By Suma Varughese January 1999 One of the fastest growing religious movements in India, the Swaminarayan Sampradaya tempers spectacular festivals with an unquestioning life of faith One of the fastest growing religious movements in India, the Swaminarayan Sampradaya tempers spectacular festivals with an unquestioning life of faith In the closing months of 1995, the blasé city of Bombay was shaken awake by a spiritual festival of massive proportions. For over 37 days—from end November to end December—100-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 India culture. 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 sheen? 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 East—in 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 to women. 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. The 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, Godhead). 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. Earlier, 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 to him. 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 them!' The temple complex in Ahmedabad, the group's headquarters, is vast.
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