What drives our social action or inaction? What guides our big philanthropic projects or little acts of charity? Why do we even think of serving others? What is our motivation?
Often, our service to others is driven by our self-interest—we do things because we feel good about it. We get a sense of self-praise and self-aggrandizement by helping others. And we want credit for what we do. We want our names written on the marble plaque outside the temple for a few bucks we give. We want a great photoshoot of our giving a few used clothes to the homeless. See the social media of a charity worker or a philanthropist and you will know. It's not only about the ordinary men and women, but also the so-called religious or spiritual people. And sometimes we refuse to take action, thinking we are more important than these worldly things.
There is not much wrong with that. But there could be another—and more liberating way of doing it. We could do charity to come out of self-centeredness instead of being further buried in it. We could feed the people instead of our own egos. Two stories from Swami Vivekananda's life are worth recalling here.
India saw severe famine toward the end of the 19th century. Vivekananda, upon returning home from the West, busied himself with relief work. Once he was in Dhaka (Bangladesh and Pakistan were parts of India then) for fundraising. A few Vedanta pundits went to see him after hearing of his heroic stories abroad. They expected him to start some lofty philosophical discussion on Vedanta, but he talked of famine and death. He started crying, in front of them, for the people who died of hunger. And the pundits were taken aback: This great Vedanta monk is talking about hunger! And he is crying over the perishable human body! Maybe he doesn't know a thing about Vedanta!
The pundits started looking at each other's faces. And they said they were disappointed seeing his attachment to the world. They preached to him that being a Vedantist, he should remain aloof from such things and not talk about the suffering of the body; and that he should remember everyone was an immortal soul.
To their surprise, Vivekananda picked up a big stick and jumped onto them, saying: “Ok, let's check if that’s true or not: If you are an immortal soul or not. Whether you cry over your body or not.” They were scared like hell! This wrathful young monk was better built and stronger than them. They ran for their life. The monk continued with his relief work.
In another incident, he was once touring the Himalayas in northern India. He had to cross a river and was waiting for the boat. An ascetic came and started chatting. Vivekananda introduced himself, and the ascetic became scornful. He said going to foreign lands and lecturing people won't make a great yogi. “One has to go through hard training to become a yogi,” he said.
The ascetic then talked of his miraculous powers. He walked over the river water, and asked Vivekananda to aim for something similar. “How long did it take to get this power?” the young monk asked. “Twenty years of hard practice,” the proud ascetic replied.
“Well, Sir, then you wasted 20 years of your life. You could just get a boat and cross the river in five minutes!” Vivekananda replied, adding: “If you had spent those 20 years serving people, you'd be closer to God. You could have crossed the river of life and death, not just a river of water.”
“Service to man is service to God,” Vivekananda used to say. In a brief life of 39 years, he became the biggest modern Indian icon for spirituality, patriotism, social reforms, and youth empowerment. There is hardly any great Indian leader of the past century who hasn't drawn inspiration from Swamiji at some point in his or her life. In his honor, India celebrates his birthday—January 12—as the National Youth Day. Tributes to him on his 158th birth anniversary.
By serving people, one doesn’t do any favor to them, but they get an opportunity to come out of their egos, he used to say. “Be grateful to the man you help, think of him as God. Is it not a great privilege to be allowed to worship God by helping our fellow men?” was the counsel of the modern monk to the men and women of our age.