The Epitome of Compassion
Vivekmurtidas Swami, BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha
The COVID-19 Pandemic will forever be remembered as a period of isolation, distancing, and change. Along with our longing to get back to “normal,” we hoped for peace and normalcy around the world. Unfortunately, peace continues to evade many parts of the world. Daily headlines are peppered with numerous instances of interpersonal, community-related and mass-scale violence. The missing element in these stories is always compassion. Without compassion, society devolves into a state of chaos, as evidenced through multiple genocides and atrocities throughout human history. Compassion is a necessity, not a luxury. Without it, humanity cannot survive. Yet, the virtue remains elusive. As individualism grows, so does the chase for personal success, pleasure, fame, and fortune. This personal chase often comes at the cost of selflessness and compassion.
But compassion still exists. There are lamps of hope in the overwhelming darkness. These brave individuals put aside their interests to live a life focused on improving the plight of others. Now more than ever, society needs such role models.
For some, compassion develops through time as one matures and sees a more global vision. For some, it emerges as an outcome of a painful experience. For a few, it is inherent. His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s compassion was not inspired by a life-changing or tragic incident that transformed his life. His loving and genuinely compassionate nature was innate to him. His eyes craved to see every single person happy, and his heart had space for each soul – even from childhood. His heart was the heart that loved every being. This compassion towards all was as natural to him as breathing.
In the Joy of Others…
“In the Joy of others lies our own. In the progress of others rests our own. In the good of others abides our own.”
These words are not merely a credo or tagline given by Pramukh Swami Maharaj; it was his lifestyle. This mantra also became the guiding principle for his followers. It was not enough to just tolerate and forgive, to merely wish well for others; rather, it was imperative to contribute to their success. This was compassion in action, not just sympathy or even empathy. Feeling for others is one thing, but acting is another. Success, happiness, and spiritual progress are only possible through sacrifice, forgiveness, and collective advancement. Individuals cannot progress without the collective progress and happiness of all members of society.
Pramukh Swami Maharaj delivered this same message at the United Nations Millennium World Peace Summit in the summer of 2000 in New York. His remarks were applauded by world leaders and religious leaders alike. When asked why this was remarkable, one spiritual leader said, “Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s life is an extraordinary example of love and harmony. If the entire nation were to take a cue from him and live by those standards, it would solve all of our problems.” Indeed, the answer to many of the challenges we face in the world lies in cultivating compassion in our lives.
Pramukh Swami Maharaj dedicated his entire life to bettering the lives of every person he came across. No one was to be left behind. Not only was every member of society deserving of love, respect, and dignity, but they deserved the same level of compassion. This eye of empathy and generosity extended to those well outside of his immediate circle of followers, or community of Hindus and well-wishers. This compassion led him to organize a massive humanitarian effort after the 1979 Morbi Dam collapse in Gujarat, India.
He knew that the most gravely affected members of the community were Muslims and Dalits. He wanted to make sure that they were cared for in a way that allowed them to follow their own traditions and religious practices. He went to Morbi and walked through the mud-covered streets to distribute supplies and food grains. He instructed volunteers to construct closed tent- and tin-style bathrooms rather than their much simpler makeshift restrooms so that victims would have privacy. These facilities were to be used by all, regardless of their stature or beliefs. True compassion knows no boundaries. Here’s a video of the event – https://baps.sl/morbi
Compassion Beyond Comprehension
Perhaps the hardest test of compassion is when you are the victim of someone’s attack. Instinct teaches us to retaliate – at least to protect ourselves. In 2002, the BAPS Swaminarayan Akshardham in Gandhinagar, India, fell victim to a brutal terrorist attack. Two terrorists left 33 dead and over 80 injured. No one could have even imagined such an incident taking place at such a blissful and peaceful temple of God. People in India and around the world were stunned to hear reports that innocent pilgrims and worshippers, as well as brave soldiers, were wounded or worse. In the aftermath, people throughout India were hurt and angry. Many were instinctively asking for retaliation.
However, Pramukh Swami Maharaj made a heartfelt public appeal for peace and stability that echoed around the country and the world. His call averted waves of angry mobs and prevented countless, needless more deaths.
Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s response has been studied as an exemplary case by several international peace-keeping missions and dubbed as “The Akshardham Response.” When he first visited the temple after the attack, he visited the sites where the shootings had occurred. He chanted in prayer for the souls of the deceased. When the prayers concluded, he asked to go to the exact location where the two terrorists had been shot. He added: “Though they attacked innocent pilgrims, we must not allow their hate to overcome our love. Take me there. I want to pray for the peace and redemption of their souls as well.”
It was not just the “Akshardham Response” that was studied and that inspired many; Pramukh Swami’s whole life has been a lesson. These lessons have inspired others to imbibe his virtues in their lives. These lessons, his spiritual belief, and practices are not informational material used for brochures and websites but a transformational manual to live by.
Compassion That Inspires
Pramukh Swami Maharaj practiced what he preached, touching the hearts of millions and, more importantly, inspiring people even today. The depth and breadth of his selfless love and compassion have survived decades and great geographic distance, nurturing a community of believers, non-believers, and everyone in between. He has created a community of humans who live to bring joy to others. These lessons of compassion, empathy, and love translate into everyday life in schools, the workplace, and in families and homes.
He is the inspiration for young school students raising funds through various campaigns towards blood drives and other humanitarian causes. He is the inspiration for a young boy in Flushing, New York, to walk to school every day so that, from the bus fare he saves, he can buy lunch for one of his less fortunate classmates. He is the inspiration for a young college-bound student to give up his scholarship to someone who is less financially fortunate than he is. He is the inspiration for a young gynecologist in Bryan, Texas, to dedicate free office hours for uninsured expecting mothers so that they can have access to quality healthcare. He is the inspiration for a professional musician and travel agent in Chino Hills, California, to donate all the income he makes as a musician to humanitarian and spiritual causes for the past 20 years. The list of those inspired by him to think and act with compassion can go on and on.
Inspired by the teaching of Pramukh Swami Maharaj, during the COVID-19 pandemic, BAPS Charities provided over 175,000 pieces of personal protective equipment, donated over $300,000 in financial assistance, delivered over 90,000 meals, food and care packages to those battling the Coronavirus, and helped administer COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots to over 36,000 people.
Sarve bhavantu sukhinaha, sarve santu niraamayaa |
Sarve bhadraani pashyantu, maa kashchid-dukha-bhaag-bhavet ||
May all be happy. May all be free from illness. May all see what is auspicious. May no one suffer.
If these Sanskrit words from the Upanishads form a prayer of compassion, then Pramukh Swami Maharaj was truly the epitome of compassion; he not only prayed but also persevered until his last breath to bring each word of that prayer to life. This year, as we celebrate his centennial year, may our celebrations of his compassion help to bring more compassion in our lives, helping us be more considerate, more kind, and more loving.
Vivek Murthy Das Swami
BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha