Mandirs for the Spread of Upasana
A mandir is the physical representation of the core beliefs of its founder. It is with this understanding that the devout offer worship to God. That is why Shastriji Maharaj fulfilled the wish of Bhagwan Swaminarayan and consecrated the murtis of Akshar-Purushottam in the central shrines of grand shikharbaddh mandirs, thus enshrining the philosophy revealed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan in the Vachanamrut. This article gives a brief account of Shastriji Maharaj’s clarity of thought and purpose that drove his tireless efforts against difficult odds in building mandirs for the cause of Akshar-Purushottam.
Throughout his entire life Shastriji Maharaj endeavoured tirelessly to build sky-high mandirs so that people everywhere in the world would be continually inspired by the Akshar-Purushottam upasana revealed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Shastriji Maharaj consecrated the murtis of Purna Purushottam Bhagwan Swaminarayan and his ideal devotee, Aksharbrahma Gunatitanand Swami in the central shrines of these mandirs. Hailing the victorious call, “Sahajanand is Parameshwar and Gunatitanand is Mul Akshar,” he popularized this eternal philosophy among the masses.
It was not an easy task to build these mandirs. Having left Vartal with only five sadhus, he had limited resources; in fact, his resolute faith in Bhagwan Swaminarayan was his only currency. In such circumstances, nobody could envisage that the diminutive Swamishri would inspire such unparalleled mandirs.
Shastriji Maharaj began the work of constructing mandirs aided only by his devotees, who were of simple means. “He had no money, no materials and no manpower.” This phrase aptly describes the difficult circumstances amidst which Shastriji Maharaj toiled throughout his life. He disregarded all physical discomforts and hindrances, and resolutely persevered to build these mandirs and enshrine the philosophy of Akshar-Purushottam. For him, these mandirs were not built in competition with others nor for personal fame, but solely to consolidate and spread the Akshar-Purushottam philosophy as revealed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan in the Vachanamrut.
It is because of these pure, selfless sentiments that today these mandirs are a beacon of inspiration throughout the world. Every stone of each mandir resonates with divinity and is the product of unparalleled selfless service.
The mandirs he built left an enduring impression in all who saw them because he himself had physically toiled in their construction. For example, Chandulal Bechardas Patel, Chief Editor of the Bhagvad Gomandal and a prominent educationist in Gondal State, commented, “I do not belong to any Sampraday. In fact, I do not believe in God. I am a reformer. But I have tremendous respect for Swamishri.... The reason is that Swamishri is a propagator of brahmavidya. Not only that, but he is an exemplary devotee and servant (of God). While the Akshar Mandir in Gondal was being built, I have seen him climb down into the 60-ft. deep foundations to work.
“In the unbearable summer heat he supervised the extraction of stones from the Paneli stone mine. And I have seen him and his disciples with the resolve of consecrating the murtis of Akshar-Purushottam, and without concern for food and water, encamped in the stone mine. I have seen him go anywhere and sleep anywhere, despite the snakes, scorpions and other poisonous insects and without regard for his body, for the cause of the mandir. All this reveals his devotion towards Shri Sahajanand Swami.”
First BAPS Mandir: Bochasan
When Swamishri left Vartal, nobody could have imagined this. But, in a period of six months, he built a magnificent shikharbaddh mandir in Bochasan.
The day of 5 June 1907 (Vaishakh vad 10, Samvat 1963) dawned. Today, the murtis of Akshar-Purushottam were to be consecrated. After the Vedic yagna rituals, at the specified time; the murti of Bhagwan Swaminarayan was lifted into position in the central shrine. Then the devotees tried to lift the murti of Aksharbrahma Gunatitanand Swami, but it would not move even an inch. All their efforts were fruitless. Tired and puzzled, they all went to Shastriji Maharaj and reported, “Maharaj’s murti has been positioned, but we cannot move Swami’s murti. Everyone is tired out by their hardest efforts.” Swamishri immediately came to the yagna arena. He stood before the murti of Swami with folded hands and unblinking gaze. He prayed, “O Swami, we have left Vartal for you. We’ve tolerated insults, abuses and difficulties for you. So please mercifully preside (in the central shrine).” With this, Swamishri placed a chisel under the base of the murti and the devotees lifted it into position on the left of Bhagwan Swaminarayan in the central shrine.
Shastriji Maharaj then performed the murti-pratishtha rituals. The true philosophy of Akshar-Purushottam revealed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan had been enshrined. It was a gold-letter day in the history of world spirituality.
Expressing his feelings during his visit to Bochasan Mandir, Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad said, “I have seen many countries in Europe, America and elsewhere, and have seen many mandirs in our country, but, on seeing this mandir I feel as if from every stone some living entity is speaking.”
The Splendour of Sarangpur
In a period of only months Shastriji Maharaj built an Akshar-Purushottam mandir in the sacred place of Bochasan. Still, some troublemakers challenged, “Yagnapurushdas may have built a mandir in Gujarat (Charotar), but if he tries in Kathiawad, he will realize how tough it is.” But, Swamishri was not building mandirs out of competition. He wanted to fulfil Shriji Maharaj’s wish by building a mandir in Sarangpur and consecrating the murtis of Akshar-Purushottam in the central shrine.
Three-and-a-half years had passed since the inauguration of the Bochasan Mandir. Hindrances and financial limitations seemed to stretch higher than the mandir’s pinnacles during this period.
Towards the end of 1910 (V.S. 1966), Swamishri visited Sarangpur. One day, Swamishri was on his way to Narayan Kund for a bath. As he walked through the area where the mandir is presently located, he stood still and told Motibhai of Anand, who was with him, “Motibhai, Shriji Maharaj had ridden the Rozo horse in a circle here and said, ‘Today, I am performing the groundbreaking for a big mandir here.’ So, a mandir will certainly be built here.”
After returning to his room, Swamishri told Motibhai, “Compose a kirtan describing our wish to build a mandir in Sarangpur.” Motibhai was astonished to hear Swamishri’s remark. A mandir in Sarangpur? The mandir in Bochasan was not yet complete, and there was a dire shortage of money and resources. Yet, Swamishri entertained such a wish.
Motibhai became lost in thought. Swamishri glanced at him fleetingly. Instantly, Motibhai witnessed an amazing vision. It was as if the future had become the present. He saw the spectacular sight of Sarangpur mandir, complete with golden kalashes. He had the darshan of Akshar-Purushottam Maharaj in the central shrine and other murtis. In this state of samadhi, the words to the kirtan flowed from his mouth,
“Shri Sarangpur s hobha saji ati sãri;
Joi alaukik adbhut dhãm avikãri…”
As if accompanied by Sarasvati, the goddess of wisdom, playing her veena, the couplets continued to flow from his mouth. Everyone felt that Swamishri was able to see into the future. No matter that others could not at present see the mandir he had envisioned, but one day a grand mandir would certainly be built here on this land sanctified by Bhagwan Swaminarayan.
And when the mandir was finally built by Shastriji Maharaj, Dahyabhai Shastri, a distinguished scholar of Vadodara, saw it and commented, “Without money, without any government aid, without the backing of wealthy patrons, how did you ever think of building such a magnificent mandir?”
How did Shastriji Maharaj manage to build such grand sky-scraping mandirs? Through his profound devotion. On the one hand, food had to be cooked in kerosene tins, such were the meagre facilities. There were few devotees and even fewer sadhus. And on top of this was the bitter opposition which continually raised problems. But the atmosphere in Swamishri’s mandal was refreshingly unique.
Swamishri had so charged everyone with the zeal of devotion and service that all enthusiastically served to fulfil Swamishri’s sky-high vision. Even so, wherever there was laxity in the work, Swamishri would sternly say, “Are you already tired? Here, now I will complete the work.” Then, he would engage himself with youthful vigour to help. And everyone would be rejuvenated again to carry on working.
While the gate of Sarangpur mandir was being built, a devotee asked, “Do you think it is appropriate to spend so much money for a gate?” So, Swamishri replied, “How much did it cost to build the Suez Canal? Read the history. This is a gate that leads to Akshardham. Anyone who has darshan of this gate and recalls it on his deathbed will benefit. That is why we have begun to build this gate in Sarangpur.”
Akshar Mandal, Gondal
Shastriji Maharaj had dedicated his entire life for the Akshar-Purushottam upasana. And the Akshar Deri in Gondal, built over the cremation site of Aksharbrahma Gunatitanand Swami, represents a sacred, tangible focal point for upasana.
Shastriji Maharaj had a keen desire to hoist the Akshar-Purushottam flag over this holy site. But again there were many difficulties.
However, with the help of Haribhai Amin of Virsad, Swamishri acquired land from Maharaja Bhagvatsinhji of Gondal, under the condition that the mandir be built within three years. Swamishri agreed, even though he had only three ana in cash. On the one hand, he had to beg for alms daily to survive, and on the other he accepted such a challenging task.
With the mandirs in Bochasan and Sarangpur still under construction, people doubted Swamishri’s decision to build this third mandir. But Maharaja Bhagvatsinh of Gondal confidently said, “Yagnapurushdas Shastri is a very able person. I have faith in him that he will complete this.”
Indeed, Shastriji Maharaj’s profound saintliness attracted many to donate to this noble and selfless cause. And the mandir was ready in a mere two-and-a-quarter years. Swamishri decided to perform the murti-pratishtha on 24 May 1934 (Nij Vaishakh sud 10, V.S. 1990). Invitations were sent out to everyone. Swamishri performed the murti-pratishtha of the beautiful panchdhatu murtis of Akshar and Purushottam in the central shrine, and Shri Ghanshyam Maharaj. Nobody realized at the time that the divinity of the mandir and the Akshar Deri would become world-renowned.
It was as if Swamishri had built this third BAPS mandir in the blink of an eyelid. Revealing the real presence of Bhagwan Swaminarayan and his Gunatit lineage in the murtis, the mirror held before the murtis during the Vedic murti-pratishtha rituals cracked due to the divine light that emanated from Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Swamishri blessed, “Just as a Rs.700/- thal is offered daily to Shrinathji, similarly it will happen here. It will become a supreme place for moksha in this brahmand and a place where all noble wishes will be fulfilled.”
The Building of Atladra Mandir
Then, before long, Shastriji Maharaj initiated the construction of a fourth mandir – in the village of Atladra on the outskirts of Vadodara.
At the devout insistence of Mathurbhai, Swamishri began digging the foundations on 10 October 1940 – the auspicious day of Vijaya Dashmi. Aged 76, Swamishri himself began the arduous work by using a pickaxe to dig. The thoughtful and stalwart devotee of Mumbai, Shri Harshadray T. Dave was also involved in this construction service. He writes his experience, “Departed from Koyali and arrived in Atladra with Swamishri. Here, the foundations for the sadhus’ residence were to be dug. Swamishri himself tightened his dhoti, took a pickaxe and called out to everyone, ‘Come on, let’s dig the foundations.’ Even at this old age he displayed a work ethic that would shame even the youths. He conveyed the glory of Akshar-Purushottam by himself serving the dual forms.”
In a short time, the main mandir was ready. Swamishri decided to perform the murti-pratishtha on Ashadh sud 3. The devotees of the Kanam region were overjoyed at the news. Describing the last-minute preparations for this historic occasion, Ramji Bhagat writes, “The mandir work was a 15-month task, but all the sadhus did it in 15 days. The work continued at full speed even throughout the night. And on the one hand it was raining heavily. People wondered, ‘How will the pratishtha take place?’ No preparations for the meals had even been made. Days and nights passed amid such worries. On sud 1, all the sadhus went to Swamishri and prayed, ‘Swami, you know that there are not enough arrangements for water or for people to stay. But, first, where can we set up a kitchen and dining area for everyone to eat? So, it would be good if the rain stops.’ Swamishri said, ‘This is the month of Ashadh. The rainy season is in the peak of youth. Just as today’s youths do not listen to their parents, the rain also does not. So, this is God’s work, which he will do, but there will be no problems. And the rain will stop in time.’
And, indeed, the rain stopped in time. Thus on 12 July 1945 (Ashadh sud 3 V.S. 2001), Swamishri performed the Vedic murti-pratishtha rituals amid the victory calls of thousands of devotees. This was the fourth shikharbaddh mandir in which Shastriji Maharaj had consecrated the murtis of Akshar-Purushottam in the central shrine. The entire Kanam region reverberated with victory calls of Akshar-Purushottam.
Mandir on the Hill in Gadhada
Addressing a parayan in Sarangpur, Swamishri further explained, “Shriji Maharaj began the task of building Gadhada mandir. First, he saw the land on the hill. In the presence of Muktanand Swami and Brahmanand Swami, he measured the land with a string. He even prepared a map of the land. But the land could not be acquired, so Maharaj became unhappy. Then he inspected many sites for a mandir and went to Sarangpur. He decided to build a mandir here. But Dada Khachar, Jivuba, Laduba and others came and took Maharaj back to Gadhada. There, they gave their darbar and Maharaj began to build a mandir there. But, Maharaj’s original wish was to build a mandir on the hill. It was not possible in the circumstances at the time. Now, we have to do it. That is Maharaj’s wish. We want to build a beautiful three-shikhar marble mandir there.”
After leaving Vartal, Shastriji Maharaj had decided to fulfil Shriji Maharaj’s wish and build a mandir on the hill in Gadhada. In this way, 40 years passed. Despite the continuous flow of difficulties, Swamishri did not become discouraged.
Eventually, Swamishri spoke to Govindsinhji Merubhai Chudasama, who later recalled, “In 1946 Shastriji Maharaj personally called me to Gondal and told me I had to do one thing. I said, ‘What is it Maharaj? Command.’ Then he said, ‘We want to build a mandir on the hill in Gadhada. It was Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s wish and he had measured the land with a string. But Darbar Jiva Khachar did not give written consent, so Maharaj did not build a mandir there and built a mandir in Dada Khachar’s darbar instead. We want to fulfil that wish of a mandir on the hill.’
“I said, ‘Maharaj! I am a Revenue Commissioner in Porbandar. And Gadhpur is in Bhavnagar State. The Maharaja of Bhavnagar is the son-in-law of the Maharaja of Gondal. He is a relative of mine. But the state has forbidden the building of another mandir there (in Gadhada). There is one mandir already. Why is there a need for a second? Also, I do not understand the Akshar-Purushottam philosophy. Please explain it to me.’ Shastriji Maharaj himself explained it to me till late in the night. Then he also said, ‘You will be going to Bhavnagar and this work will be done through you.’ I said, ‘Maharaj! You have granted me much grace, but this is a big burden you have placed.’ Then Swamishri said, ‘Shriji Maharaj will be with you.’ And that is what happened. All the kingdoms were united to form Saurashtra state, and I became a Deputy Collector in Palitana and then Collector. I arranged for the land in Gadhada. And the groundbreaking ceremony was performed by the Maharaja of Bhavnagar, Krishnakumarsinhji.”
So, before the rule of God, the rule of government was helpless. India became independent and the old fiefdoms were dissolved. Swamishri acquired the land on the hill, and the groundbreaking ceremony was performed by the then Governor of Madras, Shri Krishnakumarsinhji, who as the ruler of Bhavnagar, had previously passed a resolution to not allow the mandir to be built. Touched by Swamishri’s compassion and humility, he said, “I have not seen another such powerful, yet forgiving, person.”
Thus, after trying patiently for over 40 years, on 25 June 1949, Swamishri took possession of the land on the hill by the banks of river Ghela to fulfil the wish of Shriji Maharaj. The devotees and people of Gadhada and neighbouring villages were delighted and excited by the prospects.
The mandir construction proceeded rapidly and Shastriji Maharaj declared that the murti-pratishtha would take place on 16 May 1951 (Vaishakh sud 10, V.S. 2007).
Only 11 days remained before the murti-pratishtha of Gadhada mandir, but, at the age of 86, Shastriji Maharaj was severely ill in Sarangpur. Yet, Swamishri expressed his keen wish to travel from Sarangpur to Gadhada. “Hearing the name of Gadhpur gives me great courage…” Saying this, Swamishri gained freshness. At 7.00 pm he reached Gadhada. He inspected the mandir mandovar and was very pleased. The next day he examined the murtis. He bathed the murtis with water from the river Ghela. He himself placed the janoi and kanthi on the murtis. Joyfully, he performed the arti. In the end, he said, “My rituals are over. The pratishtha has been performed. Now Yogi Maharaj will come and perform the arti.”
With these prophetic words Swamishri returned to Sarangpur, and six days before the murti-pratishtha he left his mortal body to return to Akshardham.
However, Yogiji Maharaj’s saintly presence in these sad times lifted everyone’s sprits. He dutifully carried out Shastriji Maharaj’s wish and consecrated the murtis in the mandir on 16 May 1951 in Gadhada.
Till his last breath, Shastriji Maharaj endeavoured to spread the philosophy of Akshar-Purushottam revealed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan. His efforts won the support of many, such as, Hariprasad Manchharam Choksi, a government lawyer in the Mumbai High Court and a member of the Vartal Swaminarayan Mandir Temple Committee, who said, “The murtis of Akshar-Purushottam have been consecrated. It is an ancient tradition. No traditions or codes have been transgressed. Those who do not want to believe, do not have to. If the murtis of Shri Raghuvirji Maharaj and Shri Ichchharamji Maharaj are placed with Shriji Maharaj, then what’s the objection in consecrating the murti of his eternal Akshardham (Gunatitanand Swami)? What is wrong with consecrating the murti of he who has revealed the true glory of Swaminarayan.”
Akshar-Purushottam Mandirs Overseas
“Today Satsang is crossing the oceans…” These words of the great poet Nahanalal are a tribute to the work of Shastriji Maharaj. By the unique and divine influence of Swamishri, the rays of the Akshar-Purushottam upasana also illuminated the continent of Africa.
In 1928, the ‘East Africa Swaminarayan Satsang Mandal’ was established in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. Moulded by their profound association with Swamishri, devotees endeavoured tirelessly for the Akshar-Purushottam cause. Shri Harmanbhai Patel, Shri Maganbhai Patel, Shri Tribhovanbhai, and others became Swamishri’s representatives and determinedly proclaimed the glory of the Akshar-Purushottam upasana. The letters of Shastriji Maharaj and Nirgundas Swami were drunk like nectar by all. Due to the tremendous growth of Satsang, by the inspiration of Swamishri, a mandir was established in Nairobi in 1945. It was the first Swaminarayan mandir outside India. The picture murtis of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, Aksharbrahma Gunatitanand and Aksharmukta Gopalanand Swami, sanctified by Swamishri, were installed with great celebration. Thereafter, due to Swamishri’s wish Satsang flourished even more rapidly throughout Africa.
Susequently, Yogiji Maharaj continued the work of building mandirs begun by Shastriji Maharaj. In addition to the many hari mandirs, Yogiji Maharaj built shikharbaddh mandirs in Amdavad and Bhadra.
Since 1971, Pramukh Swami Maharaj has carried on this task with ever-increasing enthusiasm. At present, in its centenary year, the BAPS has over 700 hari mandirs and 28 shikharbaddh mandirs spread throughout all the continents of the world.
These mandirs are a testimony to the enduring truth of the Akshar-Purushottam philosophy revealed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan.