Westminster Interfaith: Promoting Dialogue Between People of Faith

The agency of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster for Interreligious Dialogue

Westminster Interfaith Newsletter

Issue 64 – November 2009

Work and Prayer: A Hindu monk's response to child poverty

Chitranga Chaitanya Das (C.C.Das) is a Hindu Hare Krishna monk, who feeds nearly one million undernourished children everyday. C.C.Das tells how it all started about 9 years ago at the Hare Krishna Temple in Bangalore in Southern India. He was sitting with a couple of monks and talking about how wonderful it was to be able to offer something tasty to eat to the thousands of visitors who came to the temple every week. They wondered how they could also feed other hungry people who could not come to the temple. They had read in a UN report that millions of Indian children rarely go to school because their parents kept them home to work or to beg in the streets. The poor children who did go to school often left at midday because they were too hungry to concentrate. The monks decided that bringing food to the schools would help the children grow stronger, healthier and brighter as well as help India develop.

In 2000, thirty monks from the temple started to provide free fresh lunches, using vegetables from their own garden, to 1500 children in schools around the temple, on condition that they attended school regularly. The scheme was an immediate success. Suddenly, children who had never gone to school started to attend. The news spread rapidly and soon other schools wanted to get included.

In order to support the project, C.C. Das managed to collect donations in India and abroad and sponsors from the business community. By 2001, they were providing daily lunches for over 30,000 children. It was proving to be an impossible task. C.C. Das was not deterred. He raised funds to buy new machines for cutting vegetables, cleaning rice and processing enormous quantities of food quickly and hygienically. In 2008, the Akshaya Patra Foundation was running three industrial kitchens in India, delivering 850 000 free meals to about 5000 schools six days a week. With the new machines, they could cook enough rice for 1000 children in 15 minutes, 10,000 chapattis in one hour and prepare 250,000 meals in 6 hours. They were processing 100,000 kilos of rice and lentils a day. By the end of the summer, they were hoping to provide one million free meals every day.

The impact of the monks' work did not go unnoticed. The number of children going regularly to school in the area where the Foundation is active had increased enormously. The health and academic achievement of the children had also made a significant improvement. A few states, including Orissa, Gujerat and Uttar Pradesh chose to give money to the monks to provide free meals. This meant an increase in work, quantity of food but also in tastes. The monks rose to the challenge. They equipped the kitchens to provide for local differences in taste buying vegetables and dairy products at local markets.

Although most of the resources go to the industrial kitchens, the Foundation also runs smaller kitchen in the poorest areas, where, according to C.C. Das, no one was going to school, not even the teachers! The position of women has also improved. Of the 2500 paid staff, over 700 are women, whose status and self-esteem have increased. However, the monks have maintained overall control. In order to make sure the meals are ready on time, they get up at 2.15 am to start work in the kitchens.

Asked how he and his monks managed to keep up to the punishing pace and withstand the pressure, C.C. Das pointed to a chain of beads in his begging bowl and said: 'Every day, I take the time to recite in the name of God for at least two hours as I slip the beads through my hands. If there is one thing that continues to keep me going, it's this practice. I've been doing it for 20 years now, ever since I became a monk. It's thanks to these spiritual exercises that we are able to do this work. It enables us to keep our hearts open and continue to give'.

C.C. Das was interviewed while he was fund-raising for new vehicles and food processors in Holland on his way to Gouda to order large quantities of stroopwafels – a Dutch cookie, he was hoping to include as a delicious dessert to accompany the daily meal of soup, rice, three vegetables, chapattis and yogurt, which he hopes to be able to offer to the 50 million undernourished children living in India.

Adapted from Full bellies, hungry minds by Tijn Touber in Ode magazine, June 2008.

Return to top         Go to Newsletter Index

Valid XHTML 1.0 Strict    Valid CSS!