A spiritual journey with a social impact
I had an unique opportunity to interview Padma Shri Awardee, Shri Madhu Pandit Dasa, Chairman of Akshaypatra Foundation and President of ISKCON Bangalore. Madhu Pandita Das was my classmate at IIT Bombay. It was an honor to reconnect with him. He received his B.Tech in Civil Engineering from IIT Bombay in 1981 and later on a distinguished Alumnus award from IIT Mumbai.
The Akshayapatra Foundation, head quartered in Bangalore started feeding mid day meals to 1500 underprivileged school children in government schools and has today scaled to feeding 1.5 million children everyday. Recently the foundation won the Nikkei Asia Prize.
Congratulations on winning the Nikkei Prize for Akshaya Patra. How does it feel to receive this prestigious award?
We, at Akshaypatra, feel deeply humbled and blessed. Grateful to have got this very rare opportunity in our lives, to be instruments in the service of this divine mission of nourishing and giving hope thousands of underprivileged children. Humbled because a humanly impossible task is being made possible by God, while showering all the credit to us. It is very clear to us that without God's intervening grace this great endeavor would not be possible. It is His constant guidance and direction in the form of intelligence within and arrangement of favorable situations without that has made it successful.
When did you first get introduced to the teachings of Srila Prabhupada? What are the key elements that attracted you to this?
I joined IIT in 1976. I actually joined the 5 year MSc physics course as I was fascinated with quantum mechanics and wanted to become a theoretical physicist. I went to IIT with fond hope to indulge my spirit of enquiry deeply into the nature of matter. I felt that the original cause of all causes would be one day found in pursuit of study of matter. But at the end of my first year at IIT, I was disillusioned with the highly competitive academic atmosphere, which I found to be counter-productive to the spirit of enquiry needed to pursue pure science. I did not surrender to the academic system of IIT to study physics but went on studying on my own. I spent hours in the library absorbed in the quest of answers about this world and existence.
By end of 1977, I understood the limitation of physics with respect to answering all life questions. I felt that physics alone cannot explain the world as modern science limited itself to studying whatever is accessible only to the five gross senses. Then I started focusing on reading books from philosophy every evening in the library. It was then that I came across the Bhagavad Gita translated by Srila Prabhupada in the IIT library.
What made you decide to give up career in Civil Engineering to dedicate your life to the spiritual path?
I found the philosophy of Bhagavad Gita, and its central character Lord Krishna, fascinating. This urged me to look deeper into it. I was amazed to find how the Bhagavad Gita considered material energy as not only gross elements but included mind, intelligence and false ego as subtle material elements. And Gita revealed that even beyond gross and subtle material energies was another energy called the spirit or soul. For the first time, I realized how the common idea of Krishna as merely Hindu God of a sect of people, was actually limiting the personality of Krishna as presented in Bhagavad Gita. Therein Krishna and knowledge of existence is presented as the Absolute Truth beyond sectarian religions.
Thereafter I switched over to Civil Engineering from physics, only for a career choice, as I was pursuing modern physics and philosophy through self study. In 1981 I completed B.Tech and enrolled for M.Tech. After two semesters of M.Tech I found my life calling which was to fully engage in devotional service to God and mankind. Thereafter I had no interest to pursue the run of the mill career. I decided to dedicate my life to the mission of practicing, realizing, spreading and applying the message of Bhagavad Gita and joined Iskcon as a missionary devotee.
What was your goal when you joined this path?
At a time when I had kind of existential frustration arising from not finding answers to the basic questions of life from science or western or eastern impersonal philosophies, I happened to come across Srila Prabhupada’s books. I became curious to know what the Vedic perspective of existence is. ‘Who’ or ‘what’ is the ultimate cause of all causes? And how to link up and communicate with that Eternal Absolute Truth, if it or that Person existed. I wanted to know who I am beyond birth and death and this temporary body-the purpose of life on the planet.
Understanding and realizing progressively, over decades, the answers to these questions resulted in a life of deep meaning as well as practical internal challenge of become spiritually purer through the path selfless service. Selfless services like leading a team effort of designing, raising funds and building a monumental ISKCON temple for public at large at Bangalore by 1996. Thereafter the service of launching the Akshayaptra in 2000 and leading it to grow to feed 1.5 million children everyday. These services became an opportunity for us to practically realize, often tangibly the active presence of the divine grace of the Supreme Being in every aspect of our work.
Akshaya Patra has made a name for itself for using technology to provide a scaled approach to providing mid-day meals. However a little known fact in the west is that at the core of its success if the fact that each kitchen is lead by a dedicated ISKON Swami ji. How important is each aspect –technology, governance and spiritual leadership key to the success of Akshaya Patra?
I will answer this question under three headings viz; Technology, Governance and Spiritual leadership.
The scale of the problem of hunger in school children is colossal. We are talking of hunger of about 120 million children in government schools in India. The solution lies in leveraging technology to address this issue of scale. The role of technology in solving mammoth social problems cannot be understated. At Akshayapatra, technology is driven with a dedication to the cause. Each missionary, who heads a kitchen is completed dedicated to his service as his top most priority. As qualified engineers, these missionaries are familiar with technology.
You will be surprised to hear that the Rajasthan Chief minister, Vasundara Raje, referred to us as techno-swamis during the inauguration of our kitchen at Jaipur.
We continuously innovate technology to increase the efficiency year on year. In fact the first kitchen built sixteen years ago has already become a vintage kitchen. Today we have over 20 kitchens all over India. As we built one kitchen after another, constant innovation of technology has been a key feature. Innovation is not only in setting up new kitchens but also in improving operations and management.
Many of Akshayapatra kitchens are ISO certified. We adopt Kaizen methods for continuous improvement and involve every staff member across ranks in the organization to improve quality of operations and cost efficiency. You name any useful tool in any modern manufacturing or food industry, you will find it has been adopted in Akshayapatra. Though we are a non- profit organization, you will find all the rigors of a for-profit organization in place. Every paisa saved per meal will mean 1.5 million paisa or 15 thousand rupees per day that can be used to feed more children.
Akshayapatra foundation was set up as a secular foundation so as to reach beneficiaries without distinction of religion or caste as well as to attract support from all sections of the society. We believe that children are children of one God irrespective of the religion in which they are born. And that hunger has only one religion- the religion of sharing. The compassion and sacrifice of a few mitigating the pain of several others.
The board of trustees has been uniquely constituted to have both missionary leaders of ISKCON temple as well as external independent trustees. We are very fortunate to have excellent external trustees whose intentions are purely to benefit the lives of underprivileged school children. The external trustees, headed by Mohan Das Pai, have brought immense value to the organization. Desh Deshpande from the USA board of Akshayapatra has also brought immense value to the foundation. The foundation has been enriched by professionalism that the independent trustees brought to the governance of the program. Their involvement invoked confidence of all stake holders to donate. They brought in all the rigors of governance of a for-profit venture to a not-for-profit social venture.
Though the external trustees may not exactly profess the same kind of faith as the missionary trustees and devotees who execute the program, the common passion of the two distinct group of trustees in the board is to feed the hungry children. It is a meeting of two different worlds and two different kind of minds for a great common cause.
Nevertheless the external trustees do believe that there is the hand of a Supreme Being in this program. Mohan and myself have talked several times about the way Akshayapatra has grown over the years and recognize that a divine force is working behind it leading us forward from day one. Whether it is in ideation or connecting the right people at right time or timing of certain external developments favorable to expanding the program or the way the funds were being manifest. Although it does not fall into the category of financially sustainable program in a normal sense with a comfortable corpus, we have never suffered for want of funds even though there exists no security of a corpus fund.
Not many people ask this question about spiritual leadership. Any successful venture naturally entails that there are good ‘material’ principles of leadership, in terms of vision, policies, governance and management. However there are subtler layers of ‘spiritual’ principles of leadership behind the material principles. These principles operates at the plane of consciousness of those who people take up such selfless causes to impact the cause in unprecedented manner.
What does ‘spiritual leadership’ at Akshayaptra mean? It is the quality of inner consciousness behind the material leadership. It is about the finer attitude of servant-leadership among its leaders. We perceive the service at Akshayapatra as God’s work, done by God’s instruments, for God’s vision. God connects all the dots of each of our tiny individual roles as his servants, to create the big vision.
God helps those who help themselves beyond personal limitations, in this selfless work. It is about trust in God’s Master plan. Trust that He supports each of our individual efforts to conceive our goals in line with His vision. He shines His grace in the form of His guidance from within our hearts. He provides inspiration and strength to persevere and helps mobilize needed resources. It is the firm conviction that it is God, who is using me for His work. It is God who is helping me to constantly raise my level of contribution of conceiving (His plan); receiving (His grace); striving and achieving (His vision), to feed more and more children.
Every moment of such intense endeavor is filled with anticipation of receiving the unexpected from the universe. It is truly a partnership with God to co-create. We only have to remember that God plays a primary role and the human instruments plays secondary roles.
The missionary leaders as well as many of the top executives of Akshayapatra are enlivened by a culture of devotion to God.
But how did it all start?
Now sixteen years after down the line, I can clearly say that none of us could consider ourselves visionaries of this program. Not that the Akshayapatra is without a vision! It always had a vision descending from the divine source. God, one step at a time in proportion to our readiness and enthusiasm, was revealing that vision to us.
One evening in the year 2000, a visitor who had not know me at all, walked into my office. He had just witnessed the large scale food distribution to the visitors that was going on in the temple. He went on to ask me if we could organize noon meals to children in the neighborhood schools. Just like that, out of the blue! The visitor was Mohandas Pai, who was the CFO of Infosys then. I agreed under the condition that he donates a vehicle to transport the food to the schools. He readily agreed. ISKCON Bangalore set out to feed 1500 noon meals to five schools nearby with a goal to go up to five thousand children that could be transported in one vehicle. No one he had even the slightest idea then that this was a seed sown by providence for a much bigger plan.
In two months time, there was a fat file on my table with letters from hundreds of schools in Bangalore asking us to feed about a lakh of students. Obviously I did not have the courage to take up such a big number thinking that it is big commitment. Once we start we cannot stop. Where would the funds come from? But the fat file used to stare at me everyday morning when I took my seat in my office.
A few days later one of the temple missionaries brought an anecdote from Srila Prabhupada’s life to my attention. The world wide food distribution program of ISKCON was based on this incident. In1976, Srila Prabhupada had invited several affluent guests to Mayapur. A feast was served to them at the temple. Later as Srila Prabhupada retired to his room, he heard some children screaming and dogs barking outside his window. He went over to the window and was horrified to see that some village children were fighting with the dogs for remnants of food on banana leaves that was heaped outside after the feast. Srila Prabhupada was deeply moved by what he saw and he immediately called all temple leaders to his chambers. He issued a mandate that “No one within 10 mile radius of every iskcon temple should go hungry.” This is how the free food distribution began in ISKCON.
Hearing this anecdote changed everything. The fact that Srila Prabhupada’s vision to feed the hungry was born of heart rending incident of seeing the desperation of hungry children became the single inspiration for us to overcome the fear of shortage of resources to scale the feeding beyond five schools. Thus the small feeding program in five schools transformed into an expanding mission of our lives to feed lakhs. We were convinced that if we wanted to take this vision of Srila Prabhupada seriously, the Lord will provide all that is required.
The continued sustained drive for the next sixteen years for all the missionaries working for this unified mission of feeding hungry children, is the joy of implementing what was dear to Srila Prabhupada. This is Srila Prabhupada’s mission and we are just instruments. Only the vision of a person of the spiritual stature and purity like Srila Prabhupada can mobilize a large number of missionaries to dedicate their lives day after day and year after year to this glorious cause. Within next two months we set up a separate kitchen in the temple dedicated to feeding upto 30,000 school children. Rest is history. Kitchen after kitchen were set up all over India each having capacity of preparing 50000 to 100000 meals a day.
To be continued...