Although some temples in Vrindavan see the presence of poor, hungry children as a burden and a problem to be chased away, ISKCON’s Founder-Acharya A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada saw the call to take care of them as a duty and an opportunity to make spiritual advancement. “Generally people make a plea that why are there so many hungry and naked,” he wrote in a famously quoted 1972 letter. “So we invite all hungry and naked people to come to us and we will give them food and clothing and Krishna consciousness as well.” Prabhupada knew that if ISKCON devotees undertook such humanitarian efforts, it would bear fruit aside from the inherent merits of helping others. In the same letter, he wrote: “This will enhance our prestige and will accelerate our spiritual life as well.”
Food for Life Vrindavan (FFLV), a registered charity with the Indian Government with affiliated charities around the world, might have made that 1972 letter its mission statement. Since 1990, FFLV has been laboring to serve “the poorest of the poor” in the North Indian pilgrimage center (dhama) that is renowned as the childhood place of Lord Krishna Himself.
In 2006, FFLV distributed over half a million plates of nutritious prasadam (sanctified vegetarian meals) to the people of Vrindavan and surrounding villages. What many devotees may not realize, however, is that there is much more to FFLV than feeding the poor.
In the same year, over 50,000 villagers received free medical treatment thanks to the FFLV Medical team that travels daily to villages in Vrindavan. More than 16 villages participated in a range of Social Development projects promoting legal awareness, the proper treatment of women and adult education. The number of community self-help groups (creating co-managed financial independence) increased by 19 to a total of 60. Over 150 women participated in vocational education – tailoring and dress-making courses, in this case – to help them generate much needed family income. Two schools and three villages had fresh water wells, water tanks, bores or hand pumps installed, greatly reducing the risk of catching water borne infectious diseases. Over 100 local people are employed at FFLV, and 15 of these are employed solely by Project Varaha, the daily cleaning of the holy parikrama-marg (circumambulation path) of Vrindavan.
|By far the biggest achievement for FFLV in 2006 was the inauguration of the Sandipani Muni Secondary School, a natural progression from the Sandipani Muni Primary School which FFLV started in a small house in 2001. The goal of both schools is to provide free education for the local children whose families are too poor to afford school fees. Seeing the enthusiastic response from the children, local families, and sponsors, in 2002 FFLV constructed the present Sandipani Muni Primary School facility to accommodate the more than 850 students currently studying in grades one to seven.|
FFLV soon embarked on the task of building a high school, for grades 8 to 12, to ensure each child had the best chance of completing their education and finding stable employment after finishing primary school. When the high school opened in Kartik 2006, a number of dignitaries including ISKCON leader Radha-Govinda Swami, Padmanabha Goswami of the Radharamana temple, and a number of prominent local politicians attended the grand one-week festival. FFLV also received a letter of congratulations and encouragement from Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the Vice-President of India.
FFLV has successfully initiated, funded, coordinated and maintained all of these programs. What has made this all possible? While the inspiration of Srila Prabhupada, and the enthusiasm and generosity of devotees and donors from around the world, certainly have much to do with it, the undeniable secret of FFLV’s success is the dedication and unwavering commitment of its executive director, Rupa Raghunath Dasa. Almost single-handedly, Rupa built FFLV from a small prasadam distribution program to the dynamic force it is today.
The typically humble Rupa Raghunath explains how he came to win the widespread support FFLV receives:
“Once a wealthy Vaisnavi gave a donation to Food for Life Vrindavan. I spent the money according to her directions and then sent her a report detailing where each paisa was used. The Vaisnavi was very happy when she received the report. She told me ‘I have been giving financial support to temples and devotee projects for many years, but this is the first time I’ve ever received an account of where my money went.’ She was so appreciative and from that day she pledged her ongoing support to Food for Life Vrindavan.”
Rupa Raghunath learned a valuable lesson from this early experience. Each year, he publishes an annual detailed financial report of the year’s income and expenditure. And thanks to the many volunteers both in Vrindavan and around the world, administrative costs are kept to a minimum. The bottom line for FFLV, Rupa Raghunath asserts, is that for every dollar donated to FFLV, 95% is spent directly on FFLV projects and only 5% cents is spent on administration. This is an outstanding achievement, especially when compared with many larger international charities that can spend as much as 80% of the donations they receive on administrative costs.
In recognition of the wide range of support FFLV provides to thousands of men, women and children in Vrindavan, in December 2005 the World Human Rights Congress awarded FFLV it’s Human Rights Protection Award, and the Chief of the European Commission Francisco Gomes awarded Rupa Raghunath a Life-time Achievement Award. Local and national newspapers regularly report on FFLV programs and their cooperative relationship with the local government.
Despite such outside endorsements, some devotees wonder whether or not FFLV’s humanitarian activities are compatible with the Krishna conscious philosophy. To this, Rupa defers to the 19th century Vaishnava theologian Bhaktivinode Thakur, whose Sri Tattva-sutram includes a ringing endorsement of such welfare work:
“Those who think that devotion to God and kindness to the jivas (living beings) are mutually different from each other, and perform accordingly in their life, such persons will not be able to follow the devotional culture. Their performance is only a semblance of devotion. Therefore, all the types of beneficence to others, like kindness, friendliness, forgiveness, charity, respect, etc. are included in bhakti”¦charity of medicines, clothes, food, water, etc. shelter during adversities, teaching of academic and spiritual education, etc. are the activities included in the devotional culture.”
According to FFLV volunteers and supporters, unmotivated and heartfelt kindness to those in need is an essential quality for one dedicated to spiritual growth and is the root of Vedic culture. Vedic culture, if followed properly, is able to provide all material and spiritual necessities of life.
Providing these necessities – clothes, food, water, medicines, academic and spiritual education – is what FFLV is all about. And in Vrindavan, volunteers receive the added benefit of serving the residents, considered special souls to call Krishna’s earthly home their own.
“I tried my best to serve these special children, ‘dhama vasis’ with loving care and attention,” ISKCON monk Mahanidhi Swami wrote of his experience assisting the FFLV team to serve prasadam to school children in Javat village, the home of Srimati Radharani. “Helping others always brings satisfaction, and as Srila Prabhupada said, any service rendered in Vrindavan brings one thousand times the benefit of service performed outside of Vrindavan”
|Rupa Raghunath invites those visiting Vrindavan to drop by the school (only a few minutes from ISKCON’s Krishna-Balarama Mandir) and join the ecstatic morning kirtans with 850 brijabasi children chanting Jaya Prabhupada and the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. And throughout the year there are plenty of opportunities for qualified volunteers to assist with teaching various subjects and much more.||
For those who need more convincing, Mahanidhi Swami has some advice: “Let us consider the Skanda Purana which states, ‘The piety gained by they who even slightly help the residents of Vrndavana will never end.’”
If you would like to support FFLV activities by donations of clothes, gifts, educational materials, time or money, please visit the Food for Life Vrindavan website at http://www.fflvrindavan.org for further information. Rupa-raghunatha dasa sends information and requests for emergency case assistance to his personal blogspot at http://fflv.blogspot.com. To sponsor the education of a child at Sandipani Muni Primary or Secondary School, please write to Nikunjavasini Devi Dasi, International Sponsorship Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With Vyenkata Bhatta Dasa