BAPS identifies itself with society in all areas of need and goes a long way to achieve larger social good
Many ask: “How can you mix spirituality and social services?” We counter: “How can you separate the two?” Those who wish to sincerely serve society must be spiritually pure and only those who are spiritually pure can serve society sincerely! Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (baps) is a socio-spiritual Hindu organisation with its roots in the Vedas. It was revealed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan (1781-1830) in the late 18th century and established in 1907 by Shastriji Maharaj (1865-1951). Founded on the pillars of practical spirituality, baps reaches out far and wide to address the spiritual, moral and social issues and challenges we face in our world.
baps’s charitable initiatives were pioneered by its fifth guru, the late Shri Pramukh Swami Maharaj (1921-2016). With his characteristic empathy, he first set eyes on the poor tribals. Just three months after he took over baps in 1971, he rushed to the Dang district of Gujarat and the Union territory of Dadra & Nagar Haveli – both heavily populated by poor and illiterate tribals.
When people connect, amazing things happen. So, to begin with, Shri Pramukh Swami Maharaj and some of his sadhus set themselves to have a look into the tribal’s way of living. In essence, they zeroed in on issues which occur across longer time horizons such as literacy, upright conduct, healthy living sans addictions of alcohol and smoking, fellow feeling and climate change. During interactions, the sadhus learnt that the tribals were strongly addicted to drinking and hunted birds for food.
Building up a good rapport with the tribals was a daunting task for the baps sadhus in the beginning. The poor tribals, it was learnt, indulged in acts of stealing and dacoity to make ends meet. And to drown their worries, they would drink without measure. In addition to this, infrastructural facilities like communication and transportation also posed a challenge to the baps sadhus to connect with the tribal belt.
Reminisces Sadhu Narendraprasad Das, who has worked for years among the tribals: “In the beginning, the baps sadhus used to travel from Mumbai to visit the Union territory, Silvassa, in particular. There were no asphalt roads in the rural hinterland. So, we had to walk to reach the villages. But that was not all. When we reached the villages, the problem of language stared us in the face. They spoke various dialects like Dholi, Varli, Konkani and other mixed dialects, which was all Greek and Latin to us. What was more confounding was that the tribals would run away on seeing us. Perhaps, they grew fearful thinking that we would whisk them away.”
Edification of the tribals thus seemed quite challenging. But the baps sadhus showed remarkable perseverance. Reaching their shacks was also difficult, especially in the monsoon season. The sadhus had to walk and negotiate through soggy grounds. Those days, transport was also not easy to get.
“In those days, we didn’t have cars and no lodging facilities in Silvassa,” recollects Sadhu Narayanprasad Das. “So, we had to stay at Vapi to come to Silvassa. We had to travel by state transport bus and even that was scheduled once a day. Often, the bus would be full with passengers. And the bus would not take us to places that lay farthest away from the town. So, we had to walk as much as 15-20 km. These were forested areas and often snakes would cross our way. At times, we had to even face dacoits.”
Thus, it was a fight on several fronts. Worse, the tribals were so poor that the men had only a loincloth to wear. So, Shri Pramukh Swami Maharaj instructed baps sadhus to first distribute clothes among them. Sadhus engaged some tribal youths to take measurements. Sharing his experience, Ramubhai, now a baps volunteer, says, “I used to take their measurements for tailoring. When I later went to deliver the clothes to them, their joy knew no bounds. baps also supplied raincoats to them for the monsoon season. I had not seen them happier before.”
Next on the baps list was health. Many tribals were suffering from skin ailments then, as a daily bath was anathema to them. baps lost no time in organising medical camps for the tribals.
Those days, the poor tribals knew no medicine or clinics. They would go to a witch-doctor even for a headache or stomach ache. The witch-doctor would mutter something to himself, shake the patient’s body and give him a thread to tie around his neck as a panacea and would even ask him to sacrifice a hen or goat to get rid of the ailment.
With the healthy intervention of baps, things have now changed, bringing new light into the lives of the tribals. Today, baps operates 11 mobile medical vans in the tribal belt of Gujarat, treating over 200,000 tribals free of charge; besides, ambulance service is also available on call. Free medical diagnostic camps are organised from time to time, to ensure timely treatment as well as preventive care.
baps has also opened a school in Silvassa and a students’ hostel in Ukai town of the Tapi district of Gujarat. In order to guide parents on issues relating to education and parental behaviour with their sons and daughters, seminars are held for parents also. To equip tribal women with vocational skills, training classes too are held periodically, so that they could find employment.
Thanks to the concerted efforts of baps, the educational scene has changed favourably. Earlier, tribal children didn’t enroll in schools. Today, they go to school religiously. There are 22 tribal youths belonging to baps community centres, who have graduated in medicine. Ashok, the son of Lalubhai, who was once an incorrigible alcoholic, has passed his mbbs from M.S. University, Vadodara. There are other tribal youths also, who are qualified medical doctors, practising as physicians. Thanks to baps support, more and more tribal youths are pursuing university studies in various disciplines, including engineering and business administration.
Turning a new leaf
The best apology for primitive life would be to get changed. And many tribals of Gujarat have done that thanks to the gritty determination of Shri Pramukh Swami Maharaj and his sadhus, many of whom are university-educated.
Drinking was especially a hard nut to crack in Dadra & Nagar Haveli, as there is no prohibition in its 72 villages and hooch flowed freely. Kushalbhai of Samarvarni village, as also other tribals from Sili, Tambadi and Randha, used to blow their earnings on drinking and other vices.
Today, however, they are a happier lot, having been freed of the vicious clutch of alcohol. What is more, the tribals, who were steeped in various superstitions, especially health-related, are getting out of it. Ramanbhai Gamit of Randha, who was down with fever, flatly refused to be taken to a witch-doctor. Similarly, Sonya Bhagat of Randha village, who was once a notorious bandit and refused to mend his ways, was put under the care of baps sadhus by government officials; the sadhus then lovingly changed the man.
Would a poor tribal show rare honesty? Dayabhai of Kudacha village is one such example. He was working as a peon, when he one day found a wallet containing H10,000. Showing a streak of honesty he imbibed from the baps sadhus, he sought out the owner of the wallet and returned it to him.
When Anandiben Patel was the chief minister of Gujarat, she appealed to society at large and ngos in particular to adopt those government schools where teachers lacked commitment and students fared badly in the board exams. Much before that too, baps had adopted a tribal school in Rambhas village, 60 km from Navsari town of Gujarat. The school was founded in 1989 but had nothing going for it. So, when the idea of a takeover was mooted by educationists to baps, Shri Pramukh Swami Maharaj was game for it. And, until baps adopted it in 2011, the school’s pass percentage in the ssc Board was below 25 per cent. But it shot to as high as 80 per cent in 2014. Besides, the school got a facelift, especially the hostel building, the kitchen and also the classrooms.
Obviously, without the timely intervention and warmth of an ngo like baps, the students would have been doomed to a sorry fate like that of the rest of their clan.
In 2001, when the deadly earthquake hit Gujarat, baps was the first ngo to rush to Bhuj to serve hot meals, water and clothing to the affected. Besides providing the people with rations, household articles and offering medical care, baps also adopted 15 villages, where 1,692 new houses were built for rehabilitating the people. To rehabilitate people affected by various natural disasters, baps has built 55 schools in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Orissa.
Besides Gujarat, baps’ presence was visible in Maharashtra, at the time of the Latur earthquake in 1993, and in Orissa, when the super cyclone struck the state in 1999 and a tsunami engulfed it in 2004.
On foreign shores, baps volunteers have rushed and reached aid to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, when it struck the gulf coast of the US in 2005. Also, they worked with unicef to provide medicine, clean water and makeshift housing kits for children in Haiti, who had been affected by the earthquake in 2010.
In brief, baps identifies itself with society in all areas of need and would go a long way to achieve larger social good. And for that, it leans heavily on its over 1,000 sadhus, half of whom are educated in various disciplines as well as the thousands of devoted volunteers who are always at the beck and call of the present baps guru Mahant Swami Maharaj.
Says Sadhu Ishwarcharandas, convener of baps International: “Our late guru Shri Pramukh Swami Maharaj left us a legacy of ‘rare empathy’ that drives us to serve society. But the fulcrum of our charitable efforts is to inspire individuals to grow into responsible citizens and enrich the fabric of society.” As Shri Pramukh Swami Maharaj often emphasised, “Every man has to seek in his own way how to make himself nobler and find some time for his fellow beings. You don’t live in a world all on your own. Your fellow beings are also there. So, help them in times of need.”
Pramukh Swami Maharaj lived a philanthropic life based on his own motto, “In the joy of others lies our own. In the good of others rests our own. And in the progress of others abides our own.” At present, Mahant Swami Maharaj helms the tradition of service for society in the baps.