Bhagwan Swaminarayan: A picture book history
At the abode of Nar Narayan sages, rishis and other liberated souls had gathered to discuss the dire situation of irreligion in Bharatkhand (India). When the great sage Durvasa arrived no one noticed him; this made Durvasa extremely angry such that he cursed the whole assembly.
Both Dharmadev and Bhaktimata explained to Durvasa the situation. Durvasa calmed down but said “My curse cannot be withdrawn, but in order to save you from the curse the Lord will also take birth on the earth along with you all. He will destroy the demons, and save you from misery.” Accordingly, the supreme Lord, Purushottam Narayan, gave darshan and blessings saying, “Have no fear my children! I to shall take birth on the earth along with you all. I shall free you from the clutches of the demons. Worship the Lord, I shall save you from your troubles.”
It was in the unassuming village of Chhapaiya near Ayodhya, Utter Pradesh that Shreeji Maharaj decided to manifest Himself on 3 rd April 1781. The village was naturally pleased at the birth of a son to Dharmadev and Bhaktimata but there was also an unusual euphoria about the place. Children were dancing with great joy, the women folk brought gifts and people had gathered around the house singing and laughing. The newly born child was emanating a divine glow that filled the whole atmosphere; people were enjoying the divine bliss of the supreme God Himself.
The Lord was named and His future told by a revered sage Markandeya, After analysing the precious time the young child was born the sage told the parents,
â€œYour son is born under the zodiac sign of Kark Rashi (Cancer), so His name will be Hari. As He has a dark complexion he will also be known by the name Krishna. People will also call Him Ghanshyam. Your son possesses all the higher virtues like austerity, piety, morality, truthfulness and discretion, so He will also be known as Neelkanth. He... will one day renounce the world. Your son will restore religion to its rightful place on earth, He will relieve the miseries of the people... and show them the way to deliverance. He will... bestow happiness upon all.â€?
Having learnt about the future of his son from Sage Markandeya, Dharmadev was curious and decided to test his son. Whilst Ghanshyam was in His cradle, Dharmadev put a couple of objects on a low table: a sword and book. Soon Maharaj got down from His cradle crawled over to the table and picked the book! Both His parents were extremely pleased and became convinced that their son had a great intellect.
As per the curse by Durvasa, Bhaktimata and Dharmadev experienced a great deal of harassment from demonic people; the worst of these was Kalidatta. Kalidatta attempted to dispose of Ghanshyam by sending his devotees to kidnap Him and kill Him, but none were successful. So Kalidatta went after Ghanshyam himself.
Kalidatta produced a severe cyclone along with torrential rain. As Kalidatta approached, Ghanshyam climbed up a tree. Kalidatta lifted himself in the air and threw himself against the tree with tremendous force thereby shattering large parts of the tree. Thinking that Ghanshyam must have been killed Kalidatta laughed with triumph but only to find that Maharaj was still seated up on the tree branch. Maharaj then shot a glance at Kalidatta and he was hurled with great force against another tree repeatedly, until he fell dead. That was the end of Kalidatta and the harassment to Dharmadev and his family.
Ghanshyam‟s sister-in-law, Suvasinibhabhi, was very devout but she had a strong fondness for a golden ring given by her parents on her wedding. Ghanshyam wanted to rid her of this attachment and so stole it. He exchanged the ring for some indian sweets, which he shared with his friends. When Maharaj was found out he was scolded very badly by Dharmadev and Bhaktimata. But Suvasinibhabhi‟s love for Ghanshyam was greater than her love for gold, and having understood Ghanshyam‟s motives she gave up her attachment for the ring.
King Gumansingh was fascinated by the stories of Ghanshyam and wanted to see proof for himself that He was God; he summoned Dharmadev and Ghanshyam.
The king thought that if this child is truly God incarnate then he would test him to see whether there are sixteen sacred signs on Godâ€&#x;s feet. The king called Dharmadev and Ghanshyam into an open compound and asked Ghanshyam to sit with both His feet out stretched. Maharaj obliged, the king was amazed to see the sixteen signs of God.
When Ghanshyam was seven years old, it was time for Him to be given the sacred thread. A suitably auspicious date was chosen for the ceremony. After the thread ceremony, Ghanshyam got ready for the ceremonial run with His maternal uncle. Ghanshyam thought, “I have to do good to innumerable souls in this world. I shall therefore run so fast that I reach the Himalayas... Coming back from there I shall travel from place to place for the deliverance of my people.” As the run started, the uncle ran fast but could not catch Ghansyham. Ghanshyam‟s uncle prayed for Ghanshyam to come back particularly as His parents would be greatly grieved if He went away. Hearing this prayer Ghanshyam thought, “My parents are pure and innocent. I don’t want them to suffer on my account. I will not therefore leave them and go away.” Maharaj returned back to His parents; He had now resolved not to leave home whilst His parents were still alive.
Ghanshyam was now ten years old. Bhaktimata had gone down with a fever and day by day her condition worsened; she became very weak and bedridden. One evening she called all three of her sons to tell them that would not be long in this world. All the family members had been called together for Bhaktimataâ€&#x;s final moments. Ghanshyam lovingly spoke to His mother. He explained to her about God, man and devotion. He explained that one should constantly chant Godâ€&#x;s names along with our true form of atma. This was the precursor to Maharaj giving the divine mantra of Swami Narayan to His devotees. Ghanshyam also showed Himself to his mother in the form of Narayan with four arms. On seeing this Bhaktimata closed her eyes in meditation and quietly passed away. Soon after the heart broken Dharmadev also passed away.
After the passing away of Dharmadev and Bhaktimata, Ghanshyam thought of nothing but to leave home. In the early hours of the morning (on 18 th July 1793 CE) whilst everyone in the household were fast asleep Ghanshyam now eleven yaers of age, got up to embark on an incredible journey that is unsurpassed in history. Ghanshyam wore a single piece of loin cloth , took the skin of a deer for sitting on for meditation. In one hand He held a rosary and a stick in the other, along with a small water pot, an alms bowl and a filter cloth, He also took a Shaligram (an image of Vishnu) with Him. He also wore a string of tulsi beads (Kanthi) around His neck, the sacred thread and a tilak on His forehead. His family were devastated and despondent on Ghanshyamâ€&#x;s sudden departure.
Alone in the forest on His way to the Himalayas to undertake penance, Ghanshyam was served by Hanumanji (the Kurdev of the Swaminarayan faith). Hanumanji protected Maharaj from demons who wanted to kill Him and also bought Him food to eat.
On the behest of Maharaj, Hanumanji went to see Ghanshyamâ€&#x;s family to tell them that He was safe and well, and to explain to them that as God incarnate it was necessary for Him to leave home to start His mission.
Ghanshyam had become emaciated. There was a glow of divinity about Him and because of his severe penance at such a tender age, rishis named Him Nilkanth (another name for Shivji) In a place called Pulhashram in the Himalaya, Nilkanth undertook a penance to evoke the sun-god by standing on one leg with His arms up in the air whilst meditating. Maharaj did this solidly for about three months in all types of weather, come rain, snow or shine. After this period the sun-god Suryanarayan appeared before Nilkanth . Maharaj paid His respects and asked Suryanarayan for a boon that He be protected from all vices and to be blessed so that He would observe complete and unbroken celibacy (brahmacharya). He did this to lead by example in setting the ekantik dharma of Godlike saints.
Nilkanth now marched on through deep forests with purpose as He now had to give darshan to Gopal Yogi, who was a supreme master of Hatha Yog and a great devotee. Nilkanth said to the yogi, â€œI have trudged through forests and mountains in search of a yogi like you. I met many on the way, some steeped in worldly desires and some proud and full of arrogance... but I met none like you, endowed with sterling qualities and a pure unblemished heart... I now shall learn yoga from youâ€? As per Maharajâ€&#x;s desire, Gopal Yogi taught Him yoga starting with yoga theory and then Hatha Yoga. Maharaj learnt very quickly and within a year Nilkanth had mastered yoga even the most difficult aspects that mere mortals took years to master. Having served Maharaj and had His darshan, in that state of the ultimate realisation Gopal Yogi left is mortal body.
Nilkanth met a sadhu called Sevakram who was ill. Maharaj took pity on him and stayed to look after him.
Nilkanth would prepare fresh bedding for the ill sadhu, wash his spoiled clothes and cook food for him. Sevakram who had a stash of money would send Nilkanth to the nearest village to buy food but only just enough for him; Maharaj had to beg for alms and sometimes would go hungry if no alms were given. Despite this the selfish sadhu would not allow Maharaj to eat his food. When Sevakram was better, both he and Nilkanth travelled from village to village but Sevakram gave Nilkanth all his belongings to carry on His head whilst he himself walked free with no burden. This continued for a few days when finally told Sevakram that He was leaving to which Sevakram tried to persuade Maharaj to stay with him because of his own selfish reasons. Maharaj explained to Sevakram how he had behaved, that he was very ungrateful and that one should not keep the company of the ungrateful (this story was recited by Maharaj in the Vachanamrut G I 10).
Further on His travels Nilkanth came across the King of Vanshipur. The King invited Him to his palace. Although Nilkanth always preferred to sleep outdoors, seeing the devotion of the King He accepted the invitation. The royal couple had two daughters but no son, they were so taken by Nilkanth‟s purity that they made up their minds that He was the ideal match for their daughters! The Queen ensured that Nilkanth was well served by her daughters but Maharaj was impeccable in observing His vows; out of respect He would always keep His gaze away from the daughters. The Queen presented Nilkanth with the proposition of marriage to her daughters. Maharaj informed her that He had only come to redeem them. The Queen became angry claiming that even the great rishis in history had fallen victim to the kamdev (the god of lust) and that He couldn‟t expect to escape. Maharaj stated that He hadn‟t come to be bound either by a kingdom or by the Queen‟s daughters. Nilkanth left the palace to continue His mission, the Royal family were grief stricken.
Nilkanth taught people about the virtues of a true sadhu. Where false sadhus were taking advantage on gullible people He exposed them. At the Rath Yatra festival, in Jaganathpuri the bawas were honoured and served by the local king, but they showed their true colours behaving most inappropriately by becoming drunk, being riotous and being promiscuous towards women. The king, who genuinely wanted to serve sadhus was greatly disturbed by this and wanted to punish them. Nilkanth consoled him and said that there was need to punish them, as they would receive their comeuppance soon. Later the different bawas factions got into fight with each other and killed each other.
Having arrived at Loj early one morning, Nilkanth sat under a neem tree in deep meditation. When a sadhu by the name of Sukhanand came along, Maharaj immediately opened His eyes. The sadhu invited Nilkanth to his ashram to meet Muktanand Swami. Nilkanth introduced Himself to Muktanand Swami describing His journey across India in His quest for true sadhus. Maharaj‟s mission was to redeem every soul, and so He was very particular to ensure that those who would do His work possessed the correct knowledge and spiritual understanding. As such, Nilkanth asked Muktanand Swami five fundamental questions, “Swami, what is jiva (atma)? What is ishwar? And what is maya? Then explain what is brahm and parbrahm?” Muktanand Swami answered Maharaj‟s questions perfectly; Maharaj was very pleased and reassured that He had found sadhus of the highest calibre.
Nilkanth stayed at the ashram with Muktanand Swami. All the other sadhus were attracted by the divine glow on Maharajâ€&#x;s face and the bliss emanating from Him. Muktanand Swami talked about his guru Ramanand Swami who was the head of the ashram. He described his guruâ€&#x;s virtues believing him to be an incarnation of God. Nilkanth was pleased to hear about this type of guru nistha. Upon hearing about Ramanand Swami Nilkanth became eager to have his darshan but he was away in Bhuj. Maharaj wanted to leave for Bhuj immediately. Muktanand Swami and the other sadhus who could not bear to see Nilkanth leave persuaded Him not to go. Instead Maharaj and Muktanand Swami both wrote to Ramanand Swami.
Mayaram Bhatt delivered letters from Muktanand Swami and Nilkanth Varni. Ramanand Swami recived the letters with eager anicipation. Ramanand Swami first read Muktanand Swami‟s letter; he became very pleased to read Swami describing the virtues of Nilkanth and how the sadhus had grown fond of him. Then he read Nilkanth‟s letter, a glow of great joy shone from his face and tears filled his eyes. Ramanand Swami then addressed the assembly, “Devotees, today is the most fortunate of our lives... The person for whom I have been waiting, through Him Bhadwat Dharma will be established... Hundreads of thousands of souls will be redeemed and eligible to reside in Akshardham”.
Ramanand Swami instructed his devotees to go to Loj to have darshan of the supreme Lord Nilkanth Varni.
Ramanand Swami had written to Nilkanth telling Him to stay with Muktanand Swami as he was the pillar of the ashram. For a year Nilkanth stayed at the ashram working, serving and begging for alms. In that time Nilkanth showed His divine authority by introducing strict rules appropriate for tyagi sadhus, in particular the renouncement of women. In the mean time Ramanand Swami had come to a village called Piplana and invited Nilkanth and the sadhis to come and meet him. The sadhus left on foot with Nilkanth leading the way. As they approached the outskirts of Piplana village Nilkanth stopped and put dust on His head believing it to be sanctified because Ramanand Swami â€žs footsteps on the ground. When Nilkanth and Ramanand Swami meet they ran to each other and embraced each other with divine love. All were amazed at the affection both showed each other as if they were long lost companions.
Within a short time Ramanand Swami had decided to put Nilkanth Varni in his place as his spiritual successor. At the young age of 21 Nilkanth was made head of the sampraday and during the official rites was named Shajanand Swami. Shajanand Swami was given the robes of a king by His guru to wear rather than bhagwa (hence this is why he is often called by the name of Maharaj), and to give both tyagi santo and grahast men and women the benefit of His spiritual company. Maharaj queried how He could wear such garbs when he had renounced the world including wealth and women. Ramanand Swami said that as He was the supreme God Himself that He would not be affected by such things.
When Sahajanand Swami was made successor , Ramanand Swami asked Him fto ask for a boon. Some doubters in the crowd who were sceptical at the succession and did not have a conviction of Maharajâ€&#x;s divinity thought that Maharaj would ask for fame and wealth, hence exposing his true colours.
To everyone'sâ€&#x; surprise, Maharaj asked for boon that stand out in the annals of time demonstrating the compassion that God has for His true devotees: Firstly, Maharaj asked that if any of His devotees are befall any misfortune, then may that misfortune be His and not His devotees, and secondly, if any devotee is to suffer the pain of the sting of a scorpion then may He suffer the pain of a thousand stings in every single pore of His body (Vach. Jetalpur 5).
Having placed Maharaj as successor, Ramanand Swami decided to forsake his corporeal body; everyone were distraught and heart broken. On the eleventh day after the passing away of Ramanand Swami, Shreeji Maharaj in a momentous moment introduced to the sadgus and haribhaktas alike the Swaminarayan Mahamantra. Later Mul Aksharbrahm Gunatitanand Swami, who was Maharajâ€&#x;s first spiritual successor stated that the Swaminarayan mantra is the greatest and most powerful mantra : â€œ It makes the poison of a black cobra ineffective and dispels the desire for material pleasures... One brahmrup and is freed from kal, karma and maya.â€?
Swaminarayan Bhagwan is the Supreme God. He is known as avatari , the cause of the all the avatars and forms of God. Many haribhakta had a desire to have darshan of a particular deity , or avatars like Rama or Krsna Bhagwann. Shreeji Maharaj told them to mediate on Him; they dually had darshan of their Istadev. Swaminarayan Bhawgan thereby demonstrated that He is the God of all gods. All the avatars and dieties lie within Him and that He is their source.
Swaminarayan Bhagwan exhibited many of His powers including giving haribhakta darshan of their Istadev. Muktanand Swami frowned upon this thinking that Shreeji Maharaj had got carried away by showing off tricks to impress people and to gain popularity. But Muktanand Swami had not fully understood that Swaminarayan was God Himself. With these doubts about Maharaj in his mind, he had the darshan of Ramanand Swami whereby Swamiji re-emphasised the glory of Maharaj as God incarnate. Muktanand Swami felt ashamed that he had ignored his guruâ€&#x;s agna to follow Swaminarayan Bhagwan. With the feeling of repentance and love for God Muktanand Swami composed the Swaminarayan aarti. He performed the first ever aarti of Swaminarayan Bhagwan in person.
Social reform, eliminating taboos and superstitions was one of Swaminarayan Bhagwan‟s great achievements. These included putting a stop to infanticide also known as “dudh piti karvi” to a female newly born in milk because of the burden of dowries; Maharaj promised the satsang would collect money for marriages.
Maharaj also eradicated “sati-pratha”, which was a practice of women climbing onto the funeral pyre of their dead husbands. By convincing people the wrongs of these acts Maharaj won over the public with his love for them.
Joban Pagi was a notorious bandit whom all feared. He robbed and murdered people alike without any thought or remorse. Joban Pagi had heard about Swaminarayan‟s horse called Manki, which was from a famous breed of horses known as Rozo and was the incarnation of Lord Vishnu‟s eagle carrier called Garuda. He decided that he wanted to steal Maharaj‟s horse. When he and his gang came one night to steal the horses they were amazed to see that in every single stable Maharaj was simultaneously attending to each of the horses.
After three succesive nights trying to steal the horses they gave up and came to the gathering the next day where Maharaj was giving a sermon. Maharaj called to them ordering that they be fed as they hadn‟t slept or eaten for three nights! Joban Pagi realised Swaminarayan Bhagwan as God Himself and became a staunch devotee.
Kathiawad (North Gujarat) was totally lawless with bandits having a free reign harassing and looting people. However, Swaminarayan taught the people not break laws, to live regulated and spiritual lives. Shreeji Maharajâ€&#x;s power was such that all became staunch devotees.
Sir Malcolm was the Governor of Mumbai who was to visit Kathiawad. He had heard about Maharaj from Bishop Hebber about His social and religious reforms and was eager to meet Him. Sir Malcolm invited Maharaj and afforded great respect. Having discussed about the social reform that Maharaj had undertaken, Sir Malcolm prayed for protection of the people and requested a book to explain the Swaminarayan principles. Maharaj gave him the Shikshapatri, which is now kept in a museum in Oxford.
Once, Muktanand Swami requested Swaminarayan Bhagwan that He should leave some legacy for the world to follow. Maharaj had promised that he would build mandirs, leave scriptures and Gunatit saints through whom He would always stay manifest on earth. Maharaj wrote the Shikshapatri Himself, which was a code on conduct for tyagi saints, women, youth and householders. The Vachanamrut documents the sermons given by Swaminarayan Bhagwan that contains some 260 such preachings. The Vachanamrut was authored by Muktanand Swami, Gopalanand Swami, Shuk Muni and Nityanand Swami and validated by Maharaj.
Swaminarayan Bhagwan had decided to build His first mandir in Kalupur, Amdavad. As manpower was limited, Mahaharj Himself joined in the physical work to help build the mandir. His second mandir was built in Vartal. On His journey through the Himalaya, Maharaj had visited Badrikashram were He gave darshan to Nar Narayan rishi. As these deities are considered to be the example of penance to God, Bhagwan Swaminarayan had promised that he would build a mandir dedicated to them. This He did at Kalupur , where the mandir is known as the Nar Narayan Swaminaryan Mandir. Likewise, when Maharaj show lotus flowers in a lake in the Himalaya, the goddess Laxmi appeared to have His darshan. Maharaj had promised to dedicate a mandir to her as she was a goddess for the welfare of people. This mandir was constructed in Vartal and is known as the Laxmi Narayan Swaminarayan Mandir.
The Nar Narayan Mandir and Laxmi Narayan Mandir were selected to be the centres for the management of the north and south Gujarat diocese respectively. Swaminarayan Bhagwan selected brahmins to manage the diocese. However, as these brahmins had no affinity with the Swaminarayan movement, their management failed. Maharaj was then convinced by devotees to install his own relatives to manage the temples and diocese. Maharaj put his nephews Ayodyasprashadji Maharaj in charge of the north Gujarat Nar Narayan diocese and Raghuvirji Maharaj to manage the south Gujarat Laxmi Narayan diocese. Maharaj also divided the saints into these diocese.
When Swaminarayan Bhagwan descended on earth, He brought along with Him His dham, Mul Akshar Brahm Gunatitanand Swami in order to fulfil His promise to start a lineage of Gunatit saints through whom He would remain manifest on earth. Maharaj was in Gadhada, He decided to leave His corporeal body and invoked a serious illness; all were frightful of what might happen. In His last days Maharaj called for Gunatitanand Swami. When Swami arrived Maharaj embraced him and sang to him, “How can I forget you my beloved when you are part of my existence , my consciousness? The way the thirsty long for water and the starving for food, I...” Maharaj further continued, “I no more wish to live here in this loka. You continue to spread the glory of Our Swaroop. Do explain the difference between Avatar and Avatari. Give happiness to all satsangis... We shall give it to them through you.”
The day was 1st June 1830. Maharaj asked for a stool on which He sat to meditate in a Swastik posture. He redraw all His focus inwards for the final time and of His own choice suddenly left His corporeal body. When the saints and devotees received news of Maharajâ€&#x;s demise, it was like the very purpose of life itself had ended. Maharaj was bathed, dressed and prepared according to the rites. Maharaj was taken to the place of the funeral pyre in a procession whilst devotional songs were being sung, and flowers being showered on His body. Many of the senior saints and elders could not bear to think that Maharaj would be no more and they broke down. The scene was of sadness never felt before or could be felt again. After the final rites were preformed Maharajâ€&#x;s body was offered to the fire, which consumed His body.
Gunatitanand Swami was walking along a field after the funeral. He saw green turf near a stream. He thought, “Water is the life of this grass and that is why it is fresh, green and full of life. But our life, Swaminarayan Bhagwan has left us”. On thinking this he was filled with great grieve and fainted there and there.
But then Maharaj Himself appeared before Gunatitanand Swami in a divine form. He took Swami by the hand and revived him and said, “What is this? Where have I gone? I constantly dwelling in you”. Maharaj repeated this three times and vanished. Gunatitanand Swami as the first spiritual successor to Bhagwan Swaminarayan taught haribhaktas about the glory of Maharaj as avatari, and that Maharaj Himself was still manifest through His Gunatit saint.