Spirit Centers - From Guru to God
by Suma Varughese
One of the fastest growing religious movements in India, the Swaminarayan Sampradaya tempers spectacular festivals with an unquestioning life of faith
of the fastest growing religious movements in India, the Swaminarayan
Sampradaya tempers spectacular festivals with an unquestioning life of
In the closing months of 1995, the blasť city of Bombay was shaken
awake by a spiritual festival of massive proportions. For
over 37 daysfrom end November to end December100-odd acres
of derelict land in downtown Chembur was transformed into an enchanting
fairyland. Intricate archways, elaborate models of temples and massive
art pieces in cane, jute and bamboo recreated a breathtaking vista of
Within the grounds, interactive media, dioramas, panoramic scenes and
3-D exhibits vividly highlighted the festival theme of a beautiful,
borderless world. Spirituality doesn't interest Bombayites unless conveyed
in style. Which is why the sophisticated aesthetics and ambitious dimensions
of this festival impressed them.
As for the seamless logistics of organizing such a mega event, even corporate
Bombay went rushing to pick up a few tips. Normally, spirituality exists
in different dimension from uptown hip Bombay. This event bridged the
gap by conveying the best of Indian tradition in an attractive and contemporary
fashion. The name of the organizers became a new mantra: Swaminarayan.
Earlier, in August 1995, London dailies had marveled at the execution
and the logistics of a fully traditional Hindu
temple, the first of its kind outside India. Around 2,820 tonnes of Bulgarian
limestone and 2,000 tonnes of Italian Carrara marble were shipped to India, craved
and sculpted by sthapitas, and shipped back to London. The finished piece,
an intricately sculpted elegant structure in cream marble, received unqualified
praise. The Sunday Telegraph called it the "most remarkable London monument
of the late 20th century".
The name behind this effort: Swaminarayan. And then there's Akshardham.
Built to commemorate the centenary of one of its erstwhile spiritual
heads, Yogiji Maharaj, Akshardham is a stunning monument to the religion's
founder, Lord Swaminarayan. Situated about 25 km from Ahmedabad,
in Gandhinagar, the scope of this venture recalls the splendor of Mughal
architecture. The questions beg themselves. What is this organization,
with a penchant for the spectacular, all about? Where did it appear from?
How did it laminate a 5,000-year-old tradition with such contemporary
Integration of the past with
the present, constant acceptance of and adaptation to circumstances are, of course,
the distinguishing marks of Indian civilization, and the reason for its survival.
Even so, this particular organization's ease in straddling the two is noteworthy.
Perhaps the credit goes to the pragmatism of the Gujarati, who constitutes almost
the entire organization, for the movement originated in Gujarat, and has remained
largely true to its roots.
While its ascetics embrace the vow of poverty, money generates a healthy
respect among followers. Despite its close adherence to Vedic tenets crossing
the seven seas is not polluting. The sampradaya is richly cross-fertilized
by followers from East Africa the UK, the USA and the Middle Eastin
short wherever the enterprizing Gujarati (one of the most successful business
communities in India) went in search of business. Pujas (ritualistic
worship), temples and pilgrimages, the paraphernalia of bhakti (devotion),
co-exist with spectacular festivals, personality development, karate and
computer classes. The ascetics wear unstitched saffron and embrace what
one may consider archaic rules prohibiting them from looking at or talking
Many are graduates
from IITs, IIMs and even Cambridge. Such assurance of bearing is partly responsible
for its popularity. Raymond Brady Williams, professor of religion, Wabash College,
Cambridge, writes in his book, A New Face of Hinduism: the Swaminarayan Religion,
that it is one of the fastest growing Hindu movement in the subcontinent. Williams
was referring to the Swaminarayan Sampardaya as a whole.
group we are concerned with a breakaway from the parent organization,
called the Bochasanwasi Sri Akshar Purushottam Sanstha (BAPS). But Williams'
observation applies more acutely to the BAPS. It has over a million members
all over the world, 350 temples, 1,100 centers, 1,700 youth forums, 2,300
child forums, 625 centers for women and a network of socially relevant
activities. These include educational projects, medical camps and subsidized
medicare. Other initiatives include dowry free marriages, well-recharging,
de-addiction drives and disaster management.
The momentum keeps increasing. Another Akshardham is being planned in
Nairobi and New Delhi. Temples like the one in London are coming up in
Chicago and Nairobi. By Indian standards, the Swaminarayan faith
is new, only 200 years old. Its greater concern for social up-lift, considerable
relaxation of the caste system, and the relative sincerity with which
it is practiced can all be attributed to its newness.
But the movement's life force lies in its overwhelming devotion to the
guru. The Swaminarayan faith is cast in the classic Vaishnava bhakti
mould. Salvation is through the worship of God in human form; the modes
include rituals, prayer, pilgrimages, and above all surrender. Among the
BAPS, the focus on avatars is further strengthened by the belief that
Swaminarayan, the founder, is Parabrahman (the ultimate reality,
Furthermore, it is believed that he had promised to always be present to his followers
in the person of his successors. Each spiritual head, therefore, is the abode
of God. It is impossible to miss the fervent devotion directed towards the present
spiritual head of BAPS, Pramukh Swami Maharaj." There was much excitement in the
BAPS' temple at Dadar, Mumbai. Pramukh Swami was here, back from a long trip to
Nairobi, and the devotees were eager for darshan.
Swamishri or Swamibapa, as he is referred to, was expected
at the temple to pay his respects to the deities. While images of Radha,
Krishna, Hanuman and Ganesha appear within the temple pride of place is
given to Lord Swaminarayan, always portrayed in resplendent
clothes, and his perfect devotee, Gunatitanand Swami. As the tiny temple
bulges with devotees, the men sitting in front, the women well at the
back and the sadhus immediately in front of the deities, Pramukh Swami
Maharaj walks in. He is a slightly pudgy 75-year-old. Despite a bypass
operation four months ago in America, he looks tranquil.
The crowds greet him with folded hands. A few boys cry "Pramukh Swami
ki Jai" but are hastily silenced by their parents. Upstairs, Pramukh Swami
gives a small discourse, beginning with a ritual veneration of the line
of spiritual heads starting from Swaminarayan. He stops after mentioning
his predecessor, Yogiji Maharaj, but the crowd roars: "Pramukh Swami Ki
Jai!" He takes the acclaim in his stride, moving on impassively to an
address on God's indiscriminate regard for rich and poor.
"A poor man's
house may be small and unfurnished but God takes even greater pleasure from a
visit there than to a rich man's house," he tells his devotees. The message may
have been a mild reproof to one of the devotees from Nairobi who had just addressed
the crowd on his handsome donation for the forthcoming temple.
during a discourse by a sadhu, Pramukh Swami saton his richly decorated armchair,
intently reading a letter. This is one of his ways of keeping in touch with his
flock. They write to him, and he writes back. The BAPS proudly notes that he has
written 4,35,000 letters and visited over 2,50,000 homes. His concentration on
the task is unremitting. Never once does he lift his eyes from the pages, until
the swami stops the discourse and approaches him. With that same air of attention,
he then turns upon the subject under discussion.
Is he God-realized?
How hard it is to tell. All you can say is that there is a total lack of self-consciousness,
a complete genuineness and focus on the moment. Kalpesh Bhatt, a young computer
engineer who chucked a lucrative job in the USA to take up an honorary job with
the group, recalls what brought him within the flock. As a youngster living in
the vicinity, he often spent time with the sadhus.
One summer, he was asked to accompany Pramukh Swami on one of his rural visits.
Seizing the opportunity for a holiday, he went along, only to discover that the
holiday required him to sweep the place, cut vegetables, and do other menial work.
Weary of the slog, Bhatt and his friend conspired to sneak away. However, unable
to procure any tickets, they returned.
"When I came back," he recalls, "Pramukh Swami looked at me and smiled.
Although all he said was `Jai Swaminarayan', I felt he knew everything.
At that point I told myself that I shouldn't cheat this man." Even others
devotees attribute Pramukh Swami with omniscience. Since sadhus are not
allowed to meet or talk to women, female devotees to not have direct access
Nevertheless, says 23-year-old Meghna, a computer student: "I don't feel
deprived. When in trouble, I close my eyes, remember him and the problem
disappears." There is a singular sincerity about the devotees of this
faith. For those actively involved, Swaminarayan is a living faith,
untouched by the cynicism or indifference that overtakes inheritors of
older faiths, who lack a direct relationship with it.
Devotees attribute this to the devotion,
large-heartedness and humility of the sadhus and, above all, Pramukh Swami himself.
"These are really true saints," exclaims entrepreneur Tushar Bambhatt. "They don't
touch money or women. They are so open hearted and friendly, I fell in love with
The temple complex in Ahmedabad, the group's headquarters, is
vast. The architecture, one again, is filigreed pink sandstone. Frantic construction
is on, signs of the movement's growing size. The complex houses a bookshop, a
printing press, offices, accommodation for the sadhus, dining halls and a gues
house. There is also a hospital offering subsidized medical care, plus the headquarters
for child, youth and women activities. Women constitute 60 per cent of the fellowship.
This is ironic, for if there is anything that you would dispute about
the movement, it is the injunction that the sadhus observe eight-fold celibacy.
This forbids any contact, including speech, with women. The rule can only be relaxed
in matters of life or death. Women sit well at the back at all function and gatherings.
They don't approach any area likely to have sadhus.
If there is an inadvertent
meeting, either the sadhu or the woman backs away hastily, eyes to the ground.
As a woman, I had no access to the sadhus and had to be content with written answers
to my questions. Everywhere, I had to keep an eye open to ensure that no ascetic
crossed my path or I his. Used to discoursing freely with members of the opposite
sex, it was a novel experience to see myself cast in the role of a Mata Hari,
out to ensnare unwary adepts.
"But that's not the reason for the injunction," protests Ritesh Gadhia.
A former alumni of IIM Ahmedabad, Gadhia is an aspiring sadhu. He explains
that during Swaminarayan's ministry in the 18th Century, many ascetics
and spiritual leaders abused their positions to molest women. The injunction
is for the protection of women rather than the reverse.
Swami: "The motive for observing celibacy is self-discipline and elevation, not
harming or breeding aversion for women." This may be true but it reinforces the
society's existing tendency to marginalize them. But the women express no resentment.
Neeta Shah is deputy general manager in a public sector company. She is also one
of the chief organizers of the women's wing. Gentle and enthusiastic, she brushes
away all apprehensions of mariginalization.
"The non-interference of
the swamis has given us an opportunity to learn to do everything ourselves," she
says. "Even a five-year-old girl knows how to manage and organize an assembly."
The women's center buzzes with activity. The youth center is convening a meeting
in one room, while tiny tots of five and below have their own assembly. In another
room, women are busy sorting out answers to a mandatory bi-annual examination
on spirituality. Women are responsible for correcting, grading and allotting certificates.
The process is computerized to make sense of the thousands of entries. Most activities
are planned by the Ahmedabad headquarters and intimated to other centers. The
center is currently organizing a six-month self-development program that includes
effective communication and learning. Family harmony is the specific mission assigned
by Prakukh Swami, who initiated the concept of the ghar sabha. Members of the
family are required to sit together for at least half-an-hour every evening, exchange
news of the day, resolve contentious issues, and have fun.
aspect about the group is its relentless focus on social activity. The movement
calls itself a socio-spiritual organization and takes as its motto Pramukh Swami's
oft-quoted statement: "In the joy of other lies our own. In the progress of others
rests our own. In the good of others is our own." This interface between individual
and collective welfare is akin to Buddhist philosophy and is somewhat unusual
in a Hindu organization that traditionally highlights individual transformation.
The group's activities are wide ranging. At the Ahmedabad temple, the
adjoining hospital was conducting a free blood pressure, ECG and diabetes camp.
All visitor were given tests while doctors analysed the patient. Educational activities
include schools in London, Gondal, Ahmedabad, aids for many other schools, and
a range of hostels for young college students. We went to one such hostel, situated
in the university town of Vidyanagar, two hours from Ahmedabad. Beautifully neat
and clean as with all their properties, the place is verdant with greenery.
The spacious six-acre campus accommodates three residential buildings for
375 students, an administration block, a sant nivas for the 16 sadhus who administer
the place, a large temple, a dining hall and a book shop. Women are conspicuous
by their absence, though they are allowed to come as far as the temple. I am asked
to sit at the reception, where I am sent students to be interviewed. One such
is Chinti Dave, a final year engineering student at BVM engineering college.
He waxes eloquent on the campus which is the best in Vidyanagar: "We get
all luxuries like hot water, uninterrupted power supply, and spacious rooms. And
the saints give us good guidance." Student are introduced to a range of activities
such as karate, quizzes, debates and music classes. Participation in the administration
is encouraged. There is regular arati and nightly discourses. This exposure
to religious thought and close contact with sadhus makes the campuses a prime
recruitment spot for future ascetics.
The Vidyanagar campus, among eight
hostels in Gujarat and one in Maharashtra, has alone provided 60 sadhus to the
organization. Charges here are lower than at other similar institutions, with
a monthly food bill of Rs 750 and boarding of Rs 1,200. The food consists of chappatis,
rice, curd, dal, two vegetables and a tall glass of buttermilk.
BAPS record for relief work is remarkable. Largely centred around Gujarat, BAPS
had a large contribution in rehabilitating Latur quake victims. The cyclone that
ripped through Kandla port last year, also prompted speedy relief measures by
the group. Currently BAPS is rebuilding 10 schools within the cyclone-affected
region. The prime movers of the relief measures are the sadhus and youth volunteers.
The accent on social work dates back to the founder of the faith, Sahajanand
Swami (later called Swaminarayan), himself a social reformer.
Born in Chapaiya in northern India on April 3, 1781, he was called Ghanshyam,
Swaminarayan annals credit him with a miraculous youth, the highlight
of which was his leaving home at age 11 to wander through India.
His rigorous penance and pilgrimages
included a trek to the snowbound Mansarovar lake, clad only in loincloth. There
is a whole section in the exhibition are of Akshardham relating his perilous journeys
through India. It was in the South that he developed his philosophy, based on
the Vishishtadvaita (qualified nondualism) of Ramanujacharya.
years and 13,000 km later, he arrived in Kathiawad, Gujarat and joined the ashram
of Ramanand Swami where he was renamed Swami Sahajanand. In time, he was chosen
to succeed the latter. Among the social reforms he implemented was stopping animal
sacrifices and relaxing caste structure by allowing entry to all members.
There remain some caste distinctions: the sadhus are supposed to eat food cooked
only by brahmins. Harijans are also not meant to eat in the temple premises. However,
such rules are apparently only on paper. Swami Sahahanand also succeeded in putting
a stop to sati and female foeticide. He offered to pay the dowry of any
girl if her parents could not. He also furthered the cause of education both among
men and women, by setting up schools for both sexes.
The essence of Swami Sahajanand's philosophy revolved around the existence
of five eternal entities: jiva (self), ishwara (deities),
maya (flux), akshar (abode of God) and purushottam
or parabrahaman (the supreme person). Of these, only the last is
the ultimate reality that causes the existence of the rest. Within the
group, akshar is seen as the perfect devotee who, according to Swaminarayan,
would be his abode in life after life. Each spiritual head in turn becomes
the abode of the Lord, hence worthy of worship.
It was on the point of the right of the akshar to be worthy of worship
that the rifts occurred. The original group does not install the icon
of the akshar, unlike the BAPS which installs the image of Gunatitanand
Swami. This gave rise to the BAPS nameAkshar Purushottam Sanstha.
A new religion, the Swaminarayan faith included the Vedas, the
Gita, and the Srimad Bhagvatam as scriptures.
But it also bequeathed
its own doctrines: the Shikshapatri and the Vachinam Amritam. Renunciates
have a rigorous code of conduct, comprising five vows: nishkam (ego-lessness),
niswad (beyond taste) nissneh (non-attachment). The devotees have
their vows, such as vegetarianism, not to take intoxicants, not to commit adultery,
not to steal or defile oneself or others.
Such is the weightage given to these injunctions that serious devotees
go to any length to obey them. Bambhatt, for instance, travels all other
the world, but remains true to his vegetarian vow. Bambhatt has tried
to solve this problem by opening a restaurant in Ahmedabad called Ras
Bas. Serving pure vegetarian food, the staff conducts pujas and food is
offered to Lord Swaminarayan before serving. Says Bhupendra Solanki:
"We feel that God and our guru are watching us every moment, therefore
our concept is not commercial."
With such spiritual guides on call, can one wonder that
the organization prospers?