Sri Sathya Sai Grama Seva…

Sri Sathya Sai Grama Seva, the Seva Yajna or Karma Yajna,  initiated by Bhagawan in the year 2000 has been a great learning experience for His chosen instruments, expanding hearts and minds to greater levels of sensitivity towards societal needs, achieving brotherhood of man and Fatherhood of God. With the curtains coming down for the 2012 version of Sri Sathya Sai Grama Seva let’s peep into various aspects related to this great Yajna, written by Prof Sudhir Bhaskar, Director, SSSIHL, Prasanthi Nilayam Campus who was hand-picked by Bhagawan to lead the Grama Seva project from the front.

Baba often says that knowledge that is not put into action is not only useless but positively dangerous. A student is exposed during his formative years to a lot of information. He is talked to, quoted, and loaded with analogies and examples to drive home both the mundane and the subtle. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it and when, once a person takes a bite of an apple, he doesn’t require anyone to tell him how it tastes. At the Sri Sathya Sai University, the lessons learnt are predominantly by action and experimentation.

There is a famous incident in the life of Abraham Lincoln wherein he found a pig stuck in a rut and struggling to get out of it. On seeing its plight, the President immediately asked his car to be stopped, jumped into dirty water and brought the pig out. Answering his bewildered assistants and security guards, the President said that he did so not for the pig’s sake but to relieve himself of the pain he felt on seeing the pig struggle. This is sensitivity for all of creation. The Grama Seva activity that is undertaken by the Sri Sathya Sai University every year has this primary aim of sensitizing the students and teachers about the living conditions of people in the rural areas.

The Genesis and the Purpose

Swami continually stresses the necessity of inculcating a societal outlook in every student. The head and heart need to grow together. It was in October 2000, when a poor widowed mother in the Anantapur district, out of abject poverty and hopelessness, took the extreme step of killing herself and her two young children, Bhagawan spoke to the teachers of the University making a direct reference to the incident. He was extremely moved by it and wanted his students and staff to act on his behalf. Swami wanted all the students and teachers to go to every house in the neighbouring villages of the three mandals, viz., Puttaparthi, Kothacheruvu and Bukkapatman, of Anantapur District and distribute his tokens of love- a Saree and a Dhoti to the heads of the family and Laddus and Rice Prasadam to all the inmates of the house at their door steps.

Swami says, “Students today are acquiring considerable scientific knowledge. It serves only to promote civilized living in the world. But what the students need today is the refinement of the heart. This is possible only through an internal process. Students who have imbibed the modern culture should not only develop their intellects, but should also develop a broad outlook…. A complete education is that which makes a man compassionate.” Through the Grama Seva, Swami made a huge difference to two groups of people. Firstly, the villagers are extremely happy to know that there’s someone to care for them. Secondly, most of the students get a first hand experience of the living conditions of poor people in the villages. Reading about phrase like ‘India lives in its villages’ is one thing, and actually experiencing reality is another. Since its inception, the Grama Seva programme has deeply influenced the outlook of the students, thus driving home its essence and the central purpose.

In the Sri Sathya Sai education system, social service has always been an integral component. As early as 1968/69, in the first year of the college at Brindavan, Whitefield, students would go to the neighbouring villages to undertake service activities. Subsequently when a month long Summer Course in Indian Culture and Spirituality commenced, Sundays were always dedicated for social service activities. While inaugurating the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning (Deemed University) in 1981; starting of the MBA course in 1986; M.Tech (Computer Science) and Master of Financial Management programmes in 1993; and also in the Benedictory address during many of the Institute’s convocations on 22nd November every year, Bhagawan would advise the students to pursue their professional carriers but at the same time spend at least few hours per week in social service activities in their respective neighbouring villages. For all this, the Grama Seva exposure that the students get while at the University is very valuable. A famous management thinker, Peter.F.Drucker echoes the same view when asked about broadening the vision of managers,  “A good many companies today are encouraging their people to work in the community with non-profit organizations, which is perhaps the best educational experience I could advise.”

Modus Operandi

Firstly, the villages in the district that will be served are identified. Thereafter, the Mandal Revenue Office provides the demographic data about the villages. In cases where information is felt to be inadequate, surveys are conducted, reconnaissance teams constituted by a group of teachers are sent to the villages to ascertain the approach to the place, layout of the village, distance from the source, etc. Detailed road maps of the three mandals; design of the organisation structure, roles and responsibilities, forms and formats in which data is to be collected, information flow system, the control mechanisms, etc., are planned out. Based on the proximity of the village, total population, and time taken to reach it, villages are grouped together and various groups of teachers and students are assigned to a group of villages. Each vehicle is fitted with a mobile wireless set for communication between the different vehicles of a group and also with a central control point at Prasanthi Nilayam. This facilitates the management of excess and shortage of Prasadam by effective communication and coordination between the groups. In addition, every group can request the services of buffer stock vehicles which will be stationed at strategic points that are accessible to all the groups.

In the first year of Grama Seva, it was initially planned to cover a population of 10000 per day. This gradually increased and stabilised at about 30000 people being served every day. Some of the salient Statistics of the Grama Seva undertaken during the last few years is as follows:

Numberof Mandals covered 3
Total no. of villages / towns covered 150
Total no. of vehicles used Over 50
Time frame 9 to 10 days during Dasara festival
Average distance covered per day between 25 and 50 Km (one way)
Time to reach the interior villages upto 2/3 hours

The management of the Grama Seva was designed based on the concepts of ‘Viable and Adaptive Organisation’, capable not only of learning but also disseminating knowledge as the programme proceeds. It is modular in design and capable of being scaled up. Information and its flow are well regulated. This ensured that there are no shortages of prasadam nor is there excess and wastage of the same. Distribution is to be completed on time, so that all can come back to Prasanthi Nilayam at the same time.

Before the students begin to serve in a village, they go around the village singing Bhajans and chanting Vedam. This not only brings a sacred fervour and a sublime atmosphere but also motivates the villagers to take part in it. In addition to this, the students understand the layout of the village as they go around singing. They get a good idea of the main and sub-lanes, etc., and this enables them to divide themselves into sub-groups and serve all the houses efficiently.

Swami instructs the students to find out how many members live in a household and accordingly give the Rice and Laddu Prasadam. He explicitly advises them not to validate or cross check the number which the inmates of the house mention. Although, out of their desperate living conditions, some of them overstate the numbers, Swami wanted the people to have the feeling that they are being trusted. This feeling transforms even those who initially quote wrong figures. Also, in every village the Mandal Office makes a public announcement the day prior to the Grama Seva , requesting at least one member of the household to stay back to receive Bhagawan’s Prasadam. Since each food packet being distributed is sufficient for one meal per person, this prior information ensures that the villagers need not cook their lunch on that day. So, the students leave at around 8 a.m so that they will have ample time to distribute all the food packets well before their lunch time.

Benefits and Impacts

Most important fact is the assurance given to the recipients that there is someone who is concerned about them and taking care of them. Over the years it has been observed that there is a marked improvement both in their physical well being and outlook towards life. The Grama Seva has gone a long way in brining about a transformation in the individuals for the better. During the Grama Seva in 2009, one lady in a village said, “Baba is like our father. Every year for Dasara He sends new clothes to us. We feel so happy and eagerly await this day.”

The exposure that students get by participating in various social service activities like Grama Seva leaves an indelible mark on them. Students after passing out with various degrees have been undertaking service activities either individually or in small groups in slums or in selected villages on a sustained basis.

Alumni of the University feel that these service activities have helped students in understanding themselves better and thereby enabling them to perform better in their profession. It helps them do their jobs in organisations sincerely and view aspects of work interfacing with others more seriously. They feel that their capability of caring and sharing has increased, which they demonstrate in their job, with their customers / clients, subordinates, peers as well as their superiors. These are lessons which life alone can teach which neither the class room interaction nor curriculum can possibly achieve.

Swami in this context says, “Sharing with others, serving others, this is the main Sutra of Vidya, its genuine expression. Education is rendered noble when the spirit of service is inculcated. The service rendered must be free of the slightest trace of narrow selfishness. That is not enough. The thought of service should not be marred by the desire for something in return. You have to perform the service as you would perform an important Yajna or Sacrifice. As trees do not eat their fruits but offer them to be eaten by others in an attitude of detachment, as rivers, without drinking the waters they carry, quench the thirst and cool the heat from which others suffer, as cows offer their milk, produced primarily for their calves, in a spirit of generosity born of Tyaga (renunciation), to be shared by others, so too should those who have acquired Vidya offer it to others prompted by the motive of service and without consideration of selfish interests. Only thus can they justify their status as ‘noble men,’ Sajjana.

II Samasta Lokah Sukhino Bhavantu II