In Part 1, we discussed several Hindu rituals and how modern scientific research is beginning to discover their beneficial effects on man. In Part 2 we consider how Bhagwan Swaminarayan, Himself the Supreme Reality, observed rituals during His life, right from childhood. It also examines how He purified and propounded them, which collectively uplifted Gujarat, as a result of which righteous leaders arose later, inspired by Swaminarayan ideals, who were instrumental in gaining India independence.
A Glimps into History
From His childhood in Chhapiya and Ayodhya, Bhagwan Swaminarayan was inclined towards bhakti and bhakti rituals. In the Vachanamrut (Gadhada II-55), He reveals that in Ayodhya, He visited mandirs every morning for darshan, to listen to Bhagwan Ram’s katha and associate with sadhus. By the age of ten, He had studied all the shastras from His father, Dharmadev.
From the age of 11 to 18, during His Kalyan Yatra through India and Nepal, He visited over 187 holy shrines. His daily routine included bathing in lakes, rivers or ponds, after which He performed puja of Bal Mukund – a shaligram. He then offered to Bal Mukund fruits lying on the forest floor or that offered by people in villages. In Muktinath, Nepal, He performed austerities for over two months, by standing in a yogic posture on one leg and arms raised with a mala. At the age of about 15, He also mastered the eight limbs of Ashtang yog from Gopal Yogi. From a mundane point of view, mastering samadhi, the final limb, that He realised the ultimate Reality.
While travelling, He chanted His favourite shlokas from the Shrimad Bhagvat, namely Gopika geet and Bhramar geet. He was ever ready to offer seva – service to others. On His way from Venkatadri to Rameshwaram, He nursed and served, for two months a sadhu named Sevakram, afflicted with severe dysentery.
Abolishing Evil Rituals
In 1799, after arriving at the ashram of His guru, Ramanand Swami, He served sadhus, washed their robes, cleaned the ashram and begged for alms. After diksha and appointment as head of the sampraday, He began to establish the ideals of Ekantik Dharma, namely dharma, gnan, vairagya and bhakti.
He forbade and abolished several evil customs and rituals then prevalent. This included: female infanticide; singing obnoxious songs known as fatanas during marriage, animal offerings to appease tamsic deities, and superstitious ritual of wearing a black thread of such deities to ward off illness. He exhorted people not to fear such deities and instead, to firmly believe in one almighty Reality – Purushottam Narayan – who was the all-doer.
Establishing Non-Violent Yagnas
Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s greatest contribution in edifying Gujarat’s religious realm, was the abolition of animal offerings in yagnas and establishing non-violent yagnas. Hitherto, Vama and Kaul marg pundits held society in a vice-grip and had misled people by misinterpreting the shastras, to indulge in flesh and liquor. Moreover, these pundits had the support of the Peshwa rulers. Opposing both, posed a formidable and daunting challenge. To rout the pundits, Bhagwan Swaminarayan employed an ingenious stratagem. In the several huge yagnas He held in Jetalpur, Dabhan and Kariyani, known as Vishnuyag and Rudrayag, He invited thousands of pundits from Banaras. If He convinced them of the Vedic veracity of non-violent yagnas, they would be inspired to practice these in their home regions.
In one such yagna, in Jetalpur in 1809, He requested the scholars to debate about the Vedas’ true injunctions regarding offerings in yagnas. They unanimously declared that worship of Bhakti by offering flesh and liquor was tamsic and also flouted Vedic tenets. Instead, Vedic texts enjoined auspicious offerings such as barley, rice, sesame, ghee, kumkum and coconut in the yagna fire. Such a declaration by the pundits themselves, emboldened other brahmins present to practice non-violent yagnas. The most important ramification of this, was that people all over Gujarat, realising the truth, gladly participated in non-violent yagnas. Thus the Vama marg’s tamsic yagnas in became less and less popular.
Purifying Festival Rituals
Besides the rituals cited above, the rituals in several religious festivals of the period had been polluted to gratify the senses. Such festivals included Maha Shivaratri, Holi, Krishna Janmashtami and Navaratri. First, Bhagwan Swaminarayan enjoined men and women to celebrate among themselves, rather than in a mixed gathering, which promoted promiscuity. Secondly, He enjoined people to observe vrats – fasts and other festival rituals of devotion as advocated by Vitthalnathji the exponent of Vaishnavism. Thirdly, He advocated singing bhajans and reciting or listening to the glory of the avatar or deity whose festival was being celebrated. This boosted the bhakti aspect of the festival, chanelling the mind and senses onto a devotional plane.
A striking example of such devotional upgrading and purity, was the exalted prayer during Holi, by women devotees of north Gujarat. Some of their sentiments in this prayer may not even be excelled by erudite pundits. Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s poet paramhansa, Nishkulanand Swami, versified this prayer in the Bhaktachintamani (??). Some of the exuberant and deeply philosophical sentiments beseech Him for deliverance from: mundane temptations, ego, anger, greed and other swabhavs, and on a devotional note; for Bhagwan’s eternal vision. This prayer remains an exemplary landmark in the bhakti sampradays of India, for it depicts the profound spiritual contentment experienced simultaneously by a large group of women, rather than single female bhaktas of the past. Followers regularly sing this prayer today, since it encompasses all sentiments of sadhana that aspirants need to ask from Bhagwan.
To guide followers about the ritual details concerning the celebration of festivals, Bhagwan Swaminarayan commanded His eight poet-paramhansas, namely Muktanand, Brahmanand, Premanand, Nishkulanand, Devanand, Bhumanand, Manjukeshanand and Dayanand, to compose appropriate bhajans. These poetic works of literary excellence, extolled the glory of the festivals and how to celebrate them. The poets composed these in Gujarati, Hindi and Vraj. Other bhajans concerned the daily puja rituals performed by devotees such as arti, naivedya – food offerings for the appropriate time of the day or season, prabhatiya – lyrics for awakening and bathing Bhagwan in the morning and offering shangar, ghodi – bhajans sung prior to the evening arti and nitya cheshta – a series of padas meticulously extolling Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s persona, likes and dislikes and daily activities – to be sung at night before sleeping. The paramhansas’ staggering volume and poetic excellence of bhakti literature immensely enriched Gujarati literature. In A Comprehensive History of India, K.K. Datta notes, “Sahajanandji left behind him a host of disciples, all of them sadhus, who have contributed substantially to Gujarati literature. Some of them were poets of a very high order” (1985 XI:848).
In 1826, Bhagwan Swaminarayan Himself wrote a code of 212 precepts to be observed by followers. In this short Sanskrit text known as the Shikshapatri, He stipulated rituals and observances distilled from 346 shastras and 3814 references! The codes and injunctions include topics such as: ahimsa, bhakti and satsang, diplomacy, ecological awareness, education, festivals, finance management, health & hygiene, morality & ethics and philosophical principles.
From 1819 to 1829, four paramhansa scholars, namely Gopalanand, Muktanand, Nityanand and Shukanand Swami compiled 262 spiritual discourses of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, into a text known as the Vachanamrut, the central philosophical shastra of the Swaminarayan Sampraday.
In several Vachanamruts, Bhagwan Swaminarayan elaborates the philosophy underlying rituals, and the need for both the aspirants and the siddha to observe rituals (of vidhi and nishedh). He castigated pseudo-Vedantis who believed the moral do’s and don’ts as false. He reasoned that even Shankaracharya, the proponent of Advait Vedant, enjoined his disciples to recite the Gita and Vishnusahastranam. Moreover he also composed the Bhaj Govindam stotras of Vishnu, and other bhajans glorifying Shiva, Ganapati, Surya and other deities, precisely because the feared that an atheistic tendency would prevail in people’s hearts. Those who committed all manner of sinful actions based on the belief that, aham Brahmasmi – ‘I am Brahman’, and therefore nothing affects Brahman, were mistaken and false. Hence every jiva is obligated to observe rituals regardless of whether he is a sadhak or a siddha.
It is precisely to promote the path of bhakti and to lessen the emphasis on extreme renunciation (tyag) by those who professed the aforementioned beliefs and to foster Ekantik bhakti and upasana among followers. That Bhagwan Swaminarayan built and consecrated six shikharbaddh mandirs (Gadhada II-27). Ekantik bhakti incorporates the four factors of dharma – righteous living, gnan – knowledge of atma and Parabrahma, vairagya – detachment from the body, its relations and mundane possessions, and bhakti – intense love for Parabrahma with a full-fledged realisation of His greatness, glory and grandeur.
Mandirs & the Path of Bhakti
From 1822 to 1829, Bhagwan Swaminarayan consecrated Vedic mandirs in Amdavad, Bhuj, Vadtal, Dholera, Junagadh and Gadhada. Despite being Purushottam Narayan, He too performed arti, pradakshina and dandvat pranams and delivered spiritual discourse in these mandirs. Furthermore, He established in them, the celebration of the jayantis of avatars and other sacred days especially by fasting rather than feasting, singing bhajans and reciting the divine lila of avatars and the virtuous lives of rishis, sadhus and bhaktas from the shastras.
These mandirs also housed: (a) pathshalas – to study Sanskrit, the sacred shastras and devotional music (b) kitchens to serve food to the needy and visiting pilgrims (c) and guest houses for pilgrims, since these mandirs themselves became tirths – pilgrim centres.
The most important function of these mandirs was that by consecrating the murtis in the Vedic tradition of Bhakta-Bhagwan, Bhagwan Swaminarayan propounded worship of Parabrahma along with His ideal devotee, e.g. Radha-Krishna, Lakshmi-Narayan and Nar-Narayan. The philosophical principal inherent in this, was that one should offer devotion by believing oneself as akshar-rup or brahma-rup, to be eligible to worship Parabrahma (Shikshapatri 116, Gita 18/54). This fundamental belief overcomes the limitations of the body, as well as the mind and atma. This was and is Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s eternally truthful wisdom to all aspirants on the sadhana path. And this amply resolves Dr. Newberg’s contention cited in the first article, that though rituals can provide a taste of spiritual union, they were unlikely to achieve the ultimate unitary state (or moksha), because of the limitations of the body. He proposed that “the proper kind of thought would trigger… the degree of transcendence… to the states of spiritual absorption that theologians describe as mystical experience” (2001:97).