For a fictional character in a children’s fantasy book, Dumbledore is remarkably insightful when he warns Harry Potter that he would soon face a critical choice: a choice not between what is right and what is wrong, but between what is right and what is easy. We do not face such choices in our lives often, but when we do, they cause hopeless confusion and sleepless nights. These choices are difficult not because it is unclear what is right, but because this right choice asks too much of us. It would require too much sacrifice and cause too much pain. In these times of indecision, we may draw inspiration from those who had the courage to do what was difficult because it was right.
In Profiles of Courage, President John F. Kennedy catalogues the story of Senator Edmund G. Ross who had a singular encounter with Dumbledore’s difficult choice. Senator Ross joined the United States Congress as a Republican during the aftermath of the Civil War, a time of great tension and turmoil. President Andrew Johnson and Congress were clashing over how to treat the Southern states, which had tried and failed to secede from the United States. The heart of the congressional opposition to the President was the Republican Party, which plotted to impeach the President and dismiss him from office. The Republicans needed a two-thirds majority of the Senate for impeachment, and the ultimate swing vote that would decide whether they cleared this high bar was Senator Ross. He was expected to support the vote. More precisely, he was “warned in the party press, harangued by [his] constituents, and sent dire warnings threatening political ostracism and even assassination” if he didn’t convict the President. Ross opposed his own party and opposed the vote to convict President Johnson.
The ensuing backlash against Senator Ross was swift and certain. Kennedy writes, “When he [Senator Ross] returned to Kansas in 1871 [following his controversial vote], he and his family suffered social ostracism, physical attack, and near poverty.” Senator Ross was never elected to public office again. His vote cost him his political dreams and ambitions. Why did Senator Ross protect a President with whom he disagreed on almost every major issue and knowingly prompt his own political demise? As Kennedy explains, historians and commentators have since agreed that Ross’ vote upheld the dignity of the office of the President and “preserved for ourselves and posterity constitutional government in the United States.” The United States government was established with intricate checks and balances between its different branches. Senator Ross protected its integrity. His allegiance to his country eclipsed his loyalty to his party and enabled him to make the difficult, right choice.
Motivated by the love for his country, Senator Ross sacrificed his political career in one fateful decision. What would motivate someone to make such sacrifices persistently? Love for guru. Pramukh Swami Maharaj had, throughout his life, repeatedly sacrificed his personal wishes to please his guru, Shastriji Maharaj. From a very young age, Shantilal (Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s childhood name) was drawn towards Shastriji Maharaj and the path of spirituality. But as a student, he also had a keen interest in learning English. Shastriji Maharaj suggested that he should first become a parshad, a renunciate in training, and learn English later from Khengarjbhai. So, Shantilal became a parshad and accompanied Shastriji Maharaj in his travels. A few years later, when discussing the life of a sadhu, they revisited the topic of learning English. Shastriji Maharaj offered, “You’re going to become a sadhu, how would English be useful to you now? You should learn Sanskrit instead so that you can study our scriptures.” Imagine how crushing it must have been for Shanti Bhagat when, after having sacrificed all worldly attachments, he was denied his one remaining wish. Shastriji Maharaj, it seemed, had given Shanti Bhagat a version of Dumbledore’s challenge. It would have been easy for young Shanti Bhagat to remind his guru of their agreement. But Shanti Bhagat did not argue: even at this young age, his respect for his guru and desire to obey his every command outweighed any personal ambition.
Shastriji Maharaj was pleased by Shanti Bhagat’s deference, but again tested Shanti Bhagat with the same decision. This time, he enlisted the help of Harijivandas Swami. One night in Gondal, Harijivandas Swami sat with Shanti Bhagat and talked with him until 1:30 in the morning. When he was finally satisfied that Shanti Bhagat had abandoned his desire to learn English, he took him to Shastriji Maharaj. Shastriji Maharaj was ecstatic. He organized the ceremony for Shanti Bhagat’s initiation as a sadhu the very next day and said “Let’s name him Narayanswarupdas. I want him to study and make him a scholar.” He told Yogiji Maharaj, “Bless him and pat his back so that he becomes a great scholar, and does great service in Satsang.” Shanti Bhagat’s decision to sacrifice his personal ambition is reminiscent of Senator Ross’s decision to sacrifice his political career. But what made Shanti Bhagat’s decision even more admirable is that learning English was his last remaining personal wish, and he gave it up to please his guru.
Obeying commands at the cost of personal gratification is difficult and passes Dumbledore’s challenge, but inferring the guru’s wishes with no direct instruction and striving to fulfil them at personal cost goes above and beyond. While planning Yogiji Maharaj’s Amrut Mahotsav (75th birthday celebrations), the senior sadhus and devotees were deliberating the best location to hold such a grand and crowded event. Since Gujarat was suffering a drought at the time, they had to be very careful in making their decision. Some reasoned that Atladra was the best choice, given the mandir’s sound infrastructure and availability of water. Others argued that Bochasan would be better. Despite their differences, the devotees unanimously ruled out Gondal as a possible location due to lack of sufficient water. Stuck in a deadlock, the devotees turned to Yogiji Maharaj for advice. To everyone’s surprise, Yogiji Maharaj pointed to Pramukh Swami Maharaj and said, “Do whatever Pramukh Swami commands!” and left the meeting. Even more surprisingly, Pramukh Swami Maharaj ordered the celebrations to be held in Gondal, despite the vehement opposition of the rest of the senior sadhus and devotees.
Before Yogiji Maharaj asked for his opinion, Pramukh Swami Maharaj had been neutral and silent, deferring to the seniority of the sadhus and devotees present. Why, then, did he choose the one place that was decidedly ruled out by them? Pramukh Swami Maharaj knew that out of all the mandirs and cities, Yogiji Maharaj was most fond of Gondal, and wished to hold the celebration there. But, he also knew that Yogiji Maharaj was too humble to speak his mind and oppose the devotees. So, Pramukh Swami Maharaj spoke on Yogiji Maharaj’s behalf and shielded him from the inevitable arguments. As in the case of Senator Ross, the backlash was swift. The devotees were baffled by Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s decision and quick to object, “You understand nothing; where will we get the water from?” But Pramukh Swami Maharaj was adamant, “We can build a water pipe from the dam. One way or another, we will find a way.” Pramukh Swami Maharaj would not budge, and everyone eventually agreed to hold the Amrut Mahotsav in Gondal. After all the devotees left, Yogiji Maharaj came to Pramukh Swami Maharaj and, bursting with joy, said, “You have done a great job! You have my blessings, and the rajipo of Shastriji Maharaj and the Akshar Deri.” Pramukh Swami Maharaj bowed and Yogiji Maharaj heartily patted him on the back. Pramukh Swami Maharaj had the courage to endure certain opposition and hardships in pursuit of what was right.
Senator Ross rose to the challenge of choosing right over easy, and was rewarded with the admiration of scholars and politicians such as John F. Kennedy. Pramukh Swami Maharaj surpassed the challenge, and was rewarded with the love and rajipo of his gurus. The verse “Shastriji guru Yogiji ubhayani, krupãtanu pãtro chho,” celebrates this achievement: “You [Pramukh Swami Maharaj] are a worthy vessel of the grace of both of your gurus, Shastriji Maharaj and Yogiji Maharaj.” Pramukh Swami Maharaj did not receive this honour easily, but earned it by repeatedly making the difficult choices that would please his gurus. In the process, he not only earned his gurus’ grace, but also left us with countless examples to draw inspiration from so that we, too, may have the courage to make the difficult choices and earn our guru’s grace.