Transposing tirtha: Understanding religious reforms and locative piety in early modern Hinduism
Thakkar International Journal of Dharma Studies
Transposing tirtha: Understanding religious reforms and locative piety in early modern Hinduism
The paper deals with a historical and hitherto obscure case of de-commercialisation of sacred geography of India. Sahajanand Swami, an eighteenth century religious leader from Gujarat who became popular as Bhagwan Swaminarayan took an initiative to eliminate corruption in Dwarka, one of the most sacred destination in Hindu imagination. He also attempted to transpose the piety of Dwarka and recreate a parallel religious experience at Vadtal, an important site in Swaminarayan Hinduism. This process of making sacred sites more egalitarian is classified here as a 'religious reform'. The paper assesses this bivalent pursuit as an institutional reform within religion as well as a religious process in the context of piety, authority and orthodoxy. Through the example of Sahajanand Swami, it is argued to calibrate the colonial paradigm of reform that was largely contextual to social issues and western thought and failed to appreciate the religious reforms of that era. By constructing a nuanced typology of 'religious reform' distinct from 'social reforms', the paper eventually calls for a reassessment of religious figures who have significantly contributed in reforming the Hindu tradition in the medieval and modern era.
Dwarka; Swaminarayan; Pilgrim tax; Religious reform
reforms from social reforms, whereby emphasis is laid on religious reforms as a distinct
process within religion.
The principle protagonist of this case is an eighteenth century religious leader called
Sahajanand Swami, popularly known as Bhagwan Swaminarayan. He founded the
Swaminarayan Sect in eighteenth century in Gujarat1 with a distinct theology and
scriptures, practices and rituals, iconography and symbolism, within the orthodox Hindu
framework. With the global dispersion of Gujarati Diaspora in the last century, today
the movement has become ‘one of the most visible elements of Hindu life abroad’
(Melton 2011, 9). Sahajanand Swami is also considered as a prominent social and
religious reformer in Gujarat of the ‘Hindu Renaissance’ era. This article, however,
discusses his unique reform agenda to contain corruption at Dwarka, one among the
char dham or the four important places of pilgrimage in Hinduism. He took initiatives
for the decommercialisation of sacred sites while remaking a parallel corruption-free
religious experience in distant space for his followers.
For a comprehensive appraisal of this bivalent pursuit termed here as ‘religious
reform’, one needs to evaluate it both ways – an undertaking to ameliorate an institution
and a religious process that centres around a set of beliefs and tradition. Given that
multiple themes of religiosity function non-uniformly across various strands of
Hinduism and are linearly independent of the religious ecosystems they exist and
function within, the reform process within a single strand of locative piety can be
studied in isolation without giving up the liberty of extrapolating its implications
to the entire sphere of religion.
The article is divided into four sections. The first part discusses the calibration of the
concept of reform, the following two historical sections narrate the setting of the scene
and the ensuing reform process, while the final section deals with the religious context
of piety, authority, and orthodoxy. For scholars, a study of Swaminarayan Hinduism
comes with a peculiar interest of time as the coinciding period is equally influenced by
medievalism and modernity while social and political upheaval was rife because of
condensation of British authority in India [Hatcher (2016, 7), Williams (1984, 24)]. Finally,
the reform initiative at the dawn of modernity apart from historical significance can be
of some interest to contemporary discourse of commercialisation of sacred sites (or
commodification of sacred objects).
Sahajanand Swami’s reform appraisal
The colonial authorities, thinkers, and missionaries have documented and appreciated
the reforms that were undertaken in the Hindu society during the early modern period,
which the Brahminical elite would have otherwise seen as an act of heterodoxy. In the
first ever research on assessing Sahajanand Swami’s reforms in colonial context,
Hatcher (2016) evaluates the writings of colonial thinkers who produced a host of
reform literature of that era. In a historiographical exercise on such writings about
Sahajanand Swami, Hatcher’s research unfolds the underlying concept of reform in
colonial thought. Here, we attempt to characterise the erstwhile notion of reform that
Hatcher terms as the ‘colonial paradigm’ based on his critical examination. Although
this brief characterisation will by no means be exhaustive in defining then prevalent
notion of reform, the heuristic approach shall suffice for our aim of reappraising
Sahajanand Swami’s religious reform.
First, the concept of reform largely rested on the substratum of socio-political
developments of previous centuries in Europe, mainly the Protestant Reformation.
Contemporary thought on understanding religion, the problems existing within, and possible
reforms, all had Christian leaning. Sometimes it was so inaccurately and firmly
entrenched in the Christian understanding that all incipient and deviant sects of
Hinduism had become identical to reform movements [cf. Wilson (1846)]. The process
of repression and upheaval in the homeland had boiled down the colonial discourse of
reform to simply as ‘the victory of liberty over tyranny and priestcraft’ (Hatcher 2016,
26). In the Indian context, the tyranny was ascribed to the Brahminical elite who not
only resided at the zenith of the quadripartite social system of India but also practised
priestcraft. Thus, the second feature of colonial understanding of reform, applicable to
even religious reforms, was to address the spectre of caste that was conceived almost
synonymous with Hinduism, and any reform that failed to address it was merely
scratching the surface. Finally, the recognition of reform had much bearing on the
political interests of the British Raj. These factors along with the social benchmarks of
British culture shaped the boundaries of notions such as ‘corrupt practices’ and
While British executive machinery was investing political capital in establishing an
indirect rule, the positive social and moral change enforced by Sahajanand Swami’s
incipient sect was conducive in containing depredations and savagery, obliterating the
lines of caste, and improving the status of women by abandoning inhumane practices
such as female infanticide and widow immolation. In a later survey of messianic
movements of Hinduism during colonial era, notes Fr. Fuchs (1965, 214), ‘The villages and
districts which have received him (Sahajanand Swami) and his teachings soon became
the best and the most orderly in the province of Bombay’. It is obvious that a figure
capable of such mass reformation that significantly contributed to the stable social and
political climate in the region would neither go unnoticed nor be of lesser interest to
the British agents. A perfect example of reformer in conventional colonial sense, he
was a ‘potential ally’ on the social front (Williams 1984, 7), or in other words a ‘Christian
saviour’ (Purohit 2012, 109). However, the argument here is that the colonial appraisal of
Sahajanand Swami’s reforms that largely rested on social practices, caste system,
influences of Christian reformation, and vested socio-political dividends failed to recognise
and appreciate the reform process undertaken by him within the institution of religion.
Thus, to a British pen, abolishing of widow immolation, non-violence, and preventing
female infanticide were more virtuous, crucial, and worthy to note than ameliorating
priestcraft by enforcing strict levels of the vow of celibacy or poverty.
Before moving ahead, we need to answer two questions: Is it absolutely imperative to
distinguish religious reform from social reforms2 against the normative trend of either
circumscribing former within latter or studying them in unity under the portmanteau
of socio-religious reforms? Second, if this approach is advantageous, how exactly do we
define both reforms distinctly? While responding to the second question first, social
reforms can be broadly described as humanist that are oriented towards either reinstating
preconceived social values or establishing new axiological levels of morality at
individual or collective level in a given social class. In contrast, religious reforms, albeit
literally a subset of social reforms, can be defined as a process of ameliorating the system
or institution of religion that is governed by the collective principles of larger public
good, standard ethics established by the society that it functions in, and idealism of
tradition and scriptures. Because religion functions as a distinct cultural strand within a
society, the study of reformation within may not be pursued in complete isolation
without accounting for pertinent social factors nor that is intended by argument mentioned
above. Similarly, iniquitous practices that are not in conformation to the socially
acceptable ethics could probably exist within a religious tradition. Thus, the initiative
to abolish the devadasi practice in certain societies of India can be equally termed as a
social and religious reform. However, the call to exercise special labour for the study of
religious reforms is neither redundant nor rebarbative for practical good.
First, religious reform would be of particular interest to a student of the history of
religion, independent or comparative. When reforms within religion are studied as a
process interior to a distinct religious ecosystem, it avails a religio-centric lens for
challenges and ramifications within a religious society. Furthermore, the study can be
conducted without the need to import the value benchmarks from another parallel
system. It was not that colonial discourse was not completely oblivious to the concept
of ‘religious reform’ as we argue here, but the benchmarks of reform were limited to
the western religious import of unfettering from idolatry and polytheism. These major
themes of Hinduism that are anathematic to the Christian worldview constricted the
colonial notion of religious reform. It explains the making of Rammohan Roy as an
unparalleled religious reformer of that era3 whose voice echoed like none other in the
Unitarian literature in Britain and the United States. Thus, for the Bishop of Calcutta,
Reginald Heber, Sahajanand Swami was a ‘mass reformer’ who was yet clinched in
Hindu polytheism and thus, he was very distant from the truth (Williams 1984, 85).
The challenge with studying religious reform as a social function is that the
imperative to use the indigenous religious principles as touchstone is compromised with either
social ethics or shared religious values; or in the case of colonial observers, supplanted
by the value system of the appraiser situated at an extrinsic social vantage point who
fails to heed the religious sensitivities of the appraisee that are accrued over
generations. It is not just that because the milieu who observed ‘Hindu reforms’ belonged to
an alien socio-cultural setting that we find such a parallax. Even within the natives, an
assessment of a religious phenomenon with a non-religious perspective may err the
inference. Analysing an unusual status of ‘maverick’ earned by Bhaktisiddhanta
Saraswati, writes (Sardella 2013, 10), ‘[t]he theory and practice of a personalist, theistic
form of bhakti… was out of step with the progressive, highly politicised, and
philanthropically oriented tendencies of his time’. Not to miss such tendencies evolved
because of conflation or assimilation of imported liberal values.
Finally, there is an apprehension of misconstruing a religious figure as a social
reformer or his religious reforms being subdued within the larger narrative of his social
reforms. In the case of Sahajanand Swami, it is much fascinating that post-colonial
indigenous scholarship, predominantly in the Gujarati language, has been overemphatic
in describing him as a ‘social reformer’4 perhaps being swayed by the colonial construct
or never setting a precedence to define him as a ‘religious reformer’.
As far as the late medieval or early modern era that neatly coincides with British Raj
in India is concerned, religious reforms are mostly studied along with social reforms.5
This sometimes confounds both ideas. For example, while assessing reforms of Sahajanand
Swami writes Mehta (2016, 41), ‘he [Sahajanand Swami] was basically not a social but
a moral and spiritual leader’. Nevertheless, immediately in the following passages after
this opinion what Mehta enlists is a set of social reforms. The identification of Sahajanand
Swami only as a social reformer and not a ‘religious reformer’, who created a religious sect
within the orthodox Hindu framework employing new vigour to instil essential morality,
can only be explained by the argument that religious reforms have not received serious
and separate attention.
Sometimes, these religious reforms are appreciated in juxtaposition with the erstwhile
corruption in the Vallabha Sect resulting in misconstruction of Swaminarayan Sect as
‘formed in response to Vallabha Sect’ [Monier-Williams (1877, 145), Farquhar (1920,
318), Majumdar (1964, 221)], a narrative that was later corrected by recent scholarship
[Mallison (1974, 449), Chitkara (1997, 231-233)]. Nevertheless, in a recent comprehensive
study of Swaminarayan Sect, a prominent scholar on the subject, Raymond B. Williams,
presents a cursory survey of social and religious reforms undertaken by Sahajanand
Swami in the prefatory biographical chapter (Williams 2001, 23–32). The following is a
brief overview of the initiatives introduced by Sahajanand Swami that can be construed as
reformative compared to the situation of religious institutions and vocation in eighteenth
Sahajanand Swami’s process of reform commenced with putting the religious
vocation in order. He prescribed five vows to the ascetic class – eight-fold celibacy,
nonattachment towards familial ties, humility, not to gourmandise, and poverty.6 Under
these five religious vows, he made the ascetic life so rigorous that it prohibited an
ascetic from travelling to one’s native place, speaking with, looking at or keeping any
contact with a woman, touching any form of currency let alone possessing it, and called
for consuming food as a tasteless mixture of all items and water. Some of these
practices may seem puritanical or repressive in the contemporary context, but a revival of
religious class to a selfless level was inevitable given the amount of licentiousness,
gluttony, greed, and all forms of decadence that had penetrated at all ranks of religious
vocation. This renunciate class was then engaged in selfless services of the society, such
as digging wells and water reservoirs, repairing roads, constructing new living quarter,
food distribution during famine, etc. beyond their priestly duty of studying and
preaching (Melton 2011, 4).
Among the stringency of his reformation process, one most contentiously debated
issue is the separation of sexes. Some critics would, and have, argued the strictness of
the sect as discriminatory. Notwithstanding the criticism, Mallison (2016, 53) writes in
her recent article, “But this does not imply that women had to suffer from
discrimination; on the contrary, spiritual and religious education were imparted to women by
the sect, especially as some of them had to be gurus of their own folk.”
This observation is evident from the noted discourses of Sahajanad Swami
known as Vachanamrut, where a female devotee engages in a spiritual
conversation with her master amidst an assembly composed of ascetics and lay devotees
of both genders.7 Mallison, furthering her argument, describes the spiritual
emancipation of women as a common feature in then Gujarat by illustrating prominent
female religious figures from Santism and Satpanth. However, Mallison fails to
juxtapose the ideological position of all three movements. Santism did not have a
philosophical stance as a whole nor a firm position in the Hindu socio-religious
hierarchy,8 whereas Satpanth was an independent syncretic movement mostly
constituting the outcastes who derived values and practices from Hinduism and
Islam at whim. The establishment of an independent celibate female religious
class called ‘samkhya-yogini’ within the puritanical framework of Hindu orthodoxy
was an innovative contribution when the female religious order was subject to
the chauvinism of their male counterparts in major religious traditions (Stri
Swatantrya 1995, 77-87).
Furthermore, Sahajanand Swami was a strong proponent of ahimsa or non-violence
and abhorred suffering to life in any form. Usually, most eulogies to him, sectarian or
otherwise, note his repudiation to animal sacrifice in religious ceremonies as a major
religious reform. Although an important call, these sacrificial offerings were seldom
instances. He laboured to imbibe the value of ahimsa at a micro- and meso-level in the
life of his followers as lowly and nefarious as the Kolis. One instance, noted in the
official records of Bombay Presidency, discusses the fall of cultivation of indigo in
Britishadministered Kaira district, ‘the preparation of the drug (indigo) is accompanied by
much loss of insect life, a result most distasteful to the Kanbi, and since the spread of
Svami Narayan sect to many of the Koli cultivators of Kaira’ (Campbell 1879, 53).
The limited point here is that portrayal of Sahajanand Swami, excessively contrived
as a social reformer in the wake of his significant social contributions and ensuing
colonial interpretations, has somehow left his religious reform unheeded. This discussion is
in the interest of the case studied here. Sahajanand Swami’s act of recreating the
religious experience of Dwarka at Vadtal or urging the rulers to check the corruption at
the holy shrines of Dwarka, which we discuss in the following two sections, without the
distinct attempt to study religious reform may be subdued in the extensive list of
collective reforms undertaken by him or would be limited to historical case study in
sacred geography of India. Finally, it is now that religious discourse is seriously
incorporating ‘commodification of religious objects’ [Starrett (1995), Zaidman and
Lowengart (2001)] into reform narrative. The case of Sahajanand Swami can be of historical
relevance for the study of decommercialisation of the sacred sites in particular and
religion in general.
Setting the scene
After seven years of spiritual vagrancy in his adolescence, Sahajanad Swami settled with
a then prominent religious figure in Gujarat known as Ramanand Swami. Initially,
Sahajanand Swami was ordained as an ordinary ascetic but later nominated as the head
of the sect. With the elevation, Ramanand Swami granted him some latitude from the
stricture of ascetic life, which included publicly preaching to women and donning of
garish clothes offered by devotees. Despite the countenance of his guru to accept the
devotional offering of his followers, his biographical accounts note that he usually
draped white clothes and adhered to strict religious vows. After his assuming the holy
seat, his status was not limited to that of a guru or the head of the sect. In the
imagination of many, he was Krishna, and for others, his divinity was even beyond that.9
One among the vows for ascetics, preached and practised by Sahajanand Swami, was
complete detachment from familial ties. After renouncing his family at the age of 11,
he had never looked back towards his kin. Nearly, two decades after his elevation as
the head of the sect, some senior sadhus planned to call his former family to have
benedictions from Sahajanand Swami,10 the once sober and devout child of the village
Chhapaiya, who was now popularly known as Bhagwan Swaminarayan. By this time,
Sahajanand Swami was not merely the inheritor of Ramananda Swami’s sect,
‘Swaminarayan Sampradaya’ was the new identity of the movement. Swaminarayan was a
household name; a name revered by the heads of princely states in Gujarat and
Kathiawar, much discussed by British political agents, and uttered in devotion by
thousands of followers.11 The temples of Ahmedabad, Bhuj, and Vadtal were already
dedicated to the public, and a couple of other temples were under construction. Except
for Vadtal, Sahajanand Swami’s idol was not installed in any of these temples; however,
they captured public imagination as a ‘Swaminarayan temple’.
It came as a serendipitous discovery for the family, and they headed towards Gujarat.
Sahajanand Swami’s brothers wished to retire and stay with Sahajanand Swami, whereas
the rest of the family was ready to move back to their domicile Ayodhya. It was at this
time, Sahajanand Swami suggested they pursue the pilgrimage of Dwarka and the
episode that ensued created a history for the sect. On the request of family members who
were unfamiliar with the geography of Gujarat, Sahajanand Swami appointed one of his
prominent ascetic devotees Sachidananda Swami as an escort. They embarked on the
tirtha-yatra or the pilgrimage on Samvat 1881, Maha Sud Navmi (28th January,1825).
After eight days of strenuous travelling, they reached the shores of the Gomti river,
adjacent to Dwarka, on Maha Vad Pratipada (04th February, 1825 CE) (Satsangijivan
Located on the tip of the Kathiawar Peninsula, Dwarka possesses a strategic
geographical importance that dates back to the earliest period of the maritime history of
Gujarat (Mehta 2009, 32–35). ‘Dwaramati’, as it is alternatively known in the religious
texts, is believed to be the mythological city of Krishna,12 and then a host to the famous
Krishna temple. It is also the site for Nageshwara Mahadeva (one of the 12 Saivite
jyotirlingas), Sharada Peetha (one of the four maths established by Adi Sankaracharya)
and countless other shrine and temples of extreme mythological importance dedicated
to various prominent Hindu deities.13
The Dwarka of the eighteenth century was, however, characterised not by piety, but
by piracy and plundering. The Wagher tribe of the Okha Mandal, of which Dwarka was
a part, relied on piracy of incoming sea vessels and plundering of pilgrims. The excesses
of their piratical depredations were such that colonial reports mention Okha Mandal as
a ‘piratical province’ [Asiatic Journal (1821, 591-592)]. Their skirmishes with the British
East India Company started during pay-offs for ships ravaged by them between 1801
and 1804 CE. The feud continued intermittently until the British secured the territory
of Okha Mandal in March 1816 CE.14 Given the British policy of non-intervention, the
territory with immense religious importance was ceded to the Baroda State 14 months
later vide article seven of a Definitive Treaty of 1817 CE (Aitchison 1876, 229). It seems
that even for the Baroda State, it was too profane to meddle into the affairs of the
shrines, a precedence set by the namesake administration of the Waghers.15
As the pilgrims were plundered outside of the shrines by the Wagher tribe, within
they were exploited by another clan of avaricious Brahmin priests known as ‘Gugli’.
Taking folklore into account, Gugli Brahmins can be assumed to be the officiating
priests at the Dwarka temple for more than a millennium.16 History suggests that their
treatment of priestcraft was not as a service, but as a profession for pecuniary gains.
The legend of Dakor symbolises the extent of their rapacity. Given the erstwhile
political instability, the corruption of Gugli Brahmins was at the nadir in the history.
Any holy act on the holy land of Dwarka or adjacent Sankhodwar (Bet Dwarka) was
unimaginable without tipping their coffers. They exacted money for all rituals and
sacraments including bathing in the River Gomti, performing rites for the deceased, and
taking the imprint of holy seals. As per the tradition, one was not allowed to enter the
Dwarkadheesh (Krishna) temple without taking the imprint of holy seals on one’s
biceps. For the imprint received at Arambhada (a site near the Dwarkadheesh temple),
notes political agent James Macmurdo during a visit sometime around c. 1809 CE, ‘the
tax per stamp is five cories,17 four of which goes to the Government of Aramra
(Arambhada) and one to the Brahman who gives it’ (Macmurdo 1977, 49). According
to erstwhile conversion, four cories equals one rupee (Vaghela 2011, 33). In relative
terms, comparing to an individual’s earning, a camel man earned five rupees as a
monthly wage during 1814 CE which slightly increased to seven rupees during 1828 CE
(Martin 1839, 368).
Different dispensations of local chieftains, Mughal, Maratha, Gaekwad, and even the
British never challenged Gugli Brahmin’s authority over the centuries. Their avarice left
the pilgrimage a pursuit of the wealthy, and the penniless were a subject of contempt
and cruelty. Such a religious expedition was not always a challenge for all those in the
religious vocation. The spectre of amassing wealth in leaders of organised religious
sects and, at least, securing sufficient coppers for one’s subsistence among spiritual
vagrants was a common practice across most religious traditions.18 It was for the ascetics
such as Sachidananda who were devoid of a dime that the holy expedition was an
inconceivable feat. In a discursive research on tirtha, Bharati (1970, 90-91) suggests a
distinct relationship between lay and ascetic pilgrims as patrons and clients respectively,
in any given place of pilgrimage in India. Notwithstanding the same, in erstwhile
Dwarka, only the Gugli Brahmins were clients at the receiving end, whereas rest of all
Sachidananda Swami was dejected after realising the plight of the poor pilgrims,
facing personal vilification from Gugli Brahmins, and subsequently, getting precluded
from taking bath in the Gomti River following which he went into a deep trance.
Expecting his samadhi or the state of trance to go on indeterminately, the family
continued to perform all holy acts leaving him aside. Once awake from trance,
Sachidananda Swami found himself isolated from the group. His predicament worsened
without food, holy bath, or entry into the temple. Disparaging comments from the
Brahmins, who were envious of Sahajanand Swami, added to his woes. After eight days
of suffering in the land of piety, he once again sat in an indefinite meditation to plead
Dwarkadheesh or the ruler of Dwarka, i.e. Krishna for darshan (glimpse).
Ranchhodraya, the form of Krishna presiding at the Dwarka temple, appeared in
his vision and granted him the boon to reside in the idols of Lakshmi-Narayan in
Vadtal and fulfil the wish of all ascetics and poor pilgrims similar to him.
Subsequently, a joyous reunion took place; the group returned to Vadtal, and the episode
was narrated to Sahajanand Swami.
Sahajanand Swami’s call for change
The rampant corruption in Dwarka was a known fact to everyone. During his meeting
with the ruler of Jamnagar, a nearby province, on the eve of his departure to Dwarka,
Sahajanand Swami expressed his concerns about the pilgrim tax levied in Dwarka and
a need for reform (Haricharitramrut Sagar 5/28/39–42). His visit to Dwarka and
associated sacred places with an entourage of ascetics and householder devotees is marked
by both cordiality and contempt (Haricharitramrut Sagar 5/29–32). During this trip,
despite noting all callousness of Brahmins, Sahajanad Swami did not find himself in a
position to overthrow the vile tyrants or challenge their unsubstantiated authority. A
ritual and intellectual distancing from the existing sacred site could have been only a
plausible alternative. Sahajanand Swami’s hagiographies19 depict the incident of
Sachidananda Swami at Dwarka as a part of a divine plan, a precursor to further counteracts
of Sahajanand Swami.
Sahajananad Swami’s memory seemed rekindled by the agonising experience narrated
by Sachidananda Swami. Later, Sahajanand Swami arranged a grand religious fete
where he declared Vadtal to be as pious as Dwarka because Ranchhodraya (Krishna)
and his consort Rukmani were now residing in the deities of Lakshmi-Narayan that
were already installed by him20 (ibid.). By then, the construction of a lake adjacent to
the temple called Dharu was about to be completed. He supervised the remaining task
and announced that ‘Gomti’ (lake) of Dwarka will reside in this Dharu lake’ (Dave
2009, 140–141). Subsequently, the lake in Vadtal came to be known as Gomti lake in
the popular tradition which continues till today. Alike Dwarka, he made arrangements
for the imprints to be taken, a practice still extant in Vadtal. Two ascetics
Vaikunthanand Varni and Vasudevanand Varni along with a young damsel Jamuna were entrusted
the initial responsibility of giving imprints to male and female devotees, respectively
One very crucial fact needs to be reminded at this point. Few months subsequent to
the episode, in the same town of Vadtal, Sahajanand Swami wrote the sect’s rulebook
known as ‘Shikshapatri’ (February, 1826 CE). In this constitutional document
amounting to a meagre 212 verses, he commands his devotees to perform the pilgrimage of
Dwarka (Shikshapatri verse 83). Taking into account this command of Sahajanand
Swami, it can safely be assumed that the act neither meant disapprobation of Dwarka
as a ‘tirtha’ nor was it an ingenious gesture of appropriating the popularity of an
established sacred site. Whether it was too early for him to substitute Vadtal for Dwarka to
establish distinct theology centred around his form of ‘Swaminarayan’ in the only holy
writ penned by him, or he actually wanted Dwarka to stay at the zenith of all holy
places including the ones established by him is a matter of further speculation.
From further reading of the history of Dwarka, it seems that the menace of the Gugli
Brahmins did not perpetuate indefinitely. The administrative report of Baroda State of
1943 (art. 558) notes that through an executive order, ‘[t]he Government has abolished
the Pilgrims tax levied at Dwarka and Beyt and the fees for Gomtisnan’ (Baroda
Administrative Report 1943, 194). Through a careful reading of the literary history of
Gujarat, we find some mitigation in the dreadful state of ascetic pilgrims even before
this executive intervention for complete tax abolition. While describing one literary
figure of Gujarat known as Narbheram (CE 1768–1852), Jhaveri (1914, 162-163), quotes
one of his devotional songs composed at Dwarka.21 Unable to pay the toll to the Gugli
Brahmins, Narbheram urges Krishna in a protesting sense in the song, ‘Why
discrimination between ascetics and householders? We both are your devotees, those dressed as
ascetics do not have to pay the toll and the ones wearing a turban like me (the
householders) have to pay it’. From this protesting poetry, it is evident that ascetics
were pardoned to pay the tax sometime during Narbheram’s visit to Dwarka.
According to various sources (Majumdar (1977, 654), Shastri (Narbheram 1891, 1-2),
Jhaveri (1914, 219-221)), Narbheram was an indigent bard, originally from the village of
Pij, who later moved to the Gomtipur suburb of Ahmedabad city where he earned a
precarious livelihood by entertaining masses. Although the aforementioned poem is
undated, it seems highly unlikely that he would have taken up the pilgrimage in the last
decade of his life. For a penurious octogenarian such as Narbheram to travel to Dwarka
from Ahmedabad for a pilgrimage in the 1840s when the state of infrastructure and
transportation were dismal seems extremely challenging. This fact brings Narbheram’s
meta-narrative ballad crying of favour to ascetics in temporal proximity to the given
episode by less than a decade. Interesting enough, post-Narbheram literary figures who
document his life and work have never contested the substance of this poesy.
To further establish the veracity of Narbheram’s claim, I tried to disinter the erstwhile
administrative records of the Baroda Administration. Unfortunately, much political
correspondence of Okha Mandal from c. 1821 onwards is missing from the State
Archives.22 Thus, we are left at the mercy of whatever little has been published in the
Historical Selections of the State Archives. Looking at the culled printed records of the
period concurring Sahajanand Swami and Sayaji Rao Gaekwad II (hereafter Gaekwad),
the erstwhile ruler of the Baroda State (c. 1819–1830 CE), three distinct letters
post1826 CE are found that are relevant to the subject. All three letters,23 which are
executive in nature, are written for some prominent religious figure pardoning their retinue
from paying taxes at Dwarka. Interestingly, from the language of the letters, originally
written in Marathi, it is very apparent that these religious figures are accompanied by
an entourage of lay followers in large numbers for whom the favour is granted. In one
letter (#171), the language is pretty apparent ‘pardon the levies of people accompanying
[him]’. A similar phraseology is observed in another letter (#65) (Historical Selections
from Baroda Records 1955). Although this is a very literal and stringent interpretation,
still, neither a letter granting exclusive favour to any single ascetic is found, nor any of
these executive favours are in direct contradiction to Narbheram’s claim.
This claim of favour to ascetics made by Narbheram, when viewed in unity with
noted history of the sect and Baroda State, accords one the rational liberty to draw
historical conclusions in favour of Sahajanand Swami as a proactive figure in containing
the corruption at Dwarka. From the hagiographies of the sect and whatever little
historical evidence is traceable, we are able to discern that Gaekwad held Sahajanad Swami
in much esteem and consequently, the sect enjoyed a fair amount of patronage of the
Baroda State. The sectarian literature exudes exceptional veneration of the ruler
towards Sahajanand Swami. However, it would not be historiographically injudicious, or
at least excessive for the purpose of this study, if these exchanges are perceived as a
strong bonhomie between two heads, of a state and a sect, given that religious sects
and provincial governments functioned in proximate nexus during that era.
Paradoxically, the genesis of this profound amity can be found in vehement
antagonism of the priestly class of Baroda State towards Sahajanad Swami’s new movement.
Given the altruistic and undogmatic policy of the Gaekwads, a myriad of sects and
centres of faith flourished in their territory. The established sectarian leaders began to fret
by the sudden popularity of Sahajanand Swami’s movement that was perceived as a
potential challenge to their following. To prevent it from further spreading in the
Baroda State, they inveighed against it as a ‘non-Vedic’ heretical cult. Nevertheless, many
elites of the state were already followers of Sahajanad Swami.24 Thus, to settle the
contention, a conventional Hindu practice of polemical debate was adopted by the State
administration. Sahajanand Swami’s senior most ascetic disciple Muktanand Swami
represented the sect for this debate. The annals of the sect boast Muktanand Swami’s
monumental victory against a collective cohort of variegated thoughts. Following this
incident, there were a few exchanges of letters between Sahajanand Swami and
Gaekwad through emissaries,25 subsequent to which Sahajanand Swami was extended a state
reception of three days.
One scholarly Brahmin devotee of the sect Mul Sharma (2013) has extensively
recorded the happenings with much minutiae running for hundreds of printed pages.
These accounts are not simply another example of typical discursive Indian sacred
biography sharing common hagiographical pattern [cf. Smith (2000)], they are
symptomatic of an intense patron–client relationship between the Baroda State and the
Swaminarayan Sect. Although Sahajanand Swami’s documented history abounds with
state receptions, this incident is uniquely embedded and preserved in the memory of
the sect etching its marks not only just in the capacious hagiographical corpus but also
the iconography, artefacts, frescoes, and visual depictions as well as other traditional
means of transmission.
One example of the profound rapport in general and this reception in particular that
has endured in the iconography, and so to say the tradition, of the sect is the headgear
of the acharyas.26 When Sahajanand Swami travelled to Baroda, the two newly initiated
acharyas were also a part of his retinue. Gaekwad presented them with fineries of all
sorts on day one of the visit (M. Sharma 2013, 296). The oral tradition within the sect
suggests that a typical Marathi turban known as ‘babasahi pagh’ was presented to the
acharyas during that visit which became a part of their ceremonious attire.27 This
Marathi raiment was a sartorial exception introduced in a sect that still continues to be
entirely Gujarati in its orientation. Another mark of the conviviality and patronage were
the two villages whose revenue was granted for the maintenance of the Swaminarayan
temples. The copper plates on which the decrees were inscribed are an important
artefact on display at the Swaminarayan Museum in Ahmedabad.28 Furthermore, to testify
the strength of this relationship perpetuating in time, there exists a letter by
Ayodhyaprasad, the first acharya of the Ahmedabad diocese, to Khanderao II, the younger
brother of Sayaji Rao II, congratulating Khanderao II on his ascension as the head of
the state around c. 1856 CE, some 26 years after the departure of Sahajanand Swami.29
Here, Ayodhyaprasad is feeling grateful and obliged by the continued patronage of the
state for the maintenance of the Swaminarayan temple at Ahmedabad.
The inception of this enduring camaraderie and religious philanthropy was the state
reception. On the second day of this three-day state reception, there was an
‘administrative exchange’, notes Mul Sharma (2013, 317), between Sahajanand Swami and
Gaekwad which no one was privy to. It is highly plausible that Sahajanand Swami may
have wielded influence over Gaekwad to fulfil his longstanding desire of eliminating
corruption and taxation from the places of worship in favour of the pilgrims.
Nevertheless, he would not have been able to convince the ruler for complete abolishment as it
was a significant source of revenue to the state exchequer.30 Still, Gaekwad would have
agreed to contain the menace of Gugli Brahmins granting an exception to at least the
ascetics similar to Sachidananda Swami. Gaekwad was very generous with religious
endowments so much so that even unclothed vagrants in the Baroda State enjoyed his
patronage.31 Neither anyone was privy to the exchange between the two historical figures
nor much of the executive documentation preserved. However, this absence of direct
evidence ‘anupalabdhi’ should not preclude us from deducing epistemological inference
accorded by the ‘overlapping’ elements of history, a precedence that I am following
from a recent historical work pertinent to Swaminarayan Studies.32 Between the two
historical events – Gugli Brahmins demanding the tax to ascetic Sachidananda Swami
and no taxation for ascetics as claimed by Narbheram – occurring in the proximity of
nearly a decade, seemingly no other historical trigger exist in chronicles of Dwarka that
is so closely associated with the plot and characters and could precipitate a change. To
an antiquarian’s eye, the traumatic trip of Sachidananda Swami and the subsequent
meeting of his guru and god Sahajanand Swami to the ruler of Baroda State comes up
as the only pertinent and potent event that can pan out a favourable situation for the
ascetic class. Hence, it would not be rationally subjective to credit Sahajanand Swami, a
religious leader who evidently attempted to recreate a corruption-free religious
experience within his tradition, for the broader reform of relieving ascetics to pay pilgrim tax
with the help of executive intervention.
The menace of corruption at sites of trans-sectarian importance such as Dwarka was
not only discouraging for the pilgrims but also daunting as a contagion that could
easily vitiate other sacred sites by the precedence of Dwarka. For example, during c. 1883
at Dakor, another prominent pilgrimage site in the proximity of Dwarka, the temple
priests instituted a fee of four annas (equivalent to a quarter of a rupee) during
particular auspicious days following the precedence of Dwarka (Chaturvedi 2007, 52–53).
Dakor drew its religious significance from Dwarka and originally sprouted as a symbol
of devotion as well as a breakout from the manacling priestcraft of the officiating Gugli
Brahmins. Nonetheless, with time it also got ensnared in the corruption of the priestly
class. Thus, Sahajanand Swami’s reform act could be credited as the first step in
dousing the wildfire of corruption that was blazing across the sacred geography of Gujarat.
Locative piety in context
The last part briefly deals with the form and functioning of locative piety as a religious
phenomenon that empowered Sahajanand Swami to follow the course of reform. As
Radhakrishnan (1923, 25) qualifies the nature of ever-evolving Indian philosophy with
two epithets – experimental and provisional that attempts to keep pace with the
progress of thought, the forms of religiosity of Hindus and the norms governing them also
represent progressive ideologies. The strand of locative piety construed of geographical,
social, ecumenical, liturgical, historical, and political factors needs to be mapped in the
relative context of time, sect, and authority to understand the formation of an emerging
tirtha. Thus, in this section, we shall attempt to answer three relevant questions: Why
Sahajanand Swami choose Vadtal? Was the act of transposing the piety heretical by a
conventional standard? What determines tirthatva or the sanctity as a sacred site for
Vadtal in that era of Hindu thought?
By the time of this episode, Sahajanand Swami was already leading the sect for nearly
22 years. Although the sect started actively in Saurashtra, by 1820s, the movement had
a pan-Gujarat presence. Sahajanand Swami built first temple at Ahmedabad and later
at Bhuj while his permanent dwelling was in Gadhada. Numerous kings and satraps
from metropolises to smaller chiefdoms in Saurashtra were his followers. He had a
remarkable following in major trade centres such as Surat and had new mandirs under
construction at the port-city of Dholera and the metropolis of Junagadh. Despite the
movement spawning geographically in all directions, Vadtal eclipsed all other options
to become a major tirtha of the sect. Presumably, there were a few favourable factors.
Linguistically, the movement was Gujarati dominating and geographically, Vadtal lied
somewhere in the centre of ‘Gujarati Cosmopolis’. Vadtal was a part of Kaira district
that was independently administered by the British forces. Given the brash attitude of
British troops and political agents towards the truculent and turbulent actors, the law
and order situation was comparatively better. Simultaneously, there was political
stability compared to other chiefdoms where succession altered policies at whim. Although
the formal census in British India started from 1871 CE, from the hagiographical
accounts, it can be inferred that there was much concentration of followers in and
around Vadtal. In the first census of 1871 CE, nearly 30,000 individuals from the Kaira
district identified themselves as followers of Swaminarayan within the Hindu religion
(Campbell 1879, 27). Few months subsequent to the given episode, Sahajanand Swami
excogitated the administrative scheme of the sect wherein two dioceses were carved,
each having seats at Ahmedabad and Vadtal, respectively. Out of the six temples,33
Sahajanad Swami erected during his time, only Vadtal was the one where he installed
his own idol proclaiming a distinct theology for the sect. Unlike the previous two
temples in Ahmedabad and Bhuj where central presiding deities were Nar-Narayan – a
twin male manifestation, the central deities in Vadtal were Lakshmi-Narayan which
technically resembled more to the duet of Ranchhodraya (Krishna) and his consort
Rukmani. Finally, there was a dedicated water body in the extreme proximity of temple,
a prerequisite in Indian imagination of sacred geography as antique as the Vedas
[Taittiriya Samhita 220.127.116.11–3, Eck (1981, 326-327)] and also much necessary for
Whether any or some of the reasons mentioned above motivated Sahajanand Swami
to choose Vadtal, or there was personal discretion in the decision, for an academic
assessment, Vadtal far outweighed other centres in advantages. It was this blend of
authority and advantage that determined the fate of Vadtal as a new centre of pilgrimage
for the sect. Unlike Dwarka, Vadtal has never turned into a site of trans-sectarian
importance. Nonetheless, its audience is not strictly limited to just the followers of the
Swaminarayan sect. However, it can be said that Vadtal has successfully supplanted
Dwarka for a distinct strand within Hindu tradition, i.e., ‘Swaminarayan Hinduism’.
In Hinduism, if Vedas are the anchor of orthodoxy, precedence determines unwritten
norms of orthopraxis. That locative piety, a crucial strand in Hinduism, is conceived
through theological significance, soteriological implications, and ritualistic precision
within the frame of orthodoxy and orthopraxis, a heresiological incision is warranted to
gauge the incident on the scale of traditionalism. This act of approximating, or
appropriating, the merit of a sacred site was not an unconventional departure albeit distinct
in cause, process, and function. In India, usually the significance of smaller shrines or
sacred sites of relatively lesser importance, in terms of associated myth, presiding deity,
or thronging pilgrims, are boasted as ‘x’ (major pilgrim centre) of (locality) ‘y’, for
example, ‘Kashi of Southern Andhra’ (Bharati 1970, 98) or there may be nearly a dozen
sites across India known as ‘Chhoti Kashi’ (lit. Small Kashi), to extol them and qualify
them at par with Kashi (or similar other sites of greater importance). Although
Sahajanand Swami was remaking a sacred space in distance, his act was not intended
to qualify Vadtal as ‘the Dwarka of Charotar’ or ‘the Dwarka of Swaminarayan
Sampradaya’. With his authority, he was actually recreating a new Dwarka aloof of and
immune to corruption and rapacity within the ecosystem of the sect which was no
lesser than historical Dwarka for his followers. Thus, Dwarka as a place of pilgrimage
in the verse of Shikshapatri can be tacitly supplanted by Vadtal as both centres accrue
equal, if not greater, religious merit.
Extending the religious merit and the significance of a divine agency associated with
a sacred site, the way Sahajanand Swami did, though not normative for highly
important sites such as Dwarka, was not the first case in the history of sacred geography let
alone the history of Dwarka. Two noted prominent cases in the past history and one
among them in the geographical proximity of Vadtal would have not only inspired
Sahajanand to act accordingly but also exculpated him from heresy or heterodoxy by
then religious standards. The first case passed on through oral tradition dates back to
the eleventh century when the idols of Dwarka travelled with one devout named
Bodano and eventually a new sacred site Dakor (in Gujarat) came up as a pilgrimage centre
associated with Ranchhodraya (Krishna) (Mallison 1990, 30). Similar to the case
reported here, Gugli Brahmins played an antagonistic role in the narrative of Bodano.
The other famous case features twelfth-century theologian Madhvacharya. When an
idol of Krishna from Dwarka traverses the ocean and reaches the southern coast
encompassed in huge clay lump. Madhvacharya identifies the clay lump, disinters the
idol based on divine intuition and installs it in the Udupi Math (B. N. Sharma 1962,
xiii). In the noted biographical accounts (esp. Madhva Vijay 9/40–43), the immediate
miracles shown by the idol after Madhva’s discovery construes a sense of divine volition
to get re-established from Dwarka to Udupi.
Despite the precedence saving Sahajanand Swami from the sin of flouting the
tradition, his act differed in many aspects. Distinct from the previous cases where idols
moved physically, here the divine spirit from Dwarka was invoked and the
manifestation of divine was corroborated by the spiritual authority of Sahajanand Swami.
Second, Bodano and Madhva acted as devotees in a traditional sense while Sahajanad
Swami was perceived either as a manifestation of Krishna or the almighty himself.
Thus, his authority to converge the divine spirit into the idols of Vadtal far eclipsed the
devotional and invocative sense of the two predecessors. Finally, the previous cases
were either instantiation of providence or mere happenstance, however, the case of
Vadtal was a purposive and reformative act of a religious leader to ameliorate the
institution and spurn the authority of his ilk that was characterised by immorality.
It is this authority of a religious leader that was the most distinguishable aspect in
early modern and modern Hinduism. Although we are not delving into a discursive
characterisation of this era of Hinduism, one distinct feature was the convergence of
authority into the visible human manifestation. Tirtha, which was once associated with
some myth from the sacred epics of Ramayana or Mahabharata or the colossal corpus
of Puranas, no more emanates from an antique sacred narrative. The religious authority
of the founder substitutes the necessity, as well as the process of ‘Sanskritisation’ of the
sacred narrative associated with a site that accentuates its soteriological and ritualistic
importance and catapults it in the higher axes of sacred geography. The concentration
of piety around the founder of a particular sect or movement of Hinduism led to
‘pilgrimisation’ of sites once associated with them (Bharati 1963, 150) which was once
mostly limited to avatars of Hindu mythology. This process of alteration of locus of
authority from myth, oral, and written, to an individual needs separate academic
attention. Nevertheless, for the present case, it can be deduced that the anthropocentric
model of authority that established the sanctity of Vadtal was conducive for Sahajanand
Swami to pursue his reform agenda.
In this article, I have attempted to calibrate the colonial paradigm that was somehow
encapsulating and appreciating social and cultural reforms together. The independent
study of the process of reforming religion adds nuances to the character of religious
institutions and traditions beyond their monotonous chronological history. It warrants
for reassessment of Hindu reforms and reformers of the colonial era whose colonial
appraisal continues to sway the present narrative. This episode is also another striking
example of a paradigm shift in Hinduism where religious authority is increasingly
swaying around sectarian leaders from myth and scriptures. Finally, it adds to our
understanding of Sahajanand Swami who was largely construed as a social reformer of the
Vedanta like their male counterparts nor is there any substantial literature produced
by samkhya-yoginis of that era.
8For a detailed study on Sants and the variety in their beliefs, see Vaudeville (1987).
9For a cursory overview of the theology of the sect see Williams (2001, 71-82).
10There are various reasons suggested why Sahajanand Swami’s family was brought
into the fold. Among recent scholarship, Williams (1984, 26) suggests that after the
dismissal of one venal administrator Gopinath Bhatt, Sahajanand Swami decided to call
his family for administrative succession. However, the primary hagiographies seem to
suggest an altogether different cause. Vaghela (2011, 268-80) outlines a critical survey
of slanderous canards about Sahajanand’s caste that were spread by his opponents to
diminish his credibility. Given Sahajanand Swami’s indifference to prevalent caste rules
and his vast following of lower castes, he was accused of not being a Brahmin. As noted
in sectarian works, his family was brought into the fold to testify his caste. One such
discussion is noted in Haricharitramrut Sagar 7/4 which enlists both reasons, calumny
and future succession, but not administration. Even if succession is considered as a
possible reason, Satsangijivan 3/53/10 notes the presence of family in Samvat 1875 (c.1819
CE) in Vadtal, three years before the consecration of temple in Ahmedabad which
apparently contradicts Williams’ claim.
11For a discussion on the number of devotees accepted and ascetics ordained by
Sahajanand Swami, see Williams (2001, 20).
12For a detailed study of the mythological importance of Dwarka, based on
Harivamsa, a part of the epic Mahabharata, see Couture (2003).
13Bharati (1970) proposes a tripartite typology of Indian sacred sites. Dwarka is
classified in the foremost category of most revered trans-sectarian sites.
14To see a brief political sketch of British intervention in the administration of
Okha Mandal by a colonial agent refer Jacob (1844, 157-163). Though the territory was
ceded to Baroda State in c. 1817 CE by the British, the Waghers continued to revolt
frequently against the combined forces of the British and the Gaekwad until they were
annihilated by the British in the 1890s (Aitchison 1909, 85–86).
15A letter dated 07.03.1820 by Gaekwad sanctions a statement of expenses of
Dwarka temple emphasizing that everything shall continue to be the same as it was in
the previous Wagher dispensation (Historical Selections from Baroda State Records
(1819-1825) 1943, 919). Similarly, in a letter requesting for special hospitality for a
visiting priest Rev. Wilson who expressed his wish to visit Dwarka, Gaekwad asks not to
obliterate the tradition anywhere and escort him only to the places accessible to him
16The period is assumed based on the narrative of one Bodano, a devotee of
Krishna, who takes away the idols of the Dwarka temple and subsequently, the Gugli
Brahmins entering into negotiation with him. The event has been noted to happen in
the year c. 1156 CE or Samvat 1212 (Mallison 1990, 30).
17Cories were the currency mainly in the princely state of Bhuj. However, many
other states minted cories in Saurashtra. For a numismatic study of period coinciding
to Sahajanand Swami, see Vaghela (2011, 30-41).
18From the Historical Selections of Letters (Vol. VII), we notice that heads of many
affluent religious institutions acted as financial agents in the absence of banking
infrastructure. For example, we find letters by Gaekwad to the mahant or head of the
Nathdwara temple requesting to advance money (Vol. VII Letter #87), settlement of
dues including remittance charges (Vol. VII Letter #95), or exchange of elephants from
their barn for cash or kind (Vol. VII Letter #169).
19Sadhu and Williams (2016, 91) enlists 11 odd hagiographies of Sahajanand
Swami. Barring two modern ones, most of them are first-hand accounts through
Sahajanand Swami’s contemporaries or were written in historical proximity. I would enlist
the historical ones with a few missed in their list while including the chapters where
the episode of Vadtal is described in parentheses: Satsangijivan (4/28–33),
Bhaktachintamani (92–93), Satsangi Bhushan (n.a.), Shri Hari Digvijay (40), Shri Hari Lila Pradeep
(3/6-8), Shri Haricharitramrut Sagar, Shri Hari Charitram (4/12–14), Shri Hari
Sambhav Mahakavyam , Shri Hari Lila Sudhakar (n.a.), Shri Hari Charitramrut (n.a.),
Shri Hari Lila Kalpataru (9/20-37), Purushottam Charitra (92–93), Harililamrut (8/37),
Shri Hari Lila Sindhu (133/11–12), Shri Swaminarayan Vicharan Lilamrut (60–61), Shri
Harikrishna Lilamrut Sagar (122),
20In the central shrine, initially Lakshmi-Narayan were consecrated. Later the
Ranchhodraya form of Krishna was installed to commemorate theological equivalence
of Vadtal to Dwarka. (Harililamrut 9-12/13)
21The song can be located in collected works of Narbheram called ‘Kavita’
(Narbheram 1891, 162)
22The bunch of letters piled under ‘Political correspondence – Okha Mandal’
(#759-152-Okh/3 - 1821 onwards) is completely missing from the State Archives of
Gujarat that is presently holding all the political correspondence of the Baroda State
from c. 1700 onwards.
23Historical Selection Vol. 1 (1) Letter #31 d. 03.12.1827 for Swami Sankaracharya
(2) Letter #65 d.28.02.1829 for Narsinh Dikshit (3) Letter #171 d. 30.06.1833 for
24Mul Sharma (2013) who discursively describes the development of the sect in the
city of Baroda has described at stretch the conversion of the elites of the state through
Sahajanand Swami’s principle disciple Gopalanand Swami. However, from the style and
substance of the narrative, it is difficult to separate fact from the apocryphal material.
Noted among them are (1) Chapter 2.6 Royal physicians Ramachandra and
Harishchandra (2) Chapter 2.7 Brother-in-law of the ruler and army commander Babasaheb (3)
Chapter 2.9 Advisor Bhau Puranik and personal secretary Narupant Nana. (4) Chapter
2.11 Representative to Ahmedabad district Chiman Rao.
25The import of the letters is put into verses in Haricharitramrut Sagar. Letter one
is noted in Chapter 28/102, the reply is in the following Chapter 28/103. The second
letter is noted in Chapter 28/110, and the reply can be found in Chapter 28/117.
26Acharya is the administrative and religious head of each of the two dioceses that
were originally established by Sahajanand Swami.
27This information was availed by emeritus acharya Shri Tejendraprasad Pande of
the Nar-Narayan diocese at Ahmedabad during a personal interview on 08.10.2016. As
he described, this information was passed down to him orally by his father who was
fifth in the lineage of acharyas.
28The plaque at the museum (Hall 3) describes that during the state visit, the one
discussed here, ruler Sayaji Rao Gaekwad bestowed the income of the two villages
Sonarada and Isand to the temple recently inaugurated by Sahajanand Swami. There
are three copper plates in display, all bearing nearly identical text, stating that the
revenue of Sonarada being granted to the Nar-Narayan Dev institution at Ahmedabad.
The plates related to Isand are not on the display. The language of the plate and the
symbol of a down-facing sword are much in conformation to the official decrees of the
Baroda State that I have observed at the State Archives of Gujarat, Vadodara.
29This letter is on display at Swaminarayan Museum, Ahmedabad Hall 9.
30A record of a few decades later can be used comparatively to figure out the
importance of pilgrim tax as a source of revenue. According to noted figures, pilgrim tax surpassed
land tax and customs duty in absolute terms. It amounted to nearly one-third of the total
income generated from the administrative division of Okha Mandal (Hornell 1909).
31For example, see a letter dated 12.08.1823 granting ordinary rations to the nude
mendicants staying on the outskirts of Baroda (Historical Selections from Baroda State
Records (1819-1825) 1943, 1049).
32In an exploration of the Ismaili Khoja community, Purohit (2012) presents a
comparison between the Swaminarayan sect with the outcaste group of Ismaili Khojas
functional at Pirana. The chapter draws parallels from both traditions to infer that
Sahajanand Swami was originally a follower of Pirana Panth who later started his own
sect. To the disadvantage of that inference, none of the works of colonial agents and
Gujarati/Marathi intellectuals that have noted the life and works of Sahajanand Swami
stand by its side. The sources taken into account are undated unverified set of ginans
and testimonies of a few recent followers. The testimony of recent followers, common
ethnographic following, and common didactics between the commanding texts of the
two sects are ‘overlapping’ elements to substantiate the argument of Sahajanand
Swami’s former life. In comparison to that precedence, the case presented here has a
stronger set of ‘overlapping’ elements to credit Sahajanand Swami for the reform.
33Some accounts of the sect claim it to be nine.
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