Devout Durga Maharaj

Swami Umeshanandaji Maharaj
Swami Umeshanandaji Maharaj

The day of 7th may reminds me of the departure from this world, a devout venerable monk of our Order, Swami Umeshanandaji Maharaj. During my 12 year-stay at the Ranchi Sanatorium centre, I had the privilege of having his wonderful company for a little more than 11 years. Holy men come in different hues and Umeshanandaji was unique in his own way.

Smiling always, bringing cheers to every heavy-hearted soul, Swami Umeshanandaji dedicated his life for the service of TB patients since 1962. He was popularly called Durga Maharaj. He was born in a place near Mangalore of Karnataka State on 20th February 1923.

He left Indian Army service and joined the Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math. He was given mantra diksha by the sixth President of the Ramakrishna Order, Srimat Swami Virajanandaji Maharaj. Later in 1959 he was initiated into Sannyasa by the seventh President Srimat Swami Shankaranandaji Maharaj.

It is said that Swami Shaswatanandaji Maharaj, the then Assistant Secretary of Belur Math told Durga Maharaj in 1962 “to go to Ranchi and serve the poor tribals and suffering TB patients and die there in harness”. During his long forty-four years of extraordinary service, Durga Maharaj never went outside. He was fully engrossed in the patient matters like admission of patients, preparation of patient files, making ready discharge certificates etc. He knew every patient by his name and address.

Straight forward and simple, Durga Maharaj was indeed highly popular among the local Adivasi (tribal) public. No one would forget to meet this smiling Swami and make pranams to him. His admirers are now spread all over the country who would feel blessed to take his name in the very morning.

The mortal coil of Swami Umeshanandaji Maharaj readied on the pyre
The mortal coil of Swami Umeshanandaji Maharaj readied on the pyre

He was 84 when he breathed his last, after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease with old age ailments for a few months. Swami Satyeshananda, the ‘doctor maharaj’ informed me of the final end and we, all the monks, devotees, staff and others immediately rushed to his room. His mortal coil was consigned to flames the next day at 9 in the morning. The final rites were performed at “Panchavati” within the Sanatorium campus. On this solemn occasion, Sannyasins and Brahmacharins of Morabadi Ashrama and Sanatorium, Swamijis of Tupudana Advait Swarup Ashram, devotees from Ranchi and local adivasi admirers along with employees of the Sanatorium were present in good number.

As per our monastic tradition, on the 13th day of death, a ‘special worship’ of Sri Ramakrishna is done in the temple and a ‘saadhu bhandaaraa’ would form a special feature. And on that day i.e., Friday, 19th May, prasad feeding to all in-patients, employees and devotees was arranged at Sanatorium Ashrama premises in honour of the departed soul. A Smritisabha (memorial meeting) was also conducted preceding the Bhandara. That Sadhus from Bihar and Jharkhand branch centres of Ramakrishna Mission and also of the other outside organisations with a huge number of devotees attended the Bhandara was a memorable experience.

During my Address in the Memorial Meeting, I narrated how wonderful the Life of this monk was and we always rejoice when a monk leaves his body and do not weep over his passing away. As Tulasidas says in his Hanuman chalisa “antakaala raghuvarapura jaayi, jahaan janma hari bhakta kahaayi” (after death he enters the eternal abode of Sri Rama and remains a devotee of Him, whenever, taking a new birth on earth), we also believe that Durga Maharaj has gone to the Ramakrishnapura, the eternal abode of Sri Ramakrishna.

It was on the birthday of his Guru, Swami Virajanandaji Maharaj,(he was a disciple of Holy Mother; a historic audio recording of his Voice is available here) in the last year, I had to deliver a Talk here in South Africa to the devotees of Durban Central Satsang group. My mind naturally, while talking about the Founder of South African Centre Swami Nischalananda, who was also a disciple of Swami Virajanandaji – reverted towards this devout Durga maharaj  and spoke at length my ennobling association with him.

Knowing that Durga Maharaj, in his pre-monastic life, was a Muslim, I naturally could not contain my curiosity and enquired how, he could join this Hindu Order of Monks. He would, always in an forthright manner, say in his loud, sterling voice that it was all due to his Guru’s grace. He had unshakable faith in the Master’s presence. His forthright walking with a shoulderbag consisting of Office keys and in left hand, a lantern became an icon to all patients. One could feel the stillness of the soul when he would sit on the bench outside the parlour room and bless whoever came and touched his feet in obeisance, those unforgettable words of blessings “jeete raho” (may you live long!).

There was never a curse, nor an indignant expression but there was always that charming childlike simplicity with overwhelming concern and affection. Unknown to the outer world, such holy men go finally unsung but unknowingly, many a heart is filled, unseen and unheard, with the fragrance of unbounded love.  

Well, the impression that he created in my mind is well imprinted and I pay homage to this great monk.

Aiding the AIDS campaign

Today is World AIDS Day!

A terminally-ill patient
A terminally-ill patient in SA

I was pleasantly surprised when I received the communication from the Blogcatalog requesting all bloggers to Unite in the campaign against spread of HIV/AIDS. Yes, thats a wonderful idea as today the thinking people all over the world are seized of this killer scourge problem and are trying to widely broadcast the campaign so that it reaches the most affected.

When I was actively serving the Tuberculosis patients in Ranchi TB Sanatorium, the then Doctor Maharaj of the Sanatorium – Swami Satyeshananda – used to impress upon me on how the TB had become intimately related to the HIV infections (while unfortunately the official circles would try to underplay the statistics). I realised the inter-connexion well when I came to South Africa last year and started associating with the welfare activities here, pioneered by a monastic brother Swami Saradananda who has been relentless in conceiving and executing suitable programmes for amelioration especially of the HIV/Aids infected patients in the KwaZulu Natal province which is said to have the highest incidence in this country. 

There are an estimated 33 million people with AIDS worldwide. It affects every country, city, and town in the world. And, the most frightening thing about it is that is going largely unchecked. In fact, that is one of the reason that worldaidscampaign.org is continuing its “leadership” theme, which it developed after learning that many leaders who promised to support AIDS were not keeping their promises. 

What’s the position in South Africa especially of the AIDS affected children?

Ekusizaneni Children's Home, in K Section, Kwa Mashu
Ekusizaneni Children

As per AVERT an international HIV and Aids Charity, having projects in countries where there is a particularly high rate of infection, such as sub-Saharan Africa, or where there is a rapidly increasing rate of infection such as in India, the UNAIDS estimated that there were 1.4 million South African children orphaned by AIDS in 2007, compared to 780,000 in 2003. I am quoting from AVERT:

With many women who are HIV-positive still not receiving drugs that could prevent them passing HIV to their babies, HIV infections are alarmingly common amongst children in South Africa. According to UNAIDS, there were around 280,000 children aged below 15 living with HIV in South Africa in 2007.

Children who are living with HIV are highly vulnerable to illness and death unless they are provided with paediatric antiretroviral treatment. Unfortunately there is still a shortage of such treatment in South Africa. The AIDS Law Project, an NGO based in Johannesburg, estimated that 50,000 children in South Africa were in need of antiretroviral drugs at the beginning of 2006, but that only around 10,000 were receiving them. UNAIDS estimates that at the end of 2005, children accounted for 8% of those receiving antiretroviral drugs in South Africa.

As well as many children being infected with HIV in South Africa, many more are suffering from the loss of their parents and family members from AIDS. Once orphaned, these children are more likely to face poverty, poor health and a lack of access to education.

How our Centre in South Africa stepped in…?

Swami Saradananda of SA, a dynamic monk for social change
Swami Saradananda of SA, a dynamic monk for social change

During the 1980’s and early nineties prior to the first, free democratic elections in South Africa, violence in the Kwa Mashu area was at its peak. This resulted in many killings and deaths of parents leaving behind orphaned children. In addition, there were also many orphans due to their parents dying of HIV/Aids and children infected by HIV/Aids.

The Ramakrishna Centre, here under the able leadership of Swami Saradananda mobilised its resources and engaged with Mrs BF Mhlongo from the Ekusizaneni Children’s Home, in K Section, Kwa Mashu to be of some assistance. At that time they had make-shift wooden cabins that were used for the children and during inclement weather posed many problems for them. The Centre immediately saw the need for good, secure and comfortable accommodation for these children and began a project to build two dormitories for boys and girls. 

These dormitories were built and furnished with double bunk beds and handed over to the local committee in 2001, by the kind assistance of our donors and well-wishers. According to Prof Vinod Jogessar, the Chairperson of the Centre’s Health Wing Ramakrishna Clinic, “On  the opening day, 5 patients were admitted.. These patients were in wheel chairs; emaciated, frail, weak and unable to walk. Just being put into comfortable beds with clean sheets and caring nursing staff was something they had not experienced before. The joy expressed on the faces of these patients is indescribable. Some weeks later, two of these patients walked out of the hospice on discharge. Doctors of the Ramakrishna Clinic conduct weekly medical rounds and also provide fresh vegetables and other provisions on a weekly basis. Good nutrition is an important aspect in  the management of patients with AIDS. The medical doctors feel privileged to be able to serve the needy and regard service to man as  worship of God.” 

And for the terminally-ill patients…

Ms N Ngubane, Councillor Mr L Naidoo (Deputy Mayor eThekwini Municipality, KZN), Pastor B A Sibisi (Chairperson, Ramakrishna Abalindi Home), the Hon. Dr Z L Mkhize (Minister for Finance and Economic Development, KZN), Caregiver, Adv H Kessie Naidu SC, Mr P Ishwarlaal and Prof V B Jogessar
From left: Ms N Ngubane, Councillor Mr L Naidoo (Deputy Mayor eThekwini Municipality, KZN), Pastor B A Sibisi (Chairperson, Ramakrishna Abalindi Home), the Hon. Dr Z L Mkhize (Minister for Finance and Economic Development, KZN), Caregiver, Adv H Kessie Naidu SC, Mr P Ishwarlaal (Chairperson of Ramakrishna Centre of SA) and Prof V B Jogessar (Chairperson of Ramakrishna Clinic)

Recently the Centre took up providing indoor facility to terminally-ill patients. On 6 August 2008, the Ramakrishna Abalindi Home (Inanda) was declared open by the Hon. Dr Z L Mkhize (Minister for Finance and Economic Development, KwaZulu-Natal). This facility was built by the Ramakrishna Centre of South Africa and handed over on that day to the office-bearers of the Home. The Home, intended for terminally-ill patients, comprises three sections of 45 beds, made up of three wards (15 beds for males, 15 beds for females, 10 beds for children and 5 beds for mothers wanting to stay with their children), offices, stock rooms, ablutions facilities etc. The Home will provide a much needed facility for HIV-AIDS and cancer patients in the area.

eThembeni Home for Terminally ill patients - Female ward
eThembeni Home for Terminally ill patients - Female ward

This is the second Home that the Centre has constructed for terminally-ill patients, the previous one being a 30-bed facility in Kwa Mashu. Minister Mkhize pointed out that the facility was not only a healthcare Home but also a symbol of integrated effort between Indians and Africans that promoted inter-racial, inter-religious and inter-linguistic understanding.