Whenever Indian society was overwhelmed by adharma (unrighteousness and evil) and succumbed to immoral and sacrilegious practices, divine incaranations like Bhagwan Rama, Krishna and others reestablished dharma and liberated countless aspirants from the fetters of maya. The great holy sadhus of India also played a pivotal role in reconstituting and strengthening the moral fabric of society through their timeless teachings and exemplary living.
In the early 19th century, Bhagwan Swaminarayan re-introduced the Hindu practice of eight-fold celibacy for his sadhus; thus reconstituting the institution of Hindu asceticism. He established certain boundaries between men women in the context of religious activities. And the way he established them created grounds for women’s dignity and independence in an intrinsic sense. He worked out strategies by which Hindus could reclaim their religion and live in accord with its noblest aspirations.
Prof. Suresh Raval, the author, was born and brought up in a village in Gujarat. He received his BA in English and Ethics from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, an MA in English and Aesthetics from Bombay University, and a phD in English from the University of Washington, Seattle. Currently, he is Professor of English at the University of Arizona, Tucson. His books include Metacriticism, Grounds of Literary Criticism and The Art of Failure: Conrad’s Fiction. He has also published essays n literary and philosophical journals, on literary and cultural theory and on Rabindranath Tagore, Conrad, Jamaica Kincaid, R.K. Narayan, and J.M. Coetzee, among others.
This book is written to address the concerns and criticisms that some educated Hindus, men and women, in India and abroad have expressed over the years. As I explain in the first chapter, these concerns and criticisms focus primarily on Swaminarayan Hinduism's institution of asceticism and its attitude towards women. Some educated Hindu women as well as men wonder whether this religious organization does not in fact hold views that are not only old-fashioned but indifferent to half the population of modern Hindu society. Judged on their own abstract level and without knowledge of the rich context of Swaminarayan Hinduism's deep connection to Vedantic thought, many of the questions these critics raise seem rational and defensible.
However, anyone who examines the structure of values and practices that defines Swaminarayan Hinduism and its ascetic institution would be struck by the clarity and depth that this Sarnpradaya's founder, Bhagwan Swaminarayan, brought to the project of transforming the Hindu religion from the decline and degradation that it had suffered prior to and during his time. This book, however, is hardly the place where I can present a comprehensive account of the history, doctrines, organizational principles and strategies, and the structure of devotion and religious life that he articulated in immensely fascinating ways, or explain its deeper theological, philosophical and moral values and implications. Nevertheless, some discussion of Bhagwan Swaminarayan's efforts in the reconstitution of Hindu religious practices and social reform, especially as they connect with the finest values and practices of the essential Hindu shastras (scriptures) such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Shrimad Bhagavatam, and the Upanishads, will be necessary to explain what he sought to accomplish by remaking the institution of asceticism and its relationship with Hindu society in general.
Although he initiated a series of major social reforms in Hindu society, Bhagwan Swarninarayan's primary objective was to free the Hindu religion from a vast array of superstitions, questionable practices such as violent religious ceremonies that involved animal sacrifice, and perversion of principles by cunning and rapacious mendicants, priests, and their ardent supporters. But he did not seek to replace or change the fundamental principles and the view of life that are at the core of the major Hindu shastras like the Shrimad Bhagavatam Vasudeva Mahatmya, and so on. Drawing on many examples from the Bhagavatam and other central shastras, Bhagwan Swaminarayan almost ceaselessly sought to explain to his ascetic and lay devotees a host of problems and difficulties that all who wished to seek moksha are bound to confront. He did this by explaining many of these problems and difficulties in a variety of ways, often by way of his enormously inspired direct teaching.
Although Bhagwan Swaminarayan's work and its significance will be discussed throughout this book, it will perhaps help if I give a very brief and general sketch of his life and work before I state my principal concerns in writing this book.
Bhagwan Swaminarayan, born in 1781 in a village called Chhapaiya near Ayodhya in North India, came to Gujarat in 1799, with nothing but the absolutely minimal implements of a Hindu ascetic. Every aspect of his life in word, deed, and thought was such that many were drawn to him at first glance. Many men and women, young and old, became his ardent followers, and some male members took vows to become ascetics. He fascinated them by his exemplary conduct, his incomparable, ineffable and transcendent personality, and the matchless directness and depth of his religious teachings.
Before long, thousands came for his darshan, the rich as well as the poor, men as well as women, Brahmins as well as members of the lowest Hindu castes. He would discuss the deepest problems of Hindu philosophy and theology with a simplicity and clarity that even the simple village folks found illuminating. He spoke with a sweetness and wisdom that enthralled his listeners. His wisdom seemed inexhaustible. He never sought out the most powerful or most learned men. However, hundreds of small and not-so-small chieftains came and took vows to avoid violence, adultery, meat-eating, alcoholic drinks, and robbery - all these vices had been so integral a part of their lives that it seems amazing that most of these hardened chieftains would give them up so easily. They took these demanding vows just so he would permit them to stay in his company. Many learned men, scholars of Sanskrit and Hindu shastras, also came to challenge him in debate, hoping to gain fame and money. Black magicians and tantrics came, intending to defeat him and win over the growing cohort of his ascetic and non-ascetic followers. He vanquished them all effortlessly, and many of them, too, became his followers, some of them even choosing to be his ascetic disciples. In the beginning, he was known by his followers as Sahajanand Swami and Narayanmuni, and in a short time thereafter he came to be known as Bhagwan Swaminarayan, Shri Hari, Shriji Maharaj, and so on. (I use these three names interchangeably in this book.)
The deepest teachings of Swaminarayan Hinduism and Vedantic thought, especially those presented in the principal Upanishads, the Gita and the Bhagavatam, are essentially the same, except that Bhagwan Swaminarayan spared no effort in demonstrating their importance through precept and practice. The following topics represent an outline of the themes I explore directly or indirectly in this book: the concept of celibacy as articulated by the ancient Hindu shastras and by Bhagwan Swaminarayan; how difficult it is to achieve absolute brahmacharya in word, deed, and thought; what one must do to achieve that kind of continence; what the importance of a truly accomplished sadhu is in order for his ascetic followers to be guided on the pathway of celibacy; what the meaning of liberation is; necessity of brahmacharya to attain liberation; what the pitfalls in the quest for liberation are for both ascetics and lay devotees; and why certain boundaries must be observed by ascetics if they are to succeed in strictly observing their vow of celibacy. Bhagwan Swaminarayan tirelessly sought to make explicit that the goal of moksha is crucial to the central Hindu shastras. He characterized the principles and practices he taught as constitutive of Ekantik Dharma or Moksha Dharma for establishing which he had taken birth. In a sense, then, in exploring these topics and answering the criticisms and misunderstandings of Swaminarayan Hinduism, this book at least indirectly seeks to clarify the structure of principles and practices for achieving liberation embodied in the notion of Ekantik Dharma.
Bhagwan Swaminarayan revived the ideal ancient tradition of asceticism prescribed by the Hindu shastras, thus giving vitality and meaning to the Vedantic precepts and practices in his time. The work he did and the ideals and practices he taught are simply transhistorical in nature. In addressing the criticisms and misunderstandings that are bound to arise for those who pay attention only to matters of external form, I try to give some glimpse of this transhistorical work. Given my own training and lifelong career in the West in modern Western literature and philosophy I could not have imagined the possibility of anyone capable of such transhistorical work that one encounters only in ancient Hindu sacred texts. That someone like Bhagwan Swaminarayan walked on this planet and undertook massive social and religious reforms just two hundred years ago boggles the mind today. Our effort in understanding his activities is aided by the substantial archive of writings about his life and discourses chronicled by his contemporary ascetic and lay devotees.
This book is written primarily for the educated Hindu reader who might be curious about the enormously impressive tradition of Swaminarayan Hinduism, its legendary founder and his remarkably accomplished spiritual successors. It is also hoped that the work may be of some use to students of Hinduism and comparative religious studies, who may wish to explore what is surely the most remarkable achievement of modern asceticism.
All translations of quotations from all Gujarati books are mine as are translations of Sanskrit quotations from the Gita and the Bhagavatam; the translations of quotations from all other Sanskrit texts are from the books listed in the Bibliography. I have tried to avoid making the work cumbersome by minimizing the apparatus of references. For the benefit of those more curious, however, I have included a select bibliography. I have also kept the use of Sanskrit terms to a minimum and made sure that their meaning is clear to those who do not know Sanskrit. Sanskrit and Gujarati words are transliterated. However, I have been quite sparing in my use of diacritics, using them only for verses in Sanskrit and bhajans by poets.
The context of Bhagwan Swaminarayan's work, in perhaps one of the darkest periods in the history of Gujarat, and his cleansing of the ills of Hindu society and his massive ground- level transformation of the moral fibre of Indian society at least in that region have fascinated me for some time. And so I was delighted when Pujya Ishwarcharan Swami and Pujya Aksharvatsal Swami told me some time ago that Pramukh Swami Maharaj, legendary sadhu and head of the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), wanted me to write a book addressing the issues mentioned above. This has been an invaluable opportunity for me to think through and learn things about the deepest sources of insight and inspiration in Hindu thought. The result is this book. I owe deep gratitude to Pramukh Swami Maharaj for his confidence in assigning the task to me and for his blessings, without which I could not have brought this work to completion. I owe a deep personal gratitude to Pujya Viveksagar Swami whose knowledge of religious and historical matters has always been a source of inspiration and guidance for this book. I also owe deep gratitude to Pujya Ishwarcharan Swami, Pujya Aksharvatsal Swami, Pujya Aksharjivan Swami, Pujya Vivekjivan Swami, Pujya Amrutvijay Swami, and Pujya Mukundcharan Swami for their encouragement, trust, and interest throughout the writing of this book. I must mention here a special debt I owe to Pujya Vivekjivan Swami and to my learned friend Jyotindra Dave for their meticulous and thorough work in editing the text. All errors of expression and thought are mine.
I owe gratitude to my many friends at the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir in Tucson, Arizona, for sharing with me books and other useful information to help bring this project to completion. I thank in particular Babubhai Patel, Dinesh Patel, Jyotindra Patel, and Ghanshyam Patel. I am grateful to Professors Alison Deming, Larry Evers, and J un Liu, Department of English, and the Office of International Affairs at the University of Arizona for funding a couple of my research trips to India.
In 1799 CE, an 18-year-old boy called Nilkanth Varni, clad in a loin-cloth, a sacred thread on his bare upper torso, a small package containing a summary he had written of the major Hindu shastras tied in a necklace-like string, and a pot of water in hand, arrived at the famous Toradri ashram in Tamil Nadu, South India. At this ashram, he studied the shastras of the Ramanuja Sampradaya. During his travels and even before that at his home in a village, Chhapaiya, near Ayodhya in North India, he had studied the ancient Hindu texts and their different interpretations. Most of them never seemed adequate to his understanding of these texts. In Ramanuja's reading of the Hindu shastras like the Gita and the Brahmasutras, however, he found some similarity with the central principles of Hinduism as he knew them. The ashram in Totadri seemed reassuring to him in the representation of these principles.
One thing, however, disturbed him. The ascetics at the ashram freely mingled with women and did not avoid direct transactions with women generally prohibited by many Hindu sacred texts. He felt this to be a serious transgression and almost right away expressed his profound reservations to the head of this ashram. The head was an ascetic named Thiru Venkataswamy, popularly known as Jiyar Swami, Tridandi. He told Shri Jiyar Swami, ''A true ascetic is one who has totally renounced wealth and women. Many accomplished sages fell from grace when they violated these two injunctions.
Upon hearing this, Jiyar Swami became agitated. The presence of women in the midst of male ascetics was part of the fabric of life in his hermitage. The talk of with this degree of strict adherence to religious injunction seemed inconceivable to him. He told his pupils, "Get rid of this boy immediately, I will not eat or drink until after he has left." Needless to say, the young ascetic left immediately.
This teenage yogi had left his home early one morning when his older brother, Rampratap Pande, and his family were all sleeping. From the age of 11 to 18 he travelled all over India: from Nepal in the north to Assam in the northeast to Bengal in the east, through South India and finally to Gujarat in the west in 1799 CE. After a period of moving from one village or town to another he settled for a while in an ashram in a village called Loj in Saurashtra.
The head of this ashram, Ramanand Swami, was away on a long visit to his disciples in Kutch. Wherever Nilkanth went during his travels through India, he used to ask five ontological questions, and until this time he had never received answers that were satisfactory. But here, Muktanand Swami, who was left in charge of his guru's ashram, gave answers that pleased the young yogi.
And so Nilkanth Varni stayed there until he met his master in the village of Piplana. He had made up his mind to accept as his preceptor a sadhu whose disciple had insightfully answered the questions that none of the innumerable heads of hermitages and ashrams he had met in India's holy places had been able to answer.
One day, Varni saw a hole in the wall of the ashram. The wall separated the mandir from the local barber's house. "Why is there a hole in the wall here?" the new resident asked the other sadhus.
One of the sadhus innocently replied, "Sometimes, when the fire dies out, we need fire to relight it for cooking and other purposes in the mandir."
"Who gives the fire?"
"The barber's wife.
Upon hearing this reply, Nilkanth told Muktanand Swami seriously, "Swami, this hole in the wall will someday create a breach in the sadhus' saintly character. It is not appropriate for ascetics to have such dealings with women."
Without waiting for Muktanand Swami's response, Nilkanth brought mortar and bricks and closed that hole.
Muktanand Swami immediately realized that what Varni had done was appropriate, for he knew that the Hindu shastras had stated the rules that sincere celibates were supposed to follow, but nobody else, besides this Varni, had ever insisted on following them.
Shortly after this event, Nilkanth Varni would himself be formally appointed by Ramanand Swami at Jetpur as the head of his spiritual organization. Thus emerged, at the very beginning of the nineteenth century in India, a revolutionary new movement in the history of the Hindu religion that would come to be known as the Swaminarayan Sampradaya. Within a short time after that, Nilkanth came to be known as Bhagwan Swaminarayan among his followers, renunciants as well as householders, and he would revive Hinduism in Gujarat from its ailing condition at that time.
The Swaminarayan Sampradaya began as a small religious organization within Hindu society in the early nineteenth century in Gujarat. It began as a socio-spiritual reform movement internally within the Hindu religion that had broad and powerful implications for both a serious revamping of many of its practices and a serious strengthening of its core principles and values. In fact, the powerful internal reform of Hinduism that it made helped transform Gujarati Hindu society. This change has been fundamental and enduring. He revised the nature and structure of life among Hindu sadhus, and he changed the ways in which Hindus practiced their religion. He did this in part by making both renunciants and householders examine and understand their religion's precepts with greater insight and care. He also taught them, through innumerable discourses, the quintessential Hindu religious values and the ways they can and must be embodied and lived in practice. What is striking about Bhagwan Swaminarayan is that he began to institute a series of reforms not only among the group of sadhus he headed but also among the many householder followers of his guru, Ramanand Swami. This comprehensive attempt at reconstitution of Hinduism seems all the more overwhelming when placed in the context of the general social, political, and religious disorder that prevailed in Gujarat at that time.
It is important to keep in mind that Swaminarayan Hinduism's primary goal is not to aid the formation and preservation of ethnic identity for the Hindus in India and in other countries, since there are literally dozens of other ways that they can sustain and preserve their social and religious identity in the world. The number of Hindus practicing their religion in the way that Bhagwan Swaminarayan articulated and promulgated is relatively small if placed in the context of Hindus in India and elsewhere in the world. It is, however, steadily on the increase since the time he began his mission.
There seems to be a great urge on the part of the Hindus in India and everywhere in the world to come to fuller possession of the values and practices authorized by their central shastras like the Upanishads, the Gita, the Brahmasutras and the Bhagavatam. They are promoted by literally innumerable sannyasis and sadhus and organized Hindu religious groups in the world today. I think the Swaminarayan Sampradaya, especially the institution known as the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) led by its current head, His Divine Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, is exemplary both in its teachings and in the practices of its sadhus and householders.
This book is written with the conviction that all those Hindus who do not either know or practice Swaminarayan Hinduism are likely to find in it that form of authentic Hindu religion that is based on the major doctrines, values, and practices propounded in the classic Hindu texts such as the Upanishads, the Gira, the Brahmasurras the Bhagavatam and so on. This book is not the place, of course, to give a full- scale discussion of Bhagwan Swarninarayan's social, moral and philosophical teachings. However, this book will discuss the following major topics central to his teachings: what constitutes an authoritative form of renunciation; what the spiritual duties and obligations are of those who have renounced society and taken the vow of celibacy as renunciants; how householders may practice their religion as Hindus; and what the role and place of women are in Swaminarayan Hinduism. I think those who are nominally Hindus but do not practice Hinduism in any consciously thought through manner will find Bhagwan Swarninarayan's guidance on these issues both relevant and sustaining in an enduring fashion.
This book does not seek to present a comprehensive treatment of the history, doctrines, and rituals of Swaminarayan Hinduism, nor to account for and explain the various subgroups and practices that have grown up within it during the last hundred years or so. Nevertheless, some of its doctrines and rituals are crucial to an understanding of Bhagwan Swarninarayan's dual approach to social reform and the internal reform of Hindu religious practices in order to make them accord with the highest aspirations of the religion's central shastras. My primary objective in this book is to take up two very significant aspects of this Sampradaya and explore it in an in-depth manner.
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