Volume 6 - Issue 08
AUGUST - 2008
Enriching Kancheepuram...the Sai Way
By Enveloping it with Pure and Selfless Love and Service
Well-known for its rich culture and heritage, Kancheepuram, the ancient capital of the Pallava dynasty, is a historic region located in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, near the city of Chennai. It has also acquired international fame because of its rich silk saree industry. Today, Kancheepuram sarees are synonymous with classic style, a must-have in every saree connoisseur’s wardrobe.
Despite its name and fame, this district, dotted with numerous villages and tiny hamlets continues to be a primarily agrarian society, with a growing population that, till recently, struggled daily to survive pathetic living conditions, which included no access to potable water for its residents, inadequate learning supplies for its children and scant employment opportunities for its youth and women. That was up until the time a brigade of Sai Youth from Tamil Nadu stepped in to dispel the atmosphere of gloom and doom with the brilliance of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba’s love and light.
Translating their devotion for His teachings into selfless action, the Sai Youth of Tamil Nadu committed themselves into taking up genuine responsibility in their hearts to view every person on this planet, especially those in need, as their own brother and sister. Adopting Kancheepuram and two other neighbouring districts, as their ground zero, they are bringing sustainable development and relief to the communities that have suffered decades of neglect and dejection. What have they done and how are they going about it? This is what they have to say:
Inspired solely by Bhagavan’s divine life, we, the Sai Youth of Tamil Nadu, undertook various service projects including a Water Purification Project, a Free Notebooks Project for school children and the Sapling Project to eradicate malnutrition covering the rural areas of three districts in our state, namely, Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur and Vellore. Most of these villages lacked basic amenities and the villagers lived way below the poverty line.
The service activities were undertaken as a part of the Sathya Sai Village Integration Programme or SSSVIP, a nation-wide project launched by the ocean of compassion and non-judgmental love, Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba to care for those who stand neglected for generations in the villages of India.
Priority # 1: Water Purification Project
The initial survey of the area was a startling revelation for us as it pointed to a total lack of clean drinking water in the villages and a plethora of dreadful diseases that were devastating young lives due to the contamination they were exposed to. Recalls one of the youth members involved in the operation, “Villagers had a terrible time earlier as far as drinking water was concerned. They used the water from small ponds and lakes, which were very dirty and absolutely unhygienic. As a result, diarrhea and vomiting was endemic. They were always a few who were down with these ailments and it was more so with children, which was a pathetic sight…The villagers had their own method of purifying the water which was generally to allow the visibly dirty water to ‘rest’ for 3-4 hours before they used it - because only then the mud settled down at the base of their vessels.”
Realizing the importance of providing the local population with sources of pure and potable water, the life sustaining elixir essential for healthy living, the water purification project became a priority, and one of the first projects that the Sai Youth took up in June 2007. Initially it covered eight villages of the Kancheepuram district in Tamil Nadu. Today, the effort has grown to encompass 22 villages and is still growing!
It is indeed no simple task to survey the villagers, get approval from village heads and the local Panchayat board, install water purifiers and maintain them across 22 villages. Needless to say, it was made possible only by Bhagavan’s divine will, blessings and guidance.
We initiated the project by conducting a detailed survey of each of the villages. We went door to door and took into consideration the economic condition of the villagers and their health and hygiene practices. Local involvement and support being critical to the success of such an initiative, we had meetings with the village leaders and sought their approval.
At the same time, we apprised the authorities of the service ideals, which form the core of Bhagavan Baba’s teachings. The village elders and government authorities, not only readily agreed to the proposal, but also offered all necessary support. In one village, the temple priest, who was held in high esteem by the villagers, offered his wholehearted support. In another village, a school headmaster came forward and immediately threw his weight behind the efforts.
As with any Sai service activity, this project also cut across all religious lines and appealed to all communities alike, receiving everybody’s whole-hearted approval. The spontaneity with which everyone involved wanted to embrace the projects bearing the name of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba moved the young participants deeply. For the Sai youth, it was indeed a humbling experience to observe the reaction of relief and welcome that Bhagavan’s holy name evoked instantly even in such a remote region. To act as His representatives was both a privilege and a responsibility, for they had to live up to the purity associated with the name of Sai.
Sai Synchrony Guides Youth Efforts
Next, the Sai volunteers or the Sevadals collected water samples and sent them for evaluation to government-authorized laboratories to test water quality. The results only confirmed their worst fears. A team member closely associated with the work recalls, “After testing their water at a government testing facility, we had no doubt that the villagers had to be provided with water purifiers. So we contacted a company making such products, and luckily the owner was a Sai devotee. He supplied the needed Water Purion water filters at a very good price.
“After careful analysis, water purifiers were installed in strategic locations in the villages, such as beside temples and churches, village water tanks and other sources of stored water. In addition, three purifiers were also installed in schools.”
Transformation through Information
The installation of the purifiers was done on a step-by-step basis. A team member further explains: “After installing the systems, we went door to door and explained to the members of the family about the new facility that was set up for them, and briefed them on how to use it effectively. We told them to use this water only for drinking and cooking. We also printed all the relevant information in a pamphlet in Tamil, the local language, and distributed it to every household. We started with three villagers and now we have completed all the 22 villages in our district.”
No surprise that the response from the local population has been that of big relief and heartfelt gratitude. The head of one village, expressing his relief, said, “Earlier whenever we used to cook rice, it used to get discoloured because of bad water, but now our rice is cooked white and healthy. The children in our village are hale and hearty; there are no more complaints of diarrhea or vomiting.”
Another villager was candid to admit that “It has saved us so much time, energy and effort. Previously, we had to wait for 3-4 hours before we could use the collected water from the local pond as it would take that much time for the mud to settle at the bottom of our vessels. But now, we use the water from the purifier instantly. It has made tremendous difference in our lives. Now we do not have any tension and have more time to work and earn well. We are daily-wage labourers and this facility has made our lives so easy. It has given us health and happiness.”
Rev. Thiru Arputha Raj, Head Master, Don Bosco High School, Sagayathottam village, expressed his gratitude through his message where he said, “Our Don Bosco High School is situated in a remote village lacking basic facilities and away from the main road. In this school, the destitute boys and the ward of poor peasants are studying. We convey our gratitude for having installed the PURION machine to facilitate the boys to drink purified water.”
To ensure the long term viability of the project, two village youth were selected in each village and trained to maintain the purifiers. Sai Youth still visit these villages to monitor the working of the purifiers. The highlight of the entire project was not just the water purifiers, but also the purification that it brought about in all those who participated - from the Sevadals volunteers to the villagers.
Explaining the impact of the project on the lives of around 200 families within his village, a local resident said that the community values the water enough to use it “only for drinking. Since it is filtered well, it is potable and tastes good. We also use it for cooking.”
He goes on to add that “I knew it from the very beginning that this is from Sai Baba. The water is very nice to drink.”
Another village lady explains how it has ended the community’s health woes. “Earlier, we used to boil water, but we still had problems such as jaundice. Now we use this water directly without boiling, and we have no such problems anymore.”
Project Purified not just the Water, But Human Hearts too!
During the course of the project when it began in 2007, around 150 village youth were shown videos of Bhagavan, His teachings, and His various projects. This inspired and ignited their hearts and minds and many of the youth made a pilgrimage to Prashanthi Nilayam in 2007. This year (2008) another 150 village youth have registered for the Sai Youth Pilgrimage to the holy land of Puttaparthi in August.
Involvement in this activity brought change not only at the village level, but also at an individual level. Four plumbers accompanied the Sai youth from Chennai to help install the purifiers. The plumbers were unfortunately caught in the vicious grip of the harmful and self-destructive habits of smoking and alcohol. Continuous exposure to Bhagavan’s life, teachings, love and energy through their day-and-night interaction with the Sai Youth transformed them totally. One Sevadal volunteer, later on happened to visit the humble dwelling of one of the plumbers and enquired about the general welfare of his family.
The plumber’s wife was full of joy and praise. “He used to smoke and drink earlier. He only gave a small portion of his (daily) wage to me to run the family. However, today he gives it all! There is a visible transformation in him. I am very happy!” Another plumber was so moved by the effort that he offered a hundred rupees, which is a lot of money for a daily wage earner, for Narayana seva or feeding the poor!
Divine Masterplan includes Ecology, Environment and Nutrition
In a bid to provide a long term solution to widely prevalent malnutrition and environmental neglect, we also planned another project involving the plantation of tree saplings beside village homes. We approached Bhagavan for His blessings during His visit to Chennai in January 2007. Swami graciously approved the plan and even suggested the species to be planted – drum sticks (Moringa oleifera), papaya and curry leaf (Murraya koenigii)!
We procured the seeds of the three species from Krishnagiri, the very place where the saplings were conditioned. By Bhagavan’s grace, we could get them at half the actual price! Next, we stored them in a central location and allowed them to germinate in specially prepared containers. From the location, we then transported the saplings by trucks, specially arranged for the purpose and distributed them to about 700 families in villages. This mammoth task was implemented in its entirety within a single day! Who but God Himself could have made this possible in such a vast geographic area?
Supreme Project Manager Multiplies Food
The divine hand of God was evident at all levels of the project. As a member explains, “We previously had many youth members who did not turn up regularly for service activities. But, it so happened that they willingly came forward to participate in this service project. All of them now come for such service activities regularly. They all expressed their delight and contentment in doing these activities.
“There is a particular incident that I would like to share. Before commencing the coconut sapling plantation in the villagers’ houses, we had to make sure that pits were dug and properly conditioned to aid growth of the saplings. So, on a particular Sunday, ten of us were asked to go to each of the houses and check if this was made ready. As the villages were far away from our place, we had to start early. I was co-coordinating the task along with another Sai brother.
We decided to complete our breakfasts at home. As per the instructions of our youth leader, I took 30 buns with us for our lunch - three buns per person. I counted them myself and put them in a bag. We reached the villages as planned and went around checking if the pits were dug and maintained as specified. It was afternoon and all of us felt very hungry. So, I started distributing three buns each. As we were hungry, we didn’t really bother to look into how many we ate. Many of us had four or more. We also gave buns to our van driver. After all this bountiful distribution, we still had buns remaining! We completed the remaining areas and left for the day. Only later that night did I realize this silent miracle of Bhagavan!”
Buoyed by the recurring vote of approval from Bhagavan, as a follow up to the project, Sai Youth visited these villages every weekend to ascertain that the plants were cared for and growing well. Presently, these saplings have grown into healthy tall trees! The experience to see the team’s efforts come to fruition so efficiently, effectively and quickly has been a gratifying, inner eye-opener for all of us concerned.
Free Notebook Distribution Project
When we surveyed the villagers’ needs, we further discovered the severe dearth of appropriate school supplies in the local schools. This deprivation of basic learning necessities was posing a serious impediment to the intellectual growth of the children. The extremely low family incomes pushed education down on the local villagers’ list of priorities, aggravating the situation even further.
As a third project, about seventy of us, Sai Youth, came together to issue notebooks and English/English-Tamil dictionaries to village schools in the district. This was accomplished in two phases, once in July 2007, and repeated in June 2008. Twenty-three villages were identified and about twenty-five schools stood to benefit from this drive to promote a love for learning without burdening the students’ impoverished families.
Phase One Sows Seeds of One Human Faith - the Religion of Love
On July 1st 2007, we distributed over 16,600 specially designed notebooks with Bhagavan’s picture on them to students from Grades I to X. The rear cover of these notebooks contained Bhagavan’s quotes on the importance of respecting our mothers. Given the universal nature of all Sai teachings, it was again a heart-warming experience for us to watch one school’s headmaster, a Christian priest, explain the significance of Bhagavan’s quotes to the children. In Bhagavan’s words, “One cannot revere God without first respecting one’s own parents. Respect and love your parents.”
In addition, we also gifted specially designed LIFCO (The Little Flower Company) dictionaries, which contained Bhagavan’s quotes and relevant pictures to students from Grades VI to VIII. The special-edition dictionaries had two sections. The first contained information on Bhagavan’s teachings and universal human values. It also highlighted Bhagavan’s mammoth service projects in Puttaparthi and elsewhere. The second section comprised of an English/English-Tamil dictionary.
The task of distribution was carried out simultaneously in ten centres by forming ten groups of youths with one leader for each group. This well-conceived distribution system ensured proper distribution with the help of the local Panchayat President and headmasters of the schools. The Block Development Officer and the Assistant District Education Officer for elementary schools also attended the distribution program. The government officials were extremely happy with the event.
They, along with the various headmasters of all the local schools, requested the Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organization to conduct rural Sathya Sai Education classes for the students of their schools in order to teach them about the message of the five human values and their universal appeal.
Love, Kindness Common to All Faiths
The Sai youth were received warmly by the local residents, who were largely Christians by faith. Appreciating the biblical virtues that the Sai youth were practicing, they reciprocated with natural love and reverence towards Sri Sathya Sai Baba’s concern for their well-being. A large picture of Bhagavan was also given to these schools. In one particular village, a set of books was earmarked for a Christian missionary school. Unsure as to whether the management would accept a picture of Bhagavan, a copy was not proffered.
However, the local Roman Catholic Missionary (RCM) nun came up to a Sevadal volunteer and requested that a picture of Bhagavan be given. Since the purified drinking water project was started, many local residents like the nun, see Bhagavan as the personification of boundless love, who resolved and addressed their daily concerns through us, His instruments - the Sai youth from Tamil Nadu.
Profuse in their expression of gratitude, the local residents, representing a variety of spiritual backgrounds, were able to appreciate the selflessness of the Sai service initiatives in their communities, which rise above all religious barriers and bind everyone into one, erasing all tensions and divisions among various religious communities that existed earlier.
What helped everyone transcend above the religious divide was the purity of the Sai mission where there is no place for proselytizing. As always, all help was offered to everyone, without any strings, attached, resonating Bhagavan’s dictum that “All are One, Be Alike to Everyone”.
Phase Two - Year 2008: Preparing for God’s Work with Perfection
In July 2008, the activity gained momentum and was done on an even larger scale.
Initially, we conducted a detailed survey school-wise, which took into account minute details such as the number of schools per village, number of classes per school, the individual class strength, the different types of exercise books required per subject by different grades and the exact requirement per student.
The thoroughness with which we undertook this project was a great growth opportunity for us as well as others who were watching us from the periphery, and getting drawn into the centre of the divine action. As one of the participants explained, “What struck me most this year (2008) was the excellent plan that was drafted, covering minute details of the whole program. The youth leader explained to us in detail various activities mapped against the timeline. He even covered contingency plans!”
The superb project management opportunity was handled by us with utmost professionalism. Since it bore the name of Bhagavan Baba, it had to be executed with perfection. A participant explains, “We were formed into sub-teams led by a person within each sub-team. I was fortunate to lead my sub-team. We were assigned sub-tasks that collectively led to the completion of the project. We had meetings among the teams.
"A team was formed to conduct a detailed survey on the number of schools per village, number of classes per school, the individual class strength, the different types of notebooks required by different classes and the exact requirement per student. All these were documented in spreadsheets. The survey lasted for weeks to ensure correctness and completeness of the data. After finalizing the list, we ordered notebooks and stationary.”
Recalling the memorable experience, he says, “We bought these notebooks from the dealers in batches. These were stored in a central location. After all the required items were collected, we began segregating and packaging these notebooks as per the requirement, school-wise and class-wise. We had different notebooks for different classes and in various quantities as required. The task took two complete days with many of us working day and night. After everything was set, we loaded them on to trucks and started off on the decided day to the villages.
When the travel began, I thought it was going to be difficult to complete the distribution in a day. But to everyone’s amazement, and purely by Bhagavan’s Grace, all things were executed in time! We were already formed into sub-groups and were allotted two to three schools each. We took our stock of notebooks and reached the schools at the right time. All students had assembled and were made to sit class-wise. We began the distribution chanting Sai Gayathri.”
Echoing the truth that India truly lives in her villages, we came face to face with experiences that brought forth positive emotions as they extended themselves to bring joy to others. Confesses one team member, “The best part of our service, then, began. We saw in the faces of these children so much delight that some of us were moved to tears. When we had been to these schools last year, many did not know who Bhagavan was. But this time, I saw all these students using Bhagavan’s notebooks distributed last year (2007).
All of them, including the headmaster, welcomed us with warm ‘Sai Rams’, with folded hands, a smile in their lips; the love and gratitude for Bhagavan in their hearts was hard to miss. It touched us, one and all. We worked for more than nine hours and enjoyed every single minute of it. To tell you frankly, throughout the day we never felt tired even for a minute. The headmaster of a government school hailed us when we were about to leave, and asked if we could share the Sai Gayathri with the school so that they could include this as a part of their daily school prayer.
“The immense satisfaction and the love of Bhagavan we felt through these children and the wonderful learning we had in executing the whole project left us all eagerly waiting for such a wonderful opportunity next year.”
Within a day, over 27,000 notebooks with Bhagavan’s picture on them had been successfully distributed to students from Grades I to 8. Senior students from classes VI to VIII were also issued specially designed LIFCO dictionaries. Pencils, pens, pencil sharpeners, erasers and rulers were distributed to students of standards I to V of the schools.
Many life lessons were gained during this experience. Another young adult from the team shares his perspective. “On the distribution day, we went about our work chanting the powerful Vedic hymn Rudram. All the children in 21 villages were simultaneously distributed notebooks, pens, pencils, erasers, sweets, a photo of Bhagavan and a Vibhuti packet.
“We bought a few articles from a place 6 kilometres away from our first village. This was carried in a manual rickshaw. It was very hot and the load was heavy too, with 7 big-sized boxes. After the transportation was done, we wanted to pay the rickshaw driver, but to our surprise, he refused. He said, ‘Please allow me to do this much service. I have always longed to serve Sai Baba. This is my contribution to the wonderful service activity you are doing.’
Sai Youth Model after their Idol, Sri Sathya Sai
Thanks to the meticulous planning, packaging and distribution, everything was delivered within a single day. A weekday had been chosen to ensure each and every child received these notebooks personally. Despite busy schedules, 65 of us turned up that day to be a part of this noble endeavor and earn Swami’s grace.
We explained the idea behind the service effort to the school management and government education officers through a presentation. A local political personality from a village called Oralur, who was also there, walked up to us and said, “I have never bowed before anybody. The first time I had darshan of Sai Baba was on Tamil New Year Day. From that very moment, I don’t get angry for anything. I knew I was transformed. I humbly offer Him my pranams!” She then offered her salutations to Bhagavan.
Local Authorities, Parents and Students Appreciate Sai Compassion
The management of many schools expressed their heart-felt gratitude to Bhagavan for His love and compassion. “Many children last year (2007) had no notebooks,” they said. “Thanks to the Sri Sathya Sai Organization, this year all students have sufficient notebooks. All this has been made possible only by Sai Baba and His organisation.”
While appreciating the positive feedback from the officials, we were particularly touched by the reaction from the students and the relief expressed by their parents. Since the notebooks had a picture of Swami on them as well as quotations of Swami on how one should revere one’s mother, many children said, “We will never throw these notebooks. We will preserve them for ever because these are Swami’s books.”
One of the parents said, “Our children have been taken care of so well. Now, we do not have to worry about their notebooks and other study material for one whole year. Actually it is very difficult for us to provide them these articles because we are daily wage earners and our income is never regular and steady. But we have no worries now; our children can study without any problems. Mentally, we are so relieved.”
With Sai, Impossible becomes ‘I Am Possible’
For us, the Young Adults of the Tamil Nadu Sai Organization, this service project provided a morale and confidence boost, firming our faith in His will and guidance. As one of them admits, “This was the first time that I shouldered responsibilities. I was actually tense and worried about how things would go. I perceived it to be a Herculean task considering the distance we had to travel. We could not afford a van so we decided to take five bikes (two on each bike) and we started off. All I could do was pray to Bhagavan to give us mental strength. We did not carry food either as we had to start early.
"Also, it would be difficult to carry them over long distances on bikes. But let me emphasize - once we reached there, all our apprehensions vanished. We never felt hungry or tired. Rather, we felt energized in reaching out to the deserving children. At the end of the day, I realized I did nothing. Throughout, it was Bhagavan who had carried out all the activities through each one of us. I learnt that meticulous planning with total faith in God will certainly bring success. Needless to say, I now plan my daily activities, office projects and my own personal chores with total faith in Bhagavan. I now see a change in myself. I am now convinced that with Bhagavan nothing is impossible.”
Feeding the Poor – an Indispensable Component of Sai Seva
As a part of the service projects, we also distributed food packets across many villages in the district. Preparing for this stupendous task required all the Sai Centres in and around the city of Chennai to cooperate and work as a team. That experience by itself was worth the effort for the oneness of purpose bound diverse groups into one large family headed by the Lord Himself. As a youth member explains, “We had a wonderful time meeting and interacting with youth from different Samithis. It was a fulfilling experience. We all felt we belong to a larger family. Bhagavan’s love binds us all together.”
The entire organisation threw its weight behind our effort to prepare food hampers for every family in the region. As a result, every home in these villages received the food packets along with a photo of Bhagavan, a vibhuti packet and Sai Protein, a grain-based nutritional supplement! During the occasion, we also distributed tricycles to physically challenged persons at their very doorstep, enabling them to be mobile.
Providing Equal Employment Opportunities
We have now planned to educate the rural youth, train them in vocational skills and make them employable and useful to the society. As a first step towards this goal, we have identified a set of youth members to receive a free course in taxi driving in order to help them earn their livelihood. Also, the village women have been helped to form self-help groups and trained to package camphor and make incense sticks. The various Sai Samithis or centres provide the various raw materials on a periodic basis and the finished goods are also be used by the devotees in and around the districts to ensure regular income for these women. The idea behind this effort is to enable the local population to be gainfully employed and financially viable.
Transformation - the Essence of Seva
All these service projects, not only helped transform villages as a whole, but also transform individual lives too. One of the volunteers who had been a part of these projects all through says, “During the initial phase of the water purifier installation that lasted for four days, I was with the plumbers overseeing their work.
During our interactions, I often used to talk about Swami and His mission, and all the Sai service activities undertaken worldwide. However, during this period, I had been away from my family and didn’t have proper food and sleep. There was a time when I was frustrated and thought this probably was a waste of time.
I could have been home with my family, taking care of my business and making money. As these thoughts passed my mind, two of the plumbers approached me.
One of them said, ‘I am moved by all that you are doing to the society. I feel I have wasted my life doing wrong things and have not really been useful to anyone. To begin with, I take a vow sir that I will not smoke henceforth.’
This brought tears to my eyes. Not just him – the other plumber came and gave me a hundred rupee note and said, ‘Sir, please use this small amount towards Anna Danam or the feeding of the poor. I want to do my bit towards these noble activities that you are doing inspired by Sai Baba’.
This truly struck a chord in me and I realized the true meaning of service. I then shed tears of gratitude, thanking Swami for having chosen me as an instrument.”
Audacity of Hope
By allowing us, to be the chosen agents of change in His hands, Bhagavan Baba has blessed us with the audacity of hope, as instruments, potent enough to make a genuine difference. This is an honour and a privilege that we the Sai youth of Tamil Nadu, can never take for granted. We are ever beholden to the Founder of the Sri Sathya Sai Village Integration Program, Bhagavan Baba, for showing us the way to experience a deeper connection with everyone else on the planet, starting with the villagers in rural India. What better way to nurture our nation’s soul then by revitalizing its villages!
The Sri Sathya Sai Village Integration Program experience has brought to life Bhagavan’s counsel that ‘service to man is service to God’ for we have truly experienced God in the joy of selflessly serving our disadvantaged brothers and sisters.
Jai Sai Ram!
- Sai Youth, Tamil Nadu, India
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Vol 6 Issue 08 - AUGUST 2008
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