The 4:45 PM sun was on its graceful descent as the first gunshot shook the air. Normally pervaded by a feeling of paramount peace, the air now reverberated with fear. The complex for spiritual worship was filled with the rancid smell of gunpowder, followed by a mouthful of debris. The hallowed halls, ornate with majestic carvings of rose limestone, were suddenly doused in crimson. On September 24, 2002, the Swaminarayan Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar, India was under attack.
As the Black Cat Commandos were dispatched to contain the terrorist attack, there were already 113 casualties. As the situation progressed, the government prepared its response. The terrorists would surely be condemned and the international community riled up for a military onslaught. An unprovoked attack on a place as pure as this would unquestionably result in universal retaliation.
This is neither a story of unsolicited terrorism, nor a story of racial tension. Countless moments of terrorism have shaken the world. This story, instead, is unique because the aftermath is of undeniable peace. In Sanskrit, there is a word for such heartfelt peace that any act is tolerated for the greater good. It is not a sign of weakness, or a show of necessary tolerance. Shanti means a constant state of mental harmony so pure that nothing can break it. It means truly believing “In the joy of others, lies our own.”
When Pramukh Swami Maharaj, – the spiritual head of BAPS, a worldwide religious and civic organization engaged in the promotion of harmony amongst diverse communities – who had envisioned and inspired the complex first heard the news, he was deeply saddened. He consoled the victims and their families, and gave strength to the international community. His response, however, set a precedent for posterity to emulate.
The Indian government and its citizens – expecting an appeal for military retaliation – were awaiting his official response. Pramukh Swami instead visited the complex, and placed flowers on the places where the victims had fallen. When passing the grounds where two of the terrorists had been taken out, he did something unimaginable. He stopped, placed flowers at the site, and prayed for the betterment of their souls. Those accompanying him immediately fell silent, witnessing his noble actions.
“What Pramukh Swami Maharaj did was unbelievable. He pieced society back together. The Akshardham tragedy instilled a sense of confidence that Gujarat need not burn at every spark that is ignited. 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 Akshardham response was a great learning both from operational and philosophical points of view.” These words were spoken by the Brigadier General in charge of the response during a case study of the events.
History remembers those who employ the more aggressive retaliation: the nuclear response to Pearl Harbor, Operation Sandstorm, a total World War following the assassination in Sarajevo. Humans have historically responded to terror with more terror. An appeal for peace in spite of anger and frustration, instead emboldens the world to unite and lay waste to the hatred that fuels terror. One man’s noble character can selflessly inspire an entire society’s journey toward peace. Such moments may never be written in the history books, yet they reign in vengeance when we need it most.
In everyday life, it is easy to lose patience with any transgression of our personal comfort. Much more difficult is maintaining a constant state of happiness and shanti even in the most averse of circumstances. Wishing for the betterment of others goes against every fiber of our uber-competitive society. However, it is the only real and sustainable answer to the cycle of hatred and violence that pervades our world. I look to the day where our society comes to believe it – that truly, “In the joy of others, lies our own.”
Special thanks to Sagar Patel for editing.
Tolerated by Ajay Patel | Wharton Class of 2018