused increasing clashes and mutual ill-will among communities.
However, India has made inroads in providing universal education by opening schools in small towns and villages that mainly cater for the underprivileged classes of society. Though lacking in several facilities like good teachers, infrastructure, classrooms, and other essentials, the Indian education system has a pervasive presence throughout the country. Several religious organisations and charitable institutions are running educational institutions of excellence throughout the country.
The health sector has grown exponentially in India since its independence, though there are numerous villages which are still deprived of basic health facilities. Apart from the Government initiative in setting up primary health centres in villages, private hospitals and dispensaries have mushroomed in nooks and corners of cities and towns. Though the private initiatives are mainly commercial, there is no dearth of charitable hospitals which are rendering yeomen service to the poor and deprived classes of society.
The excellent pioneering service work done by the Ramakrishna Mission in several fields has made a constructive impact on Indian society. As a result, several religious and spiritual associations have come forward to serve the people in the field of their choice in the last hundred years. They all acknowledge with gratefulness the positive influence that the Ramakrishna Mission has made on their sphere of service activities. Though the Ramakrishna Mission could serve a limited number of people residing in certain parts of the country, compared to the huge growing population of India—the perfect standard set by the Mission has become an ideal for other service organisations to emulate and adapt in their service centres.
The Challenges before the Ramakrishna Mission
Ramakrishna Mission has always responded to the need of the times from the time of its inception. It has reoriented itself to the needs of society for 125 years. Hence, it is in the fitness of things to dwell on the challenges before the Ramakrishna Mission in the 21st century.
The demand for formal education involving educational institutions is slowly, but definitely, lessening in the modern scenario. However, educational institutions run by the Mission are continuing to be the centres of excellence and are an inspiration for other service organisations. Despite several administrative and logistic problems in maintaining these institutions, the Mission is expanding its educational services in the north-eastern states like Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh and also in several rural areas. In the coming days, conducting service activities in the educational field, which involves teething difficulties including high financial implications, will be one of the major challenges for the Mission.
The hospitals, dispensaries, and mobile medical units conducted by the Ramakrishna Mission are known for serving disadvantaged people at no or very cheap cost. The people immensely trust the Mission’s sincere efforts in the health sector, and hence, there is a growing demand for them, especially in rural areas. However, the rising cost of infrastructure and medical appliances, the non-availability of skilled doctors and medical personnel and other glitches are hampering the sincere and committed endeavours of the Ramakrishna Mission in extending medical services to new areas. Despite the odds, the Mission is trying its best to give quality medical services and also to extend the facilities, particularly in rural areas. This is another challenge the Ramakrishna Mission is facing in the 21st century.
It is inspiring to note that the Mission, in recent years, is spreading its service activities to non-formal and non-traditional realms to cater to the needs of the times. The demand for such initiatives as Personality Development courses, outreach to students and youth in villages and small towns through programmes like Viveka Vahini (Ramakrishna Math [Yogodyan], Kankurgacchi, Kolkata), Viveka Murusu (Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai), Jnanavahini (Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, Mysuru), Human Excellence Centres (as in Hyderabad and elsewhere), informal Values-Education courses—are increasing day by day. Many centres of the Ramakrishna Mission have been responding to this by starting several creative and innovative projects that attract a large number of students and youths. Conducting new types of non-formal service activities with the limited human and financial resources available is one of the major challenges for the Ramakrishna Mission in the 21st century.
The relevance of relief, rehabilitation, and poverty alleviation programmes being carried out by the Ramakrishna Mission on such a large scale, cannot be overestimated in the present context. The Ramakrishna Mission has turned out to be a beacon of light to thousands of people in a situation when such projects undertaken by Government agencies and others are found to be ineffective and ridden with corrupt practices. Perfect accountability, efficient management, and sincere and honest enterprise—are some of the hallmarks of the works undertaken by the Mission, which have found wide acceptance and appreciation by the public at large. However, there are several difficulties in coordinating with government and non-government agencies in implementing such projects. The Ramakrishna Mission, even with such glitches, has always lent a helping hand to unfortunate brothers and sisters who have been affected by natural calamities. The furtherance of this noble service, with improvement in quality as well as quantity, is another major challenge to the Ramakrishna Mission in the 21st century.
The publication of books and journals is another important aspect of the spiritual service of the Ramakrishna Mission. In the age of widespread internet connectivity and smart digital devices, the scope of printed books and journals in our daily life is fast diminishing. People are demanding digital (audio and visual) books and the digital format of journals. The printing media is slowly switching itself to digital media. Ramakrishna Mission has not lagged behind in this digital revolution. It is offering several titles and its journals to the public in digital format (including Prabuddha Bharata) and they are becoming popular among the public. Apart from this, Prabuddha Bharata is offering online its entire 125 years archive for digital consumption, at a nominal price, to those who are interested. To continue with digital innovation and coming out with user-friendly platforms to cater to the need of the new generation is another challenge for the Ramakrishna Mission in the coming days.
Like its publications, the Ramakrishna Mission also provides great spiritual service to humanity through spiritual discourses and retreats. What we find in some quarters now are narrower and archaic interpretations of the spiritual teachings of Sanatana Dharma. Hence, a large number of sincere aspirants are deprived of broad, modern, and relevant spiritual nourishment suited for this modern age. Thus, stepping up the service of dissemination of the liberal and universal spiritual messages of the Vedanta and the Holy Trio (Ramakrishna-Sarada-Vivekananda) to the masses is another challenge to the Ramakrishna Mission in the 21st century.
Ramakrishna Mission is trying hard to involve and engage a number of private centres and other unaffiliated institutions into what is generally called the Ramakrishna Movement. The formation of Sri Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Bhavaprachar Parishads in almost all parts of India and active guidance by the monks of the Ramakrishna Order to those institutions, which are its members—have greatly extended the sphere of the positive influence of the Ramakrishna Mission to wider areas. Further strengthening and increasing the number of the Bhavaprachar Parishads and strict monitoring of the spiritual and service activities of the member ashramas and institutions is another challenge that the Ramakrishna Mission will face in the ensuing decades of this century.
Standing Like a Rock of Gibraltar
The inner essence of the Ramakrishna Mission is the inexhaustible spiritual treasure generated by the intense spiritual disciplines of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda, and other direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna as also that of the countless revered monks who lived exemplary lives. Ramakrishna Mission is not an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) in normal terms that depend on external human and financial resources for its sustenance. It is primarily a spiritual organisation that has a spiritual origin and is expanding only through the spiritual nourishment it is receiving. It has stood the test of time by enduring several crises and problems of gigantic proportions. It has always maintained its purity of purpose and action despite passing through adamantine difficulties of various types. Ramakrishna Mission has always heralded the spiritual ideal of its founders and is marching ahead brimming with ever-increasing confidence and energy in serving more and more sections of people in various parts of the world, without any distinction of caste, creed, and nationality. Through the grace of the Holy Trio and the sacrifice and hard enterprise of hundreds of monks, devotees, and volunteers, it will persistently carry on its service activities in the coming decades of the 21st century.
This spiritual ideal is not limited to space and time. It is eternally guiding the humanity throughout its existence. Ramakrishna Mission is the concretized embodiment of Sanatana Dharma, the eternal religion of India. Hence, its endurance and significance will also remain for time eternal. It stands like a rock of Gibraltar amidst the transient turbulences of history—good or bad. It will continue to inspire, reorient, and rejuvenate the Indian national ideals of service and spirituality for many more centuries forward.
A Guiding Light for Eternity
The Ramakrishna Mission is a lofty example of how an ennobling ideal and immense practicality can be beautifully blended to benefit society at large. It is also a great illustration to show that the Vedantic teachings are not abstruse ideas but truly are life-giving principles that make our life meaningful and blessed. The method of work in the Ramakrishna Mission is a perfect model for all spiritual aspirants to emulate in their lives to lead an authentic spiritual life. This organization and its founders are an eternal blessing to humanity. To an organization that is destined to serve for hundreds of years, 125 years is but a small footstep in the landscape of endless time. Standing firmly on the strong edifice of the highest spiritual ideals exemplified by its pioneers, this organization will be the guiding light to the whole of humanity, not for some years or centuries to come—but for eternity!
- Romain Rolland, The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel, trans. E F Malcom-Smith (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2009), 314–16.
Note: The author thankfully acknowledges the valuable inputs of Swami Arunachalananda in preparing this write-up.