The Backbone of Sustainable Communities: A Case Study on Social Resilience

My days in Bangalore passed as if in a fairy tale. It was exactly how I had envisioned India:

I would attend the daily prayer sessions at 5:45am and bask in the powerful vibrations emitted by their chanting in unison. I followed this up with 6am meditations, after which I would walk outside to greet the rising sun with the monkeys in the trees above and the cows on the streets below. At meal times, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor and eating with my hands while gathered around a group of knowledgeable people giving me insights into their country’s history, Sanskrit and the Vedas.

I was stunned at the wealth of knowledge that surrounded me with these newfound teachers and friends. I was equally impressed by the humble lifestyles they led, each of them owning only a few pairs of clothes and some books. What they lacked in material possessions they had a hundred-fold in mental resilience and simple cheerfulness.

I was staying in one of the rooms of this peculiar place with these peculiar people. I felt like a vagabond in a strange land but another part of me had a nostalgic feeling of home. Everything about the building was modest and discreet except for the massive oak statues of Hindu Gods that lined the corridors. For days, I was convinced that these men were examples of average Indians: generally more disciplined, knowledgeable and content than us Westerners. But then I drew my attention to the world outside of these walls and noticed many similarities with my homes back in North and South America. You can still sense the same anxiety in the people, the usual tension of the city life and the fast-paced, competitive race to some obscure destination.

Swami Vivekananda statue
Swami Vivekananda statue

So, if the urban life in this major Indian city shared similar characteristics to that in the West, why were my hosts so markedly divergent? Who are these people and where am I?

I discovered the answer to my question after 3 days, when I noticed a group of boys and men practicing Surya Namaskar and chanting Sanskrit verses in the front courtyard. I went outside and they invited me to join them in their Shaka, a daily activity done from an early age with the objective of training the individual’s physical, mental and spiritual health in an atmosphere that reinforces social unity. “Everyone starts on this playground,” a member told me.

I was in 1 of about 60,000 centers throughout India of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the largest volunteer organization in the world. These people are on the scene of a natural disaster and other calamities before anyone else – before the police, medics or firefighters. This outstanding speed is attributed to their interconnected sphere of influence in which important information is relayed to RSS volunteers almost instantaneously. It is a sort of brotherhood of men and women who are united with the common purpose of helping others through social service.

The RSS playground.  Anyone can take part in the Sun Salutation yoga sequences and games.  All RSS volunteers start here.
The RSS playground. Anyone can take part in the Sun Salutation yoga sequences and games. All RSS volunteers start here.
RSS Front door.  The Keshava Krupa center in Bangalore.
RSS Front door. The Keshava Krupa center in Bangalore.

RSS is comprised of people from all ends of the socioeconomic, religious, and ethnic spectrum and anyone interested in being of service to their community can join. These two qualities of openness and selfless service (aka Karma Yoga) are the primary reasons for RSS’s widespread community of volunteers and supporters.

The movement was originally envisioned by the influential activist and guru, Swami Vivekananda, and was materialized into RSS by Dr. Hedgewar in 1925. Their mission was to unite the decaying Hindu society that was collapsing as a result of years of British Imperial rule.

“The RSS are the Jedi Knights of India,” my fellow British-born Indian friend remarked. “The people in this room seem to be unassuming characters, but they are responsible for who becomes the Prime Minister of India, among other things. They are powerful people who wield the light side of the ‘force.’ You have no idea who you are living with.”

As bizarre as that sounds, I did, indeed, find out much later that I was in the presence of influential figures including the State Minister of Karnataka and leaders of national political parties. But despite their status’, they seemed so jolly and down-to-earth – hardly how I would picture some of the world’s most powerful political figures to be like.

Much of this has to do with the fact that the “highest-ranking” (there aren’t really ranks in this organization) RSS volunteers, Pracharaks, have actually renounced all of their physical possessions – cars, houses, a family, bank accounts, etc. They do not own a penny of economic wealth to their name and have given up the pursuit of material wealth in order to fully dedicate their lives to being of service to others.

This common aspiration, based on the spirit of human unity and the betterment of life, garners a powerful bond among the volunteers and society as a whole. The RSS has already expanded beyond the borders of India with the objective of uniting people and improving human health. The real success of this movement comes from the innate flexibility from which it operates: You do not need to be Hindu to support the cause, there is nothing to believe in except for community service and there is no one thing to follow except for your heart. It is simply a group of people who take action based on the needs of a particular society and culture.

Nagaraj ji, the senior most pracharak at the Bangalore RSS and a dear friend.
Nagaraj ji, the senior most pracharak at the Bangalore RSS and a dear friend.
Alongside good RSS friends
Alongside some good RSS friends

In fact, one pracharak mentioned to me that the ultimate goal is to have RSS in all countries, but all with different identities. They would have different names and different ways of connecting with the local people depending on the culture but, in essence, they would uphold the same spirit of human unity and progress that the original RSS practiced.

The RSS is an intriguing case study of community building through selfless giving and collective support. People involved in this are not motivated by attainment of money or fame but, rather, by something much more powerful: in general, individuals want to belong to a community, especially one with an honorable cause, and the RSS gives them the opportunity to find their niche and help others along the way.

Social resilience is one of the main pillars from which a sustainable human settlement arises. This social foundation, along with ecological harmony and economic relevance & flexibility, is a prerequisite for a community to endure into the indefinite future. Without these pillars of Sustainability, which are embedded in mutual trust, respect, honesty and love, it is impossible to have a sustainable society.

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