December 1992: The BBC Interviews

In those days, BBC World Service radio had regular features on religions. A number of times they had asked me to tape “Words of Faith,” with my personal comments on passages from Guru Granth Sahib. They were also preparing a series of 7 half-hour programmes about the Indian subcontinent (“Gods, Guides, and Gurus”), encompassing music, art, history, architecture, culture, religious experience and spirituality. Gobind Sadan was to be included in the coverage. The plan was to end the series with Gobind Sadan, for its work is positive, breaking through all boundaries.

The producers of the series were two brilliant Christian Englishmen: David Craig, who was Executive Producer of Religious Broadcasting at BBC World Service, and Professor Martin Forward, who was preparing people for the ministry at Oxford University Divinity School. They shared a droll, well-informed sense of humor. Once, for instance, Martin said to me, with relationship to the contemporary decline of Christianity in Europe, “I think something happened to Christianity early in the twentieth century, in reaction to the scientific revolution. The idea was something like this: If you got rid of the embarrassing transcendent stuff, you could at least hold on to the ‘be kind to grandma and the cat’ stuff.”  I had met Martin in Korea at an interfaith conference earlier that year and told him about Gobind Sadan. One thing led to another, so by the grace of God, he and David did several programmes about Gobind Sadan, including in 1995 a full half-hour programme entitled “The Desert Shall Blossom.” They pointed out that BBC World Service had an audience of millions of people worldwide.

This time, since Maharaj was in the USA while David and Martin were touring India, Ralph Singh and I took Maharaj to a radio studio in Syracuse. I was to “interview” him for “Gods, Guides, and Gurus,” and Ralph was to translate from Punjabi into English. Martin had suggested that we cover these points: 1) Baba Virsa Singh and his work, 2) Looking at the history of India as a place where religion began, which was previously tolerant but now not so tolerant, 3) Hopes for India’s present and future in terms of the workings of religious people, and 4) Maharaj’s reflections on his own tradition and his interpretation of it.

As always when dealing with media and their preconceived questions, Maharaj took the interview in hand and shaped it according to his own mission. He was not interested in being presented as a representative of Sikhism or in commenting on Indian politics or philosophical theories. Before Ralph and I took him into the studio, Maharaj sketched out for me what he wanted to say, and what questions I should ask to lead to his answers. Though illiterate, he was very confident and brilliant when being interviewed, whether for print media, radio, or television (for which he had a wonderful ability to look straight at the camera in a most natural and engaging way).

Maharaj mostly wanted to talk about communal farming, it seems. He said,

We’ll tell them that many people have their own jobs and come to do seva at Gobind Sadan. They’re not just sitting here idly. Others live here permanently. When they have needs, those things are given to them. They came voluntarily.

Stress that this is just a beginning, developing land that wasn’t useful before. Our aim is to help the people in a bigger and better way in the future, including higher education.

Initially we purchased old machinery. We had good volunteer mechanics, and they added parts. Later when we started earning, we purchased some new tractors.

Ask, ‘How did you accumulate so much land?’ – It was very cheap then. No one wanted to come into this area. The land was so cheap that they couldn’t give it away for free. There were robbers, wild animals, floods all the way up to Tejpuri [a village far from the Ganga in the interior of Shiv Sadan].

All the people there are thinking how the poor and downtrodden can be helped from the income of this land. All have the thought that whatever is produced on the land is to uplift the poor.

If the energy within people is harnessed in a good direction, to a good cause, so much can be done.

It is an Indian custom that people donate money and volunteer work in religious places. In Gobind Sadan, we stress physical seva.

At Gobind Sadan, the soil was very rocky, but Maharaj stood with the volunteers and gave them good direction. Have Balwant Singh [agricultural director of Gobind Sadan’s farms] show them the undeveloped land nearby [so they can see the difference].

Maharaj also instructed me to have the radio producers sit with Swaranjit Singh in Delhi before interviewing  Gobind Sadan sevadars. Swaranjit was our trusted elder statesman, CEO of a major company and President of the Gobind Sadan Institute for Advanced Studies in Comparative Religion. Even when he was preparing to sit in a studio in far away Syracuse, Maharaj’s was mentally surveying the fields of two of his communities in India to make sure that they were properly explained.

A year later, David Craig wrote to me that BBC World Service was struggling with a cut in government funding that could mean limiting coverage of drama, music, and religion. Maharaj sent him this reply:

With what is going on now in the world, it is very important for your programming to bring your listeners peace, to show them the right path, the true way of religion. What is that? That we should love one another, not hurt anyone’s feelings, and not solicit any charity in the name of God. God’s name should be associated only with love.

These days many people have big houses, big factories, high positions, rich food, and comfortable beds. They have all these things, but there is one thing they do not have: happiness. Why? It has been proven that these things do not bring happiness. To have all these material things and also remain happy requires God’s blessings of love and service. We should travel happily on our journey through life. The lives of those who have no faith in God are full of anger; they deprive others of their rights and hurt the feelings of others. Their journey is incomplete because it is giving trouble to others.

You include many subjects in your programming. You may reduce some of them. However, to provide what is necessary at this time, coverage of the right path of religion should be increased.

May God bless you and remove all your difficulties. With your clear mind you should be able to convey those things that were spoken by the messiahs and prophets of God. Those whose minds are clear, loving, and service-oriented are always under the blessing of God.

[from Maharaj’s letter to David Craig, November 16, 1993]

I see from my files that I had added my own letter to David along with Maharaj’s encouraging words. We were in Shiv Sadan at the time. In part, I wrote to him,

As I write this, a dozen very poor men are hand-cutting a wet field of rice that could not be harvested mechanically. Maharaj is here with them, as always, teaching them what it is to work very hard with faith in God, the ultimate Provider. He feels very strongly that if people can learn these two things, poverty can be eradicated anywhere. Certainly no one could make any kind of living on this formerly desolate land before he came. People lived in constant fear—of wild animals and poisonous snakes, of dacoits, of floods, of hunger, of cold, of each other. We have harvested an average of 28 quintals (1 quintal = 100 kilograms) per acre of rice this season, compared to a previous record of 20-22 quintals per acre in this part of India. Nothing is wasted. Last night Maharaj rounded up a few dozen of us to gather the spilled rice around the winnowing area, and we were amazed to see that what had looked like nothing was enough to fill a big transport truck. The rice straw is spread on the roads to help keep the dust down and to build up the roads’ height, and some is fed to the animals. The stubble is burned and plowed under to return nutrients to the soil. Gleaners from near gypsy camps come to collect whatever grains of rice are left from the harvesting and to graze their buffalos on the new shoots before the fields are plowed.

Every evening Maharaj goes around to all the workers, giving them great handfuls of Prasad and praising their work, telling them that they have great energy lying hidden within them. It seems that it is there within all of us, and he has the great gift of being able to call it forth, for our own improvement and the betterment of the world. Before long, you must meet him.