The distant church-bells echoed through the damp morning air. It was Saturday in Milan, and the day had just begun. The aroma of freshly baked bread and strong cappuccinos swirled toward the rushing commuters. Outdoor cafes overflowed with food and chatter, and many people were discussing the morning headlines. As taxis weaved in and out of traffic, one could barely believe that the pace of life was not always this fast.
But hundreds of years ago, when St. Augustine arrived in this city, the clock towers and their heavy hands dictated the tempo. This didn’t trouble St. Augustine; after all, priesthood was a fairly relaxed vocation. What did puzzle him, however, was that people did not fast here on Saturdays, as they did back in Rome. Not knowing what to do, he penned a letter to the Bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, outlining his dilemma. In his reply St. Ambrose offered the advice, “When I am in Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the church where you are.”
When St. Ambrose wrote these words he probably didn’t realise that they would be taken out of context and applied not just to local church worship, but also to all aspects of life. Over the years his message evolved into: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Simply put, change yourself to match your surroundings.
There may be some truth to this message. Sometimes you do have to adapt to the locale. Imagine an American driving on the right-hand side in England. But at the same time, some things cannot and should not be compromised – our religious principles. The saying “When in Rome…” is not limited to the way we dress, eat or drink. Remember, it was originally about when and how to worship. Pramukh Swami Maharaj leads a life of worship in line with the religious principles given by Bhagwan Swaminarayan and his gurus. He leads a life guided by the book.
DO AS THE SHASTRAS SAY…
In Vachanamrut Gadhada II 61, Shriji Maharaj states, “A renunciant who, despite encountering wealth and women in his travels to other regions, remains unaffected and continues to firmly adhere to all of his niyams, is considered to be great amongst all renunciants.” Even though Swamishri has travelled far and wide, he has never allowed even the slightest lapse in following these niyams.
At Dar-es-Salaam airport, Swamishri’s flight touched down. The sadhus and devotees unbuckled their seat-belts and began making preparations to leave the plane. When they were about to clear customs, uniformed officials asked them to step aside for further checking. They complied, but were confused as to why. It slowly emerged that some adversaries had planted false rumours that Swamishri and his accompanying sadhus were smuggling diamonds into the country. For a person who has never spent so much as a penny on himself, how could the thought of illegally possessing diamonds even cross his mind?
The devotees present pleaded with the customs officials, “Swamishri is a renunciant of women and wealth, a God-realized sadhu. Please, there is no need to check his belongings.”
Unfortunately, this only fuelled their doubts. They meticulously searched the sadhus’ potlas (basic luggage), emptying everything. Even the pujas were unwrapped and when they saw the small plastic bottle containing kumkum (red vermillion) they thought they might be onto something. The officials twisted off the lid and peered in. They even ran their fingers through the powder, spilling it everywhere, but found no diamonds. Stumped, the customs officials gave up. They didn’t find any diamonds, but what puzzled them even more was that Swamishri did not have with him the basic 75 shillings that all travellers should possess. The official remarked, “This is the first time in my life I have come across such a passenger.”
This may have been the first such experience for the customs official, but Swamishri was just observing his vows.
A similar incident occurred when he was travelling by train to Mumbai. When the ticket collector arrived to check the tickets he asked for the Rs. 50 reservation charge. Swamishri and the sadhus with him had no money and so told the inspector that they would give the money on reaching Mumbai. Fortunately, however, a nearby passenger kindly offered to pay the Rs. 50 reservation charge.
Swamishri is the President of the BAPS Sanstha. Yet whether at home or abroad, his firm resolve hasn’t changed. He could ask for or even demand anything he wants. Devotees for years have been offering facilities to make his life and vicharan easier. To most of them, Swamishri has firmly refused. In a similar fashion, he has been just as firm in following his vow of celibacy. He has upheld his niyams even when influential dignitaries have tried to persuade him to relax his observance of these vows.
In 1977, during his satsang tour in East Africa Swamishri met President Julius Nyarere of Tanzania at the Presidential palace. President Nyarere was impressed by Swamishri’s benevolence towards all faiths. He took the opportunity to ask for his blessings.
“Swamishri,” he requested, “my mother is 90 years old and is very ill. Please grace her room and bless her.”
When the President’s request was translated for Swamishri he at once replied to a devotee, “Tell him that because of our vow we cannot go near women.”
The devotee hesitated. How could he say no to the President? What if he refused to understand and found Swami’s response offensive? Seeing his reluctance, Swamishri again firmly said, “Just tell him what I said. Why are you scared? Tell him that Swami has blessed her; the blessings will reach her and she will get well!”
The devotee gathered the courage to explain the vows of Swaminarayan sadhus. Instead of finding offence, the President developed new admiration for Swamishri. He was pleased to know that such a pure sadhu would not cut corners.
A few years later, in 1980, Swamishri was in Philadelphia. It unfolded that Swamishri needed urgent cataract surgery. Swamishri insisted that only male nurses be present throughout his operation, even when under anaesthesia. Devotees and medical advisors speculated that such an arrangement might not be possible. Male nurses cannot simply be drafted in at such short notice.
Nevertheless, Swamishri’s resolve was even stronger, “If such arrangements cannot be made then we will perform the operation when we return to India. I am in no hurry.”
The devotees felt that Swamishri did need to hurry, because there was a chance he could go blind. But Swamishri was not ready to forsake his niyams.
IGNORE THE MENU...
We’ve seen how Swamishri has remained detached from wealth and women. Likewise, Swamishri’s travels have taken him to exotic destinations, yet food and other such things have never interested him. Whenever people travel abroad, it is their natural tendency to relax and experience the local customs, culture and traditions. People like to experiment with local cuisines, try out new fashions and experience the night-life. For Swamishri though, his niyams take priority. He has visited Italy, the Middle East, Thailand and Hong Kong – but he had no interest at all in even tasting pasta, falafel, tofu or noodles. Instead, satsang is always at the top of the menu; indeed, it is the only thing on the list.
In 1984 Swamishri sat down for dinner at a devotee’s house in Nairobi. Everyone present tried to coax him to have some pizza. Swamishri refused, saying, “Others are fond of pizza. I am fond of mamra (puffed rice).”
On another occasion a sadhu brought three different flavours of ice cream to Swamishri. Swamishri turned the spoon upside-down and barely touched it to the ice cream. Whatever little that managed to stick to the spoon was all that he tasted. The sadhu asked which of the three flavours he liked.
Flatly, Swamishri replied, “They all tasted the same to me.”
The sadhu expressed with surprise, “But there are three different flavours!”
Swamishri’s response was priceless, “I can only see three different colours.”
It makes us wonder – would he have noticed the difference had he been presented 31 flavours to taste?
DON’T LISTEN TO THE MASSES...
Chapter two of the Bhaktachintamani reveals some of the fundamental principles by which the Satpurush lives. For example, verse 22 elaborates, “Sãvdhãn lajjãvãn kharã...” – “He is conscious not to act in a way that might bring dishonour or embarrassment.” This is then followed by the words “Lok ãcharan na juve jarã...” – “He doesn’t look at what the world is doing.” At first glance this may seem contradictory. How can one be aware of not bringing dishonour upon oneself and yet not seem to care about the world? It is the society and its accepted norms that determine if people are praised or shamed. However, Swamishri is convinced that so long as he upholds the niyams prescribed for sadhus, God and guru will be pleased, regardless of what others have to say.
Swamishri does not take liberties even for the sake of satsang growth.
A renowned social worker and long time admirer of Swamishri and the Sanstha once suggested that Swamishri take a little freedom in his vow of celibacy. He argued that by doing so, Satsang would spread greatly.
He was taken aback by Swamishri’s answer, “We do not believe in spreading Satsang at the cost of our vows. If Satsang spreads, all is well and good. If it does not, we are not worried. Whether or not Satsang spreads is in Shriji Maharaj’s hands. Many say that because of our strict adherence to our niyams our Sanstha will not remain for long. To them I say that we will serve the Sanstha as long as it runs, and then whatever is Maharaj’s wish... If Satsang dwindles, we will sit alone and worship God, but we will never forsake the niyams that Shriji Maharaj has given us.”
Furthermore, some say Swamishri is too orthodox and therefore unwilling to accept other ideas and opinions. But they could not be more wrong. Where Swamishri has felt necessary he has utilized modern technology, accepted suggestions from young minds and allowed the organization to flourish in non-traditional avenues. As a result, the Sanstha runs a website and an official YouTube channel, it has produced a large-format film as well as a cutting-edge light and sound watershow. He has been flexible and practical where needed, yet firm on his religious principles.
Likewise he expects the same from today’s youth. He acknowledges that their lives take them through many challenges, particularly at college and work, where they have to keep friends and clients happy. Their niyams are sometimes put to the test. To give them strength, he has given his blessings so that they may stay resolute in their niyams.
DO AS SWAMISHRI WOULD DO...
“When in Rome...” teaches us that from time to time we need to change our colours. However, in doing so we must be careful not to change ourselves. Even the very successful Coca-Cola Company realizes that it needs to cater to different tastes. Coca-Cola changes the sweetness of its drink according to local preferences. When it comes to core principles though, it has learnt from its mistakes. In 1985 Coca-Cola changed its magic formula and dabbled with ‘New Coke’. Few liked it. Sales fell and consumers protested. ‘Coca-Cola Classic’ was re-launched within months.
Swamishri has travelled the world over, from Rome to Tokyo. He has changed his colours where necessary, but always keeping his principles solid. Swamishri has struck the chord just right. He has mastered the balance that Nishkulanand Swami reveals.
In 1984, in Rome, Swamishri met Pope John Paul II. As they exchanged gifts, Swamishri handed him a murti of Akshar-Purushottam Maharaj and humbly explained, “I am a sadhu and therefore I have no material wealth. What else can I give to you?”
Whether Swamishri is in Rome meeting the Pope or in Tanzania meeting the President, he remains unaffected and continues to adhere to all his niyams. For Swamishri, keeping Shriji Maharaj’s and his guru’s honour (laj) is more important than keeping the world’s laj. That is why he is considered to be great amongst all renunciants. And that is why on this auspicious occasion of Guru Purnima let us bow to him in prayer that may we take inspiration from his life – “Evã Santne nãmu hu shish.”