3 April 1781
|Died||1 June 1830 (aged 49)|
|Founder of||Swaminarayan Sampraday|
|Other names||Sahajanand Swami, HariKrishna Maharaj, Nilkanth Varni, Swaminarayan Bhagawan|
Swaminarayan (IAST: Svāmīnārāyaṇa, 3 April 1781 – 1 June 1830), also known as Sahajanand Swami, was a yogi and ascetic around whom the Swaminarayan Sampradaya developed, and whose life and teachings brought a revival of central Hindu practices of dharma, ahimsa and brahmacarya. He is believed by followers to be a manifestation of God.[which?]
Swaminarayan was born Ghanshyam Pande in Chhapaiya, Uttar Pradesh, India in 1781. In 1792, he began a 7-year pilgrimage across India at the age of 11 years, adopting the name Nilkanth Varni. During this journey, he did welfare activities and after 9 years and 11 months of this journey, he settled in the modern-day Indian state of Gujarat around 1799. In 1800, he was initiated into the Uddhav sampradaya by his guru, Swami Ramanand, and was given the name Sahajanand Swami. In 1802, his guru handed over the leadership of the Uddhav Sampraday to him before his death. Sahajanand Swami held a gathering and taught the Swaminarayan Mantra. From this point onwards, he was known as Swaminarayan. The Uddhav Sampraday became known as the Swaminarayan Sampradaya.
Swaminarayan developed a good relationship with the British Raj. He had followers not only from Hindu denominations but also from Islam and Zoroastrianism. He built six temples in his lifetime and appointed 500 paramahamsas to spread his philosophy. In 1826, Swaminarayan wrote the Shikshapatri, a book of social principles. He died on 1 June 1830 and was cremated according to Hindu rites in Gadhada, Gujarat. Before his death, Swaminarayan appointed his adopted nephews as acharyas to head the two dioceses of Swaminarayan Sampradaya. Swaminarayan is also remembered within the sect for undertaking reforms for women and the poor, and performing non-violent yajñas (fire sacrifices) on a large scale.
Childhood as Ghanshyam
Swaminarayan was born on 3 April 1781 (Chaitra Sud 9, Samvat 1837) in Chhapaiya, Uttar Pradesh, a village near Ayodhya, in a Hindi speaking region in India. Born into the brahmin or priestly caste of Sarvariya, Swaminarayan was named Ghanshyam Pande by his parents, Hariprasad Pande (father, also known as Dharmadev) and Premvati Pande (mother, also known as Bhaktimata and Murtidevi). The birth of Swaminarayan coincided with the Hindu festival of Rama Navami, celebrating the birth of Rama. The ninth lunar day in the fortnight of the waxing moon in the month of Chaitra (March–April), is celebrated as both Rama Navami and Swaminarayan Jayanti by Swaminarayan followers. This celebration also marks the beginning of a ritual calendar for the followers.
Swaminarayan had an elder brother, Rampratap Pande, and a younger brother, Ichcharam Pande. He is said to have mastered the scriptures, including the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata by the age of seven.
Travels as Nilkanth Varni
After the death of his parents, Ghanshyam Pande left his home on 29 June 1792 (Ashadh Sud 10, Samvat 1849) at the age of 11. He took the name Nilkanth Varni while on his journey. Nilkanth Varni travelled across India and parts of Nepal in search of an ashram, or hermitage, that practiced what he considered a correct understanding of Vedanta, Samkhya, Yoga, and Pancaratra, the four primary schools of Hindu philosophy. To find such an ashram, Nilkanth Varni asked the following five questions on the basic Vaishnava Vedanta categories:
While on his journey, Nilkanth Varni mastered Astanga yoga (eightfold yoga) in a span of nine months under the guidance of an aged yogic master named Gopal Yogi. In Nepal, it is said that he met King Rana Bahadur Shah and cured him of his stomach illness. As a result, the king freed all the ascetics he had imprisoned. Nilkanth Varni visited the Jagannath Temple in Puri as well as temples in Badrinath, Rameswaram, Nashik, Dwarka and Pandharpur.
In 1799, after a seven-year journey, Nilkanth's travels as a yogi eventually concluded in Loj, a village in the Junagadh district of Gujarat. In Loj, Nilkanth Varni met Muktanand Swami, a senior disciple of Ramanand Swami. Muktanand Swami, who was 22 years older than Nilkanth, answered the 5 questions to Nilkanth's satisfaction. Nilkanth decided to stay for the opportunity to meet Ramanand Swami, whom he met a few months after his arrival in Gujarat. He later claimed in the Vachnamrut that during this period, he took up a severe penance to eliminate his mother's flesh and blood from his body so that the sign of his physical attachment to family, was completely removed.
Leadership as Sahajanand Swami
According to the sect, Nilkanth's understanding of the metaphysical and epistemological concepts of the pancha-tattvas (five eternal elements), together with his mental and physical discipline, inspired senior swamis of Ramanand Swami.
At the age of 21, Sahajanand Swami was appointed successor to Ramanand Swami as the leader of the Uddhav Sampradaya by Ramanand Swami, prior to his death. The Uddhav Sampradaya henceforth came to be known as the Swaminarayan Sampradaya. According to sources he proclaimed the worship of one sole deity, Krishna or Narayana. Krishna was considered by him his own ista devata. In contrast with the Vaishnava sect known as the Radha-vallabha Sampradaya, he had a more puritanical approach, rather than the theological views of Krishna that are strongly capricious in character and imagery. While being a worshipper of Krishna, Swaminarayan rejected licentious elements in Krishnology in favor of worship in the mood of majesty, alike to earlier Vaisnava teachers, Ramanuja and Yamunacharya.
Manifestation of God
According to Swaminarayan-tradition, Sahajanand Swami was later known as Swaminarayan after the mantra he taught at a gathering, in Faneni, a fortnight after the death of Ramanand Swami. He gave his followers a new mantra, known as the Swaminarayan mantra, to repeat in their rituals: Swaminarayan. When chanting this mantra, some devotees went into samadhi,[note 1] and claimed that they could see their personal gods. Swaminarayan also became known by the names Ghanshyam Maharaj, Shreeji Maharaj, Hari Krishna Maharaj and Shri Hari.
As early as 1804, Swaminarayan, who was reported to have performed miracles, was described as a manifestation of God in the first work written by a disciple and paramhansa, Nishkulanand Swami.[note 2] This work, the Yama Danda, was the first piece of literature written within the Swaminarayan sect. Swaminarayan himself is said to have intimated that he was a manifestation of God in a meeting with Reginald Heber, the Lord Bishop of Calcutta, in 1825.: 81
Some of Swaminarayan's followers believe he was an incarnation of Lord Krishna. The images and stories of Swaminarayan and Krishna have coincided in the liturgy of the sect. The story of the birth of Swaminarayan parallels that of Krishna's birth from the scripture Bhagavata Purana. Most of his followers belief that Swaminarayan is the complete manifestation of Narayana or Purushottam Narayana - the Supreme Being and superior to other avatars.
The belief of many followers that their founder was the incarnation of the Supreme God has also drawn criticism. According to Professor Raymond B. Williams, Swaminarayan was criticized because he received large gifts from his followers and dressed and traveled as a Maharaja even though he had taken the vows of renunciation of the world. Swaminarayan responded that he accepts gifts for the emancipation of his followers.
Swaminarayan encouraged his followers to combine devotion and dharma to lead a pious life. Using Hindu texts and rituals to form the base of his organisation, Swaminarayan founded what in later centuries would become a global organisation with strong Gujarati roots. He was particularly strict on the separation of sexes in temples. Swaminarayan was against the consumption of meat, alcohol or drugs, adultery, suicide, animal sacrifices, criminal activities and the appeasement of ghosts and tantric rituals. Alcohol consumption was forbidden by him even for medicinal purposes. Many of his followers took vows before becoming his disciple. He stated that four elements need to be conquered for ultimate salvation: dharma, bhakti (devotion), gnana (knowledge) and vairagya (detachment). Doctrinally, Swaminarayan was close to eleventh century philosopher Ramanuja and was critical of Shankaracharya's concept of advaita, or monistic non-dualism. Swaminarayan's ontology maintained that the supreme being is not formless and that God always has a divine form.
Relations with other religions and the British Government
Swaminarayan strived to maintain good relationships with people of other religions, sometimes meeting prominent leaders. His followers cut across religious boundaries, including people of Muslim and Parsi backgrounds. Swaminarayan's personal attendants included Khoja Muslims. In Kathiawad, many Muslims wore kanthi necklaces given by Swaminarayan. He also had a meeting with Reginald Heber, Lord Bishop of Calcutta and a leader of Christians in India at the time. Bishop Heber mentions in his account of the meeting that about two hundred disciples of Swaminarayan accompanied him as his bodyguards mounted on horses and carrying Matchlocks and swords. Bishop Heber himself had about a hundred horse guards accompanying him (fifty horses and fifty muskets) and mentioned that it was humiliating for him to see two religious leaders meeting at the head of two small armies, his being the smaller contingent. As a result of the meeting, both leaders gained mutual respect for one another.
Swaminarayan enjoyed a good relationship with the British Imperial Government. The first temple he built, in Ahmedabad, was built on 5,000 acres (20 km2) of land given by the government. The British officers gave it a 101 gun salute when it was opened. It was in an 1825 meeting with Reginald Heber that Swaminarayan is said to have intimated that he was a manifestation of Krishna. In 1830, Swaminarayan had a meeting with Sir John Malcolm, Governor of Bombay (1827 to 1830). According to Malcolm, Swaminarayan had helped bring some stability to a lawless region. During the meeting with Malcolm, Swaminarayan gave him a copy of the Shikshapatri. This copy of the Shikshapatri is currently housed at the Bodleian Library at University of Oxford.
Temples and ascetics
Swaminarayan ordered the construction of several Hindu temples and he had built six huge temples by himself and installed the idols of various deities such as Radha Krishna Dev, Nara-Narayana Dev, Laxminarayan Dev, Gopinathji Maharaj, Radha Raman Dev and Madanmohan Lalji. The images in the temples built by Swaminarayan provide evidence of the priority of Krishna.: 81  Disciples of Swaminarayan composed devotional poems which are widely sung by the tradition during festivals. Swaminarayan introduced fasting and devotion among followers. He conducted the festivals of Vasant Panchami, Holi, and Janmashtami with organization of the traditional folk dance raas.
The first temple Swaminarayan constructed was in Ahmedabad in 1822, with the land for construction given by the British Imperial Government. Following a request of devotees from Bhuj, Swaminarayan asked his follower Vaishnavananand to build a temple there. Construction commenced in 1822, and the temple was built within a year. A temple in Vadtal followed in 1824, a temple in Dholera in 1826, a temple in Junagadh in 1828 and a temple in Gadhada, also in 1828. By the time of his death, Swaminarayan had also ordered construction of temples in Muli, Dholka and Jetalpur.
From early on, ascetics have played a major role in the Swaminarayan sect. They contribute towards growth and development of the movement, encouraging people to follow a pious and religious life. Tradition maintains that Swaminarayan initiated 500 ascetics as paramhansas in a single night. Paramhansa is a title of honour sometimes applied to Hindu spiritual teachers who are regarded as having attained enlightenment. Paramhansas were the highest order of sannyasi in the sect. Prominent paramhansas included Muktanand Swami, Gopalanand Swami, Brahmanand Swami, Gunatitanand Swami, Premanand Swami, Nishkulanand Swami, and Nityanand Swami.
Ahmedabad and Vadtal Gadi
Prior to his death, Swaminarayan decided to establish a line of acharyas or preceptors, as his successors. He established two gadis (seats of leadership). One seat was established at Ahmedabad (Nar Narayan Dev Gadi) and the other one at Vadtal (Laxmi Narayan Dev Gadi) on 21 November 1825. Swaminarayan appointed an acharya to each of these gadis to pass on his message to others and to preserve his fellowship, the Swaminarayan Sampradaya. These acharyas came from his immediate family after sending representatives to search them out in Uttar Pradesh. He formally adopted a son from his brothers and appointed him to the office of acharya. Ayodhyaprasad, the son of Swaminarayan's elder brother Rampratap and Raghuvira, the son of his younger brother Ichcharam, were appointed acharyas of the Ahmedabad Gadi and the Vadtal Gadi respectively. Swaminarayan decreed that the office should be hereditary so that acharyas would maintain a direct line of blood descent from his family. The administrative division of his followers into two territorial dioceses is set forth in minute detail in a document written by Swaminarayan called Desh Vibhaag Lekh. Swaminarayan stated to all the devotees and saints to obey both the Acharyas and Gopalanand Swami who was considered as the main pillar and chief ascetic for the sampradaya.
In 1830, Swaminarayan gathered his followers and announced his departure. He later died on 1 June 1830 (Jeth sud 10, Samvat 1886), and it is believed by followers that, at the time of his death, Swaminarayan left Earth for Akshardham, his abode. He was cremated according to Hindu rites at Lakshmi Wadi in Gadhada.
Swaminarayan insisted that education was the inherent right of all people, including women, despite considerable criticism from those in his own contemporary society who "loathed the uplift of lower caste women". At that time, influential and wealthy individuals educated their girls through private and personal tuition. Male followers of Swaminarayan made arrangements to educate their female family members. The literacy rate among females began to increase during Swaminarayan's time, and they were able to give discourses on spiritual subjects. Members of the sect consider Swaminarayan a pioneer of education of females in India.
According to the author Raymond Brady Williams, "Swaminarayan is an early representative of the practice of advocacy of women's rights without personal involvement with women". To counter the practice of sati (self-immolation by a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre), Swaminarayan argued that, as human life was given by God it could be taken only by God, and that sati had no Vedic sanction. He went to the extent to call sati nothing but suicide. Swaminarayan offered parents help with dowry expenses to discourage female infanticide, calling infanticide a sin. For calling a halt to these prevailing practices, Swaminarayan's "contemporaries naturally saw in him a pioneer of a reformed and purified Hinduism, and Swaminarayan Hinduism an ‘ingrazi dharma’ or British religion."
Professor David Harman observed that Swaminarayan "criticized the popular shakta cults and 'gosai' and 'nath' ascetics for the contemptuous and instrumental way in which they viewed and treated women. These cults were often responsible for gross sexual abuse of women." Hardiman added that Swaminarayan's view towards women was not in line with this type of misogyny and was rooted in his desire to prevent ill-treatment of women along with promoting celibacy for ascetics. Swaminarayan "forbade all sadhus and sadhvis (that is, male and female ascetics) of his sect from having any contact whatsoever with members of the opposite sex." This strict precept was one he likely internalized "after travelling as an ascetic throughout India [when] he was reported to vomit if approached by even the shadow of a woman". To help his male ascetic followers maintain their vow of celibacy, Swaminarayan taught “the woman who attracts attention is made up of bones, blood vessels, spittle, blood, mucus and feces; she is simply a collection of these things, and there is nothing to be attractive.
Members of the faith are defensive of the fact that some practices seem to restrict women and make gender equality in leadership impossible. They are only permitted to enter special sections of the temple reserved for women or have to go to separate women's temples. As with practices of niddah in Orthodox Judaism, concepts of pollution associated with the menstrual cycle lead to the exclusion of women from the temples and daily worship during the affected time. Swaminarayan also directed male devotees not to listen to religious discourses given by women.
In the case of widows, Swaminarayan directed those who could not follow the path of chastity to remarry. For those who could, he lay down strict rules which included them being under the control of male members of the family. This may seem regressive, however, it gave them "a respected and secure place in the social order" of the time. Swaminarayan restricted widows "to live always under the control of male members of their family and prohibited them from receiving instruction in any science from any man excepting their nearest relations."
Caste system and the poor
After assuming the leadership of the sampradaya, Swaminarayan worked to assist the poor by distributing food and drinking water. He undertook several social service projects and opened almshouses for the poor. Swaminarayan organized food and water relief to people during times of drought.
Some suggest that Swaminarayan worked towards ending the caste system, allowing everyone into the Swaminarayan Sampradaya. However partaking in the consumption food of lower castes and caste pollution was not supported by him. A political officer in Gujarat, Mr. Williamson reported to Bishop Herber that Swaminarayan had "destroyed the yoke of caste." He instructed his paramhansas to collect alms from all sections of society and appointed people from the lower strata of society as his personal attendants. Members of the lower castes were attracted to the movement as it improved their social status. Swaminarayan would eat along with the lower Rajput and Khati castes but not any lower. He allowed dalits and lower caste people to visit places of worship . However, Dalits - those outside of the caste system - were formally excluded from Swaminarayan temples. Members of a lower caste are prohibited from wearing a full sect mark (tilak chandlo) on their forehead. Even now, however, for the vast majority of Gujarat's lower-caste, Untouchable and tribal population, the sect is out of bounds.
Reginald Heber, the Lord Bishop of Calcutta, noted that disciples of Swaminarayan cut across all castes, and even included Muslims. He writes "they all pray to one God with no difference of castes. They live as if they were brothers." Furthermore, in a meeting with Swaminarayan, he noted that "[Swaminarayan] did not regard the subject as of much importance, but that he wished not to give offense (to ancient Hindu system); that people might eat separately or together in this world, but that above "oopur" pointing to heaven, those distinctions would cease." Swaminarayan worked thus to dispel the myth that moksha (salvation) was not attainable by everyone. He taught that the soul is neither male nor female, nor yoked to any specific caste.
Animal sacrifices and yajnas
Swaminarayan was against animal sacrifices as carried out by Brahmin priests during Vedic rituals, such as yajnas (fire sacrifices), influenced by the Kaula and Vama Marg cults. The priests consumed "sanctified" prasad in the form of meat of these animals. To solve this problem, Swaminarayan conducted several large-scale yajnas involving priests from Varanasi. These did not have animal sacrifices and were conducted in strict accordance with Vedic scriptures. Swaminarayan was successful in reinstating ahimsa through several such large-scale yajnas. Swaminarayan stressed lacto vegetarianism among his followers and forbade meat consumption, codifying the conduct in the Shikshapatri.
Swaminarayan propagated general Hindu texts. He held the Bhagavata Purana in high authority. However, there are many texts that were written by Swaminarayan or his followers that are regarded as shastras or scriptures within the Swaminarayan sect. Notable scriptures throughout the sect include the Shikshapatri and the Vachanamrut. Other important works and scriptures include the Satsangi Jeevan, Swaminarayan's authorized biography, the Muktanand Kavya, the Nishkulanand Kavya and the Bhakta Chintamani.
Swaminarayan wrote the Shikshapatri on 11 February 1826. While the original Sanskrit manuscript is not available, it was translated into Gujarati by Nityanand Swami under the direction of Swaminarayan and is revered in the sect. The Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency summarised it as a book of social laws that his followers should follow. A commentary on the practice and understanding of dharma, it is a small booklet containing 212 Sanskrit verses, outlining the basic tenets that Swaminarayan believed his followers should uphold in order to live a well-disciplined and moral life. The oldest copy of this text is preserved at the Bodleian Library of Oxford University and it is one of the very few presented by Sahajanand Swami himself. Acharya Tejendraprasad of Ahmedabad has indicated in a letter that he is not aware of any copy from the hand of Sahajanand older than this text.
Swaminarayan in various places of Shikshapatri describes Shri Krishna as the greatest entity. In Shikshapatri shlok 1 and 108 are few places that mention that Swaminarayan prayed on Shri Krishna.
Shikshapatri shlok 1
वामे यस्य स्थिता राधा श्रीश्च यस्यास्ति वक्षसि ।
वृन्दावनविहारं तं श्रीकृष्णं हृदि चिन्तये ॥ 1॥
vāmē yasya sthitā rādhā śrīśca yasyāsti vakṣasi ǀ
vṛndāvanavihāraṁ taṁ śrīkṛṣṇaṁ hṛdi cintayē ǁ 1 ǁ
Shikshapatri shlok 108 also mentions that Shri Krishna is the greatest entity.
स श्रीकृष्णः परंब्रह्म भगवान् पुरुषोत्तमः ।
उपास्य इष्टदेवो नः सर्वाविर्भावकारणम् ॥ 108॥
sa śrīkṛṣṇaḥ parambrahma bhagavān puruṣōttamaḥ ǀ
Translation: The Lord, Shri Krishna is the greatest entity. I admire Him the most. He is the cause of all incarnations and is thus truly worthy to be worshiped.
The Vachanamrut (IAST: Vacanāmṛta, lit. "immortalising ambrosia in the form of words") is a sacred Hindu text consisting of 273 religious discourses delivered by Swaminarayan from 1819 to 1829 CE and is considered the principal theological text within the Swaminarayan Sampradaya.: 6 Compiled by four of his senior disciples, Swaminarayan edited and approved the scripture. As followers believe Swaminarayan to be Parabrahman, or God, the Vachanamrut is considered a direct revelation from God and thus the most precise interpretation of the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and other important Hindu scriptures.: 13–14, 45 : 173 In the Vachanamrut, Swaminarayan outlines the Akshar-Purushottam Darshan and the necessity of the Aksharbrahman guru to attain moksha, a spiritual state characterised by eternal bliss and devotion to God.: 31 : 47 This scripture is read by followers regularly and discourses are conducted daily in Swaminarayan temples around the world.: 21–27
Satsangi Jeevan is the authorised biography of Swaminarayan. The book contains information on the life and teachings of Swaminarayan. It is written by Shatanand Swami and completed in Vikram Samvat 1885. Swaminarayan decided to make Gadhada his permanent residence on the insistence of Dada Khachar and his sisters. Swaminarayan instructed Shatanand Swami to write a book on his life and pastimes.
To enable Shatanand Swami to write from His childhood, Swaminarayan had blessed Shatanand Swami with Sanjay Drishti - special power to see the entire past right from His childhood.
Once written by Shatanand Swami, this book was verified and authenticated by Swaminarayan. He was much pleased to read the book. Swaminarayan then asked his disciples to do Katha of Satsangi Jeevan.
Decades after his death, several divisions occurred with different understandings of succession. This included the establishment of Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), the founder of which left the Vadtal Gadi in 1905, and Maninagar Swaminarayan Gadi Sansthan, the founder of which left the Ahmedabad Gadi in the 1940s. The followers of BAPS hold Gunatitanand Swami as the spiritual successor to Swaminarayan, asserting that on several occasions Swaminarayan revealed to devotees that Gunatitanand Swami was Aksharbrahm manifest. Followers of BAPS believe that the acharyas were given administrative leadership of the sect while Gunatitanand Swami was given spiritual leadership by Swaminarayan. The current spiritual and administrative leader of BAPS is Mahant Swami Maharaj. The followers of the Maninagar Swaminarayan Gadi Sansthan hold Gopalanand Swami as the successor to Swaminarayan. The current leader of this sect is Purushottampriyadasji Maharaj.
According to the biographer Raymond Williams, when Swaminarayan died, he had a following of 1.8 million people. In 2001, Swaminarayan centres existed on four continents, and the congregation was recorded to be five million, the majority in the homeland of Gujarat. The newspaper Indian Express estimated members of the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism to number over 20 million (2 crore) worldwide in 2007.
Mahatma Gandhi on Swaminarayan
In relation to Swaminarayan's work and views, Gandhi remarked that "the work accomplished by Swaminarayan in Gujarat could not and would never have been achieved by the law." However, in the letter to his nephew, he expressed that Swaminarayan's values didn't align perfectly with his interpretation of Vaishnavism and the love taught by Swaminarayana was all about sentimentalism. Commenting on Gandhi's social work, N.A. Toothi "most of his thought, activities and even methods of most of the institutions which he has been building up and serving, have the flavour of Swaminarayanism, more than that of any other sect of Hindu Dharma."
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