Journey Of Viren Joshi: Heart Of Service

Posted by Rish Sanghvi on Jun 20, 2016
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[Viren Joshi is the founder of Manav Sadhna, that has been serving slum communities for the last 26 years.  Below is a transcript of his talk at an Awakin Circle in Santa Clara, on his journey of service.]

Thank you. What is service to me? Service to me is living life. What I feel is that the only way to live is to serve. It's so natural, it’s so simple. Not rocket science. It's the simplest thing because we’re surrounded with opportunities, all around us -- starting with nature, oceans and trees and jungles, and all life. They’re all serving us, so we recognize it right away. That’s how we are designed.

I really believe we are designed to give and serve because that's how we're created, that's how we connect. Service makes us happy. We all know service makes us happy -- not just happy, but sustainable happiness. We look for happiness in other places but it's empty. I mean you have a craving for a big pizza. You have one pizza, and somebody gives you another one, and then like, “No, no I’m done.” All those things that we think that makes us happy, they do not actually make us happy. Sustainable happiness is in service. That's what I've learned after 26 years -- which really seems like 26 days, because there's no effort or struggle to do anything or maintain or sustain anything. Everything we are given is only for the purpose of sharing. God gives us all this, not to consume like crazy, but to share.

I was blessed to have that clarity very early in high school. My father was a freedom fighter and a Gandhian and was living in his life in a very simple way, in a beautiful way. It rubbed off on three of us (me and my brother and sister). As kids, it would mandatory for us to attend certain spiritual gatherings. One day, this saint -- Dongreji Maharaj -- came to our city. An amazing, wise, spiritual man. He would come every year and my father would almost force us to sit through his preaching and talking.

Now, I was in eighth or ninth grade and I'd have to sit through this seven hour event. You can imagine our response, but my Dad would make sure that we sit, listen, and try to understand whatever we can. On one of those days, this great saint started asking us a question. "Why are you a human being in this life?" As Hindus, we believe in reincarnation, and the question was why have we not reincarnated as a dog or a cat or any other animal? At the time, it was lunch break, so the saint asked us, “Go think about it and after lunch, we're going to talk about it a little bit more.” As a young kid in ninth grade, I tried to think about it but couldn't come up with any answer. I even asked my Dad, and he was like, “Nope, that’s something you’ve got to keep trying to think about".

It was post lunch and I still couldn’t figure it out, so I went and sat again in the assembly. I was very curious. What he said was very powerful, and left a deep impression on me.

He asked us, "If you throw a bread towards a street dog, what would he do?" Eat it. "What about second?" He might eat that too. "Third?" Maybe not. "What about fourth piece of bread?" I don't know if you guys have seen street dogs, but in India, what they do is dig a hole and bury the piece of bread for a later meal.

So this saint says, "So what kind of life are we living? What are we doing? Eat all we can, earn all we can and then save for the future and leave it for the kids and then die. So how are we different than a dog? In that case why are you human being? Reflect on that."

As a kid, I think that went really straight to my heart. I started reading about philosophy, and built on it. My mother was not greatly educated but she read a lot. She always made sure we had good books in our house, so I was able to have really good access to books about Krishna and the Gita. By the time I was in high school and first year of college, it was very clear that I wanted to do something more than just get married and have a job. With a lot of blessings and mercy of the Lord, I was able to. It was a start and then everything went on from there. Spirituality, in the sense of chanting and meditation, was very natural in the home. That has also helped anchor me in these 26 years of service. Right when I get home, in the middle of this July, I start my 21 days of silence -- which I do twice a year. Those practices that I learned in childhood and developed all these years, have really helped me tremendously.

My childhood was challenging in the sense that I didn’t have much. My father was a Gandhian, serving the community. So he would hardly bring enough money for all of us to really have much. I only had two pairs of clothes growing up. My mom was like a miracle maker. I don’t know how she managed it, with all three of us, she give us enough of education and food and took us through college and everything else. In college as well, I always found an opportunity to give and serve in the best way I could. I didn’t have much myself but I had a couple friends who were loaded. I was able to get them inspired to give and made them leaders of our team so they would give from their allowance. We were serving even in college and all that slowly pushed me in the right direction. I had to learn to balance priorities as well, since I had to take care of my father and mother who were getting old and were retired.

My dad was still paying for the house we lived in and he was retired. There was a 9 or 10 year period where I worked and I was able to come to the US in 1982. In the US, 1982 was a tough time. The jobs were challenging and everything else. I started working hard just like any other immigrant. I worked night shifts, I ran big machines from this wall to the other wall -- very big machines that make aluminum parts. I burned myself many times doing it -- I call the scars as ornaments on my body. Good memories because those tough time make you stronger and prepare you. It’s wonderful. It gets you on the right path. There was never any sorrow about all of that. During the day I was running those machines, but in the evening, I got my Masters in engineering. In the same company, I soon became a plant manager and ran that plant for 8-9 years.

In 1989, when my mom and dad resettled and our family situation was stable, I resigned as a plant manager and ended up back home in India. I got serious about giving. Back then, I had 18 thousand dollars in my bank, and the dollar to rupee conversion was eight rupees per dollar. I thought that 18 thousand was going to last me for a lifetime. Boy, was I wrong. :) But that's how everything started over there.

Initially I was serving on my own. I rode a bicycle with a little bag on my shoulder with goodies like peanuts, and I would just ride myself into the slums and connect with the kids and see if I can do something. Now, I’m an engineer and not a teacher, so I had never worked with the kids. I was not really that great starting out and was struggling, but the kids just know your intent -- they would see these goodies and just attack my bicycle, hold onto my legs. Sometimes I’ll stand in the corner watching them have fun.

That wasn't service, though. I remember, I sat in meditation in November 1989 at the Gandhi Ashram, where Mahatma Gandhi lived for 13 years. It’s a powerful place and after meditation, I remembered that I read about a man named Ishwar Patel when I was in New York for some company work. That day, I had ended up with Gujarati paper and on the third page, there was an article about that same amazing man! It was a blessing to read that. And I remembered that I was in the same space that he worked from -- Gandhi Ashram. So I asked somebody where I could meet this person and they say right behind that gate. And just like that, I met Ishwar Patel. An amazing man. I immediately felt the bonding of a father. He was a father, and teacher, and mentor and a guru for me for 22 years.

That's when service journey really started. I was the first volunteer from the US there; that I’m very proud of. Initially, I still had that engineer in me, that America in me, and I started talking to him in English and saying how I’m here to work, serve and everything. Ishwar Patel -- we called him Saheb -- was just so nice, humble and slowly groomed me. He’s such a Sadhu in a pure Gandhian way. He taught me. Everything I am today is because of that man. It’s amazing what I learned from that person.

Question: Can you describe what you did after you met this mentor? What shape did the surface take and how did things go on from there?

So yeah, Saheb spent 60 years doing Mahatma Gandhi's very important work of untouchability. When he was young, there was so many toilets in India that required manual scavenging. You can't even imagine what toilets were like, in those days. No plumbing, there are little doors and a person has to manually go inside the hole and deal with all the human waste in a bucket and carry it outside. It was an inhumane practice and Gandhiji always had tears in his eyes when he talked about this and he said who’s going to help me eradicate this?  Ishwarbhai was one of those guys who dedicated his entire life to this cause. Everybody knows him for safai (“clean-up”) only. Everybody knows him for “safai” and as the toilet guru, but his real core was reaching out to the most needy, the ‘untouchables’ and lowest of the low and that was what he strived for and that’s why he designed so many toilets so that people don’t have to deal with manual scavenging. It is because of his efforts that the dry toilet, as it was called in India was outlawed.

Then he opened up so many hostels, he managed several institutes with education program and his education was for the kids of this untouchable community so that when they grow up, they don’t grab a broom, they don’t think that their life is about sweeping the floor. With so much love and humility, Saheb was doing this, all his life. When I met him he was at that stage of building so many toilets and working on sanitation issues all over the villages and creating awareness.

He gave me a very challenging project involving 50 villages, to create awareness about water and sanitation in remote villages of Gujarat. It was a World Bank project but they said there’s no money (funding). They know that is the kind of project only Ishwarbhai would take it. They give it to Ishwarbhai and he came back and said, “Okay, I got something interesting and challenging. Are you ready?”

I said, “If you hold my hand, I’m ready.” He said, “No worries, I’ll be right there.” I took that project and we were going around … I was going around in these 50 villages in buses and walking. I had a big projector, one of those slide-show things, the big ones that goes around (carousel). I would carry one of those and I had a small bag of my clothes, a couple pairs of clothes, and I would just go from one village to the other village and live in the village.

I had to be creative in the village. There was nothing to give. It was very interesting, very challenging project. I would immediately go in and change into village outfit and I’ll put a band thing over my head and then I’ll have a drum. I’ll start singing or drumming in the middle of the streets. The kids will start coming slowly at first.

Then the older will come and by doing that for a couple hours, now that I got some attention, and then I start sharing my thing. I would tell them that in the evening I’m going to show you a movie. They get all excited about movie and then I put up these slides about what water is and what’s safe water. At that time I had lived in Chicago so I told my brother to send me a slide picture of Michigan Lake.

I put that Michigan Lake up in the big screen in the village in the night. Then I asked, “What is this? Ocean? Lake? What do you think it is?” Everybody says, “Ocean, ocean, right?” I said, “No, it’s a lake. It’s a sweet water lake.” They can’t believe it because it's so big and then I say that this is only 40 miles from our house and we still pay $45 a month for water bill for this sweet water and your water comes in a pipe from 300 miles and you don’t want to give anything and you want to waste water. I had to be creative like this to get these ideas out.

Anyway, within one year, it became a very successful project. The impact was amazing. World Bank went and did the survey. And everywhere I needed help, Ishwarbhai came.  He would do the show with me and then once he’s there, the whole village is glowing, it’s beautiful. He just makes everything so wonderful and that is how I met his son Jayesh and his wife. They were not even husband and wife. They were just graduating from college and engaged at the time.

We loved serving together and it was such a beautiful mindset, like a family, shoulder to shoulder we served. It was very clear to us that formal education, literacy is so important because we can walk in any house and we can say or tell that there’s somebody here that has literacy or education. There is lowest literacy in villages and slums and things like that. If there’s a higher literacy, house is clean, toilets are there, sanitation facility is there, family is smaller, you can tell immediately.

We felt the need of formal education so when we finished the project and went back to Ahmedabad, which is the city where we live in, we decided to start working with children. There was no desire, not even a thought, that we need an organization or we need to do something formal.

We just started serving kids from the slum right outside the curb, on the side of the road. We would just see street kids, we'll hug them, we'll wash them down because these are kids on the street, with hair not washed for four months, buttons are all gone, nails are long. Just do small things with love, put hands on their shoulder, hug them.

We would bring food from our home and feed them but before feeding them, we'll pray, our all religion prayer. In a subtle way, we started sharing nice little value with these kids and then once they figured out that oh this is all about giving us love, more started coming. So we started out with four children, four or five children.

Numbers of course are not important and I don’t like to throw around numbers and things like that but we reach out to 9000 children every day today and we have a beautiful organization. Jayesh and Anar, the three of us had an amazing, amazing journey. Then in the middle part, I had to be back and forth so I also spent some time in US and back in India. But today, it’s a beautiful tree, it’s a very organic and a beautiful family kind of feeling, actually it is a space where so many people can come.

We attract almost 250 volunteers every year. Right now, just today, we got a nice little email and photo of two of the volunteers, one from Argentina, one from Australia. Both are professional architects and they are building a preschool for our kids in one of the deep slums and both come from moderate weather and they are out there 120°F right now serving with their hands. I mean they are moving bricks and building floors, making beautiful paintings. So today was the inauguration.

It’s looking so beautiful and both ladies, both architects are … By the way I don’t know if you know or not but 90% of them (volunteers) are women. That says a lot, right? I just want to put it out there. It’s amazing. Initially, we didn’t know, but now we know that it’s the heart of a mother, the compassion. Men are moved, but then they stop moving I guess, but women take it all the way… so these two ladies are all dressed up in sari today. We have pictures of the inauguration.

Even today right now, there are some 18 volunteers there and it used to be only US, 80% - 90% US volunteers, but today, all over the world -- Argentina, Guatemala, Israel, people from all countries are coming, France, Spain, just by word-of-mouth. There’s nothing out there for us to invite them. There’s nothing really. There’s no mechanism where we say, “come on out here”. Somebody’s telling somebody or people are just showing up. We get people during our morning prayer. We do our original prayer to start out the day. When we see a new person we would ask them to introduce themselves, and many times the person will say, “Oh I’m so and so and I’m from Spain.” We say, “Great, what are you doing here?” He said, “I’m here to volunteer.”

We'll say, “”Well, how long?” He says, “Four months.” We said, “Do you need a place to stay?” He says, “Yeah.” We say, “Welcome to Manav Sadhna”. So we also get them like that, because it’s a beautiful space. It’s not any agenda or nothing. A drop in the ocean, a city like Ahmedabad whatever we are doing is it going to change the world or is it going to change …? It’s not going to change much, but it is simply a space where we are getting so much out of it, all of us, every day. So it's the gratitude for people who are letting us do it and letting us get that happiness because there's no way to get that.

They’re letting us do it, they’re letting us serve them and the gratitude is to them because they are giving us unmeasurable, beautiful, immense happiness which is the meaning of life, of serving. It’s been a beautiful journey and thank you very much for listening to me and for giving us the time.

I do want to introduce my buddies that are here. Mahesh is one of those kids that came to us when he was six or eight years old. By the way, we have 300 employees on payroll, and 100 of them are full-time employees and of those 100, most of them are our own kids that came to us when they were six or eight years old. They sure feel like our kids and they make us feel like their mom and dad too because…they do man. They just come up with all kinds of stuff. It’s like, “I want to get married now. Can you help me with that?” or “I want to buy this house, where can I get some loan?”  Just like father and mother, but it’s beautiful.  At early age, back in college, second year, is where I decided that it would be a good idea if I want to live this life, I’d rather be single and live life as a single – that way it gives me the freedom to what I want to do.

I'm 58 and I’m telling you, it’s been awesome. There are no regrets at all. That does not mean that’s the way to do it for everyone but it’s possible. What is loneliness? You live and serve, there is no loneliness. People ask me…people look at me…like in India they don’t ask you if you’re married. They look at you and it’s like, “How many kids do you have?” I tell them I have 9000 kids with a big smile and it blows them away but I do feel that way in reality.

Every morning I wake up and we have 40 projects in five slums and community centers. You can look it up in the website, so I don't want to get into it now, but basically so many beautiful projects and so many amazing little kids and we serve food to 6000 children every single day with love.

I wake up - it’s been four years - having no planner, nothing. I don’t plan anything. I request with my two hands to people who wants me somewhere, it’s like “please text me that morning so I will be there” but other than that, I'm not writing down or pulling out diaries, and making plans or anything like that, no need at all.

I wake up and with 40 beautiful places whatever place I feel like going and hugging and meeting my kids, I just take my motorcycle and I end up going there. It’s beautiful and the kids, they love you in a true way. These kids, amazing. Because they are little and they're so many so you can't hug them all -- you can but you can't, so they will grab your feet and they will call your name Viren Dada, they call me Dada with love. They call Viren Dada, Viren Dada. That love is so pure and that grass-root is the inspiration every day.

There was never a struggle to continue all these years. Actually every day more and more energy to go out, to serve more and do more because of this beautiful love, selfless love because these kids don’t want anything from you, they don’t, just little love and attention. You look at them, put your hand on their head, they are so happy. But if we come home from work and all of a sudden a teenager boy or girl start asking you, “How was your day mom, or dad?” you're like, “Okay?” If they ask “You want tea, coffee, water?” You start thinking, “What’s going on. There’s something going on, why I'm treated so nice today by my child. Something’s going on!” Maybe a new cell phone or movie or date or whatever, but these kids, they don’t want nothing out of you, it's just pure.

That keeps you going. It’s very simple. This work, this heart of service, it's not rocket science.  It's simple and so beautiful.

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Comments (4)

  • Neil wrote ...

    Brother Rish thank you so much for capturing this. I love sharing Virenbhai's story and now I have the full tale :) Capture's Virenbhai's spirit beautifully, I could hear him as I read it :) Love

  • Rish Sanghvi wrote ...

    Thanks Neil. Nipun did like 95% of the work, but you know how he likes to spread the credit around. :-)

  • Nipun Mehta wrote ...

    Nice deflection, Rish. :) As I recall, you (and Sima) were the one responsible for hosting him, bringing him not into this circle and so many others? :) Moreover, I would even add that I've never heard Viren-bhai share the way he did that night -- and large part of it was the collective space that was created by everyone.

  • VSK wrote ...

    This is so very touching! I wish I could spend some time with such a soul, at least for one day in my lifetime! Amdavadis must be very lucky to live amidst such compassion! Even if every single Amdavadi was to contribute Rs. 100 each, the organization would get Rs. 5~6 crores! I hope someone gets the idea.