When Pramukh Swami Maharaj gave me vartman (initiation) in September 2007 in California, his agna to me was that I must attend the Sunday satsang sabha. I am an American, and do not know Gujarati, but this did not matter to Pramukh Swami.
As a tabla player, I have been playing for and enjoying the bhajans during the Sunday satsang assembly. I also enjoy having darshan of the murtis in the mandir. The spiritual atmosphere of a mandir is very purifying and uplifting. A mandir is a refuge from negative material influences. But jnan, spiritual knowledge, is also one of the pillars of satsang. It is through the Satsang exams that I really began to understand our Sanstha, Bhagwan Swaminarayan, Akshar-Purushottam upasana, and the true Brahmaswarup form of Pramukh Swami Maharaj and Pragat Brahmaswarup Mahant Swami Maharaj.
I am grateful to BAPS for providing the first four exams (Prarambha, Pravesh, Parichay and Pravin), as well as the accompanying books in English. Through very intense study, which was sometimes overwhelming, I now have a foundation of jnan. To please Pramukh Swami and Mahant Swami, I have passed all four of the exams, and am eligible for Pragna once I learn Gujarati at a more advanced level. Our local exam coordinator has repeatedly said that one will earn Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s and Mahant Swami Maharaj’s rajpo by taking the exams, and this experience has been very tangible.
Though BAPS is an international organization, and continues to grow at an incredible rate, its philosophy is not known outside of the Sanstha. Bhagwan Swaminarayan as Purushottam is also not realized outside of the Sanstha. I had been studying Hinduism for the past 20 years, and before I had contact with the BAPS, I had no knowledge of the Akshar-Purushottam upasana. Most of the Hindu mandirs I had attended revere and worship the past avatars of God, like Krishna, Rama, Narayan, Shiva, and their goddesses.
Learning about the Akshar-Purushottam upasana, the history of BAPS and Bhagwan Swaminarayan, and the biographies of our gurus, as well as all the places considered holy by BAPS was an entirely new endeavour for me. I had to make an adjustment. I knew about Vrindavan, but not Gadhada; I knew about the Ganga, but not the Ghela; I knew about Mirabai, but not Jivuba; I knew about Tulsidas, but not Nishkulanand Swami; I knew about Ram Navami, but not Swaminarayan Jayanti. I knew about the Shrimad Bhagvat, but not the Vachanamrut.
As I continued my studies, I learned about how transformational Bhagwan Swaminarayan was in India, and Gujarat in particular. I learned of the social reforms he had made, like ending Sati and female infanticide. I was in awe about the courage of Shastriji Maharaj in spreading the true Akshar-Purushottam upasana. Despite the challenges and dangers he faced he remained undeterred. This should serve as an inspiration to our satsangis to follow Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s and Mahant Swami Maharaj’s agnas. I learned how Pramukh Swami had been so patient and tolerated very harsh conditions to bless all of us. I then decided I must go to India and visit these sacred places first-hand, and deepen my understanding of Pramukh Swami Maharaj through darshan and personal meetings. I have since made eleven annual trips to India.
Finally, the most important knowledge I gained through the Satsang exams is that Bhagwan Swaminarayan remains eternally pragat through our gurus. This was one of Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s purposes for coming to Earth – to establish an unbroken line of Brahmaswarup Gunatit Sants. Through reading for the exams, I began to understand the concept of Pragat Brahmaswarup. So, passing these exams has been so empowering to me. Earning Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s and Mahant Swami Maharaj’s rajpo have been the greatest gift.
Jerry Barr is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Houston, where he also teaches poetry and essay writing.