The divine life and teachings of Swami Vivekananda have been illuminating the paths of innumerable souls, giving a new meaning to their lives. Renunciation and service – these were the twin glowing ideals that Vivekananda placed before Indians. Thousands of men and women, inspired by those ideals, have dedicated themselves to implementing them and made their lives fully worthy; such individuals have also been the sources of inspiration to millions of others. In the class of such distinguished and eminent men is Swami Japanandaji Maharaj, the founder and Chairman of Sri Ramakrishna Sevashrama, Pavagada.

Born in 1958 into a family of culture and higher values, Japanandaji was fortunate to receive the backing for spiritual life at home itself. Getting in touch with the Ramakrishna Ashrama of Mysore at an early age, he came under the influence of the monks there. The youngster realized that he was destined to lead a life of renunciation and service, and soon joined the Ramakrishna Order as a Brahmacharin. In the following years, he formulated his life in the holy company and loving guidance of such senior monks as Revered Swamis Shambhavanandaji, Somanathanandaji, Adidevanandaji, Harshanandaji, Chidanandaji, Sureshanandaji, Jagadatmanandaji, Prasannanandaji, and Purushottamanandaji. He received initiation from the tenth President of the Order H.H. Srimath Swami Vireshwaranandaji Maharaja direct disciple of Holy Mother and a great ascetic. As a novice, Japanandaji served in the Mysore, Belur Math, Ranchi, Udagamandalam and Bangalore centres. In 1986, he received sannyasa diksha from H.H. Swami Gambhiranandaji Maharaj, the eleventh President of the Order. Afterwards, at the wish of Swami Adidevanandaji, he came back to the Bangalore centre and for many years managed a variety of duties including ritual worship, altar decoration, conduct of Bhajans, and management of civil works with commendable efficiency and earned the appreciation of all concerned. There was a seal of perfection, vigour, and novelty in everything he took up. Japanandaji, who had charged himself up with the ideal of service since childhood, now had the excellent opportunity to put it to practice. As the years passed by, he adopted the principles of Karma Yoga in himself, and his entire personality reflected the ideal of service.

In 1986, many parts of Karnataka faced severe drought conditions. At that time Ramakrishna Math, Bangalore, took up relief works in Pavagada of Tumkur District, and the surrounding regions bordering Andhra Pradesh. The task of establishing relief centres in about 40 villages and serving thousands of poor, affected people came to Swami Japanandaji. Plunging himself into the job with great fervour, he strived day and night, without a trace of fatigue or lethargy. It was nothing but the Lord’s worship for him. He also inspired many volunteers and devotees to come forward to lend a hand. He opened a number of shelters for cows on death throes, arranged for their fodder, water and medical help, and managed the drought relief mission with great success. Rendering such unselfish service based on a spiritual outlook, it was only natural that he endeared himself so much to the villagers. In the meanwhile, the people of a famine-ravaged hamlet called Kottala had another tragedy waiting for them in the form of a fire accident, which destroyed most their belongings rendering them homeless. The Ramakrishna Math, again, rushed to their rescue, and decided to build new houses for them. This responsibility too was easily shouldered by Japanandaji. The construction of forty houses on a war footing was no small job. However, by God’s grace, the Swami successfully completed the task with the active cooperation of volunteers and philanthropists.

The rural upliftment programmes of the Ramakrishna Mission are world-renowned. It has been running several such projects in thousands of poor villages throughout India. The Ramakrishna Math of Bangalore also has been carrying on such a mission around the most backward hamlets of Ragihalli and Shivanahalli near Bangalore since the 1980’s. It has commissioned electricity and drinking water projects, started a residential school, provided loans and subsidies, and imparted intensive training in agriculture and various vocations as also in right livelihood, thereby achieved a completely uplift of the community. As long as he was in the Bangalore Math, Swami Japananda was closely associated with this activity too, and served day and night with his usual zeal and love.

Certainly this was not an easy mission, but the will power to bring it about was not an issue. Japanandaji had it in abundance. To mobilize external help and participation also were not a problem. The only restraining factor was the binding of his mother-institution. The Swami finally decided to go by the diktats of his conscience and pursue his goal without further delay. Go alone, like the rhinoceros! is Swami Vivekananda’s directive to the brave Sannyasin. Remembering this, Japanandaji with the blessings and encouragement of the elders of the institution, plunged into the work field. In the company of a couple of sympathizers, he came back to Pavagada region struck by ill luck, poverty, disease and ignorance and started Sri Ramakrishna Sevashrama whose supreme goal was the service of God in man. This was in 1991-92.  After he was entrusted with the drought relief project in Pavagada, the Swami carried on with the same passion to bring new life to thousands of worn out souls. He grasped the pulse of the people and deeply empathized with them. They, in turn, placed their complete faith in him, looking upon him as their saviour. He must stay with them and carry on the relief works on a permanent basis, they pleaded. Well, a sannyasin is not to be swayed by the show of people’s love and honour. However, Japanandaji knew the ground realities too well. He had understood that temporary relief works would have no long-lasting effect on this backward region for long neglected by the civilized world and that only sustained and intense struggle can bring about any real change. He was worrying about the enormity of work yet to be done to eradicate of leprosy, TB, and blindness, which had played havoc with the wellbeing of the community. He could plainly see the dire need for a permanent institution to achieve an awakening of the masses, and for the preachings of the Holy Trio of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sharada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda to reach them and achieve the desired goals.

Ever since then, Swami Japanandaji has continued to receive the unstinted support and guidance of the senior monks of the Ramakrishna Order. Especially, the loving blessings of Most Revered Swami Ranganathanandaji Maharaj, the President of the Order, have always been his protective shield. When Swami Ranganathanandaji was the head of the Hyderabad branch of the Math, Japanandaji would regularly visit him to appraise of the developments and seek guidance. Even now, Japanandaji frequents the Belur Math to see the revered Swamiji and other senior monks.

Once the Ramakrishna Sevashrama was started, by Gods grace, Swami Japanandaji has never had to look back with regret. Within a year or two of the founding of the Ashrama, were born the Swami Vivekananda Integrated Rural Health Centre(SVIRHC), and its branch Sri Sharada Devi Blindness Control Project. Soon the scope of the Centres activities expanded vastly, and it grew into a major institution, firmly rooted in the hearts of the masses. It won the acclaim of discerning philanthropists from within the country and abroad who extended their helping hand. The state and central governments have conferred recognition and assistance in many ways, and increasingly sought the Centre’s cooperation in their own ventures.

The services being rendered by the SVIRHC are focused under these heads: Eradication of (1) Leprosy, (2) Tuberculosis, and (3) Blindness, and general medical service. Its achievements have been extraordinary in each of the three divisions. This has spurred several governmental and non-governmental organizations to participate and share the profits of its experience.

The hub of all the activities of the Centre is its own hospital complex in Pavagada. The services of this hospital, now a household name in these backward districts bordering Andhra Pradesh reach out to nearly a thousand villages. Collaborating with the Karnataka health ministry, it has been in the forefront of projects for leprosy, TB and blindness eradication in the Pavagada taluk and the surrounding villages. Till date (May 2006), 3379 leprosy and 6431 tuberculosis patients, and 4202 visually affected have been cured by SVIRHC. 79 of the leprosy-cured have benefited from the exclusive reconstructive surgery facility offered by it. The rural hospital has so far treated 1,70,430 outpatients and 5810 inpatients. And the task of visiting every house in every hamlet for identifying leprosy and TB infected goes on, under Swami Japanandaji’s inspired leadership, on a war footing.

A PHC under the Management of a NGO!

Venkatapura, 15 kms from Pavagada, is a very backward village, completely surrounded by Andhra Pradesh. A Primary Health Centre (PHC) of the Karnataka Government has been in existence here for many years. It is the only hospital in the vicinity, serving 20,000 poor people of 19 villages. But the PHC was always plagued by problems, and finally, because of lack of personnel, come to a standstill, putting thousands of poor villagers to great hardship. The government, in response to their pleadings, decided to hand over the hospitals administration to SVIRHC. Respecting the wish of the honourable government on the one hand, and that of the distressed people on the other, Swami Japanandaji agreed to take this responsibility. Accordingly, SVIRHC took over the PHC on 16 April, 2003.  Soon all the required personnel were appointed by SVIRHC, and the PHC sprang back to life.

Venkatapura Villagers Show the Way
For this PHC to be running so well, a lot of credit is due to the local public. When they expressed relief and happiness that SVIRHC would take over the management of their PHC, Swami Japanandaji spoke to them and said, Don’t think of this PHC as just a government institution; remember that it is meant for your benefit, so it belongs to you. Its well being is your responsibility. Taking the hint, the villagers came forward to join hands and help overhaul the PHC. They raised a subscription among themselves, gave an uplift to the building, cleaned the entire premises, and welcomed revered Swamiji into the PHC, in a way that was a precedence for other communities. In this regard, the role of the Panchayat president and other senior members was commendable. Swami Japanandaji has, through his words and actions, won over the people, and is all set to make this a model PHC. Under his direction, the surrounding barren land is being turned green by growing plants and trees. The hospital is now under an able and well-experienced medical officer Dr. Sanjanna. A laboratory and OBG sections, as well as male and female wards, have been opened, much to the joy of the people.

The help and cooperation of all the officials of the Health Dept., Deputy Commissioner, the District Medical Officer (Tumkur), the Chief Administrator , and medical officer of Pavagada Taluk also must be acknowledged.

A Rural Institution Extends Service to the Metropolis!
Under the Swami Vivekananda Integrated Rural Health Centre (SVIRHC) of Pavagada is a Unit of RNTCP the TB control programme of the Government of India. This Unit catering to about five-lakh population of Madhugiri and Pavagada taluks is being run as an experimental model for RNTCP. It has the distinction of being the only NGO in entire south India whose collaboration the government has enlisted in this field. Impressed by its outstanding success record, the state and central governments have now placed in its hands a major project of implementing RNTCP in the Bangalore Urban District of 35 lakhs population. This is indeed an honour bestowed on the institution. Swami Japanandaji accepted it with confidence and has been running it successfully with the help of experts. The SVIRHC is also successfully managing RNTCP implementation in the entire Tumkur District with the cooperation of the government medical officers.

Shree Sharada Devi Blindness Control Project
Given the backwardness of Pavagada region, it is only natural that the incidence of blindness and eye ailments is also high. These contribute significantly to the community’s distress. Before SVIRHC was set up, there was not a single eye hospital or specialist available to service a community of six lakhs in this vast area. Lack of road and transport means and poverty deter people from travelling to distant places, or seek lengthy or expensive treatments. Apparently, a hopeless situation! Swami Japanandaji who had realized this, girded up to build a complete, self-sufficient infrastructure. Now the SVIRHC is well equipped to provide free examination, treatment and surgery to thousands of patients, with a modern 50-bed hospital. Moreover, through periodic eye camps it reaches out to the most interior hamlets. Availability of specialists service, latest equipment or drugs, highest standards and practices, free food, courteous service – all these make this a no-compromises hospital, naturally endearing it to the people. Hundreds are examined everyday, and about 30 surgeries conducted weekly. Over 2000 have their eyesight through this hospital so far.

School Children Eye Care Programme
That todays children make the country’s future is a cliched. But the task of sculpting them into well-educated, healthy individuals is yet to receive due attention at all levels. Recognizing this lacuna, Swami Japananda has, ever since the founding of the institution, evinced great concern for children’s education and health. In this regard, one precious gift of SVIRHC to children’s cause is the ultra modern mobile eye clinic. Through this, every school in the remotest village has been visited; about 20,000 free eye tests have been done so far, and followed up with dispensing of spectacles or drug treatment, and even surgeries where required. There are plans to expand the scope of this programme further to serve even more people, especially children.

Annapurna Nilaya
Every inpatient at the SVIRHC Hospital, along with one helper, is assured of free food (a breakfast and two meals) three times a day, irrespective of ones economic status or other criteria. Annapurna Nilaya is the exclusive block within the hospital premises where the cooking and catering is done. This system is especially a boon to the poor, those from outstations, and to single, helpless patients. The fact that many staff members including doctors take their food here testifies to the quality of preparations, as well as to the principle of equanimity practiced here!

Ideal Vision – Implementation
The scope of revered Swamiji’s work has expanded to now include Madhugiri, Madakashira and nearby villages. The SVIRHC has indeed proved to be a blessing for over a million people of this region.

Thus, the institution makes rapid strides absorbing more service-minded individuals, reaching more people; carries on its work with renewed spirit in newer ways. But there is no contentment for Swami Japanandaji, the tireless Karmayogi. Swami Vivekananda declared that he would have no rest until the last worm of his motherland had attained salvation. The same holds good for every one of his true disciples!

The one strong desire of Japanandaji is that more individuals must come forward to independently carry out the ideas of Swami Vivekananda and that such projects should take off in rural India in large numbers. Therefore, whether in Karnataka or elsewhere in India, he fervently talks about Swamiji’s fiery ideas of man-making, rousing patriotic feelings in the hearts of young people. Along with spiritual ideas, he discusses the lives and messages of such great men like Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji, Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar Azad. Japanandaji who has the need and opportunity to mingle with the most backward communities in the remote hamlets, mixes freely with even those regarded as  untouchable. The way he personally touches and treats the lepers abhorred by everybody reminds us of the highest ideal of recognizing man’s divinity.

Multifaceted Person Multifaceted Service
Many find it remarkable that Swami Japanandaji can effortlessly manage all these service activities, almost single-handedly. But there is one more aspect of his being which is equally intense that is his intellectual and spiritual side. Through Sri Ramakrishna Sevashrama, he has been carrying on a variety of programmes to quench the thirst of the citizens for peace and higher values. Revered Swamiji is gifted with the power of winning people’s hearts through his melodious singing and simple-effective talk. Under his leadership, many daily and weekly routines, including puja, bhajans and discourses, as well the celebration of various festivals and Jayantis, take place. Thousands of devotees from the town and surroundings take part in these. It is surprising that Sri Swamiji can find time to take part in some other functions under the auspices of local religio-educational institutions also. Indeed, if he had devoted himself to just these forms of service instead of the health and hospital oriented activities it would have been no lesser a gift to his fellow-men! Swami Japananda is always self-inspired, enthusiastic. And for the hundreds of his associates he is a fount of inspiration. That he is the high mast of the institution is too obvious. But the Swami does not want it to be dependant on any individual for its existence, and has trained others accordingly. This becomes clear from the way every activity goes on smoothly, even when he would be gone abroad for long periods. His firm belief is that he is only a tool, and the power behind is that of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sharadadevi, and Swami Vivekananda.

Swami Japanandaji was honored with the Rajiv Gandhi Manav Seva Award by the Government of India.  He was also conferred a honorary Doctorate by the Tumkur University in 2012 ( Editor)

From the publication “Colouring Outside The Lines – Innovatives Approaches of NGOs working with the Disabled“, Pub. Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and the Allied Trusts, Mumbai, 2010

Watch TV9 Documentary on Swami Japnandaji