Akshar Purushottam Upasana
Akshar Purushottam Upasana is an interpretation by Shastriji Maharaj of the teachings of Swaminarayan which led to the creation of the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) in 1907. It could also be referred to as Brahman Parabrahman Upasana or Bhakta Bhagwan Upasana. According to this interpretation, Gunatitanand Swami is the successor of Swaminarayan as opposed to the Acharyas (heads of the Swaminarayan Sampraday). Shastri Yagnapurushdas created BAPS as a result of this difference in belief.
Interpretation of Swaminarayan's Teachings
Swaminarayan's philosophy defined five eternal entities, namely Jiva, Ishwar, Maya, Brahman and Parabrahman. Followers of Akshar Purushottam Upasana believe that Brahman and Parabrahman are the highest two of these entities. Whilst other schools of Hindu philosophy hold Brahman and Parabrahman to be one and the same, Swaminarayan's philosophy holds them to be two separate entities. Throughout his discourses in the Vachanamrut, the primary scripture of the Swaminarayan Sampraday, Swaminarayan referred to Brahman as Akshar, Aksharbrahman, or Akshardham. Similarly, he referred to Parabrahman as Purushottam, or Paramatma,.
He taught that Akshar had two forms, a formless all-pervading heavenly abode and a physical form that served the Lord wherever he went. Furthermore, he preached that to offer pure worship to God, one needed to become Brahmarup, or gain qualities like Brahman, and then offer worship to Purushottam. For this reason, the essence of Akshar Purushottam Upasana can be described as follows: "to become Aksharup and then offer worship to Purushottam."
To achieve this status, aspirants were instructed to associate with and serve Brahman - often referred to as the Sant, Satpurush, or Sadhu - who incarnated with God. They were also instructed to offer worship to him, in the same manner as the worship offered to God  as, according to His words, "When one has darshan of such a Sant, one should realise 'I have had the darshan of God himself.'"
The interpretation of the terms Sant, Satpurush, and Sadhu being synonymous with 'Brahman' is based upon the words of Swaminarayan in Vachanamrut discourses like Gadhada II-59 where it is said that, "God's Sant is greater than even Bhava, Brahma, and other deities." Applying Swaminarayan's philosophy regarding the five eternal entities, followers of Akshar Purushottam Upasana conclude that the only entity Swaminarayan could be discussing is Brahman, since Parabrahman is God Himself, and "Bhava, Brahma, and other deities" are classed as Ishwar.
Followers of BAPS regard the term saint in this context to be singular, however followers of the Swaminarayan Sampraday believe that Swaminarayan is referring to the association of all saints who have reached the elevated status of Brahm, as Swaminarayan does not specify any one specific saint in the scripture Vachanamrut. Also they state that it would be almost impossible for all devotees around the world to associate with just one saint, and it would make the role of all other saints redundant. BAPS followers claim that they feel in union with Pramukh Swami Maharaj the current spiritual leader of BAPS. BAPS has over 860 Saints, 9000 centers, 400 Mandirs, 2 Akshardham complexes etc.
Gunatitanand Swami as Mul Akshar
Followers of BAPS and Akshar Purushottam Upasana hold Gunatitanand Swami, a saint and paramhansa of Swaminarayan, to be the personified form of Brahman as discussed above. They cite several references, incidents, and evidence, as seen below.
- Acharya Shri Raghuvirji Maharaj quoted Swaminarayan when he referred to Gunatitanand Swami Maharaj as his 'Akshardham, within whom he forever resides in.' Shri Harililakalpatru VII/17:49, 50.
- Acharya Shri Viharilalji Maharaj referred to Gunatitanand Swami as Akshar Murti Gunatitanand Swami Maharaj in his Kirtan Kaustubhamala. But this is not evident within his works.
- Brahmachari Krishnanandji named Gunatitanand Swami Maharaj as 'Mul Akshar'.
- Darbar Abhaysinhji of Lodhika referred to Gunatitanand Swami Maharaj as 'Mul Akshar' in Purushottam Charitra.
- Similar references can be found in the kirtans of Jerami Brahmachari, Akhandanand Brahmachari, and Jagdishanand Brahmachari of Junagadh.
- The small shrine erected at the spot where Gunatitanand Swami Maharaj used to sit in Junagadh has the inscription, "Anadi Mul Akshar Murti Gunatitanand Swami sat here for 40 years." .
- The shrine constructed on the site of Gunatitanand Swami Maharaj's final rites only a few years after his death was called 'Akshar Deri'.
Gunatitanand Swami as Successor
In the context of Akshar Purushottam Upasana, every spiritual Guru in Swaminarayan's succession is believed the incarnation of Aksharbrahman in whom the Lord resides fully and eternally. As every Guru is the same Aksharbrahman entity, the devotees feel no spiritual change, except the physical change of another successor. It is clear that the Guru is not God, but is God's ideal devotee in whom God resides eternally. According to this philosophy, Gunatitanand Swami was the first successor to Swaminarayan. He was succeeded by Bhagatji Maharaj, Shastriji Maharaj, Yogiji Maharaj and Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the current spiritual leader of BAPS. Since the inception of BAPS, Shastriji Maharaj and Pramukh Swami have shared dual roles of spiritual and administrative heads of the sect while Yogiji Maharaj only held the position of spiritual head.
Followers of the Swaminarayan Sampraday do not accept this successorship. They accept the instructions of Swaminarayan who formally adopted a son from his brothers and appointed them to the office of Acharya for the Ahmedabad Gadi and Vadtal Gadi. This was done so that they would maintain a direct line of blood descent from his family. It is stated in scriptures established by Swaminarayan primarily through the Desh Vibhag Lekh, with further instructions in the Shikshapatri, Vachanamrut and Satsangi Jeevan.
As a separate sect, BAPS has not followed the authority of the Acharya's since its creation. Additionally, BAPS states that for administrative purposes, he divided his mandirs into two regions and appointed two acharyas, Raghuvirji Maharaj and Ayodhyaprasadji Maharaj to guide the progress.