Bhagwan Swaminarayan initiated approximately 3,000 sadhus in His time. Of those, 500 were known as ‘nand santo’ or paramhansas. Their names ended with ‘nand’, i.e., Brahmanand, Premanand, Muktanand, Shukanand, and Gunatitanand. These paramhansas passed 108 different tests of austerities and hardships. Some of them were kings, royal poets, musicians, Brahmins, royal advisors, and even warriors. Bhagwan Swaminarayan attracted people from all over the Indian subcontinent who surrendered their assets and lives at His feet. The following are short biographies of some of those stellar spiritual aspirants.
- Brahmanand Swami – Before meeting Bhagwan Swaminarayan, Brahmanand Swami’s name was Ladudanji. Ladudanji was a distinguished poet and well-known in the royal courts for whom he frequently performed. He was initially skeptical of the praises he heard about Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Along with his uncle, Ladudanji decided to meet Bhagwan Swaminarayan to test His godliness. If Bhagwan Swaminarayan was truly God, He would do six things: He would call Ladudanji by his name, know his life story, garland him, show Ladudanji His feet, and be reading the Bhagavata Purana wrapped in a black cloth. Bhagwan Swaminarayn fulfilled each of these expectations when He met with Ladudanji. Ladudanji quickly realized Bhagwan Swaminarayan to be God, and wanting to immediately serve Him, he requested to become a sadhu. He was renamed Brahmanand Swami and used his poetry skills to express his devotion towards Bhagwan Swaminarayan. He is known for creating kirtans on the spur of the moment. These kirtans are still sung today. He became one of Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s most trusted sadhus and was put in charge of the construction of four mandirs. He composed over 8,000 kirtans both in Gujarati and in other languages. Brahmanand Swami’s devotion illustrates Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s dynamic ability to inspire even those who were skeptical of Him.
- Muktanand Swami – Muktanand Swami, one of Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s most trusted sadhus, was a master of eight-fold ashtanga yoga and had a strong command over language and literary technique. He is the composer of the Swaminarayan aarti. Muktanand Swami’s mastery of the scriptures made him an expert on Hindu philosophy and capable of explaining Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s complex concepts. Muktanand Swami became a sadhu under the guidance of Ramanand Swami. When Muktanand Swami met Neelkanth Varni, he was the first person to satisfactorily answer His inquiries regarding the true nature of jiva, ishwar, maya, Brahma, and Parabrahma. It was this interaction that sparked Neelkanth Varni’s interest in Ramanand Swami and his sampraday. Muktanand Swami’s broad influence on the sampraday ranges from his contributions to the scriptures and kirtans to his efforts to spread the philosophy of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. He was 17 years older than Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Muktanand Swami was known for his caring demeanor, similar to love of a mother, as he was willing to accept, accommodate, and forgive the flaws of younger sadhus and devotees. He was also extremely talented in the performing arts. It is said that he could perform a classical Indian dance while painting a peacock with his toes!
- Premanand Swami – Before Premanand Swami met Bhagwan Swaminarayan, he had been abandoned by his birth parents and adopted by a childless, Islamic couple. When he was 11 years old, he met with Bhagwan Swaminarayan for the first time and expressed a desire to remain with Him. With his adoptive father’s permission, Premanand Swami followed Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s instructions to study at a music institution. After he completed his studies, he returned to Bhagwan Swaminarayan and was soon initiated as a sadhu. Premanand Swami spent the remainder of his life in the service of Bhagwan Swaminarayan and left a legacy of over four thousand kirtans. His composition remains unmatched among Indian music composition, and within the sampraday, many of the bhajans sung daily are those composed by Premanand Swami. He is regarded as one of the greatest literary poets of India.
- Gunatitanand Swami – Gunatitanand Swami was Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s first spiritual successor. Gunatitanand Swami was born in Bhadra to a Brahmin family. He was the elder of two sons. From a young age, he experienced constant communion with Bhagwan Swaminarayan. He would tell his mother about Neelkanth Varni’s travels in the jungles of Assam and the foothills of the Himalayas. He became a sadhu in due time and was known for his selfless service to the other sadhus and devotees. What distinguished him from the other paramhansas was his oneness with Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Once while playing raas in Sarangpur at Rathod Dhadhal’s house, Bhagwan Swaminarayan introduced him as His divine abode—as the gunatit sant. At numerous times throughout His spiritual endeavor, Bhagwan Swaminarayan sang Gunatitanand Swami’s mahima in front of the other paramhansas, establishing the importance of His legacy in the gunatit sadhu for future generations. Bhagwan Swaminarayan had given an agna to all the paramhansas to visit Junagadh and do Gunatitanand Swami’s samagam, or spiritual company, for one month out of the year. Gunatitanand Swami served as the mahant of the Junagadh mandir for 40 years, 4 months, and 4 days before returning to Akshardham in Gondal.
- Nishkulanand Swami – Nishkulanand Swami was a carpenter known as Lalji Suthar before being initiated as a sadhu. He was a strong renunciate and known for his intense vairagya, or detachment from worldly objects and relationships. His poetic creations displayed this intense sense of detachment. He authored Nishkulanand Kavya, a book that is famous within the sampraday. The Nishkulanand Kavya is comprised of 22 smaller books. Each of these creations is unique in its prose and subject matter, ranging from the supremacy of Bhagwan Swaminarayan to the means of attaining moksha. Bhagwan Swaminarayan tested Nishkulanand Swami’s vairagya before making him a sadhu. Bhagwan Swaminarayan told Lalji that He wanted to go on a trip to Bhuj. On that trip, He made Lalji give away all his possessions. When they reached Lalji’s in-laws’ village, He instructed Lalji to shave his head, put on the clothes of a sadhu, and beg for alms in the village. In fact, Lalji went and begged for alms at his own in-laws’ house. Lalji’s staunch faith and vairagya even moved his wife. She gave him her consent to become a sadhu. Nishkulanand Swami became a gem among the paramhansas.
- Nityanand Swami – Nityanand Swami was one of the greatest scholars in Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s time. He had a heavy build and wore thick-framed reading glasses. He would arrive at every debate with two carts, one to carry himself and the other to carry the large load of books he would cite as references during the debate. The sight of his arrival was enough for most scholars to admit defeat before the debate even began! Nityanand Swami strongly believed that Bhagwan Swaminarayan was the Supreme God. In a debate with other sadhus, even when Bhagwan Swaminarayan sided with the other sadhus, he stood firm in this belief and was later rewarded by Bhagwan for his steadfast resolve. Regarded as one of the brightest minds in Gujarat, Nityanand Swami wrote many books and commentaries on various Hindu scriptures.
- Adhbhutanand Swami – Just as his name suggests, there was something adhbhut, or extraordinary, about this paramhansa’s story. Adhbhutanand Swami was known as Kalyandas from Kadu before being initiated as a sadhu. On Kalyandas’ wedding day, a messenger from Gadhada arrived just as he was about to take his steps around the sacred fire in the mandap. The messenger passed a letter to Kalyandas’ maternal uncle. His uncle read the letter and announced that he would have to leave but that they should carry on with the festivities. Kalyandas asked why he was leaving, and his uncle explained that the letter instructed 17 devotees to immediately quit what they were doing and rush to Jetalpur where they would be initiated by Ramdas Swami. Kalyandas started taking off his marriage attire and decided to join his uncle. His uncle tried to dissuade Kalyandas, pointing out that his name was not even in the letter. Kalyandas responded, “But the list says ‘etc.’ Doesn’t that include me?” His uncle, mother, and father tried to dissuade him, but Kalyandas was firm. After reaching Bhuj, Bhagwan Swaminarayan sent all 17 of the devotees back, but He allowed Kalyandas to remain as one of His paramhansas. This story of his courageous renunciation is famous around the world today.
- Shukhanand Swami – Shukhanand Swami was a Brahmin from Dabhan. He was the author and compiler of many scriptures. He stayed in a room across Akshar Ordi in Gadhada and would work late into the night under an oil lamp. He compiled Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s discourses and took thorough notes. He was one of the main compilers of the Vachanamrut. He also served as Bhgwan Swaminarayan’s secretary, writing letters and responding to inquiries by other devotees and sadhus. Bhagwan Swaminarayan often tested Shukmuni’s faith by ripping up letters and notes that he had worked on the entire night, but Shukmuni did not once question His actions. Bhagwan Swaminarayan referred to Shukmuni as His right hand. He was a true sevak that understood the needs and inner wishes of Bhagwan Swaminarayan.
- Atmanand Swami – Atmanand Swami was one of the few sadhus initiated from Ramanand Swami’s time. Out of respect, Bhagwan Swaminarayan referred to him as a guru bhai, or brother, and Bhai-Atmanand Swami. Bhai-Atmanand Swami had complete disregard for his body. He would never scrub his body or shave the hair that grew on it. Eventually, insects would breed on his body and bite him. If he saw an insect fall off his body, he would carefully place it back on his body saying, “This is your food. Enjoy!” Bhagwan Swaminarayan was greatly pleased by his atmanishta and would often reward him with garlands and prasadi from His thal. Bhai-Atmamand Swami stayed at Dholera mandir towards the end of his life. He strictly adhered to niyam dharma and Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s agna. When he was 116 years old, he called Gunatitanand Swami and asked him why Bhagwan had not yet taken him to Akshardham. It was then that Gunatitanand Swami explained the supremacy of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Bhai-Atmanand Swami realized on that day that Bhagwan Swaminarayan was the Supreme God. He then asked for prasadi from Gunatitanand Swami’s bowl. He not only realized Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s greatness but Gunatitanand Swami’s as well.
- Akhandanand Swami – As his name suggests, Akhandanand Swami experienced anand, or bliss. His bliss was not derived from material objects or sensory pleasures. He believed himself to be the atma and enjoyed the bliss of Paramatma. Once while traveling alone through a dense jungle, he came across a tiger ready to pounce on him. Akhandanand Swami knew that even if he survived the attack today, he would have to die someday. He closed his eyes and meditated on Bhagwan Swaminarayan. He was neither worried nor frightened. He had mastered atmagnan. To his surprise, the tiger bowed to his fearlessness and left him unharmed. Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s paramhansas did not only write and talk about the philosophical truths from the Upanishads and the Gita, they lived it.
- Devanand Swami – Devanand Swami was one of the ashta kavis, or eight great poets, in Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s time. He composed bhajans in a direct tone warning spiritual aspirants of the repercussions of faltering from the spiritual path. It is said that Devanand Swami, born as Devidan, was blessed by Shiva when he was a child to be able to write and compose such literary masterpieces. Bhagwan Swaminarayan came to Devidan’s village when he was a teenager, and he immediately decided to join Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s fellowship to serve Him for the rest of his life. Devidan was put under the tutelage of Brahmanand Swami from whom he learned music, art, literature, and poetry. He soon mastered the arts and even earned the praises of his guru. After Brahmanand Swami passed away to Akshardham, Devanand Swami became the mahant of Muli mandir. He completed the contruction work in the complex and increased the mandir’s prosperity with his apt managerial and human resources skills. He predicted his own death a few days before Bhagwan Swaminarayan came to take him to Akshardham.
- Gopalanand Swami – Gopalanand Swami was one of the most senior sadhus in the sampraday. Known as Kaushal Bhakta in his childhood, he performed many miracles and amazed his parents and villagers. Despite being powerful and educated, he accepted Bhagwan Swaminarayan as the Supreme God and Aksharbrahma Gunatitanand Swami as the gunatit guru. Bhagwan Swaminarayan appointed him as the caretaker of both the Vadtal and Ahmedabad Gadis, or branches of the sect. Once when Brahmanand Swami, Nityanand Swami, and Gopalanand Swami where seated in Akshar Ordi with Bhagwan Swaminarayan, Bhagwan Swaminarayan asked them to name each of their strong characteristics. Gopalanand Swami replied, ‘With your grace, my word is honored in the entire universe.” Gopalanand Swami mastered the eight steps of ashtanga yoga. He was extremely learned in Sanskrit and the ancient scriptures. He was the first sadhu to write a commentary on the Shrimad Bhagavad Gita in the Swaminarayan Sampraday.
- Swarupanand Swami – Swarupanand Swami was a Brahmin from northern India that had heard of Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s glory and came in search of Him in Gujarat. After finding Him, Swarupanand Swami realized that he wanted to spend the rest of his life in His service. Swarupanand Swami had firm conviction in Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s supremacy. Once, Bhagwan Swaminarayan sent him to Dharma Raj’s abode to observe the pits of hell and the jivas suffering there. Swarupanand Swami went there and started chanting the Swaminarayan mantra. With the power of the mantra, all the jivas were released and sent to Badrikashram to perform penance to repent for their sins. Swarupanand Swami traveled far and wide to spread Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s glory. In a time when Mumbai was considered out of the country, Swarupanand Swami traveled to Jagannath Puri in Bengal to spread the word of Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s life and work. Once, Bhagwan Swaminarayan told him to visit Parvatbhai in Agatrai. Swarupanand Swami went there and delivered spiritual discourses to Parvatbhai. He returned and told Bhagwan Swaminarayan about his trip. Bhagwan Swaminarayan sent him back, this time to listen to Parvatbhai. Swarupanand Swami returned, without the slightest bit of ego or hesitation. He was a true sadhu, and that is why he was often praised by Bhagwan Swaminarayan.
- Satchidanand Swami – Satchidanand Swami stood over 7 feet tall and was extremely well-built. He had a zeal for spiritual discourses and the company of sadhus. He would constantly run away to Gadhada for Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s darshan. Once, his family decided to tie him up and chain him down to prevent him from running away. Bhagwan Swaminarayan came and rescued him in His divine form. Satchidanand Swami then came to Gadhada and took diksha. After becoming a sadhu, Satchidanand Swami dug the Radh Vav, a well outside of Gadhada, at Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s agna. Once, when there was a drought in Gujarat, devotees asked Bhagwan Swaminarayan to make it rain, but He did not heed their pleas. They then approached Satchidanand Swami. He refused their requests a few times, but he could not stand the sight of their plight. He sat in meditation and went straight to Indralok and told Indra to make it rain. Indra immediately showered his mercy on Gujarat. When Bhagwan Swaminarayan was getting ready to leave His mortal body and return to Akshardham, Satchidanand Swami sat in meditation and reached Akshardham before Him. Bhagwan Swaminarayan saw him there and immediately instructed him to go back. Satchidanand Swami started crying, saying that he would not be able to survive on Earth without Him. Bhagwan Swaminarayan promised to take him to Akshardham in 6 months. It was only then that Satchidanand Swami returned. Along with his yogic powers, his intense love for Bhagwan Swaminarayan set him apart from the rest.
- Krupanand Swami – Krupanand Swami was a native Brahmin from northern India. He had set out on a pilgrimage to Jagannath Puri and was on his way to Dwarika when he met Bhagwan Swaminarayan in Bhuj. He decided to end to his pilgrimage and took diksha from Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Krupanand Swami possessed intense love for Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Every time he was separated from Bhagwan Swaminarayan, his body would start convulsing and blood would seep from his pores. He would collapse and lay unconscious from the pain of separation from Bhagwan Swaminarayan. On seeing this, Gunatitanand Swami asked him why he had not asked Bhagwan Swaminarayan to always keep him with Him. Krupanand Swami replied, “If I didn’t believe that He was omniscient, I would. But I know He is.” Krupanand Swami’s enlightenment was also unparalleled in the sampraday. Gunatitanand Swami often praised his understanding and saintliness saying, “You can win over any sadhu with material objects, except for the great ones like Muktanand Swami, Gopalanand Swami, and Krupanand Swami.”
These are just short biographies of a few of the Paramhansas in Bhagwan Swaminarayan's time. Similarly, Bhagwan Swaminarayan's devotees too showed exemplary devotion and faith in Him.