Special Articles / M.V. Moorthy / Social Work Profession in India: An Uncertain Future
Systematic thought and modern scientific practices regarding social work are of recent origin. In old tribal societies, the aged, the mentally feeble and the disabled were either cared for or neglected according to the affections, abilities or traditions of the groups. In some, the aged were respected and their advice sought, while in others they were considered a burden and were neglected. The disabled were disregarded and even killed off at birth.
In ancient India of small communities, the care of the physically and mentally disabled was the primary responsibility of the family in the first instance and of the local group in instances where the family could not fulfil its obligations. This sense of responsibility for care of the weaker members continued in the joint family till recently as a moral and spiritual duty reinforced by traditional and legal authority. When India became welded into States or Kingdoms or empires, the King assumed the position of the Pater Familias par excellence, responsible for the protection of all. While the King was supposed to initiate, administer and watch over the welfare of all, the care of the helpless was still the spiritual, moral and legal duty of the concerned families. Where the families failed, the local bodies stepped in; and where the local bodies did not or could not do the needful, the State did the work. But in all cases of help and protection, the King was the constant force, seen or unseen, present or absent. As Kalidasa describes: “He (the King) by protection and maintenance of his citizens, was their real father; their other fathers were genetically called” (Janmahetavah). We have confirmation of this early Hindu view in the Mahabharatha. When the great Seer Narada visited Dharmaraja he enquired: “O thou virtuous! Dost thou like a father protect the blind, the mute, the crippled, the deformed and the orphans; and in similar manner, the Sanyasis too?”
We may say that the ancient Indian welfare plan reveals a three-tier system: (i) the joint family at the primary level; (ii) the local body (village or town) at the primary-secondary level; (iii) and the State at the secondary level. As stated earlier, moral and spiritual tradition reinforced the obligations of the citizens towards the poor and the disabled. Legal authority was called in only when familial obligations were not fulfilled.
A general philosophy supports the Hindu’s way of life and the code of conduct through which appear, sometimes very dimly, values which he holds dear, or ought to hold dear. The philosophy briefly is : Every living being (including plants) is instinct with a soul. The body is the soul’s psychosomatic instrument of thoughts, feelings and deeds. As it does, so the soul reaps. Good thoughts, good feelings and good deeds lead the soul in its upward journey towards realization (Moksha). In realization the soul is immersed in God who is love and grace and all potential omniscient and omnipresent power. Immersed in God, the realized soul enjoys the bliss of being and doing works in accordance with the laws of universal good. That is, individual good finds its fulfillment in universal good. The love and grace of God express themselves in offering opportunites and choices for man. Here, man exercises his own will and chooses the path of progress or regress. The lowest living organisms cannot have choice. They automatically rise in the scale of creation through series of births till the stage of the human being is reached. In the human body the soul is capable of exercising its choices and preferences. A good choice of thoughts, words and deeds leads to good results, that is, still better psychosomatic embodiment which we call birth; a bad choice leads to bad results, that is, a worse psychosomatic embodiment. Man alone rises or falls. Man is the best of created beings on this planet ( Sukritam purushovavasukritam: Aitereya Upanishad). Thinking good, feeling good and acting good, he passes through several births until he merges in God ( Bahunam janmanam ante, jnanavan mam prapadyate : Bhagavadgita). The evil doers regress into lower births. Life, therefore, is an opportunity to better oneself by taking help from others, and by giving help to others. No one is sufficient unto himself. God first said “Let me be many” (Bahu syam). His supreme sustaining force entered into all creatures who, indeed, are His images, possessing in a latent and limited form His nature and characteristics or properties. By serving or regarding others, we serve and regard Him. The Gita clinches the teaching: “Reach the best good by regarding one another helpfully (Parasparam bhavayantah sreyah paramavapsyatha).” Ultimately, the help rendered and received should culminate in self-help. The self alone can rescue or save the self (Atmaiva bandhuratmanah). A weak self is the enemy of the self. A weak one cannot realize oneself (Nayamatma balaheenena labhyah). So, a person, even when he is helped by others, should personalize or internalize that help, get strengthened and help himself (Uddharedamanatmanam: Gita).
Even the giver of help is really helping himself. For, it is the law of life, law of spiritual evolution, that we cannot enter God unless we work like God, for we have in us His qualities (Samanadharmanah). To share his pleasures and powers even in the little measure vouchsafed to us, we must attune ourselves to the harmony of His being. Every good done is discipline. Love adds strength. Give strength to others, they will return love to you. We are in a world in which the Supreme Being is mirrored everywhere, if only we could really see! To see Him in oneself, one should see Him in all else and in all others. Such a one will realize that love of others and service to others is self-love and self-service in the highest sense. Service is self-returning. It is this meaning which the great Seer Yajnavalkya conveys to his wife in answer to her question: “My Lord, will I attain eternal happiness or beatitude if I become the possessor of all the world’s wealth?” Seer Yajnavalkya: “ Dear Maitreyi! All the world’s wealth does not give you permanent bliss. You love wealth not because wealth satisfies the longings of your own self. Similarly, you love husband, children, your possessions and all the world with its innumerable beings not because you satisfy the longings of your own self. See this Self, listen to it, know it, ponder over it, intuit it. All will be yours, you will be everyone’s” (Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad IV, 5).Such a one, who perceives All in himself and himself in All, will be best loved by all ( Sa ya etadevam veda abhi hi enam sarvani bhutani samvaancchanti: Kena Upanishad).
The purpose of this self-ward or God-ward endeavour is the realization of one’s Svaroopa. Svaroopa is the actualized potential of a being. It is a fully evolved state. Taking the span of a single birth during which manifestation of the potential is partially presented, we may convey a limited idea of the svaroopa. The tree is the svaroopa of the seed, as the bird is of the egg, during the brief period of their terrestrial growth. Even according to the Darwinian Theory of Evolution, the development of each branch of life organisms has taken millions of years. And there is neither ontogenetic nor phylogenetic confirmation that man has reached the end of his tether. He has not exhausted his potential. Given infinite time and infinite opportunities he has the spirit and the brain to actualize his macroscopic dimensions which is his svaroopa. His possibilities transcend present impossibilities. The same idea is hinted at by the Christian statement that man is made in the image of God. Speaking of the potential, Sri Sankaracharya said “I am Brahma, That you are”. The word Brahma means the “elaborate”, the largest, the universal, the macrocosmic. We become Brahma means, we elaborate our potential to its fullest development. (The word Brahma is derived from the verbal root brih meaning enlarge, elaborate).
Particular values and attitudes informing a way of life are prescribed for reaching this ultimate goal of self-realization or Brahmahood in which state the individual will enjoy with and in God the bliss of his svaroopa. The values are that the things of this life are useful, but are not all in all. What pertains to the spirit or self are eternal. Material things and possessions, and worldly relations are ephemeral. We should use the material to subserve the ends of the spiritual. The immediate goal is good (Preyah) but the remote is better (Sreyah). This good life is a means for the next better. All life is valuable and sacred in that every organism is trying to work out its own destiny. We should not hinder its upward development but promote its progress by giving whatever aid we can.
The attitudes derived from these values are clear. One should not get involved in the things and affairs of this world. Man should go through his duties and enjoy whatever he can without much attachment. One is urged to be helpful to others without expecting reward. A good deed performed is its own reward. For, doing good things strengthens one’s soul. Yudhishtira was asked why he was particular about acting righteously and what he would get out of his deeds. He answered: “I am not a merchant trading in my deeds and expecting rewards and prizes. I do a thing because it has to be done”. Firm faith in one’s ideals or values, dispassionate outlooks, humility and emotional stability are the important components of such an attitude.
These ideals, values and attitudes are woven into a pattern of life. They could be described as disciplines which every one should observe. They are practices which should be permanent features of a personality. They are described as universal duties or sadharanadharmas. According to Manu they are: non-violence, truth speaking, non-stealing, personal hygiene and control of the senses (Manusmriti, X.63). It may be noticed that non-violence and non-stealing are prohibitory in their tone. They are negative virtues. The rest are personal disciplines. Together they may help develop the personality of an individual but are inadequate to form the basis for creative social relationships. They do not provide an urge or motivation for either social service or social work. The inadequacy of negative commandments for founding a satisfactory social ethic was realized quite early. Attempts were made to import into the concepts of non-violence and non-stealing, positive contents. Taking hints from the Vedic texts the general human duties were elaborated to included dana, giving charity to the needy and daya, pity and compassion to all the creatures. So Yajnavalkya restates the general human duties to include non-violence, truth-speaking, non-stealing, personal hygiene, control of the senses, dana (charity to the needy), daya (pity or compassion), kshanti (forgiveness), and dama(self-restraint or equanimity) ( Yajnavalkya Smriti, I.122). It is important to note that daya (compassion) is not merely an emotional upsurge of sympathy. It is conceived of as an active principle of help in all situations of suffering. As I have explained elsewhere, daya is action or work process (Kriya) directed towards the suffering one for his benefit and good (hitaya subhayacha). In the three words, namely Kriya (work process), hita (benefit) and subha (good) it is possible to include all the contents of social work. But such a modern comprehension of the process and objective of social work should not be read into the statement of the ancient Hindu writers. But it is not wrong to reinterpret and reorient old thought in the light of modern contribution and needs. This is here not done in a spirit of chauvinism, nor to claim for our ancestors a glory which does not belong to them. A reinterpretation is presented to bring the old line of thought to be in keeping with modern trends. This will also give a traditional basis to current thought and practice in addition to enriching them. This method of approach was followed in different epochs by our great thinkers who have fetched forth ever new and differing interpretations for old vedic texts and the Bhagavadgita, according to the needs of the times, and in the light of fresh scientific researches. This is not a purely Indian propensity. The Bible has undergone similar treatment in the hands of the Jesuits, the later Catholics and the modern Protestants. Even the Koran cannot claim to be impervious to reinterpretation.
The practices of daya and dana as help processes (Kriya= work processes) were organised into a pattern of discipline leading the individual to his self-realization. Non-violence was a negative virtue, but daya and dana were positive commands. The Jains and the Buddhists especially inculcated the principles of non-violence and daya into their systems of thinking and practice in an exaggerated measure, and were later forced to make compromises. The Hindus unfortunately allowed killing of animals at sacrifices sanctioned by the Vedas. They permitted (even enjoined) fighting in wars for self-protection and for protection of others. The story of king Sibi offering his own body’s flesh to the hawk to save the dove which it was pursuing is one of the numerous stories written to illustrate the supreme duty of saving the life of the distressed at the cost of one’s own. The important point to note here is that the practice and the sentiment of daya is an active principle and is connected as means to the objective of self-realization. The faith was that even if practice of daya led one to death, one enters a fuller, newer and richer life.
Putting aside stories of offering life for life, we may state that to the poor, needy and distressed, generally the citizens gave money and help in kind, and advice and service in an unorganised as well as organised manner. Organised assistance was provided by caste groups, occupational agencies and local bodies. Since mobility was on a negligible scale in ancient and medieval periods due to lack of transport facilities as of today, and also due to political restraints, social and individual pathological problems were then localized.
In addition to private charity and other personal services to the handicapped, the government, that is, the King, provided for the administration of the welfare of the distressed. We learn from the history that Asoka got hospitals built for animals and men; that there were orphanages and institutions for the care of the old, the destitute and the disabled. Kautilya too writes of the organisation and administration of such institutions for the handicapped in the Mauryan State. There is no doubt that these were managed and administered by well meaning authorities. While the basic needs of the various types of the handicapped were attended to under institutional care, we have no knowledge of rehabilitatory programmes to which the inmates were exposed to and treated. It is the rehabilitatory process which is the crux of scientific social work. And the programme of rehabilitation in each case of the disabled depends on the knowledge of the causes of such disability, social, personal or any other; on the knowledge of the effects such disability has on the personality of the sufferer; and most importantly on the valid knowledge and tested practices of evoking self-help responses in the handicapped.
In the vast range of ancient Hindu literature – religious and philosophical, medical, psychological, sociological, yogic and poetic – there are ample suggestions for building theories and practices of social work along what has been done in modern times. But, however, the statements in these works referring to what may be useful for social work have remained mere statements and hints. In early India, the social and individual problems were probably not of such nature and dimensions as to attract special research and study. Also perhaps, the early writers were too much absorbed by their speculations regarding the life to come, to pay required attention to mundane problems. Moreover, the Karma theory to which was referred every present condition of man, good and bad, operated as a damper to investigation into social and personal problems for developing practices of rehabilitation. Manu, the great sage-sociologist and revered Law Giver, presented this ancient and universal belief: “Thus, according to their particular Karmas (past deeds and thoughts) and pitied by all, are born the mentally feeble, the mute, the blind, the deaf and the deformed” (Evam karmaviseshena jayante sarvagarhitah jadamurkandhabadhira vikritakritaystathu:Manusmriti XI.52). Manu explains specific forms of individuals’ current disabilities with reference to their past lives, deeds and thoughts (Karmas). And this is more or less repeated and elaborated by most of the puranas.
A way out, however, is suggested to the sinful here and now to escape future miseries. This escape consists in various courses of discipline and purificatory rites known as prayaschittas. They generally consist of baths, fasts, pilgrimages and charities especially to worthy Brahmins! These are urged to be performed in a spirit of humility, faith and repentance. The expiatory and propitiatory rites absolved the sinner from the consequences of his deeds; and he could look forward to a future (life) wherein he need not suffer disabilities and deformities of body and mind. Thus faith, perhaps, gave the repentant sinner peace of mind and allayed his anxieties.
This section may be concluded by a few observations by way of recapitulation. According to the Hindu theory, economic, social, mental and physical disabilities of persons occur on account of their bad Karmas. Past Karmas explain present disabilities. The disabled have to suffer in a spirit of humility and resignation, and do whatever good they can so that they improve their condition in their next lives. Thus terrestrial life is one in a series of physical and transient embodiments of the immortal soul. Birth in any human condition is an opportunity to think and feel and do good or evil. The soul, whose essence is spiritual, has great possibilities of achievements and enjoyments. The complete realization of one’s self consists in actualization of one’s own svaroopa, that is, essential psychic being of cosmic dimensions and power. Truth, non-violence, non-covetousness, control of the senses, equanimity, non-attachment to the things and passions of this world, and active pity towards the suffering should form a way of life to reach and realize one’s svaroopa which is now clouded by selfish passions. To perceive God in one’s self, and one’s self in all is the best way to fulfil one’s goal of life. The Godman or Mangod serves all. In serving all he serves himself. Thus service is a way of realizing oneself.
This call to perceive and realize God in every creature contained in the Vedas was overlooked generally and people overwhelmingly took to rituals. This discrepancy between theory and practice was observed and criticised even as early as in the time of the Upanishads. For instance, the Mundako Upanished states that those who are absorbed in vedic rituals and do not perceive the Lord in all things and creatures are deluded ones.
Buddha too rejected rituals and sacrifices enjoined by the Vedas and Brahmanas. He was against the practice of the caste system. He called upon people to love each other and help the poor and the disabled, instead of hankering after wordly possessions. Sankaracharya, the great monistic sage philosopher, gave lower value to formal rituals and taught people to meditate on and perceive the One Supreme Lord in and behind the multiple world of appearances. Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya, the great Vaishnavite saints, softened the rigours of sacrifices and rituals, and pointed out that the Lord God is Love. Chaitanya, Vallabha and many other Vaishnava and Saiva saints emphasised the mercy and love aspects of God. And all these thoughts and emotions found expression in the bhakti movement during the medieval times. The bhakti movement was based on love of God; all those who loved God were emotionally linked. They came together, sang, danced, went into ecstasy, and realized common brotherhood mystically. They taught and spread the message of the bliss to be realized in the love of God and in the company of the lovers of God. Unfortunately this movement was confined to people who had psychological and affective affinity. Each bhakta (devotee) tried to invite, invoke or intuit God in himself and realize atonement with Him, even if it be for a while.
This bhakti cult united with Upanishadic doctrine that God is in everyone, could have provided an excellent basis for social work. If God is love, and He is in all, I, as a lover of God, should love all. And the best expression of love is helping the needy even to the extent of sacrificing one’s own self. Since the Lord is in all creatures, I should love all creatures. Since I love them, I should feel distressed if they are distressed. I should help them to the uttermost. Love of all creatures is the way I express my love of God. In other words, love and service of His creatures is love and service of God. It is unfortunate and tragic that the bhakti movement, which was so near the way, did not tread the path of social work. It had the philosophic understanding, and emotional resources were diverted to realizing personal ends mystically but not to social ends materially and spiritually. The bhakta limited his ecstatic realization to himself. At most he included in his company a few more who felt like him. The bhakta did not reach out to the whole of humanity, nay, not even to accessible suffering citizens around him. This limitation is a disappointing episode in the history of social work. Perhaps, some one may take it up and marshal these philosophical and emotional elements to launch a new and effective social work movement.
In this regard three modern personalities stand out pre-eminent. Dayananda Saraswathi who established the Arya Samaj in 1875 and Swami Vivekananda who founded the Ramakrishna Mission after his guru in the late nineties were two. The third, Mahatma Gandhi, is unique and is a personality without parallel. Dayananda Saraswathi spoke aggressively against child marriages, untouchability, inferior position accorded to women and several superstitions which had crept into Hindu thought and practices. He wanted the caste system to be run on merit and not on the fact of birth. He declared: “He alone is entitled to be called a man who possesses a thoughtful nature and feels for others in the same way as he does for his own self”. Vivekananda was less aggressive but more persuasive than Dayananda Saraswathi. His heart burnt at the sight of the poor, illiterate and disabled ones in India. His outlook completely illustrates the Hindu view of self-realization through perception of the Lord in everyone, and hence through love and service to every sufferer. Says Vivekananda: “After so much austerity, I have understood this as the real truth: God is present in every jiva (creature); there is no other God besides that, whoever serves jiva (creature) serves God”. The urge to serve humanity is not only based on the perception of God in everyone but also on what we have called “affective affinity”, i.e, emotional identity or empathy. “Feel like Christ”, says Vivekananda, “and you will be a Christ. Feel like Buddha, and you will be a Buddha. It is feeling that is the life, the strength, the vitality, without which no amount of intellectual activity can reach God.” Vivekananda realized that in serving others one becomes pure and gains strength of soul and supreme peace. He says: “even the least work done for others awakens the powers within; even thinking the least good of others gradually instills into the heart the strength of a lion. I love you all ever so much, but I wish you all to die working for others”. He further says: “The watchword of all well-being, of all moral good is not “I” but “thou”. Here is the world and it is full of misery. Go out into it as Buddha did, and struggle to lessen it or die in the attempt.”
Thus, to Vivekananda, social work and service are ways of perceiving God in everyone, a method of loving Him, of purifying, strengthening and realizing oneself. One should not wait till problem affected people come to one. The social worker should seek out suffering people and assist them in whatever way he can. This philosophy of social service as a means to self-realization provides a powerful motive for rendering help to the needy. Whether it can support the practice of help as a profession is doubtful. Professions in which practitioners make their living by alleviating the misery of their clientele have special moral obligations. They are not like barbers, carpenters, prostitutes or even lawyers who are free to set a price on their services. Social workers, like doctors, teachers and priests, are entirely in a different category. The social worker is doing God’s work. His own spiritual development is involved in his work. His work of helping the sufferer is its own reward. This does not mean that social workers should not be paid for their services, or that social work practice should be purely voluntary and free. No, not at all. But in the measure that doctors, teachers, and priests bargain and introduce trade interests in their dealings towards their clientele, in that measure they degrade themselves and their professions.
As mentioned in the beginning, social work as a profession is of recent origin. It grew out of voluntary social service. Voluntary social service has its basis in philosophy and religion. As long as social work could not develop a scientific body of knowledge and tested practices regarding human disabilities and their removal, or their abatement, it could not become a profession. A profession has been defined as “a vocation or occupation requiring advanced education and training, and involving intellectual skills, as medicine, law, theology (?), engineering, teaching, etc.” (Webster’s New World Dictionary). Now, to be practised as a vocation, does social work require advanced education and training? Does the vocation involve intellectual skills? The answers will be in the affirmative.
During the last six or seven decades or more, advances in medicine, sociology, psychology and psychiatry have thrown great light on the working of the human mind and body, on group behaviour and also on all types of pathological phenomena. We are able, in a great measure, to analyse and predict behaviour in various contexts, to discover the etiology of mental, moral and physical disabilities, to establish scientific interpersonal relationships, and to recondition or reshape the environment of the sufferer and evoke required responses. Thus, the diagnosis and therapy of individual and group maladies now constitute a learned and respected body of knowledge. The removal or abatement of these maladies calls for skills of a special nature, as also attitudes and values which must be drawn from our socio-religious system.
Practice of a profession is a scientific art. Practices pertaining to a discipline wait on the theories which have developed that discipline. Theories of mathematics and physics gave rise to engineering practices. Similarly in medicine and psychology, treatment techniques have advanced on the wake of their respective theories. It is also, to some extent, or even to a great extent, true that practices and discovered errors in practices promote theories. Be that as it may, the fact is incontrovertible that theory and practice go hand in hand. They strengthen each other. Practice without theory is blind; theory without practice is lame.
But behind theory and practice there is, or should be philosophy to give tone, tenor and temper to the profession. An understanding of why a man does what he does, or why he practices what he practices is as important as how he does or how he practices. One should clarify to oneself and to others the ultimate purpose of his profession, so that one will not be a blind practitioner nor a professional who is suspect. Let us take the worst instances to bring home the point. A prostitute is within her rights if she says she practices in order to make money, to make as much money as she can, making money alone being her aim, and the rest of the aims, if there are any, being secondary. An actor or a dancer or a boxer may get off by declaring his intention of becoming a multimillionaire through the practice of his profession. The world has recognized the purposes of these and looks on those who do not get rich by their profession as either mediocre or failures. But take a doctor who avows that the purpose of his practice is to obtain from his patients as much money as he can, and to get rich as quickly as he can, making money being his main aim! Even a fool or villain of a doctor will keep such intentions to himself for fearing of drawing public obloquy on himself. The doctor is not permitted to weigh his skill against his patient’s pocket. In other words, it is theoretically unthinkable of a doctor refusing to treat a patient who has no money, though this may be happening around us. The social worker is in a similar situation. The world insists that the social worker and the doctor keep other aims than money as the moving spirit of their professions. As Wadia rightly says: “ The very genesis of the profession of social work implies a spirit of dedication much more perhaps than in any other profession” (Wadia: 13). Money is as much of a social worker’s dilemma as of a doctor’s.
What then should be the moving spirit, the ultimate purpose, the philosophy of social work? Wadia holds that whatever be the field of social work, the main inspiration for it comes from religion (Wadia: 6). But this is half an answer, or an answer that begs the question: What is religion? Religion could be a bundle of superstitions, or blind faith in a set of rituals. If religion has united people, it is equally true that it has separated them sharply to the extent of bringing about fratricidal wars.
On the other hand, social work is the supreme law of moral life which alone gives satisfaction and peace because one finds oneself through social work enlarged into one’s real self. In helping others, we discover our common identity. According to differences in sensitivity some discover this identity more readily and more widely than others. Mahavira, Buddha, Jesus, Florence Nightingale, Dr. Schweitzer, Mahatma Gandhi and such other-regarding souls were those of developed sensitivity and universal perception. They found their own rest and realization in healing the wounds of others’ souls and bodies. They gave counsel and courage to failing hearts. They worked with the lowly, justifying the ways of God to man. In their lives was the teaching of Yajnavalkya illustrated: “Maitreyi, not in the wealth of the world is there any hope of attaining the bliss of immortality” (Amritatvasya naasasti vittena).
Helen Bosanquet and Mary Richmond approach the same philosophy when they imply that man’s mind is roughly the sum of his experiences; and his experiences compose his ever-enlarging relations with all those he works in the world. In other words, according to them, man’s soul is the personalized complex of his interpersonal relationships. As he extends these relationships in a loving and helpful way, his soul becomes richer. Society and the individual thus progress together, assisting mutually. Writes Helen Bosanquet (quoted by Mary Richmond: 368) : “The soul literally is, or is built up of all its experience, and such part of this experience, or soul life, as is active at any given time or for any given purpose constitutes the self at that time and for that purpose. We know how the self enlarges and expands as we enter upon new duties, acquire new interests, contact new ties of friendship; we know how it is mutilated when some sphere of activity is cut off, or some near friend snatched away by death. It is literally, and not metaphorically, a part of ourselves which we have lost”. It is an excellent and inspiring idea that the soul expands or self enlarges as we enter upon new duties and acquire new interests. Social work provides such new duties and worth while interests. As a self (soul)-expanding process, the dynamics of social work offer an acceptable and rational philosophy. But the defect in Bosanquet’s thought is that she holds that the self or the soul is mutilated when some sphere of activity is cut off, or some near friend is snatched away by death. It is literally, she says, and not metaphorically, a part of ourselves which we have lost. This should not be the case. For, if we feel or allow a part of ourselves to be lost, we ourselves become problems. In the natural course of our career on earth, it is inevitable that some of our activities are cut off, and some of our friends fall off. The self, which acquires an attitude or a way of life or a character by its other-regarding virtues and works, will always be self-filling and self-recovering. Good becomes the soul’s constitutional property, i.e., dharma, even as the property or dharma of air is to blow and dry, of fire to burn, of water to wet, etc. The interfering factors like passions, fear, selfishness, covetousness, etc. hinder the soul from exercising the functions of its property (dharma), as the interfering presence of water in anything prevents fire from burning and the presence of oil hinders water from wetting. Once hindrances are removed, the laws of property or dharma function to fulfil themselves. And man’s fulfillment consists in letting dharma fulfil itself through him ( Satya meva jayate). Dharma protects one who protects dharma (Dharmo rakshati rakshitah). It is within the experience of all that in good works and in achieving anything worthwhile, we have the inflow of universal energy. Ours is the victory to the extent we work with the Law. If we fail, we fail the Law. We win, for the Law wins. As the Gita declares, he (God) is working for the good of all. He alone has that universal vision. He works through all, small and great. It is His nature or Dharma so to work. If He does not work so, the universe would fall to pieces. We should identify our natures with His nature, have faith, strengthen ourselves, respect and regard, and assist one another, and function always for the best good of all. In this way we attune our natures (properties), i.e., dharmas, to His dharma or nature (Mama sadharmya magatah). There is no other way of self-realization except by identifying our interests with the interests of others.
Whatever may be the line of development followed by professional social work in the West, we in current context in India cannot ignore the ethical content and spirit of social work profession. Social work here has special responsibilities, duties and demands. The disabled clientele are mostly impecunious. The problems are vast and multifarious. They are for too long crying for amelioration. Private institutions organised for rendering help of any kind are few; and these few are in precarious financial position. The average citizen in India is himself trying to keep the wolf from the door. Moreover, he has not yet realized the advantage of mediating help through organized agencies.
In the existing milieu, Mahatma Gandhi rightly stressed, as did Swami Vivekananda before him, that social workers should go to the problem-affected people instead of the problem-affected people coming to the social workers. He declared that those with social, monetary, physical and intellectual advantages are trustees to the less advantaged. It is the moral duty of the former to use their advantages to the benefit of the disadvantaged. Else, the poor, disabled, exploited and neglected ones would rise in tremendous fury, as they did elsewhere, and wreck the nation. Voluntary and kindly help would create a moral link between the strong and the weak. Help rendered in love, in a spirit of humility, in a gesture of trusteeship will transfigure the help recipient into a loving citizen and an amiable, fast friend. According to Mahatma Gandhi, the nature and character of the means adopted always impart their own nature and character to the ends. That is, ends and means do not vary in nature. As the means, so the ends. That is why Gandhiji did not want to win freedom for India through violence. He felt that the use of violence would lead in the process to the formation of violent characters, an end he dreaded and avoided. Non-violence in thought, word and deed was his creed. These thoughts and feelings assumed structural form in what Gandhiji called trusteeship and sarvodaya.
By bringing in his trusteeship theory of individual and social help, Mahatma Gandhi gave a new dimension to the philosophy of social work. His idea has received a new expanse and adaptation in the concept of sarvodaya so passionately propounded by Jayaprakash Narayan and Vinoba Bhave. What is Gandhiji’s theory of trusteeship? Is it relevant to social work?
It should be remembered that very early in his life Gandhiji was moved by stories of self-sacrifice for others’ good, found in the Ramayana and in the Mahabharata. He grew in the orthodox traditions of a Vaishnavite family, and in the general social environment in which the Jain practices of non- violence predominated. As he grew, the thoughts of world’s great men influenced him greatly. He was impressed with John Ruskin’s teachings that the good of the individual is contained in the good of all; that a life of labour, that is, the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman is the life worth living. Gandhiji made an intensive study of Count Leo Tolstoy’s books and realized “more and more the infinite possibilities of universal love”. Also, the total self-reliant way of living of H.D.Thoreau, and the social co-operative theories of Prince Kropotkin attracted him. He spent days meditating on the transcendental teachings of the Bhagavadgita, especially the one propounding the imperative need for one to lead a life of self-poise and self-possession; and that the bliss of self-realization is in working for the social good of all (Lokasangrahamevapi sampasyankartumarharsi). Further, Gandhiji got deeply inspired by the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ life of utter self-abnegation and cheerful suffering for the well-being of others. The great Gujarati poet Narasimh Mehta had sung: “I call him a Vaishnava who knows the sufferings of others (Vaishnavo janato tane kahiye …). Gandhiji made this song his clarion call for social service.
Stirred by these noble thoughts and practices of ancient and contemporary personalities, Gandhiji first tried to illustrate or live them in his own life. He joined the Red Cross to help the wounded in the Boer war. He gave up his insurance policy by arguing with himself: “In getting my life insured I had robbed my wife and children of their self-reliance”. He nursed patients affected with plague and leprosy. He decided to be thoroughly self-reliant, shaving his own head, spinning the yarn for his clothing, stitching his own shirt, making his own sandals, etc. for practice in the dignity of labour. He even cleaned lavatories. He made his life and living as open and as simple as possible.
Thus Mahatma Gandhi, in the first instance, internalized or personalized the discipline for social service and work, so much that service became a way of life with him. And when Gandhiji came on the political and social scene, India had already an experience of nearly a century and a half of British rule and domination. Problems of gigantic dimensions stared him at the face, challenging confrontation, let alone solution. Absolute poverty was everywhere. Illiteracy was universal. Villages, the backbone of Indian culture and economy, were decaying with their occupational and social base being broken. Urbanization was increasing with slums and squalor as its chief features. Competitive outlook and materialistic values were taking possession of the citizen’s mind. Co-operative spirit and other-regarding virtues were on their last legs. Untouchability, unemployment, communal differences and aimless education were destroying the fabric of Indian society. So Gandhiji felt and saw that under a century and a half of British rule in India, the old order was changing without yielding place to anything new and worthwhile. He held the view that the British rule over India should end and Indians should take over the reigns of government. Since the British were not willing to oblige by withdrawing, he launched the satyagraha movement by gathering together all the available nationalist forces.
Gandhiji’s belief was that only a morally disciplined force could successfully confront a tyrant. If Indians had run their own government, they should first oust the powerful Britain, powerful in the military and technical sense. The only power that could be built up amongst the Indians could be moral or spiritual power which would be superior to any other power. This spiritual power could be built up only by first cleansing India of her many social corruptions, and by removing her weakening problems. A morally feeble and disunited people cannot put up a fight against the British and win freedom, much less use the freedom usefully when that was won. Gandhiji was of the firm view that to be morally strong, a person should be as self-reliant as he can. The more a person increases his wants, the more dependent he will become, with the further possibility of exploiting others. Self dependence will be rendered easier by one leading a simple life, reducing unnecessary wants. A simplified tenor of life can be easily sustained by an accessible occupation, which, in the Indian set up, could be hand spinning, hand weaving, and such other domestic handicrafts known to us. To impress these truths by example rather than by precept, Gandhiji reduced his own wants, and took to spinning and tried his hand at other crafts. With the same view, he planned a basic education in which, from its primary stages, a child could be introduced to useful crafts. Indeed he made spinning an article of discipline for those volunteers who offered to oppose and resist the British rule. He made the weaving of Khaddar an outward symbol of patriotism; and this also helped to make a living for the artisans who spun and wove cloth in their village homes. Also, in the revival of village industries he saw the possibility of making villages self-sufficient and this was a necessity for making India strong, since India lived in villages. A self-sufficient rural economy would further stem the flow of population to the cities and towns. Gandhiji went from village to village calling upon the people to be self-reliant vocationally, keep villages clean, relearn the co-operative way of life, and be united and be morally strong. The problems of untouchability, Hindu-Muslim differences and mass illiteracy confronted him as great hurdles. He personally stayed and lived amongst “untouchables”, calling them “Harijans” (children of God). He dressed, moved, ate and slept as the simplest amongst them would do. He taught simple personal and social hygienic methods of living. He called upon the urban educated youth to go to the villages and teach the Harijans and the other neglected ones what they needed, living and working with them. He organized asramas wherein he trained volunteers for social service, and for peaceful social revolution so that the trained volunteers in turn could become teachers of such volunteers. Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan are model examples of such ones trained by Mahatma Gandhi. Amongst several others who got similarly trained were rural and urban youth, lawyers, teachers, trade union leaders, Muslim leaders, pressmen, Harijans, and indeed, those men and women including some foreigners who were fired and inspired by the new Gandhian spirit of participating in a non-violent total social revolution which would confront the mighty British administration for ushering in a new era of new freedom in which all would be brothers.
In this way Mahatma Gandhi marshalled ideas, human energies and resources of the community to cleanse the Indian nation of its evils, and to make it a nation of spiritually strong, self-reliant and integrated people. For this end he used case work, group work, community organization and social action very scientifically, methodically and effectively. His experiments with social action illustrated in his call for boycott of foreign goods, in his no tax campaign, in his Dandi March of Salt Satyagraha, in ‘Quit India’ movement and in others were so successful and spectacular that one is apt to overlook his other contributions of interpersonal and group nature in his serene asramas of Wardha and Sabarmati. No doubt Gandhiji was a master of social action. But he was no less, in his own way, a master of other methods. We find his enabling touch in his work with disabled persons as well as in his work with groups and communities. The lowly in society, the feeble in spirit, and the weak in body, through association with him, were enabled to be ennobled.
Since Gandhiji’s social work and social service programmes got keyed to political overtones, one is led to overlook his philosophy of action, contained in his social theory of trusteeship. His trusteeship theory, relevant for us, is briefly this. Society is composed of people who show differences in wealth, mental, moral and physical health, intelligence, knowledge and learning, tact, skill and so on. Those who possess these in greater measure are more advantageously placed in society than those who do not possess these, or than those who possess these in a lesser measure. The advantages a person possesses are derived from society to a great extent though heredity, opportunities, friends and fortune undoubtedly play their part. However, if those with greater advantage engage in competition with less advantaged for the things of this life, the latter will be crushed and they can never come up. Moreover, it is neither chivalrous nor moral for the strong to compete with the weak. In such struggles, the strong even if they succeed in winning worldly goods will become weak morally. On the other hand, if the strong compete with the strong, one party or the other is bound to lose, being pushed to the wall. Such competition, whether between the strong and the weak, or between the strong and the strong, will only lead to bitterness, bad relations, jealousies, unbalanced riches and poverty, social strife and disintegration. On the other hand, willing and intelligent co-operation between all sections of the people should lead to greater harmony, greater wealth, and greater progress. Co-operation is the only moral way to sure and safe progress. A people whose lives are based on co-operative relations will prosper. Indeed, co-operation is the law of prosperity.
Viewed from another angle, those who have greater advantage in position, power and possessions have moral duties in relation to the less advantaged. They hold their advantages in trust. Every one who has greater wealth should use it for the betterment of those who are poor. He who has greater knowledge should impart it to the ignorant. The strong should make the weak strong. In every sphere of life the able ones should enable the disabled. This trusteeship concept is not a legally enforceable law, which when enforced leaves the residue of personal acerbities. It is an imperative moral law which prospers the trustee and his charge, establishing both in sweet relationships. It is twice blessed. He who has more of anything should use it for social advantage. He has no right to withhold the surplus for his own unnecessary uses or for wasteful purposes while the people around him are in want. How can one be happy while others around him are in misery? Let him experience greater joy by spreading joy. According to Mahatma Gandhi the first charge on one’s possessions is others’ wants. ‘Was I to give up all I had and follow Him?” questions Gandhiji and replies, “Straight came the answer: I could not follow Him unless I gave up all I had….I understood more clearly in the light of the Gita teaching the implication of the word ‘trustee’. My regard for jurisprudence increased, I discovered in it religion. I understood the Gita teaching of non-possession”. It is clear from this statement that Gandhiji does not make any compromises with his theory of trusteeship. His trusteeship implies a complete change of heart and attitude. It means love. To him, love alone can establish equality. Possessions should not divide men, but should unite them. The only way that possessions can unite men is by the practice of trusteeship. Every advantage a person has puts him in a position of a trustee. He justifies this trust by using his advantage to the benefit of the disadvantaged.
Gandhiji’s theory of sarvodaya is an extension of this concept of trusteeship. The word sarvodaya can be understood in two senses. Udaya means progress or rise, sarva means all, that is total. Sarvodaya is total progress of an individual; and also all round progress or prosperity of all, that is of individual and society. And individual’s well-being does not consist in his partial development of one aspect of his personality only. Well-being should be a total concept of physical and mental needs in order that he may develop to integrate his physical, mental and spiritual health. We should help a person to integrate his physical and mental needs in order that he may develop a wholesome personality. It is not adequate to provide charity of one type to answer one or other need of a disadvantaged person. Man lives not by bread alone. He not only needs clothing and shelter, but he needs friendship, love and co-operative companionship (satsangatya), where he will enjoy samabhava, that is equality and freedom. So, the object of social work or service is to provide complete opportunity to a person to develop his complete personality – physical, mental and spiritual.
But sarvodaya also means the full development or prosperity of all. As long as man lives in society, he cannot develop to the full, if society does not provide him with full opportunities. To the extent society permits him to develop, to that extent he develops. And the prosperity of society depends on the prosperity of individuals who separately and together constitute society. No society can be better than its constituent members, while it is possible for some members to be better than their society; but then they have the obligation to improve their society. The obligations of a given society and its members are mutual. One who is progressive should contribute to making the society progressive.
In India there are more than five hundred thousand villages, some small and some big. As pointed out earlier, villages form the backbone of Indian culture and civilization. Together, they compose the real Indian society. Now, sarvodaya is a method and ideology of reconstructed society, a great society whose constituent elements are all the village societies or communities.
According to the sarvodaya plan outlined by Mahatma Gandhi, and later emphasized by Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan, every village community should be self-reliant in regard to primary necessities. This will be possible when every employable person in the village finds gainful work. At present we find large numbers of employable people either unemployed or underemployed, with some others who are unemployable on account of personal or other disabilities. This situation is not only demoralizing the individuals, but is weakening the village societies. Therefore, we should set about providing work to every employable person in the village so that he may be enabled to earn his living. Those who have surplus lands should donate them to those who are landless. This will bring about proper and equitable land distribution. Land distribution cannot be effectively done through legislation or through forcible seizure, for all violent and third degree methods would lead to unfriendly relations. The best method of land distribution is by way of voluntary donations of land to the poor landless by rich landlords, and those who have more lands. Voluntary donations of land (bhudan) would lead to moral development and strength on the part of the donor, and to love and friendly relations on the part of the receiver of land. Later if all those, who thus receive land, unite and co-operatively carry on agricultural operations, the process of co-operative working would build morally strong personalities, self-reliant and conscious of their social obligations. Land is not the only article which could be donated to the needy of the villages. Money and other forms of capital, skills, knowledge, goodwill and indeed, all those concrete and abstract items, which are helpful to the disadvantaged to live well in society, could also be put at their service. Thus the literate should use their leisure to teach the illiterate. The leisure and knowledge of the well-to-do in our villages and neighbouring regions are kept in idleness and wasted. They could be utilized in hundreds of ways to render the lives of our more disadvantaged brothers more worthwhile. This is what is called sampattidan, the donation of wealth, wealth in the form of not only money, but knowledge, leisure, skill, advice, etc. The message of Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan in this regard is that every form of interpersonal relations between individuals in villages should be brought about in such a way that every person’s life would, as a consequence, be enriched and ennobled. Once economic self-reliance is brought about amongst individuals and groups, they will be easily enabled to wield political power. For, economically self-reliant persons alone can hope to exercise independent political judgement.
Self-reliant village communities do not mean the existence of isolated rural units. Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan visualize interdependence of groups or villages or communities. But their interdependence should not be of the nature now existing between our towns and cities on the one side and the villages on the other, the latter being ruthlessly exploited by the former. Currently, the interdependence is between the strong and the weak, leading to the demoralization of both. The interdependence should be between groups which are equal and equally strong. If the total social service scheme of sarvodaya is implemented, each area, district or region will be self-sufficient and strong. The people in each region will be educated, clean, healthy and gainfully employed. They will be mutually helpful when help is needed. Co-operation will replace cunningness and competition. There will be exploitation, not of man but of natural resources. There will be labour, but labour of love, freedom with restraint, advantages with obligations, and interdependence with self-dependence. Sarvodaya will be realized when each works for the good of all, and work for all the good of each. Sarvodaya is total revolution of the individual operationg for the total revolution of the Indian society through total revolution of India’s small communities. Gandhiji, Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan call for harnessing janasakti, that is energy synergized for the telic and syntelic realization of sarvodaya, the development of all.
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