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Swami Vivekananda and the Pandemic Panic

~ Nikhil Yadav

Epidemics and pandemics have devastated the human race throughout its existence. From prehistoric times to the present modern-days we have noticed numerous pandemics and medical emergencies right through history. While some even turned as devastating as the fourteenth century ‘’Bubonic plague ’’ which was also known as the Black Death causing millions of human lives and is regarded as one of the most fatal pandemics in human history. Some similar conditions have evolved in the last one year and especially in last month and a two due to the Wuhan originated pandemic COVID-19 as the death toll surpasses three million mark worldwide and the arrival of a new variant or what is regarded as ‘’double mutant” strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 had just kept the public and the governments on toes throughout the globe. However, while talking about India in particular the vaccination drive had reached close to a century but with alarming hard days, we need something which can strengthen us psychologically and emotionally too. Our search can get a halt when we come across a one hundred twenty one years old ‘Plague Manifesto’written by the warrior sanyasi Swami Vivekananda during the Bengal Plague in 1898.
It was March 1898 and Swamiji was on his stay at Math at Nilambar Mukherjee’s garden house Belur, Calcutta. He was having health issues and there was no sign of improvement, rather it was steadily deteriorating more when his gurubhais asked him to migrate to Darjeeling which had done him some good in his last visit. Swamiji left for Darjeeling on 30th March 1898 and spent around one month there. However due to excessive mountain climbing to reach the place and early heavy rains he got a fever and later suffered from cough and cold. In late April Swamiji planned to return back to Calcutta but he could not do so as he had again received some attacks of Fever and then Influenza. In the meantime on 29th April his gurubhai Swami Brahmananda informed him that plague had broken out in Calcutta, there is a great panic as many are migrating from Calcutta, and if you are weak in health consult a Doctor and delay your return for few days. As soon as Swamiji received the news he started for Calcutta without halting at any place in-between. He was here at Calcutta and was ready to apply himself in the mission of combating both the plague and the panic by organizing relief measures. Swamiji first wrote a letter to the people of Calcutta headed ‘Plague Manifesto’.
Drafted originally in English and translated in Hindi and Bengali, Swami Vivekananda in his letter ‘Plague Manifesto’ asked the people of Bengal to remain ‘’free from fear as fear is the biggest Sin.’’ Swamiji knew the pandemic environment had weakened the human mind so he asked the people to ‘’Always keep the mind cheerful. Everyone will die once. Cowards suffer the pangs of death again and again, solely due to the fear in their own minds.’’He urged to thrust aside this fear ‘’Come, let us give up this false fear and, having faith in the infinite compassion of God, gird our loins and enter the field of action. Let us live pure and clean lives. Disease, fear of an epidemic, etc., will vanish into thin air by His grace.’’ After his inspiring words he pens down few lines on the do’s and don’t’s of the situation, he adds the means to remain hygienic ‘’Always keep the house and its premises, the rooms, clothes, bed, drain, etc., clean. Do not eat stale, spoiled food; take fresh and nutritious food instead. A weak body is more susceptible to disease.’’ He also asked not to panic and pay any heads to the rumors. It was ensured that the Plague Manifesto’s printout reached every home in Calcutta.
To help the affected Swamiji was ready to start relief operations. When of his gurubhai asked him about the source of money. Swamiji said, “Why, we shall sell the newly bought Math grounds, if necessary. We are sannyasis, and shall live on alms and sleep under tree as before.” Nevertheless, he found sufficient funds for the work. The extensive plot of land was rented in coordination with government authorities where isolation centers were set up, and the plague patients were nursed and accommodated. The relief work was done on a war footing and the measures adopted by Swamiji gave the people confidence. People saw that there work is not merely preaching Vedanta but bringing their teachings at the ground level in a tangible form for their countrymen.
Next year in the month of March the plague broke out for the second time in Calcutta. Swamiji in no time formed a committee with Sister Nivedita as the Secretary and his gurubhais Swami Sadananda as the Supervisor and Swami Shivananda , Nityananda, and Atmananda as the members who worked day and night to give service to the people of Calcutta. Swamiji urged “Brother, if there is no one to help you, then send information immediately to the servants of Shri Bhagavan Ramakrishna at Belur Math. There will be no dearth of help that is physically possible. By the grace of the Mother, monetary help will also be possible.’’The relief work started on March 1899 with the cleaning of the slums in Shambazar,Baghbazar, and other neighboring localities, alongside appeals for financial aids were also made through newspapers and Sister Nivedita along with Swamiji delivered lectures on Plague. On April 21, she spoke to the students at the classic Theatre on “The Plague and the Duty of Students ‘’.[i]Sister Nivedita asked “How many of you will volunteer to come forward and help in the labour of cleansing huts and bustees ?In such matters we all stand and fall together, and the man who abandons his brother is taken by despair himself. The cause of the poor is the cause of all today –let us assert it by practical action [ii]. After Hearing the powerful words of the Sister and the Swami a group of around fifteen students offered themselves in the work of plague service. One day, when Sister Nivedita recognized that there is a shortage of volunteers she herself started cleaning the lanes. Seeing bright young white-skinned lady cleaning their lanes, the young men of the locality felt ashamed and supported her by taking up the broomstick. Sister Nivedita temporarily shifted herself to the locality which was most affected by the plague where she remained engaged day and night in white-washing the walls and the nursing of the childrens whose mother were no more, ignoring the possible danger. She wrote to an English friend, Mrs. Coulston she says: “There is endless work. Only to live here is in itself work.[iii]The work was carried out by the Ramakrishna Mission team until they succeeded in controlling the disease. So as an aware citizen we should not float the rumours around and try to help as many as we can through connecting the patients to right points and by following the COVID appropriate behaviours.

Writer is a Research Scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University and State Youth Head at Vivekananda Kendra, Uttar Prant (North Zone).

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