He was a spiritual colossus who,
at age 11, travelled barefoot across the length and breadth
of India in seven years. Hailed as an
unremitting champion of peace and purity, he crusaded against
the crippling evils of society. Thousands admired him, obeyed
him, and above all, revered him as God.
His name was Bhagwan Swaminarayan. He was born on 2 April
1781 in the village of Chhapaiya, near Ayodhya. He was called
Ghanshyam in his childhood years. His birth was a blessed
light that had dawned on earth. Extraordinarily brilliant,
by the age of 10, he had mastered Sanskrit Grammar, the Vedas,
Upanishads, Bhagvad Gita, Dharmashastras, Puranas, and Shad-Darshanas
in a short span of three years. He left home at the tender
age of 11 to redeem mankind.
Assuming the name, Nilkanth, his spiritual travels took him
from Kailas-Mansarovar in the Himalayas in the north to Rameshwar
in the south; and Somnath in the west to the Kamakshi mandir
and Ganga Sagar in the east. At the time of Nilkanth’s
spiritual travels Sanatan Dharma was facing assaults from
many degenerate religious leaders. He was thoroughly dissatisfied
with the ignorance and malpractices of some of the religious
leaders who he came across in the course of his journey. At
Kamakshi in Assam, a tantrik, Pibek, tried to destroy Nilkanth;
but he failed and was himself spiritual transformed. At Jagannath
Puri, the chief of a gang of fake sadhus very nearly killed
him. Nilkanth’s intention was to inspire people to lead
virtuous and purposeful lives according to the tenets of dharma
by freeing them from the clutches of these charlatans.
But what were the resources that young Nilkanth had at his
command? His chief asset was his pure, supreme divinity that
was reflected in his resplendent personality and serene face
to the wide range of people he met during his pilgrimage.
Maharaja Ranjit Sinh, the doughty Sikh ruler who carved a
niche for himself in the annals of Punjab history, was impressed
with Nilkanth and sought his refuge on meeting him at Badrinath
and Haridwar. The king and queen of Butolnagar in Nepal offered
their daughters and their kingdom. The mahant of Shripur mandir
was greatly impressed by Nilkanth’s feat when he tamed
a ferocious lion, and proposed that he become the head of
the mandir and manage its hefty annual income. Young Nilkanth
declined all offers with a smile. His mission was not to rule
kingdoms, ashrams or be honoured with fame and riches.
Wherever he travelled, Nilkanth asked five questions regarding
the nature of jiva, ishwar, maya, Brahma and Parabrahma. He
did not get satisfactory replies to these questions till he
reached Ramanand Swami’s ashram at Loj in Saurashtra
(Gujarat). With Ramanand Swami away on tour in the Kutch region,
Muktanand Swami satisfactorily answered his questions. Moreover,
in addition to a detailed understanding of spiritual philosophy,
Nilkanth was pleased upon witnessing the ashram’s willingness
to live in accordance to dharma.
Transforming Society with Spirituality
When Ramanand Swami returned, he gave diksha to Nilkanth and
named him Sahajanand Swami and Narayan Muni. A year later,
shortly before he passed away, Ramanand Swami handed over
the reins of the fellowship to Sahajanand Swami, who was only
21 years old. As the new leader of the fellowship, Sahajanand
Swami gave the Swaminarayan mahamantra to the congregation.
Thereafter he became popularly known as Bhagwan Swaminarayan.
From the age of 21 to 49, he introduced a moral, social and
spiritual renaissance with the help of 3,000 paramhansas and
sadhus that he had initiated. He exhorted people to lead a
life of character and faith in God. He asked them not to kill,
even in yagnas, and to abstain from illicit sex, eating meat,
drinking alcohol and addictions.
He was against the prevailing rigidity in the caste system
and opposed untouchability. He championed the welfare of women
and abolished evil practices like sati and female infanticide.
He succeeded in transforming lawless people like Joban Pagi,
Sagram Vaghri and others into great devotees. He had a following
of two million devotees, and was hailed as a torch-bearer
of Indian culture. In paying tribute to Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s
divine personality and mission, Mahatma Gandhi would later
say, “The work accomplished by Bhagwan Swaminarayan
in Gujarat could not and would never have been achieved by
Bhagwan Swaminarayan established six traditional mandirs and
promoted the bhakti tradition in the Sampraday. He wrote the
Shikshapatri in Sanskrit, which is a code of conduct for renunciants
and householders. The Vachanamrut is a compilation of his
spiritual discourses which include the essence of the Vedas,
Upanishads, Itihas, Purans and the Dharma shastras.
Bhagwan Swaminarayan wrote the Shikshapatri in Sanskrit, which
is a code of conduct for renunciants and householders. The
Vachanamrut is a compilation of his spiritual discourses by
four of his paramhansas.
The worship of Bhagwan Swaminarayan and Aksharbrahma Gunatitanand
Swami, his ideal disciple and first successor, is the lynchpin
of the Swaminarayan philosophy.
Philosophically, Bhagwan Swaminarayan is considered Purushottam,
or God. And Gunatitanand Swami is Aksharbrahman - His divine
abode, also called Akshardham. God, in His fullest glory,
eternally resides in Aksharbrahman Gunatitanand Swami. They
are ever together, inseparable – God as the Master and
Gunatitanand Swami as the ideal devotee, the disciple. On
earth, every spiritual Guru in Bhagwan Swaminarayan's succession
is the incarnation of Aksharbrahman in whom God resides fully
and eternally. As every Guru is the same Aksharbrahman entity,
the devotees feel no spiritual change, except the physical
change of another successor. It is clear that the Guru is
not God, but is God's ideal devotee in whom God resides eternally.
Subsequently, the gurus who have followed in the Swaminarayan
Sampraday have continued the work of Bhagwan Swaminarayan.
The first guru was Aksharbrahma Gunatitanand Swami. He was
succeeded by Bhagatji Maharaj, Shastriji Maharaj, Yogiji Maharaj,
and the present guru is Pramukh Swami Maharaj.
In 1907, in accordance with the Vedic preachings of Bhagwan
Swaminarayan, Brahmaswarup Shastriji Maharaj established the
Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha
As the Sampraday believes in Ekantik Bhakti and God with a
form, several mandirs were built to spread bhakti and upasana.
Bhagwan Swaminarayan had himself built six mandirs. Shastriji
Maharaj built five mandirs and consecrated the murtis of Bhagwan
Swaminarayan and Aksharbrahma Gunatitanand Swami (Akshar Purushottam
Maharaj). He was succeeded by Yogiji Maharaj who spread the
Satsang to East Africa and England. The present leader, Pramukh
Swami Maharaj, has made BAPS into a worldwide socio-spiritual
organisation, personally inspiring and consecrating over 700
mandirs. The Akshardham monuments at New Delhi and in Gandhinagar,
Gujarat, epitomise the glory of Indian culture, values and
principles for the uplift of mankind. The many traditional
shikharbaddh mandirs in India, as well as in London, Nairobi,
Chicago, Houston, Toronto and Atlanta are centres of spiritual
enlightenment and service to society.