The importance of the Swaminarayan sect…
…And why the newly formed Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha’s ruckus over the sect’s depiction of Lord Hanuman is only the first of the many negotiations with the sect
Ahmedabad: A Swaminarayan sect temple in the Botad district of Gujarat recently replaced two murals depicting Lord Hanuman kneeling before and praying with folded hands to the 19th-century seer Sahajanand Swami (1781-1830) and the founder of the Swaminarayan sect, HT reported last week. This move came after a newly-formed Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha — a collection of Hindu seers who call themselves followers of Sanatana dharma — raised a ruckus over the depiction of the Hindu deity. The sect, however, is hugely influential and popular — it also wields immense economic and political power, particularly among the Patidars and Patels in Gujarat. In April, when the temple’s trust constructed a 54-ft bronze statue of Hanuman, none other than the home minister Amit Shah came to inaugurate it. In fact, the murals in question decorated the pedestal of this very statue.
“Such issues do not end so easily. We plan to form a committee with representatives from various Sanatana Dharma that will handle such issues in future. It will comprise saints from Swaminarayan, Jain, Buddhist and other such sects and religions that have their roots in Hinduism. A head of the committee will also be appointed shortly,” said Ashok Rawal, general secretary, Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Gujarat (VHP), which organised a meeting of saints from the sect and the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha – a body formed recently comprising of heads of various Sampradayas (Shankaracharyas, Mahamandaleswars, Mathadhipatis, Adinams, etc), who call themselves the followers of the Sanatana Dharma.
Rawal pointed out that the sect's willingness to remove the murals indicated their interest in cooperating with other Sanatana Dharma communities to resolve disputes and maintain harmony within the broader Hindu faith.
However, the sect itself is not a cohesive group and has about six major factions. To understand the controversy, we need to understand the sect.
Sahajanand Swami, also known as Swaminarayan, was a revered spiritual leader and founded a sect in the early 19th century, which placed a lot of emphasis on devotion, spirituality, and the teachings of Lord Swaminarayan. Followers believe he is an avatar of Lord Krishna.
The Kashtbhanjan Dev Hanumanji mandir in Salangpur, Botad district, the site of the controversy, is managed by the Vadtal Swaminarayan, one of the factions of the Swaminarayan sect.
Another sect is the more well-known Bochasanvasi Akshar Purushottam Sansthan (BAPS). A few weeks ago, when the mural controversy was brewing, a six-month-old video featuring a saint from this sect did the rounds on social media. In it, he was heard making remarks about Goddess Sita that were deemed controversial by many Hindu religious leaders.
BAPS holds a lot of political, social, and economic influence in Gujarat. The late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, renowned as India's "Missile Man" and a former President of India, penned a heartfelt tribute to his spiritual mentor and the former head of BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, the late Pramukh Swami Maharaj. In his book titled Transcendence: My Spiritual Experiences with Pramukh Swamiji, Dr Kalam delves into the profound impact Pramukh Swamiji had on his life. In 2016, when Pramukh Swami passed away, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended his funeral, and said that he felt like he had lost a father figure.
Many global leaders including the then US President Barack Obama as well as political leaders across party lines in India including Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) national convener Arvind Kejriwal and Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi paid tributes to Pramukh Swami.
The BAPS Swaminarayan faction has built more than 1,200 temples in India and abroad, renowned for their grand scale and architecture style. One of their temples in Gandhinagar — the Akshardham Temple — was attacked by terrorists in September 2002. The one in Delhi is also a BAPS-run institution. A third one is likely to be inaugurated next month in Robbinsville, New Jersey, USA. Two more are coming up in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, and in January, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said they symbolised “something bigger than a miracle”. In what is being hailed as the first grand Hindu temple in the Middle East, the one coming up in the UAE is expected to be inaugurated in February 2024, and is being built on a 27-acre government land in Abu Mureikhah, a BAPS representative said. The date for the inauguration of the Bahrain temple is as yet undisclosed.
“The base of the Swaminarayan sect was what we call today the Other Backward Classes (OBC). They started by reaching out to the Kathi Darbar community of Saurashtra and other marginalised people who were kept away from the mainstream. They talked about social reforms and started a movement against the killing of newborn girl children. Most of their leaders were Vaishnavites and soon at their temple, bhajans and religious literature became popular. About 125 years ago, they started gaining acceptance among the Patidars of the Patel community. The father of Sardar Patel was a follower of Swaminarayan,” said Gaurang Jani, a noted sociologist based in Ahmedabad and a former committee member of OBC Commission in Gujarat.
Vaishnavites are devotees of Lord Vishnu and the 10 incarnations he is believed to have had. The Patidar community, comprising two major sub-castes, Kadva and Leuva Patels, follow the practice of goddess worship (Shakti form).
The Patidars were mostly agriculturalists and had a strong base in rural areas as a result of which the Swaminarayan sect still has a stronghold in villages. Jani said that the Patidar community's transformation over the past century, evolving from farm labourers to landowners and advancing from trading cash crops to becoming prominent industrialists and founders of educational institutions in the state, is intricately linked with the ascent of the Swaminarayan Sanstha.
“When Patidars went abroad to countries like the US, Canada and Australia and prospered, the Swaminarayan sect established their presence in these countries. Late Pramukh Swami belonged to the Patidar community,” he said. Politically too, the sect’s rise has been aided by the political significance of the community.
Gujarat has seen five chief ministers from the Patidar community so far — Chimanbhai Patel, in 1973, was the first. The current chief minister Bhupendra Patel also belongs to the Patidar community.
Thus, the Swaminarayan temples in Gujarat occupy a unique position, encompassing spirituality, politics, and society. Their expansion is shaped by factors such as political ties and the influence of the Patidar community. A reformist strain continues to shape their teachings: the movement holds campaigns against tobacco and smoking, and seeks to promote a healthier lifestyle among its devotees.
“Financial backing is a crucial element here, and the Patidars, constituting 12% of Gujarat's population and considered a formidable force in politics and business, have played a central role. Their substantial support has enabled the construction of grand Swaminarayan temples, reshaping Gujarat's landscape,” said Jani.
This socio-economic progress of Patidars has allowed them to actively participate in philanthropic endeavours, with Swaminarayan temples being significant beneficiaries.
“Moreover, the rise of Hindutva in Gujarat has seen the Swaminarayan sect extending its reach into the tribal belt. Traditionally, tribals in Gujarat were not Hindus, but the allure of the Swaminarayan sect, with its grand temples and spiritual teachings, has attracted a new generation of followers from these communities,” said Jani.
BAPS is not solely a spiritual or religious organisation, but also functions as a prominent NGO actively engaged in social welfare, running hostels, schools, and hospitals, according to Dholakia. Their involvement in disaster relief efforts like the 2001 earthquake further broadens their appeal, allowing them to connect with a wider audience. Graduates of BAPS institutions often maintain strong affiliations due to these social welfare initiatives.
In this scenario, BAPS is seen as a leading example within the Swaminarayan tradition, emerging as the most influential presence. This prominence, however, is not evenly distributed, as other sects hold smaller pieces of the proverbial cake.
Among the six prominent Swaminarayan factions, the leadership dynamics vary. The BAPS, Mukt Jeevan, and Sokhda factions are guided by disciples of Lord Swaminarayan, while the Kalupur, Vadtal, and Gadhada factions are steered by individuals considered to be the direct bloodline of Lord Swaminarayan himself.
Amit Dholakia, head of the department, political science, MS University, Vadodara, explained that there is competition among them for followers, and the sects don’t always share cordial relations. A notable bifurcation among the sects occurred in the 20th century, which was primarily rooted in individual conflicts or personal ambitions, resulting in small doctrinal variations.
“Sokhada and BAPS, both founded by disciples of the same guru, chose to separate due to concerns about overshadowing each other. Sokhada currently faces internal conflicts, with two swamis competing for leadership, especially after the passing away of their main leader. In contrast, BAPS has maintained remarkable leadership continuity, even after the demise of Pramukh Swami,” he said.
“The religious groups have always been politically active be it the Swadhyay Parivar, Jalaram Bapa followers or more recently the ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) that is gaining popularity in Gujarat. The Swaminarayan groups have not shied away from taking a stand with political parties or leaders. They are engaged in a lot of activities and large scale events for which they need support from the government and the administration. The Swaminarayan group has always been pro-establishment, be it the Congress or the BJP,” Dholakia added.
BAPS and other leading Swaminarayan sects do not allow their Swamis to join political parties, but many CMs have been close to the sect and are seen as followers. During the elections, all major political party leaders are seen with the Swaminarayan community although their speeches focus on welfare, development and the progress of the state. After last year’s elections, BAPS conducted a month-long function in December which was attended by important Central leaders including the PM, state leaders from various parties and even leaders from different countries. In 2017, complaints were raised after the Vadtal Swaminarayan reportedly asked its followers to vote for the BJP and the Chief Election Commissioner said he would look into the matter. However, nothing substantial came out of the investigation.
Hindu religious leaders, protesting the depiction of the controversial murals at Sarangpur, hold the belief that Lord Hanuman's unwavering devotion is reserved solely for Lord Ram and Goddess Sita. Additionally, they argue that the Puranas, Vedas, and the Upanishads, which are revered texts within the Sanatana Dharma community, do not contain any mention of Lord Swaminarayan. What’s more, as per the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha, any sect that follows Hinduism are Hindus. Thus, the controversy was put to rest after the temple removed the murals. However, this may not be last of the run-ins.