This humanitarian guided millions toward self-betterment. It’s time his story is shared.
Visitors who step foot into Sahajanand Hall, an exhibition at a Hindu marvel known as Akshardham, located in the Indian state of Gujarat, are greeted by an eight-ton stone sculpture depicting the jagged contours of a man molding himself out of a boulder with a chisel and hammer. The first glance may evoke a sense of existentialism, but the sculpture hews to a more timely and universally profound theme as conveyed by the caption underneath: “Man is the maker of his own happiness.” It’s through that lens of self-empowerment that one appreciates its artistic potency, and even more so, when one understands the inspirer of Akshardham, the venerable Hindu Swami known as Pramukh Swami Maharaj, who empowered millions to chisel away their vices and imperfections in the pursuit of happiness, and savored their victory as his own- a sentiment best encapsulated in his credo: “In the joy of others lies our own.” He passed away on August 13, 2016, at the age of ninety-four.
Pramukh Swami Maharaj served as the president or “Pramukh” of BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, a worldwide religious and civic organization within the Swaminarayan branch of Hinduism, for sixty-six years. Some assert that his legacy is largely defined by his record-breaking feat of building over eight hundred mandirs, or temples, across the world- including the sibling Akshardham mega-complexes in Gandhinagar and New Delhi, the latter of which has been dubbed the world’s largest comprehensive Hindu temple by the Guinness Book of World Records. And yet, those millions of tons of molded stones tell only a sliver of his story, compared to the millions of lives that molded themselves toward betterment under his guidance. It’s this legacy that drove nearly two million people from all over the world, from all walks of life, to gather in the quaint town of Sarangpur, Gujarat, India between August 13 and August 16 to pay homage to his brilliant life.
At twenty eight, he assumed the role of President of BAPS, and has since traveled to over fifteen thousand five hundred villages, towns, and cities across over fifty countries, providing face-to-face guidance to over two million individuals. Between every scheduled activity, and especially while traveling, his medium switched from voice to pen, as he personally read and replied to heaps of letters, amassing over a half million hand-written letters, inked with his guidance. His companion Swamis kept day-by-day accounts of his activities. These chronicles have been compiled into several volumes of a telling biography, which, alongside the troves of letters to which he responded, have a resonant undertone: he inspired and guided people to self-betterment through impeccable insights and the example of his own immaculate life, laced with ideals that people can’t help but want to emulate.
As I re-read snippets from his narrative, the redemptive accounts of individuals fighting personal demons are seemingly never-ending. There are chronic drug-abusers pleading for an escape, smokers who have failed time and again to quit, alcoholics who have allowed their lives to spiral out of control, compulsive gamblers wracked by debt, and the fallout from other gripping vices. In 1987, a heroine addict sought Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s support to break his addiction in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. They met frequently over the next few months, and through Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s repeated bursts of encouragement, he managed to drop the heroine, only to find himself transitioning to softer drugs. He again met with Pramukh Swami Maharaj in Sarangpur, Gujarat, this time agreeing to stay there with him until he freed himself of the grips of the addiction. For four days, they met every day, and Pramukh Swami Maharaj galvanized him to a gritty resolve, holding his hands as he convulsed through the onslaught of withdrawal symptoms. The four-day intervention worked. Arvind Dave, a gentleman from Bangalore who smoked twelve packs a day, recounts his own experience while capturing the broader sentiment of Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s impact on battling addiction: “He put his hand on my shoulder and looked me straight in the eye. His voice was captivating and I couldn’t say anything. I felt my addiction being drawn from me and from that day on, I have never felt like smoking.”
His ability to elicit mindfulness was life-changing for many. He enabled folks to see, be mindful of, and wittingly patch flaws in their temperament that are often at the root of unhealthy relationships and behavior. By reiterating universally accepted moral values such as integrity, humility, fairness, unity, tolerance, and social responsibility, those who lived under his guidance were acutely mindful of what it means to be a global citizen.
Many of his interactions, be it letter, phone, or in-person, were of an episodic nature- sudden tragedy, tense conflicts- and merited his unflappable fortitude, calming presence, and aura of enlightenment. In 1982, Frank, an English gentleman, met with Pramukh Swami Maharaj in Leicester, England, seeking solace after a tragedy. After admitting his seventeen year old son to a mental health institution upon referral from a psychiatrist, his son, in a fit of anger, escaped, and committed suicide by slipping himself into a noose tied to the chimney of a nearby house. Depressed and wracked with guilt, a teary-eyed Frank recounted the incident as an accompanying Swami translated Frank’s story into Gujarati, Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s native tongue. “We feel he committed suicide because of our mistake. People keep telling us that we didn’t give him enough love, and this makes us feel even more guilty. There is no peace…no peace,” trailed Frank. Pramukh Swami Maharaj listened, reassured, heartened, and comforted, with a profoundly gratifying tenderness and a sort of psychological acumen that steadied Frank’s heavy heart. “Don’t forget- this isn’t your fault. Go to church every Sunday, pray, and consistently remind yourself that this isn’t your fault so that you can experience peace,” Pramukh Swami Maharaj concluded. “I felt the tension leaving me, and finally feel a sense of peace,” Frank later expressed. Church, synagogue, mosque, or temple — it was never his mission to convert people to Hinduism, but rather to persuade them to stay engaged with and live in accordance with the religion they find amenable.
Intermittently, he traveled across the world, visiting the US fourteen times between 1974 and 2014, where his impact was much the same among Americans of Indian descent, who were gripped by his compassion, genuineness, and warmness. Under his guidance, they grew up from children, to youths, to adults, yielding a generation of ethically astute professionals who are passing on the values taught to and exemplified for them by Pramukh Swami Maharaj to the next generation.
He was a fierce advocate of caste equality and accordingly spent many nights providing guidance in traditionally low-caste villages where few others would enter, if not because of caste, then because of the sub-human living conditions. He endured bedbugs, ticks, and, on at least one occasion, rats falling on top of him from a suspended hessian as he slept on an uneven stack of hay, to help downtrodden folks root out vices. “Addictions and bad habits have become a part of your lives. And so, your huts are as they are and you’ve been unable to progress. Even though you are people of ordinary means and live in humble huts, you will be worthy of respect when you imbibe good values. If you cultivate character, then you’ll experience a rich life,” he said to a community of Harijans and Vankars, two of the lowest castes in India, in the village Bhoj, Gujarat. So deeply did those words impact them that many of them instantly vowed to eschew alcohol, tobacco, and smoking. He visited thousands of similar villages across India, where drunkards and addicts tossed bottles, tobacco, and drugs aside for malas, or rosaries.
His universal appeal made him the quintessential messenger of peace, particularly in the face of terrorism. On September 24, 2002, a gruesome event occurred that has become all too familiar fourteen years later: two terrorists, armed with assault rifles and hand grenades, infiltrated Akshardham in Gandhinagar and massacred thirty-three civilians, while injuring seventy. The timing of the attack couldn’t be worse. The year 2002 was marred by several Hindu-Muslim clashes, a religious rivalry that hasn’t failed to periodically rear its ugly head for centuries. In February 2002, a fifteen-hundred strong mob surged a train full of thousands of Hindus who were on their way home from a religious pilgrimage, leaving fifty nine dead and hundreds injured. The mob was thought to have largely consisted of Muslims, spurring a Hindu outrage that was swiftly Hammurabian. A three month religious civil-war broke out across Gujarat that led to the death of seven hundred and ninety Muslims and two hundred and fifty four Hindus. It was the most tenuous of times, and fear was ripe across the nation that a religious civil war lay on the horizon. The sacrilegious attack on Akshardham could very well have been the tipping point.
Immediately after the attack, Hindu voices of influence awaited Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s battlecry to vindicate the act of terror. Warmongering and vengeance, he knew, would only lead to more death, and so he served as an exemplar of peace. Pramukh Swami Maharaj arrived in Gandhinagar to a group of anxious reporters, eagerly anticipating a sound bite that could diffuse or flame the tension. His response steadied and appeased the nation in a way that few others could: “I appeal to all the people of Gujarat and India to maintain peace and unity in the wake of this national tragedy.”
“Unity” as a word has long been used in inspirational rhetoric, but Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s ensuing actions actually struck the notes of solidarity. He met the families of the deceased, visited the injured to offer them comfort, and organized a large-scale public prayer and condolence assembly. Thousands joined for a prayer gathering, during which Swamis of BAPS sang traditional hymns that express harmony; the gathering concluded with Pramukh Swami Maharaj performing traditional soul-purification rituals for each of the thirty-three lives that were lost, and then two more, as the audience watched in disbelief, for the two terrorists. He further quelled tensions by meeting with Muslim leaders from Gujarat, taking their condolences, but more importantly, affirming that they’ll carry messages of harmony into their communities. “What he did was unbelievable. He pieced society backed together. The Akshardham tragedy instilled a sense of confidence that Gujarat need not burn at every spark that is ignited. What I observed after the operation was the calm and serenity that was quickly restored. I have faced many violent encounters in my professional life but the Akshardham response was a great learning, both from operational and philosophical points of view,” said Brigadier Raj Seethapathy, the NSG commando in-charge of the mission to bring down the terrorists. “There was no slogan shouting, no anger being expressed for any community. It was one of the most magnanimous and exemplary acts of restraint and responsibility that foiled the design of terrorists to spark more violence,” he reminisced. Seethapathy would go on to present this as a case study entitled ‘Akshardham Response: How to challenge an attack with calm and peace’ at various police academies and army training centers across India.
On June 2, 1994, when I was just twelve, he sat with a group of us children and shared his view on world harmony: “We are all children of God, young or old, whatever class or country. We come in this world and forget, and we begin to fight among ourselves. If only we understand that we are all children of God, then there is no separate religion, no separate country; no one is small, no one is big. We are all a part of God’s family.” If only we understood.