eighteenth century Gujarat, there existed four main Sampradayas:
Shaiva, Vaishnava, Jain and Shakta. Of them, the Shakta flourished
rapidly. Two factors boosted this spread: ignorance and the hedonistic
psyche of the people, who indulged in meat, alcohol and adultery.
With its branches of Vama, Kaul, Cholio and others, the Shakta
Sampradaya had also perverted religion by regarding adultery as
a means to moksha. Feudal chiefs of large and small sub-states
within Gujarat also favoured this exploitation of women and therefore
followed and supported these cults.
Against such deeply ingrained hedonism, a mountain of prejudice
and ignorant opposition, Bhagwan Swaminarayan proved to be the first,
perhaps the only luminary, in India who rose against the shocking
plight of women in society. For them, He carved a tunnel of succour,
liberating them from their neglected status, suppression and exploitation.
Some practices He outright eradicated; others He refined.
First, He exhorted people to abolish the practice of Sati. This
involved the forced or voluntary immolation of a widow on the
cremation pyre of her dead husband. The Lord enlightened women
about the invaluable opportunity of a human birth graced by God.
And only a human birth facilitated moksha in transcending the
cycle of births and deaths. Sati flouted this grace and was in
essence Atmahatya (suicide) and therefore a sin. His practical
and patient approach successfully eradicated Sati from most areas
Simultaneously, He persevered in persuading people to forsake
female infanticide in which newly-born baby girls were drowned
in a pot of milk. This practice chiefly prevailed among the Rajputs
and Kathis. He offered parents financial aid to defray dowry costs,
on the condition they desist from killing newly-born females.
This, He divulged, involved three great sins:1 killing
an innocent relative, Stri hatya - killing a helpless female and
bal-hatya - killing a child. He warned them, in prophecy, that
if they did not abandon this practice voluntarily now, they would
have to later, when a powerful political ruler arrived. This covertly
referred to the British, who began to establish themselves in
south Gujarat around 1803. Later, on behalf of the East India
Company, to support Gaekwad of Baroda Col. Walker entered Kathiawad
in 1807, to make a financial settlement with the chiefs of the
sub states.2 The British later banned female infanticide.
In addition to see Bhagwan Swaminarayan's edifying effects, Sir John
Malcolm on his visit to Kathiawad in 1830, also wished to check
female infanticide among the Jadeja Rajputs.3
Bhagwan Swaminarayan's efforts then focused on the religious education
of women. Female education in general had practically disappeared
from society as a result of foreign rule over the centuries. At
best, a mother might impart to her children traditional stories
and folklore that she may have heard from the village bard.
Bhagwan Swaminarayan's first bold step provided special worshipping
areas for women. He appointed women well-versed in the Satsang
lore to preach to other women. In some towns, even separate mandirs
were built for them and males were prohibited entry. Women could
now offer devotion to God on a par with men. This encouraged women
to think independently and attain leadership skills to teach each
other. An off-shoot advantage of this surfaced about twenty-five
years after Bhagwan Swaminarayan's demise. Under Colonial rule, schools
for female education sprung up in the cities of Gujarat. Some
of the first women teachers arrived from the Swaminarayan Sampradaya.
His segregation of the sexes during religious gatherings not only
provided women the freedom to manage their own activities, but
also shielded them from the promiscuous behaviour of males, which
Bhagwan Swaminarayan had frequently observed in His teenage sojourns.
A Gujarati author, Kishorelal Mashruwala noted: 'His insistence
in this matter stemmed from observing the rot that had infiltrated
religious sects of the period.'4
There also remained the problem of widows. Unlike the prevailing
social discrimination of widows, Bhagwan Swaminarayan did not consider
them inauspicious. On the contrary, He offered them another option;
to adopt the life of a Samkhyayogini. Such a group of widows would
live in special areas in mandir precincts, avoid the company of
males, offer devotion to God, practise austerities and preach
to women devotees.
To instil cultural values in the people, Bhagwan Swaminarayan left
no stone unturned. Even a seemingly superfluous factor as speech
He forbade the vulgar tradition of singing ribald songs - known
as fatana - during marriage ceremonies. To this end, He instructed
His poet Paramhansas, namely Muktanand and Premanand, to compose
kirtans glorifying the marriage episodes described in the scriptures,
such as Tulsi vivaha and Rukhmani vivaha, to be sung instead.
This revived sacredness in marriages.
An other undignified and distasteful practice concerned the usage
of the word rand. A slang, derogatory term for a widow or a prostitute,
men used it derisingly to address any female. Surprisingly, even
women did not fail to use it when bickering with each other, thus
lowering their own dignity. Bhagwan Swaminarayan exhorted both men
and women to abjure its usage. No matter what the social dictates,
it just did not befit a disciple to utter obscenities from lips
that chanted the Lord's glory.
Finally, He exhorted people to use speech sparingly, like ghee,
not freely like water.
Bhagwan Swaminarayan's purpose of incarnating centred on redeeming
infinite Jivas (souls). He removed distinctions of sex, caste,
wealth, status, religion, friend or foe.
However, an incorrect interpretation of some scriptures then prevailing,
claimed that women could not attain moksha. This would only be
possible in a male birth. But Bhagwan Swaminarayan revealed that
the soul - Atma - is neither male nor female. In the Shikshapatri
(116) - the code of conduct written by Him for His followers,
He advocates identification of the Atma, with Brahman to offer
worship to Parabrahman. Therefore women automatically obtain the
right to moksha
To consider an example an aged devotee named Mulima, of Ganala,
after years of sincere devotion in the Satsang, once instructed
her husband to return home at midday from the fields to perform
her final rites. In a vision Maharaj had informed her that since
her life span had ended, He would arrive at midday to take her
to Akshardham - His divine abode. Bewildered at her statement,
for she appeared quite healthy, her husband ignored her.
Nonetheless, a few minutes before twelve, filled with anxiety,
he returned, just in case her statement proved true. He saw her
sitting cross-legged in meditation, taking her final breaths.
He then attempted to assure her, 'Do not worry about my plight,
but take care of your moksha.' Hearing this weak statement of
uncertainty, she awakened and reprimanded him, 'With these hands,
I have served Maharaj. They have thus been sanctified. Visitors
who have drunk water or eaten food even once from my hands will
definitely be redeemed. Since you have eaten food made by me all
these years, it is you who should be confident of your moksha!
And if you are to be redeemed, don't you think I will?' She then
re-entered the state of samadhi and as a snake sheds its skin
she shed her body. Arriving in a divine form, Maharaj took her
Shreeji Maharaj's approach even towards a sinful person such as
a prostitute reflects His unbiased grace. Prior to the yagna in
Jetalpur, He distributed wheat to the townsfolk, to be ground
into flour for use in the festival. Nathibai, a prostitute, plucked
up courage to approach the Lord in the assembly, to be allowed
to grind wheat. If Bhagwan Swaminarayan was indeed God, she wished
to be cleansed of her sins.
As she inched her way through the assembly, an outcry arose in
the women's section. The male devotees also looked at her scornfully.
But when Maharaj saw her, with a wave of His hand He indicated
to the assembly to let her through. She requested Him to permit
her to contribute. He agreed, but only if she ground the wheat
herself. This she promised. He then allotted her one maund.
She laboured all night with heartfelt devotion. Unaccustomed to
such strenuous work her palms blistered. In the morning she brought
the flour to the Lord. He requested her to show her palms. Satisfied,
He accepted the flour. She then pleaded for forgiveness for her
sinful life, also asking Him to grace and sanctify her 'house
of sin'. Pleased with her sincerity and resolution, He addressed
her as "sister", and blessed her. He granted her moksha, on a
level similar to His senior Paramhansa - Muktanand Swami! Subsequently,
He sanctified her house.
Muktanand Swami composed a moving kirtan empathizing with Nathibai,
glorifying the Lord's grace on her. Being a brahmachari, it is
also remarkable that Muktanand Swami wrote a special code of rules
for women, known as the Sati Gita. Commenting on this unique work,
a French scholar, Françoise Mallison, has noted, 'No one has yet
written codes for Satis (chaste women) as Muktanand Swami.'5
Yet contemporary society loathed the uplift of lower caste women
by Bhagwan Swaminarayan and not only castigated Him, but maligned
Him as ill-mannered; devoid of any social etiquette. He did not
let this thwart His work.
In the village of Langnoj, a few miles from Ahmedabad, Bhagwan Swaminarayan
visited the house of a poor, low caste, Bhavsar woman named Sonbai
to take prasad. But a rich Nagar brahmin devotee, Gangama, told
her that since her grain and pulses were of a low quality, she
should prepare food for the sadhus accompanying Maharaj. She,
Gangama, would use her own higher quality grain for Maharaj. Sonbai's
dreams shattered. Silently, she grieved, unable to object to someone
of a higher caste.
When Maharaj arrived, He noticed Sonbai's gloominess and questioned
her. Distraught, she wept, barely managing to relate Gangama's
decision. Maharaj calmed her. He requested her to fetch whatever
she had cooked. Exhilarated with His decision, she served Him
devotedly. Just as He finished dining, Gangama arrived with her
food. Maharaj calmly suggested that since He had already taken
prasad, she was welcome to have what she had brought.
The sweeping effects of Bhagwan Swaminarayan's audacious and revolutionary
steps in uplifting women, with a marked emphasis on protecting
their chastity and dignity, induced many to forsake their cults
to join the Swaminarayan Sampradaya. Contemporary society began
to respect its lofty spiritual values. The Collector of Baroda,
Mr. Williamson observed, 'Swaminarayan exhorts people to regard
women with respect and purity.'6
Altekar, A.S. The Position of Women
in Hindu Civilization (From Prehistoric Times to the
Present Day). Benares Hindu University, 1938.
1 Dave, op. cit., Vol. II., three sins of female infanticide,
2 Wilberforce Bell, Capt.H.History of Kathiawad.London:William
Heineman. 1916., p.178.
3 Kaye, John William. Life & Correspondence of Major
General Sir John Malcolm. Vol.
II., London: Smith Elder & Co., 1856, p.541.
Dave, op. cit., Vol. III., Purity of speech, p. 412, Fatana stopped,
Shastri, op. cit., Female education in medieval India, p.466.
Singhji, Virbhadra. The Rajputs of Saurashtra. Bombay: Bombay
1994, Fatana, p.169, female infanticide, pp.208, 209, Sati, pp.
Vaghela, op.cit., Female education initiated by Bhagwan Swaminarayan,
pp. 168, 169.
Mashruwala,Kishorelal.Swami Sahajanand athawa Swaminarayan Sampradaya.
Amdavad: Navjivan Prakashan Mandir,1923, 2nd. ed.,1940,Fatana
4 Mashruwala,Kishorelal.Stri-Purush Maryada. Amdavad: Navjivan
1937, 3rd. ed., 1991, p.83.
Dave, op. cit., Vol. II., Prostitute redeemed, pp. 501, 521.
5Mallison, Françoise. Le Sect Krishnaite des Swaminarayanis
au Gujarat. Journal
6 Viveksagardas,Shastri.Stri Swatantraya.Amdavad:Swaminarayan