While many Hindu youth are getting lost in a world of information and secular thinking, BAPS continues to find ways to reach the next generation
IN THE WEST, SUMMER SCHOOL BREAKS and vacations from work are normally about pool time, theme parks, vacations, and spending more time with friends and family. But for members of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, there are also opportunities for spiritual enrichment through youth gatherings. These are normally held at the regional level, but in July 2013 the youth planned and executed the BAPS Swaminarayan North American Youth Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, which brought 8,000-plus participants and volunteers from all over the continent and beyond. It was the first of its kind in the history of Hindus in North America. The event comprised three conventions targeting different age groups. After a July 4 opening, for three days 3,320 high school and college students gathered, followed by three days for 2,950 grade school children, ending with three days for 1,900 young professionals and families.
The convention immersed youth in the challenge of understanding and implementing Ekantik Dharma—a lifestyle based on the four pillars—Gnan (knowledge), Bhakti (devotion), Vairagya (detachment) and Dharma (righteousness). These are core values from Hindu scripture further elaborated upon by Bhagwan Swaminarayan over 200 years ago. The convention provided a platform for youth to discuss the relentless daily pressures and constant pulls in various directions that they face, and to integrate practical, spiritual methods to triumph amidst these struggles. The grand opening included cultural performances by all groups—the “Ekantik Melo.” Participants from various regions demonstrated their talent in singing, dancing, acting, and much more, illustrating how to follow Ekantik Dharma.
Yogini Patel from Atlanta commented, “I didn’t expect it to be so relatable. That’s one of the biggest differences that I have seen in this convention. The characters in these dramas—I relate to their lives; their life is my life and their thoughts are my thoughts.” During each following three-day period, age-appropriate group activities, games, discussions and cultural programs gave the attendees fun and engaging ways to learn more about the four pillars of knowledge, devotion, detachment and righteousness.
Swamis of BAPS from around the world shared their knowledge on holding to Hindu-centric values while maintaining a balanced life. Sadguru Pujya Mahant Keshavjivandas Swami, the keynote speaker of each convention, explained that the path to Ekantik Dharma is a lifelong journey. Though derived from ancient scripture, the ideals of Ekantik Dharma are still applicable today. Knowledge is more than facts and information. Wisdom lies in differentiating the merely interesting from what is needed for progress. Dharma governs our conduct and how we uphold our duties and responsibilities. It applies not only to spiritual progress, but also helps ensure success in academics and professional careers. Pujya Anandswarupdas Swami, head of Swaminarayan Akshardham in Gandhinagar, India, explained: “Ekantik Dharma is not just something to be talked about; it is something to be lived. To live it, the Satpurush (guru) should be the center point of our lives, nothing else. That is the only way to be Ekantik.”
This is the sixteenth such convention held by BAPS since 1984. The 2013 event was one of the biggest. Jiger Amin, the leader among group leaders, says, “The initial brainstorming for this convention started in 2010 with a few individuals from various parts of North America. Over the next two years (2010-2012) they spent portions of their school break/work vacation to develop the program. In February 2013, two hundred volunteers converged in Atlanta for a ‘go-getters meeting’ to finalize all the logistics for the convention months in advance.”
Preparing for these events is a powerful model for engaging youth, not only to come as attendees, but to participate years in advance as volunteers and players in the programs. The scope of engagement was massive and multi-tiered. Jiger explains, “We did advance surveys to select 263 different bal/balika (children’s) groups from across the continent with approximately eight people in each group. There were 240 different groups for the high school and college convention. A total of 436 group leaders for the bal/balika and teen conventions were trained at regional seminars, including a small group of ten from Australia/New Zealand. A core group of 350 young adult team members from across the country played a vital role in the planning and execution of this event. These volunteers have to balance school and work with their free-time volunteer work. Approximately 614 participants were involved in the actual stage rehearsals and presentations. There were approximately 110 different leaders when counting all the departments. Major departments included medical, kitchen, transportation, accommodations, housekeeping, logistics, programming, flow, temple visits and various other departments.”
ALL PHOTOS: COURTESY BAPS
Each three-day convention was intended to not only strengthen spirituality, but also to leave the attendees with a stronger sense of balance in their lives. Kishori (high-school/college-age level) Dhawal Tank of Toronto, Canada, said, “I think the convention gives delegates a new perspective on how to live a life which is true to your roots, true to your culture and heritage. People often think that there is a clash of civilizations, clash of cultures. I think what this entire program is about is to show that there is no clash. The two lifestyles can coexist. You can stay true to your roots and there is no conflict—you can succeed and you can be happy.” Through a live video feed, His Divine Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, spiritual leader of BAPS, gave blessings from India to reinforce the message of becoming an Ekantik Dharma devotee, encouraging youth to understand and embrace their roots, helping them preserve their identities and remain grounded in their faith and culture.