Tolerance in Action
The Akshardham Response
The world is one family
- Maha Upanishad 6.71 - 6.73
Today, I wish to share with you one of the most heart-touching stories, that I hold close to my heart. In this true event, my guru, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, responded to an unprecedented and horrendous incident – on his own creation – with utmost tolerance and pluralism.
On 24 September 2002, at approximately 4.45pm, a white car dropped two individuals between the ages of twenty and twenty-five, carrying haversacks and wearing jackets filled with AK-47 guns and hand grenades at Gate 3 of the Akshardham Complex in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. Avoiding security screening, the terrorists jumped the seven-foot high fence, after which the chaos began.
The goal was simple: blow up Akshardham. They mercilessly fired rounds at visitors and pilgrims near the gift shop, as they proceeded towards the main temple whilst throwing hand grenades. One of the volunteers witnessing the shooting rushed along the 200-foot walkway, running up the stairs, closing the 15-foot doors of the main shrine, dedicated to Bhagwan Swaminarayan. The terrorists were running behind from a distance, but could not infiltrate the main temple where 35 people were peacefully offering prayers.
Unable to infiltrate the main temple, the terrorists shifted their attention to the exhibition halls. Despite the volunteers having locked all the doors, the terrorists entered Exhibition Hall 1, where many people were watching the multimedia show. Upon entering, the terrorists began firing shots at the audience, wounding and killing men, women, and children. As police, security guards, and commandos reached the scene, the terrorists left the exhibition hall, climbing up some stairs to get on top of the outer perimeter of the temple which connected the three exhibition halls.
Police and commandos escorted visitors from in and around the complex to safety, whilst volunteers aided in helping injured victims. The remaining 100 visitors in Exhibition Hall 1 were escorted to safety. As visitors from inside the main temple were being retreated, the terrorists opened fire at the commandos. They were surrounded, with no way of escape.
As NSG commandos arrived at the complex, at around 10.10pm, multiple strategies were reviewed and commandos positioned themselves around the complex to find the terrorists.
The stand-off continued throughout the night as the two terrorists jumped down from the rooftop and hid in the nearby bathroom. As the night progressed, the terrorists moved into a grove of trees near one of the exhibition halls, desperate and continuing to fire their rounds. At around 6.45am, the 14-hour long ordeal ended with the NSG commandos shooting down the two hidden in the bushes.
Three commandos, 31 innocent pilgrims, including a swami of BAPS, were killed in this horrific incident. A further 80 individuals were seriously wounded. National and international religious, political, and social leaders strongly condemned the attack. The whole of India sank into shock and went into silence.
The Akshardham Response
Certain leaders urged the head of the organisation, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, to voice strong protests and anger. However, Pramukh Swami chose to remain calm and composed amongst this turmoil. He walked, and urged others to, the path of prayer and forgiveness. He appealed to the state of Gujarat to maintain peace, and thus the government took the stance to maintain peace within the region and a resolve to promote solidarity.
Swamiji attended to those who came to offer their condolences and also those who came to seek solace. We do not find such equanimity in any ordinary person. The spiritual virtues and stability of an 82-year-old Pramukh Swami amazed all. He became a living proof in modern times of the highest wisdom prescribed in Vedic scriptures.
When one of his own monks had lost their lives, Pramukh Swami silently swallowed this terrible and unbearable event, preventing the news and images of the death from spreading. Swami Brahmaviharidas, who was at the scene and aiding the operation, witnessed the death of the monk before his eyes. Shattered and hurt, Swami Brahmaviharidas telephoned Pramukh Swami Maharaj, who told him, "I know it hurts you, but contain your pain. Do not make a hue and cry. Be responsible. Keep things quiet and do not declare it in public. We cannot allow religion strife to inflame and take more innocent lives." Pramukh Swami’s emotional stability and a larger sense of responsibility to society not only kept the organisation together, but the society at large.
Even more shockingly, Pramukh Swami Maharaj had never asked for the names, origin, or religion of the terrorists. Moreover, when he came to the complex a few days later, blessing all the places of death and destruction, he asked where the terrorists had died. Swami went over to the spot and sprinkled sanctified flowers and prayed, "May no one think of attacking anyone, any place, or any religion. May the world be freed from thoughts of terror." Talks of a memorial of the attack were flying around, but Pramukh Swami instructed, "We should forgive and forget. Keep no traces or memories of the scars and hurts."
Two weeks later, on 7th October 2002, the complex was reopened to the public. Brigadier Raj Seetapathy, the NSG commando in charge of the operation, said in an interview that the manner in which Pramukh Swami Maharaj reached this violent situation impressed him. The incident turned into a case study, ‘The Akshardham Response’.
"What Pramukh Swami did was unbelievable. He pieced society back together. What I observed after the operation was the calm and serenity that was quickly restored. I have faced many violent encounters in my professional life, but the Akshardham response was a great learning both from operational and philosophical points of views. Once Pramukh Swami decided to even purify the souls of the two terrorists, volunteers and devotees immediately fell silent. There was no slogan shouting, no anger being expressed for any community. It was one of the most magnanimous and exemplary acts of restraint and responsibility that foiled the design of terrorists to spark more violence."
Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s life itself was pluralistic. He didn’t just preach, he practiced and lived. The magnitude of his tolerance, engagement, and views on harmony are unexplainable. That is why millions will gather between December 2022 and January 2023, for the month-long centennial birth celebrations of HH Pramukh Swami Maharaj. I personally extend an invitation to each one of you to join us in these celebrations in Ahmedabad. For further information about this event, click here.
This article on tolerance is an excerpt from my first book The Keshav Way, available anywhere in the world from here.
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