Swaminarayan Temples
Feature Articles

Swaminarayan Temples

January 6, 2022

By Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik – Author, Speaker, Illustrator, Mythologist

Most Indians are familiar with Raja Ram Mohan Roy and his Brahmo Samaj and link it with 19th Century Hindu reformation. But very few know about Sahajanand Swami or the reforms instituted by his Swaminarayan sampradaya, even though both men lived in the same period of history. This may be because Sahajanand Swami was a wandering ascetic who used traditional model of temple for reform, while Roy, an English-speaking philosopher-aristocrat, was influenced by European Enlightenment ideals.

Brahmo movement connected with the educated elite of Bengal, while Sahajanand Swami’s connection was with landowning Patel communities in rural Gujarat, who were politically powerful but economically and educationally backward. Brahmo Samaj had maximum impact in the early stages of Indian National Movement, influencing Indians who preferred abstract philosophy to Hindu idolatry. But today, few remember the Brahmo Samaj and how it was opposed by forces who coined the word Hindutva in late 19th Century. But a lot of people are familiar with the many grand Hindu temples built by the Swaminarayan community around the world.

These temples serve as Hindu cultural centres for the diaspora. Unlike traditional temples, they engage with communities actively, deploying donations and volunteers for social service. Not surprisingly, Swaminarayan community is an integral part of Hindutva project. Even Ram Janmabhoomi temple built in Ayodhya shows the influence of the distinct Swaminarayan temple architecture…

Sahajanand Swami saw religion as a tool for social reform. He distanced himself from the traditional sensuality of bhakti tradition and preferred the more ascetic form of devotion, which is why celibate monks continue to hold privileged positions in the religious order he established. He valued women’s education and was against female infanticide and dowry. He tried to reform even caste Hinduism, within the construct of Hinduism, promoting vegetarians and doctrines of purity. Philosophically, the Swaminarayan community is linked to Vedanta via Bhagavata Purana, hence is essentially Vaishnav… 

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The other Vaishnav community in Gujarat is that of Vallabhacharya Pushtimarga sampradaya centred around Nathdwara temple of Shrinathji near Udaipur, Rajasthan. But while the latter enshrines deity in domeless temples known as havelis, Swaminarayan temples, with their massive domes (shikhara), enshrine the image of the Guru, who is seen as a form of God, alongside images of various avatars of Vishnu, such as Nar-Narayana, Krishna and Ram. In havelis, the Goddess is represented only symbolically. In Swaminarayan temples one finds images of Radha, Sita and Lakshmi, but they are often interpreted as a visual representation of the devotee, a reminder of the community’s ascetic tilt…

In the 19th century, as Mughal and Maratha rule waned and landowning communities faced the brunt of brutal taxation under the newly rising British Raj, people were forced to migrate to cities to work in the new industries being set up in Surat and Ahmedabad. Some even considered migrating overseas. But this was dangerous as traditionally, those who crossed the sea were excommunicated and risked loss of caste…

The Swaminarayan monastic order has reached out to these diaspora communities over the past fifty years, providing for their religious and cultural needs. The majestic temples in Africa, Europe, America and Australia, visited by world leaders, are an indicator of the community’s prosperity and power… And in doing so, Swaminarayan temples have become visual anchors of Hinduism globally and are now silently shaping the destiny of contemporary Indian politics.

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