The book “In Love, At Ease: Everyday Spirituality with Pramukh Swami” by Yogi Trivedi is the unique life story of a global cultural ambassador and a spiritual master Pramukh Swami, the guru and Pramukh, or President, of the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, a major branch of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya that runs the Akshardham temples across the world.
It presents a new take on everyday spirituality and pluralism.
The book presents a roadmap to inner happiness and success based on the interactions of a spiritual master who guided people from different faiths and backgrounds through the journey of life.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
Narsinh Mehta’s Bhakti Song in a Syrian Refugee Camp
Our fixer, a middle-aged Jordanian man, knew the camp like the back of his hand. He had brought foreign journalists, aid workers and diplomats to the camps since they were first established in June 2012. He recommended that we start our day at the camp’s busiest ‘bakery’ on the main market road. There were only two options: a thin flatbread, which was cooked on an open flame stove, or thicker pita-naan bread, which was cooked over an oversized, discarded, rusted pipe with a flame inside. I chose the thin bread. It was warm, and we had it with a pinch of salt and zaatar, but without olive oil, which was a scarce commodity at the camps. The bread had to be eaten immediately or it would become hard to chew. We bought extra bread and rushed to share it with the family of the Imam who we were to visit that morning.
Some of the most accepting minds and hearts that I have ever encountered were at Zaatari, the largest Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Located roughly twelve kilometres from the southern border of Syria, the camp is a makeshift city of almost 80,000 people who carry the trauma of displacement and death with a hopeful smile for a brighter tomorrow. The Jordanian government granted me access to Zataari and Azraq, two of the larger refugee camps in the country, if not the world, to better understand the journey of those affected by the gruesome war and humanitarian crisis in Syria. Many journalists and academics have shared stories of that trauma and difficulties with their readers. We, however, chose to focus on their resiliency and solidarity. I did not write a single story from my time in the camps. We wanted to understand their pain more than we wanted to publish the next byline. I had travelled to Jordan along with a former graduate student and a research fellow from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism during the summer of 2016, just one month before the passing away of my guru in August.
My guru’s waning health had led me to cancel and rebook this trip several times. Though I felt a certain pull to Gujarat given my guru’s health, I felt his presence in Zataari. I felt at home there. I would not dare normalize the trauma that I encountered there. It was unlike anything I had experienced before: a middle-aged woman who lost her father, husband and son to one bomb; the children playing soccer in a caged, dusty intake area until their parents were given security clearance for a fabricated tent or tin home in the camp; the scarcity of running water; the lack of basic hygiene and healthcare necessities for seniors. The list goes on and on. The weight of it all was overwhelming. However, there was something about the camp that reminded me of my guru and something about my guru that reminded me how to carry myself at the camp. I could feel his presence.
We entered a tin shed which served as a makeshift prayer hall and mosque. The Imam taught children Arabic, English, History and Mathematics, while helping them navigate the trauma of displacement. His face appeared stern but that may have simply been because it was weathered by the desert sun, dust and wind. We walked over to his family’s tent, not too far from the mosque. It was slightly larger than that of others’, probably because there was always someone from the community visiting them to share problems, seek advice or find comfort. I played with his children as he listened to a couple talk about their rebellious son. The Imam then shifted his attention to us and went inside a small room at the other end of the shed to prepare something suitable for my vegetarian diet. He joined us a few minutes later with a tattered set of teacups assembled from various collections, and dried mint leaves. He also brought out some cardamom and dates, which I could tell he had been saving for some time. His daughter asked, ‘Dad, it is not Eid yet. Why did you take out the dates?’ Their mother hushed the children into the corner of the dark room.
The Imam and his wife sat across from us and started a conversation that they kindly interrupted to serve us more tea and dates. Our conversation started with questions about Bollywood and Indian fashion and later turned to Hindu mysticism. ‘Tell me about bhakti and music, and your many gods. I have read about them but have not had a conversation with a Hindu in decades.’ We spoke about selfless love, seeing the Divine within all of creation, one God manifesting in many forms, and bhakti music as a bridge between communities. He kept insisting that I finish the last of the dates and the eggless biscuits. I kept looking at his young children in the corner, who were hoping that I would save some for them. He insisted, and I resisted. ‘Am I not feeding the Divine within you? My kids will have their turn. Today, they eat through you.’ I was moved. How can someone who had lost so much, give away his only chance at a sweet, delightful Eid? The box of dates to him was the difference between a celebratory Eid and an unremarkable breaking of the fast.
He must have gauged the concerns of my mind. ‘Professor, you are probably thinking, ‘What kind of father puts a stranger before his own kids?’ I see my children in you; I see them within every child and young adult in this camp. Living in this camp has taught me to give and share everything we have with whoever walks through that door. Today, He comes through you. The greatest thing this camp has taught me is to look beyond—to see you for more than the Hindu, American, Indian, professor and journalist from New York that you are, and to look within you. To see you as His child. To experience myself as more than a Syrian refugee, Muslim, Imam and father. Yes, we are different, but urging myself to look beyond what I see on the surface allows me to appreciate the similarities between us. It helps me live and love with a heart and mind without corners. Nothing to hide or hoard, no one to protect or fear. I try to experience the world with an eye of oneness.’
It all sounded so familiar to me: lessons from the bhakti poetry I sang and the Hindu scriptures I read, as exemplified by and through Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s life and his lessons. I sat with the Imam’s family in silence trying to reflect beyond the preconceived notions with which I had entered the camp. I asked him if I could sing a bhakti pad (devotional song). He smiled and said, ‘No corners, remember?’ I channelled two verses from the bhakti song of the fifteenth-century Gujarati poet, Narsinh Mehta, to capture the sentiment of the moment:
akhil brahmaandma, ek tu Shri Hari
jhujhave rupe, anant bhaase;
deha ma deva tu, tej ma tattva tu,
shunya ma shabda, tu veda vaase . . .
vruksha ma bij tu, bij ma vruksha tu,
juo patantaro, e ja paase;
bhane Narasaiyo, e man tani shodhanaa,
prit karu premathi, pragat thaashe . . .
In the entire universe, You are One—oh Shri Hari [God]
manifest in different forms, appearing infinite [in all places];
You are the Divine within the mortal body, You are the essence
of the Light,
In the ethereal silence [void], You are the words of the Vedas . . .
You are the seed within the tree, and the tree within the seed,
One looking for separation, will only experience division;
Narsinh sings, futile is an intellectual search,
Love Him, and He will lovingly manifest [in one of many
forms] . . .
This prabhati (early morning bhakti song) is a favourite in rural villages and cities across western India. The poet speaks of the Divine which pervades all of creation and, hence, is the universal common denominator. The poet urges the spiritual aspirant to search for and experience the Divine through this oneness—an equality that unites. Through love, this oneness, which dissolves differences and breaks down borders, will become apparent. The Divine unites us all. This was the quest of the Imam, and it was this quest that reminded me of the message of my guru Pramukh Swami Maharaj.
If the first two chapters describe Swamishri’s way of being—in love and I-less—this chapter exemplifies how bhakti and ahamshunyata translated into everyday spirituality in his life. Whenone is ‘in love’ and ‘I- less’, one can embrace all, uniformly and impartially. To ‘embrace all’, one has to experience and love the Divine within, while casting aside one’s ego and self. To ‘embrace all’, one has to be free from prejudice, bias, judgment and partiality. To ‘embrace all’, one has to accept with an open mind and forgive with an open heart. The lessons of the previous chapter work here as prerequisites.
Equality, equilibrium and equanimity have a principal place in Hindu spirituality. Despite the common misconception that premodern social structures are built around systems of hierarchy for oppression and marginalization in Hindu society, respect and acceptance were a big part of the Hindu way of life. Hierarchy was an important part of early Indic life, but great spiritual leaders have shown through their words and actions that there is a great sense of value for human life and dignity. In the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Shri Krishna Bhagwan says that an enlightened soul is able to love every being equally and even-mindedly. He sees God in all of creation.* In the Vachanamrut, Bhagwan Swaminarayan states, ‘I look upon all devotees of God as being equal, i.e. I do not differentiate one as being superior and another as being inferior.’ Pramukh Swami Maharaj lived these lessons of equality and fairness revealed in the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita and Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s sermons. They were the basis of his spirituality.
Excerpted with permission from In Love, At Ease: Everyday Spirituality with Pramukh Swami, Yogi Trivedi, Penguin India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.