It was more than two years ago that volunteers of BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, around the country began canvassing Hindu youth to learn about their likes, dislikes, desires, challenges and ambitions. Those surveys were distilled into the template for the 10-day BAPS North American Youth Convention 2018, July 1-10, in Atlanta, Georgia, which saw the Hyatt Regency flooded by 10,000 youth between the ages of 8-22.
Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, or BAPS for short, 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.
According to BAPS, the 10-day event was “unprecedented” in the history of Hindus in North America. And it was built around the theme of “Moksha Now” (ultimate liberation) as life’s greatest pursuit.
News India Times spoke to several youth delegates and organizers from around North America, who said they learnt important life lessons at this crucial time in their lives when they return to school to face new challenges with how to keep their Hindu identity and pursue life goals whether in elementary or high school, and college, on the sports field, in finance, biotechnology, or the arts.
An impressive show of organization, planning and attention to detail that would be the envy of many other Indian-American organizations, the ten-day convention appears to have gone forward without a hitch. The Convention was divided into three age-groups: Bal-Balika, Kishor-Kishori, and Yuvak-Yuvati, with age-appropriate learning tools and sessions, drawing from the surveys and research that had been done over the last few years.
Slick videos on the BAPS website show scores of youth, girls and boys, descending on Atlanta airport, taking specially chartered buses to the hotel, chatting eagerly, being helped to register, given recyclable water bottles; participating with swami’s on stage, touching their feet in the traditional pranam, listening to them; taking notes, participating in group discussions and seminars led by volunteers, and staging skits on stage; many wore the traditional Indian dress but as many in Western clothing. Keeping thousands of kids calm and engaged in an orderly fashion was no mean feat.
Hundreds of elementary level children all dressed in white during the sessions, guided by older volunteers, look happy to be making their way through the lines, using their phones with the Quick Response codes/Mobile tags to identify their suitcases, and practicing using the prayer beads en masse. No tired faces or pouts from this group.
“We had taken two years to delve into this concept of Moksha, and had to present in two days, what we had learnt ,” said Akhil Patel, 33, event-lead who has been involved in previous youth conventions of 2004, 2007, and 2013, and was part of the logistics planning for this one, involved with the content and guidance for the grade school and college level youth. “They (youth) mapped their entire life (in a “Life Map”) the major points – until now, their milestones, decisions they took, what were the driving forces behind those decisions,” Akhil said. While one hopes decisions are driven by one’s values, they are more often than not driven by circumstances, he noted, adding, “We tried to impart that as long as they made the decisions within their dharma, the moral way, even if it just to buy a car, or a house,” with the possibility that the outcome may not be the intended one, was the practical way to understand the concept, explained Akhil who in his professional life is a photographer for advertizing and media agencies in Atlanta.
Twenty year old Shaan Patel was an organizer for the grade school level youth and a delegate for the college-level segment of the Convention. “Given their short-attention span, we started the planning process 3 years ago, and found that the challenges these younger kids faced, the first was struggling with developing their identities – how they feel compelled to change themselves based on the environment,” Shaan said. The message that was conveyed to this younger group was “To be a Lion for your Identity,” brought into relief through the fable of the lion who thought he was a sheep. Another concept that was encapsulate in a slogan was “Doing the Best, Leaving the Rest.”
“We wanted to bring Swamiji’s words alive. We also wanted them to grapple with the idea that if you do put in effort and the results are not as expected, that’s where you “Leave the rest” up to Him,” Shaan said. “Not to tie your result to your identity, how to cope with failure of situations turning out different from the effort. Our research found this was a great challenge kids faced.” he added. This fall, Shaan goes into his 4th and final year in university in Canada, and has already bagged a Study Abroad scholarship to Singapore. As a delegate for the older youth at the Convention, he says he found the discussions “practical and relevant” – the performances on stage “were like seeing your own life being played before your eyes.” He found the support system that the Convention gave him was great – “People with the same value systems but facing challenges also that are similar,” he said.
Twenty-four year old biomedical engineer Shalini Pandya of Atlanta, was an organizer and a delegate as well. When asked why such a complicated concept of “moksha” for young minds, she said, “If we don’t practice how to make moksha-based decisions now, we won’t be able to make them in future.”
Feedback from those who attended the Convention, Shalini said, revealed that the stage performances were “relatable” for both male and female participants; issues such as environmental conservation which she was in charge of scripting, were helpful. “Things like ‘portion-sizing’ or sugar in a coke, how to resue water bottles. All to make a smaller environmental footprint – that is what our dharma teaches us – take care of the planet and your bodies,” she emphasized. All decorations and exhibits at the Convention were compostable and recyclable, she noted.
For seventeen year old Priyana Patel, who starts as a freshman at the University of Toronto studying business this fall, the Conventions have been a part of her life “for a long time.” And what she likes most about them is they are “interest-based and not forced by parents,” she told News India Times. “We are learning for the love of learning,” she says. “I wanted to learn more about my identity – as a Hindu, a sister, a daughter – as I make this big transition to university,” she adds.
What she took away from the Convention, Priyana said, was learning to reflect, not just in a spiritually way, but in terms of daily life. “How am I doing, what are the changes I’ve made, and can make, and also in my social life, how can I make it more meaningful,” she emphasized. Her favorite events at the Convention were the group discussions that followed every session, to dissect it. She also found the exhibits “amazing” and everywhere you went – in the room, the lobby, it kept delegates engaged with facts, she said.
For BAPS, the objective of the Convention appears to have been to prepare young minds to keep their Hindu identity as they make life decisions in their futures – ” … the means to achieve Moksha could also allow them to enjoy the world, especially when every task and activity undertaken focuses on keeping God and the Guru in mind,” said the BAPS press release. “The concept of Moksha can seem irrelevant to youths, given the notion of invincibility associated with being young … the idea was presented throughout the convention in a practical and contemporary manner wherein programming focused on the importance of purpose, sincere effort, perseverance, prayer and introspection as core components of character,” the organization said. “The comprehensive concept of Moksha was taught by explaining the efforts and context of Dharma (roles and responsibilities), Artha (worldly pursuits), and Kaam (desires),” BAPS said.
Speeches and presentations by senior swamis from India, as well as many others from across North America, dwelt on how to make Moksha-centered decisions in everyday living. “Attendees took home a message of how to be less concerned about what others think of them, and more concerned about what they think of themselves,” organizers contended.
“Coming to conventions like this, it broadens your horizons; you see so many people having dealt with so many issues such as peer pressure, that it gives our delegates the tools and the know-how to deal with the same situations when they go home,” Sejal Maisuria, a volunteer from Scarborough, Canada, is quoted saying.
Today, BAPS has a network of more than 3,850 centers around the world, and according to its website, has a million or more followers. This Hindu organization was established in 1907 in India, and today has a global reach.
The North American chapter of BAPS describes itself as a “socio-spiritual Hindu organization” rooted in the Vedas, and “founded on the pillars of practical spirituality.”