Swaminarayan Sampradaya

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Swaminarayan Sampradaya
Swaminarayan, founder of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya
Swaminarayan, founder of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya
Founder
Swaminarayan
Religions
Hinduism
Scriptures
Shikshapatri • Vachanamrut
Languages
Sanskrit • Gujarati

The Swaminarayan Sampradaya is a Hindu sampradaya which was founded in 1801 by Sahajanand Swami, who is worshipped as Swaminarayan, the supreme manifestation of God, by his followers.[1]:18:609[2]:1[3]:1 Under Swaminarayan’s leadership the sampradaya grew to more than 100,000 followers and 3,000 swamis (monks) by the time of his death in 1830.

Early in his leadership of the group, Sahajanand Swami directed his devotees to chant the Swaminarayan mantra, which is a compound of two Sanskrit words: Swami and Narayan.[2]:2 Both the religious group and then its leader became popularly known by the new mantra they had begun chanting, Swaminarayan.[2]:2

In the Vachanamrut, the principal theological text of the sampradaya,[3]:6 Swaminarayan identifies five eternal and distinct entities: Parabrahman, Aksharbrahman, maya (māyā), ishwar (iśvara), and jiva (jīva).[4]:319[5]:244[3]:69–71[6] He further explains that the ultimate goal of life is moksha (mokṣa), a spiritual state of ultimate liberation from the cycle of births and deaths that is characterized by eternal bliss and devotion to God.

Swaminarayan instituted the sampradaya’s mandir tradition to facilitate followers’ devotional worship of God.[7]:65[8]:353 During his lifetime, Swaminarayan constructed six mandirs: Ahmedabad (1822), Bhuj (1823), Vadtal (1824), Dholera (1826), Junagadh (1828), and Gadhada (1828).[9]

Socially, Swaminarayan’s doctrine that everyone’s true self is the atman within which God resides, led him to reject caste-based discrimination within the religious community. Swaminarayan also inspired followers to engage in humanitarian service activities, leading various denominations of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya to currently provide humanitarian service globally.

After Swaminarayan’s death, different interpretations of successorship have emerged resulting in numerous groups within the Swaminarayan Sampradaya that regard Swaminarayan as God but differ in their theology and the religious leadership they accept.[2]:2[10][11]:172[12]:58

Early history[edit]

Sahajanand Swami[edit]

The Swaminarayan Sampradaya, founded in 1801, takes its name from its founder, Swaminarayan, also known as Sahajanand Swami.[3]:1[2]:1 Swaminarayan was born on 3 April 1781 in the village of Chhapaiya in present-day Uttar Pradesh, India.[3]:1[1]:14 After his parents’ death, he renounced his home at the age of 11 and traveled for 7 years as a child yogi around India before settling in the hermitage of Ramanand Swami, a Vaishnava religious leader in present-day Gujarat.[3]:1[1]:15–16[13]:101 Ramanand Swami initiated him as Sahajanand Swami on 28 October 1800 and appointed him to be his successor and the leader of the sampradaya in 1801.[13]:101[8]:126 At the time of initiation, Ramanand Swami also gave him the second name, Narayan Muni.[1]:18 Textual sources from as early as 1804 indicate Sahajanand Swami was regarded as the manifestation of God, and over his life, he would be worshipped as God by thousands of followers.[3]:8, 13–14[14]:xvii

Ramanand Swami died on 17 December 1801.[15]:386 Upon the conclusion of his funeral rites, Sahajanand Swami directed devotees to chant a new mantra: Swaminarayan (Svāmīnārāyaṇa). The word Swaminarayan is a compound of two Sanskrit words: Swami (Svāmī) and Narayan (Nārāyaṇa). There are two main interpretations of the mantra, with some branches believing the name refers to one entity, while others believe that that Swami denotes Aksharbrahman (God's ideal devotee), namely Gunatitanand Swami, as identified by Sahajanand Swami, and Narayan denotes Parabrahman (God), a reference to Sahajanand Swami himself.[1]:55, 93[2]:1 The latter interpretation recalls an earlier Vaishnava tradition of the divine companionship between the perfect devotee and God (for example, Radha and Krishna or Shri and Vishnu).[1]:92 As devotees began to chant this new Swaminarayan mantra, society began to identify them by the mantra they chanted, thus referring to the group as the Swaminarayan Sampradaya and Sahajanand Swami as Swaminarayan.[2]:1[15]:93

The sampradaya grew quickly over the 30 years under Swaminarayan’s leadership, with British sources estimating at least 100,000 followers by the 1820s.[1]:22[3]:1[16]:101 Before his death, Swaminarayan divided his followers into two administrative dioceses, separate from the spiritual lineage of Aksharbrahman Gurus.[17][18][19][2]:2 Swaminarayan died on 1 June 1830, but the sampradaya continued to grow, with British officials counting 287,687 followers by 1872.[13]:102[1]:23 By 2001, the number of members had grown to an estimated 5 million followers.[20]:215

Early monasticism[edit]

Swaminarayan and his senior disciples

Swaminarayan and his ministry, including his swamis (monks), faced persecution by both religious and secular powers, which decreased somewhat with the arrival of the British in Gujarat but persisted.[1]:24–5[21]:65 Swaminarayan had instructed the swamis to maintain an austere code of conduct as part of their spiritual practice. This code of conduct included refraining from retaliation when harassed by others, which left them vulnerable to physical assault. To help them escape such harassment, at 30 June 1807 Swaminarayan ordained 500 swamis into the highest monastic order as paramhansas (paramhaṃsas), thereby allowing them to temporarily suspend certain practices, like applying sacred marks, that allowed opponents to identify them as one of his followers.[8]:207[1]:24–25[2]:2 Altogether, Swaminarayan ordained 3,000 swamis over the span of his leadership.[2]:2[3]:1

The swamis expressed their devotion to Swaminarayan in various ways, ranging from composing bhakti poetry to authoring scriptural commentaries.[22]:198–214[23]:218–230[24]:142–143 Swaminarayan also encouraged his swamis to serve others. During the devastating famine of 1813-14 in Kathiawar, for example, the swamis collected alms in unaffected regions of Gujarat to distribute among the afflicted.[25]:17[1]:26

Beliefs[edit]

Swaminarayan’s teachings are found in the Vachanamrut (Vacanāmṛta), the principal theological text of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya.[3]:6 As followers believe Swaminarayan to be Parabrahman (Parabrahman, or Purushottam, Puruṣottama), his teachings are considered a direct revelation of God.[3]:13–4, 45 In the Vachanamrut, Swaminarayan describes that the ultimate goal of life is moksha (mokṣa), a spiritual state of ultimate liberation from the cycle of births and deaths and characterized by eternal bliss and devotion to God.[3]:272–84[26]:13, 173

In articulating his own theological system, Swaminayaran engaged with the Vedanta philosophical tradition, particularly the Vaishnava Vedanta of Ramanuja, Madhva, Vallabha, and Chaitanya.[27]:134, 135[28] While Swaminarayan's theology has many similarities and differences with those that came before it,[27]:134[28][26]:186[note 1] some scholars highlight particular similarities of Swaminarayan's philosophy with Ramanuja's Vishistadvaita, along with his stated affinity for it[note 2] to suggest that it served as foundational for Swaminarayan’s philosophy.[18][note 3] Other scholars point to fundamental metaphysical and philosophical divergences between Swaminarayan’s and Ramanuja’s teachings to show them to be distinct philosophical systems, arguing that the conflation of these two schools is erroneous.[26]:186[3]:319[1]:91[24]

Metaphysics[edit]

While his preference for Ramanuja’s theology is stated in the sacred text, the Shikshapatri (Śikṣāpatrī),[note 4] Swaminarayan actually teaches a significantly different system of metaphysics in the Vachanamrut. In Ramanuja’s system, there are three entities: Parabrahman, maya (māyā), and jiva (jīva).[24]:141–2[28]:157–60[26]:183–4[22]:211 Throughout the Vachanamrut, Swaminarayan identifies five eternal and distinct entities: Parabrahman, Aksharbrahman (Akṣarabrahman, also Akshara, Akṣara, or Brahman), maya, ishwar (īśvara), and jiva.[4]:319[5]:244[13][3]:69–71[6]

Parabrahman is God, who is sarvopari (sarvoparī, transcends all entities), karta (kartā, omniagent), sakar (sākār, possesses an eternal and divine form), and pragat (pragat, forever manifests on Earth to liberate spiritual seekers).[3]:71,75,109[29] By ‘manifest’, it is understood that the very same transcendent entity who possesses a divine form in his abode assumes a human form that is still “totally divine,” but “accessible” to his human devotees.[3]:154 The majority of the followers believe thus that Swaminarayan was “not a manifestation of Krishna, as some believed,”[1]:79 but the supreme entity superior to all other manifestations of God, including Rama and Krishna.[1]:79 These other manifestations of God, of which Rama and Krishna are two examples, are known as avatars, and Purushottam (or God) is believed to be “metaphysically different”[3]:154 from them and their cause, the avatarin,[3]:154 whom Swaminarayan revealed as himself.[3]:154

Aksharbrahman, is the second highest entity and has four forms: 1) Parabrahman’s divine abode; 2) the ideal devotee of Parabrahman, eternally residing in that divine abode; 3) the sentient substratum pervading and supporting the cosmos (chidakash, cidākāśa); and 4) the Aksharbrahman Guru, who serves as the manifest form of God on earth through whom God guides aspirants to moksha.[3]:158, 200–1[28]:156, 165–9[30]:131 This understanding of Akshar having four forms is one of the features that distinguishes Swaminarayan’s theology from others.[28]:169[5]:245[26]:172–90 In Vachanamrut Gadhada I-63, Swaminarayan emphasizes the need to understand Akshar in order to understand God (Parabrahman) perfectly and completely.[28]:162

Maya refers to the universal material source used by Parabrahman to create the world.[3]:71–3, 245[31] Maya has three gunas (guṇas, qualities) which are found to varying degrees in everything formed of it: serenity (sattva), passion (rajas), and darkness (tamas).[3]:71, 246[32] Maya also refers to the ignorance which enshrouds both ishwars and jivas, which results in their bondage to the cycle of births and deaths (transmigration) and subsequently suffering.[4]:320[3]:245, 249–50[33]:388–9[34]

Ishwars are sentient beings responsible for the creation, sustenance, and dissolution of the cosmos, at the behest of Parabrahman.[3]:71, 246[4]:320[35] While they are metaphysically higher than jivas, they too are bound by maya and must transcend it to attain moksha.[3]:234–5[22]:215[33]:388–9[36]

Jivas, also known as atmans, are distinct, eternal entities, composed of consciousness that can reside in bodies, animating them. The jiva is inherently pure and flawless, though under the influence of maya, jivas falsely believe themselves to be the bodies they inhabit and remain bound to the cycle of transmigration.[3]:211–18[4]:320–1[33]:388–9[37]

Moksha[edit]

In Swaminarayan’s soteriology, the ultimate goal of life is moksha, a spiritual state of ultimate liberation from the cycle of births and deaths. To attain moksha, an individual must overcome the ignorance of maya, which Swaminarayan describes as self-identification with the physical body, personal talents, and material possessions.[3]:273–4[38] Swaminarayan explains in the Vachanamrut that ekantik dharma is a means to earn God’s grace and attain liberation. Ekantik dharma (ekāntik dharma) consists of dharma (dharma; religious and moral duties), gnan (jñāna; realization of the atman and Paramatman) vairagya (vairāgya; dispassion for worldly objects), and bhakti (bhakti; devotion to God coupled with the understanding of God’s greatness).[3]:287–288[5]:247[39]:126[40] The jiva must become brahmarup (brahmarūp), or like Aksharbrahman, under the guidance of the manifest form of God to attain moksha.[3]:74–84, 303–304[5]:239–40[28]:166–9[41] This is possible by earning the grace of Parabrahman and Aksharbrahman through ekantik dharma.[3]:287–8[5]:247[39]:126[40] In this highest state, the jiva or ishwar never becomes Aksharbrahman but transcends maya and experiences God’s bliss through eternally serving Parabrahman.[3]:277, 303–4[5]:246–7

Various branches of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya differ in their belief of how to attain moksha. In BAPS, followers point to Swaminarayan’s teachings in the Vachanamrut and other scriptures emphasizing the role of God manifest through the Aksharbrahman guru to attain moksha.[3]:287–288 The Swaminarayan Gadi believes that moksha can be attained through the lineage of gurus beginning with Gopalanand Swami.[1]:58 The Narnarayan and Laxminarayan Gadis believe moksha is attained by worshiping the sacred images of Swaminarayan installed by acharyas.[3]:308

Practices[edit]

Boy offering personal worship

Ekantik dharma (ekāntik dharma) is an important spiritual practice of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya, and its establishment is one of the reasons why Swaminarayan is believed to have incarnated.[3]:150 Ekantik dharma consists of dharma, gnan, vairagya, and bhakti.[3]:287[5]:247[39]:126 [42]

Dharma consists of religious and moral duties according to one’s responsibilities and situation.[43] All Swaminarayan Hindus who are householders maintain five basic vows: abstaining from theft, gambling, adultery, meat, and intoxicants like alcohol.[1]:174[44]:344 As part of their dharma, swamis additionally endeavor to perfect the five virtues of non-lust (nishkam/niṣkāma), non-greed (nirlobh/nirlobha), non-attachment (nissneh/nissneha), non-taste (niswad/nissvada), and non-ego (nirman/nirmāna).[1]:165–174[28]:166 Another aspect of the practice of dharma is the Swaminarayan diet, a type of vegetarianism, similar to that practiced generally by Vaishnava sampradayas, that entails abstaining from animal flesh, eggs, onions, and garlic.[1]:174

The practices Swaminarayan prescribed were in part consistent with "Vaishnava and Krishnite traditions."[1]:30 Shruti Patel argues that such a consistency with existing practices would have aided in "sanctioning [the] novelty" of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya.[7]:53[note 5]

Gnan is knowledge of Parabrahman and realizing oneself as the atman. Basic practices of gnan include the daily study of scriptures like the Vachanamrut and Shikshapatri and weekly participation in congregational worship services (sabha/sabhā) at the mandir (temple), in which scriptural discourses geared towards personal and spiritual growth occur.[45]:107 In the Vachanamrut, Swaminarayan explains that adhering to the Aksharbrahman Guru’s commands is commensurate with perfectly embodying gnan—that is, realizing oneself as the atman.[3]:62[46]

Vairagya is dispassion for worldly objects. Swaminarayan Hindus cultivate vairagya through practices like fasting on Ekadashi days, two of which occur every month, and observing extra fasts, during the holy months of Chaturmas (a period of four months between July and October)[1]:169–170 Vairagya is realized by adhering to the codes of conduct, inclusive of these practices, serving other devotees physically, listening to discourses, and engaging in devotion.[3]:61–62[47]

Bhakti involves devotion towards God, while understanding God’s greatness and believing oneself—the atman—as one with Aksharbrahman.[3]:151[48] Important bhakti rituals for Swaminarayan Hindus include puja (pūjā; personal worship of God), arti (ārtī; the ritual waving of lighted wicks around murtis, or images), thal (thāl; the offering of food to murtis of God), and cheshta (ceṣtā; the singing of devotional songs that celebrate the divine acts and form of Swaminarayan).[49]:861

During puja, adherents ritually worship Swaminarayan, and depending on their denominational affiliation, also the lineage of Aksharbrahman Gurus through whom Swaminarayan is believed to be manifest.[30]:132[3]:308–310[1]:Ch.2, 48

At the beginning of the puja ritual, men imprint a symbol known as the tilak chandlo on their forehead, and women imprint a chandlo.[50]:44 The tilak which is a u-shaped saffron-colored symbol made of sandalwood, symbolizing God's feet, and the chandlo is a red symbol made of kumkum, symbolizing God’s ideal devotee.[51]:44

Other bhakti rituals included in Swaminarayan religious practice are abhishek (abhiśeka), the bathing of a murti of God,[1]:140 mahapuja (māhāpūjā), a collective worship of God usually performed on auspicious days or festivals,[49]:852 and mansi (mānsi) puja, worship of God offered mentally.[52]:91

Mandir tradition[edit]

Harikrishna Maharaj - Vadtal

The Swaminarayan Sampradaya is well-known for its mandirs, or Hindu places of worship.[53]:64 From Swaminarayan’s time through the present, mandirs functioned as centers of worship and gathering as well as hubs for cultural and theological education.[54]:263[55]:377 They can vary in consecration rituals and architecture, which can be adapted to the means of the local congregation.[55]:367

History[edit]

Swaminarayan instituted the mandir tradition of the sampradaya to provide followers a space for devotional worship (upasana, upāsanā) to God.[7]:65[8]:353 He constructed six mandirs in the following locations: Ahmedabad (1822), Bhuj (1823), Vadtal (1824), Dholera (1826), Junagadh (1828), and Gadhada (1828).[54]:263–264 Swaminarayan installed the murtis, or sacred images, of various manifestations of God and his devotee in the central shrines of each of these mandirs.[54]:264 He also installed his own image in the form of Harikrishna in the mandir at Vadtal, signifying his own divinity.[56]:198[57]:253[8]:370 Swaminarayan’s successors have continued the tradition of installing murtis of God (Swaminarayan) and his ideal devotee to facilitate his followers’ pursuit of moksha.[55]:363

Murti puja[edit]

The Swaminarayan Sampradaya is a bhakti tradition that believes God possesses an eternal, divine, human-like, transcendent form.[3]:124–130 Thus, Swaminarayan mandirs facilitate devotion to God by housing murtis which are believed to resemble God’s divine form.[58]:236 The murtis are consecrated through the prana pratishta (prāṅa pratiṣṭha) ceremony, after which God is believed to reside in the murtis. Consequently, the worship practiced in Swaminarayan mandirs is believed to directly reach God.[58]:236

After the consecration of a mandir, various rituals are regularly performed in it. Arti is a ritual which involves singing a devotional song of praise, while waving a flame before the murtis. Arti is performed five times per day in shikharbaddha mandirs and twice per day in hari mandirs. Thal, a ritual offering of food to God accompanied by devotional songs, is also regularly offered three times per day to the murtis in Swaminarayan mandirs. The sanctified food is distributed to devotees after the ritual.[1]:148–149

Devotees also engage with the murtis in a Swaminarayan mandir through other worship rituals, including darshan, dandvat, and pradakshina. Darshan is the devotional act of viewing the murtis, which are adorned with elegant clothing and ornaments.[1]:133 Dandvats (daṇdavat), or prostrations, before the murtis symbolize surrendering to God.[1]:138 Pradakshina (pradakṣiṇā), or circumambulations around the murtis, express the desire to keep God at the center of the devotees’ lives.[1]:137

Community building and worship[edit]

Swaminarayan mandirs also serve as hubs for congregational worship and theological and cultural education.[53]:65–66[59] Singing devotional songs, delivering katha (sermons), and performing rituals such as arti all occur daily in Swaminarayan mandirs. In addition, devotees from the surrounding community gather at least once per week, often on a weekend, to perform these activities congregationally.[44]:341, 344–345

Cultural and theological instruction is also delivered on this day of weekly congregation. Cultural instruction may include Gujarati language instruction; training in music and dance; and preparation for festival performances.[55]:377 Theological instruction includes classes on the tradition’s history and doctrines, and the life and work of the tradition’s gurus.[53]:66

Types of Swaminarayan mandirs[edit]

Swaminarayan followers conduct their worship in various types of mandirs. The homes of Swaminarayan devotees contain ghar mandirs, or home shrines, which serve as spaces for the daily performance of worship and ritual activities such as arti, thal, and reading sermons or scripture.[1]:145–147

The majority of freestanding public Swaminarayan mandirs are hari mandirs, whose architectural style and consecration rituals are adopted to the means available to the local congregation.[53]:64

As a means of expressing their devotion to Swaminarayan and their guru, some congregations elect to construct stone, shikharbaddha mandirs following Hindu architectural scriptures.[55]:366–367 In addition to being an expression of devotion, congregants strengthen their sense of community by cooperatively volunteering to construct these mandirs.[55]:370

A fourth type of mandir, called a mahamandiram (mahāmandiram) can be found in India, in New Delhi and Gandhinagar, Gujarat.[53]:68[33]:384[60]:46 These mahamandirs are the largest type of mandir constructed and they contain exhibits which present the life of Swaminarayan and the history of Hinduism in various formats with the goal of inspiring introspection and self-improvement.[33]:392–398

Scriptural tradition[edit]

In addition to Swaminarayan’s acceptance of perennial Hindu texts such as the four Vedas, Vedanta-sutras, and the Bhagavad Gita, Swaminarayan encouraged the creation of a scriptural tradition specific to the Swaminarayan Sampradaya.[3]:64[1]:200 Along with theological texts with revelatory status, the genres of textual production in the Swaminarayan Sampradaya include sacred biographies, ethical precepts, commentaries, and philosophical treatises.[3]:47[27]:133

Vachanamrut[edit]

The Vachanamrut, literally the ‘immortalizing ambrosia in the form of words’, is the fundamental theological text of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya owing to the followers’ belief that Swaminarayan himself is the self-manifestation of Parabrahman. The text is a compilation of 273 discourses, with each discourse within the collection also called a Vachanamrut.[3]:13 Swaminarayan delivered these discourses in Gujarati between the years of 1819-1829, and his senior disciples noted his teachings while they were delivered and compiled them during Swaminarayan’s lifetime.[3]:333 In this scripture, Swaminarayan outlines his system of metaphysics which includes five eternal entities: jiva, ishwar, maya, Aksharbrahman, Parabrahman.[3]:69[5]:244 He also describes the ultimate goal of life, moksha (mokṣa), a spiritual state of ultimate liberation from the cycle of births and deaths and characterized by eternal bliss and devotion to God.[3]:272–84[26]:13, 173 To attain this state, Swaminarayan states that the jiva needs to follow the four-fold practice of ekantik dharma[61] under the guidance of the Aksharbrahman Guru to transcend maya[3]:273[62] and become brahmarup[5]:247 to reside in the service of God.[3]:303–4[5]:246

As followers believe Swaminarayan to be God, the Vachanamrut is considered a direct revelation of God and thus the most precise interpretation of the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and other important Hindu scriptures.[3]:13–4, 45[26]:173 This scripture is read by followers regularly and discourses are conducted daily in Swaminarayan temples around the world.[63]:217

An illustration of Swaminarayan writing the Shiskhapatri

Shikshapatri[edit]

The Shikshapatri is a composition of 212 Sanskrit verses authored by Swaminarayan and completed in 1826.[13]:101[1]:200As an ‘epistle of precepts,’ the verses primarily communicate the Swaminarayan Sampradaya’s moral injunctions for devotees which should be read daily.[3]:16[1]:200–2[64] Swaminarayan states that the Shikshapatri is not merely his words but his personified form and merits worship in its own right.[9]:156[1]:41

Swamini Vato[edit]

The Swamini Vato is a compilation of teachings delivered by Gunatitanand Swami over the course of his forty-year ministry,[3]:16 He was one of Swaminarayan’s foremost disciple,[39]:119[3]:16 and according to some denominations of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya, he was the first manifestation of Swaminarayan in a lineage of Aksharbrahman Gurus.[14]:xviii[1]:61 Similarly to the Vachanamrut, Gunatitanand Swami’s followers recorded his teachings, which were compiled in his lifetime and reviewed by Gunatitanand Swami himself.[3]:16 These teachings were first published by Balmukund Swami in 5 chapters and then 7 chapters by Krishnaji Ada.[65] The text consists of approximately 1,478 excerpts taken from Gunatitanand Swami’s sermons.[66]:16 In his teachings, he reflects on the nature of human experience and offers thoughts on how one ought to frame the intentions with which they act in this world, while also elaborating on Swaminarayan’s supremacy, the importance of the sadhu, and the means for attaining liberation.[66]:123 Often, Gunatitanand Swami elaborates upon topics or passages from the Vachanamrut, which lends the text to be considered a ‘natural commentary’ on the Vachanamrut within the Swaminarayan Sampradaya. In addition, he often made references to other Hindu texts, parables, and occurrences in daily life in order not only to explain spiritual concepts, but also to provide guidance on how to live them.[3]:17

Sacred biographies[edit]

The Swaminarayan Sampradaya has produced voluminous biographical literature on Swaminarayan. The Satsangi Jivan, a five volume Sanskrit sacred biography of Swaminarayan, consists of 17,627 verses written by Shatananda Muni that also incorporates some of Swaminarayan’s teachings.[1]:203 The Bhaktachintamani is a sacred biography of Swaminarayan composed by Nishkulanand Swami. Consisting of 8,536 couplets, this biography serves as a record of Swaminarayan’s life and teachings.[39]:118 The Harililamrut is a longer biographical text in verse written by Dalpatram and published in 1907.[67]:86 The Harilila Kalpataru a 33,000-verse Sanskrit biographical text, was written by Achintyanand Brahmachari, at the suggestion of Gunatitanand Swami.[1]:203[68]:133 These and many other sacred biographies complement the theological texts, insofar as their incidents serve as practical applications of the theology.[3]:64

Vedanta commentaries[edit]

Swaminarayan Bhashyam

From its early history, the Swaminarayan Sampradaya has also been involved in the practice of producing Sanskrit commentarial work as a way of engaging with the broader scholastic community. The classical Vedanta school of philosophy and theology is of particular import for the Swaminarayan Sampradaya, which has produced exegetical work on the three canonical Vedanta texts—the Upanishads, Brahmasutras, and the Bhagavad Gita.[24]:138–140 While Swaminarayan himself did not author a commentary on these texts, he engaged with them and their interpretations in the Vachanamrut. Since Swaminarayan’s metaphysical framework consists of five eternal entities, it differs from Ramanuja’s and that of the other commentators, and therefore forms a distinct system within the Vedanta school.[24]:141–142,152 The specific BAPS interpretation is referred to by Sadhu Bhadreshdas as the Akshar-Purushottam Darshan.[69]:53

The earliest Vedanta commentarial literature in the Swaminarayan Sampradaya reflects a heavy dependence on the Vedanta systems of Ramanuja and Vallabha. Although authorship of these nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century texts[70]:120 are attributed to two of Swaminarayan’s eminent disciples, Muktanand Swami and Gopalanand Swami,[24]:142–143[70]:152 textual evidence indicates that they were composed by Vishishtadvaita scholars from southern India, who were called to Gujarat to head the Vadtal Sanskrit Pathshala.[70]:106–108, 112–113

The most comprehensive commentarial work on Vedanta in the Swaminarayan Sampradaya is the Swaminarayan Bhashyam authored by Bhadreshdas Swami, an ordained monk of BAPS. It is a five-volume work written in Sanskrit and published between 2009 and 2012. The format and style of exegesis and argument conform with the classical tradition of Vedanta commentarial writing. In more than two thousand pages, the commentator Bhadreshdas Swami, offers detailed interpretations of the principal ten Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahmasutras (Vedanta Sutras) that articulate Swaminarayan’s theology and philosophy.[3]:19

The Swaminarayan Bhashyam has led to some recognition for the Akshar Purushottam interpretation of Swaminarayan’s teachings as a distinct school of Vedanta. The Shri Kashi Vidvat Parishad, an authoritative council of scholars of Vedic dharma and philosophy throughout India, stated in a meeting in Varanasi on 31 July 2017 that "Mahāmahopādyāya Sadhu Bhadreshdas is an ācārya and a contemporary commentator in the lineage of commentators on the Prasthānatrayī." They also stated that it is "appropriate to identify Sri Svāminārāyaṇa’s Vedānta by the title: Akṣarapuruṣottama Darśana,"[note 6] and that his teachings are "distinct from Advaita, Viśiṣṭādvaita, and all other doctrines."[71][72] Akshar-Purushottam Darshan was also recognised as a distinct school of Vedanta in 2018 by members of the 17th World Sanskrit Conference.[73][note 7][3]:40

Major branches[edit]

Swaminarayan temple Ahmedabad 1866

In the early years of the sampradaya, Swaminarayan personally directed control of the spiritual and administrative duties.[1]:36 Swaminarayan later delegated responsibilities amongst swamis, householders, and the members of his family.[1]:36 In the Lekh, Swaminarayan established two "administrative dioceses,"[17]:536 based out of the Vadtal and Ahmedabad mandirs, respectively, and appointed two acharyas to "administer his temple properties"[2]:2 which are distributed among them,[17]:536[19]:107–108 establishing a hereditary line of succession.[2]:2 The first acharyas of the two dioceses were Swaminarayan's two nephews, Raghuvir (Laxmi Narayan Dev Gadi) and Ayodhyaprasad (Nar Narayan Dev Gadi), whose descendants continue the hereditary line of succession.[2]:2

According to a number of branches, Swaminarayan also introduced a spiritual lineage of Aksharbrahman Gurus through which he manifests. BAPS adherents believe Swaminarayan introduced Gunatitanand Swami as his ideal devotee, from which a spiritual lineage of gurus began,[1]:61[18][2]:2 reflecting the principle that a form of God who lives “before one’s eyes” is necessary for aspirants to attain moksha (liberation).[3]:134 Swaminarayan Gadi adherents believe a spiritual succession begins from a lineage starting with Gopalanand Swami.[1]:58

Acharya Maharajshree Rakeshprasadji Vadtal.jpgHH Acharya Maharaj Shri.jpg
Acharya Rakeshprasad & Acharya Koshalendraprasad

Laxmi Narayan Dev Gadi (Vadtal) and Nar Narayan Dev Gadi (Ahmedabad)[edit]

Per the Lekh, Swaminarayan appointed two of his nephews as acharyas to administer the two gadis, or dioceses. Ayodhyaprasadji, son of his elder brother Rampratap, became acharya of the Nar Narayan Dev Gadi (Ahmedabad diocese), and Raghuvirji, son of his younger brother Ichcharam, became acharya of the Laxmi Narayan Dev Gadi (Vadtal diocese).[1]:37–38[17]:536

In the twentieth century, several controversies involving the acharyas led to litigation resulting in restrictions on the acharyas’ authority along with schisms and the formation of new subgroups within the Swaminarayan Sampradaya.[1]:49–51 The current acharya of the Nar Narayan Dev Gadi is Koshalendraprasad Pande. There is currently an active case regarding the Vadtal Gadi centered around a factional dispute between Dev paksh, the faction led by Rakeshprasad Pande, and Siddhant paksh, which is led by Ajendraprasad Pande.[74] Gujarat high court has stayed the Nadiad court order removing Ajendraprasad until a final verdict is reached. He is restrained from enjoying the rights of acharya during the proceedings.[75] Dev paksh, governing the Vadtal temple trust, has appointed Rakeshprasad to act and officiate as acharya.[76][1]:51 Siddhant paksh believes Ajendraprasad is the current acharya and welcome his son, Nrigendraprasad, to officiate at functions in Swaminarayan temples in his absence.[77]

Mahant Swami Maharaj, current guru and president of BAPS

Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS)[edit]

The Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) was formed in 1907, by Shastriji Maharaj (Shastri Yagnapurushdas).[1]:60–61[3]:22 Shastriji Maharaj's primary reason for separation from the Vadtal diocese and creation of BAPS had been due to doctrinal differences in the interpretation of Akshar (Aksharbrahma) and Purushottam.[1]:60–61[78]:419[28]:157

As articulated in the theology of Akshar-Purushottam Darshan, followers believe Swaminarayan manifests through a lineage of Aksharbrahman Gurus beginning with Gunatitanand Swami and currently Mahant Swami Maharaj.[1]:60–62[note 8]

Swaminarayan Gadi (Maninagar)[edit]

The Swaminarayan Gadi (Maninagar) was founded in the 1940s by Muktajivandas Swami after he left the Ahmedabad diocese with the belief that Gopalanand Swami, a paramhansa from Swaminarayan's time, was the spiritual successor to Swaminarayan.[1]:58 The current spiritual leader is Jitendrapriyadasji Swami.[79][80][note 9]

Followers of the Swaminarayan Gadi accept the Rahasyarth Pradeepika Tika, a five-volume work written by Abji Bapa, as an authentic exegesis of the Vachanamrut.[1]:205

Gunatit Samaj[edit]

The Yogi Divine Society (YDS) was established in 1966, by Dadubhai Patel and his brother, Babubhai after they were excommunicated from BAPS by Yogiji Maharaj. The brothers were expelled after it was discovered that Dadubhai illicitly collected and misappropriated funds and, falsely claiming that he was acting on the organization’s behalf, led a number of young women to renounce their families and join his ashram under his leadership.[1]:72[81][82]:18–19 After Dadubhai’s death in 1986, an ascetic named Hariprasad Swami became the leader of the Yogi Divine Society. Yogi Divine Society became known as the Gunatit Samaj and consists of several wings: namely, YDS, The Anoopam Mission, and The Gunatit Jyot.[1]:72–73,127[81]

Influence on society[edit]

Humanitarian Service[edit]

In addition to his efforts in social reform, Swaminarayan was instrumental in providing humanitarian aid to the people of Gujarat during turbulent times of famine.[13]:105 When given the opportunity to receive two boons from his guru, Swaminarayan asked to receive any miseries destined for followers and to bear any scarcities of food or clothing in place of any followers.[83]:192 In the initial years of the sampradaya, Swaminaryan maintained almshouses throughout Gujarat and directed swamis to maintain the almshouses even under the threat of physical injury by opponents.[84]:11–12 During a particularly harsh famine in 1813-14, Swaminarayan himself collected and distributed grains to those who were suffering, and he had step wells and water reservoirs dug in various villages.[13]:105 He codified devotees’ engagement with humanitarian service in the Shikshapatri, instructing followers to help the poor and those in need during natural disasters, to establish schools, and to serve the ill, according to their ability.[85]

Consequently, various denominations of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya currently engage in humanitarian service at a global scale. For example, BAPS has been involved with coordinating responses to major natural disasters, building various residential and day schools, organizing blood donation drives and free medical clinics as well as constructing and running seven hospitals and treatment centers through its humanitarian services wing, BAPS Charities. Following the devastating earthquake in Gujarat in 2001, they rebuilt 15 villages and neighborhoods and 39 schools.[13]:112–114 For its work, BAPS has been granted consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.[13]:117

ISSO Seva, a subsidiary of the Ahmedabad diocese, is involved in disaster relief, food and blood donation drives in the United States and providing accessible healthcare in Africa.[86] The Gunatit Samaj also hosts medical camps, provides educational services, healthcare, and other social services in India.[87] The Swaminarayan Gadi (Maninagar) diocese primarily hosts health camps and other social services in the UK, Africa and North America.[88] SVG Charity, a subsidiary of the Laxmi Narayan Dev Gadi, is involved in disaster relief, food and medicine donations, blood drives, and organ donation registration drives across the United States, Europe, Canada, and India.[89][90][91]

Caste[edit]

During Swaminarayan’s time, the oppressive nature of caste-based customs, like endogamy, dress codes, and commensality, pervaded many aspects of society.[39]:121 Religious groups and other institutions often regulated membership based on caste.[39]:117 Swaminarayan opposed caste-based discrimination and has been credited as one of the foremost social reformers of 19th century India for his efforts in reducing caste-based oppression. In fact, Swaminarayan’s opposition of caste-based discrimination through his spiritual teachings and practices incited vehement criticism and violence from some high-caste Hindus.[39]:122–126 Kishore Mashruwala, a Gandhian scholar writes that “Swaminarayan was the first to bring about religious advancement of Shudras in Gujarat and Kathiawad region…And that became the main reason for many to oppose the Sampraday”.[39]:122[92] It is noted in an 1823 memorandum published in The Asiatic Journal that upper-caste Hindus “regret the levelling nature of [Swaminarayan's] system” often resulting in frequent violence against followers of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya.[39]:122[93]

Swaminarayan's doctrine that everyone's true self is the pure atma within which God resides, led him to reject caste-based discrimination and welcome those of all caste backgrounds equally into the Swaminarayan Sampradaya.[39]:122–126[94]:105 In his public writings, Swaminarayan allowed for some caste rules to protect his followers from violence incited by his opposition of caste-based discrimination.[39]:122–123[94]:106–107 For example, in the Shikshapatri, Swaminarayan states that his followers should follow rules of the caste system when consuming food and water.[94]:106–107 Based on these public writings some have criticized Swaminarayan of supporting caste-based discrimination.[94]:106 However, numerous scholars have demonstrated that this criticism is unfounded, citing Swaminarayan’s continued actions in combating caste-based oppression and promoting inclusivity. In fact, Swaminarayan not only accepted people from all castes into the sampradaya but also Muslims and tribal peoples.[39]:117[93] Additionally, various historical sources indicate that Swaminarayan himself often ignored caste rules and urged his followers to do the same.[39]:122–126[94]:105–107[1]:169–173 When asked about his views on caste by Bishop Reginald Heber, Swaminarayan stated that he did not believe in the caste system but sometimes accommodated it publicly so as to not offend the masses.[39]:124–126[95]

Taken together, Swaminarayan’s contemporaries and modern scholars both credit him for reducing caste-based oppression and discrimination through his actions and teachings. Swaminarayan’s actions uplifted many of the oppressed and drew them to the Swaminarayan Sampradaya.[39]:122–126[94]:117[1]:169–173

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Trivedi, Yogi (2016), p. 134: "...there were many who followed [after Shankara]: Ramanuja (eleventh–twelfth centuries), Madhva (thirteenth century), Vallabha, and those in Chaitanya’s tradition (both fifteenth–sixteenth centuries), to mention four of the most prominent. It is within the Vedantic tradition, particularly as expressed in the thinking of these four bhakti ācāryas (acharyas), that Swaminarayan’s doctrine emerged. Swaminarayan was keen to engage with this Vedanta commentarial tradition by presenting his own theological system."
  2. ^ See Shikshapatri Shlok 121: "Vishishtadvaita is accepted as the Lord’s philosophy. From the various philosophies - Advaita, Kevaladvaita, Shuddhadvaita, Vishishtadvaita etc. the Lord accepts Ramanuja’s philosophy of Vishishtadvaita (special theory of non-dualism) as accurate."
  3. ^ * "They are not Shrivaishnavas, but they do propagate a theology that developed in relation to the modified nondualism of Ramanuja and they follow the devotional path within Vaishnavism" (Williams 2018, 38)
    • "Ramanuja allowed for some distinction within the ultimate reality, and Sahajanand elaborated on this duality by indicating that two entities, Purushottam and Akshar, are eternal and free from the illusion of maya." (Williams 2018, 91)
  4. ^ According to Brahmbhatt (2016), "Sahajanand explicitly states that his school of Vedanta is Ramanuja's Vishishtadvaita,"[note 3] while "he also states that his system of devotional praxis is based on the Vallabha tradition."
  5. ^ Shruti Patel (2017): "it is probable that Sahajanand did not possess the means by which to initiate his views and have them or him be seamlessly accepted in western India at the outset of the century. For this reason, first incorporating common and observable aspects of Vaishava culture would have mitigated his appearing unknown, made Sahajanand’s aims seem less drastic, and contributed to advancing his local influence in with an aura of rootedness. By identifying with the widely-recognised Pustimarg in the course of worshipping Krsna the Svaminarayan foundation could be related to an identifiable, solidified ethos. Particularly, assimilation would be achieved more effortlessly with the adoption of select Pustimarg symbols. And yet, this would not require the sacrifice of core ideas or independence."[7]:53
  6. ^ "Within philosophy, just as Śrī Śaṅkara’s Vedānta is identified as the Advaita Darśana, Śrī Rāmānuja’s Vedānta is identified as the Viśiṣṭādvaita Darśana, Śrī Madhva’s Vedānta is identified as the Dvaita Darśana, Śrī Vallabha’s Vedānta is identified as the Śuddhādvaita Darśana, and others are respectively known; it is in every way appropriate to identify Sri Svāminārāyaṇa’s Vedānta by the title: Akṣara-Puruṣottama Darśana."[71]
  7. ^ "Professor Ashok Aklujkar said [...] Just as the Kashi Vidvat Parishad acknowledged Swaminarayan Bhagwan’s Akshar-Purushottam Darshan as a distinct darshan in the Vedanta tradition, we are honored to do the same from the platform of the World Sanskrit Conference [...] Professor George Cardona [said] "This is a very important classical Sanskrit commentary that very clearly and effectively explains that Akshar is distinct from Purushottam."[73]
  8. ^ The lineage of gurus for BAPS begin with Gunatitanand Swami, followed by Bhagatji Maharaj, Shastriji Maharaj, Yogiji Maharaj, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, and presently Mahant Swami.
  9. ^ Swaminarayan Gadi (Maninagar) lineage of gurus begin with Gopalanand Swami, Nirgundas Swami, Abji Bapa, Ishwarcharandas Swami, Muktajivandas Swami, Purushottampriyadasji Maharaj Swami

References[edit]

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  38. ^ See Gadhada II.50, Gadhada III.39, Kariyani 12
    Sahajānanda, Swami (2015). The Vachanāmrut: spiritual discourses of Bhagwān Swāminārāyan. (3rd ed.) Ahmedabad: Bochasanvasi Shri Aksharpurushottama Sanstha ISBN 978-81-7526-431-1.
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Further reading[edit]

  • Brahmbhatt, Arun. "BAPS Swaminarayan community: Hinduism". Global religious movements across borders: sacred service. Burlington. ISBN 1-4094-5689-7. OCLC 872618204.
  • Kim, Hanna (2014). "Svāminārāyaṇa: Bhaktiyoga and the Akṣarabrahman Guru". In Singleton, Mark; Goldberg, Ellen (eds.). Gurus of modern yoga. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-993871-1. OCLC 861692270.
  • Paramtattvadas, Swami (2017). An introduction to Swaminarayan Hindu theology. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-107-15867-2. OCLC 964861190.
  • Patel, Iva (2018). "Swaminarayan". In Jain, Pankaj; Sherma, Rita; Khanna, Madhu (eds.). Hinduism and Tribal Religions. Encyclopedia of Indian Religions. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. pp. 1–6. doi:10.1007/978-94-024-1036-5_541-1. ISBN 978-94-024-1036-5.
  • Williams, Raymond Brady (2001). An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-65279-0.
  • Williams, Raimond Brady (2012). "Chapter 13. Representations of Swaminarayan Hinduism". In John Zavos; et al. (eds.). Public Hinduisms. New Delhi: SAGE Publ. India. ISBN 978-81-321-1696-7.
  • Williams, Raymond Brady; Trivedi, Yogi (eds.) (2016). Swaminarayan Hinduism: tradition, adaptation and identity (1st ed.). New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-908657-3. OCLC 948338914.

External links[edit]