06/06/2011 01:17 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2011

Lessons In Selflessness from Ishwar Kaka

On December 26, 2010, Ishwar Patel, the father of my dear friend Jayesh Patel, passed away in India.

He started volunteering with Gandhi's Sewadal at the age of 12. When he encountered a painful experience around the taboos of scavengers who gathered human waste, Ishwar kaka (uncle) consciously dedicated his life to the work of sanitation and raising consciousness around related issues of "untouchability" and casteism in India. He was 16 years old. To this day, more than 2.6 billion people in the world don't have toilets; the Ganges river has 1.1 million liters of raw sewage dumped into it every minute. And that number would've been a whole lot higher if it weren't for a lifetime of Ishwar kaka's service. He built more than 200,000 toilets and helped launch 118 organizations that would elevate the work of sanitation around India.

Being scientifically oriented, Ishwar kaka surveyed the habits of rural Indians and subsequently created unique toilet designs that served their needs. For instance, he noticed that village women didn't use four-walled toilets because they could no longer walk together to the farms and have private, women-only community time. So he introduced small windows across the toilets and an oatlo (a community space) outside the toilets. In the front yard of his office headquarters, he put up a "Toilet Park" that showcased many of these designs. "People have rose gardens, but we have a toilet garden," he would proudly announce to his many visitors. Commercial entrepreneurs made millions from his designs, but he refused to patent it because he always wanted it accessible for India's poorest.

Well over 10,000 people attended Ishwar kaka's funeral at the Gandhi ashram. Government officials had to shut down the street to manage the flow of traffic. As everyone silently stood in line to pay the final respects, the magic of Ishwar kaka was evident -- the richest men in the country stood next to human-waste scavengers next and powerful politicians next to vegetable sellers. For a vast cross section of society, Ishwar Patel was a hero.

Also to be found in the funeral procession -- the entire hospital staff with whom Ishwar kaka had spent his final 12 days. Although they encounter patient deaths everyday, something about this man propelled them to pay their respects.

When Ishwar kaka was submitted to the hospital on the morning of December 14, doctors knew it was the beginning of the end. His body had four kinds of stage 4 cancer. He couldn't lie down at all. "Imagine climbing up a steep mountain, and being out of breath. That was his state over the last 12 days," the doctor said. And yet, no negativity. At all. Instead he was smiling, cracking jokes and meeting hundreds of people who streamed through his room for one final interaction. Instead of losing his clarity, he became more and more lucid towards the end. When people asked him for his blessings, he frequently said a sentence or two that went straight to the heart of their spiritual journey. Outside his hospital room, as many as 20 people would hold vigil throughout the night. Well-wishers would come in and repeatedly perform acts of kindness. One person gave out flowers to every patient in the hospital. Another swept the floors as a tribute. A group of youngsters painted the walls and decorated the terrace as a thank you to the hospital. Some sang songs. One person gave away 1500 apples because Ishwar kaka loved apples. "Create heaven wherever you are," Ishwar kaka said once. And that was exactly what was happening.

At one point, the 12 punctures on his body weren't responding well to external fluids, so the doctor had to cut a slit through his neck. When asked if he wanted anesthesia, he simply said, "Oh, there's no need. Go right ahead." A rather surprised doctor did as instructed and noticed that Ishwar kaka didn't even bat an eyelid as he performed the operation. After repeated encounters of utter detachment from the body, one of his caretakers asked Ishwar kaka: "Your body is in shambles. Don't you feel any pain?" He promptly responded: "In a young coconut, its shell and its inner substance are intertwined and can't be separated. In a ripe coconut, they can be easily separated. So I'm like a ripe coconut. My mind is separate from the body."

Wise men say that you die the way you have lived. Like a true Gandhian, Ishwar kaka lived his entire life in service to others, and not in service to his senses. As a result, when it was time to depart from his senses, he had no fear. In fact, when Jayesh (his son) asked him, "Dad, are you afraid of death?", he said: "Not at all. If it has to come tomorrow, let it come today."

Ishwar kaka carried himself with such boundless freedom precisely because his life was one giant practice in small acts of love.

As a profoundly filial son, Jayesh spent practically all of the last three months in unconditional service to his father. He recalled: "Papa always thoughts of others first. It was no surprise that he passed away after the kids celebrated Christmas with him on 25th. And he passed away on a Sunday, to make it most convenient for everyone to handle the final rites. Many of us sensed that he endured the last several days of extreme physical pain, just so everyone felt satisfied and full. His favorite phrase was "subbhecchha", meaning best-wishes. He would smilingly yell that phrase every time he walked into the house. Constantly, he was giving his best wishes to everyone."

In early morning hours of December 26, Ishwar kaka's body gave in. Immediately, Jayesh summoned close family members and friends. Perhaps about 20 folks were in the hospital room. Jayeshbhai painfully closed his father's eyes. Among those in the room, was Vasuda kaki, the wife of Ishwar kaka. Perhaps irrationally, Vasuda kaki spoke to her husband: "For the last 52 years, every time we have parted ways, we have said Jai-Jalaram (an ode to the divine). Please open your eyes to say Jai-Jalaram." His body had practically no strength; doctors had declared him dead; his eyes were closed. Yet, almost miraculously, Ishwar kaka opened his eyes. He smiled. With deep compassion in his eyes, he looked at everyone. Then he looked at his wife, one final time, and uttered, "Jai-Jala."

With the same gentle ease that he served, a 77-year-old left his body on December 26 at 8:10 a.m.

Traditionally, the eldest son offers the cremation ashes to a holy river. "He is everyone's dad," Sanjay (his eldest son) declared. Hence, in an absolutely unprecedented move of decentralization, a busload of 70 people carried his ashes to the Narmada river. Ishwar kaka would sometimes say, "You clean the outside world as a way to clean your mind." In place of rituals, all 70 of us took our brooms to clean up the filthy river banks.

As our minds purified, our hearts swelled in gratitude for having known Ishwar Patel.