With Jholis and an Upward Goal
In those days, to dream about constructing grand mandirs was one thing, and to actualize it was another matter altogether. The biggest reason for his yawning gap was a severe scarcity of money. How could one ever imagine building majestic mandirs when there was a problem in getting two proper meals a day? Despite this, Shastriji Maharaj had himself sketched a three-storey mandir plan in pencil. It seemed that the proposed mandir would turn out to be unique mandir not only in the history of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya, but also in the chronicles of mandir-building in Hinduism. And that, too, the mandir would be built of stone, thus enabling it to last for centuries to come.
Many questioned Shastriji Maharaj about how, without money, he would build a mandir of the calibre which kings and renowned wealthy people had built after due consideration from several perspectives? To this Shastriji Maharaj replied with pride, “I build mandirs with the grace of Swami-Shriji and my firmness in begging for alms with a jholi.”
Whenever devout disciples restrained Shastriji Maharaj from begging for alms, he would reply, “Shriji Maharaj himself had begged for alms and he also told his paramhansas to do so, simply because many aspirants would be able to have their darshan and be liberated. I, too, want to liberate whoever gives grains in my jholi to Akshardham.”
Yogiji Maharaj once recalled about his own incident related to begging for alms. He was 19 years old and begging with another young sadhu as his companion. One day, they received quite a generous amount of rations. Then he wrote in his diary, “We received 50 kg of coarse wheat flour and Shastriji Maharaj was very pleased with us.” In order to get provisions for cooking food in Sarangpur, Yogiji Maharaj used to leave the mandir in the early morning to beg for alms at various villages. But the principal difficulty he faced were the outright refusals that were instigated by the opponents of BAPS. They had issued an order, “No one should donate alms to these sadhus.” They had also enforced a strict command of not giving buttermilk to the sadhus.
When the sadhus received millet and jowar in alms, they did not have the means to grind them. The labourers and artisans toiled daily till they were exhausted, but there was no money to pay them. So, the only source of sustenance was whatever that was received in alms.
For 19-year-old Jnanjivandas (Yogiji Maharaj), who joined the Sanstha when the mandir construction in Sarangpur had started, the begging bag (jholi) on his shoulder was one of his hallmarks. Yogiji Maharaj and his companion sadhu would beg for alms by travelling in the scorching summers from one village to another so that they could prepare meals for the artisans and labourers working on the mandir site. Sometimes, the sadhus visited homes even at night, begging with jholis on their shoulders and a lamp in one hand. This pitiful sight of sadhus, who also sang kirtans, recited talks and carried 20kg of grains in their jholis, became forever etched in the minds of many.
The young Yogiji Maharaj and Manat Swami often travelled from Sarangpur to Ningala, Keriya, Pipaliya, Ugamedi and other villages to beg for alms. After some time, their shoulders developed welt marks due to the weight and pressure of the jholis. Despite their daily efforts to gather alms for others they never felt bored or tired of it at all. Instead, they were always happy and their discourses on upasana were filled with pride and joy.
But what were those days like? On 4 April 1964, Yogiji Maharaj was at Powai Vadi, Mumbai. He vividly described his early days in Sarangpur, “Once, Nagji Sheth had brought a bottle of cooking oil worth four annas to Sarangpur. [Several weeks later] he asked Haridas Swami, ‘Do you want any [cooking] oil?’ But Haridas had not used the bottle of cooking oil. The reason being that he would pound the three-day-old rotla made of millet flour and mix them with buttermilk, which a bhagat and two sadhus had begged from Lathidad, to eat. Thus, he had no opportunity to use the cooking oil? Additionally, there were no vegetables available for cooking, so the need for using cooking oil never arose. Thus, the bottle of cooking oil remained full and unused. When Nagji Sheth enquired whether another bottle was required, he was shown the full bottle.
“When Nagji Sheth asked him what he ate, he would reply, ‘Sugar crystals.’ And then he would add with pride, ‘How wonderful it is to eat rotla.’
“In those days many would say that Shastriji would give up his work and leave, but it progressed rapidly. In those times we could not get flour. To acquire it we had to go to the villages during early evenings. Such were the difficult times. Would anyone have stayed in such circumstances? He would have simply given up and left. But Soma Bhagat, Aksharpurush Swami and Kothari Bhaktivallabh Swami were strong and steadfast.
“Whenever we went to Botad for begging alms, some people always sent a woman in front to proclaim aloud, ‘Do not give flour because they are bandiyas. It is an order from Gadhada (Mandir).’ Such were the adverse circumstances. How could one build a mandir in such a climate? But Swamishri built the mandir on the strength of begging alms (jholi). We have not seen the ‘nand’ paramhansas [of Shriji Maharaj] but Haridas was of that ilk. He was robust and always spoke optimistically, ‘The mandir will be done in a blink. Maharaj will do it.’
“We used to walk from Sarangpur to Kariyani to beg for alms. We did not have a buggy. Extortionists would take tax from whatever we collected in alms. They would ask, ‘How much flour do you have? Weigh it.’ They would trace us even when we took another road to evade them. While the Sarangpur Mandir was being built the tax officer also collected tax.
“Swamishri spoke inspiringly and the mandir was accomplished. The deities were installed. Daily offerings of food were also sponsored by devotees. New sadhus were initiated. And thus conditions improved.
“In Keriya I was assaulted. A mandal of sadhus came from Gadhada. We had also put up [in the same mandir]. Five devotees affiliated to another sect declared, ‘The mundiyas have entered our mandir.’ They told us to leave. I was thrown out. Vignan Swami was expelled. Bhagvatswarup Swami was locked in a room. There was no other person [to help us] in the village.
“Once, we had gone to Sodhi. It was hot in the month of Fagan (February-March). The farmers had harvested wheat and made some jadariyu (sweet item). In the meantime, several palas (security men from the old sect) came riding on four camels and two horses from Dholera to beat us up. We left our meals and went away to Khoriyane, a nearby village. By tolerating such difficulties Swami thus gave me the [guru’s] seat. This seat is for having tolerated beatings and for being thrown out.
“Once, we went to Sundariyana. Swami told us, ‘Go and beg for alms.’ The regional administrator, Balubha, came up to me and tore my jholi. Such commotions happened, but we tolerated and perceived all with divinity. Thus, how much peace do I have! If I had fought back, how would I have progressed?
“In Swami’s time there were only a few people. I used to beg for alms, make rotla, serve food, discourse to others and sleep late.”
Once, while travelling from Sarangpur to Gadhada, Yogiji Maharaj recalled about how he asked for alms (jholi) in the villages that came along the way. On another occasion, while he was travelling on the road from Tajpur to Ningala, Swami told the driver to stop the car by a neem tree outside a village. Then Swami pointed towards a well and said, “The water in that well is very sweet. Whenever I travelled on this road with Shastriji Maharaj by bullock cart, I used to offer water from that well. Manat Swami and I used to ask for jholi in this village.”
In 1941, when a festival on the full-moon day of Fagan and a parayan were about to be held, the bhandari (a sadhu in charge of kitchen arrangements) informed Shastriji Maharaj that the store was empty of all stocks of food materials. There was not a single grain of lentils and rice left. Then Shastriji Maharaj wrote a letter on 25 February 1941 to sadhus in Khatraj to beg for alms, “We do not have any rice grains and lentils at all [in Sarangpur]. Explain to all in Khatraj and send 500 to 600 kg of grains at the earliest.
“Also, ask for jholi in Mehemdabad. Send us rice grains and lentils. Construction work for the dharmashala is ongoing. Katha and parayan will be held shortly. We don’t have a single grain of rice and lentils. We beg for mung in order to run things. But it is not proper to serve khichdi made of mung to guests. I am giving you the trouble to collect grains, so read this letter to the devotees and inspire them to donate grains for Thakorji in Sarangpur.”
In spite of doing severe labour on site there was barely enough food to be served once a day to all. And even for that, Yogiji Maharaj and other sadhus travelled to villages and homes to beg for alms. Many years later Yogiji Maharaj recalled those hard times. He said, “I have asked for jholi at every home here for ten years. I have sanctified all the courtyards of the homes here. How could a festival be held after collecting only 10 kg of grains! Manat Swami and I used to ask for jholi here, and only thereafter could we go to cook food in Sarangpur. We merely garnered 10 kg of flour; such was the sorry state of affairs for us.”
On another occasion Pramukh Swami Maharaj described the difficult position and emergencies that the kothari sadhus had to face, “At that time, Shankar Bhagat was the kothari of Sarangpur Mandir. He was very devout and saintly. He was adept in running the administrative affairs of the mandir. Three kotharis had left Vartal to join Swamishri: Shankar Bhagat, Jibhai Ranchhod and Prabhudas Devshi. In Vartal, the kotharis had all the facilities and luxuries, whereas here they had to lift stones and look after the kitchen and agricultural activities. Back then things were quite cheap. The labourers were paid four paisas per day. If there was a good carpenter he would earn 25 paisas every day. Whenever the payment of wages were due, there would be no money to pay them. Consequently, Shankar Bhagat would write to Shastriji Maharaj requesting him [to send money]. Whenever Shastriji Maharaj visited the homes of devotees, the latter would donate Rs.1 or 2. And when someone donated Rs. 5 it was considered to be a big amount.”
Quite often, with no money in balance, it was not possible to pay the monthly wages to the masons and carpenters. So, Shankar Bhagat would explain to them and pay them at the end of the following month when money was available. This was how the mandir affairs and construction work were done. All the sadhus had to labour for the mandir construction work. They carried bricks and stones and did other seva amidst fierce opposition from outside. They begged for buttermilk in Lathidad and for grains and flour in Botad. Whatever they received in alms was prepared as food for the artisans and sadhus.