The sun and the rain do not discriminate as they shine and shower for one and all. Similarly, Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s affection not only reached individuals, but also comforted communities. Many witnessed this in Morbi after a disaster struck the city in 1979.
Incessant rainfall led to a deluge, causing the collapse of the nearby Machhu Dam. The destruction was overwhelming. Streets drowned in the debris of battered buildings and were filled with the pungent stench of rotting corpses. Displaced, destitute and despondent, the people of Morbi were in a state of confusion. To aid in the relief effort, Swamishri urged volunteers to make their way to Morbi, and within a short time, over 1,500 sadhus and volunteers were mobilized. On 22 August 1979, Swamishri visited the tragedy-inflicted individuals and selfless volunteers in Morbi. Seeing thousands of lives and livelihoods washed away, his eyes welled with tears.
During these catastrophic times, Swamishri worked in unity with other relief organizations to help restore normalcy in Morbi. Swamishri was notified of the forthcoming Islamic holiday, Eid. This marks an important day for Muslims as they gather for a communal feast to bring unity within their community, but the flooding removed any hope of celebrating Eid. However, a student-volunteer from Vadodara, Shri Iqbalbhai recalls, “Someone told Swamishri that the Eid festival was in four days time. Swamishri immediately instructed Pujya Tyagvallabh Swami, who was in charge of the kitchen, that we should not serve a simple meal to our Muslim brothers on Eid. We should offer them special sweets such as jalebis. Swamishri asked volunteers to make announcements around the town regarding the festivities. He also selected an open ground for the grand feast and gathered sadhus and volunteers to prepare for the celebrations. When informed that mosques were filled with mud and mire, he instructed volunteers to clean every mosque in Morbi. He even personally visited the mosques to check the cleaning efforts and other arrangements.”
The Eid celebrations not only brought joy to the people of Morbi, but also highlighted Swamishri’s cordial and harmonious nature. Swamishri’s sentiments were echoed by the Bishop of Saurashtra and Kutch, Reverend Dr Jose, who eulogized, “Pramukh Swami Maharaj believed that we are all God’s [children], we are all one humanity, and we are to live as brothers and sisters. He always respected other religions and considered everybody as God’s own people, loving and serving them.”
Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s selfless acts in 1979 were not mere gestures of kindness, but they were a testament to his genuine belief in unifying people.
A tragedy unfolded on 24 September 2002. A day which stands witness to Swamishri’s ability to forgive others, sustain suhradbhav and preserve peace. At 4:50 p.m., Swamishri was in Sarangpur in a meeting discussing BAPS earthquake relief work in Bhuj. Suddenly, he was interrupted with an emergency phone call alerting him of a terrorist attack on Swaminarayan Akshardham in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. Swamishri was composed as he received the heartbreaking news. He turned to prayer and urged those around him to also pray for the lives of the victims and hostages inside the campus.
As a religious leader, whose decision had the potential to weaken or strengthen interfaith harmony, Swamishri appealed for all to preserve peace throughout Gujarat and India at a very critical time. Without Swamishri’s peaceful response – later coined the ‘Akshardham Response’ – communal violence may have ensued. Swamishri’s instinctive reaction reveals his distinct qualities of encouraging forgiveness, tolerance and solidarity.
A few days after the attack when Swamishri visited Akshardham, he sanctified the grounds with rose petals and prayed for the victims. Then he asked to be taken to where the terrorists were shot down by the commandos. Stunned, everyone watched Swamishri also pray for the souls of the terrorists. This was his profound spirit of compassion, untainted by hostility or resentment.
Pardoning. Forgiving. Merciful. Words fall short when trying to describe Pramukh Swami Maharaj. To love those who hate is the epitome of suhradbhav, which Swamishri wholly embodied.
It is for this reason that so many gathered on 17 August 2016 to bid their final farewell. On that day, an Urdu poet’s heart took form in the words:
“Swamishri was an angel who came to this Earth to spread love amongst humankind…
He never saw us as Hindus, Muslims, Sikh, or Christians.
To him, all humans were equal, and he was helpful to all as his kith and kin.”
Ultimately, Pramukh Swami Maharaj was a trusted ear and revered voice for countless people, and his life of suhradbhav stirred not only the hearts of his followers, but also of men and women across the globe. His endearing nature touched the lives of many, including:
18-year-old Tilak Desai, who felt insecure and alone as he acclimatized to a new country, found a father in Swamishri through his counselling.
Dutch Nationals Han Kop and Jeanette Groenen, who despite being from a different culture, language and generation, took to Swamishri like a childhood friend.
Former President of India, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, an inspiration to millions of youths across India, saw Swamishri as a leader driven by compassion and as his own ‘ultimate guru’.
Swamishri’s divine love cut across barriers of young and old, poor and rich, and educated and illiterate. He believed in the worth of all people and dedicated himself to serving those in need. Swamishri’s life teaches us how our common humanity binds us together and of our responsibility to love and care for one another in the world we share. This is his legacy, the gift of suhradbhav, which lives on today through his successor, Mahant Swami Maharaj.