The Ramakrishna Mission is a middle-aged Indian religious service organization. Over the years, it has impressively tried to put into practice the practical philosophy of Swami Vivekananda. Vivekananda wrote: “Do you love your fellow men? Where should you go to seek for God- are not all the poor, the miserable, the weak, gods? Why not worship them first? Why go to dig a well on the shores of the Ganga?”
Here are a few notes and observations based upon interviews, reading Ramakrishna Mission publications, and contextualizing issues with the help of other material.
One of my topics is “sex,” the role and status of women. Swami Prajnatmananda in an interview at the Institute of Culture talked about the status of women in broad philosophical and historical fashion.” Men and women have a soul in common. They are only different physically.” “We respect women. On Durga puja day we dress up a young girl in the finest clothes. Her parents and other family members, friends and strangers, and even we Swamis will fall at her feet. We believe that that young girl embodies the Divine Mother.” Citing Vivekananda, the Swami states: “Male and female are like two wings of a bird.” He makes no reference to gay or lesbian topics.
According to the Swami, the Ramakrishna Mission has always understood the need to improve women’s education. Probably as a dig against previous Muslim invaders, he says: “In earliest years, women must have been educated because the scriptures record men and women debating. However, after Muslim invasion, the priestly caste placed more restrictions on women. Education was neglected.” For years, the Mission has countered that neglect. Its schools enroll women; its mission is to create women who have the skills to pursue job opportunities.
The latest General Report of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission gives details about work done to improve women’s lives. In a section entitled “Women Welfare Programmes,” five services are listed: Care for pregnant and lactating women through the maternity departments of our hospitals; Old Age Home for Women in Varanasi; Educational Services to Girls (exclusively for girls); Nurses Training Institutes; Programmes for Enhancing Women Empowerment by Forming Self-Help Groups. A documentary “Women of India based on the teachings of Swami Vivekananda was also created. The Ramakrishna Mission singles out women’s’ empowerment as a key focus for improving Indian life.
In a conversation with Professor Alok Chatterjee, I learn about the reality of small village life. In his research on four villages, he found that % of the children drop out of school (he didn’t break down the gender numbers). Certainly, a high percentage of the drop outs were young girls.
Others have written about women’s status in India. In The Tribune, an article states two startling facts. Quoting a report from he Indian Human Development Survey, the article reports that “only 4.99 per cent of women in India had sole control over choosing their husband, while 79.8 per cent of women needed permission to visit a health centre…” Later the article reported that “58 percent of women reported that they needed permission to visit their local kirana (grocery) store…” Some women in India live in a completely different world compared to women in Atlanta!
A letter presents some other information about Indian women’s situation. Bill Gates wrote a public letter to Warren Buffet answering Buffet’s questions about the effect of his donation to the Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundation. In that article, the Gates describe poverty. “Poverty is sexist. Men don’t want women to use contraceptives. If women had children every three to four years rather than every year, then the infants and the mother’s health would be better (Letter from Bill and Melinda Gates to Warren Buffet).” Furthermore, in India, over 75 million women are in some form of self-help group. These groups help women learn how to acquire a microloan to start a business, how to take care of their health, and even how to learn to read even when one is 60 years old. Improving women’s lives leads to many other positive changes.
There are questions about the Ramakrishna’s work on behalf of women. The Ramakrishna Mission did not seem to address human sex trafficking. The Mission did not seem to work with other organizations to break the systemic support of male superiority or the avoidance of women’s issues. I did not find the Mission support or cooperate with other organizations addressing women’s status. Yet, the Ramakrishna Mission not only has an awareness of the desperate plight of many Indian women,but also the Mission works to improve their status and roles.
I am also interested in the topic of “strangers,” in particular how the Mission views Muslims. Swami Suvirananda, the Assistant General Secretary states: “We believe in pluralism, in the harmony of religion. All religious practices are true. All religions lead to the same God.” Swami Prajnatmananda repeated the off-quoted line: “As many religions, there are many paths. All religions true paths to God.” Following this basic conviction, the Swami insists: “We don’t’ tolerate other religions; we accept other religions.”
From that philosophical base, he proudly asserts that many Muslims work at the Ramakrishna Mission. Furthermore, he has been a speaker at a local Muslim group. He says: “I even had dinner with them.” “We don’t treat Muslims as strangers. If we are the same in the eyes of God, then there is much common ground.”
After a few minutes, though, the tone and content of the conversation shifts. The Swami says: “Yesterday on the news, I saw a clip about an Iman in UK teaching “Sharia laws should be in force.” The Swami believes that this includes strict moral policing such as no music, no entertainment, women must cover their faces.” Furthermore, he went on to say: “I couldn’t enter the area of Sharia law because I don’t have a beard; you could enter, but I couldn’t.”
The more critical tone continues. “For many Muslims, it is simply ‘obey, obey, obey.’ You can’t grow. You can’t evolve. You can’t learn then with that attitude.” Contrasting fundamentalist Muslims with the Mission, we teach twenty languages in our school, even Arabic. “We want to get connected with people.
Shortly, his tone turns to fear. “Muslims are fine if they are only 20% of the population. When they get to be 50% of the population, then they become a problem. “I ask: “Where will this lead if Muslims become a majority in India?” His response: “It will lead to war. We are in Kali (the era of less morality)”
His final words on the subject reveal his disdain for fundamentalist Islam very clearly: “Can you imagine Sharia law? Can you imagine kids not allowed to fly a kite? Women will have to wear all black in the heat of the summer? It is barbarism. It is not religion.”
Finally, although I’ve already made a few comments relevant to the topic of “sickness,” I want to mention that the Ramakrishna Mission is committed to improving individual’s health. In the last Report, the Mission supports 5 hospitals, 46 dispensaries, 59 mobile medical units, 392 eye camps, and 536 General Medical Camps. It also has a nursing school.
Professor Chatterjee’s work confirms the value of the Ramakrishna Mission’s medical work. In the four villages that he survey, he found each village has persistent medical problems. He reports that 85% of the population has had diarrhea in the past year; 13% of the population has had typhoid during the past year; 11% of the villagers have had malaria during the past year. These are health issues that do not require highly trained medical personnel with sophisticated facilities; these are health issues which require clean water, sanitary conditions, and vaccinations.
The Ramakrishna Mission tries to respond to these types of health risks. Sometimes it is simply trying to dig wells to find cleaner water; sometimes it is to establish more latrines so that people have more sanitary conditions.
Whether the status of women, the relationship with Muslims, or offering preventive and emergency care, the Ramakrishna Mission offers services to many Indians.