Community care
By Pankaj Adhikari (HK Edition)
Updated: 2008-04-02 07:01

 

Home seva to distribute rice and basic necessities to elderly people. Photos Courtesy of Babita Mahtani

It's Thursday. Time: 6:30 pm. Place: 10th Floor, A-1, Burlington House, 92-94 Nathan Road, Kowloon. About 200 devotees attend a session of bhajan (devotional songs). It continues for about one and a half hours. The ambience evokes a spirit of piety and holiness. The participants, mostly Indians and Nepalis, also include Chinese people. After the songs are over, devotees bow before the large portraits of Bhagawan Sai Baba and leave the room in silence.

The Sathya Sai Baba Centre of Hong Kong holds such session every Thursday and Sunday.

The center has been doing a yeomen's service for the local community, providing charity for the poor and needy, and imparting values-based education to parents and children.

As a spiritual organization, the center has three wings - Seva (or service), Spiritual and Education, said Ashok Sakhrani, National Chairman of the Hong Kong Sathya Sai Organisation. There are also a Ladies' Wing and a Youth Wing.

In the early 1970s, a small, mixed group of people used to gather in an office in Tung Ying Building, along Nathan Road. They were all Sai Baba devotees. Among them were two European ladies, Dorothy Plant and Natalie Santos.

"It was on April 28 in 1977 that the first prayer was held at the center. My maternal uncle Thaku Mahtani was the first president of the center," he said. "The center had 25 members those days. Gopaldas Mahbubani (who passed away recently) chaired the trust."

The center now has over 400 members, including Chinese and Europeans. There is a center in Tsim Sha Tsui and another in Tsuen Wan.

What the world needs today is service for the poor, Sakhrani said, quoting Sai Baba's words: "Serve the poor with love that alone can redeem you. Service to the poor is service to God. Sacrifice your life for the cause of the poor."

The center offers seva to various sectors of the Hong Kong community. The devotees consider this as a unique opportunity to practise the Swami's (a term of endearment for spiritual teacher) teachings and to make their lives worthwhile, he said.

After over 25 years of a variety of service programs, the center began monthly distributions of rice in May 2003. "We initially aimed to distribute 8,000 bags of rice (each 5 kg). Since then about 18,000 bags of rice and huge quantities of other basic necessities have been distributed to the elderly and families on public assistance, single parent families, and even asylum seekers. Those living in the Yau Tsim Mong and also the Sham Shui Po/Cheung Sha Wan areas have been provided with this assistance," he said. At these sevas, a message on human values in Chinese is shared, Sakhrani said.

In March 2004, the center began a monthly home seva to distribute rice and basic necessities to elderly people who live without families in ramshackle post-war buildings in Sham Shui Po/Cheung Sha Wan. Many flats in these buildings are on top floors not serviced by elevators. "These people really appreciate the caring we give during these visits," Sakhrani said.

The center also organizes seva for street-sleepers. This is provided to anyone, including drug addicts, he said.

Since May 2005, a group of 30 elderly people living alone in Tai Kok Tsui are given Sunday lunch at a vegetarian Buddhist restaurant every six weeks. Sometimes they are brought to the center. "Just sitting with and speaking to these people brings a lot of happiness to them," he said. "The center also arranges games and distributes little gifts to them."

Quoting Swami, Sakhrani said: "End of education is character." At Bal Vikas - the center's Children's Wing - children are taught lessons to become holistic and balanced human beings, he said. Bal Vikas has 250 children taught by 13 teachers and 5 assistant teachers. Classes are held in Tsim Sha Tsui, Mid-Levels, Ap Lei Chau and Mei Foo.

Teachers meet regularly for bhajan practice as well as for study circle to enhance their spiritual knowledge, Sakhrani said.

Seva is an integral part of learning for the children. Each class is taken for seva at least three times a year by their respective teachers. The children also visit the Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children, and The Little Sister of the Poor Home.

"Education without character, science without humanity and commerce without morality are useless and dangerous," the Swami had proclaimed. His emphasis on the development of character as the main aim of education has been brought out in various educational programs which seek to nurture human values, Sakhrani said.

Classes in human values are conducted in the community by the center's Youth Wing for Chinese and South Asian children. Dynamic parenting classes are held to teach parents to respond to parenting challenges with values, rather than with punishment.

The center never solicits funds from the members. "It is prohibited by Swami," Sakhrani said. "Swami is the living and vibrant energy that sustains the center and its work."

(HK Edition 04/02/2008 page4)