I wasn’t born into a religious family. At least, not like my brother was. My parents really only joined BAPS after immigrating to the States. My father’s best friend took him to sabha (an assembly) one weekend, and that was the beginning of it all. When my mother, sister and I joined him, he had a small ghar mandir (home temple) set up, and we learned, together and over time, to believe, worship, respect and follow God and our guru, Pramukh Swami Maharaj.
My childhood and teenage years were thus filled with following agnãs (wishes) of my guru. We didn’t eat out (ever… not even on road trips), we avoided drinking, smoking, eggs, meat, onion and garlic, we wore modest clothes (I didn’t wear a dress that showed my legs until college again), we went to temple every weekend and were immersed in our language, culture and religious/philosophical knowledge. This might seem like a list of to-dos and not-to-dos, but for us, it was our life. I was a happy, devoted person. My guru taught me the meaning of sacrifice, the burdens of evil thoughts and doings, the simple, unmatched joy of loving God. I was a proud satsangi (devotee), and never hesitated to take my stand in the world as a Swaminarayan.
But college tore me away from my safe haven. God became an idea rather than a reality. Religion became a sheep yard rather than a community. Niyams (rules) became tedious contradictions rather than safeguards against a cruel world. They say knowledge is confirmation… and for a while, I let knowledge confirm my disdain for the religion that shaped so much of who I am.
In fact, I admit I still don’t like talking about religion. I don’t like giving the impression that I am, at the heart of my being, a God-loving person. I don’t want anyone to know how deeply ingrained religion is for my well-being. I doubt even Surgeon knows much about this side of me, because I never find the need to delve into it much. I never introduce myself as a Swaminarayan (or a Hindu, for that matter), and I still find myself questioning the everyday little things we’re supposed to do (the chanting, the praying, the mark on the forehead etc.).
I would rather advocate for goodness. I stand up for goodness. I take the side of goodness.
And my one guide of goodness, no matter how little I mention him, or credit him, or herald him, has been my guru. Never has he wavered in his 95 years on this earth, and never could I say a word of doubt in his doings. It may seem strange for outsiders to understand the outpouring of love from millions of devotees around the world for an old man who resembles the position of a pope in Catholicism. But, he isn’t our Pope. He isn’t our president. He isn’t our celebrity figure.
He was our guru. He brought us, like the word “Gu-Ru” in Sanskrit defines, from darkness to light.
He brought me, in a sense, back to where I know I belong, even if no one else knows it.
Rest in peace, Pramukh Swami Maharaj. Thank you for all you’ve done for all of us, knowingly or unknowingly. May I always do that which allows goodness to flourish.