Devotional Thoughts

Akshaya Patra’s success story in ‘Soul Food’ by Rashmi Bansal

Akshaya Patra’s success story in ‘Soul Food’ by Rashmi Bansal

Madhu Pandit Dasa was born in Nagercoil, but grew up in Bangalore.

“My father was a scientist in Indian Institute of Science. I finished 4th standard in Bangalore and then my dad shifted to ISRO in Trivandrum.”

Madhu shifted from St Joseph’s School in Bangalore, to St Joseph’s School in Trivandrum. At school, he had a special interest in science and even did a lot of extra reading – beyond the curriculum – at the British Library.

“Another thing I was fascinated by was Chess. My father was a good chess player, so I learnt from him, when I was in class 4.”

In his senior years in school, Madhu won the Trivandrum Junior District Champion in Chess.

“So during all this time, my focus was more on pursuing science and chess. I was not really serious about studies.”

When he entered class 9, Madhu’s father forbade him from playing chess anymore. It made a big difference to his academic performance.

In the class 10 board exam, Madhu was one of the handfuls of students in the state who secured 100% in mathematics. During the pre‐degree course Madhu joined the Trivandrum Science Club; he quickly developed a fascination for theoretical physics.

“I realized that if I wanted to understand more of physics, I had to study more of mathematics. You know the language of modern physics. So, I started self‐study outside my curriculum.”

Around this time, Madhu also won the National Science Talent Search Scholarship. An award so prestigious that all IITs and BITS Pilani used to send an offer of admission without the entrance exam to the selected scholars.

Madhu chose IIT Bombay and enrolled for a 5 year integrated M.Sc. Physics Course. The year was 1976.

“I was very excited as I felt it was the best institute and I thought I can really learn and pursue my subject.”

But then came the big disappointment.

“The IIT atmosphere, oh my God I didn’t like it because it was too competitive and there was relative grading. May be for engineering it was good you know, to tease your brains, make you think faster. But it was not for me.”

Madhu went through a depressing two years.

“I was studying physics and at the same time, not studying any physics. I was just attending classes and tutorials, mugging and writing for exams.”

At the end of two years, Madhu decided to switch to civil engineering. A less popular branch, hence less competitive. He wanted to join an easy branch, so that he could continue studying physics on his own.

“I would attend classes, bunk tutorials and then sit in the IIT library till 10 o’ clock,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye.

But even behind this love for physics, lay something else, something deeper. Since childhood, Madhu had one question at the back of his mind, “what is the original cause of everything?”

“I was excited by science because it explored the ‘cause behind the cause’. So I relished that process of discovery.”

And after entering IIT, Madhu had actually started looking into life itself. The pursuit of physics acquired a philosophical dimension.

“Einstein shook the foundations of science with his Theory of Relativity. But, even on his death-bed, he was grappling with the truth.”

“See, when a scientist tries to understand the atom, he finds it is made of electrons, protons and neutrons. Then he realizes that there are further elementary particles within the nucleus. And it is all bound together by order and symmetry.”

So much beauty, so much harmony in nature – perhaps there is a ‘creator’? That thought, however, never crossed young Madhu’s mind. As a soldier of science, he was looking for an impersonal cause.

An irreducible, fundamental particle, a single, unifying theory from which everything can be explained. Something that eludes physicists, even today.

Immersed in this quest for the ‘Cause of all Causes’ – but naturally – Madhu’s grades suffered.

“You see, everywhere I came out with flying colours, but here in IIT, I am average.”

In other words, a ‘six point someone’.

Madhu took to smoking, and then, during the last paper in his fourth year, something snapped.

“By then I had been reading a lot of philosophical books. Mostly, Western philosophy, because you see, I did not know Sanskrit.”

One such book, by Bertrand Russell, proved to be the ‘trigger’.

Said Russell, “if I get another chance to live, I will never touch philosophy. For the simple reason that for all these years of searching I do not know if what I am seeing is true or not. Does what I see with my eyes exist or not exist, is it true or not?”

If a man like Bertrand Russell ‘gave up’ after racking his brains for years, what hope did Madhu have?

At this point Madhu – and a fellow student from Trivandrum – decided to ‘end it all’.

“What difference does it make whether we live or die? These IIT fellows have messed up our lives. We will jump off the main building and give them a bad name.”

It was not about grades, or career, or unrequited love. It was about questions to which there were no answers – life, the universe and the meaning of everything.

Existential frustration.

“You see, when man gets very worked up in his mind, he can do anything. So we really worked up about the question of ‘what was the truth’? And why can’t we find it?”

But once he had decided to commit suicide, there was a complete ease of tension. The night before, Madhu went into the library one last time and for reasons unknown, picked up a different kind of book. A book by ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada, with a colorful cover illustration.

“I’d seen it before and thought there’s nothing more than stories in this book – so I put it back. I didn’t want stories, I wanted the truth!”

But that day Madhu decided to do some ‘light reading’. And so he took the book with the glossy picture of Krishna on the cover to his room. Turning to the chapter ‘Prayers by personified Vedas’.

Within five minutes, Madhu burst into tears. Tears of joy.

He cried, “My God! I can’t believe it, how did this simple thing not strike me?”

The ‘truth’ was so simple. God – or Krishna – was the ‘cause of all causes’. A Person, limitless in name, form, activities, energy.

“I continued reading and that’s when I realised that I couldn’t die. I had a purpose to live.”

The revelation came to Madhu, at the age of 22.

“After that, he started reading Prabhupada’s books voraciously. My view of the world changed completely.”

Madhu realised the limitations of science. Limited, by definition, to the five senses.

“But there are many, many things beyond. For instance, the mind. We all know that we are using our minds and that the mind exists, but nobody can see it. Therefore the science of the mind – or psychology – is not considered a pure science!”

That is not the Vedic perspective.

“Our Bhagavad Gita and Bhagavatam understands the self as the ‘body’ the ‘mind’, the ‘intellect’ and then, the ‘ego’. So there is a hierarchy of selves.”

Without going into further details, let us just say, Madhu’s universe expanded.

Of course, he admits, science cannot go beyond the five senses. Because then it will lose objectivity. But that does not mean there is nothing beyond science.

“Vedanta is the science of the self. The laboratory is our body. Your experimentation is with your own life. So I am still a scientist – only the domain is different.”

The domain now includes the spirit, awareness and consciousness.

“In a nutshell, we are not this body, and we are eternal. And it does not end there; we are part and parcel of a Supreme Eternal.”

Even as he digested this new found treasure chest of knowledge, Madhu completed his BTech and then joined MTech. Mainly because he could not bear to be parted from the IIT library.

However he did not actually complete his Master’s.

“Somewhere along the way I decided to dedicate my life to Prabhupada’s mission. I decided to join ISKCON.”

Madhu’s father – himself a religious person – was puzzled.

“Why are you doing this at your age? Renunciation is for old people.”

Madhu replied, “This is different. I am pursuing spirituality as a science, as a seeker of knowledge. I am not becoming an ascetic or joining religion.”

Of course, he could sit and be a philosopher but Madhu wanted to live this knowledge. To do that, he had to first submit to the process.

“Hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water under certain conditions of pressure and temperature. In the same way, you need to condition your mind, and your body, to become a sadhak.”

In short, you need discipline. Discipline to wake up at 3.30 am, bathe and then spend five hours in spiritual practices.

“When we cross a certain level, the organization is only an instrument. We think that the Lord takes care through the organization.”

“The discipline is designed to facilitate the purification of our mind.” This is the science of bhakti yoga.”

While ISKCON promotes bhakti to Krishna, it is not to be taken literally.

“Krishna is spoken of as a historical person in the Bhagavad Gita, but the shastric understanding is that Krishna means ‘all‐attractive’. And God’s nature is that he should be all‐attractive.”

The ISKCON idea of ‘Krishna’ is therefore a Universal God, and not a ‘Hindu God’. And the purpose of people working with ISKCON is to serve humanity.

“Part of the self‐realisation process is to act selflessly. That is what is facilitated here. Someone may be a priest, another may sell books, a third may be in the ‘management’. But it is all application of spiritual knowledge through devoted action, or devoted service.”

In the process, the Seeker opens us up internally to higher levels of experience.

As long as we are self‐centered in our thinking, we do not open up to this higher dimension of spirituality. So this discipline, both the morning sadhana and the devotional work we do, give us an opportunity to dissolve that sense of false ‘I’ ness – for me and myself.”

Your horizons expand into God, into humanity and ultimately you realize all is One.

Of course, self‐realisation is a Journey. For Madhu, this journey formally began in 1981. After six months, he was ‘initiated’. With shaven head and saffron robes, Madhu Pandit ‘Dasa’ became a Hare Krishna.

“Srila Prabhupada instructed that in a 15 to 20 km radius of any ISKCON temple, no one should go hungry. So this was an inspiration for us to start Akshaya Patra.”

“For two years I travelled to remote villages in south India, giving lectures on Bhagavad-gita and distributing ISKCON literature. I also worked with ISKCON in Trivandrum. Then in 1983, I came to Bangalore, and took up the opening of a centre here.”

Around this time, Madhu also got married to Bhaktilatha, Headmistress at Chinmaya School in Chennai and also a missionary. She resigned from her job and joined the ISKCON movement.

The ISKCON centre in Bangalore started from a two bedroom house. But, Madhu had big plans.

“When I joined ISKCON, my idea was to do big things. I never gave up whether it was in chess or physics or anything else!” he exclaims.

It sounds a little odd, coming from a ‘spiritual’ person. But, he puts it into context.

“Whatever Prabhupada has given to this world in terms of spiritual knowledge and in terms of service, should be spread, it is a big gift to humanity.”

But this ‘gift’ will not just fall into your lap; you have to earn it. And the life of Srila Prabhupada has been Madhu’s greatest inspiration.

“This is a man who went to America at the age of 70 with just Rs. 40 in his pocket. He adapted to living in a strange new culture and transformed people around him.”

In fact, the entire institution of ISKCON was built in a scant eleven years – between 1966 and 1977. Exactly ‘how’ did he do it?

The explanation is simple – or complex – depends on how you see it.

“When you work for a selfless cause, the sky is the limit. You are not bound by your karma. If you give full efforts, results will keep coming.”

Cause, effort, result – you need all these things. But, you work without attachment to the fruits of your labour. And that work must start somewhere.

At ISKCON Bangalore it all began with an abandoned quarry. A ’worthless’ piece of land offered by the government to the trust.

While inspecting the site a devotee remarked. “We cannot have a temple here – there is so much pollution from factories all around, and no pakka road!”

Madhu kept quiet. He was observing a mud patch in the centre of all the rocks. A patch where tulasi plants were growing.

He told a devotee, “Don’t see the smoke, and don’t see the road, just look at these tulasi plants. This place is where the Lord’s feet have to come, it is destined for that.”

And that is exactly how it happened. The wasteland was transformed into a majestic temple complex. From ‘nothing’ came something ‐ the magic of creation.

“In the mind of any kind of entrepreneur, there is a current reality and there is a vision. The brain works in such a way that it moves closer and closer until that vision is reality.”

The vision for ISKCON Bangalore was to create a beautiful modern temple. The funds for it were raised, from the common people.

“Mostly this temple is built out of individual donations. We had an innovative scheme called ‘Sudhama Seva’ where we collected one rupee per day, so that anyone – no matter how poor ‐ could contribute.”

Drop by drop, Rs. 30 crores was thus collected.

“We got hundreds of construction workers, put up sheds for them to stay on the site and worked with petty contractors. Whatever we collected, we spent week by week, on construction.”

The temple complex – as it stands today – was inaugurated in 1997. Initially – like all ISKCON temples – the focus was solely on propagation of the Bhagavad Gita and Krishna Consciousness.

And of course, as devotees flocked for darshan they were taken care of. You would not leave the temple without partaking of the delicious prasadam.

One fine day, in March 2000, two gentlemen walked into Madhu Pandit’s office. One of them was Mohandas Pai, then CEO Infosys.

Mohandas said, “It is nice that you are feeding so many people here, Swamiji. Why don’t you feed the children in nearby schools?”

This, he explained was a popular program in Tamil Nadu, a scheme initiated by the late MGR.

Madhu Pandit said, “Sure, why not? I have a kitchen facility but, I need a vehicle.”

On the spot, Mohandas offered not one, but two vehicles. The meeting ended, the gentlemen left.

Madhu then sat back, took a pen and paper and started calculating how much food needed to be cooked.

“In my enthusiasm I had told him we will make as much food as the vehicles can carry. Now I realized he is giving us two Lorries!”

Calculations showed that could carry ten tons of food. Even for a kitchen as large as ISKCON, the volume was mind‐boggling.

“Then I realized that in 15 to 20 days, the cost of the food would exceed the cost of the two trucks.”

Madhu simply never factored in the recurring cost! Which is kind of strange…

“You know, that’s where the Lord’s hand is there, especially in these kinds of things. Normally people say that if you shoot for the stars, you will at least touch the moon. But in my experience, in the Lord’s service, it has been the other way round!”

In short, aim for the sky and find you have been taken far beyond.

“For that to happen sometimes ignorance is good. Because if you are ignorant, you don’t have fear. If I had done a proper calculation when Mohandas Pai was with me – a financial calculation – I would have hesitated.”

Now, he had given his word, and he kept it.

“First of all, I set up a separate kitchen. In June 2000, we started a pilot project, feeding 1500 school children every day.”

This program covered five schools. Word spread quickly, many more schools wanted meals for their children.

“In the space of two months, we had enough applications requesting us to feed around 100,000 children. And this was just in and around Bangalore city!”

In just a few kilometers radius, so many children were going hungry to school. It was a shocking revelation.

Without conscious decision, or ‘strategy’ the program began ‘scaling up’. In just four months, 10,000 children a day were getting nutritious mid‐day meals from the ISKCON kitchen.

And these meals were being financed purely by individual donations. Which are not easy to get.

“We had no government subsidy, or corpus. But we had faith that somehow money for the next meal would come.”

Invariably, it did. But what if – one day‐ that did not happen?

In one such moment of doubt, Madhu stood before the temple deities, and prayed for guidance. Suddenly, all fear vanished.

He said to Radha, the Universal Mother. “Any number of children can be fed by You, why should I bother? I will just put in my best efforts.”

And that effort meant many practical and worldly wise decisions. Such as creating a separate foundation, to manage the program.

“With the creation of separate identity, there is no confusion about management and most importantly, we can ensure that there is no discrimination among the beneficiaries.”

“There is a lot of pep talk given in books that if you desire, if you think high, you think big, you will get whatever you want. It is not true. There is also the law of Karma.”

The second reason was that such an organization would find it easier to attract funds from corporates. And clearly, to feed more and more children, donations from individuals would not be enough.

“We knew corporates would seek transparency and accountability with regard to their money. So we brought in KPMG to audit our accounts (pro bono).”

The stamp of Mohandas Pai is more than evident. He came in as a trustee, in his capacity as an individual. Infosys – as a company – would get involved in Akshaya Patra much later.

Which brings me to an important question, “Who thought of the name?”

“You know it’s very interesting,” says Madhu.

It happened – just like that – during a meeting with Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi. The HRD minister at that time.”

Madhu said, “We are running a mid‐day meal program, feeding 5000 children a day.”

He responded, “So this has become an Akshaya Patra?”

In the Mahabharata, ‘Akshaya Patra’ is the vessel which would give unlimited food every day.

“So, when he uttered that word, I thought that it was the Lord telling me this should be the name of our mission.”

So beautiful, so apt, so evocative. And true to its name, the vessel has been inexhaustible.

“Actually it is a divine programme. It will startle anybody with some finance knowledge to know that we have no corpus. We have huge recurring costs every month.”

“Sometimes the cause is selfless but somewhere I think that I need fame, or name. You need to forsake even that. Then the Lord will use you as an instrument for greater works.”

“We followed all the practices of the business world to build credibility for Akshaya Patra. Our corpus is our intention, recommendation, commitment and daily efforts.”

An Akshaya Patra meal costs Rs. 5.50 to prepare and deliver. Initially, the entire cost was borne by the foundation. But, that was to change.

On 28 November 2001 the Supreme Court of India passed an order mandating “Cooked mid‐day meal is to be provided in all the government and government‐aided primary schools in all the states.”

Akshaya Patra thus became eligible for government subsidy. Yet, even today, that does not cover the entire cost.

“The government gives Rs. 3 per meal but we spend Rs. 5.50. So we spend roughly Rs. 2 on every meal, every day.”

In the initial days, with 30,000 children to feed, the daily deficit was Rs. 60,000. Today, with over 1 million children in the program, the deficit is an astounding Rs. 20 lakh per day.

Yet, till date there has never been a shortfall. Through the magic of effort, commitment and intention, somehow the funds come.

“Initially, we struggled a lot. That is the time we launched this scheme where you could sponsor a child for Rs. 1200 for a year.”

A non‐profit organization was registered in the US with Chitranga Chaitanya Das collecting funds – practically door to door.

But many NGOs and charitable trusts make these efforts. What sets Akshaya Patra apart is its unique form. Part missionary, part corporate, the foundation harnesses the energy of both worlds.

Like a modern‐day Narasimha avatar born to kill a modern‐day rakshasa. The rakshasa of hunger.

“We have missionary trustees, but a majority of the trustees are external. They bring greater transparency and accountability to the foundation.”

And no, they do not necessarily believe in ISKCON. They simply believe in doing good, in lending their professional expertise to a worthy cause.

Similarly, while kitchens are a labour of love – and daily commitment – managed by the missionaries. People who can be counted to wake up every morning at 3.00 a.m. and get the work started.

But technology and professional practices enable these kitchens to operate at the next level. From one unit with gas stoves and brass pots catering to 10,000 children, Akshaya Patra now operates 18 centralized modern kitchens.

“Our facility in Hubli district alone cooks more than 180,000 meals on a daily basis,” exults Madhu. This includes 15 tons of rice and 26,800 liters of sambar – all ready in less than six hours.

But, there is no fixed ‘formula’. As the program expanded to the village level, kitchens actually had to be decentralized.

“We ran a pilot to feed 600 tribal children in five villages of Baran district in April 2005. A self‐help group of women was formed in each village and these women were trained in various aspects of cooking, hygiene and nutrition.”

An operation of this size and scale needs not just dedication, but direction from trained professionals.

In 2006, Shridhar Venkat chucked his IT job and joined the Akshaya Patra Foundation – as Executive Director. He heads the team of professionals who handle finance, marketing and the supply chain, social service it is, but managed with the ruthless efficiency – and ambition – of a corporation.

On the missionary side, Akshaya Patra is headed by Chanchalapathi Dasa, who has been a Hare Krishna since 1984. In all, the organization has 2500 employees and 50 missionaries, overseeing an ever‐expanding operation.

“We are happy to state that we have achieved our earlier mission of feeding one million children by 2010, in early 2009,” says Madhu.

Akshaya Patra’s next milestone is reaching out to 5 million children by 2020.

All very well, but is there real value to providing a meal to a child? A value beyond the humanitarian gesture of filling an empty stomach? The startling answer is ‘yes’.

The Department of Education, Government of Karnataka, conducted an independent study on the impact of the Akshaya Patra program. The study noted that 99.61% of the students felt that they could pay better attention in class.

Another study – by AC Nielsen ORG MARG found that attendance in schools, as well as learning of students, had increased.

But, these are all happy side‐effects ‐ not a result of a well thought out ‘strategy’.

Madhu chuckles, “I will frankly tell you, it was not like I sat down and had a vision that so many children will get so much of education; they will have food in their stomach so they will come to school. In fact, we had no idea of the magnitude of this problem…!”

A journey of a million miles starts with a single step. A casual conversation, a stray thought. You may start barefoot, without a map, but somewhere along the way you find your rhythm. And fellow travelers join in step.

Akshaya Patra has changed not just the lives of a million children but the character of the temple. It makes ISKCON Bangalore special, gives it a heart.

“Imagine us, such a big temple… without a social initiative. How would it look?”

If more temples worried about that, God would rest in His Heaven.

And all would be right with this world.

5 Comments

  1. Ranjan

    Hare Krishna Prabhu!

    It was awsome success story,really heart toching, and inspiring.I am really inspired that I got a sucha nice family, good caring,well guiding i.e non other than ISKCON.

    I am praying prabhupad in any circumstances of my life, I should be in his shelter as a disciple.

    Also I specially request you prabhu, like this way please enlighten us.

    YS

  2. Vishal

    All Glories to Srila Prabhupada…its such a fortunate thing that by accident I came on touch with FOlk for some times enjoyed the associations..I bow down to you prabhuji for such marvellous work.your actions inspires me to purify my mind every now and then.

  3. MURALIDHARA DASA

    HARE KRISHNA PRABHU, DANDAVAT PRANAMS. JAI SRILA PRABHUPADA !!

    VERY INSPIRING AND INTERESTING STORY. THIS SHOULD COME IN A FORM OF A BOOK THEN MORE AND MORE PEOPLE WILL BE AWARE.

    YOUR SERVANT,

    MURALIDHARA DASA.

     

     

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