A Call To Alms: The Making Of An Australian Monk
By Yash PandyaAugust 30, 2012
He was a cricketer, a standout uni student, a pharmacist. But he was seeking "everlasting happiness", so he left his family for a life of poverty and purpose.
A pharmacist in robes walks off a ceremonial platform in a village in India. He farewells his father with a fleeting smile — they will never meet again — and takes his seat as the first Australian to be initiated as a traditional Hindu monk.
The initiation ceremony is presided over by a guru, as is the tradition in Hinduism. The guru sits at the centre of the platform with 68 young, soon-to-be monks, seated in two groups, to his left and right. Seated beside each initiate is his father.
The rest of us, some 5,000 mostly family and friends of the initiates, sit on the ground, legs crossed on mats. It is all outdoors under the cover of large, connected canopies; no site in this village could accommodate so big a gathering.
Mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins are towards the front. Before them are ceremonial objects for performing the rituals along with the guru, the initiates and their fathers. The spring evening breeze moves through the makeshift arena, carrying the chanting of verses from the Vedas, ancient Hindu texts. After almost three hours comes the crescendo, with the announcement of their new names; they are no longer young men but monks — from now, and forever.
Dhrumil Upadhyay, 22, was one of those initiates who earlier this year committed to a lifetime of strict celibacy, taking vows of poverty and detachment from his family. His freshly shaven head was covered with turban-like headwear; his glasses were all that remained of his former life.
In conversation with The Global Mail the day after his initiation, Dhrumil listens carefully and speaks sparingly, taking refuge in understatement. He absorbs every question as though he's still in class at the University of Sydney, from which he graduated in pharmacy with first class honours. He answers after a contemplative pause, with responses that are brief and pithy.
"If you want everlasting happiness, then you need to do something beyond the usual," he says. "You can only achieve that if you devote yourself completely to spirituality, or at least have that thought.
"This is a road less travelled by."
Hindus are estimated to number 850 million to one billion worldwide, making Hinduism the third largest religion in the world. It is Australia's fastest-growing religion, having almost doubled to 275,534 adherents between 2006 and 2011, according to the latest national census figures released in June this year.
Dhrumil migrated to Australia from India with his family at the age of 10. He and younger sister Shreeya, now 16, had what most Australian kids would consider an ordinary upbringing. Following a year living in rural New South Wales, the family moved to Sydney where Dhrumil played cricket in summer and soccer in winter, and Shreeya loved netball all year around. But sport quickly became a pastime as Dhrumil focused on his studies — maths and chemistry were his favourite subjects. With a top Higher School Certificate (HSC) mark of 99.65 (percentile) and a buffet of university courses to select from, he went on to study pharmacy, graduating in 2010 and contributing to a London-based research project along the way.
But a monk, or more correctly, sadhu, must forget their 'previous' life when initiated into a monastic order and take on a new name to symbolise his or her spiritual re-birth.
Dhrumil was renamed Bharadwaj Bhagat, after an ancient Hindu sage believed to have been an expert in aeronautics, and who drafted plans for air travel. He joins the Swaminarayan order of sadhus, established 200 years ago in Gujarat, India, by Bhagwan Swaminarayan, believed to have been an incarnation of God (hence 'Bhagwan', literally 'God').
Swaminarayan sadhus, particularly those of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha denomination, as Dhrumil is, are known for their adherence to traditional sadhu vows and the diverse origins of their sadhus. But even Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who initiated 500 sadhus during his lifetime, could not have predicted that an Australian would join his order in 2012.
"He was such a nerd," says his sister, Shreeya, talking the day after her brother's initiation ceremony.
It's clear from talking to her that the family has been preparing for this moment for some time. Although the rules of the Swaminarayan order mean that she and her parents will never be able to talk to Dhrumil again, Shreeya seems at ease with this concept, at least for the time being.
"It's going to be weird that he's not around and I can't go to him every now and then to answer like a chemistry question," says Shreeya. "But it's something that I'm going to get used to, and I've got a lot of support from my parents and friends."
Of his new name, she says: "[It] suits him somehow. I found out who Bharadwaj was and I was like, 'Hey, maths and physics.' He used to stress that so much when helping me with homework."
It was during a friendly table tennis match in 2007 that Dhrumil gave in to his sister's nagging about his future plans and revealed his intention of becoming a sadhu to her for the first time. "So then I said, 'They might not take you because I'm a sister and there's no brother.' And he smashed the ball back so hard, I was like, 'Whoa, okay.' And he's just like 'Never say that again!' "
Shreeya was referring to the fact that it's usually more difficult for an only son or only child to obtain their parents' consent, which is a prerequisite to becoming a Swaminarayan sadhu. Children raised in Indian culture, particularly sons, are expected to take care of their parents in old age. Of the 68 youths who were initiated as sadhus in Dhrumil's intake, 12 were 'only sons'.
"We're very happy and very proud to see him as a sadhu," says Dhrumil's father, Darshan Upadhyay, with a proud voice and teary eyes, having farewelled his son 24 hours earlier. Of course, he too knew this day would come.
"Whenever any decision was to be made, such as getting a new phone plan, he'd always consider two or three years only and not beyond that," says Mr Upadhyay of how his son had conducted his life in recent years. "In that way he'd indirectly reveal that this is what he wanted."
Mr Upadhyay's final advice to Dhrumil was that he should maintain humility, considered to be a virtue by Hindus, particularly sadhus. "On our last day together I told him, 'Son, you'll be in a large group of sadhus now, all from different backgrounds and different personalities; stay humble and never get caught up in pride or being self-centred.'"
Dhrumil's mother, Parul Upadhyay, was, she says, "full of joy" seeing her son initiated as a sadhu. "He has taken the path he wanted to and is happy," she says.
"I believe everything that happens, happens for the best. We being able to bring up Dhrumil to be such a bright young man was destined," Mrs Upadhyay says. "I don't at all feel that we raised him, educated him and then 'gave him away', because it was destined and for the best.
"Whatever we did in raising him, and his academic achievements, I feel all that was due to Swamishri's blessings."
'Swamishri' refers to Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the 91-year-old guru of this Swaminarayan order and spiritual leader of the BAPS denomination. He presided over the ceremony to personally initiate each youth and meet with their father.
Adhering to the order's strict rules of lifetime celibacy, Pramukh Swami was unable to personally meet the mothers but his blessings were conveyed through individual letters to the parents of each newly initiated sadhu.
"The feeling is that, you know, he [Pramukh Swami] is your new mother and father," explains Dhrumil, now Bharadwaj Bhagat.
"It was very emotional when he came, because he is 91. We didn't expect him to come that early and we didn't expect him to stay that late either," he says, recalling the previous night's ceremony in the village of Sarangpur.
Situated in a flat farmland region of the western state of Gujarat, about four hours southwest of the capital Gandhinagar, Sarangpur is a place of pilgrimage for Swaminarayan adherents. Bhagwan Swaminarayan visited the village many times and is believed to have prophesised the building of a large mandir (Hindu temple) here. In 1916, a stone mandir was constructed under the direction of Shastriji Maharaj, guru of Pramukh Swami. At a height of 33 metres, it stands as the second tallest mandir in Gujarat even today.
Sarangpur is also home of the BAPS sadhu training centre. The village has a population of about 3,000, of which 200 are sadhus. It is an unusual village exhibiting rural life and civic planning. Amidst clustered homes, wandering cows and small shops, a towering entrance gate standing four-storeys tall welcomes Hindu pilgrims to the historic mandir. The adjacent ashram for sadhus is more construction site than monastery, with historic two-storey buildings left to stand beside new structures twice their height.
A river of orange and white flows up the mandir steps when a bell rings as a call to prayer. This ritual is repeated five times a day by the sadhus and a handful of villagers who gather before the idols of Bhagwan Swaminarayan and other Hindu deities in the mandir. They sing and chant, circumambulate the shrine and pray together to God and guru. Then the sadhus come back down, and flow back into different parts of the ashram like streams and tributaries.
There are no separate rooms for individual sadhus. Their living quarters are large, open halls and their bedding is a roll-up mattress neatly stacked in shelves when not in use. Each sadhu has a small cabinet to store belongings such as books and stationery.
A large reading room lined with desks is located in the ashram's oldest building, right next to the mandir, and just about as old. There is no air-conditioning but open doors and windows on opposite sides provide passage for a soft breeze. Although a new library has recently been built, the sadhus seem to prefer this old room.
It's almost midnight but Bharadwaj Bhagat continues to oblige this reporter. There are still a few sadhus reading at their desk.
Bharadwaj Bhagat explains how sadhu initiation ceremonies are held annually at different locations around India. But given Sarangpur's significance and that it will be his home for the next five years of training, he says to have Pramukh Swami initiate him here made the ceremony even more meaningful.
The guru-sadhu relationship is considered to be special in Hinduism, particularly within the Swaminarayan order, which has had a continuous succession of gurus since the time of Bhagwan Swaminarayan.
Although primarily a spiritual endeavour, becoming a sadhu can be likened Bharadwaj Bhagat says, to making a career choice. "It's like you getting your dream job," he says.
"There is no point helping someone just physically. Pharmacy is helping people physically," he says of his forgone career.
"Why don't we help the poor?" he asks, going on to explain: "When you see people not having a house or a bed or even a blanket, you give them a blanket tonight. And tomorrow they will be in the same situation. Why? Because they would've sold their blanket during the day, got the money and spent it on, say, addictions, and basically end up being wherever they were before.
"Most of the diseases you see, and we even learn in pharmacy… are related to your mental state rather than the physical," Bharadwaj Bhagat continues. "So obviously, to help someone physically you need to help them mentally and spiritually, and that's what I'm hoping to do. Obviously I can do that better on this path."
The clarity of Bharadwaj Bhagat's thought and conviction comes through in his expression. He signposts his responses, and concludes one point before beginning the next.
"The second thing is that when you're doing any professional work there is always a monetary motive," he says.
"But now there is no profit, it's just selfless service."
Are we likely to see more Australians taking up a life of service as sadhus? "A big yes," says Sadhu Jnanpurushdas, the head of BAPS activities in the Asia-Pacific region and himself a Swaminarayan sadhu of 27 years.
"We are seeing a movement away from the material world as people seek inner peace and spiritual enlightenment," Jnanpurushdas explains. "[Many people] lead a life which is very drab sometimes, despite the fact that they have everything. They have money, they have wealth, they have a professional career going for themselves — but still they feel there is something missing in that.
"People want to get away and do something purposeful — not useful, but purposeful — and our organisation promotes that."
Bharadwaj Bhagat, or Dhrumil as he was then, first thought about becoming a sadhu in high school. Later during one of his university breaks he spent a few weeks in India travelling with Pramukh Swami, who doesn't reside in a fixed location but spends a few weeks at a time in different cities and towns — something gurus of the Swaminarayan have always done. This is occasionally done by undecided youths considering the path of a sadhu.
After the trip, he continued to focus on his pharmacy degree, volunteered his time for BAPS activities and immersed himself in Hindu scriptures, particularly Bhagwan Swaminarayan's teachings. Interest in life as a sadhu slowly evolved into commitment and conviction. Bharadwaj Bhagat says though he was guided by the advice of his parents and close relatives, particularly his grandfather, the choice was his alone.
In his final year of university Dhrumil asked for and received his parents' consent to become a sadhu. No one in his family had ever taken this path before.
For Swaminarayan sadhus parental consent, irrespective of the youth's age, is a strict requirement, as is a minimum age of 21 and some level of tertiary education. But exception is sometimes made on the latter for youths from families with financial difficulties.
"There is no recruitment process because becoming a sadhu is such a personal and self-motivated decision," explains Bharadwaj Bhagat. "The individual himself has to make the choice, and discuss it with his parents and family."
Situations are then assessed on a case-by-case basis by senior sadhus at the Sarangpur training centre and the final word rests with Pramukh Swami as the guru.
The youths initiated into the order along with Bharadwaj Bhagat range from doctors and engineers from middle-class families living in the US and UK, to illiterate farmers and labourers from Indian tribal villages, all of whom say Pramukh Swami inspired them to become a sadhu.
"Pramukh Swami's influence is such that his teachings are universal," says Jnanpurushdas. "They're not for any one particular person or any one particular religion. He talks about atma and paramatma [the relationship between the individual soul and the divine] and about living a peaceful life.
"I feel that youngsters who are sensitive to these kinds of values will always take notice and say that okay, here is an organisation and a guru that offers all that."
Hinduism is not centralised. Given the many sects, monasteries and self-professed renunciates, it is difficult to establish a total population of Hindu monks in India and worldwide. What is Hinduism?, a publication by monks of Kauai Hindu Monastery in Hawaii, estimates there are between one and five million.
With a following estimated to number 800,000 worldwide, it is impossible for Pramukh Swami to reach each one personally, particularly Swaminarayan adherents living abroad. The last time Pramukh Swami visited Australia, for example, was in 2002.
Instead Jnanpurushdas travels around the Asia-Pacific region on the guru's behalf, with another sadhu as required by the order. In the cities of Hong Kong and Jakarta, Sydney and Auckland and every population centre in between, they oversee BAPS activities, and provide moral and spiritual guidance to Hindus.
"So Pramukh Swami doesn't have to be here [in the Asia-Pacific region] — his sadhus are here on a regular basis, his volunteers are here and all the teachings are here," he says. "The guru can impart messages through videos and through lectures, which have been recorded on audio or even written in books."
Hinduism offers followers a choice of paths between family life and a monk's life. While 'monk' may conjure images of the wandering mendicant with begging bowl and stick in hand, this is only part of the story. Such monks are anchorites — religious hermits who wander as homeless ascetics from town to town or live secluded lives in distant caves and forests. They usually travel alone and pursue individual spirituality.
And then there are cenobites, as Bharadwaj Bhagat has become, who live in strictly male or strictly female monasteries and move in groups when travelling, often in pairs. They belong to monastic orders that require them to serve together with a common purpose. Unlike anchorites, they live under the guidance of a guru. Each adherent's spiritual path is still considered to be individual, but cenobites follow the path together according to the guru's teachings.
Before being initiated as a sadhu, Bharadwaj Bhagat, or Dhrumil as he was then, undertook one year of preliminary training (a "try before you buy", as he called it) in Sarangpur. He'll now spend a further five years here, the first of which will be in white robes as a 'trainee'. His garments then will be saffron — the colour of fire and sacrifice; worn for life.
Bharadwaj Bhagat will study the Hindu scriptures, world religions, music and the Sanskrit language, as well as practical topics such as management and psychology. After "graduating", he will "serve" society through spiritual and social activities in India or elsewhere, possibly even returning to Australia.
"He has learned a lot from Australian culture and we know that he is likely to bring back even more to the country than what he has taken," says Jnanpurushdas. "He is going to bring it in terms of more understanding and better values that he has learned already."
As a Swaminarayan sadhu, Bharadwaj Bhagat will be required to follow five core vows for life: poverty (keeping no money on him or in his name), strict celibacy (not coming into contact with or talking with women), detachment from family (not coming into contact with or talking with immediate family members), control over diet (performing five waterless fasts a month and other self-imposed strictures) and humility. From the time of rising at 4 am, to performing daily physical chores, to regular scriptural reading and attending classes, the routine at the training centre always adheres to these principles.
Despite such stringent rules few sadhus choose to return to their former life. "Approximately two to three per cent of those initiated as sadhus return to family life, usually in the first few years of training or due to health reasons later on," says Jnanpurushdas.
Bharadwaj Bhagat's sister Shreeya thinks the hardest thing for him will be getting up so early. "He can wake up early, but you know he has to put on like five snoozes before he does. So start the alarm at 3 am and [he'll] work his way towards it," she jokingly says.
"But I reckon he'll be all right."
After his preliminary year in Sarangpur, Bharadwaj Bhagat says he's got waking up on time under control — in the same breath he asks a fellow sadhu walking past, "Can you please wake me up in the morning?"
According to Bharadwaj Bhagat, his most difficult task will be to consider all the trainee sadhus to be his brothers. "It's much easier said than done," he says. "The relationship that I had with my family, having that same relationship with everyone here is going to be a challenge.
"And of course the second thing is forgetting the last 21 years of your life — it's not easy."
With that he excuses himself to head off to bed. It's been a long first day as a sadhu.