Swaminarayan Bhagwan (3 April 1781 – 1 June 1830), also known as Sahajanand Swami, incarnated on this earth on 3rd April 1781 and departed on 1 June 1830. He is the central figure in a modern sect of Hinduism known as the Swaminarayan Sampraday, a form of Vaishnavism. Within the faith, Swaminarayan Bhagwan is known as the Supreme Being, Purna Purushottam and Sarvopari.
Swaminarayan Bhagwan was born as Ghanshyam Pande in Chhapaiya, Uttar Pradesh, India in 1781. His parents names were Dharmadev and Bhaktimata. In 1792, he began a seven year pilgrimage across India, whence he was known by the name Nilkanth Varni. He settled in the state of Gujaraj around 1799. In 1800, he was initiated into the Udhhav Sampraday by his guru, Ramanand Swami, and was given the name Sahajanand Swami. In 1802, his guru handed over the leadership of the Uddhav Sampraday to him before his death. Sahajanand Swami held a gathering and taught the Swaminarayan Mahamantra. From this point onwards, he was known as Swaminarayan Bhagwan and regarded as an incarnation of God by his followers. The Uddhav Sampraday became known as the Swaminarayan Sampraday.
Swaminarayan Bhagwan developed a good relationship with the British Imperial Government. He had followers not only from other Hindu sects, but also from the Islamic sects. He had six temples built in his lifetime and initiated 500 parahhansas to spread his philosophy. In 1826, Swaminarayan Bhagwan wrote the Shikshapatri, a book of social principles for his followers. He departed for his divine abode on 1 June 1830 and his body was cremated according to Hindu rites in Gadhda, Gujarat. Before his death, Swaminarayan Bhagwan adopted his two brothers sons and appointed them as acharyas to head the two dioceses, NarNarayandev and Laxminarayandev, of Swaminarayan Sampraday.
Swaminarayan Bhagwan is also remembered within the faith for undertaking reforms for women and the poor, performing yagnas or fire sacrifices on a large scale as well as performing miracles.
Swaminarayan Bhagwan was born on 3 April 1781 (Chaitra Sud 9, Samvat 1837) in Chhapaiya, a village near Ayodhya, in a Hindi speaking region in India. Born in the Brahmin caste of Sarvariya, Swaminarayan Bhagwan was named Ghanshyam by the villagers of Chhapaiya. His parents were Hariprasad Pande (also known as Dharmadev) and Premvati Pande (also known as Bhaktimata, Bala and Murtidevi). Markandey muni gave him four names which were Hari, Krishna, Harikrishna and Nilkanth. Swaminarayan Bhagwan had an elder brother, Rampratap Pande, and a younger brother, Ichcharam Pande. Ganshyam mastered Hindu Scriptures including the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Purans, the Ramayan, and Mahabharat by the age of seven.
After the death of his parents, Ghanshyam left his home on 29 June 1792 (Ashadh Sud 10, Samvat 1849) at the age of 11. He was known as Nilkanth Varni while on his journey. Nilkanth Varni travelled across India and parts of Nepal in search of an a true saint. He went from pilgrimage to pilgrimage in search of such a saint. To find such a saint, Nilkanth Varni asked the following five questions to the ascetics and saints he met in his travels.
1. What is Jiva?
2. What is Ishvar?
3. What is Maya?
4. What is Brahm?
5. What is Parbrahm?
While on his journey, Nilkanth Varni mastered Ashtang Yog (eightfold yoga) in a span of 9 months under the guidance of an aged yogic master named Gopal Yogi. In Nepal, he met King Rana Bahadur Shah and cured him of his stomach illness. As a result, the king freed all the ascetics he had imprisoned. Nilkanth Varni visited the Jaganath Temple in Puri as well as temples in Badrinath, Rameshwar, Nasik, and Pandharpur.
In 1799, after a seven year journey, Nilkanth’s travels as a yogi eventually concluded in Loj, a village in the Junagadh district of Gujarat. In Loj, Nilkanth Varni met Muktanand Swami, a senior disciple of Ramanad Swami. Muktanand Swami, who was twenty-two years older than Nilkanth, answered the five questions to Nilkanth’s satisfaction. Nilkanth decided to stay for the opportunity to meet Ramanand Swami, who he met a few months after his arrival in Gujarat.
Nilkanth Varni received sanyas initiation from Ramanand Swami on 20 October 1800, and with it was granted the names Sahajanand Swami and Narayan Muni to signify his new status.
At the age of 21, Sahajanand Swami was appointed successor to Ramanand Swami as the leader of the Uddhav Sampraday by Ramanand Swami, prior to his death. The Uddhav Sampraday henceforth came to be known as the Swaminarayan Sampraday.
Sahajanand Swami was later known as Swaminarayan Bhagwan after the mantra he taught at a gathering, in Fareni, a fortnight after the death of Ramanand Swami. He gave his followers a mantra, known as the Swaminarayan Mahamantra, to repeat in their rituals. When chanting this mantra, devotees went into samadhi (a trance). Swaminarayan Bhagwan also became known by the names Ghanshyam Maharaj, Shreeji Maharaj, Hari Krishna Maharaj and Shri Hari. As early as 1804, Swaminarayan Bhagwan, was known to have performed miracles, was described as a manifestation of God within the people in various villages in Gujarat.
Swaminarayan Bhagwan encouraged his followers to combine bhakti (devotion) and dharma (righteousness) to lead a pious life. Swaminarayan Bhagwan was particularly strict on the separation of male and female assemblies in temples. Swaminarayan Bhagwan was against the consumption of meat, alcohol or drugs, adultery, suicide, animal sacrifices, criminal activities and the appeasement of ghosts and tantric rituals. Alcohol consumption was forbidden by him even for medicinal purposes. His followers took vows before becoming his disciple. He stated that four elements need to be conquered for ultimate salvation: dharma (righteousness), bhakti (devotion), gnan (knowledge) and vairagya (detachment).
Reforms for women and the poor
After assuming the leadership of the Sampraday, Swaminarayan Bhagwan worked to assist the poor by distributing food and drinking water. He undertook several social service projects and opened almshouses for the poor. Swaminarayan Bhagwan organized food and water relief to people during times of drought.
He stopped the practice of sati (self-immolation by a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre), Swaminarayan Bhagwan argued that, as human life was given by God it could be taken only by God, and that sati had no Vedic sanction. He went to the extent to call sati nothing but suicide. Swaminarayan Bhagwan offered parents help with dowry expenses to discourage female infanticide, calling infanticide a sin.
At that time, influential and wealthy individuals educated their girls through private and personal tuition. Male followers of Swaminarayan Bhagwan made arrangements to educate their female family members. The literacy rate among females began to increase, and they were able to give discourses on spiritual subjects. Within the sampraday, Swaminarayan Bhagwan is considered a pioneer of education of females in India.
Animal Sacrifices and Yagnas
Swaminarayan Bhagwan was against animal sacrifices as carried out by Brahmin priests during Vedic rituals, such as yagnas (fire sacrifices). The priests consumed “sanctified” prasad in the form of meat of these animals. To solve this problem, Swaminarayan Bhagwan conducted several large scale yagnas. These did not have animal sacrifices and were conducted in strict accordance with Vedic scriptures. Swaminarayan Bhagwan was successful in reinstating ahinsa through several such large scale yagnas. Swaminarayan Bhagwan stressed lacto vegetarianism among his followers and forbade meat consumption
Leaving this Mortal World
In 1830, Swaminarayan Bhagwan gathered his followers and announced his departure. He left his materialistic body on 1 June 1830 (Jeth sud 10, Samvat 1886), He was cremated according to Hindu rites at Lakshmi Wadi in Gadhada.
Prior to his death, Swaminarayan Bhagwan decided to establish a line of acharyas or preceptors, as his successors. He established two gadis (seats of leadership). One seat was established at Ahmedabad (NaNarayandev Gadi) and the other one at Vadtal (LaxmiNarayandev Gadi) on November 21, 1825. Swaminarayan Bhagwan appointed an acharya to each of these gadis to pass on his message to others and to preserve his fellowship, the Swaminarayan Sampraday. These acharyas came from his immediate family. He formally adopted a son from his brothers and appointed them as acharyas. Ayodhyaprasad, the son of Swaminarayan Bhagwan’s elder brother Rampratap and Raghuvir, the son of his younger brother Ichcharam, were appointed acharyas of the Ahmedabad Gadi and the Vadtal Gadi respectively.