'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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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 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
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.
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
To free people from this choking grip, Bhagwan Swaminarayan wrote
an inspiring letter to devotees everywhere, in which He instructed
'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
1 Vachanamritam, op.cit.,Gadhada
Adharanand Swami. op.cit., Neelkanth & Ramanand Swami - 3/6,7.
Dave, op.cit., Vol. II., Non-violent yagna - debate with Bansidhar
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
p.466, digging ponds, p.467.
Vaghela, B.G. Bhagwan Swaminarayan nu Samkalin Lokjivan. Amdavad:
Aksharpith, 1986, 2nd. ed., 1988, festival purity, p. 134, superstition,
exalted prayer -
2 Kothari, M.D. Shreejina Prasadina Patro. Amdavad: 1922,
1st. ed., Letter six, to
devotees against tantrics.