Swaminarayan | Uplift of Women


Uplift of Women

In eighteenth century Gujarat, there existed 4 main Sampradāyas: Śaiva, Vaishnava, Jain and Śakta:

Of them, the Śakta flourished rapidly. Two factors boosted this spread: ignorance and the hedonistic psyche of the people, who indulged in meat, alcohol and adultery.

With its branches of Vāma, Kaula, Cholio and others, the Śakta Sampradāya had also perverted religion by regarding adultery as a means to moksha.

Feudal chiefs of large and small sub-states within Gujarat also favoured this exploitation of women and therefore followed and supported these cults.

Against such deeply ingrained hedonism, a mountain of prejudice and ignorant opposition, Bhagwan Swaminarayan proved to be the first, perhaps the only luminary, in India who rose against the shocking plight of women in society:

For them, He carved a tunnel of succour, liberating them from their neglected status, suppression and exploitation.

Some practices He outright eradicated; others He refined.

First, He exhorted people to abolish the practice of Sati. This involved the forced or voluntary immolation of a widow on the cremation pyre of her dead husband.

The Lord enlightened women about the invaluable opportunity of a human birth graced by God. And only a human birth facilitated moksha in transcending the cycle of births and deaths.

Sati flouted this grace and was in essence Ātmā-hatya (suicide) and therefore a sin. His practical and patient approach successfully eradicated Sati from most areas of Gujarat.

Simultaneously, He persevered in persuading people to forsake female infanticide in which newly-born baby girls were drowned in a pot of milk. This practice chiefly prevailed among the Rajputs and Kathis.

He offered parents financial aid to defray dowry costs, on the condition they desist from killing newly-born females.

This, He divulged, involved three great sins: killing an innocent relative, Strī hatya - killing a helpless female and bal-hatya - killing a child.

He warned them, in prophecy, that if they did not abandon this practice voluntarily now, they would have to later, when a powerful political ruler arrived.

This covertly referred to the British, who began to establish themselves in south Gujarat around 1803.

Later, on behalf of the East India Company, to support Gaekwad of Baroda Col. Walker entered Kathiawad in 1807, to make a financial settlement with the chiefs of the sub states.

The British later banned female infanticide.

In addition to see Bhagwan Swaminarayan's edifying effects, Sir John Malcolm on his visit to Kathiawad in 1830, also wished to check female infanticide among the Jadeja Rajputs.

Bhagwan Swaminarayan's efforts then focused on the religious education of women:

Female education in general had practically disappeared from society as a result of foreign rule over the centuries. At best, a mother might impart to her children traditional stories and folklore that she may have heard from the village bard.

Bhagwan Swaminarayan's first bold step provided special worshipping areas for women. He appointed women well-versed in the Satsang lore to preach to other women. In some towns, even separate Mandirs were built for them and males were prohibited entry.

Women could now offer devotion to God on a par with men. This encouraged women to think independently and attain leadership skills to teach each other.

An off-shoot advantage of this surfaced about 25 years after Bhagwan Swaminarayan's demise:

Under Colonial rule, schools for female education sprung up in the cities of Gujarat. Some of the first women teachers arrived from the Swaminarayan Sampradāya.

His segregation of the sexes during religious gatherings not only provided women the freedom to manage their own activities, but also shielded them from the promiscuous behaviour of males, which Bhagwan Swaminarayan had frequently observed in His teenage sojourns.

A Gujarati author, Kishorelal Mashruwala noted: 'His insistence in this matter stemmed from observing the rot that had infiltrated religious sects of the period.’

There also remained the problem of widows:

Unlike the prevailing social discrimination of widows, Bhagwan Swaminarayan did not consider them inauspicious. On the contrary, He offered them another option; to adopt the life of a Sāṁkhya-yogini.

Such a group of widows would live in special areas in Mandir precincts, avoid the company of males, offer devotion to God, practise austerities and preach to women devotees.

Purity of Speech

To instil cultural values in the people, Bhagwan Swaminarayan left no stone unturned. Even a seemingly superfluous factor as speech concerned Him:

He forbade the vulgar tradition of singing ribald songs - known as fatana - during marriage ceremonies.

To this end, He instructed His poet Paramahamsas, namely Muktānanda and Premanand, to compose Kirtanas glorifying the marriage episodes described in the scriptures, such as Tulasī Vivāhaḥ and Rukmiṇī Vivāhaḥ, to be sung instead. This revived sacredness in marriages.

Another undignified and distasteful practice concerned the usage of the word rand. A slang, derogatory term for a widow or a prostitute, men used it derisively to address any female.

Surprisingly, even women did not fail to use it when bickering with each other, thus lowering their own dignity.

Bhagwan Swaminarayan exhorted both men and women to abjure its usage. No matter what the social dictates, it just did not befit a disciple to utter obscenities from lips that chanted the Lord's glory.

Finally, He exhorted people to use speech sparingly, like ghee, not freely like water.

Moksha for All

Bhagwan Swaminarayan's purpose of incarnating centred on redeeming infinite Jīvas (souls). He removed distinctions of sex, caste, wealth, status, religion, friend or foe.

However, an incorrect interpretation of some scriptures then prevailing claimed that women could not attain moksha. This would only be possible in a male birth.

But Bhagwan Swaminarayan revealed that the soul - Ātmā - is neither male nor female:

In the Shikshapatri (116) - the code of conduct written by Him for His followers, He advocates identification of the Ātmā, with Brahman to offer worship to Parabrahman. Therefore women automatically obtain the right to moksha

To consider an example an aged devotee named Mulima, of Ganala, after years of sincere devotion in the Satsang, once instructed her husband to return home at midday from the fields to perform her final rites:

In a vision Mahārāja had informed her that since her life span had ended, He would arrive at midday to take her to Akshardham - His divine abode.

Bewildered at her statement, for she appeared quite healthy, her husband ignored her.

Nonetheless, a few minutes before twelve, filled with anxiety, he returned, just in case her statement proved true. He saw her sitting cross-legged in meditation, taking her final breaths.

He then attempted to assure her, 'Do not worry about my plight, but take care of your moksha.'

Hearing this weak statement of uncertainty, she awakened and reprimanded him:

'With these hands, I have served Mahārāja. They have thus been sanctified. Visitors who have drunk water or eaten food even once from my hands will definitely be redeemed.

Since you have eaten food made by me all these years, it is you who should be confident of your moksha! And if you are to be redeemed, don't you think I will?'

She then re-entered the state of samadhi and as a snake sheds its skin she shed her body. Arriving in a divine form, Mahārāja took her to Akshardham.

Śrī Maharaja’s approach even towards a sinful person such as a prostitute reflects His unbiased grace:

Prior to the yajña in Jetalpur, He distributed wheat to the townsfolk, to be ground into flour for use in the festival.

Nathibai, a prostitute, plucked up courage to approach the Lord in the assembly, to be allowed to grind wheat. If Bhagwan Swaminarayan was indeed God, she wished to be cleansed of her sins.

As she inched her way through the assembly, an outcry arose in the women's section. The male devotees also looked at her scornfully. But when Mahārāja saw her, with a wave of His hand He indicated to the assembly to let her through.

She requested Him to permit her to contribute. He agreed, but only if she ground the wheat herself. This she promised. He then allotted her one maund.

She laboured all night with heartfelt devotion. Unaccustomed to such strenuous work her palms blistered. In the morning she brought the flour to the Lord. He requested her to show her palms. Satisfied, He accepted the flour.

She then pleaded for forgiveness for her sinful life, also asking Him to grace and sanctify her 'house of sin'.

Pleased with her sincerity and resolution, He addressed her as "sister", and blessed her. He granted her moksha, on a level similar to His senior Paramahamsa - Muktānanda Swami! Subsequently, He sanctified her house.

Muktānanda Swami composed a moving kirtan empathizing with Nathibai, glorifying the Lord's grace on her.

Being a brahmachari, it is also remarkable that Muktānanda Swami wrote a special code of rules for women, known as the Sati Gita.

Commenting on this unique work, a French scholar, Françoise Mallison, has noted, 'No one has yet written codes for Satis (chaste women) as Muktānanda Swami.’

Yet contemporary society loathed the uplift of lower caste women by Bhagwan Swaminarayan and not only castigated Him, but maligned Him as ill-mannered; devoid of any social etiquette. He did not let this thwart His work.

In the village of Langnoj, a few miles from Ahmedabad, Bhagwan Swaminarayan visited the house of a poor, low caste, Bhavsar woman named Sonbai to take prasad.

But a rich Nagar Brahmin devotee, Gangama, told her that since her grain and pulses were of a low quality, she should prepare food for the sadhus accompanying Mahārāja. She, Gangama, would use her own higher quality grain for Mahārāja.

Sonbai's dreams shattered. Silently, she grieved, unable to object to someone of a higher caste.

When Mahārāja arrived, He noticed Sonbai's gloominess and questioned her. Distraught, she wept, barely managing to relate Gangama's decision.

Mahārāja calmed her. He requested her to bring whatever she had cooked. Exhilarated with His decision, she served Him devotedly.

Just as He finished dining, Gangama arrived with her food. Mahārāja calmly suggested that since He had already taken prasad, she was welcome to have what she had brought.

The sweeping effects of Bhagwan Swaminarayan's audacious and revolutionary steps in uplifting women, with a marked emphasis on protecting their chastity and dignity, induced many to forsake their cults to join the Swaminarayan Sampradāya. Contemporary society began to respect its lofty spiritual values.