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Diwali – an opportunity for sharing and caring 

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Dr Brij Maharaj is an academic and civil society activist.

As doom, despair and darkness associated with the combined after-effects of Covid, looting, floods, corruption, xenophobia, crime and violence threaten to envelop our nation, Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, offers hope for renewal – that a better future based on justice and righteousness is still possible in our country and beyond. 

Beyond the religious observances and cultural celebrations, it is appropriate to reflect on how we can light up the lives of those around us who are less fortunate, regardless of race, class, ethnicity or religion.

Diwali provides an opportunity to donate to charity and welfare, and promote basic values of sharing and caring – uplifting the poor and disadvantaged in a severely fractured society. Scriptures compel all Hindus to engage in some form of charity (daan) and social upliftment, according to ability, selflessly: “All these activities should be performed without attachment or any expectation of result. They should be performed as a matter of duty” (Bhagavad Gita, 18.6). As emphasised by Swami Chinmayananda: “We serve the Lord through the service of the people around us … To serve [humanity] with all that we have with us, is the yoga of service.” Sri Sathya Sai Baba similarly exhorted: “The fruits of selfless service are eradication of the ego and realisation of the inherent divinity within. No other spiritual activity provides these spiritual leaps and bounds other than service to the needy.”

Philanthropy, welfare, charity and voluntarism are important facets encompassing the heritage of South African Indians of all faiths, which rekindle a sense of civic responsibility and enhance social cohesion. It is not surprising that those who give financial and other resources for religious purposes are also likely to support other social and civic causes. All religions promote morality, fairness, equality and justice, liberation from poverty, inequality, vulnerability and deprivation (the focus here will be on the SA Hindu community because of this columnist’s insight). 

There are hundreds of Hindu organisations in South Africa that engage in regular philanthropy and welfare support, and also respond to emergencies, for example, when there are natural disasters. Many Hindu organisations have moved from focusing exclusively on spiritual missions to those driven by social concern, welfare intervention, poverty alleviation and empowerment. Some prominent examples include the work of the Divine Life Society, Food for Life, the Ramakrishna Centre, Sarva Dharma Ashram, Aryan Benevolent Home, Shantik Foundation and the South African Hindu Maha Sabha, and a myriad other organisations. 

For instance, when she was MEC of Education in KwaZulu-Natal, Ina Cronje paid tribute to the sterling work of the Divine Life Society of SA, which, “since January 2004 … completed over 50 schools, with three hundred classrooms in total. The Society is also engaged in sanitation projects in schools around the province. Currently, the Divine Life Society of South Africa is building schools in the Okhahlamba, eThekwini, Zululand and South Coast regions. We commend the society for its support in trying to relieve the backlog of classrooms in rural areas.” 

Many of these projects were initiated in the 1980s, when “Swami Sahajananda took the courageous step of crossing the ‘colour line’ at a time when inter-race collaborations were frowned upon by the government of the day.”  

Food for Life South Africa (FFLSA) currently distributes approximately 30,000 plates of food weekly through its 24 nationwide branches. It has developed cordial relationships with the eThekwini Municipality and works collaboratively to reduce hunger in the region. Over a million meals were served in 2021, and FFLSA was “proud of the melting pot of religion, culture, age, gender and race that come together to raise funds, cook and serve food to the most vulnerable members of our community.”

The medical clinic established in 1959 by the Ramakrishna Centre of SA (Phoenix), works in partnership with the public and private health sectors and the South African Red Cross Air Mercy Services in order to improve the quality of healthcare for the indigent. A total 29,050 patients were provided with “consultations, diagnoses and free medication”. 

In 2006, the Ramakrishna Centre established the eThembeni Home for terminally ill patients in KwaMashu. On 6 August 2008, the Ramakrishna Abalindi Home opened up a similar facility in Inanda. The Ramakrishna Centre also has a legal aid clinic and provides veterinary services and youth empowerment programmes for the needy.

The Sarva Dharma Ashram was founded by Swami Ramkripananda in Welbedacht in 1998. It provides a primary health care clinic, computer literacy classes, women empowerment opportunities, math tuition and spiritual upliftment opportunities in a very socioeconomically deprived community. Also, 4,000 pupils are fed here daily. According to Swamiji: “Our aim is to groom children into responsible adults, ensuring a brighter future for our country. We do not know if there is a God sitting and waiting for us up in heaven or if God is Black, White or any other colour, but we see God in the poor and serve them to the best of our ability. We live by the Hindu philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, which means that the whole world is one big family – therefore we take care of our family.”

No discussion of Hindu philanthropy in South Africa would be complete without reference to the Aryan Benevolent Home (ABH) in Chatsworth, which has been serving the community for an admirable 101 years. With 10 care facilities across the country, the ABH provides “succour on a 24-hour basis to the aged, frail, physically and mentally challenged children and victims of domestic violence”, regardless of race, religion, language or creed. 

The objective of the recently established Shantik Foundation is to “uplift the economically disadvantaged youth through education, both secular and spiritual, and to provide a service to those who need it most, whilst creating a platform based on value-driven principles as expounded by the ancient Vedanta philosophy.” 

As part of its centenary celebrations in 2012, the SA Hindu Maha Sabha launched the “Initiative 108” programme to serve humanity with compassion and respect, and during the past year distributed more than 150 tons of food to the needy and destitute. Initiative 108 has set up several categories of projects in partnership with affiliates, which include feeding schemes; distribution of groceries; clothing; providing support to clinics, hospitals, and the like; winter warmth; provision of water; counselling and life-skills services; educational support; care of the physically and mentally challenged, orphans and the elderly. The intention is to build bridges amongst people of different races, cultures and religions; to promote goodwill, tolerance and mutual respect, and a harmonious coexistence, all in keeping with the basic principles and tenets of Hinduism.

These various Hindu philanthropic and welfare interventions, as Selvan Naidoo from the Natal Tamil Vedic Society emphasised, exemplify the “message of hope and triumph that is intrinsically embedded in the symbolism of Deepavali [which] must signal our call to action in the hope of arresting the despair and disillusionment that besets the world we live in and for light to triumph over darkness. Let light and goodwill be our constant reminder of the hope we cherish.” DM

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