In the Upanishads and in the Dharma Sastras, we frequently come across the two terms, Ishtam and Poortham. Amara Kosa gives the meaning of Ishtam as yaga and allied observances and rites, and of Poortham as digging (Khaatam, खातं) etc. Yagna and other ceremonies performed with offerings in fire (homa) demand severe austerity, considerable mental and physical discipline and knowledge and qualifications of a high order. Moreover, should any lapse occur, sin will accrue to the person performing these ceremonies. It, therefore, follows that it is not every person that is entitled to or qualified for performing yaga. But every person can participate in the kind of service denoted by the word, Poortham. Poortham can take the form of digging wells and tanks for public use, building temples, planting avenue trees, tending temple flower gardens, laying foot-paths and roads, raising community topes, cleaning tanks and roads, and similar services.
During the Brahmotsavam of any temple, we see all persons participating in dragging the temple car, ratha, (रथ: ) all persons, high and low, rich and poor, without any distinction of caste. Similarly, in the variety of services known as Poortham, all of us can and must participate. The emphasis in this kind of service is on manual labor, a person’s physical participation in the service. For example, when a public tank is being dug, it is obligatory on the part of even rich and highly-placed persons to dig and remove at least a few baskets of earth. This is the least that one can do to express gratitude to God for having endowed one with health.
Valuable and informative stone inscriptions are to be found in many South Indian temples. Similarly, valuable inscriptions are found on the parapet walls of wells in Rajasthan. Water is scarce in Rajasthan deserts and often five to seven miles separate one well from another. A well in this area may cost as much as a big temple in the South. So, considering the benefit accruing to thousands of people, wells were dug in a spirit of public service by the joint efforts of all people. It is an interesting feature of human nature that people, born in areas where water is scarce and land is not fertile, are very enterprising. They often migrate to other places and become rich by their hard work, richer than people living in areas blessed by the bounty of nature. That is why we see the Marwari community thriving everywhere. The adventurous spirit of the British people, which enabled them to conquer a good portion of the globe in the past, is attributable to the fact that land in Britain was insufficient to support the population and satisfy all their wants. When water is available in abundance in an area and the land is also rich and fertile, the inhabitants of such an area tend to become lethargic.
When any person does not respond quickly when he is called, we remark in Tamil, avan vettarana (அவன் வெட்டரானா) – is he digging? This common saying stresses the importance of digging and conveys the idea that if a man is engaged in digging, he should not be disturbed. Unfortunately, in modern days, especially in big towns and cities, there is a tendency to fill up the tanks with earth and to close the wells. This is done due to ignorance, without knowing that tanks especially are intended to meet the needs of animals and birds also.
It will be useful and also an act of devotion if every one of us devotes an hour or half an hour, at least once a week, for doing manual labor for a common cause. If one is interested and looks about, one can find ample scope for such service everywhere. In cities one can engage oneself in street-cleaning, cleaning the precincts of temples and tanks, or planting and watering flower plants in temple gardens. Where a temple is under construction, one can volunteer to carry bricks for masons to build. Such a kind of labor will open up the springs of compassion in our hearts and develop in us a sense of camaraderie with our fellow-beings. People of four or more villages can join together and dig tanks for each village by turn. They can also form roads wherever necessary. We will be able to shed our vanity and egoism by such physical labor and develop a feeling of oneness with others. Our minds will thereby be disciplined and cleansed of impurities, and be in a proper condition to receive and enshrine the Paramatma, which is the ultimate purpose of life. That is the significance of srama daan, advocated by Vinoba Bhave. I am not stating in this talk anything new or novel; I am only bringing to your notice what our Sastras contain.
December 2, 1957.