A ‘spiritual strife’ between Swaminarayan sect, other Hindu outfits in Gujarat

The removal of two murals of Lord Hanuman on Tuesday from a temple managed by the Swaminarayan sect’s Vadtal branch seeks to put a lid on the controversy that erupted about a week ago and had snowballed into a larger dispute 

Updated - September 06, 2023 11:10 am IST

Published - September 06, 2023 12:21 am IST - AHMEDABAD

The new mural (in pink) at the Sarangpur Hanuman temple on Tuesday.

The new mural (in pink) at the Sarangpur Hanuman temple on Tuesday. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The religious leaders at the Shri Kashtbhanjan Dev Hanumanji mandir in Salangpur, Botad district, managed by the Swaminarayan sect’s Vadtal branch, on Tuesday removed two controversial murals of Lord Hanuman kneeling before and praying with folded hands to the 19th century seer Sahajanand Swami (1781-1830), founder of the sect, known by his followers as Lord Swaminarayan.

However, the controversy that erupted about a week ago has become a larger dispute between the Swaminarayan sect that wields political and economic power and other Hindu outfits in Gujarat.

The panel had been installed in the temple thronged by thousands daily, on the pedestal of a 54-foot-tall statue of Hanuman during its inauguration in April by Union Home Minister Amit Shah. It triggered widespread protests by several Hindu religious seers and priests, who have now grouped together under the banner of Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha, and refer to themselves as Sanatana Dharma followers.

On Saturday, a local man, Harshad Gadhvi, was captured on camera, smearing a black pigment and hitting the murals with an axe. He was arrested and released on bail on Monday.

Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel held a meeting in Ahmedabad on Monday with the leaders of Swaminarayan Vadtal, community leaders, and seers of other Hindu organisations. A later meeting between the two factions was followed by an announcement that the contentious murals would be removed and that nobody from the Swaminarayan sect would make any disparaging or derogatory remarks against the Hindu gods and goddesses.

A day before, on Sunday, a meeting was held in Sanand, Ahmedabad district, at which religious figures of various temples and other organisations decided to boycott the Swaminarayan sect.

On the same day, a similar meeting at the Salangpur temple saw RSS leader Ram Madhav’s presence. A press release was issued by the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha thereafter, stating that the controversy would be resolved soon, and a committee of seers was formed to talk to the different stakeholders.

So far, no formal statement has been made by any major faction of the Swaminarayan sect regarding the ongoing controversy in which for the first time, the powerful group appears to be on the back foot.

No statement has come from the ruling BJP in the State, even as its Central leadership has criticised Tamil Nadu’s DMK youth wing secretary and Minister for Youth Welfare and Sports Development Udhayanidhi Stalin’s remarks on Sanatana Dharma being against the idea of social justice. The opposition Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the State have also been silent.

After the CM’s Monday meeting, there was no statement that came from the government, while even Mr. Madhav declined to talk to the press in Salangpur.

The lead up

On August 28, a local news outlet in Gujarat first reported on the murals. Video clips of them went viral on social media. On Facebook and WhatsApp there were also snippets of seers of different factions of the Swaminarayan sect making remarks that other Hindu religious leaders felt were disrespectful of their gods and goddesses. TV channels in Gujarati and the press called it an insult of Sanatana Hindu traditions.

A 53-page booklet in Gujarati titled ‘Beware of the Swaminarayan Sect’, shared widely on social media, catalogued the instances of “insulting and disrespectful” literature and speeches by the sect. Followers of traditional Hinduism felt these were against the basic tenets of Sanatana Dharma. The sect considers their founder the lord of lords, above Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, the holy trinity of supreme divinity of Sanatana Hindus.

“It is a battle of superiority and seers of Swaminarayan have been trying to distort Hinduism and its practices and trying to show that he is above all,” said Bharti Bapu, a prominent Hindu seer in Gujarat.

The resolution passed at the meeting on Sunday, when the boycott call was given stated, “Saints of the Swaminarayan sect should never be invited to any temples or ashrams of Sanatana Dharma and saints of Sanatana Dharma must never accept an invitation to any temple of the Swaminarayan sect or any other place of theirs.”

It went on to call for the dismissal of anyone from the sect who held positions in a Hindu organisation. They also demanded that no one from the sect mention gods and goddesses of Sanatana Dharma in their discourses, perform traditional rituals, or recite the scriptures like Shrimad Bhagwat Mahapurana, Ramcharitmanas, and Hanumant Katha.

Morari Bapu, who delivers discourses on the Ramayana across the world, and Swami Sachchidanand, another religious leader and ascetic, also objected to the way Hindu religious figures are being portrayed by the Swaminarayan sect in their literature and discourses.

Gujarat networks

Its critics often dub the Swaminarayan sect sarkari (government) in Gujarat. The dozen or so factions of the sect have built a sprawling network of temples, hospitals, schools, and educational facilities, and gurukuls. They even have a chain of restaurants and snack parlours called Premvati that dot national and State highways across the State.

The most powerful faction of the sect is BAPS (Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha), which has built Akshardham temples in Gandhinagar and New Delhi. In 2016, when the founder of this faction, Pramukh Swami died, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had attended his funeral, and said that he felt like he had lost a father.

The Ahmedabad Kalupur Gadi Sanstha or Vadtal Gadi Sanstha, and Ahmedabad Maninagar Sanstha are also powerful entities.

In Gujarat, the rise of the Swaminarayan sect has coincided with the rise of Hindutva forces and the BJP in the late 80s and early 90s. Today, the ruling BJP and the Swaminarayan sect are intertwined to the extent that in the last Assembly polls in 2022, for the first time, a Swaminarayan monk D.K. Swami won the election from Jambusar constituency despite a sizeable minority presence.

After he was fielded, Mr. Swami said in November last year, “I have been a BJP worker for decades, and though I am a sadhu, I have been active in politics. Like Yogi Adityanathji, we [sadhus] should not shy away from electoral politics.”

Monks in the Swaminarayan sect must renounce all worldly possessions. They are prohibited from interacting with women.

On August 19, Brahmavihari Swami, from the BAPS faction, called on the PM. Known as much for his spiritual discourses as his political connections, he is currently setting up a sprawling temple spread across 27 acres in Abu Dhabi in the UAE. It is scheduled to be opened in February 2024, a month after the Ayodhya Ram mandir inauguration.

The founder of the Swaminarayan sect, Sahajanand Swami, came from Uttar Pradesh and worked in Gujarat. During his lifetime, he set up six temples in Ahmedabad, Vadtal, Gadhada, Junagadh, Bhuj, and Dholera, and two dioceses at Vadtal and Ahmedabad to govern the sect and its activities.

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