Swaminarayan | Ascetics



On accepting the reins of the Fellowship, to aid His work, Bhagwan Swaminarayan began to initiate the highest order of ascetics known as Paramahamsas - the supreme swans. At the age of only 23, He initiated five hundred Paramahamsas in one day.

His divinity attracted laymen and sannyasins throughout the land. Some sannyasins were themselves heads of monasteries and religious orders outside Gujarat.

Arriving in Kathiawad, they sought the incarnation, the avatar, whose fame they had heard of, whose vision some had perceived and whose divinity from afar, many had experienced.

This attraction to Bhagwan Swaminarayan proved quite phenomenal, since many belonged to the Advaita (non-dualistic) school, believing themselves as Brahman, having no concept of worshipping a higher personal Reality.

In contrast, Bhagwan Swaminarayan accepted Rāmānuja’s Viśishṭādvaita philosophy (qualified non-dualism), propounding worship of God with form and of mūrti puja, entailing the observation of all the bhakti rituals.

In total, from the beginning of His ministry at the age of twenty-one to the age of forty-nine, He initiated over two thousand men as sadhus and Paramahamsas.

Spiritual Grooming

From these renunciates, He demanded strict spiritual discipline and the highest principles of asceticism, hitherto unknown in Hinduism.

To accomplish this, He gave them five vows, the Pañcha Vartamān:

nishkam - eight fold brahmacharya, nirlobh - non-greed, nirman - to rid ego, pride and anger, to become humble, niswad - to overcome the sense of taste and nissneh - to remain detached from relatives and material possessions.

The vow of brahmacharya prohibited looking at or touching women. In exigencies, Bhagwan Swaminarayan allowed the sadhus to rescue a female by helping her physically.

Non-avariciousness meant that a sadhu could not touch money or even ask a person to keep some on his behalf.

The vow of nirman and nissneh also meant cultivating indifference to the body, in not pampering it. Therefore they could shave the head and face only once a month.

In addition, the ascetics had to wear coarse saffron robes:

The saffron colour symbolises fire, whose characteristic feature is to convert to its own colour anything thrown into it. Similarly, it behoves a sadhu to imbibe such virtues that he remains untainted by materialistic desires.

Bhagwan Swaminarayan also prescribed short term vows lasting from a few months to a year or more.

Of a total of 114, known as Prakaraṇas, one of them advocated forsaking a place where people honoured and welcomed ascetics with food and shelter. They had to keep moving and live in the fields, without shelter of trees or straw heaps.

During one severe winter, a farmer came across an unconscious Paramahamsa in a field, near the village of Bhadra, in Kathiawad. He informed Mulji Sharma (later initiated as a Paramahamsa named Gunatitanand Swami).

Mulji carried home the Paramahamsa, who luckily was only suffering from hypothermia. He recovered after six hours of warming. After accepting a little food, he left, remaining sincere to the Lord's injunction, of leaving a place where people welcomed him.

Often, the Paramahamsas received no alms for days on end. When they did, the raw flour and grain, and any cooked items were to be mixed and bound in a piece of cloth and doused in water a few times to remove any flavour.

From this tasteless and soggy mush, they could only have the amount fillable in a small coconut shell once a day. Any extra they had to give away!

In the role of the Guru, Bhagwan Swaminarayan's personal care and spiritual grooming to elevate the Paramahamsas was unique.

Hitherto, renunciates in India usually preferred to seclude themselves in mountains, forests or monasteries for their own spiritual endeavours. This is known as Nivṛtti Mārga - path of non-action.

For His Paramahamsas, Bhagwan Swaminarayan prescribed the tougher Pravṛtti Mārga - path of action, to move within society, remove samsara from the hearts of people, while still remaining totally detached.

If Nivṛtti Mārga was a serene bed of roses, Pravṛtti Mārga struggled through the storms of a thorny samsara.

During the invariable trials and tribulations of the latter, He inspired them by writing dynamic letters, elaborating and glorifying the vows and detailing eternal truths.

These letters were later compiled and known as Vedras - the nectar of the Vedas. The sadhus upheld each word as sacred, to be obeyed zealously, thus elevating them spiritually.


Not surprisingly, the emergence of these sadhus, embodiments of saintliness in society, filled the existing vairāgīs and bhāvas with jealousy and fury. As people increasingly began to respect and follow the Swaminarayan ascetics, these renunciates feared their doom; in losing their daily bread.

Infuriated, they mercilessly sought, beat and tortured the sadhus. In these persecutions some five hundred succumbed to their swords and pincers.

On one occasion, a sadhu named Hiradas arrived in a village for the night and sat on the village square, chanting the Swaminarayan mantra.

Bhāvas already occupied most of the square. When they heard 'Swaminarayan', they raged. They ordered Hiradas to stop chanting or else they would beat him.

He stopped oral chanting and continued mentally. But a while later, when they saw his lips moving, one of them poked an iron pincer in a nearby fire. He then mercilessly impaled and branded Hiradas with the heated pincer. Pieces of burnt flesh hung hideously from his body. Thankfully, he passed out.

During the night he awoke; excruciating pain and burns searing his body. Despite the wounds, he somehow staggered out of the village and headed for Gadhada.

In the morning, he arrived at Dada Khachar's court. Painfully, he shuffled through the assembly towards Mahārāja and collapsed at His feet.

As his upper garment slid off, a wave of horror swept through the assembly. Mahārāja knelt down. Hiradas painfully related the story.

Tears welled up in Mahārāja’s eyes. He ordered the sadhus to shift Hiradas to His personal quarters, in Akṣara Ordi. He would personally nurse him to health, since chanting His name had invited the torturing. By His blessings and personal care, Hiradas' wounds healed rapidly. He then zealously resumed his preaching tours.

Some of the sadhus came from the Kshatriya - martial caste. If set upon, Mahārāja had ordered them to wish good fortune to those who insulted them or inflicted physical pain. None were allowed to retaliate.

The willingness of the sadhus to implicitly obey the rigorous vows, to undergo self-abnegation, to bravely tolerate the pain and insults flung by antagonists, even to die for the Lord, is aptly described by Parekh as a unique 'romance of discipleship'.

The sadhus were all aware that their Lord Himself had undergone greater sufferings and harsher austerities during His seven-year forest sojourns.

Even now, as Head of the rapidly spreading Fellowship, He too remained a target for antagonists who persistently hounded Him, hoping to kill Him. Their impetus and sole reason centred on their murderous contempt of Him being worshipped as God!


A farsighted visionary and a superb organiser, Bhagwan Swaminarayan foresaw the need for Satsang literature for the consolidation, perpetuation and universal acceptance of the Sampradāya.

He appointed those Paramahamsas, Sanskrit scholars prior to their joining the Fellowship, such as Gopalanand, Muktānanda, Nityānanda, Shatanand and poets such as Brahmānanda, Premanand and Nishkulanand, to compose this literature. Others, He sent to Benares, Baroda and Surat to study Sanskrit, music and poetry.

This momentous decision helped to meet the challenges in the form of debates, thrown by antagonists amongst scholars and pundits in society:

Contemptuous of the rapid success of the Sampradāya, they slandered it as non-Vedic, refuting its claim of Bhagwan Swaminarayan as an incarnation during the age of Kali.

Of many such debates, Muktānanda Swami won a graceful victory at the court of Maharajah Sayajirao Gaekwad of Baroda and Nityānanda Swami defeated a group of pundits in Ahmedabad:

With scriptural references, both Paramahamsas successfully established the Vedic soundness of the Sampradāya and Bhagwan Swaminarayan as God.

In the field of music and poetry, there were the eight poets Paramahamsas of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, namely: Muktanand, Brahmanand, Premanand, Nishkulanand, Devānanda, Bhumanand, Manjukeshanand and Dayanand:

They composed thousands of lyrics - Kirtanas, lauding devotion, festivals, the glory of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, in addition to advocating a spiritual life, to overcome the fleeting and miserable nature of material existence.

The variety and voluminous compositions depict the exuberant devotion the poets developed for the Lord, thus enriching Gujarati literature.

The Bruhad Gujaratni Asmita notes that:

'In addition to the Vaishnava Dharma, the Sampradāya which boosted the cultured music of Gujarat, was the Swaminarayan Sampradāya ... the thousands of Kirtanas of Premanand and Brahmānanda in Gujarati and Vraja dialects, are Gujarat's rich legacy.’

Brahmānanda Swami alone composed over eight thousand Kirtanas:

Hurtling through a glittering career, prior to becoming a sadhu, in the prime of his youth, as a royal bard extraordinaire, he revelled in the glamour; entertaining and enthralling Maharajahs and Nawabs at the royal courts in Jamnagar, Junagadh and Bhavnagar.

With his sharp wit, suave eloquence, and adeptness at composing instant poetry, he won their heartfelt accolades and approbations. They literally decorated him with gold, jewels and gems.

But at 32, he met Bhagwan Swaminarayan. The glitter and the glamour, the gold and the glory, ground to dust.

Then, on the verge of renouncing in Gadhada, he received his richest, most tempting offer; a lifelong invitation from the Gaekwad of Vadodara, as the royal bard, to reside in his palace with all its luxuries, opulence and grandeur. Brahmānanda declined.

Nishkulanand Swami, being a carpenter prior to renunciation, lacked a formal education. Therefore it was remarkable that he composed over twenty-three volumes, in verse, during his life – Bhakta Chintāmaṇi and Nishkulanand Kavya being the most notable.

Premanand Swami, though Hindu by birth, was brought up by Muslim step parents. Yet, his intense devotion to Bhagwan Swaminarayan, reflected in his Kirtanas, parallels that of Mirabai's towards Lord Krishna:

He composed about ten thousand Kirtanas of which four thousand are available.

Even the Nawab of Junagadh, a connoisseur of music, rebuked the maestros at his court:

 'First listen to the Kirtanas of Swaminarayan's fakir Premanand, then sing before me; for his music comes from the soul.'

A group of Premanand Swami's Kirtanas, known as Nitya Cheshta, describes in loving detail, the physical persona of Bhagwan Swaminarayan and His daily routine:

Included are moles, birth marks, the sixteen signs of Godship on His soles, the shape of: lips, eyebrows, forehead, chest, stomach, waist, hands and feet; His unique walking style, and sitting posture whilst taking prasad; spending the day with sadhus and devotees –

His manner of talking, counselling, serving them food, swimming and riding with them; every act, whether - a suppressed laugh, a soft sneeze, a meaningful glance - was meticulously noted with divine regard.

To this day, devotees sing and visualise these sublime reminiscences devoutly every night before retiring. This visualization, they reveal, relaxes them physically and mentally, inducing a blissful tranquillity at heart.

In addition to his Kirtanas, Devānanda Swami's notable contribution was the nurturing of Dalpatram, the renowned poet of mid-nineteenth century Gujarat.

Devotional Kirtanas of Nishkulanand, Muktānanda and Brahmānanda were included by Gandhiji in his Ashrambhajanavali - a compilation of Kirtanas sung at his Sabarmati ashram.

Amongst all the Paramahamsas, Bhagwan Swaminarayan regarded Gunatitanand Swami as the foremost.

Akṣarbrahman Gunatitanand Swami

In His teachings, Bhagwan Swaminarayan mentions that when the Lord incarnates on earth, He does so with His abode - Akṣardham, released souls and divine powers.

During His life, He revealed that Gunatitanand Swami was His abode, Akṣardham (Akṣarbrahman) incarnate, His ideal Devotee.

Before His physical demise, He revealed to the Satsang of His continued manifestation on earth through Gunatitanand Swami.

Therefore, He enjoined all the ascetics to visit the Junagadh Mandir for one month annually, to avail of Gunatitanand Swami's redemptive sermons. These teachings were later compiled, as Swamini Vato - Swami's talks.

The absolute surrender of sannyasins who had been heads of monasteries with hundreds of renunciate followers of their own, coupled with the unalloyed love and sacrifice by other sadhus for Bhagwan Swaminarayan, reflected His spiritual prowess. Many possessed great yogic powers and as such, could themselves have been worshipped and deified.

He once asked them:

'I have not performed miraculous feats such as constructing a bridge across the ocean, nor have I killed the ten-headed Rāvaṇa. Neither have I held aloft the Mandrachal mountain, nor vanquished demons such as Kaṁsa and Śiśupāla.

Why then do you worship Me as God?'

The Paramahamsas replied:

'O Lord! Rāma killed Rāvaṇa but his evil instincts of lust and ego were not destroyed. Vāman subdued Bali, but he had already been subdued by greed. Krishna killed Kaṁsa and others, but they had already succumbed to ego and greed. These inner enemies, of lust, anger, greed and the countless others, you have eradicated from our hearts.

'You may not have built a bridge across the ocean, but you have certainly created one between the ocean of samsara and Akṣardham.

'You may not have held aloft Mandrachal or Govardhana, but You have instantaneously pulverized our mountains of sins and purified our souls.

That is why we worship You as God.’

And so laymen and ascetics who had thronged to Him from all over the land, to live an existence commanded by Him, surrendering their will to His, be granted a privileged discipleship, to gain His divine grace, sacrificed their lives at His lotus feet.

Their unalloyed love for Him elevated them to scintillate eternally in the Satsang firmament.