Bapuji - Who Never Left Virnagar

Tushar Bhatt 
(Former Senior Editor, The Times of India, Ahmedabad.) 

At his age, most people would be bedridden, haunted by ailments and resigned to depend on others to live. A few luckier ones would be a little better off they could potter about. Some others would be physically in good shape, but their mental faculties would begin to give in. Infirmity at an advanced age seems an inexorable law of nature. 

Dr. Shivananda Adhvaryoo, who breathed his last in Rishikesh On 22nd October, 1998, defied this law till his very last. At the ripe age of 92, he worked selflessly in the cause of the ailing poor as if he were in a perpetual race against the dock, determined to stay in front. 

Heading a 250 bed hospital at Virnagar a village of around 6,000 people, he seemed to find rejuvenation in driving as hard as humanly possible. By the time he lefi this world, more than three-and-a-half lakh eye operations had been performed by the dedicated band of doctors, social workers and others, who seemed to blindly follow Dr. Adhvaryoo, unmindful of little worldly rewards that would come their way in walking in-the footsteps of this monk, unmindful of the physical hardships, unmindful of an existence on the penumbra of the grab-all society of today. 

All their sweat, sacrifices and hard work were inspired by Dr. Adhvaryoo, whose work in eye care would remain a towering impossible to compete with in modern India. Lakhs of people in Saurashtra, Gujarat and other parts of India owe their eye-sight to his work, for which he charged not a paise. The service in the cause of the needy eye patients had gone on for nearly half a century by the time Bapuji, as Dr Adhvaryoo was universally known, chose to set sail for the ‘far shore” as he himself used to refer to man final departure from this world. 

The material details of what he did are themselves fascinating, but more so was the divine man who had become a living legend, and yet remained so unassuming that he had simply forgotten himself Only those who can attain that state of mind and soul are destined to be remembered for ever Bapuji, who had been holding Netra Yagna since mid-1940s, physically removed himself from our midst, but his spirit would always rejoice in every step taken for helping the needy.

Bapuji was a monk, but he also had a modern mind. He would constantly update his own medical knowledge, endeavor to obtain the latest equipment and ensure that the patients at his no-cost hospital could be served as best as any wealthy man would be. 

What has set Bapuji and his colleagues’ work here apart is the quality of the medical work, and the courtesy and affection extended to the needy as if each penniless was a millionaire, the patient in the world to be cared for The bane of charity organizations ofien is they treat rest of the world as if it were being obliged by a few uplifted souls. At Virnagar, even a casual visitor would feel that he was an honoured guest and the hosts felt gratified for the opportunity of serving them. 

One of the invisible achievements of Bapuji is that although his is a superior organisation, manned by superior people, it has resolutely shunned a superiority complex. Bapuji’s own letter-head - he was a compulsive letter writer - carried the unusual slogan -Manav Seva Ej Prabhu Seva - Service to Mankind is Service to God. It was not an empty slogan; every word rang true, rings true and hopefully will ring true now that Bapuji is no more. 

Bapuji faced innumerable hardships, but always made light of it. When he first came to Virnagar it was a hand-to-mouth existence, with inadequate facilities, poor water supply and harsh living conditions. Yet, the Virnagar complex developed into a most modern eye care hospital, attracting favourable response even from the normally fastidious Swiss. 

Money matters a lot for charity institutions, but never was it a cause for worry. Bapuji used to say: “Given a worthy cause, money always pours from somewhere or the other “Nor would he agree to make compromise in services owing to money A special feature of the working at Virnagar is that the hospital does not wait for the patients; it goes out to them. Every month, at least 30 locations, some as far away as 200 km. are visited by mobile units. The village level work is normally done in co-operation with local workers and donors, but as Bapuji used to assert “we do not stop from going to a place just because no donor comes forward.” 

I met Bapuji in the autumn of his life I had never believed in Goodman and I was a sort of apprehensive. The picture is still very clearly itched in mind when I first saw him. It was beautiful day with the sun warm in a clear blue sky. He spoke to me as if we had known each other for ages. In the first visit, his work impressed me, in the second the man himself fascinated me. I must have paid him a number of visits over the past few years, yet I cannot say I had seen all of his multifaceted personality. My cynicism got wiped out completely at least as far as Bapuji was concerned. 

Some years ago, he got interested in education. Having started a high school at Virnagar earlier, he had realised that if society were to improve it first needed an improvement in education. And, education could not improve, if the standard of the school teachers were not bettered. It was imperative to do something. The idea of holding camps for trainees at education colleges, where students were training to become teachers sprang from this. He once explained that “if we can interest ten pupils training to become teachers and helped them become even a wee bit better teachers in years to come, thousands of students will benefit in turn.” He was right. But, some like me, wondered if it was not a drop in the ocean. It was, Bapuji readily conceded, but that did not mean even that one drop should not be added to make the matters better This perhaps was the corner stone of his karma yoga no matter how daunting was the task, Bapuji would contribute his mite, regardless of the results. The gigantic nature of the problem never deterred him; nor did it ever undermine the quality of his effort, his zeal, his toiling. 

I have known many sadhus and mahatma, but Bapuji was the only person I have ever known who could be called a real karma yogi. It was not his words that made you think of him as a saint; it was his work Till the end, he never gave up hard work, keeping as fit as a person 30 years younger would dream of being. His recipe as simple; get up early do some yogabhyas, some exercise, work, work and work, not for personal benefit but for the benefit of others. Set apart some time for offering a soulful prayer to the Almighty. “If you learn to take care of others with a full heart, God will take care of you.” 

On August 15, l998, I came to Virnagar unaware that this was to be my last meeting with Bapuji. He took us - me, my wife Hansa and my mother Manjula, -personally to Ghela Somnath. In the morning, as the world lay bathed in tranquility, Bapuji asked me to accompany him into his room in the old house where he had started living when he came to Virnagar first. 

At the back was a small cupboard full of books. “Pick up any books you want”, he said. I took four He then spoke to me for nearly 45 minutes, on the meaning of life on God, on everything under the sun. He had always shunned talking about himself but on that day at my pestering, he made an exception, a rare gesture of recalling his early years and struggles. In measured tones, not betraying any emotions he spoke glowingly of how others had helped him. Never did he take credit personally for anything. God guided him, he said, and his Guru provided spiritual sustenance.. Good people gave their money Everybody chipped in and he was a mere instrument only, he said. In my three decades of journalism, I have never met a man who had done more than what Bapuji did, although I have met countless who had done a tiny bit and claimed Himalayan credits. Bapuji was a living example of an egoless person, something that separates mere mortals from the divine. He said: “I would like to go for a last visit to Rishikesh, the abode of Swami Sivananda. God willing, I will come back. I may not. Who knows?” His eyes twinkled, with what in retrospect I think was a celestial shine. I was leaving for Ahmedabad in a few hours. He affectionately placed his right hand on my hand by way of blessings. This again was, as I realised later, something he had never done.  

Bapuji never came back from Rishikesh. But, then, I fondly think he had never left Virnagar For, I think Bapuji was a man of God. There was no rancor or regret in his ancient voice. There neither was any tiredness. 

His dream was to work harder now that he was getting on in age. “If I live up to 2000 A.D. I would love to reduce blindness rate owing to cataract further in Saurashtra. I would also like to hold more camps for the B .Ed students.” 

Then, afar-away look came over his face. Slowly,

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