Time to reflect on the life of a great spiritual leader

More than 12 million people from all over the world are expected to convene in Gujarat, western India, for a month-long festival marking the centennial anniversary of the birth of His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, one of the great Hindu leaders of our time and the fifth spiritual successor of Bhagwan Swaminarayan.

Bhagwan Swaminarayan (1781-1830) founded the eponymous Swaminarayan Hindu tradition at the beginning of the 19th century in India. Today it is considered one of the fastest-growing forms of Hinduism in the world. The Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) denomination of Swaminarayan Hinduism, in particular, has been described as “the single largest identifiable Hindu community in the West”.

Most of that growth and consolidation can be credited to Pramukh Swami Maharaj, who served as the guru of BAPS for 45 years, from 1971 until his death in 2016.

He was born on December 7, 1921, in the village of Chansad in Gujarat. His childhood name was Shanti, which means “peace” in Sanskrit. His peaceful nature, spiritual inclination and enthusiasm to help others gained him respect and admiration even as a child. At the age of 18, he renounced the material world to dedicate his life to religious service, receiving the monastic name “Swami Narayanswarupdas”.

For 11 years, he studied and served under his guru, Shastriji Maharaj, the founder of BAPS. On May 21, 1950, Shastriji Maharaj appointed him president of BAPS. He was 28. From that day, he was addressed as “Pramukh Swami”; “pramukh”, in Sanskrit, means head or president.

After the passing of Yogiji Maharaj (1892-1971), the next guru, Pramukh Swami Maharaj assumed the spiritual leadership on top of his administrative duties of the fellowship.

In the years that followed he wrote more than 700,000 letters providing spiritual guidance, travelled to over 17,000 villages, towns and cities around the world, blessed more than 250,000 homes and counselled countless individuals.

Perhaps one of Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s most enduring contributions to Hinduism has been the more than 1,100 temples that he built worldwide. Neasden Temple — the first traditional Hindu temple of its kind in the western hemisphere — is one example. It is an integral part of Britain’s religious landscape and the local community in northwest London.

Although a guru of the Hindu faith, Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s compassion reached everyone, irrespective of race, rank or religion, exemplifying a well-known Sanskrit phrase: “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” — “The whole world is one family”. In April 1984, he met Pope John Paul II at St Peter’s Basilica in The Vatican City. Before the meeting, a Reuters journalist asked, “What will you be discussing with the Pope? Others often discuss politics.” Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s frank and swift reply underlined his abiding priorities: “We want to talk about how the world can become a happier, more righteous place, and how everyone can worship God in peace and harmony.”

On September 24, 2002, two militants attacked the BAPS Swaminarayan Akshardham complex in Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat, killing 33 and injuring 80 more. At the time, Gujarat was reeling from one of its worst ever communal riots. A palpable fear of further violence gripped the state. Pramukh Swami Maharaj, however, immediately appealed for peace, exemplifying Hinduism’s ideal of mercy.

He taught that “In the joy of others lies our own”, and dedicated his life to serving others, including mobilising volunteers during times of natural disaster. This still continues today under the guidance of his spiritual successor, His Holiness Mahant Swami Maharaj. During the recent Diwali celebrations and throughout this winter, BAPS in the UK has partnered with The Trussell Trust to support families adversely impacted by the cost of living crisis.

Pramukh Swami Maharaj strove to help every citizen to become a better member of their family, community and country — and in doing so, helped to make the world a better place. Seldom has someone served so many, so selflessly, and for so long.

Swami Yogvivekdas is the head monk at Neasden Temple

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