Swaminarayan Movement

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SWAMINARAYAN MOVEMENT . Chronologically located between the "bhakti renaissance" of the medieval period and the early to mid-nineteenth-century Hindu revivalism of colonial India, the Swaminarayan movement is a devotional tradition rooted in Vaiavism and arising out of Gujarat in western India. The spread and transnational growth of specific Swaminarayan sects demonstrate how a regional expression of Hindu devotionalism, in accommodating to larger political and social changes, has succeeded in providing meaningful ways of being Hindu in the diasporic context.

Swaminarayan Origin Narrative

All Swaminarayan sects connect their devotional tradition to the historical person of Sahajanand Swami (17811830 ce), who was born near Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, in northern India. His biography is the basis for the Swaminarayan origin narrative, one that combines hagiography with historically confirmed persons, events, and places.

According to Swaminarayan tradition, the young Sahajanand Swami was known as Ghanshyama. Following the death of his parents when he was eleven years old, he embarked on a phase of wandering. He attracted attention for his textual knowledge (evidenced by his winning debates with older religious scholars), asceticism (adoption of brahmacarya vows of celibacy), and performance of austerities (tapas), an example of which involved standing on one leg for four months while clad only in a loincloth. At the age of nineteen, Ghanshyama, now known as Nilkantha, arrived in Saurashtra, the peninsular area of southern Gujarat. Here he encountered Mukhtananda Swami, the senior ascetic of a group whose head preceptor (guru), Ramananda Swami, was temporarily away. He asked Mukhtananda the questions he had asked during his encounters with ascetics throughout India; receiving satisfactory answers, Nilkantha ended his period of wandering. On October 28, 1800, he was initiated by Ramananda Swami and given two names, "Sahajanand" and "Narayan Muni." Not long thereafter Ramananda Swami, in spite of opposition from his followers, designated the young Sahajanand Swami as his successor.

The beginning of the Swaminarayan movement dates to 1801 when Sahajanand Swami became the leader of Ramananda's group. Swaminarayan literature records that "Swami Narayan" quickly became known for his teachings, which emphasized moral, personal, and social betterment. He traveled throughout the Gujarat region, outlining his behavioral expectations along gender lines and according to social groups, from laity to ascetics and political leaders. Though his followers record that he was against caste, Sahajanand Swami's teachings did not openly advocate the dissolution of caste or the abandonment of commensal rules. For both laity and ascetics, he supported varāśramadharma, or the fulfillment of duties according to caste, social class, and gender. He prescribed nonviolence, abstinence from intoxicants, strict vegetarianism (including no onion or garlic), sexual continence, and frugal living. Sahajanand Swami's social reform centered on the "uplift" of all peoples and ranged from the promotion of literacy for men and women to providing assistance to famine sufferers. By age twenty-five, he had an order of five hundred male sādhus (ascetics) who, notwithstanding the special rules requiring ascetics to avoid all contact with women, were responsible for spreading his message and consolidating the growing numbers of Swaminarayan satsagīs (devotees).

During Sahajanand Swami's lifetime Gujarat came under British control. The Swaminarayan movement became further known for its campaigns against early child marriage, widow immolation (satī), and female infanticide, all practices that had excited concern among the indigenous intelligentsia and colonial administrators of the established Bengal Presidency. Because of his reputation for being a social progressive, Sahajanand Swami attracted the interest of and subsequently met Bishop Reginald Heber, the Lord Bishop of Calcutta, and John Malcolm, governor of the Bombay Presidency. By the time of his death at the age of forty-nine on June 1, 1830, Sahajanand Swami was considered by his many satsagīs to be Bhagavān (Lord) Swaminarayan, the highest manifestation of reality.

The Original Swaminarayan Movement

From its early days, the Swaminarayan movement was noted for its organizational capacities and rationalized methods for transmitting its practices and prescriptions. Sādhus compiled Sahajanand Swami's discourses, maintained records of his activities, and collected together commendatory letters written by colonial administrators. Among his innovations, Sahajanand Swami established an institutional structure that provided for the perpetuation of the Swaminarayan satsag, the community of followers-in-truth. Two administrative seats (gāddī), outlined in the Lekh, a text written by Sahajanand Swami, were established by dividing India into northern and southern juridical territories. The Ahmedabad temple was designated administrative head of the northern seat and the Vadtal temple, the center for the southern seat. Being celibate, Sahajanand Swami installed two nephews as ācāryas (preceptors) in the administrative seats and specified that the sons of the ācāryas would preserve these hereditary positions. The two hereditary lines and gāddīs still exist, although the migration of devotees has necessitated their merger into one organization (the International Swaminarayan Satsang Organization) for the overseas communities. The ācāryas oversee the temples, sādhus, and satsagīs in their respective gādis. Further duties include the administration of the Swaminarayan mantra for new male initiates, installation of temple icons, and management of the gāddī' s material wealth.

Another distinction of the Swaminarayan movement is the clear separation of men and women (strī-purua maryādā) in all temple activities and to some extent in social life as well. Swaminarayan temples have separate entrances for men and women. Though women can take the vow of celibacy, there is no comparable order of sādhvīs (female renunciates). The wives of ācāryas have substantial duties paralleling their husbands: they are responsible for teaching and overseeing the activities of women satsagīs and for administering the Swaminarayan mantra (for women only).

Whereas the early satsagīs were from a wide variety of castes and class backgrounds, later members came increasingly from the emerging Patidar farmer caste, who were finding commercial success in agriculture and entrepreneurial activities. In the years following Sahajanand Swami's death, the cooperative relationship between Swaminarayan ācāryas, sādhus, and householders and the British allowed for favorable reciprocation such as temple land grants and festival permits. Scholars of modern Gujarat history are critical of this cooperation, arguing that the Swaminarayan movement's alignment with the British reflected its bias toward promoting its own caste and class interests at the expense of other groups either unable or unwilling to yield to Anglo-colonial hegemony. Indeed, Swaminarayan history does not show much evidence of protest against the colonial presence.

New Swaminarayan Sects

As it happened, the greatest schism in the Swaminarayan movement was prompted not by outsiders but came from within. In 1906 a sādhu, Swami Yagnapurushdas, left the Vadtal temple. In 1907 he established the first new Swaminarayan sect, the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS). Headquartered in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, BAPS claims over one million followers worldwide including both laity and ascetics. With its religious leaders and membership drawn from a wide caste background, caste distinctions in this new sect are of less concern than in the original Swaminarayan gāddīs. As part of its social reform activity, BAPS has established temples and charitable projects in dalit (formerly referred to as Untouchables or harijan ) and adivasi (autochthonous groups or tribal communities) villages in Gujarat. More so than the original sect, BAPS is a global movement and, early on, it embraced new technologies to support its transnational growth. It runs a large publishing house and music recording studio, and employs systematic methods for training sādhus and laity in Swaminarayan bhakti. Additionally, BAPS upholds the movement's connection to social reform through a variety of programs and campaigns, such as anti-addiction and anti-dowry events, disaster relief, temple building, and the sponsorship of public festivals. BAPS activities are not always without controversy, as in its open support of the Sardar Sarovar dam project in Gujarat. For its supporters, the Sardar Sarovar dam and the multi-dam Narmada Valley Development Project of which it is a key component are intended to increase power capacity and provide irrigation, cleaner drinking water, and flood control; for its opponents, the dam is environmentally and socially disastrous and is purchased at the cost of submerging a high percentage of dalit and adivasi villages. The wealthy BAPS organization is criticized by dam opponents for acting to protect its class interests, including those of its land holding members. In response, BAPS followers who are familiar with the Narmada controversy point to the various village relocation and community rehabilitation projects voluntarily instigated and funded by BAPS.

In addition to BAPS's break from the original Swaminarayan satsag, other schisms have occurred. In 1966 a handful of East African BAPS followers broke away and founded the Yogi Divine Society. Additionally, sādhus from the original movement have left to form their own institutions that sometimes (e.g., Swaminarayan Gurukuls) but not always (e.g., Swaminarayan Gadi) retain an affiliation with their gāddī.

Swaminarayan Texts and Their Interpretation

Two core texts, the Vachanamritam (Vacanāmta) and Shikshapatri (Śikāpatrī), provide the foundation for Swaminarayan bhakti. Other important texts include hagiographies cum histories such as the Satsangijivanam, which elaborate on Sahajanand Swami's life story and teachings. The Vachanamritam is the first Gujarati vernacular text and consists of 262 discourses given by Sahajanand Swami between 1819 and 1829 and recorded by senior sādhus. The Shikshapatri, authored by Sahajanand Swami in 1826 and originally written in Sanskrit, is a listing of 212 precepts, a code of behavior for Swaminarayan followers. As the most accessible of Swaminarayan texts, the Shikshapatri is also the most controversial: its precepts range from the practical to the political, from matters of bodily hygiene and money management, to advice on coping with unjust rulers. This small manual is accountable in part for the "puritanical" image of the Swaminarayan movement.

The philosophical foundation for Swaminarayan devotionalism is the viśiādvaita, or qualified non-dualism, of Rāmānuja (10171137 ce). Sahajanand Swami expanded Rāmānuja's delineation of three separate and eternal existential entities into five, namely parabrahman, brahman, māyā, īśvara, and jīva, but was most focused on the relationship between parabrahman, brahman, and jīva. As explained in the Vachanamritam, parabrahman (synonymous with puruottama ) is the highest existential entity and is never formless: it possesses the power of immanence and action (antaryāmīśakti) and manifests itself in a distinctly human form. Brahman (synonymous with akara and akara-brahman) is the second-highest reality and, in its formless state, is known as akaradhāma, the all-prevading and unfathomable abode of parabrahman and all released jīva. Jīva (also ātman ) stands for the eternal, indivisible, and genderless entity, often translated as soul. Swaminarayan devotionalism offers release (moka) attainable not through textual knowledge or correct ritual practices but through the recognition that Sahajanand Swami is himself puruottama, that is the highest existential reality, who appears in human form, and who resides in akaradhāma. As the highest reality, Sahajanand Swami is thus not an avatāra or descended form of a higher entity but the ultimate creator of all entities.

The most significant differences between the various sects in the Swaminarayan movement rest in the interpretation of who is puruottama and how to understand the relationship between this eternal entity with human-like form and satsagīs whose devotional activities are motivated by the possibility that each individual jīva can potentially achieve eternal existence in akaradham, alongside puruottama. The Vachanamritam, Shikshapatri, and iconic representations in the six original Swaminarayan temples point to Ka (Krishna) as puruottama, the foremost entity to whom devotion must be directed. For original sect members, this does not necessarily disrupt the conviction that Sahajanand Swami is also puruottama, that is, Lord Swaminarayan, rather than an avatāra of Krishna. Satsagīs explain this inconsistency by noting that Sahajanand Swami was careful to make his divinity known only to those who were ready for this revelation. For the BAPS community, there is no ambiguity regarding the identities and relationship of puruottama to akara, the resolution of this distinction being the basis for the sect's founding.

In contrast to the textual interpretations of the original Swaminarayan gāddī, BAPS founder Swami Yagnapurushdas expounded a return to the "correct" understanding of Lord Swaminarayan's teachings, specifically that Sahajanand Swami is puruottama and his immanence is always present on Earth in the form of akara or akarabrahman, the "living guru." Akara is thus conceptualized as having two states, one with and one without form. In BAPS, the importance given to akara as form distinguishes its textual interpretation from the original gāddīs. Akara with form is visible and tangible as the contemporaneous living guru, the one who embodies puruottama' s immanence. Referred to variously as akaraguru and akarabrahman and commonly translated as "god-realized saint," the living guru and form of akara is always male.

For BAPS satsagīs, it is contact with the personal and living form of akara and the constant maintenance of devotional attitudes to this form that allows for moka. By recognizing akara in its manifest form, jīva, clothed in human form and impaired by bodily emotions and senses, can acquire the knowledge necessary for escaping the conditioning of māyā. In Swaminarayan devotionalism, māyā is understood, at the most general level, to be primordial matter (prakti) or that which conceals the knowledge required for jīva to attain moka, the liberation from sasāra, the cycle of rebirth. Often translated as illusion, māyā is also associated with causing egoism, bodily desires, and wordly attachments, all barriers to achieving release. The satsagī' s hope is to achieve this release in the current lifetime and thereafter to exist as brahmarūpa, in identification with brahman, in akaradhama, alongside puruottama and akara. In Swaminarayan viśiādvaita, the ultimate reality, puruottama, never merges with akara or with lower existential entities.

BAPS followers do not follow the ācāryas and temples of the original gāddīs but have constructed temples to reflect their interpretation of Swaminarayan viśiādvaita. Also, a lineage of akaragurus, or living gurus, has been retroactively traced back to Gunatitanand Swami, a sādhu who lived during Sahajanand Swami's lifetime. The guru provides the template for ideal devotional behavior and through him devotees can achieve awareness of their eternal jīva. The most recent living guru is Pramukh Swami who, in 1971, became the "religious and spiritual" head of BAPS.

On Devotional Practices

Membership in the Swaminarayan movement begins with a brief verbal initiation followed by the devotee's acceptance of the Swaminarayan mantra. The devotee then agrees to live a life according to specifications outlined in the core Swaminarayan texts.

The Swaminarayan ritual calendar as well as its ritual practices, vocabulary, and gestures are similar to those found among the Vallabha Sapradāya and in Vaiavism in general. (Founded by Vallabha in the sixteenth century, the Vallabha Sapradāya is a Hindu devotional sect that remains influential in Gujarat and includes many wealthy merchants and other business-oriented caste groups among its followers.) Satsagīs perform daily offerings (pūjā) to the iconic representation (mūrti) of Lord Swaminarayan kept in the home. For BAPS followers, pūjā includes the pictorial forms of the guru lineage and a reading selection from Swami ni Vato, a collection of brief sayings by Gunatitanand Swami. All satsagīs must dress modestly, wear a double-stranded necklace of beads, and apply sectarian marks on their foreheads, with the women's mark differing from the men's. Besides regular participation at temple events, satsagīs are also expected to contribute a portion of their annual income to the temple.

The Vachanamritam outlines four categories of action for helping devotees strengthen their devotionalism. Much of temple-based discourse and many events revolve around assisting satsagīs to reflect upon and act on these suggestions:

  1. Remain within the expectations and rules for moral living.
  2. Develop a deep attachment to Lord Swaminarayan and sādhus.
  3. Control mental and physical senses.
  4. Develop knowledge of Swaminarayan philosophy.

The most tangible means for attaining and expressing correct devotional postures is to perform seva, service and resources that are volunteered. "Doing seva, " satsagīs note, helps them to transcend bodily desires and focus more intensely on the glory of the highest existential reality, puruottama. Female followers are especially visible as seva volunteers and this has contributed to dramatic changes, particularly in the BAPS sect. In BAPS, women have parallel leadership positions and activities to men. Women manage their groups and sponsor their own events and publications. Though sometimes frustrated at the gender segregation and their inability to have direct contact with guru and sādhu s, women consider theirs a privileged position, of having a god-realized guru who powerfully guides them from a distance.

Contemporary Issues

Coinciding with the migration of Gujarati peoples, the Swaminarayan movement has also expanded beyond India. Its religious and lay leaders are focused on the needs of Hindus in the diaspora who are creating permanent rather than temporary lives outside of India. BAPS, through its worldwide network of more than five hundred temples and a large "volunteer" base, is by far the most visible sect in the Swaminarayan movement. Since it's founding, BAPS and its living gurus have traveled to wherever Gujaratis have gone, openly addressing immigrant-diaspora issues of resettlement, cultural loss, and community building. This has resulted in the creation of programs that were not needed in the Gujarat context, such as Gujarati language classes and festivals to promote "Hinduism." BAPS Swaminarayan communities in the United States and Great Britain now have resident sādhus who teach and administer temple activities. North of London, a BAPS traditional-style marble and stone temple with an attached exhibition hall attracts upwards of ninety thousand visitors during Hindu new year celebrations. Similar "traditional" temple complexes were completed in Chicago, Illinois, and Houston, Texas. In Gandhinagar, Gujarat, an elaborate monument, exhibition, and research center known as Akshardham was the site of a terrorist attack in 2002. Swaminarayan sites and their polished presentation of "Hinduism" are clearly attracting notice, owing to a visibility reflective of the movement's diasporic wealth and organized management structure.

What is remarkable is the degree to which BAPS, and to a lesser extent the original Swaminarayan gādis, have translated the injunction for moral living and reform into a larger transnational project, one that positions Swaminarayan bhakti as synonymous with a reified sense of "Hinduism." This equation promotes a problematic conceptualization of religion, one that uncritically conflates it with culture, language, and geography and offers a seamless portrait of Hindu traditions. The contemporary Swaminarayan movement thus appears sympathetic to pro-Hindu fundamentalist sentiments. While this connection is disputed by its leaders, what is less refutable is the movement's growing base of immigrants who are attracted to representations of an essentialized Hinduism. The Swaminarayan movement has, in spite of its restrictive codes of behavior, endured for over two centuries: its newer communities demonstrate how politics of religious nationalism and the needs and desires brought on by diasporic living can spur accommodations to, rather than retreat from, external changes.

See Also

Bhakti; Rāmānuja; Vaiavism; Vallabha.


Brent, Peter. Godmen of India. London, 1972. Contains account of author's meeting with the English translator of the Vachanamritam, H. T. Dave, and Swami Jnanjivandas, the third living guru in the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha.

Dave, H. T. Shree Swaminarayan's Vachanamritam. Bombay, 1977; reprint, Ahmedabad, India, 1989. First complete English translation of Sahajanand Swami's discourses from the BAPS perspective.

Dwyer, Rachel. "Caste, Religion, and Sect in Gujarat: Followers of Vallabhacharya and Swaminarayan." In Desh Pardesh: The South Asian Presence in Britain, edited by Roger Ballard, pp. 165190. London, 1994. A clear exposition of the caste composition of Gujarat and a comparative look at two Gujarati Vaiava religious sects, the Swaminarayan movement and Vallabha's Puimārga Sapradāya.

Hardiman, David. "Class Base of Swaminarayan Sect." In Economic and Political Weekly (September 10, 1988): 19071912. Critical examination of the Ahmedabad gāddī of the original Swaminarayan movement. Argues that the activities and attitudes of this gāddī stem from its narrow caste base.

Heber, Reginald. Narrative of a Journey through the Upper Provinces of India, from Calcutta to Bombay, 18241825, vol. 2. Philadelphia, 1828. A record of his diary, the second volume contains Bishop Heber's encounter with Sahajanand Swami in March 1825. The Bishop's conversation with the "Hindoo reformer" as well as his descriptions of the meeting have been deployed by the Swaminarayan movement as proof of its founder's impact on the colonial presence in Gujarat. As a historical record, this diary confirms the positive impression that the original Swaminarayan movement and its founder made on a Christian emissary and his countrymen.

Kim, Hanna Hea-Sun. "Being Swaminarayan: The Ontology and Significance of Belief in the Construction of a Gujarati Diaspora." Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, New York, 2001. An ethnographic exploration of the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha based on fieldwork conducted in the United States, United Kingdom, and India. Looks at the ways in which followers think about and participate in Swaminarayan devotionalism and draws closer attention to female followers and their engagement with Swaminarayan prescriptions of behavior. Provides comprehensive bibliography for BAPS publications.

Monier-Williams, Monier. "The Vaishava Religion, with Special Reference to the Śikshā-Pātrī of the Modern Sect called Svāmi-Nārāyaa." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, n.s., 14 (1882): 289316. Written after Monier-Williams, Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, had toured the Gujarat region in 1875. Though its language and tone are reflective of the author's Orientalist perspective, this article does contain an early portrait of the Vadtal Swaminarayan gāddī during a Hindu new year celebration.

Monier-Williams, Monier, ed. "Sanskrit Text of the Śikshā-Pātrī of the Svāmi-Nārāyaa Sect." Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, n.s., 14 (1882): 733772. Includes the full Sanskrit text of the Shikshapatri given to Monier-Williams by the ācārya of the Vadtal gāddī in 1875. Also includes Monier-Williams's English translation, which, when compared to the English translations by the sects in the Swaminarayan movement, reveals striking elisions and differing transliterations.

Mukta, Parita. "The Public Face of Hindu Nationalism." Ethnic and Racial Studies 23, no. 3 (May 2000): 442466, argues that diasporic Hindus in the United Kingdom are fostering religious nationalism through temples and temple-sponsored activities. Polemical in tone, the article critiques the activities of the London BAPS temple.

Pocock, David. Mind, Body, and Wealth: A Study of Belief and Practice in an Indian Village. Oxford, 1973. An incisive ethnographic look at various Hindu sects in Gujarat. Included is an introduction to the original Swaminarayan community, its founder, and its central texts. This book is notable for its early effort to refrain from using the word religion in order to avoid an artificial separation of Hindu practices from other areas of social life.

Pocock, David. "Preservation of the Religious Life: Hindu Immigrants in England." Contributions to Indian Sociology, n.s., 10, no. 2 (1976): 341365. An ethnographic encounter with the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha community in London, this is useful for its observations of BAPS in its early diasporic formation. Certain points are remarkably prescient and others, when combined with more recent data (cf. Kim, 2001), underscore the transformative capacity of this community, most notably reflected in profound changes in the role of women.

Shukla, Sandhya. "Building Diaspora and Nation: The 1991 'Cultural Festival of India'." In Cultural Studies 11, no. 2 (1997): 296315. Pointed critique of diasporic South Asians and their modes of identity and ethnicity-making. Article directs attention to the BAPS-sponsored "Cultural Festival of India," the first national event for the American Swaminarayan community.

Williams, Raymond Brady. Religion of Immigrants from India and Pakistan: New Threads in the American Tapestry. Cambridge, U.K., 1988. Provides a closer look at Gujarati Swaminarayan communities in the United States, including the original Swaminarayan and Bochasanwasi Shree Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha sects.

Williams, Raymond Brady. An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism. Cambridge, U.K., 2001. A revised and updated version of an earlier text, A New Face of Hinduism: The Swaminarayan Religion, Cambridge, U.K., 1984. The most comprehensive and accessible English-language source by a non-Swaminarayan devotee on the history and religious philosophy of the Swaminarayan movement. Contains a wealth of details particularly with respect to the administration and organization of the dominant Swaminarayan sects. This focus, which is necessarily a male one owing to the gender segregation in the lay and religious hierarchy, is enriched by Williams's first-hand interviews with the male religious leadership in the major sects of the Swaminarayan movement.

Primary materials and websites

Texts and other printed materials by the founder, principal religious leaders, and followers of the Swaminarayan Movement are generally available outside of India at the larger temples connected to the different Swaminarayan sects. Though all sects use the same core texts (e.g., Vachanamritam, Shikshapatri), translations reflect their sectarian orientation. In addition to books and other published media, the web sites for the two largest Swaminarayan sects offer explanatory essays and updates on current temple and community activities. The web site for the original Swaminarayan gāddīs is www.moksha.akshardham.org. The web site for the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha is www.swaminarayan.org.

Hanna H. Kim (2005)