By Gudrun Willcocks

When Manali Patel became pregnant, she knew she would have to give up watching Blacklist and Quantico. They were her favorite programs but the racy and occasionally, violent storylines were inappropriate for a baby she thought; particularly, one growing inside her. What if her child grew up to become a violent adult? She would never forgive herself. Patel decided to give up watching television altogether. Better safe than sorry.

Patel was not suffering from a hormone imbalance. She was practicing garbha sanskara, a sacred Hindu custom that rests on the belief that karma may be nurtured in an unborn child through divinely led actions practiced by the mother during pregnancy. Through etiquette, diet, daily activity and spiritual practice such as prayer, chanting and listening to or reading scriptures, it is believed that positive moral conduct known as “sanskar,” can be developed in a baby from the moment the child is planned.

“If the mother is happy and delightful, the baby is happy and delightful,” Patel explained on a balmy evening in March from the home she shares with her husband, husband’s parents and grandparents in the Navrangpura area of Ahmedabad, the largest city in the Indian state of Gujarat. “If the mother cries, the baby cries too.”

Patel has cupid’s lips, long dark hair and almond eyes. She has a “lucky gap,” between her front teeth that according to Hindu astrology denotes a creative, intelligent person with enthusiasm for life and their endeavors. As an engineer, Patel was indeed a hard-worker and often clocked 45 hours in the office and 30 hours of household chores plus work at the mandir, but as a mother she is devoted.

On the day Patel found out she was pregnant, responsibility swelled in her like a flower about to bloom and after a modest prayer “God be with me,” she devised a garbha sanskara plan that she felt was sustainable and nourishing: no television, no food to be eaten outside the home, only “cheerful thoughts,” and four hours of listening to Swaminarayan scriptures a day. She also decided that it was ok to listen to old Bollywood music but not new Bollywood music.

“Before I became pregnant, I was religious. But after I became pregnant, I was really religious,” Patel said over skype recently. Patel is a Hindu but more specifically, a member of the BAPS group within the Swaminarayan branch of Hinduism, a popular, bhakti sect that is characterized by adherence to strict vegetarianism (no onions and garlic), no alcohol, seva or service at their communities, and a belief that through the guru followers can access God.

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Lord Swaminarayan is the central figure in the Swaminarayan movement and born in 1781, he is believed by followers to be a manifestation of God; the later gurus within the movement are considered his successors. At a gold shrine the size of a large doll’s house in Patels’ home, Patel prays twice a day for 15 minutes to Lord Swaminarayan. In the morning, she repeats his name 108 times and in the evening, she practices arti, a fire ritual with a candle that is circled around images of Lord Swaminarayan and Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the fifth successor to Swaminarayan.

When she was with child, she would cover her hands over the flame in the customary fashion and after tapping her head, would touch her tummy. The fire is an offering to deities, but the significance of the fire is to remove darkness.

“Everything is crying right now,” Patel told me on one particular sitting. “Why not teach the baby good values when it is in the womb?” she asked. “Bad things will be learnt easily when it is in this world.”

From Sanskrit, garbha sanskar means “education of the womb,” and historically, the custom can be traced back to the Vedic scriptures, the Rig Veda, which proposed a child’s mental development begins from the moment of planning for a child and that spiritual acts performed during this period until birth lead to positive “sanskar.”

Often in Hindu philosophy and mythology anecdote is used to illustrate moral ideas much like a fairytale and in one particular tale, Lord Hanuman’s mother Anjana is described as a committed devotee of Lord Shiva. During pregnancy, she eats a sanctified dessert (rice pudding) or prasad, believed to produce divine children and Lord Hanuman is born with celestial powers as an incarnation of Lord Shiva.

In India today however, the term garbha sanskara become an over-arching phrase used to denote pregnancy health and there are books, websites, blogs and YouTube channels dedicated to the how and why of the process. Mother’s may choose from mantras specifically geared towards improving sanskar, there are songs to download believed to psychologically connect with the child and some doctor’s post advice on how best to observe the ritual.

“Read and see things that make you happy,” advises the website babycenter.in. “Communicate with your baby and perform puja and eat healthily.”

“You can shape your babies first impressions by listening to good music, visualizing, massaging gently, meditating and of course, with the help of positive thinking,” counsels speakingtree.in.

“A pregnant mother must never watch horror movies,” wrote the blogger Ajit Vadakayil.

As a Hindu, Manali believes in karma. She believes that as humans, we are open to positive and negative influence and that these polarities pollute and purify the soul and mind accordingly. If one behaves in a manner that is right or righteous, good or virtuous then, it follows that one’s state of mind or karma improves and vice versa. The same goes for an embryo, except that its karma, at least in part, is beholden to the mother.

Patel focused on the oratory aspects of garbha sanskar. “I just switched on my I-pad and started listening to Swaminaryan discourses,” she said with the ease of a Millennial. She also practiced parayan, delivering a sermon to a group.

At 7am on a Wednesday morning in March, the BAPS mandir in Shahibaug quietly shoehorned over 6000 people into the dome like space for darshan. Males and females sat facing forward, ardently waiting to watch the Mahant Swami Maharaj, the current successor to Lord Swaminaryan according to BAPS philosophy, perform morning pujas. It was a peaceful moment and the increasingly popular mandir.

At seven months pregnant, Patel delivered parayan on the scripture, bhaktchintamani to a group of eighty-something women at the Navrangpura mandir. Friends told her she wouldn’t be able to sit on the podium for that length of time comfortably, but Patel was characteristically resolute. “I said for sure I’m going to do it,” she said, and before crossing her legs, Patel patted her stomach and said to her baby “please don’t kick me and give me strength.” They were doing it together.

On October 16th, 2016, Akshar Patel was born after two days of Labor. Although, it was a difficult time, Patel saw the birthday as “a beautiful coincidence,” because it was Sharad Purnima, an auspicious day in the Hindu Calendar, and coincidentally the same day as Gunatitanand Swami, Swaminaryan’s second successor was born.According to Patel, if you want to attain enlightenment, you need to follow Gunatitanand Swami’s actions. And its the same day Patel and her husband Anand met for the first time. Though she wouldn’t say it, one can’t help but think perhaps, it is an auspicious start.

“He is very very special to me,” she said, before reminding me that garbha sanskar is not just a ritual, but a responsible manner of parenting and that science has caught up to the Vedic idea that parenting starts in the womb.