BAPS in Svāmīnārāyaṇa Saṁpradāya


1. Bocāsanvāsī Akṣara Puruṣottama Svāmīnārāyan Sansthā

Bocāsanvāsī Akṣara Puruṣottama Sansthā (BAPS), is a Hindu denomination within the Svāmīnārāyaṇa Saṁpradāya.

It was formed, by Yajñapuruṣdās (Śāstriji Mahārāj), on the principle that Svāmīnārāyan was to remain present on earth through a lineage of Gurus dating all the way back to Guṇatitānand Svāmī – one of Svāmīnārāyaṇa’s most prominent disciples.

Based on the Akṣara Puruṣottama doctrine (also known as Akṣara-Puruṣottama Darśana), followers of BAPS believe Svāmīnārāyan manifests through a lineage of Akṣarbrahmā Gurus,

- beginning with Guṇatitānand Svāmī, followed by Bhagatji Mahārāj, Śāstriji Mahārāj, Yogiji Mahārāj, Pramukh Svāmī Mahārāj, and presently Mahant Svāmī Mahārāj.

As of 2019, BAPS has 44 Shikharbaddha Mandirs (large, spired) and more than 1 200 Mandirs worldwide that facilitate practice of this doctrine by allowing followers to offer devotion to the Mūrtis of Svāmīnārāyan, Guṇatitānand Svāmī, and their successors.

BAPS Mandirs also feature activities to foster culture and youth development:

Many devotees view the Mandir as a place for transmission of Hindu values and their incorporation into daily routines, family life, and careers.

BAPS also engages in a host of humanitarian and charitable endeavours through BAPS Charities, a separate non-profit aid organization which has spearheaded a number of projects around the world addressing healthcare, education, environmental causes, and community-building campaigns.

2. Philosophy

The philosophy of BAPS is centred on the doctrine of Akṣara-Puruṣottama Darśana, in which followers worship Svāmīnārāyan as God, or Puruṣottama, and his closest devotee Guṇatitānand Svāmī, as Akṣara.

The concept of Akṣara has been interpreted differently by various Svāmīnārāyan denominations, and one major reason for the separation of BAPS from the Vartal diocese has been attributed to doctrinal differences in the interpretation of the concept of Akṣara:

Both the Vadtal and Ahmedabad dioceses of the Svāmīnārāyaṇa Saṁpradāya believe Akṣara to be the Divine Abode of the supreme entity Puruṣottama.

The BAPS denomination concurs that Akṣara is the Divine Abode of Puruṣottama, but they further understand Akṣara as "an eternally existing spiritual reality having 2 forms, the impersonal and the personal".

Followers of BAPS identify various scriptures and documented statements of Svāmīnārāyan as supporting this understanding of Akṣara within the Akṣara Puruṣottama Upāsanā.

BAPS teaches that the entity of Akṣara remains on earth through a lineage of "perfect devotees", the Gurus or spiritual teachers of the organization, who provide "authentication of office through Guṇatitānand Svāmī and back to Svāmīnārāyan himself."

Followers hold Mahant Svāmī Mahārāj as the personified form of Akṣara and the spiritual leader of BAPS.

3. Formation

The history of BAPS as an organization started with Śāstriji Mahārāja’s desire to propagate the mode of worship from Svāmīnārāyaṇa’s teachings.

During Svāmīnārāyaṇa’s own time, his group's spread had been curbed by opposition from Vaiṣṇava Saṁpradāyas and others hostile to Svāmīnārāyaṇa’s bhakti teachings.

Due to the hostility of those who found Svāmīnārāyaṇa’s growing popularity and teachings unacceptable,

sadhus and devotees during Svāmīnārāyaṇa’s time tempered some of the public presentation of his doctrine, despite their own convictions, to mitigate violence towards their newly formed devotional community.

The original doctrine taught by Svāmīnārāyan continued to be conveyed in less public fore, but with the passage of time, Śāstriji Mahārāj sought to publicly reveal this doctrine,

which asserted that Svāmīnārāyan and his choicest devotee, Guṇatitānand Svāmī, were ontologically, Puruṣottama and Akṣara, respectively.

However, when Śāstriji Mahārāj began openly discoursing about this doctrine, hereafter the Akṣara-Puruṣottama doctrine, he was met with opposition from some quarters within the Vartal diocese.

As the opposition against him grew violent, Śāstriji Mahārāj was left with no choice but to leave Vartal to escape violent physical assaults. Thus the very basis for separation from the Vartal diocese and raison d’être for the formation of BAPS was this doctrinal issue.

4. Schism and Early Years

Śāstriji Mahārāj persuaded Āchārya Kunjvihariprasadji to consecrate the Mūrtis of Akṣara (Guṇatitānand Svāmī) and Puruṣottama (Svāmīnārāyan) in the Vadhwan Mandir.

Śāstriji Mahārāja’s identification of Guṇatitānand Svāmī as the personal form of Akṣara was already a paradigm shift for some that led to "opposition and hostility"  from many within the Vadtal diocese.

Moreover, the installation of Guṇatitānand Svāmī's Mūrti next to Svāmīnārāyan in the Vadhwan Mandir, led to further hostility and opposition from many sadhus of the Vadtal temple who were determined to prevent the Mūrti of Guṇatitānand Svāmī from being placed along with Svāmīnārāyan in the central shrine.

Following this, several attempts to murder Śāstriji Mahārāj were made, but he maintained his reluctance to leave Vadtal.

Seeing the unrelenting threat to Śāstriji Mahārāja’s life, Kṛṣṇajī Ada, a respected devotee of the Svāmīnārāyan Saṁpradāya, advised him to leave for his own safety, as per the teachings of Svāmīnārāyan in the Śikṣāpatrī Verse 153–154.

Acknowledging the commands of Svāmīnārāyan in the Śikṣāpatrī and interpreting Kṛṣṇajī Ada's words to be of Bhagatji Mahārāj, Śāstriji Mahārāj decided to leave the Vadtal temple to preach in the surrounding regions until the temple became safe again.

On 12 November 1905, Śāstriji Mahārāj left the Vadtal temple with 5 sadhus and the support of about 150 devotees.

However, he did not want to believe that he was separating from Vadtal as he initially instructed his followers to continue their financial contributions to and participation in the temples of the Vartal diocese.

5. First Mandirs

On 5 June 1907, Śāstriji Mahārāj consecrated the Mūrtis of Svāmīnārāyan and Guṇatitānand Svāmī in the central shrine of the Shikharbaddha Mandir he was constructing in the village of Bochasan in the Kheda District of Gujarat:

This event was later seen to mark the formal establishment of the Bocāsanvāsī Akṣara Puruṣottama Svāmīnārāyan Sansthā, which was later abbreviated as BAPS.

The Gujarati word Bocāsanvāsī implies hailing from Bochasan, since the organization's first Mandir was built in this village.

Śāstriji Mahārāj continued to consolidate and spread the Akṣara-Puruṣottama teachings of the nascent BAPS by spending the majority of 1908–15 discoursing throughout Gujarat, while continuing construction work of Mandirs in Bochasan and Sarangpur.

As recognition of Śāstriji Mahārāja’s teachings continued to spread throughout Gujarat, he acquired a loyal and growing group of devotees, admirers, and supporters, many of whom were formerly associated with the Vartal or Ahmedabad diocese of the Svāmīnārāyan Saṁpradāya.

Over the next 4 decades, Śāstriji Mahārāj completed 4 more Shikharbaddha Mandirs in Gujarat.

Thus, this historical period marked a "focused emphasis" on building Shikharbaddha Mandirs as a means of conveying Svāmīnārāyan doctrine.

Śāstriji Mahārāj was accepted as the 3rd Successor or Akṣara by BAPS devotees.

6. Revelation of doctrine

Svāmīnārāyan is viewed as God (Puruṣottama) by BAPS followers. Thus, his writings and discourses form the foundation for BAPS' theological tenets.

Regarding Svāmīnārāyaṇa’s philosophy, Akṣara plays a fundamental role in the overall scheme of Ultimate Liberation:

Svāmīnārāyan indicated that those who wish to offer pure devotion to God (Puruṣottama) and are desirous of Moksha should imbibe the qualities of the Guṇatit Guru.

Akṣara, embodied as the Guṇatit Guru, epitomizes ideal devotion transcending Māyā.

Svāmīnārāyaṇa’s philosophical stand that Liberation is unattainable unless one "identifies oneself with Akṣara (a synonym of Brahman) and offers the highest devotion to Puruṣottama" is also found in various Hindu scriptures.

The doctrine that Śāstriji Mahārāj propagated "did not result in the rejection of any scriptures; instead, it was the beginning of a distinctive theology which added a single but powerful qualification, that Akṣara plays in the form of the living Guru".

BAPS devotees also believe that Svāmīnārāyan propagated the same doctrine through the Mandirs he built:

From 1822 to 1828, Svāmīnārāyan constructed a total of 6 Shikharbaddha Mandirs in Gujarat; in each he installed the Mūrtis of a principal deity coupled with their ideal devotee in the central shrine:

a) Nar-Nārāyaṇa Deva in Ahmedabad (1822) and Bhoja (1823),
b) Lakṣmī-Nārāyaṇa Deva in Vartal (1824),
c) Mādan-Mohan Deva in Dholera (1826),
d) Rādhā-Raman Deva in Junagadh (1828),
e) Gopī-Nāthajī in Gadhada (1828).

For BAPS devotees, the dual Mūrtis in the original Svāmīnārāyan temples imply that Svāmīnārāyan did install a Mūrti of himself alongside the Mūrti of his ideal bhakta or Guru.

Thus, Śāstriji Mahārāj was simply extending that idea by enshrining the Mūrti of Svāmīnārāyan along with Guṇatitānand Svāmī, his ideal devotee, in the central sanctum.

However, many within the Vartal and Ahmedabad dioceses did not subscribe to this view, and this became one of the main points of disagreement that led to the schism.

Śāstriji Mahārāj explained that as per Svāmīnārāyaṇa’s teachings, God desired to remain on earth through a succession of Enlightened Gurus:

In many of his discourses in the Vāchanamrita Svāmīnārāyan explains that there forever exists a Guṇatit Guru (perfect devotee) through whom Svāmīnārāyan manifests on earth for the ultimate redemption of Jīvas.

Śāstriji Mahārāj noted that Svāmīnārāyan had "expressly designated" the Guṇatit Guru to spiritually guide the Satsaṅg (spiritual fellowship) while instructing his nephews to help manage the administration of the fellowship within their respective dioceses.

Numerous historical accounts and texts written during Svāmīnārāyan and Guṇatitānand Svāmī's time period identify Guṇatitānand Svāmī as the embodiment of Akṣara.

Followers of BAPS believe that the Ekānta dharma that Svāmīnārāyan desired to establish is embodied and propagated by the Ekānta Satpuruṣa – the Guṇatit Guru.

The 1st such Guru in the lineage was Guṇatitānand Svāmī. Śāstriji Mahārāj had understood from his own Guru, Bhagatji Mahārāj, that Guṇatitānand Svāmī was the first Guṇatit Guru in the lineage.

Historically, each Guṇatit Guru in the lineage has continued to reveal his Successor:

Guṇatitānand Svāmī revealed Bhagatji Mahārāj, who in turn revealed Śāstriji Mahārāj, who pointed to Yogiji Mahārāj, who revealed Pramukh Svāmī Mahārāj, the Guru, thus continuing the lineage of Akṣara

Most recently, Pramukh Svāmī Mahārāj revealed Mahant Svāmī Mahārāj as the next and current Guru in the lineage.

7. Svāmīnārāyan ontology

The Svāmīnārāyan ontology comprises 5 eternal entities:

1. Jīva,
2. Īśvara,
3. Māyā,
4. Akṣarbrahman (also Akṣara or Brahman),
5. Parabrahman (or Puruṣottama).

The entities are separate and distinct from one another and structured within a hierarchy.

Encompassing the entities of both Svāmīnārāyan and his ideal Devotee, this hierarchy emphasizes the relationship between Akṣara and Puruṣottama.

I. Parabrahman - At the top is Parabrahman. Parabrahman is the highest reality, God. He is understood as:

1. Pragat (manifest on Earth),
2. Sākāra (having a form),
3. Sarvoparī (supreme),
4. Karta (all do-er).

He is also one and unparalleled, the reservoir for all forms of bliss and eternally divine.

Parabrahman is also referred to as Puruṣottama and Paramātmā, both of which reflect his supreme existential state. Furthermore, Parabrahman is the only unconditioned entity upon which the other four entities are contingent.

II. Akṣarbrahman - Subservient to Parabrahman is Akṣarbrahman, also known as Akṣara or Brahman, which exists simultaneously in 4 states:

The first state is in the form of the Impersonal Cidākāśa, the divine, all-pervading substratum of the cosmos.

Another form of Akṣara is the Divine Abode of Parabrahman, known as Akṣardham. Muktas, or liberated Jīvas (Souls), also dwell here in unfathomable bliss and lustre which is beyond the scope of human imagination.

The other two states of Akṣara are personal, which manifest as the Ideal Servant of Puruṣottama, both within his divine abode of Akṣardham and simultaneously on earth as the God-realized Saint.

III. Māyā - Below Akṣarbrahman is Māyā:

Māyā utilizes 3 main qualities to create the physical world: sattva (goodness), rajas (passion), and tamas (darkness).

Māyā entangles Īśvara and Jīva and causes them to form an attachment to both their physical bodies and the material world.

This attachment denies them liberation, and only through contact with the personal form of Brahman can they overcome the illusion created by Māyā and attain liberation.

IV. Īśvara - Īśvaras are Conscious Spiritual Beings that are responsible for the creation, sustenance, and destruction of the cosmos, at the behest of Parabrahman:

They are metaphysically higher than that of Jīvas yet are inferior to Parabrahman and Akṣarbrahman. They are the deities that are above Jīva, but are also bound by Māyā, and must transcend Māyā to attain final liberation.

V. Jīva - Every living being can be categorized as a Jīva. Jīva is derived from the Sanskrit verb-root 'jīv' which means to breathe or to live.

In its pristine form, the Jīva is pure and free from flaws, however the influence of Māyā propels the Jīva through the cycles of births and deaths.

8. History

In 1907, Śāstriji Mahārāj consecrated the images of Akṣara and Puruṣottama in a temple's central shrine in the village of Bochasan as sacred, marking the formation of the BAPS fellowship as a formally distinct organization.

However, the fundamental beliefs of the Saṁpradāya date back to the time of Svāmīnārāyan.

One revelation of Guṇatitānand Svāmī as Akṣara occurred in 1810 at the grand Yajña of Dhaban, during which Svāmīnārāyan initiated Guṇatitānand Svāmī as a sadhu.

On this occasion, Svāmīnārāyan publicly confirmed that Guṇatitānand Svāmī was the incarnation of Akṣara, declaring, "Today, I am extremely happy to initiate Mulji Sharma. He is my Divine Abode – Akṣardham, which is infinite and endless."

The first Āchārya of the Vartal diocese, Rāghuvīrji Mahārāj, recorded this declaration in his composition, the Harilīlakalpataru (7.17.49–50).

Under Śāstriji Mahārāj, considered the manifest form of Akṣara at the time, the fellowship continued the traditions of the Akṣara Puruṣottama Upāsanā. He focused on the revelations of Guṇatitānand Svāmī as Svāmīnārāyaṇa’s divine abode and choicest devotee.

9. Essence

The Akṣara Puruṣottama Upāsanā refers to 2 separate entities within the Svāmīnārāyan ontology. These 2 entities are worshipped in conjunction by followers of BAPS in accordance with the instructions laid down in the Vāchanamrita:

According to BAPS, Svāmīnārāyan refers to Akṣara in the Vāchanamrita, with numerous appellations such as Sant, Satpuruṣa, Bhakta and Sadhu, as having an elevated status that makes it an entity worth worshipping alongside God.

For example, in Vāchanamrita Gadhada I-37, Svāmīnārāyan states:

"In fact, the Darśana of such a true Bhakta of God is equivalent to the Darśana of God Himself"

Moreover, in Vāchanamrita Vartal 5, Svāmīnārāyan states:

Just as one performs the Mānasī Pūjā of God, if one also performs the Mānasī Pūjā of the ideal Bhakta along with God, by offering him the prasad of God;

and just as one prepares a Thāl for God, similarly, if one also prepares a Thāl for God's ideal Bhakta and serves it to him; and just as one donates five rupees to God, similarly, if one also donates money to the great Sant

– then by performing with extreme affection such similar service of God and the Sant who possesses the highest qualities...he will become a devotee of the highest calibre in this very life.

Thus, in all BAPS Mandirs the image of Akṣara is placed in the central shrine and worshipped alongside the image of Puruṣottama.

Furthermore, BAPS believes that by understanding the greatness of God's choicest Devotee, coupled with devotion and service to him and God, followers are able to grow spiritually.

This practice is mentioned by Svāmīnārāyan in Vāchanamrita Vartal 5:

"by performing with extreme affection such similar service of God and the Sant who possesses the highest qualities, even if he is a devotee of the lowest type and was destined to become a devotee of the highest type after 2 lives, or after four lives, or after 10 lives, or after 100 lives,

he will become a devotee of the highest calibre in this very life. Such are the fruits of the similar service of God and God's Bhakta."

10. Metaphysical Goals

According to the Akṣara Puruṣottama Upāsanā, each Jīva attains liberation and true realization through the Manifest Form of Akṣara.

Jīvas who perform devotion to this Personal Form of Brahman can, despite remaining ontologically different, attain a similar spiritual standing as Brahman and then go to Akṣardham.

It is only through the performance of devotion to Brahman that Parabrahman can be both realized and attained.

11. Akṣara as a living Guru

According to the Akṣara Puruṣottama Upāsanā, the Personal Form of Akṣara is forever present on the earth through a lineage of spiritual leaders, or Gurus. It is through these Gurus that Svāmīnārāyan is also held to forever remain present on the earth.

These Gurus are also essential in illuminating the path that needs to be taken by the Jīvas that earnestly desire to be liberated from the cycle of rebirth.

This lineage begins with Guṇatitānand Svāmī (1785–1867), a sadhu who lived conterminously with Svāmīnārāyan.

Members of BAPS point to numerous historical stories and scriptural references, particularly from the central Svāmīnārāyan text known as the Vāchanamrita, as veritable evidence that Guṇatitānand Svāmī was the manifest form of Akṣara.

Following Guṇatitānand Svāmī, the lineage continued on through Bhagatji Mahārāj (1829–1897), Śāstriji Mahārāj (1865–1951), Yogiji Mahārāj (1892–1971), and Pramukh Svāmī Mahārāj (1921–2016). Today Mahant Svāmī Mahārāj is said to be the manifest form of Akṣara.

12. Svāmīnārāyan practice

According to BAPS doctrines, followers aim to attain a spiritual state similar to Brahman which is necessary for ultimate Liberation

To become an ideal Hindu, followers must identify with Brahman, separate from the material body, and offer devotion to God.

It is understood that through association with Akṣara, in the form of the God-realized Guru, one is able to achieve this spiritual state. Followers live according to the spiritual guidance of the Guru who is able to elevate the Jīva to the state of Brahman.

Thus devotees aim to follow the spiritual guidance of the manifest form of Akṣara embedding the principles of:

1. Dharma (righteousness),
2. Jñāna (knowledge),
3. Vairāgya (detachment from material pleasures)
4. Bhakti (devotion unto God).

The basic practices of the Svāmīnārāyan tradition are based on these 4 principles:

Followers receive Jñāna through regularly listening to spiritual discourses and reading scriptures in an effort to gain knowledge of God and one's true self.

Dharma encompasses righteous conduct as prescribed by the scriptures. The ideals of dharma range from practicing non-violence to avoiding meat, onions, garlic, and other items in their diet.

Svāmīnārāyan outlined the Dharma of his devotees in the scripture the Śikṣāpatrī:

He included practical aspects of living life such as not committing adultery and respecting elders, Gurus, and those of authority.

Devotees develop Detachment (vairāgya) in order to spiritually elevate their Soul (Jīva) to a Brahmā state:

This entails practices such as biweekly fasting (on the 11th day of each half of each lunar month) and avoiding worldly pleasures by strongly attaching themselves to God.

The 4th pillar, Devotion (bhakti) is at the heart of the faith community:

Common practices of devotion include daily prayers, offering prepared dishes (Thāl) to the image of God, mental worship of God and his ideal devotee, and singing religious hymns.

Spiritual service, or Seva, is a form of devotion where devotees serve selflessly "while keeping only the Lord in mind."

Followers participate in various socio-spiritual activities with the objective to earn the grace of the Guru and thus attain association with God through voluntary service. 

These numerous activities stem directly from the ideals taught by Svāmīnārāyan, to find spiritual devotion in the service of others.

By serving and volunteering in communities to please the Guru, devotees are considered to be serving the God. This relationship is the driving force for the spiritual actions of devotees.

The Guru is currently Mahant Svāmī Mahārāj, who is held to be the embodiment of selfless devotion. Under the guidance of Mahant Svāmī Mahārāj, followers observe the tenets of Svāmīnārāyan through the above-mentioned practices, striving to please the Guru and become close to God.