Twenty eight year old Dharmik Sheth, a finance risk manager at an investment bank in New York City, walks into the garden of Robbinsville, N.J. Hindu temple donned in a T-shirt and overalls, with a rake in his hand, pretending to be a gardener. The 32 pre-K and Kindergarten kids gape at him curiously as he begins raking and pointing to a tree full of flowers, to begin his first lesson on not to steal. Children run around him until he bangs the rake twice on the ground – bringing them to a halt with this pre-decided signal. To drive home his pont, he begins telling a story about Pramukh Swami Maharaj, his guru, and till 2016, the head of the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, or BAPS for short.
Sheth has a Telugu mother and Gujarati father. He came to the U.S. at the age of five, and was drawn to BAPS not just for the spiritual teachings, but the numerous activities he got involved in. He has been involved in BAPS activities for 14 years, and they have stood him in good stead, teaching him skills that he says his employers at the investment bank were more interested in rather than in his degrees.
Today, BAPS is a ubiquitous presence in the lives of many Hindu families and their children in the United States since it began its ministry in this country in 1971 under the leadership of Pramukh Swami Maharaj, who is now succeeded by Mahant Swami Maharaj, the sixth spiritual head of the global organization. It has a network of more than 3,850 centers around the world, and according to its website, more than a million followers. This Hindu organization was established in 1907 in India, drawing inspiration from Lord Swaminarayan and Lord Ram. BAPS North America describes itself as a “socio-spiritual Hindu organization” rooted in the Vedas, and “founded on the pillars of practical spirituality.”
This April, as the organization celebrated the 236th birthday of their founder Bhagwan Swaminarayan around the country and the world, youth engagement was the focus – from organizing, mobilizing, communicating and performing. Two months before the April events kicked off, Indian-American children and youth under the guidance of people like Sheth, began routinely spending several hours every weekend if not more, organizing activities that signified their devotion to their faith. Because of the high level of engagement, auditions had to be held to make the program manageable.
“The theme, skits, performances, music, lighting, where microphones should go, when lights etc. need to be turned on or off, the children decide,” Lenin Joshi, spokesperson for BAPS, told News India Times. And the April celebrations are just one of the many year-round events held routinely by the organization. The commitment from children appears deep.
“What really inspires me is that on the day of the celebration, many observe a fast, even though they do so many energetic dances etc.,” Joshi says.
In a country with an all-pervading Judeo-Christian ethic and culture, what is most important at the end of the day for the elders, is for the next generation to imbibe what they learn from ancient texts and stories, values and traditions, underpinning the culture their parents came with to their adopted land, organizers say. And people like Sheth translate those traditions into everyday stories.
“I may be a small part of a skit, I may have recited and learnt that part of the Ramayan numerous times, and will remember that for the rest of my life,” Joshi says. The core message is that the teachings get passed on to the next generation. “That inspires us. We want to introduce the traditions to kids far, far away from India,” Joshi enthuses.
A new Donald Trump administration in the White House, seems a far cry from the environment built in the many BAPS Swaminarayan Mandirs around the country, or at least that is what organizers convey. “I have not seen or heard anything negative from people who come to BAPS events,” contends Joshi, about the anxiety that one hears about in the news, among Indians and South Asians around the U.S.
“I haven’t had any personal situations of that concern, nor have I been either offended or endangered because of my faith. And I have not felt anything b ecause of my skin color,” says Sheth, who works in New York City, lives in Jersey City, and travels every Friday night to Robbinsville, N.J., returning Sunday nights.
This year’s celebrations of the founder’s birthday was themed – “Bhaktavatsal Hari Birud Tiharo,” meaning, Lord’s resolve to care for his devotees.
This year’s program tried to educate the audience “on how they too could nurture a modern dharma-based lifestyle by adhering to a vegetarian diet, maintaining sobriety and abstaining from other types of addictions,” a press release from the organization said.
The organization prides itself in carrying out charitable works “motivated by Hindu principles,” it says.
One among its many charitable activities is humanitarian works – which according to BAPS has included the following achievements – “recycling 7 million aluminum cans, freeing 700,000 individuals from addiction and substance abuse in just 15 days, planting 10 million trees and providing free medical treatment to 2.5 million tribal community members,” according to its website. These activities are carried out by thousands of volunteers around the world devoting millions of volunteer hours, BAPS claims.
Sheth says, “Our work is not only about bringing out the beauty of Hindu culture, but at the end of the day, teaching and learning about how to be a good person with strong values. I guarantee you these youth will be positive contributing members of society,” he asserts.