Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha

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Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha
BAPS Logo with the symbol of Akshar Deri
BAPS Logo with the symbol of Akshar Deri
Akshardham airpano.png
Swaminarayan Akshardham in New Delhi, India - significant temple project undertaken by Pramukh Swami Maharaj to fulfill Yogiji Maharaj's vision [1]
Abbreviation BAPS
Motto “In the joy of others lies our own.” – Pramukh Swami Maharaj
Predecessor Yogiji Maharaj
Formation June 5, 1907; 107 years ago (1907-06-05)
Founder Shastriji Maharaj
Type Hindu Organization with Akshar Purushottam, Brahma-Parabrahma Upasana
Headquarters BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Shahibaug Road, Ahmedabad, India
Current spiritual leader Pramukh Swami Maharaj
Website http://www.baps.org
Formerly called Bochasan Swaminarayan Sanstha (BSS)

Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (IAST: Bocāsanvāsī Akshar Purushottam Swāminārāyan Sansthā), often abbreviated as BAPS (formerly Bochasan Swaminarayan Sanstha or BSS), is a major organization within the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism. The organization was established on 5 June 1907 by Shastri Yagnapurushdas or Shastriji Maharaj (1865–1951), a Sanskrit scholar and sadhu who left the Vadtal Gadi of the Swaminarayan Sampraday in 1905. An interpretation of Swaminarayan's teachings led to the formation of this organization. This interpretation is known as Akshar Purushottam Upasana. Shastriji Maharaj's successor was Yogiji Maharaj who was succeeded by present head Pramukh Swami Maharaj.[2]

Mandirs[edit]

The mandir, known as a Hindu place of worship, serves as a hub for the spiritual, cultural, and humanitarian activities of BAPS. The organization has about 1,100 mandirs and a total of 3,300 volunteer-run centers spanning five continents.[3][4] In the tradition of the Bhakti Movement, Swaminarayan and his spiritual successors began erecting mandirs to provide a means to uphold proper devotion to God on the path towards moksha, or ultimate liberation.[5] BAPS mandirs thus facilitate devotional commitment to the Akshar Purushottam Upasana, in which followers strive to reach the spiritually perfect state of Aksharbrahman, or the ideal devotee, thereby gaining the ability to properly worship Purushottam, the Supreme Godhead.[6]

Mandir Rituals[edit]

The offering of bhakti, or devotion to God, remains at the center of mandir activities. In all BAPS Swaminarayan mandirs, murtis, or sacred images of Swaminarayan, Gunatitanand Swami, BAPS guru's and other deities, are enshrined in the inner sanctum. After completion of prana pratishta or life-force installation ceremonies, the deities are believed to reside in the murtis, and are thus subjects of direct worship through sacred daily rituals.[7] In many mandirs, murtis are adorned with clothes and ornaments and devotees come to perform darshan, the act of worshiping the deity by viewing the sacred image.[8][9][10] Aarti, which is a ritual of waving lit lamps in circular motions to illuminate the different parts of the murti while singing a song of praise, is performed five times daily in shikharbaddha mandirs and twice daily in smaller mandirs. Additionally, food is offered to the murtis amidst the singing of devotional songs three times a day as part of the ritual of thaal, and the sanctified food is then distributed to devotees.[9] Daily readings of and discourses on various Hindu scriptures also take place in the mandir.[11] Many mandirs are also home to BAPS sadhus, or monks.[12] On weekends, spiritual assemblies are held in which sadhus and devotees deliver discourses on a variety of spiritual topics. During these religious assemblies, bhakti is offered in the form of kirtans, or devotional songs with traditional musical accompaniment. Religious assemblies also take place for children and teenagers of various age ranges.[13] Throughout the year, mandirs are the sites of traditional celebrations of Hindu festivals. Assemblies with special discourses, kirtans, and other performances are arranged to commemorate Rama Navami, Janmashtami, Diwali, and other major Hindu holidays.[14]

Mandir Activities[edit]

In addition to being focal points of religious activity, BAPS mandirs are also centers of culture.[15] Many forms of traditional Indian art have their roots in Hindu scriptures and have been preserved and flourished in the setting of mandirs.[16] Many BAPS mandirs outside of India hold Gujarati classes to facilitate scriptural study, instruction in traditional dance forms in preparation for performances in festival assemblies, and music classes where students are taught how to play traditional instruments such as tabla.[17][18] Many devotees view the mandir as a place for transmission of knowledge of Hindu values and their incorporation into daily routines, family life, and careers.[19][20]

Apart from classes teaching about religion and culture, mandirs are also the site of activities focused on youth development. Many centers organize college preparatory classes, leadership training seminars and workplace skills development workshops.[21][22][23] Many centers host women’s conferences aimed at empowering young women.[24] They also host sports tournaments and initiatives to promote healthy lifestyles among children and youth.[25] Many centers also host parenting seminars, marriage counseling, and events for family bonding.[26][27]

BAPS mandirs and cultural centers serve as hubs of several humanitarian activities powered by local volunteers. Mandirs in the US and UK host an annual walkathon to raise funds for local charities such as hospitals or schools.[28][29][30] Many centers also host annual health fairs where needy members of the community can undergo health screenings and consultations.[31] During weekend assemblies, physicians are periodically invited to speak on various aspects of preventative medicine and to raise awareness on common conditions.[32] In times of disaster, centers closest to the affected area become hubs for relief activity ranging from providing meals to reconstructing communities.[33][34]

Notable Mandirs[edit]

BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir Sarangpur

The founder of BAPS, Shastriji Maharaj, built its first and “namesake” mandir in Bochasan.[35] The organization’s second mandir was built in Sarangpur, which also hosts a seminary for BAPS sadhus.[36] The mandir in Gondal was constructed around the Akshar Deri, the cremation memorial of Gunatitanand Swami, who is revered as a manifestation of Aksharbrahman.[11] Shastriji Maharaj constructed his last mandir on the banks of the River Ghela in Gadhada, where Swaminarayan resided for the majority of his adult life.[37][38] Yogiji Maharaj constructed the mandir in the Shahibaug section of Ahmedabad, which remains the site of the international headquarters of the organization.[39] Under the leadership of Pramukh Swami Maharaj, over 25 additional shikharbaddha mandirs have been erected across Gujarat and other regions of India and abroad. As a consequence of the Indian emigration patterns, mandirs have been erected in Africa, Europe, North America, and the Asia-Pacific region.[40] The BAPS mandir in Neasden, London was the first traditional Hindu mandir built in Europe.[41] The organization’s sixth North American shikharbaddha mandir was recently inaugurated in the New Jersey suburb of Robbinsville, NJ.[42] Currently, BAPS has a total of 34 shikharbaddha mandirs around the world, with another 9 under construction. In addition to its shikharbaddha madirs, BAPS has over 1,100 other mandirs spread over five continents, including around 70 mandirs in North America and 12 mandirs in Europe.[4] Additionally, the BAPS has also constructed two large temple complexes dedicated to Swaminarayan called Akshardham, which in addition to a large stone-carved mandir has exhibitions that explain Hindu traditions and Swaminarayan history and values.[43] Akshardham temple complexes have been built in India in New Delhi and Gandhinagar, Gujarat.

History[edit]

Doctrinal Origins (1799-1905)[edit]

Formation[edit]

The History of BAPS as an organization begins with Shastriji Maharaj’s desire to propagate the mode of worship[44] as revealed by Swaminarayan in his original teachings.[45][46][47] During Swaminarayan’s own time, his group’s spread had been curbed by opposition from Vaishnava sampradayas and others hostile to Swaminarayan’s bhakti teachings.[48] Due to the hostility of those who found Swaminarayan’s growing popularity and teachings unacceptable, sadhus [Bhaktachintamani] and devotees during Swaminarayan’s time tempered some of the public presentation of his doctrine, despite their own convictions, to mitigate violence towards their newly formed devotional community.[49] The original doctrine taught by Swaminarayan continued to be conveyed in less public fora, but with the passage of time, Shastriji Maharaj sought to publicly reveal this doctrine, which asserted that Swaminarayan and his choicest devotee, Gunatitanand Swami, were ontologically, Purushottam and Akshar, respectively.[44] However, when Shastriji Maharaj began openly discoursing about this doctrine, hereafter the Akshar-Purushottam doctrine, he was met with opposition from some quarters within the Vartal diocese.[50][51] As the opposition against him grew violent,[51] Shastriji Maharaj was left with no choice but to leave[50][52][53] Vartal to escape violent physical assaults.[54] Thus, Dr. Williams, notes, the very basis for separation from the Vartal diocese and raison d’être for the formation of BAPS was this doctrinal issue.[50][55][56]

Revelation of Doctrine[edit]

Swaminarayan’s writings[edit]

Swaminarayan is viewed as God (Purushottama) by BAPS followers.[57] Thus, his writings and discourses form the foundation for BAPS’ theological tenets.[58] Regarding Swaminarayan's philosophy, Akshar plays a fundamental role in the overall scheme of ultimate liberation.[59] Swaminarayan indicated that those who wish to offer pure devotion to God (Purushottama)[49] should imbibe the qualities of the Gunatit Guru[60] [Satsangijivanam Volume IV/72:1,2] as Akshar, embodied as the Gunatit Guru,[61][62] offers pure devotion[63] transcending Maya. Swaminarayan’s philosophy of liberation, which is to “identify oneself with Akshar (a synonym of Brahman) to offer the highest devotion to Purushottam”,[64] is also found in various Hindu scriptures [Mundaka Upanishad 3/2:9, Shrimad Bhagavatam I/1:1, Bhagvad Gita XVIII/54]. It follows that the doctrine that Shastriji Maharaj propagated, as Kim observes, “did not result in the rejection of any scriptures; instead, it was the beginning of a distinctive theology which added a single but powerful qualification, [that Akshar plays] in the form of the living guru”.[65]

Mandirs built by Swaminarayan[edit]

BAPS devotees also believe that Swaminarayan propagated the same doctrine through the mandirs he built.[49] From 1822 to 1828, Swaminarayan constructed a total of six shikharbaddha mandirs in Gujarat; in each he installed the murtis of a principal deity coupled with their ideal devotee in the central shrine: Nar-Narayan in Ahmedabad (1822) and Bhuj (1823), Lakshmi-Narayan in Vartal (1824), Madan-Mohan in Dholera (1826), Radha-Raman in Junagadh (1828), and Gopi-Nath in Gadhada (1828).[66]

As Kim notes, "For BAPS devotees, the dual murtis in the original Swaminarayan temples imply that Swaminarayan did install a murti of himself alongside the murti of his ideal bhakta or Guru".[49] Thus, Shastriji Maharaj, was simply extending that idea by enshrining the murti of Swaminarayan along with Gunatitanand Swami, his ideal devotee, in the central sanctum.[49] However, many within the Vartal and Ahmedabad dioceses did not subscribe to this view, and this became one of the main points of disagreement that led to the schism.[67]

Lineage of living Gunatit Gurus[edit]

Shastriji Maharaj explained that as per Swaminarayan’s teachings, God desired to remain on earth through a succession of enlightened gurus.[68] In many of his discourses in the Vachanamrut (Gadhada I-71,[69] Gadhada III-26[70] and Vadtal 5[71]) Swaminarayan explains that there forever exists a Gunatit Guru[48] (perfect devotee) through whom God (Swaminarayan) manifests on earth[67] for the ultimate redemption of jivas.[72]

Further, Shastriji Maharaj noted that Swaminarayan had “expressly designated” the Gunatit Guru to spiritually guide the satsang (spiritual fellowship) while instructing his nephews to help manage the administration of the fellowship within their respective dioceses.[68][73] Each Gunatit Guru in the lineage has continued to reveal his successor; Gunatitanand Swami revealed Pragji Bhakta (Bhagatji Maharaj), who in turn revealed Shastriji Maharaj, who pointed to Yogiji Maharaj, who revealed Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the current Guru, thus continuing the lineage of Akshar.[55][74]

Numerous historical accounts[46][72] and texts[45] written during Swaminarayan and Gunatitanand Swami’s era identify Gunatitanand Swami as the embodiment of Akshar. See Gunatitanand Swami as Akshar.

Followers of BAPS believe that the Ekantik dharma that Swaminarayan desired to establish is embodied and propagated by the Ekantik Satpurush – the Gunatit Guru.[75][76] The first such guru in the lineage was Gunatitanand Swami.[77] Shastriji Maharaj had understood from his own guru, Bhagatji Maharaj, that Gunatitanand Swami was the first Gunatit Guru in the lineage.[55]

Propagation of Doctrine by Bhagatji Maharaj[edit]

Although Bhagatji Maharaj was originally a disciple of Gopalanand Swami, Gopalanand Swami instructed Bhagatji Maharaj to seek the company of Gunatitanand Swami if he desired to attain the Gunatit state.[78][79] Through his association with Gunatitanand Swami, Bhagatji Maharaj understood that the doctrine of Akshar-Purushottam was the true doctrine propagated by Swaminarayan. See: Bhagatji Maharaj - As a disciple of Gunatitanand Swami

In 1883,[80][81] Shastriji Maharaj met Bhagatji Maharaj in Surat.[82] Recognizing Bhagatji Maharaj’s spiritual caliber, Shastriji Maharaj began spending increasing amounts of time listening to Bhagatji Maharaj’s discourses, and soon, he accepted Bhagatji Maharaj as his guru.[83] Overtime, Shastriji Maharaj, also became a strong proponent of the Akshar-Purushottam Upasana.[84] After Bhagatji Maharaj died on 7 November 1897,[85] Shastriji Maharaj became the primary proponent of the doctrine of Akshar-Purushottam.[50] He believed that the construction of mandirs guided by this doctrine was urgently needed to facilitate followers’ practice of this understanding of Swaminarayan devotion.[48]

Foundation and Early Years (1905-1950)[edit]

In this regard, Shastriji Maharaj persuaded Acharya Kunjvihariprasadji to consecrate the murtis of Akshar (Gunatitanand Swami) and Purushottam (Swaminarayan) in the Vadhwan mandir.[83] Shastriji Maharaj’s identification of Gunatitanand Swami as the personal form of Akshar was already a paradigm shift for some that led to “opposition and hostility“[48] from many within the Vadtal diocese.[86] Moreover, the installation of Gunatitanand Swami’s murti next to Swaminarayan in the Vadhwan Mandir, led to further hostility and opposition from many sadhus of the Vadtal temple who were determined to prevent the murti of Gunatitanand Swami from being placed [along with Swaminarayan in the central shrine].[50] Although several attempts were made on his life following this event,[51] Shastriji Maharaj maintained his reluctance to leave Vadtal.[83] However, Krishnaji Ada, a respected lay leader of the Swaminarayan Sampraday, saw a threat to Shastriji Maharaj’s life and advised him to leave for his own safety, as per the teachings of Swaminarayan in the Shikshapatri Verse 153-154.[83] Acknowledging the commands of Swaminarayan in the Shikshapatri,[83] Shastriji Maharaj decided to leave[67][67][67] the Vartal temple to preach in the surrounding regions until the temple became safe again.[83]

On 12 November 1905, Shastriji Maharaj left the Vadtal temple with five sadhus and the support of about 150 devotees.[87] However, he did not consider himself to be separating from Vadtal[88] as he instructed his followers to continue their financial contributions to and participation in the temples of the Vartal diocese.[51] See Shastriji Maharaj: Schism Leading to the Formation of BAPS

Mandirs to Facilitate Doctrinal Practice[edit]

On 5 June 1907 he consecrated the murtis of Swaminarayan and Gunatitanand Swami in the central shrine of a shikharbaddha mandir he was constructing in the village of Bochasan in the Kheda District of Gujarat.[89] This event was later seen to mark the formal establishment of the Bochasanwasi Akshar-Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha,[49] which was later abbreviated as BAPS. The Guajarati word Bochasanwasi implies hailing from Bochasan, since the organization’s first Mandir was in this village.

Shastriji Maharaj continued to consolidate and spread the Akshar-Purushottam teachings of the nascent BAPS and spent the majority of 1908-15 discoursing throughout Gujarat, while continuing construction work of mandirs in Bochasan and Sarangpur. As recognition of Shastriji Maharaj’s teachings continued to spread throughout Gujarat, he acquired a loyal and growing group of devotees, admirers, and supporters, many of whom were formerly associated with the Vartal or Ahmedabad diocese of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya.[51] Over the next four decades, Shastriji Maharaj completed four more shikharabaddha mandirs in Gujarat (Sarangpur - 1916, Gondal - 1934, Atladra - 1945, and Gadadha - 1951).[51]

Kim notes that these temples, in essence, represented the fundamental doctrine that Shastriji Maharaj wished to propagate based on Swaminarayan’s teachings: “the ultimate reality [Purushottam] and the means, in the form of the Guru, which [enables a] devotee to offer eternal devotion to the ultimate reality”.[51] Thus, this historical period marked a "focused emphasis" on building shikharabaddha mandirs as a means of conveying Swaminarayan doctrine.

Eventual Successors[edit]

On 12 August 1910 Shastriji Maharaj met his eventual successor, Yogiji Maharaj, at the house of Jadavji in Bochasan.[90] Yogiji Maharaj was a resident sadhu at Junagadh Mandir (Saurãshtra),[72] where Gunatitanand Swami had served as mahant.[91] Yogiji Maharaj understood Gunatitanand Swami as Akshar and also served the murti of Shri Harikrishna Maharaj which had previously been worshipped by Gunatitanand Swami.[91] As he already believed in the doctrine being preached by Shastriji Maharaj, Yogiji Maharaj left Junagadh on 9 July 1911 with six sadhus to join Shastriji Maharaj’s mission.[44]

On 7 November 1939, 17-year-old Shantilal Patel(who would become Pramukh Swami Maharaj) left his home[92] and was initiated by Shastriji Maharaj into the parshad order, as Shanti Bhagat, on 22 November 1939,[93] and into the sadhu order, as Sadhu Narayanswarupdas, on 10 January 1940.[93] Initially, he studied Sanskrit and Hindu scriptures[93] and served as Shastriji Maharaj’s personal secretary. In 1946, he was appointed Kothari (administrative head) of Sarangpur mandir.[93]

In the early part of 1950, Shastriji Maharaj wrote several letters to 28-year-old Shastri Narayanswarupdas expressing a wish to appoint him as the administrative president of the organization. Initially, Shastri Narayanswarupdas was reluctant to accept the position, citing his young age and lack of experience and suggesting that an elderly, experienced sadhu should take the responsibility.[94] However, Shastriji Maharaj insisted over several months, until, seeing the wish and insistence of his guru, Shastri Narayanswarupdas accepted the responsibility.[93] On 21 May 1950 at Ambli-Vali Pol in Amdavad, Shastriji Maharaj appointed Shastri Narayanswarupdas as the administrative president (‘’Pramukh‘’) of BAPS.[95] He instructed Shastri Narayanswarupdas, who now began to be referred to as Pramukh Swami, to ennoble Satsang under the guidance of Yogiji Maharaj.[96] See Pramukh Swami Maharaj - Appointment as President

In the last few years of his life, Shastriji Maharaj took steps to preserve the growth and future of BAPS by registering BAPS as a charitable trust in 1947 under India’s new legal code.[97]

Development and Organizational Formation (1950-1971)[edit]

After the death of Shastriji Maharaj on 10 May 1951,[98] Yogiji Maharaj became the spiritual leader, or Guru, of the organization while Pramukh Swami continued to oversee administrative matters as president of the organization.[99] Yogiji Maharaj carried Shastriji Maharaj’s mission of fostering the Akshar-Purushottam doctrine by building temples, touring villages, preaching overseas and initiating weekly local religious assemblies for children, youths and elders. In his 20 years as guru, from 1951 to 1971, he visited over 4,000 cities, towns and villages, consecrated over 60 mandirs and wrote over 545,000 letters to devotees.[100]

Youth Movement[edit]

This period of BAPS history saw an important expansion in youth activities. Yogiji Maharaj believed that in a time of profound and rapid social ferment, there was an imminent need to save the young from ‘degeneration of moral, cultural and religious values’ .[101] To fill a void in spiritual activities for youths, Yogiji Maharaj started a regular Sunday gathering (Yuvak Mandal) of young men in Bombay[102] in 1952.[103] Brear notes, "His flair, dynamism and concern led within ten years to the establishment of many yuvak mandals of dedicated young men in Gujarat and East Africa".[102] In addition to providing religious and spiritual guidance, Yogiji Maharaj encouraged youths to work hard and excel in their studies. Towards realizing such ideals, he would often remind them to stay away from worldly temptations.[104] As a result of his abiding love and care, a number of youths were inspired to take monastic vows.[72] On 11 May 1961 during the Gadhada Kalash Mahotsav, Yogiji Maharaj initiated 51 college-educated youths into the monastic order as sadhus.[105]

The beginnings of Satsang Outside of India[edit]

Satsang community formation[edit]
East Africa[edit]

Satsang in Africa had started during Shastriji Maharaj’s lifetime, as many devotees had migrated to Africa for economic reasons. One of Shastriji Maharaj’s senior sadhus, Nirgundas Swami, engaged in lengthy correspondence with these devotees, answering their questions and inspiring them to start satsang assemblies in Africa. Eventually, in 1928, Harman Patel took the murtis of Akshar-Purushottam Maharaj to East Africa and started a small center.[106] Soon, the East Africa Satsang Mandal was established under the leadership of Harman Patel and Magan Patel.[106]

In 1955, Yogiji Maharaj embarked on his first foreign tour to East Africa.[102] The prime reason for the visit was to consecrate Africa’s first Akshar-Purushottam temple in Mombasa. The temple was inaugurated on 25 April 1955.[105][107] He also travelled to Nairobi, Nakuru, Kisumu, Tororo, Jinja, Kampala, Mwanza and Dar es salaam.[105] His travels inspired the local devotees to begin temple construction projects. Due to the visit, in a span of five years, the devotees in Uganda completed the construction of temples in Tororo, Jinja and Kampala and asked Yogiji Maharaj to revisit Uganda to install the murtis of Akshar-Purushottam Maharaj. The rapid temple constructions in Africa were helped by the presence of early immigrants, mainly Leva Patels, who came to work as masons, and were particularly skilled in temple building.[108]

As a result, Yogiji Maharaj made a second visit to East Africa in 1960 and consecrated hari mandirs in Kampala, Jinja and Tororo in Uganda.[109] Despite his failing health, Yogiji Maharaj at the age of 78 undertook a third overseas tour of London and East Africa in 1970.[110] Prior to his visit, the devotees had purchased the premises of the Indian Christian Union at Ngara, Kenya in 1966 and remodeled it to resemble a three-spired temple.[111] Yogiji Maharaj inaugurated the temple in Ngara, a suburb of Nairobi in 1970.[107][111]

England[edit]

In 1950, Mahendra Patel and Purushottam Patel, disciples of Shastriji Maharaj, held small personal services at their homes in England. Mahendra Patel, a barrister by vocation, writes, "I landed in London in 1950 for further studies. Purushottambhai Patel...was residing in the county of Kent. His address was given to me by Yogiji Maharaj".[112] Beginning 1953, D. D Meghani held assemblies in his office that brought together several followers in an organized setting. In 1958, leading devotees including Navin Swaminarayan, Praful Patel and Chatranjan Patel from India and East Africa began arriving to the UK.[112] They started weekly assemblies at Seymour Place every Saturday evening at a devotee’s house.[112] In 1959, a formal constitution was drafted and the group registered as the "Swaminarayan Hindu Mission, London Fellowship Centre".[112] D.D Megani served as Chairman, Mahendra Patel as Vice-Chairman and PrafulPatel the secretary.[112] On Sunday, 14 June 1970, the first BAPS temple in England was opened at Islington by Yogiji Maharaj.[112] In this same year he established the Shree Swaminarayan Mission[72] as a formal organization.[113]

United States[edit]

Yogiji Maharaj was unable to travel to the United States during his consecutive foreign tours. Nonetheless, he asked Dr. K.C. Patel, a chemistry instructor at Brooklyn College, to begin satsang assemblies in the United States.[114] He gave Dr. Patel the names of twenty-eight satsangi students to help conduct [satsang] assemblies.[114]

In 1970, Yogiji Maharaj accepted the request of these students and sent four sadhus to visit the U.S.[114][115] The tour motivated followers to start satsang sabhas in their own homes every Sunday around the country.[114] Soon, Dr. K.C. Patel established BAPS (then known as BSS) as a non-profit organization under US law.[116] Thus, a fledgling Satsang Mandal formed in the United States before the death of Yogiji Maharaj in 1971.

Philosophy[edit]

The philosophy of BAPS is centered on the doctrine of Akshar Purshottam Upasana, in which followers worship Swaminarayan as God, or Purshottam, and his choicest devotee Gunatitanand Swami, as Akshar.[117] The concept of Akshar has been interpreted differently by various Swaminarayan denominations, and one major reason for the separation of BAPS from the Vartal diocese has been attributed to doctrinal differences in the interpretation of the concept of Akshar. Both the Vadtal and Ahmedabad dioceses of the Swaminaryan sampradaya believe Akshar to be the divine abode of the supreme entity Purushottam.[118] The BAPS denomination concurs that Akshar is the divine abode of Purushottam, but they further understand Akshar as “an eternally existing spiritual reality having two forms, the impersonal and the personal”[118][119] Followers of BAPS identify various scriptures and documented statements of Swaminarayan as supporting this understanding of Akshar within the Akshar Purushottam Upasana.[120] BAPS believes that the entity of Akshar remains on earth through a lineage of “perfect devotees”, the gurus or spiritual teachers of the organization, who provide “authentication of office through Gunatitanand Swami and back to Swaminarayan himself.”[121] Followers hold Pramukh Swami Maharaj as the current personified form of Akshar and the spiritual leader of BAPS.

Swaminarayan Ontology[edit]

The Swaminarayan ontology comprises five eternal entities: Jiva, Ishwar, Maya, Brahman, and Parabrahman. The entities are separate and distinct from one another and structured within a hierarchy.[122] Encompassing the entities of both Swaminarayan and his ideal devotee, this hierarchy emphasizes the relationship between Akshar and Purshottam.[123]

Parabrahma- At the top is Parabrahman. Parabrahman is the highest reality, God. He is understood as Sarva karta (all-doer), Sarvopari (transcendent), Sakar (having a form), and Pragat (present on the earth).[124] He is also one and unparalleled, the reservoir for all forms of bliss and eternally divine. Parabrahman is also referred to as Purshottam and Paramatma, both of which reflect his supreme existential state.[125] Furthermore, Parabrahman is the only unconditioned entity upon which the other four entities are contingent.[126]

Brahma- Subservient to Parabrahman is Brahman, also known as Akshar, which exists simultaneously in four states. The first state is in the form of the impersonal Chidakash, the divine, all-pervading substratum of the cosmos.[127] Another form of Akshar is the divine abode of Parabrahman, known as Akshardham.[125] Muktas, or liberated jivas (souls), also dwell here in unfathomable bliss and luster which is beyond the scope of human imagination. The other two states of Akshar are personal, which manifest as the ideal servant of Purshottam, both within his divine abode of Akshardham and simultaneously on earth as the God-realized saint.[128]

Maya- Below Brahman is maya. Maya has three main qualities of sattva, rajas, and tamas (These influences encompass the spectrum of maya, ranging from goodness, passions, and darkness, respectively[129]) that it utilizes to create the physical world.[130] Maya entangles Ishwar and Jiva and causes them to form an attachment to both their physical bodies and the material world.[128] This attachment denies them liberation, and only through contact with the personal form of Brahman can they overcome the illusion created by maya and attain liberation.[131]

Ishwar- Ishwars are conscious spiritual beings that are responsible for the creation, sustenance, and destruction of the cosmos, at the behest of Parabrahman.[132][133] They have greater power than the jivas and are infinite in number. They are the deities that are above jiva, but are also subject to maya.[134]

Jiva- The jiva is the eternal soul which has not been liberated, as it is under the influence of maya, and can be freed only through association with Aksharbrahma.[135][136]

Akshar Purshottam Upasana[edit]

Historical Foundation[edit]

In 1907, Shastriji Maharaj consecrated the sacred images of Akshar and Purshottam in a temple’s central shrine in the village of Bochasan, marking the formation of the BAPS fellowship as a formally distinct organization. However, the fundamental beliefs of the sampraday date back to the time of Lord Swaminarayan.[137] One revelation of Gunatitanand Swami as Akshar occurred in 1810 at the grand yagna of Dhaban, during which Swaminarayan initiated Gunatitanand Swami as a sadhu. On this occasion, Swaminarayan publically confirmed that Gunatitanand Swami was the incarnation of Akshar, declaring, “Today, I am extremely happy to initiate Mulji Sharma. He is my divine abode – Akshardham, which is infinite and endless.” The first Acharya of the Vartal diocese, Raghuvirji Maharaj, recorded this declaration in his composition, the Harililakalpataru (7.17.49-50).[138] Under the spiritual guidance of Shastriji Maharaj, considered the manifest form of Akshar at the time, the fellowship continued the traditions of the Akshar Purshottam Upasana. He focused on the revelations of Gunatitanand Swami as Swaminaryan’s divine abode and choicest devotee.[139]

Essence[edit]

The Akshar Purushottam Upasana refers to two separate entities within the Swaminarayan ontology.[123] These two entities are worshipped in conjunction by followers of BAPS in accordance with the instructions laid down in the Vachanamrut. According to BAPS, Swaminarayan refers to Akshar in the Vachanamrut, with numerous appellations such as Sant, Satpurush, Bhakta and Sadhu, as having an august status that makes it an entity worth worshipping alongside God.[140] For example, in Vachanamrut Gadhada I-37, Swaminarayan states: “In fact, the darshan of such a true Bhakta of God is equivalent to the darshan of God Himself”[141] Moreover, in Vachanamrut Vartal 5, Swaminarayan states: Just as one performs the mãnsi puja of God, if one also performs the mãnsi puja of the ideal Bhakta along with God, by offering him the prasãd of God; and just as one prepares a thãl for God, similarly, if one also prepares a thãl for God’s ideal Bhakta and serves it to him; and just as one donates five rupees to God, similarly, if one also donates money to the great Sant – then by performing with extreme affection such similar service of God and the Sant who possesses the highest qualities…he will become a devotee of the highest calibre in this very life.[142] Thus, in all BAPS mandirs the image of Akshar is placed in the central shrine and worshipped alongside the image of Purushottam.[143] Furthermore, BAPS believes that by understanding the greatness of God’s choicest devotee, coupled with devotion and service to him and God, followers are able to grow spiritually. This practice is mentioned by Swaminarayan in Vachanamrut Vartal 5 : “by performing with extreme affection such similar service of God and the Sant who possesses the highest qualities, even if he is a devotee of the lowest type and was destined to become a devotee of the highest type after two lives, or after four lives, or after ten lives, or after 100 lives, he will become a devotee of the highest caliber in this very life. Such are the fruits of the similar service of God and God’s Bhakta.”[144]

Metaphysical Ends[edit]

As per the Akshar Purushottam Upasana, each jiva attains liberation and true realization through the manifest form of Akshar.[145] Jivas who perform devotion to this personal form of Brahman can, despite remaining ontologically different, attain a similar spiritual standing as Brahman and then go to Akshardham.[146][147] It is only through the performance of devotion to Brahman that Parabrahman can be both realized and attained.[148]

Akshar as a Living Entity[edit]

According to the Akshar Purushottam Upasana, the personal form of Akshar is forever present on the earth through a lineage of spiritual leaders, or gurus. It is through these gurus that Swaminarayan is also held to forever remain present on the earth.[149] These gurus are also essential in illuminating the path that needs to be taken by the jivas that earnestly desire to be liberated from the cycle of rebirth.[123] This lineage begins with Gunatitanand Swami (1785-1867), a sadhu who lived conterminously with Swaminarayan. Members of BAPS point to numerous historical anecdotes and scriptural references, particularly from the central Swaminarayan text known as the Vachanamrut, as veritable evidence that Gunatitanand Swami was the manifest form of Akshar.[150] Swaminarayan refers to this concept specifically in the Vachnamrut chapters of Gadhada I-21, Gadhada I-71, Gadhada III-26, Vadtal 5.[151] Following Gunatitanand Swami, the lineage continued on through Bhagatji Maharaj (1829-1897), Shastriji Maharaj (1865- 1951), and Yogiji Maharaj (1892-1971). Today Pramukh Swami Maharaj is understood to be the manifest form of Akshar.[151]

Swaminarayan Praxis[edit]

According to BAPS doctrines, followers aim to attain a spiritual state similar to Brahman which is necessary for ultimate liberation.[152] The practices of BAPS Swaminarayans are an idealistic “portrait of Hinduism.”[153] To become an ideal Hindu, followers must identify with Brahman, separate from the material body, and offer devotion to god[154] It is understood that through association with Akshar, in the form of the God-realized guru, one is able to achieve this spiritual state.[155] Followers live according to the spiritual guidance of the guru who is able to elevate the jiva to the state of Brahman.[156] Thus devotees aim to follow the spiritual guidance of the manifest form of Akshar embedding the principles of dharma (righteousness), jnana (knowledge), vairagya (detachment from material pleasures) and bhakti (devotion unto God) in to their lives.[157]

The basic practices of the Swaminarayan sect are based on these four principles. Followers receive jnana through regularly listening to spiritual discourses and reading scriptures in an effort to gain knowledge of God and one’s true self.[158] Dharma encompasses righteous conduct as prescribed by the scriptures.[158] The ideals of dharma range from practicing non-violence to avoiding meat, onions, garlic, and other items in their diet. Swaminarayan has outlined the dharma of his devotees in the scripture the Shikshapatri.[159] He has included practical aspects of living life such as not committing adultery to respecting elders, gurus, and those of authority.[160] Devotees develop vairagya in order to spiritually elevate their jivas to a Brahmic state. This entails practices such as fasting every eleventh day of each half of each lunar month and avoiding worldly pleasures by strongly attaching themselves to God.[161] The fourth pillar, bhakti, or devotion is at the heart of the BAPS faith community. Common practices of devotion include daily prayers, offering prepared dishes (thal) to the image of God, mental worship of God and his ideal devotee, and singing religious hymns.[158] Spiritual service, or seva, is a form of devotion where devotees serve selflessly “while keeping only the Lord in mind."[162] Members of the sect are known as Satsangi's. Male Satsangi's are generally initiated by obtaining a kanthi at the hands of a sadhu or senior male devotee while females receive the vartman from the senior women followers.[163]

Followers participate in various socio-spiritual activities with the objective to earn the grace of the guru and thus attain association with God through voluntary service.[164] These numerous activities stem directly from the ideals taught by Swaminarayan, to find spiritual devotion in the service of others.[165][166] By serving and volunteering in communities to please the guru, devotees are considered to be serving the guru.[167] This relationship is the driving force for the spiritual actions of devotees. The current guru is Pramukh Swami Maharaj, who is seen as embodiment of selfless devotion.[168] Under the guidance of Pramukh Swami Maharaj, followers observe the tenets of Swaminarayan through the above-mentioned practices, striving to please the guru and become close to God.

BAPS Charities[edit]

Main article: BAPS Charities

BAPS Charities (formerly BAPS Care International) is a humanitarian service organization that originated from BAPS with a focus on serving society.[169] The spirit of service in BAPS Charities can be traced back to Swaminarayan, who opened alms houses, built shelters, preached against addiction, and abolished the practice of sati and female infanticide with the goals of removing suffering and effecting positive social change.[170][171] This ethic of service to society has remained at the forefront of the organization's values and practices and is apparent in its vision, that "every individual deserves the right to a peaceful, dignified, and healthy way of life. And by improving the quality of life of the individual, we are bettering families, communities, our world, and our future."[172] BAPS Charities carries out this vision through a range of programs addressing health, education, the environment, and natural disaster recovery. The organization's worldwide activities are funded through donations and are led by a community of over 55,000 volunteers who are mostly members of BAPS.[173]

Health[edit]

To prevent and alleviate bodily suffering and to foster good health and physical well-being, BAPS Charities engages in numerous health-focused activities. The organization operates 16 hospitals and clinics serving over 600,000 people annually, with its most recent hospitals opening in Ahmedabad in 2012 and in Vadodara in 2013.[173][174][175] Additionally, BAPS Charities organizes health fairs run by volunteer medical professionals where visitors can undergo screening tests, increase health awareness, participate in consultations, and receive treatment.[176][177] Supporting the goals of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign which is working to end childhood obesity, BAPS Charities recently launched a health awareness initiative in the United States focused on educating parents and children on benefits of a vegetarian diet.[178] To support biomedical research, the Toronto chapter of BAPS Charities donated $100,000 raised from walk-a-thons for Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children's Research and Learning Tower Campaign.[179][180] In India, the organization has carried out anti-addiction campaigns led by several thousand children who spent their summer vacations traveling through cities and villages persuading people to give up their addictions with personal appeals and presentations on the dangers of addictive behaviors.[181]

Education[edit]

With a goal of improving educational opportunities and outcomes for younger generations, BAPS Charities funds scholarships, operates 10 schools and 8 colleges in addition to supporting other schools and running hostels.[182] Through volunteer-led classes, the organization is working towards achieving 100 percent literacy in villages in India.[181] In Africa, BAPS Charities has been active in providing children in need with school uniforms, school supplies, and food and in addition to helping improve school facilities.[183][184][185] In North America, BAPS Charities also organizes annual seminars for professional development where workshops help youth develop interpersonal skills, public speaking, management skills.[186]

Environment[edit]

BAPS Charities manages several programs designed to protect and improve the environment. Volunteers across the world have raised ecological awareness and promoted conservation by employing energy-efficient technologies and organizing large-scale tree planting campaigns and recycling programs.[187][188] In India, the organization also leads campaigns to improve water supply and conservation and arranges camps to teach better animal husbandry.[189] In Gujarat, BAPS along with other religious sects, professional associations, and civil rights groups expressed support for the Sardar Sarovar Dam project in the 1990s, citing its prospect of generating hydropower, irrigation, potable water, and flood management.[190][191] Although some groups criticized the project for its effect of displacing area residents, BAPS sponsored initiatives to relocate and aid the affected communities.[190]

Disaster Relief[edit]

Relieving human suffering in times of humanitarian emergencies remains an important component of BAPS Charities’ work. Within hours after the 2001 Gujarat Earthquake, BAPS Charities volunteers began providing victims with daily hot meals, clean water, and clothing and assisted with debris removal and search and rescue missions; the organization also adopted more than 10 villages in which they rebuilt the entire community, including all infrastructure and thousands of earthquake-resistant homes.[192][193] With the help of donations from volunteers in India and abroad, the organization helped rebuild the area's communities by constructing schools, hospitals, and other buildings.[194][195] After Hurricane Katrina struck the United States Gulf Coast region, BAPS Charities volunteer teams supplied hot food, water, emergency supplies, and relocation aid for victims.[196] Recently, the organization partnered with UNICEF to provide medicine, clean water, and temporary housing for children affected by the 2010 Haiti earthquake.[197]

Community[edit]

Along the continuum of humanitarian activities, BAPS Charities also organizes initiatives with the goal of effecting positive social change and promoting a stronger sense of community. The organization recently donated $250,000 to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City to educate future generations about the importance of ahimsa, or non-violence, and the consequences of hatred.[198][199] In India, BAPS Charities has organized numerous activities to help promote gender equality and improve the lives of women. Programs include campaigns against marriage dowries and domestic violence and seminars offering vocational guidance and self-employment training.[200] Caring for the elderly and disabled is also a core value promoted by the organization. In the United Kingdom, BAPS Charities has an outreach program in place where children with chaperones regularly visit assisted living facilities and homes in their communities to spend time with the elderly residents.[201]

Notable projects and achievements[edit]

BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha is a charitable Non-governmental organization affiliated with the United Nations. The organization is recognized as a Non-Governmental Organization that holds General Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.[202][203]

Swaminarayan Akshardham,[204] New Delhi, India - monument portrays India’s ancient architecture, traditions and eternal Vedic values and virtues [1]
  • Neasden Temple BAPS constructed what was at the time the world's largest traditional Hindu temple outside India.[206] BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, London <http://www.mandir.org>, also popularly known as the Neasden Temple) was opened in 1995. Constructed entirely from Marble and Limestone, the temple is popular amongst tourists seeking a unique place to visit in London. On 8 July 2000, the Managing Editor of Guinness Book of Records, Tim Footman and Andrew W. Dowsey presented His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj with certificates marking his entries into the world famous record book. The first certificate presented to His Holiness was for building and inspiring the largest traditional Hindu Mandir outside India. The second certificate marked a record 355 Temple Consecration Ceremonies performed by His Holiness between April 1971 and May 2000.
  • In 1999 BAPS opened its first traditional Hindu Mandir in Africa – in Nairobi, Kenya. BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Nairobi is unique in that the interior is constructed entirely from intricately carved wood.
  • July 2007 saw BAPS break its own record with the opening of BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Toronto. The first traditional stone temple in Canada, and the largest such structure outside India. Just over a month later, in August 2007, BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Atlanta was inaugurated, breaking the record broken the previous month in Toronto. The BAPS temple in Atlanta is currently the largest Hindu temple outside India.

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