Swaminarayan under a Neem tree in Gadhada
|Date of Birth||2 April 1781|
|Place of birth||Chhapaiya, Uttar Pradesh, India|
|Date of death||1 June 1830|
|Place of death||Gadhada, Gujarat, India|
|Titles/Honors||Founded the Swaminarayan Sampraday, venerated as an Avatar of Narayana, from the Nara Narayana deity pair, in the Swaminarayan Faith|
Swaminarayan (Gujarati: સ્વામિનારાયણ, Devanagari: स्वामीनारायण, IAST: Svāmīnārāyaṇa) (2 April 1781 – 1 June 1830), also known as Sahajanand Swami, is the central figure in a modern sect of Hinduism known as the Swaminarayan Faith, a form of Vaishnavism. Within the faith, Swaminarayan is venerated as an incarnation of Narayana from the Nara-Narayana deity pair and is equated with the Supreme Being. Swaminarayan is also known by the names Ghanshyam Pande, Ghanshyam Maharaj, Shreeji Maharaj, Hari Krishna Maharaj and Shri Hari.
Swaminarayan was born Ghanshyam Pande in Chhapaiya, Uttar Pradesh, India in 1781. In 1792, he began a seven year pilgrimage across India, adopting the name Nilkanth Varni. He settled in the state of Gujarat around 1799. In 1800, he was initiated into the Uddhav Sampraday by his guru, Ramanand Swami, and was given the name Sahajanand Swami. In 1802, his guru handed over the leadership of the Uddhav Sampraday to him and died. Sahajanand Swami held a gathering and taught the Swaminarayan mantra. From this point onwards, he was known as Swaminarayan and regarded as an incarnation of God by his followers. The Uddhav Sampraday became known as the Swaminarayan Sampraday.
Swaminarayan had a good relationship with the British Imperial Government. He had followers not only from Hindu denominations, but also from Islam and Zoroastrianism. He built six temples in his lifetime and appointed 500 paramhansas 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 acharyas to head the two dioceses of Swaminarayan Sampraday.
Swaminarayan is also remembered within the faith for undertaking reforms for women and the poor, performing yagnas or fire sacrifices on a large scale as well as performing miracles. He has, however, been criticised by religious leaders such as Swami Dayananda who questioned the acceptance of Swaminarayan as God. Swaminarayan had an estimated 1.8 million followers when he died. Currently, his following is estimated between 5 and 20 million.
Swaminarayan was born on 3 April 1781 in Chhapaiya, Uttar Pradesh, a village near Ayodhya, in a Hindi speaking region in India. Born in the Brahmin or priest 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). 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 waxing moon in the Hindu 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 scriptures including the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, and the Ramayana at the age of seven.gryghdbfeywthaeghbjbdgyregt not real iknow
After the death of his parents, Ghanshyam Pande left his home on 29 June 1792 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 practised 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 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, Rameshwaram, 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 twenty-two years older than Nilkanth, answered the five questions to Nilkanth's satisfaction. Nilkanth decided to stay for the opportunity to meet Ramanand Swami, who he met a few months after his arrival in Gujarat.
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 sadhus of Ramanand Swami.
At the age of 21, Sahajanand Swami was appointed successor to Ramanand Swami as the leader of the Uddhav Sampraday by Ramanand Swami, prior to his death. The Uddhav Sampraday henceforth came to be known as the Swaminarayan Sampraday.
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 (a form of meditation) and claimed that they could see their personal gods, even though they had no knowledge of Astanga Yoga. 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, Nishkulanand Swami. This work, the Yama Danda, was the first piece of literature written within the Swaminarayan sect.
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.
After assuming the leadership of the Sampraday, 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.
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.
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, and they were able to give discourses on spiritual subjects. Within the faith, Swaminarayan is considered a pioneer of education of females in India.
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.
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.
Some suggest that Swaminarayan worked towards ending the caste system, allowing everyone into the Swaminarayan Sampraday. However partaking in the food of lower castes and caste pollution was not supported by him. 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. He ate along with lower castes. Members of the lower castes were attracted to the movement as it improved their social status. It is said that Swaminarayan dispelled the myth that moksha (liberation) was not attainable by everyone. He taught that the soul is neither male nor female and that everyone was equal in the eyes of god.
Swaminarayan ordered the construction of several Hindu temples and installed the images of various deities such as Nara-Narayana, Laxminarayan, Radha Krishna, Radha Ramana and Revti Baldevji. The images in the temples built by Swaminarayan provide evidence of the priority of Krishna.
The first temple Swaminarayan constructed was in Ahmedabad in 1822, with the land for construction gifted by the British Imperial Government. Following a request of devotees from Bhuj, Swaminarayan asked his follower Vaishnavananand Swami to build a temple there. Following planning, 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 faith. 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 honor 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 initiated by Swaminarayan include Muktanand Swami, Gunatitanand Swami, Gopalanand Swami, Brahmanand Swami, Premanand Swami, Nishkulanand Swami, and Nityanand Swami.
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 faith. The most notable scriptures of the Swaminarayan faith throughout the sect are 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 in 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.
Swaminarayan's philosophical, social and practical teachings are contained in the Vachanamrut, a collection of dialogues recorded by five followers from his spoken words. The Vachanamrut is the scripture most commonly used in the Swaminarayan sect. It contains views on dharma (moral conduct), jnana (understanding of the nature of the self), vairagya (detachment from material pleasure), and bhakti (pure, selfless devotion to God), the four essentials Hindu scriptures describe as necessary for a jiva (soul) to attain moksha (salvation).
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 carried 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 5000 acres of land gifted 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 God Supreme. 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 gifted him a copy of the Shikshapatri. This copy of the Shikshapatri is currently housed at the Bodleian Library at University of Oxford. Swaminarayan also encouraged the British Governor James Walker to implement strong measures to stop the practice of sati.
In 1830, Swaminarayan gathered his followers and announced his departure. He later died on 1 June 1830, 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.
Prior to his death, Swaminarayan decided to establish a line of acharyas or preceptors, as his spiritual 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 November 21, 1825. Swaminarayan appointed an acharya to each of these gadis to pass on his message to others and to preserve his fellowship, the Swaminarayan Sampraday. These acharyas came from his immediate family. He formally adopted a son from his brothers and appointed them 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. The current acharyas of the Swaminarayan Sampraday are Acharya Shree Koshalendraprasad Pande, of the Ahmedabad Gadi, and Acharya Shree Rakeshprasad Pande, of the Vadtal Gadi.
Decades after his death, several divisions occurred with different understandings of the leadership succession. This included the establishment of Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), the founder of which broke away from the Vadtal Gadi in 1907, and Maninagar Swaminarayan Gadi Sansthan, the founder of which broke away from 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 political leadership of the faith while Gunatitanand Swami was given spiritual leadership by Swaminarayan. The current leader of BAPS is Shastri Narayanswarupdas. The followers of the Maninagar Swaminarayan Gadi Sansthan hold Gopalanand Swami as the true successor to Swaminarayan.
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 faith to number over 20 million (2 crore) worldwide in 2007.
In his discourses recorded in the Vachanamrut, Swaminarayan mentions that humans would not be able to withstand meeting god in his divine form, hence God takes human form (simultaneously living in his abode) so people can approach, understand and love him in the form of an avatar. While no detailed statistical information is available, most of the followers of Swaminarayan share a belief that Swaminarayan is the complete manifestation of Narayana or Purushottam Narayana - the Supreme Being and superior to other avatars. A Swaminarayan sectarian legend tells how Narayana from the Nara Narayana pair, was cursed by sage Durvasa to incarnate on the Earth as Swaminarayan.
Some of Swaminarayan's followers believe he was an incarnation of god 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. 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.
Several decades after formation of the movement, Swami Dayananda (1824–1883) questioned the acceptance of Swaminarayan as the Supreme Being and was disapproving towards the idea that visions of Swaminarayan could form a path to attaining perfection. Accused of deviating from the Vedas, his followers were criticised for the illegal collection of wealth and the "practice of frauds and tricks." In the views of Swami Dayananda, published as early as 1875, it was a "historical fact" that Swaminarayan decorated himself as Narayana in order to gain followers.
The Swaminarayan faith has been linked to patriarchal class structures that subjugate women. Members of the faith are defensive of the fact that some practices seem to restrict women and make gender equality in leadership impossible. However, while "many would assert that Swaminarayan Hinduism serves a patriarchal agenda, which attempts to keep women in certain roles", Swaminarayan himself, despite considerable criticism from those in his own contemporary society who "loathed the uplift of lower caste women," insisted that education was the inherent right of all people. In case of widows, he 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. He also directed male devotees not to listen to religious discourses given by women. Swaminarayan wanted women "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."