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Bhagwan Swaminarayan
Bhagwan Swaminarayan

Divine Leadership:

The 'chief player', Neelkanth, met Ramanand Swami, the 'drum beater' in June 1800, ten months after the former's arrival in Gujarat. On 20th October 1800, in a village named Piplana, Ramanand initiated nineteen-year-old Neelkanth as a sadhu, naming Him Swami Sahajanand and Narayan Muni.
As a 'disciple' (bhakta) craving for God (Bhagwan), the sixty-two-year- old guru so doted young Sahajanand, that separation from Him for even a short period was unthinkable. Added to this, Sahajanand's emaciated body filled Ramanand Swami with anxiety. He administered several remedies to induce sweating. He applied special leaves on His body, massaged Him with herbal oil and gave Him the finest quality musk, but to no avail. Even eating red chillies in large quantities proved fruitless! Much later, Sahajanand Swami, in His teachings1, divulged that, during His sojourns He had gleaned that virya - the vital fluid responsible for brahmacharya, saps away even by perspiring. He therefore specifically chose seemingly impossible yogic disciplines to arrest perspiration, to conserve virya and perfect brahmacharya,.
Whenever the opportunity arose, Ramanand Swami instructed Muktanand to imbibe Sahajanand Swami's redemptive attributes. He further revealed that, 'Young Sahajanand is both mine and your jivan-prana' ( all in all).
A year later, in 1801, in Jetpur, Ramanand Swami ceremoniously appointed twenty-one-year old Sahajanand Swami, as his successor and Head of the Fellowship. Muktanand Swami, being twenty-two years senior to the newcomer, and considered by many as most suited for the successorship, happily concurred with the guru's decision. This reflected his tremendous veneration for young Sahajanand.

Unique Boons
During the appointment ceremony, Sahajanand Swami requested two boons from Ramanand Swami, which remain unparalleled in the history of the Guru-disciple relationship:
'O Gurudev! If ever the devotees face the begging bowl, then let that bowl come to Me instead; and if ever the devotees face pain equivalent to the sting of even one scorpion, then let that pain befall Me enhanced ten million fold, on each pore!'
Ramanand Swami granted the boons. As a guru commanding a disciple, he also instructed Sahajanand Swami, that in order to inspire people to follow Dharma, He should talk to women disciples and accept money given in donation, which should then be used towards feeding the needy and building mandirs. Sahajanand Swami concurred with his wishes. In December 1801, the guru passed away.

Ramanand Swami
It is worth considering the underlying reason for Ramanand Swami choosing Kathiawad, to establish his fellowship.
Leaving Ayodhya, his birthplace, at the age of eight for Kathiawad, he came across a Brahmanised sadhu named Atmanand Swami. Accepting him as guru, he commenced yogic disciplines. When he attained the eighth state, samadhi, the fruit of Ashtang Yoga, Atmanand Swami granted him a vision of divine light - Nirakar Brahman. For Atmanand Swami, this constituted as the ultimate realisation. But Ramanand Swami yearned for the personal God with form - Sakar Brahman - rather than merely divine light. Disheartened, he left Kathiawad.
He travelled south to Totadri and then to Shrirang Kshetra. Here, he offered sincere devotion to Ramanujacharya, the exponent of Vishishtadvaita. Soon, Ramanujacharya appeared in a divine vision and initiated him into Vaishnavism. Ramanand Swami then travelled to Vrindavan, the city of Lord Krishna's divine sports.
His purity of devotion to Lord Krishna then culminated in his divine darshan, the acme of his spiritual endeavours. Yet this profound experience neither induced him to stay in Vrindavan, nor to return to Ayodhya; both sacred and ideally suited for founding a fellowship.
More likely, divine ordinance inspired him of the imminence of Bhagwan Swaminarayan's incarnation and guided him to Kathiawad. He therefore set to work in preparing a foundation, a framework for the Lord. He established a bhakti sampradaya of sadhus, devotees and adopted the Vishishtadvaita Philosophy of Ramanujacharya. The sampradaya encompassed the bhakti rituals, vows and observances of Vaishnavism. This small, ordered and well-knit fellowship, he then bequeathed to Swami Sahajanand. He commanded the sadhus and devotees - who accepted readily - to now regard and serve the 'chief player' as the new Guru; the Lord Supreme.
A few staunch devotees of Ramanand Swami such as, Lalji Suthar (later to become Nishkulanand Swami), Parvatbhai and Gordhanbhai had firmly accepted Ramanand Swami as their only God. But after meeting Swami Sahajanand, all their resolute resolves dissolved.
Swami Sahajanand now faced the formidable challenge of navigating the Sampradaya (fellowship) through the stormy seas of political upheaval, religious and moral decadence, in the midst of poverty, destitution and superstition.

Swaminarayan Mantra
A few days after Ramanand Swami's departure, Sahajanand Swami presented the Swaminarayan mantra to the followers. Chanting the mantra resulted in a trance-like spiritual state known as samadhi. People experienced divine bliss and the vision of the incarnations they personally revered. Though only attainable after mastering Ashtang yoga, samadhi in these instances occurred purely by the grace of Swami Sahajanand. Henceforth He came to be known as 'Swaminarayan'. He bestowed samadhi upon non-believers as well who chanced to have His darshan, thus attracting them to the fold. He even graced samadhi to animals such as fish, birds and monkeys.

Serving Society
Simultaneously, He began to create a fold of renunciates known as Paramhansas - the highest order of ascetics. Inspiring them to the lofty heights of spiritualism, He commanded them to set up alms houses for the poor, and dig wells and ponds to provide basic human needs. He exemplified what He preached. Physically contributing in the social work, He helped to dig a large pond in Vadtal and Kariyani. During the great famine of 1813 in Kathiawad, He carried grain on horseback at night from village to village, for those too shy to beg for alms.
The alms houses proved a solace for the poor and a boon for pilgrims and renunciates on their way to holy Dwarka - Shri Krishna's sovereign capital. But these also entailed problems.
The renunciates enquired about the ownership of the alms houses. On hearing the name Swaminarayan, many experienced the Lord's vision and profound bliss. As a result, they decided to join Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Others filled with jealousy, riled. They feared the destruction of their own cults, now that society had witnessed true saintliness in the lives of the Swaminarayan ascetics.
They unleashed their wrath on the sadhus running the alms houses by breaking the sadhus' kanthis, sacred threads, images and scattered the grain - rendering it unusable by man or animal. They sent women to touch the sadhus to violate their vows of brahmacharya. By such destruction, they envisaged the Fellowship's dissolution.
But Bhagwan Swaminarayan, creating a unique order of sadhus, wrote letters instructing them to continue the alms-giving: 'as the Lord wishes, so be the outcome, and your saintliness, through forbearance will shine all the more'.

Abolition of Animal Sacrifices
Vedic sacrifices, known as yagnas, had long been desecrated by corrupt brahmin priests. Influenced by the Kaul and Vama Marg cults, they sacrificed animals. From these oblations, they relished the meat served under the guise of prasadam - sanctified offering. This was a flagrant misinterpretation of the scriptures, solely to satisfy the sense of taste. The extent to which this practice prevailed can be gleaned from an instance in which sixty maunds (1200 kg.) of meat was discovered in a brahmin's house in Mahemdabad at the time.
The Vama Marg cult wielded great influence over those in temporal powers, falsely convincing them of the justification of himsak (bloody) yagnas. Determined to wipe out this evil practice, Bhagwan Swaminarayan devised a wise strategy. By arranging large scale yagnas, He invited thousands of brahmin priests from all over the land, from as far as Benares. He held the first major non-violent yagna in 1809, in Jetalpur, near Ahmedabad. As expected, a Kaul cult leader, Bansidhar arrived hot foot to debate the offerings for worshipping Shakti - the consort of Shiva, since both the Kaul and Vama Marg cults offered meat and liquor. The presence of leading pundit priests from Benares and other cities induced Bhagwan Swaminarayan to request them to answer Bansidhar, with references from the Vedic scriptures.
The pundits unanimously declared that such worship of Shakti, apart from being tamasik (evil), also flouted the Vedas. The scriptural injunctions for offerings in yagnas prescribed kumkum, saffron, rice, coconut, barley, sesame seeds and ghee. Bansidhar had expected the pundits' support. Infuriated, he stormed off. Bhagwan Swaminarayan successfully replaced himsa, thus making deep inroads on a blind and long established ritual. Two far-reaching effects ensued.
Firstly, this further aroused the fury of both the Shakta and Vaishnav sampradayas. Ascetics from these sects persecuted, hounded and on occasions, even killed the Paramhansas of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. In addition, they instigated the Suba of Ahmedabad, a Vama Marg follower, to prevent Swaminarayan from performing further yagnas. The Suba himself, then hatched a plot to kill the Lord, but failed.
The second effect, on a more benevolent note, concerned the priests and pundits. Inspired with a sense of righteousness and pride at the revival of Ahimsa, they boldly began to propagate it elsewhere. Others, who dissented, could not at any rate dare perform violent yagnas any more, since people all over the land had now realised the truth. Bhagwan Swaminarayan's invitation of thousands of brahmins from all parts of India, amounted to a masterful act of communication.
Subsequently, He performed several such yagnas unhampered.

Festival Purity

Festivals form an integral part of Hindu life, usually to invoke, laud or thank God and the deities. Scriptures specify the rites and rituals of these festivals. In medieval India, much of their original import had either been forgotten or misinterpreted, solely to gratify the senses. Since Bhagwan Swaminarayan incarnated to re-establish Dharma, these festivals needed purification.
In the same vein as the yagnas, He celebrated the festivals on a huge scale, inviting thousands of devotees from all over the land. He segregated the sexes in these gatherings, emphasising purity of devotion. He elaborated the purpose and glory of each festival, advocated reading of the appropriate scriptures, and singing the relevant bhajans - devotional hymns.
On Janmashtami, Lord Krishna's birthday, people normally whiled away the day gambling and holding fairs. Bhagwan Swaminarayan ascribed fasting on that day and to either listen to or recite Lord Krishna's divine episodes, thus effectively uplifting the mind and the senses onto a devotional plane.
Holi, the festival of colours, welcoming the arrival of spring, had practically become a passport to promiscuity. Bhagwan Swaminarayan eliminated this. Far from being a heartless disciplinarian, He celebrated Holi fervently, with the male disciples and sadhus, using coloured powder and water. The women would 'participate' in the divine spectacle by observing from a distance.
Nonetheless, the women experienced profound spiritual contentment, echoed from their exalted prayer during one such Holi. Amongst a host of sentiments, women from north Gujarat prayed for deliverance from: the temptations of mundane pleasures, pride, anger, greed and other instincts; and for a permanent vision of the Lord. The prayer, versified in the Bhaktachintamani by Swami Nishkulanand, is regularly sung even today. In the Bhakti Sampradayas of India, this prayer remains an exemplary landmark of women's exuberant devotion.

Devotion for all
Another of Bhagwan Swaminarayan's socially edifying work, struck at the rigidity of the caste system. He allowed members of the lower castes entry into the Fellowship, to worship God and observe devotional rituals on an equal level with the higher classes. He made no distinctions concerning personal religion and moksha. He also instructed the Paramhansas to beg alms from the lower sections of society and visit their homes, a practice unthinkable then.
Bhagwan Swaminarayan's magnanimity reflected His choice of personal attendants; Muslim, Kanbi, Kathi (considered lower caste then) and Brahmin (higher caste) communities. When He took the bold step of taking meals with the lower castes, He invited the calumny of society. It was taboo for a person to have food with those lower in caste than himself. Therefore society branded Him as uncouth. This slur on His personality pained the sadhus and devotees. But as always He Himself remained undaunted.

Educating the Superstitious
Whenever political, social and religious darkness prevails, superstition reigns. Individuals weaken mentally and are prone to develop faith in mantra, tantra, black threads, evil beings and village exorcists or sorcerers known as bhuwas. This cocktail, collectively known as jantra mantra, predominated in medieval India. When a family experienced problems such as: poverty, illness, internal quarrelling or possession by a ghost or spirit, it first resorted to jantra mantra for succour.
Added to this, the wrath of deities such as: Kali, Amba, Mahamari, Sheetala, Baliyakaka, Bhairav, Vir and others, supposedly led to infectious epidemics such as influenza, plague and smallpox. Evil spirits in turn had to be appeased by sacrificing animals, and prasad feasted upon. And so the vicious cycle of blind faith perpetuated.
To free people from this choking grip, Bhagwan Swaminarayan wrote an inspiring letter to devotees everywhere, in which He instructed them:
'Each individual experiences happiness and misery according to his karmas. Beings such as Bhairav and Bhavani cannot overrule these karmas to give pain or grant happiness, or determine life or death. Only Parameshwar Narayan (the Supreme God) is powerful enough to do this. Therefore, develop faith in Parameshwar only and offer worship daily. Do not fear such beings. We are the devotees of God. It does not behove upon us to fear anything. If a man on earth were to stay alive an abnormally long time through recourse to jantra mantra or medicinal herbs, at least one (such individual) should still be alive today. But nobody has seen such a person yet. Even those adept at mantra jantra die.
'Secondly, if jantra mantra is effective, and if victory can only be attained through it, then why should kings spend such large sums on armies and weapons? They would only need a powerful tantric to kill all enemies. But that is just not seen anywhere.
'Therefore without fear, offer worship to Narayan and have firm faith in God only. As God wills, so events occur. They do not occur by our will or anybody else's. .. Therefore, without fear, offer worship under the sanctuary of the Almighty Parabrahman Purushottam. Reflect upon this letter and imbibe it.'2
This letter inspired in the devotees a phenomenal fortitude. Once, a devotee named Khimji Kalyan, on a business trip, sailed to Surat from Bhavnagar. A brahmin sitting nearby, noticed his cash bound in a flute tied at the waist. Chanting the Swaminarayan mantra, Khimji fell asleep. Around midnight, the brahmin took some lentils, the pulse commonly used in tantric rituals when uttering evil mantras. He hurled the lentils on Khimji with the intention of killing him. Proficient in his evil art, he had killed many to loot them. He used up one pound of lentils. Confident that he had killed Khimji, he waited. In the dark, on closer scrutiny, he saw Khimji breathing normally.
In the morning Khimji awoke fit and healthy. Noticing the lentils around him he gathered them in a bag. In Surat, both men coincidentally lodged in the same premises.
After bathing and offering his daily worship, Khimji cooked and ate the lentils! The brahmin, dumbfounded, inferred that Khimji must be a tantric more powerful than himself. Khimji then challenged him, 'Shall I now show you Swaminarayan's power ?' Petrified, the brahmin, fell at his feet, begging for forgiveness. Khimji calmly told him to take a vow of ahimsa; henceforth not to practice tantra. The brahmin vowed willingly.
On Khimji's return, the brahmin wished to accompany him to meet Bhagwan Swaminarayan. In Gadhada, he related his story, asking the Lord to pardon him. Later, he became a sadhu named Shunyatitanand Swami. Some years after the Lord passed away, he built a grand spired Swaminarayan mandir in Surat.
After Maharaj's letter, devotees lost all fear of tantrics. They stopped approaching them during life's crises. Consequently, the tantrics despised the Sampradaya and its followers.
'Leadership', with its mundane meaning, when applied to Bhagwan Swaminarayan would be a misnomer. As seen earlier, Ramanand Swami chose Him not for His leadership abilities but because He was Lord incarnate. Bearing this in mind, with His divinity, the fellowship breezed through formidable obstacles, that would have overwhelmed any mortal.

Source References

1 Vachanamritam, op.cit.,Gadhada I-73
Adharanand Swami. op.cit., Neelkanth & Ramanand Swami - 3/6,7.
Dave, op.cit., Vol. II., Non-violent yagna - debate with Bansidhar p.508,
in Jetalpur, pp. 446, 510.
Dave, op.cit., Vol. III., Holi festival purity, p.263.
Shastri, Hariprasad G. & P.C. Parikh. Gujaratno Rajkiya ane Sanskrutic Itihas. Vol. 8. British Kal.Amdavad:B.J.Research Institute,1981,festival purity,p.467,female education,
p.466, digging ponds, p.467.
Vaghela, B.G. Bhagwan Swaminarayan nu Samkalin Lokjivan. Amdavad: Swaminarayan
Aksharpith, 1986, 2nd. ed., 1988, festival purity, p. 134, superstition, p.146.
Nishkulanand,Swami.Bhaktachintamani.Amdavad:B.A.P.S.,1978,Women's exalted prayer -
verse 64.
2 Kothari, M.D. Shreejina Prasadina Patro. Amdavad: 1922, 1st. ed., Letter six, to
devotees against tantrics.

Gunatitanand Swami Bhagatji Maharaj Yogiji Maharaj Shastriji Maharaj Pramukh Swami Maharaj Bhagwan Swaminarayan Gunatitanand Swami Bhagatji Maharaj Yogiji Maharaj Shastriji Maharaj Pramukh Swami Maharaj Bhagwan Swaminarayan

© 1999, Bochasanwasi Shree Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, Swaminarayan Aksharpith