A Lesson from Pramukh Swamiji for an Age of Divided Realities

Last year, I had the honor of being invited to Nagpur to speak at the launch of the Hindi edition of Transcendence, a wonderful memoir about Pramukh Swamiji and the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha by President Abdul Kalam and Prof. Arun Tiwari. Transcendence is a magnificent work, full of inspiration, and a very contemporary vision of the inevitability of love even in the troubled modern world.

There is much to talk about in Transcendence, from parenting and poetry to philosophy and science, but there is one incident that I rediscovered today and wish to share, especially in the light of the extremely bitter war of worldviews, and some would say realities, that is unfolding in media and social media in India. Whoever stooped to do physical harm to a human being, a journalist, and a woman, in Bangalore a few weeks ago, the consequences to our ability to have a reasonable dialogue seems to have disappeared. I was shocked by the brutality of the event, and by some of the responses to it.

Respectable intellectuals were sharing pictures of her body on social media with words over it blaming not even "Hindutva" (though even that is conjecture), but “Hindu dharma” – actual words! On the other side, there were twitter users expressing pleasure at the harsh end of a fellow human being.

It is painful to revisit this sanity breakdown, but I would like to do so in the hope we will learn something from the great men who have lived on this earth, and right in our corner of it, even in our times.

Fifteen years ago, a pair of terrorists attacked the Akshardham Swaminarayan temple in Gandhinagar. They climbed over the wall into a sacred compound filled with peaceful and devout women, children, and elders and began a massacre. When the shootout finally ended, about thirty people were dead. As if that violent desecration of life and sacred space wasn’t bad enough, there was also the fear of how much more vengeance, retaliation and cyclical madness that attack might bring. The horrors of the Godhra train burnings and the violent reprisals that followed were hardly over when this attack happened. The madness might have exploded again, but for one deep gesture that President Kalam describes thus:

"Pramukh Swamiji showed magnanimity by not indulging in any blame game… Akshardham was his most priceless, splendid and wonderful creation. Yet he remained calm. His saintliness was touching… The attack was meant to stir communal riots and tear apart the fabric of society... (but) there was not even a hint of anger in his eyes… He sprinkled holy water and flowers where the two terrorists had died."

I think there is an important lesson in this image for anyone who believes still in Satya today.

Truth is not simply “my truth” and “your fake news” (or vice versa) but Truth, Satya. And the single biggest casualty in Indian public debate today is the breakdown of anything like a feeling of sanctity for truth. All we seem to have is technologies of political, ideological and narrative power blazing away. On one side, we have a predetermined propaganda narrative spun out in big industrial strength conveyor belts regardless of facts, causes, and truth. On the other side, we have a popular and populist movement that senses something is wrong but is unable to elevate its struggle to that of a satyagraha for the most part, succumbing to personal attacks, or blind political shouting matches.

If Pramukh Swamiji could walk up, amidst the heavy burden of all that had happened, to the exact spot where the purveyors of that horror had died, and perform a profound gesture of forgiveness, can we not also try to practice a little bit of that in all our media and social media battles?

Words too can be like bullets. And on top of it, we are living in an era when, given our habituated consumption of digital screens day and night, we are forever in a crossfire, regardless of which words we deem “our side” and “their side.” Can we not return to an understanding, an experience, a glimpse even, of Satya for a moment?

I believe that a gesture of great love and peace is always a door into such a moment. Sometimes, remembering the deeds of great beings can help us look at problems and pettiness squarely without our becoming reduced to pettiness and problems ourselves.

President Kalam also writes, a little later in Transcendence, about a subject that was always dear to him: children. He writes, quite bluntly for him, that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” and cautions us about this because unless there is a change in how we set an example for our children, we are headed for some kind of spiritual and cultural doomsday.

What kind of a "digital footprint" is our generation going to leave on the minds of the next generation?  Is our generation’s intellectual legacy going to remain one of eternal polarization? One side blaming Hindus and Hinduism for everything and the other side fretting much but failing to disarm the ignorance and only ending up confirming the superficial theories their opponents believe?

It is perhaps not just a coincidence that both the Swaminarayan tradition and President Kalam’s legacy have children so clearly at their center. Maybe we can find a way out of the impasse of the present by imagining where we would like our children and their generation to be in about twenty or thirty years. It is depressing to think of how much worse the five elements are going to be already; polluted air, dwindling waters, loss of green and open spaces. Can we not assure them of a culture that is less polarized and nasty? There are no singular prescriptions for cultural and intellectual ills. But there is this time we have on the planet, and the obligation of not destroying the future generations’ time by failing to remove the limits on our hearts today.

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