The 20th century, we rode into on horse back and are rocketing out in a space shuttle. Over the past 100 years we have broken down old borders and crossed new frontiers, yet, we have been unable to open the windows of each others hearts. Happiness, now seems to have become a commodity. While opening new doors in technology to make our lives more comfortable, we have closed our only door to happiness. The door to God.
In the 90's 'Religion' is out of fashion, its something for the history books. In the West church attendances are dwindling, and they are being converted into Bingo Halls. Divorce rates are increasing. Maybe we are witnessing the end of an institution which has existed since time immemorial. It has been squeezed out of our lives by skyscrapers and amusement parks, yet, amidst this concrete jungle there is an oasis. A land where one can quench ones spiritual thirst with its water; its scriptures, and where one can find accomodation for ones soul; its temples. The oasis is India.
Sandwiched between the deep-blue Indian ocean and the timeless ranges of the Himalayas; India consists of a vast myriad of religions and cults. There is not a single village where one cannot find some sort of shrine or temple.
It was here that the megastars, 'The Beatles, came searching for peace and tranquility that money, women and fame could not give them. At the tail end of his life, the American author, Somerset Maugham felt he no longer had any inspiration to write. On the advice of a friend, he visited India and on meeting Raman Maharshi he felt, '...as if I have been re-born in a new world!' The renowned novelist, Mark Twain was lost for words. 'Land of Wonders was all he could write about India. Its magic stems from its culture. Thousands of years old and yet strong enough to survive the scourge of the 20th century. It is just as rich and resplendent as it was when it first evolved.
In what lies its strength and glory ?
During every Olympic Games one of the most thrilling ceremonies is the lighting of the 'Olympic Fire. The torch is carried through many nations, across thousands of miles, by many runners. If only one falters along the way, the torch would not reach the stadium, and the fire would remain unlit.
The same can be said for the stages of Indian Culture. For thousands of years the torch of knowledge has been passed down through generations. The bearers, are those holy men with long beards and bright saffron coloured clothes - the saints and sages of India. India has a rich tradition of saints and sages; Tulsidas, Naradji, Shukdevji, Ramanujacharya, Vivekanand,... It spans across thousands of years from the era of Lord Rama and Lord Krishna to the present day. It is due to their sacrifice and dedication that Hinduism stands prominent today.
In times when things were unstable, the saints came to the fore and remedied the situation. However, to examine each individuals life in detail would be like trying to cross the ocean in a paddle boat. All we can do is to try and extract the essence of their being, what they believed in and what they lived for.
The early 1800s in India can only be described as an era of disillusionment. People were tired of praying to obscure deities, of superstition and black magic. They were weary of 'pseudo-saints whose only aim was to fulfil their desires in the name of God. As a result they began to stray from the path, they turned to vice for fulfillment. And why not? It was easily obtainable, and pleasure, be it only temporary, was guaranteed. They settled for second best.
During this period an evil wind blew across the plains of Gujarat. Wicked customs such as 'Sati-Pratha' and 'Dudh Piti' became common practice. Adultery, gambling, robbery were rampant. Priests embezzled from temple funds and kept young girls in their 'personal service'. Even the most staunch devotees began to waver in their faith. The mighty torch, was now, no more than a flicker. And the torch-bearers, it seemed, had hung up their running shoes.
It was at this time, when all seemed lost, that Lord Swaminarayan incarnated upon the earth and began, to rebuild the shattered culture, to rekindle the flame. He toured village to village, held discourses, 'yagnas', etc. He opened peoples eyes to the truth. He was one against millions, a lamp in a desert of darkness. But, His light spread for miles around guiding the lost back home.
One of His most significant contributions to society was the saints He ordained. They were the ideal of what a saint should be. Simple, pious, yet determined to fulfil their aim, to make people realise the greatness of Shriji Maharaj, to help them back onto the path. These saints were pure in mind, body and thought. They were not, as one may think, outcasts from society who had nothing better to do with their lives. Each one had a special quality.
Gopalanand Swami, a master in Ashtang Yoga; Muktanand Swami, he could have been the master of the fellowship; Nityanand Swami, so intelligent that he could outwit even the most experienced scholars; Brahmanand Swami, his poetry was so sweet that it is still recited today; Premanand Swami, his mastery in singing coupled with intense devotion touched even the vilest of hearts. These are just a few, there were 2000.
They were called 'The Paramhansas' - 'Superior amongst Swans'. It is a myth in India that swans of the highest quality possess the power of separating milk and water. In the same light the Paramhansas were not only examples of sterling snow white character but they were also blessed with the power of purging the lowest of their sins. Separating the dross from gold was a unique attribute of the Paramhansas. It all sounds very poetic. But in reality, life for those Paramhansas was far from elegant. Moreover, it was tough, unkind and at times, even violent. Despite this, they gladly sacrificed, they were literally princes who lived as paupers, all at the command of their master, for the betterment of society.
Firstly, their code of conduct was so rigorous that one wonders if it is humanly possible to live as they did. For example, no footwear was to be worn, only food obtained by begging was to be eaten, even then, only after mixing it, making it into a small ball and dipping it in water to extract any taste. They had to sleep on the ground, and leave any place where they were welcomed or honoured. If anyone abused or insulted them, then the saint would not only tolerate; but they shouldnt even harbour any bad thoughts against his aggressor!
On top of all this, they were not to touch money or have any kind of contact with women.
Tough ? Maybe so. But sadly, their troubles didnt end there. If it was near impossible to live such a life, then matters were made even more difficult by the fact that no one was ready to listen to their preachings.
Once, Gunatitanand Swami and his group of saints came to a village called Juna Savar. Outwardly, it appeared a peaceful place, in fact it was a boiling cauldron of trouble. The chief, a man named Uga Khuman, severely disliked Swaminarayan and anyone who was connected to him. The saints entered the village, and they were greeted with abuse and stones. At the end of the street stood a mob, sticks in hand. Needless to say, they 'escorted' the saints out of the village.
The saints sat on a hill, bruised and bleeding. At this time they learnt that Uga Khuman was miserable, for he had no son. Immediately the saints adjusted their battered bodies to form some semblance of the prayer position, and then, asked the Lord to have mercy on their aggressor, and to grant him a child!
It was in such circumstances that the saints moved round trying to help people. They often went hungry. Imagine, you beg at a house for leftovers, and the owner hastily turns you away. You walk a few paces, look back, and see that same person giving food to a stray dog. Such were the bitter feelings for the saints. Men would send their womenfolk to harass them, a mere touch meant a fast. This would sometimes continue for days. Still, they kept on, touring and preaching to anyone who would listen. Shreeji Maharaj often said, 'Its easy to sit in a jungle and meditate, but a true saint is one who moves around in society, helps people, and yet remains as detached like the saint in the jungle.'
Its one thing to tolerate accidental pain, its another to go to a place where pain is awaiting you. We will never be able to comprehend the extent of their suffering, but it is important that we realise that if not for their sacrifice and tolerance, the torch would have burnt out long ago, and with it, our identity.