The Complete Social Service
“Does practicing and sharing spirituality benefit society in any practical way as social service does?” Practicing spiritualists often face this question. In this article, we will address this question by analyzing a widespread social problem, starvation, and generalize the principles understood therein for other problems.
The Causes of Starvation
On seeing a beggar starving, a sensitive person will want to give some food. This will certainly offer immediate relief, but a thoughtful person will also ponder: “A few hours later he will be hungry again. What has brought this beggar to starvation? How can that cause be permanently tackled?” Some of the causes of starvation relevant to our discussion are analyzed below:
1. Wanton living and self-destructive behavior (among the poor):
Many people who can and do earn enough to at least make ends meet squander their hard-earned earnings on bad habits like smoking, drinking and drugs. For example,
It is not uncommon for a social welfare worker to meet a family that is on the streets facing starvation because the head of the family has lost savings, furniture, ornaments, house, job and even health – the basis of future earning – due to his alcoholic addiction.
Regular commuters often find that many beggars refuse to accept food and want only money because they can use that money to buy, say, cigarettes.
Natural disasters like earthquakes are known to be big business opportunities for alcohol peddlers because many of the disaster-afflicted people tend to use the relief money to forget their suffering by intoxication.
Is providing material relief to addicted people not like pouring water into a bucket with a large hole at the bottom? No matter how much they are helped materially, their situation will not be truly ameliorated till their habits are rectified. And at a material level, both governmental and non-governmental organizations have not had much success in helping people avert the tragedy of self-destruction caused by bad habits.
2. Greed and Exploitation (among the affluent):
The problem of starvation is not as much due to shortage of resources as due to mismanagement of resources. Mahatma Gandhi put it well, “There is enough in this world for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.” In the well-researched book Food First, Francis Moore Lappe points out that much of the world’s best land is being misused for production of cash export crops. Such misuse of precious land resources leading ultimately to starvation is largely due to greed among the affluent.
Starvation does indeed occur sometimes due to factors beyond human control such as abnormally low rains, but even then the impact of the natural calamity is compounded by the way humans respond to it. Food First reports a study of famines in Africa, which showed that on every occasion the affected nation had within its own boundaries the food resources to feed its starving citizens, but relief was intentionally withheld due to economic or political motives. The merchants wanted to hoard the grains, cause artificial inflation and earn more profit. Or the politicians wanted to deprive regions supporting the opposing politicians and thus settle old scores or gain the upper hand. On some occasions the food-grains would be allowed to rot in the go-downs while people all around would be starving. Or worse still the crops would be deliberately burned or grains intentionally sunk in the oceans, while the poor all around were burning in hunger and sinking to death. The same sad story of Africa often repeats itself in various parts of the world wherever natural calamities strike.
Thus greed is one of the invisible yet universal causes of starvation. Can material welfare work counter greed? A social worker may get charity from a wealthy person and use it for offering some relief. But as long as greed impels the haves to exploit the have-nots at every level – individually, socially and globally, the relief that social welfare offers will not be much more than a drop of water in a desert.
The Vedic texts of ancient India explain the root cause and the ultimate solution to suffering. Their teachings begin by unequivocally asserting that our identity is not material, but spiritual; we are eternal souls covered by temporary material bodies (Bhagavad-gita 2.13). We belong to an immortal realm, variously known as the kingdom of God or the spiritual world, where we enjoy everlasting happiness in a loving relationship with the Supreme Person, God. Known by various names such as Jehovah, Christ, Allah, Buddha and Rama in different religious traditions, God is most fully described by the name Krishna (meaning “all-attractive”). In order to enable us to fully experience the joy of love in the spiritual world, Krishna gives us free will to voluntarily choose to love and serve Him. But when we misuse our free will and desire enjoyment separate from Him, we are placed in the material world. Here we forget our spiritual identity and identify with our material body, which offers us the sensory apparatus for interacting with the foreign material environment. Within the framework of this bodily misidentification, we seek different material relationships, experiences, possessions and positions according to our dreams and schemes. But our desires for enjoyment are unlimited, whereas the resources of this world are limited. Consequently, the pursuit of enjoyment leads to an intense struggle. Worse still, being spiritual by constitution, we can never become happy by gratifying our body, just as a driver can never be nourished by fuelling his car. So, irrespective of whether we succeed or not in our plans for material enjoyment, we remain mostly dissatisfied; the difference of dissatisfaction is only a matter of degree. And ultimately all our dreams turn into nightmares as our bodies – the very basis of all our enjoyment – are battered by disease, wrecked by old age and destroyed by death. Then based on our desires and activities, we are given other suitable bodies – human or subhuman. There we continue our vain struggle for existence and enjoyment in a world of suffering and death. Thus material attempts for happiness are insubstantial – even when successful they do not offer real happiness, and futile – they inevitably fail against the inexorable force of time, which deteriorates and destroys everything material. Only the souls in the human form have sufficiently evolved consciousness and intelligence to understand and remedy their terrible predicament in material existence. Therefore, the Vedic texts urge all humans to dedicate themselves to promoting spiritual well being, a cause more complete and effective than promoting material well being.
Ending Starvation – The Spiritual Way
Let’s see how promoting spiritual well being can help tackle the problem of starvation.
Historical studies show that most of the self-destructive addictions that haunt a large percentage of the human population today were quite rare in earlier ages, when people were naturally God-fearing. Almost everyone would be able to earn enough food to at least live because their physical and mental energy and money would not be uselessly dissipated in injurious indulgences. Therefore, except in the case of devastating natural calamities, hardly anyone would have to suffer the pangs of starvation.
Even in modern times, spiritual practices can help cure the addictions that lead to starvation. Statistical surveys have shown that the religiously committed are less likely to succumb to bad habits. Adopting religious principles also often helps addicts to free themselves. Dr Patrick Glynn writes in his book God: The Evidence, “It is difficult to find a more consistent correlative of mental health, or a better insurance against self-destructive behaviors, than a strong religious faith.”
A spiritual vision of life increases compassion and decreases greed. Let’s see how.
When a reporter once asked Mother Teresa about the secret of her compassion, which enabled her to do enormous relief work for the afflicted worldwide, in response she pointed to her rosary beads, on which she offered regular prayers. Devotion to God as the Supreme Father-Mother naturally arouses compassion for all living beings as His children, as our brothers and sisters in His family, and inspires us to selflessly work for their holistic upliftment.
When a wealthy person is God-conscious, his compassion is not restricted to an occasional act of charity; rather his whole life becomes dedicated to helping the deprived in every possible way – materially and spiritually.
When the head of state is spiritually enlightened, he cares for all the citizens like his own children – not due to political expediency, but due to spiritual love. He creates the necessary socio-economic structures to provide proper gainful employment for all of them in normal situations and adequate relief during emergencies.
Thus godliness automatically engenders goodness; a godly person naturally develops good qualities like self-restraint and compassion, which are essential for any social welfare program to be effective.
3. Natural Prosperity:
The Vedic texts explain that harmonization with God leads to well being not just in the next world, but also in this world. They remind us: what to speak of our wellbeing, our very existence is dependent on God’s grace. Despite our scientific progress, we still depend on God for all our fundamental material necessities – heat, light, air, water and even food. (Despite our hard work in our sophisticated factories, all our daily food is originally manufactured in God’s factory, nature) When we disobey the Lord’s injunctions, through material nature He withholds the supplies of life’s necessities just as a father may temporarily starve his obstinate child in order to reform him. This can be seen in the steadily increasing natural calamities that have hit human society, as it has become increasingly materialistic and godless over the last few centuries. And when we live in harmony with God, He instructs Mother Nature to profusely supply all the necessities of life to His obedient children. Material prosperity through divine harmony is not a sentimental fantasy; God-centered human society in Vedic India offered a historical demonstration. The amazing prosperity of traditional India is well-documented in the Vedic texts themselves, by traveling medieval historians like Fa Hein and Hseun Tsang and even by modern Indologists like A L Basham. In fact, the wealthiest country in the world today, America, was originally discovered when Europeans were searching for a new ocean route to access the wealth of India.
Are Good Intentions Good Enough?
Srila Prabhupada illustrates the pitfalls of well-intentioned but ill-informed welfare work through an incident in his life:
Once while in Calcutta, India, he saw a neighboring lady strongly chastising her daughter. On inquiry he found that the lady’s son had been suffering from an intense bout of typhoid and the doctor had strictly forbidden him any oily foods. While the mother had been away shopping, her son had started fervently begging his sister to give his some pakoras (a fried food item). Seeing her brother’s intense craving, the sister had fed him a large number of pakoras, despite the mother’s strong prohibition. When the mother had returned, she had found her son’s sickness alarmingly worsened and had to rush him to a hospital for emergency care. She had just returned and was scolding her daughter for her harm-causing “kindness” to her brother.
Let’s consider an example from real life where good intentions turn out to be not good enough. Imagine a drunkard who routinely squanders all his earnings and abuses his family members in his drunken stupor.
When he falls sick, he is offered free medical care. His disease gets cured, but his addiction stays untreated. He goes back to his habitual intoxication and the habitual abuse of his family members and eventually has a relapse of disease. How has the free medical care done him any real good?
Therefore Srila Prabhupada would often compare social welfare efforts devoid of spirituality to the blowing of a painful boil. Even if done with sincere intention, they fail to offer any lasting solution.
In fact, the Vedic texts declare that sufferings within this world are the impetus to raise our consciousness to the spiritual plane, where we automatically re-achieve our right to eternal happiness. Srila Prabhupada writes, “The miseries of material existence serve to indirectly remind us of our incompatibility with matter.” To understand this better, we need to swallow a bitter pill: this world is like a prison and everyone here is like a criminal imprisoned due to rebellion against God. Like in a prison, the hardship in this world is meant, not to penalize, but to rectify.
Imagine a welfare worker who zealously seeks to transfer a criminal from a dark dingy dungeon (a C class prison cell) to a ventilated, clean room (an A class prison cell) without trying to reform his mentality? Such a change, even if successful, serves neither the purpose of the prison – reformation of the prisoners, nor the ultimate interests of the prisoner – freedom from captivity. The Vedic texts prompt us to ponder: is offering material betterment without offering spiritual enlightenment much different? It serves neither the purpose of the material world – rectification of the rebellious mentality of the souls, nor their ultimate interests – freedom from the inevitable sufferings of material existence, repeated birth and death.
The foregoing discussion is not meant to indicate that we turn a blind eye and develop a cold heart towards the sufferings of our fellow humans. Compassion is undoubtedly a noble quality and the Vedic texts urge us to utilize it to its maximum effectiveness by becoming instruments of God’s compassion.
The Complete Welfare Program
God being the most loving Father feels pain to see His children in pain, no matter what their transgressions. He creates a cosmic justice system to bring about their gradual reformation, but being much more than just a neutral judge, He also creates a mercy system to offer quick relief to sincerely repentant souls. Through His earthly representatives, the saintly devotees, He disseminates genuine spiritual knowledge. Intelligent humans, by understanding the cause of their suffering from such devotees, can voluntarily reform themselves and learn to live in loving harmony with God. Then God, out of love for them, waives their karmic punishment partly or fully according to the degree of their repentance. And ultimately God helps them to come back to their eternal home to live happily with Him forever (Bhagavad-gita 10.10-11). Therefore Vedic scriptures call upon all intelligent social workers to become agents of the Lord’s compassion and do the highest good to everyone.
Srila Prabhupada would tell a story to illustrate how the agent of God’s compassion provides complete welfare in one stroke.
Suppose you are the friend of a wealthy millionaire. One day you see your friend’s estranged son wandering like a vagabond on the streets, drunk, disheveled, diseased, distressed and starving. Before you, somebody comes and offers him some food. He hungrily gulps down the food and continues his aimless wandering. Then someone else comes and offers him a new set of clothes. He happily wears the clothes, but still remains lost and forsaken. Then someone else gives him a few free medicines, which offer him some physical relief, but don’t give any permanent solace. Then you seat him in your car, take him home, bathe and feed him and treat his ailments. When he has sobered down, you talk with him lovingly, explaining to him his father’s great affection for him. Then you clarify and remove the misunderstanding that had strained his relationship with his father. And when he is ready to return back to his father, you take him back to his father’s mansion where he is given the best varieties of foods, offered an entire wardrobe of clothes and attended to by a team of expert doctors. Thus his problems are permanently solved.
We are beloved children of the Supreme Lord, who is the Master of the Goddess of Fortune. Therefore we are all like princes in the kingdom of God. But due to our causeless misuse of our free will, we have left the shelter of our all-loving father and are struggling for paltry pleasure in this material world, exactly like the lost son of the millionaire in the above story. Srila Prabhupada would further state that material welfare workers are like the people who offered food, clothing and medicine to the lost son, whereas the devotee is like the father’s friend who took the son back to his father.
ISKCON’S SERVICE TO SOCIETY
In our modern times, most people are so spiritually uninformed that they don’t even know that they are the beloved spiritual children of the supreme father and that an eternal, joyful life is their natural birthright, if they just re-awaken their love for God. In a world bedeviled by such spiritual bankruptcy, ISKCON is:
- Providing systematic and scientific spiritual education free to everyone irrespective of caste, religion, nationality, gender, race etc.
- Offering an attractive, alternative culture that enables people to practice spirituality in a practical yet potent way in modern times and thus lead deeply meaningful and fulfilling lives.
- Propagating the non-sectarian, universal, time-tested chanting of the holy names of God, especially the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, and thus enabling millions of people to easily harmonize themselves with God and thus paving the way for them to return back to the kingdom of God.
- Helping millions of people break free from the self-destructive drives of meat-eating, intoxication, gambling and illicit sex by offering them a higher happiness and thus saving from immense karmic suffering in this and future lives.
- Running the world’s largest vegetarian food relief program, Food for Life, and offering free nutritious sanctified food (prasadam), food that nourishes the body and awakens the soul, to millions of needy people all over the world, including in war-torn areas.
Thus ISKCON is working tirelessly at the grassroots level to help the individual return to harmony with his own true nature as a beloved child of God. Thus harmonized, he can find and distribute the treasure of love, peace and happiness that lies hidden in his own heart. Henry David Thoreau pointed out, “For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at its root.” Among the various welfare measures offered by different organizations, ISKCON’s propagation of pure spiritual education and culture strikes at the root cause of all suffering and helps people to become truly happy forever.