In 1969, three men embark on a mission that would change the world. They take the helm of the largest spaceship ever built and look to the moon. They travel hundreds of thousands of miles through space, the most unforgiving void they know, and become the first men to explore a world other than their own. They return to earth rich with celestial jewels, rock samples from the surface of the moon, and inspire generations of young scientists and decades of future space research. While Neil Armstrong and the crew of the Apollo 11 space mission were the first to physically leave our world and explore another, many before them left it spiritually. They traded the worldly attachments that bring temporary gratification for a simple lifestyle. In doing so, they found peace, meaning and transcendence.
In an age where ‘Thanksgiving’ is unsarcastically called ‘Thanksgetting’ and the search for peace is superseded by the hunt for the next new gadget, you would be hard-pressed to find someone like Henry David Thoreau. An American author from the 1800s, Thoreau was an advocate of simple living. Inspired partly by the Gita, whose teachings he called “stupendous and cosmogonal,” Thoreau wanted to strip off the unnecessary indulgences of his life, leaving behind a richer and truer experience. So, he spent two years in the remote forests of Massachusetts, living alone in his self-made cabin on the shores of Walden Pond. He began with an open mind, knowing full well that his romantic experiment of embracing nature may reveal her to be cruel and merciless: “If it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
Living in a cabin that cost him a mere $28 to build (less than $900 in today’s money), Thoreau relied on civilization for only the basics, such as clothing and fuel. He even planted a bean field to grow his own food. After over two years, he ended his experiment with the conclusion that “most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”
Thoreau’s less-is-more experience agrees with that of many others who have similarly escaped today’s consumerist society. Indeed, Bhagwan Swaminarayan has preached again and again of the dangers of maya, and the reasons for overcoming its temptations. His teachings were embodied by Pramukh Swami Maharaj and the life he lived was completely unattached to the mundane world.
On 23 January 2009, Pramukh Swami Maharaj was travelling from Bharuch to Atladra and, due to traffic and road construction, his car passed by the outskirts of his birthplace of Chansad. The sadhus accompanying him began to enthusiastically point out the new mandir, hospital, school, and other BAPS projects in the village. Meanwhile, a large crowd gathered along the road, celebrating and shouting as Pramukh Swami Maharaj passed by. Pramukh Swami Maharaj ignored it all. He took no interest in the village projects and did not even acknowledge the people of Chansad. For Pramukh Swami Maharaj, his birthplace was less interesting than a desolate desert, and his childhood memories as forsaken as a sunken ship lost to the abyss.
The very next day, Yogicharan Swami joked to Pramukh Swami Maharaj, “Shastriji Maharaj used to say that your wrists were too thin. Now that you have reduced your portions, it seems we need Shastriji Maharaj to come and tell you the same thing again.” Pramukh Swami Maharaj replied, “When Swami used to grab [my arms], he would say ‘Your wrists are too skinny…’ He would take great care that I ate properly… and due to Swami’s blessings, I developed a healthy appetite and I was able to put on some weight. However, I don’t have much of an appetite anymore.” For Pramukh Swami Maharaj, eating was never to satisfy the senses, but one more way he could fulfil the command of his guru and offer his devotion to him.
Every day of his life, Pramukh Swami Maharaj reminded us of the definition of detachment from the world. However, Pramukh Swami Maharaj transcended mere physical detachment. On 11 January 2009, Prayagmuni Swami asked Pramukh Swami Maharaj, “Yogiji Maharaj wanted satsang to spread through countless universes. He wanted it to spread to Japan, China and Russia. Do you have any such wishes?” Pramukh Swami Maharaj answered, “If we can fulfil the wishes made by Shastriji Maharaj and Yogiji Maharaj, that in itself, is more than enough. When Yogi Bapa has declared his wishes, what is the need for us to come up with more?” Dr Kiranbhai pressed him, “At least tell us one of your wishes,” but Pramukh Swami Maharaj maintained, “My only thought is to fulfil each of Yogi Bapa’s wishes. That is the thought which constantly stays with me.” Evidently, Pramukh Swami Maharaj was so self-effacing that he simply considered himself as a vessel for his guru and Bhagwan Swaminarayan, and his body as a physical means to carry out their wishes.
Thoreau experimented with detachment for two years, and the sadhus of BAPS surpass his feat by vowing to a life of detachment, but Pramukh Swami Maharaj transcended them all: he was ‘jakte anãsakta’ – detached from this world, even while he lived within it. As we look to him for inspiration, we might despair: how can we possibly reach his level of detachment, or even that of the sadhus he has inspired? Indeed, as we live in this world, we are bound to engage with it. Fortunately, we can take a lesson out of the New York Times article ‘Abundance Without Attachment’, where author Arthur Brooks reflects on the guidance he received during a discussion with Jnanmuni Swami. As the title suggests, he concludes that “if we are lucky enough to achieve abundance, we should be thankful for it… The real trick is the second part of the formula: avoiding attachment”. Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s life gave us the strength to realize that even though we are enmeshed in the modern, material world, we can resolve to be detached from it and seek happiness from a purer source: by pleasing Bhagwan Swaminarayan and our guru.