Historical records show that Nilkanth's pilgrimage of India lasted from Ashadh sud 10 V.S. 1849 (29 June 1792) to Shravan vad 6 V.S. 1856 (21 August 1799) - a period of 7 years 1 month and 11 days. His was not an aimless wandering, but a journey of observation, assessment, inspiration and enlightenment. However, Nilkanth's arrival in Loj, a small village in Gujarat, and decision to settle in the ashram of Ramanand Swami was not the end of His journey - it merely marked the end of the beginning. For, he continued his visits to the villages, inspiring and enlightening society both in social and spiritual matters.
On his arrival in Loj, Nilkanth's divine aura entranced the sadhus and devotees. Ramanand Swami initiated him into the sadhu-fold, naming him Sahajanand Swami and Narayan Muni. Through his devotion and service, Sahajanand Swami won the respect of all. So, when Ramanand Swami declared him as his successor, the decision was greeted with universal approval. After the passing away of Ramanand Swami, Sahajanand Swami continued and expanded the social work began by Ramanand Swami. He set up more almshouses, providing food for the poor and pilgrims. In times of famine, he generously gave grains to those in need.
Over time, Sahajanand Swami came to be known as Swaminarayan and was revered by many as the incarnation of supreme God.
Bhagwan Swaminarayan championed the cause of women, convincing people to abandon the cruel practices of sati, female infanticide and dowry. He even encouraged women's education to such an extent that the first women teachers of Gujarat were his devotees.
During Bhagwan Swaminarayan's travels to the villages, he inspired people to give up their addictions to tobacco, alcohol, gambling and other vices. Through his contact, notorious villains, like Joban Pagi, were transformed into law-abiding, God-fearing citizens. Bhagwan Swaminarayan's influence spread through all stratas of society, from the elite classes to the lower classes, inspiring them to forsake their wayward lifestyles and adopt a morally pure, God-centred life. Such were Bhagwan Swaminarayan's achievements that even the ruling British officers praised his efforts in establishing law, order and moral discipline in areas previously difficult to control. Senior British officers, such as Sir John Malcolm, the Governor of Mumbai, were so impressed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan's work that they sought an audience with him to congratulate and honour him.
Bhagwan Swaminarayan also endeavoured to establish inter-faith harmony. He had excellent relations with leaders and followers of other faiths and took every opportunity to meet them. Most notable was his meeting in Nadiad with Bishop Reginald Heber, the Bishop of Kolkata. Through such meetings he discussed ways of enhancing mutual respect and harmony.
Although Bhagwan Swaminarayan himself travelled extensively to promote his message of moral and spiritual purity, he was aided in his work by a dedicated cadre of over 500 paramhansas. They strictly observed lifetime vows of brahmacharya and poverty and toured the villages preaching Bhagwan Swaminarayan's message of moral, social and spiritual purity. These paramhansas were talented in many disciplines - art, vocal and instrumental music, scriptural study, Sanskrit, etc. They composed many texts and devotional songs describing the life, work and messages of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, many of which are still available today, and continues to inspire many.
Bhagwan Swaminarayan's wide ranging social reform activities were conducted on a solid spiritual base, since it alone provided the underlying values required to sustain such reforms. He inspired faith and taught people to offer devotion and service to God. To facilitate this Bhagwan Swaminarayan built six majestic traditional mandirs and organised large-scale celebrations of many Hindu festivals.
He thus revived many Vedic traditions, which over time had become eroded from Hindu practice.
Bhagwan Swaminarayan lived on earth for 49 years. During his tenure he had on many occasions revealed the glory of Gunatitanand Swami as Aksharbrahma and his choicest disciple. Before passing away to his abode, Akshardham, he passed on his mission of guiding, elevating and redeeming souls to Gunatitanand Swami.
Thus, the first in this unique lineage of gurus in the BAPS Swaminarayan Sampraday was Aksharbrahma Gunatitanand Swami (1785-1867). Then followed Bhagatji Maharaj (1829-1897), Shastriji Maharaj (1865-1951) and Yogiji Maharaj (1892-1971).
It was Shastriji Maharaj who formally established the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) in 1907.
Currently, the fifth spiritual successor in Bhagwan Swaminarayan's lineage of God-realised, spiritually perfect Sadhus is Pramukh Swami Maharaj (1921-).
Today, the BAPS, under the guidance and inspiration of Pramukh Swami Maharaj, is active in a wide variety of social, educational, health, environmental, disaster relief and spiritual activities.
Today, a dedicated cadre of over 700 sadhus, 55,000 volunteers and thousands of devotees spread throughout over 45 countries continue to practice and preserve the ideals of social and spiritual purity revealed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Through its international cultural festivals in India, UK, USA and Africa, BAPS has educated and enlightened millions of people about the ancient social and spiritual values and traditions of India. Also, BAPS' permanent cultural complexes - Akshardham in Gandhinagar and New Delhi - and the renowned traditional BAPS mandirs in London, Chicago and Houston continue to inspire thousands daily.
And today, Pramukh Swami Maharaj even at the age of 84, continues to visit villages, towns and cities throughout the world, inspiring and guiding people on personal, professional, social and spiritual matters. Since assuming the role of spiritual guru of the BAPS in 1971, Pramukh Swami Maharaj has sanctified over 250,000 homes, making over 15,500 village, town and city visits. He has read and replied to over 500,000 letters and has personally counselled over 810,000 people. Daily, he attends to dozens of letters and grants audience to hundreds of people. Thus, through his relentless travels, he is a beacon of hope for many, living and teaching the sacred traditions and values of Bhagwan Swaminarayan and continuing the journey of inspiration began by Nilkanth.