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Then & Now
A day in Ashram

Sri Sathya Sai Grama Seva…a taste of Practical Vedanta

Hands that serve are holier that the lips that pray - Sri Sathya Sai

With Bhagawan practice precedes precept. He Himself would serve food with the love of a thousand mothers to the poor and the distressed on special occasions in Prasanthi Nilayam during the olden years that passed by. And His chosen Mother, Mother Easwaramma always did it with gusto even in the nineteen sixties, when she chose to distribute clothes to the poor villagers around who assembled in the premises for this tender care of the loving mother. Bhagawan has now directed the students to do both (serving food and distribution of clothes) at the very doors of the needy in the villages.

The beginning

The real wealth of our country is in the villages which play the role of the provider. It is the rural India that feeds the entire country. Not only that, Bhagawan exhorts His students: “Indian culture and civilisation have been built up from ancient times on rural communities. Even today this culture survives predominantly in villages…When the villages grow the states grow and the nation on the whole prospers. The prospect of the nation is based upon the progress of the villages. Everyone should be interested in the welfare of the villages.” Bhagawan therefore wanted the student community in general and the alumni of the Institute in particular to be meaningfully associated with the rural uplift programme in a big way. He therefore decided that the seeds of service to the rural areas must be sown in the minds of the young men and women before they left the portals of the Institute. A new service campaign thus got initiated in 2000 which deployed His students in the filed of operation. As is the case with every activity undertaken by the Lord, for serving food and clothes to the rural needy also called for meticulous attention to many details from gathering material to preparing road maps and obtaining population statistics. Trucks and tractor – trailors were mobilized and equipped with wireless sets. From the year 2000 this service campaign has been a happening in Prasanthi Nilayam during the Dasara week, covering nearly a 100 thousand people living in over a hundred villages and an equal numbers of hamlets.  It was indeed a new ‘Mantra'. And He enjoined upon His students – His sole property – to march forward in their purity as ambassadors of peace and love to the villages with food and clothes – the first of His lessons in Practical Vedanta, the adwaita philosophy in practice. This year's Grama Seva was planned to cover 150 villages in the three Mandals of Puttaparthi, Kothacheruvu and Bukkaptanam forming the unit that was called earlier as Puttaparthi Taluka.

How it happens…

The students are associated with the work at all stages right from the beginning. The cooking that starts the previous evening goes on till about midnight. After cooking comes packing that goes on till the wee hours. The food packets are then loaded (after sorting out) in the trucks and by the time this is completed it will be 5:30 a.m. The students and staff set out from the mandir after circumambulation at 8:15 a.m. heading towards that line up ready to start. It is to be noted that the sanctity and spiritual ambience have been maintained all through these entire set of activities. Bhagawan prefers to call this service not ‘Poor feeding or feeding of the poor’, but “Narayana Seva” i.e., Service to the Narayana in every being. The convoy of trucks now head for the villages, carrying sweets, food packets and clothes. The villages thus visited are some thirty km or so from Puttaparthi. On arrival, at the villages, the gifts are unloaded and readied for house to house distribution.

..on to the villages…

Bhagawan is very particular that all good activities must start with prayer. So, before distribution students and teachers march in procession singing devotional songs, with villagers also participate in the bhajan singing. The distribution parties are invariably headed by teachers and senior students. The different parties then fan out and go to different parts of the village to commence distribution. Care is taken to ensure that no family is missed out. Service is done door to door. A question may arise in the minds of people as to how does this solve the problem of rural India? Baba has the answer. Briefly the idea is to sensitize the students so that the seeds of compassion are sown in their hearts.

One will not fail to observe that moving about in the rural areas might give a culture shock to others, but not to Bhagawan’s students, charged as they are with Bhagawan’s love. The serving of food packets and other gifts is done methodically. At every house they first offer greetings and say that they are privileged to convey Baba’s blessings, after which they hand over with love, the gifts He has sent. The distribution over, students and staff eat the same food for their lunch. It is thus a great spiritual exercise of love and devotion than a mere distribution of food packets. Both the giver and the receiver thus experience that goes deep into their hearts. The real giver is Bhagawan and all they do is a courier’s job. Yet how great it is even to be a mere courier for the transmission of the selfless Love of Bhagawan.

It is obviously a fact that the problems of the villages are too massive to be solved by such short service campaigns. But, Bhagawan’s approach to the subject is different. He says that in the first instance, the service programmes convey to the villagers that there is someone who loves and cares for them. Secondly, they give students an intense exposure that they would otherwise never get. And what is more important is that, in the process they get highly sensitized. By going to the villages day after day the students learn to feel in their hearts, the pain constantly suffered and endured by these poor villagers. This sensitization would remain with the students for ever and one day when they occupy positions of authority with leverage, would induce them to do something to change the face of rural India. In this context one should not miss to remember that the One who facilitated this unforgettable experience for them, the Eternal Witness, sits in their hearts to watch and prompt action at the appropriate moment. Off and on Baba tells the students “Do not see the person as different from yourself. In a spiritual sense, that person is none other than you, the Universal Self. When you serve in this spirit, you would discover your true nature.”

Bhagawan has said: "If you pour spirituality into the ears of those who are tortured by hunger, it will not be assimilated. First satisfy the hunger. "Give them God in the form of food; Give them God in the form of clothes; Give them food in the form of Peace to those afflicted with anxiety; Give God in the form of medicine to those suffering from ill-health; Give God in whatever form which will assuage fear, pain and sorrow. It is only when this is done that spirituality can soak into the heart", said Bhagawan. Further, in His discourse of 16th February in 1992 He opened His mind in unequivocal terms that "Grama Seva is Rama Seva. You need not strive for salvation as a separate goal. Service to village will itself ensure mukti (liberation). Bear this truth in mind and act upto it in your daily life."

Sri Sathya Sai Grama Seva 2007

It had indeed been a hectic week for the students of all the three campuses who were ordained to carry out the task of reaching out the villagers with His food and cloth packets of Love. This lucky lot with minds fresh and enthused and hearts vibrant and expanded set out with "Sai Ram" on their lips…went to the door steps…and conquered.

It was not the sweets, food packet or clothes distributed that mattered, but the feeling behind the action, that was the message of this Grama Seva which Bhagawan has been stressing, all through, to reach out the needy with His Divine Love, true to His saying, Grama Seva is Rama Seva… Jana Seva is Janardhana Seva.

Over 470 Students from the Sri Sathya Sai University, Anantapur Campus for women and over two hundred senior girl students from Sri Sathya Sai Higher Secondary School with faculty members and staff from both the campuses had been engaged in packing the food and cloth materials. With the Puliyora rice cooked and handed over for further processing by expert sevadal group of devotees and Laddu Prasdam coming in huge numbers from the South Indian Canteen, prepared by devoted Mahila Sevadals with the help of Higher Secondary students, these girls students and staff from the campuses were getting busier during the night hours from 10:00 p.m. till early morning at 3:00 engaged in phased activities, namely, mixing of the rice to perfection, packing appropriate quantity to cater to the villagers the next day.  Boys from both Prasanthi Nilayam and Brindavan Campuses along with faculty members and staff would go out everyday to various villages with meticulous plan to carry out the task within the schedule.

Three mandals of Puttaparthi, Bukkapatnam and Kothacheruvu covering approximately 150 villages had been covered serving over 2,50,000 village population. With the entire bunch of students and staff divided in to six groups of 120 each with 15 of them staff members, assisted by over 40 vehicles at disposal, the entire Grama Seva had been organized in a most meticulously under His Divine guidance. Every day they would serve over 30,000 people in 6,000 households to complete the task in 8 days time. Each household was given one dhothi, one sari apart from Puliyora rice and Laddu Prasadam counting heads. The last day was reserved for distribution within the ashram by girl students of Anantapur Campus assisted by staff members from Anantapur and Primary School.  As per divine command, Puliyora Rice and Chakkara Pongal (sweet dish made out of rice and jaggery) were distributed at each and every door step inside the ashram along with Sarees and Dhothis.

Indeed, an act worth emulating and one would wonder whether the Gods of highest heaven would be watching this "White Army" of students who were immensely lucky and privileged to carry out the task at the direct command of God walking on two feet.

The Programme that was launched in the year 2000 as a role model operation setting an ideal has come to stay as an annual feature – a practice to be carried out throughout one’s life wherever he/she goes. Indeed, Practising the Precept as inspired and taught by Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba!!!