By Suma Varughese
What if we were to approach work, any work, from the point of view of service, rather than profit? What are the consequences of this approach? And how practical is it?
So, for whose sake are you performing service? You are doing service for your own sake… You do not serve others, you serve yourselves; You do not serve the world, you serve your own best interest.
—Sathya Sai Baba
Medha Patkar was just another social science student, unknown to the world, when she went to the villages of Madhya Pradesh for a project among the tribal. That was when she came across the Narmada Dam project. Fired by the injustice of a system that sacrificed tribal welfare for the sake of the urban elite, she took up their cause. In the process, this pretty young woman became the grandee dame of the alternative movement, the symbol of the gritty underdog challenging the powerful and the mighty.
Dr Madan Kataria was an anonymous medical practitioner looking for money and fame until the day he decided to put into practice his knowledge that laughter healed. Through his ‘laughter clubs’, of which there are 1,300 in India and 700 abroad, he unleashed a revolution that brought together people socially, helped them combat ailments, and re-engineered attitudes. Today, the doctor has jettisoned his practice in favor of spreading his mission, is happy and has forged a spiritual path for himself through laughter therapy.
Dr Shilu Srinivasan was an academic working with the prestigious Tata Institute of Social Sciences when she decided to start a magazine for the elderly. Today, Dignity Dialogue is a movement that caters to the needs of senior citizens through a spectrum of services that include help lines, succor for those undergoing harassment, jobs for the active, and security for the helpless, company for the lonely and other special privileges. She is a spokesperson for a constituency that didn’t exist until she gave it a voice and an identity.
Three people whose lives telescoped in breadth and dimension when they aligned themselves to a cause larger than themselves. They catapulted above the common herd to a domain of success, immense inner satisfaction, quantum growth, the realization of precious insights into the nature of life and the unadulterated bliss of crafting their unique contribution to the world. In the process, they also garnered the worldly rewards of money, influence and power.
How has this trio contrived to have it all? Is there a method to their madness, a plan of action we can emulate, an easy, straightforward, three-step strategy to lasting corporate fulfillment? Perhaps. But ‘easy’ would hardly be the operative word. Nor would ‘straightforward’. Here, as anywhere in the spiritual world, paradox rules. The first step to having it all is not to want it. The second step is to step outside the narrow framework of our desires and needs and focus on the needs of others. All three got where they are because of their concern for others.
Swami Someswarananda, a former monk with the Ramakrishna Mission and an advocate of Indian Ethos in Management (IEM) says in his remarkable book, Indian Wisdom for Management: “Caring for others leads you to help them solve their problems, which makes you popular, influential, gives you social prominence and power, makes you more independent, leading to security.” ‘I-centeredness’, as he calls the narrow focus on individual needs, may or may not help us achieve material rewards. And it will rarely offer the intangible joys of self-expression and job satisfaction.
So, should we quit our jobs and trample en masse down the road less taken? Not quite. Not all of us can afford to let go of our jobs. Many of us may not even want to. But we can shift the attitude with which we approach work.
Suresh Pandit, who calls himself an organizational transformation coach, says: “When you focus only on your own well-being and that of your family, your vision and approach is small. But when you move into ‘other-centeredness’, you think big.”
He cites the example of Jamshedji Tata who was a trader in steel until he met Swami Vivekananda aboard a ship. Swami Vivekananda asked him why the steel could not be manufactured in India. To which he replied that India did not have a set-up for fundamental research. Why not create one, the Swami suggested. And thus came into being the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. The service approach gives rich dividends wherever it is tried.
Pandit feels: “A manager who only works for his salary, perks and image is bound to fail. On the other hand, one who cares for his company and his employees will get spontaneous co-operation.”
Rajiv Nambiar, a senior manager at Opal Consultants and an active sevak (selfless worker) in the Sathya Sai Baba movement, cites an example from his previous stint at Sigma. “As administrative manager, I had to maintain the discipline of the organization and yet be humane. On one occasion, the management recommended the dismissal of a drunken worker. But I told him to go home and that we would discuss his conduct the following day. The next day he threw himself at my feet and thanked me for saving his job. When you become seva-oriented, you start putting yourself in others’ shoes and understand their problems.”
“Caring for others leads you to help them solve their problems, which makes you popular… influential, which gives you social prominence and power, making you more independent”
Pandit cites several examples of dramatic increase in productivity when a company adopts a more people-centric attitude. One such Jalandhar-based company witnessed a great leap in their profits. The owners were encouraged to regard themselves as trustees and to empower their employees through the formation of a network of self-managing teams. Managers were encouraged to relate to their subordinates from a bhakti mode modelled along the lines of the mother-child relationship, of loving, nurturing, generating self-confidence and letting go. The result was an astonishing 27 per cent increase in productivity.
Many spiritual organizations are a testimony to the growth and prosperity that the service spirit generates. The Vipassana International Academy, founded by S.N. Goenka, whose headquarters is based in Igatpuri, Maharashtra, is a classic example. The organization offers a 10-day Buddhist meditation programme, where participants are housed and fed free of charge. At the end of the course, donations are solicited to finance the next batch of mediators. According to Ajit Parikh, secretary of the academy, 20 per cent give more than expected, 50 per cent give on the basis of the estimated cost, and around 30 per cent do not pay. And yet the organization has grown prolifically, comprising 50 centers in India and about 55 abroad. How did this miracle happen?
Parikh explains: “When pious intentions and hard work go together, the results are wonderful. By not charging fees, Guruji wanted to maintain the pristine purity of the practice as it was in Buddha’s time. There has, however, never been a shortage of funds. Each centre is an independent trust managed by local mediators, but when construction works for accommodation or meditation halls are required, they can be funded by other centers through repayable loans.”
Work done in a spirit of sacrifice, focuses on the needs of others
When you give, you get. Apart from the huge amounts Goenka, a former businessman, himself put into the academy, the remarkable results of the course have inspired spectacular donations. One NRI couple, for instance, gave $ 2 million, and Subhash Chandra, head of the Zee network, gave property worth crores at Gorai, a beach in Mumbai where the academy is constructing a giant pagoda.
Ambika Yog Kutir, a yoga institute in Thane, runs on similar lines. The humblest as well as the white-collared avail of its excellent free yoga programmes. And yet the lack of funds has not impeded its vigorous growth.Founded by Pundalik Ramchandra Nikam, (known as Hathayogi Nikam Guruji), a former police officer, the organization has grown from a room in his house to a spacious three-storey building in Thane, with 45 centers in Mumbai alone. No fee is charged, though participants are free to donate what they wish. Their corps of 1,500 teachers are honorary, drawn from former students. The organization teaches yoga to hospitals, cancer patients, the police force, the Air Force, the Reserve Bank, the Bombay Port Trust and many others. Ramakant Surve, trustee, says: “We are never short of funds. Guruji had told us, ‘money will come. Don’t run after it. You serve’.”
Dhirubhai Mehta, president of several Gandhian organizations and a chartered accountant, says: “It is my experience that no good cause suffers from paucity of funds. Everyone, even the much-maligned government, has a soft corner for a good thing. One must reach out and touch it.”
Swami Someswarananda borrows from Vedanta to define the three guiding principles of service:
1. Ahm Brahmasmi: My potential is infinite.
2. Atmano Moksarthan Jagad Hithaya Ka: Work for personal liberation (or growth) and for the good of society.
3. Yajnarthat Karma: Work in a spirit of sacrifice, focusing on the needs of others.
He suggests that we integrate these principles by becoming aware of our unique skills and potentials, by strengthening them and finally looking at what societal needs they could serve.
Mehta did just that when, at the age of 50, he decided to yoke his vast managerial and financial acumen to the needs of the society. He now heads the Kasturba Health Society which runs a hospital, a nursing home and a medical college in Wardha, Maharashtra.
The first step to having it all is not to want it.
The second step is to step outside the narrow framework of our desires and needs and focus on the needs of others
He point out: “My shift from corporate work to social work has made me happy. Whatever few lakhs of money I generate for my causes gives me far more satisfaction than the hundreds of crores I made for my companies.”
He adds: “I often tell my corporate friends that had I spent more time with the corporate elite, I would have lost my faith in humanity and become a cynic. When I go to the villages and meet my sevikas, I get my batteries recharged and regain my faith.”
Indeed, while productivity and success are the key benefits of the principle of seva, no less significant are the personal gains in terms of growth, satisfaction and joy. All these are byproducts of an approach that resolves the conflict that is at the root of our present way of functioning. If we live in conflict with the environment or our fellow creatures; if our best instincts are at war with our need for survival, much of our potential will remain unlocked. The service motive resolves the conflict by revealing that our welfare is linked to the welfare of mankind and that of the universe.
Medha Patkar admits that she is a debtor, not a creditor, to her work. “I have learnt a lot from the tribal about developing a simple and down-to-earth approach to life and cultivating a special relationship with nature. A huge advantage of the work I have done is that I have managed to relate at various levels from the harmless advises to World Bank officials. One needs to use different strategies and skills but operate from the same value framework. This is a challenge.”
She adds: “I have grown in perspective by working on the Narmada project. It did not remain an issue, but became a symbol of struggle against a paradigm of development. One may not be able to realize all ideals in a lifetime, but it is enough to keep moving and doing what you can.”
Dr Radhike Khanna, vice principal of the S.P.J. Sadhana School for the developmentally handicapped, is an outstanding example of the power of service to transform and uplift.
The school educates children with IQs of less than 50. Khanna has been instrumental in creating a cookery section, an office skills section and an arts section to help the students create livelihood for themselves. The creative output from these courses is excellent. Who can believe that these polite, virtually normal youngsters, had to be taught everything from scratch?
The rewards, Khanna says, have all been hers. “I struggled for six months to make a child hold a brush in her hands. And when she came back later with a canvas full of colors, I had no words to express my joy.”
Another time, when she and her team of teachers had taken the students for a camp at Ranthambore, one of them fell into water. “He was curled up at the bottom of the pool. We were 45 km away from the nearest hospital. I gave him artificial respiration, and Reiki right through the long ride. I kept saying, ‘Devan, come back, come back’. And he did. He suddenly came alive. That’s when you know how much support you get from the universe.”
Another who has plugged into the creative power of service is Abhishek Thakore, a student and founder of a social organization called Blue Ribbon. Members of his group, most of whom are students, help out at orphanages and old-age homes. On home service day, they go house to house, washing dishes, cleaning, and cooking!
He comments: “I’ve changed. I used to consider it below my dignity to do manual work. At a recent Art of Living course, I did what I hated most—clearing the garbage. There is no satisfaction comparable to that which you get in contributing to people’s lives.”
Thakore steers clear of the notorious helpers’ ego by asking for help when he needs it. “Being open to receiving is equally important,” he feels. He also intuited on an important insight when he discovered that giving triggered off receiving. “When I started sharing knowledge, my own increased. At one time, I decided against sharing it and I found that my own learning foundered.”
Srinivasan’s Dignity Dialogue grew from a magazine to a movement in less than four months. “People often asked me about loneliness. So, we made a volunteer team of 100 subscribers and trained them in social counseling.” But requests kept pouring in—for help in cases of abuse, for jobs, for security, at a time when reports of murders of senior citizens were routinely appearing in newspapers. By taking care of the never before addressed needs of her constituency, Srinivasan’s influence and popularity grew. Government gave funds. Pretty soon, she was running a public trust instead of relying on advertisers. The Bombay Municipal Corporation chipped in by offering her a spacious office. Eventually, the Ambanis took it over. “Making it a national movement is what I am planning,” she says.
The bottom-line in this maelstrom of activity is clear—self-fulfillment. “I am doing all this because it gives me happiness. I am realizing my potential.”
The seva motive can transform the way governments and large organizations work, as Suresh Pundit and N.H. Athreya have proved with the Prabhadevi Special Services and Trunk Booking Exchange of MTNL, Mumbai. When the woes of the operator were handled and they were sensitized to the needs of the public, their performance went up dramatically. The number of ‘acceptable’ conversations, which customers approved of, went up from 42 per cent to 96 per cent.
The service motive has the potential to transform the way we work in India, perhaps even make it that superpower the government dreams of. All it needs is the will and determination.
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