Dialogue  April-June, 2006, Volume 7  No. 4

The Role of Voluntary Social Work in India

Natwar Thakkar

In Indian culture, renunciation and charity are two highly venerated values of life. We also find that the Rishis were put on the highest pedestal in ancient times. Rishis lived in forests away from major settlements and engaged themselves in penance, in training disciples in various walks of life and devoting time in meditation and spiritual pursuits. We also come across descriptions in epics that whenever a Rishi visited the court of a king, the king used to vacate his throne to receive the sage and make him sit on his throne. The king then used to sit at the feet of the seer and seek blessings and guidance for the smooth and benevolent conduct of the affairs of the state. It appears that these sages and seers exercised a moral restraint on state power. The king also received the feedback from them about how well his subjects were faring in his kingdom. This shows that renunciates enjoyed a very high status in society. In other words, the virtue of renunciation was important and not the acquisition of wealth or power.

Indian culture also placed great emphasis on charity. Every individual or householder was expected to help the needy and the suffering. Even during the modern time, erecting drinking water platforms and feeding the hungry is practiced in may parts of the country. Construction of temples, dharmashalas, anna-satras (centres to serve food free of cost) were some manifestations of charity. Even during the British era and with the advent of modern education, donating wealth for construction of schools and colleges was also practiced. Similarly, the hospitals were also constructed by donations and some of them were run as purely charitable bodies providing treatment free of cost. Such hospitals are found to function even today in our country.

During the British regime, many Christian missionaries came to work in India. The primary objective of these missionary organizations was, of course, to spread Christianity. But at the same time they undertook various activities like medical relief and running schools. The missionary organizations were well managed and efficiently conducted; they were treated as models to follow. In Spite of the fact that charity and renunciation were placed on a high pedestal in Indian culture, no cadre of workers mainly committed to social service was created till Swami Vivekananda emerged on the Indian scene. He could observe that the bulk of the Indian masses was deprived of even the basic amenities of life. Poverty, disease, and ignorance were widely prevalent. He could see that spiritual development can be brought about only after basic requirements for human existence are adequately met. This led him and his colleagues to give birth to a new order of renunciate social workers and it was named as the Ramakrishna Mission. Ramakrishna Mission has been instrumental in running efficiently a number of service organizations of high quality. Valuable services in the field of education, health, relief in the face of natural disasters and similar other spheres were conducted in the past and they are being conducted even today in various parts of the country. It is also noteworthy that Ramakrishna Mission is also running various centres of service and spiritual pursuits in many parts of the North-east India. The nation will justifiably look forward to continued and dedicated services from this order in days to come. Swami Vivekananda’s interpretation of service to man is beautifully expressed in the following quotation:

“God is everywhere.

He sleeps in stones,

awakes in plants and

speaks only in man.

Service to man, therefore,

is the highest worship of God.”

Other organizations/Hindu sects running social service activities include the Arya Samaj and the Swami Narayana sect, which originated in Gujarat, and other similar bodies.

The unique leadership of Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom struggle was instrumental to a large extent creating greater awareness about the role of voluntary or selfless service. He laid great emphasis on the role of voluntary social workers in nation building. This significant aspect of Gandhiji’s leadership has not been fully understood by many. Apart from the struggles conducted in a non-violent manner, he also had the ambition of reconstructing Indian society on spiritual foundations. Mahatma Gandhi is often described as a leader who attempted to spiritualize politics. However, a careful study of his life and work will show that he wanted to spiritualize not only politics but every walk of life. On one hand, he led the nation in agitational programmes or Satyagrahas one after the other, on the other he motivated many to simultaneously join hands in nation building programmes. This was by way of generating awareness in the nation that we have to be self-reliant in rebuilding the nation. He also appealed to the youth in the country to take to the life of voluntary service; and dedicate themselves in nationbuilding programmes. He wanted a large band of voluntary social activists to take up different activities related to removal of poverty, social inequality, disease and ignorance.

Mahatma Gandhi had prepared a blueprint of a plan of national reconstruction. He named it as ‘constructive programme’. There were 18 items in this programme such as removal of untouchability, welfare of tribal communities, promoting production through Khadi and Village industries, prohibition of alcohol, spread of Hindi and several others. He firmly believed and explained that by implementing all the items of ‘constructive work programme’, it will be possible to evolve a new India. He therefore appealed to the youth to come forward and work as full time voluntary servants of the people.

Responding to Gandhiji’s appeal, many idealist youths came forward and took up one or more items of ‘constructive work programme’. Many voluntary organizations came into being in different parts of the country mainly engaged in production of khadi and village industries. It played an important role in development of rural population. Through these progarmmes, Gandhiji explained that rendering service merely in relief related activities was not adequate. For the first time, he educated the people that social service should primarily aim at socio-economic development and in promoting higher values of life. It will be seen that it was mainly due to Gandhiji’s leadership and teachings that voluntarism and voluntary social service took roots in our country and is now recognized as a vital instrument of generating moral climate and of promoting overall well-being of the community.

It is generally believed that there are four pillars of democracy– Parliament, Executive, Free Judiciary and Free Press. But experience has shown that voluntarism and voluntary action is the fifth pillar of democracy! If we have a network of voluntary organizations conducted by dedicated selfless individuals, they could be not only the centres of socio-economic service but they can function as educators and conscience-keepers. Such workers according to Gandhian norms have to refrain from pursuit of wealth as well as power. Such devoted, selfless individuals and their functioning can act as effective moral constraint and wield healthy influence on the state power. The task of conscience-keeping is also expected to be performed by a free and unbiased press, but it is now realized that that is not enough. The band of selfless workers ought to emerge as moral influence and conscience keepers. That alone can maintain the health of the state and democracy.

There is one more aspect which needs to be understood. In a more conscientious and healthy society, the power of the state should be reduced to a minimum. The state should evolve itself more as a facilitator and coordinator. In the ideal state of Gandhian vision, decentralization of power by promoting self-reliant, self-governing village units is essential to build non-exploitative, peaceful and progressive society. Once the importance of this goal is realized, the role of voluntary organizations will be better understood and gain more importance. Voluntary organizations and their workers ought to promote self-reliance in all walks of life, decrease dependence on the state and continuously promote higher values of life.

To conclude, let me repeat that the existence and functioning of voluntary organizations conducted by selfless, enlightened individuals are most essential for the well-being and enlightened existence of a society and of democracy.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati