Doctrines The Swaminarayan sect takes its place in the bhakti tradition: the theological and philosophical base of the movement is Vishistadvaita Vedanta (see under Ramanuja), but upon this foundation certain specific teachings are developed, and the movement comprises several distinct groups. All these see Sahajanand Swami (1781-1830) as the promised incarnation of Purushottam, the Supreme Person, Lord Swaminarayan; as such, he was in his essence omniscient, omnipotent, and all-gracious, and his human activities were no more than divine sport (lila). Although his manifestation on earth was purely a matter of motiveless grace, from the human point of view he appeared in order to eradicate irreligion, violence and immorality; to establish true religion; and to offer the way to liberation to all genuine seekers. His teachings upon the classic questions of Indian religious philosophy (see, e.g. under Samkhya, Vallabha, Shankara) are firmly in the tradition of Vishishtadvaita Vedanta.
Certain particular doctrines characterize the parent stem on the one hand, and the subgroups which have separated from it, on the other.
The two dioceses which are centred on Vadtal and Ahmedabad (Gujerat, Western India) constitute the parent stem. They emphasize that Lord Swaminarayan vested his divine authority in his two nephews, whom He appointed as acharyas: their lineal descendants rule to this day from their seats (gadis) at these centres.
The Bocasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Sanstha, which separated from the Vadtal acharya (see below), is based upon a particular theological interpretation of the teachings of Lord Swaminarayan. The eternal entities (enumerated by Sahajanand, after the fashion of Ramanuja) include Purushottam (the Supreme Person) and Akshar (the Abode of God), and these two are eternally and inseparably connected. Since Purushottam had a human form in history (i.e., Sahajanand Swami), Akshar also had one, namely a perfect devotee who accompanied the Lord: this figure was Gunatitanand Swami (1785-1867). After the death of Gunatitanand, Akshar was manifested in a series of ascetic spiritual leaders (see under Symbols).
For the Swaminarayan Gadi, a subgroup which broke from the Ahmedabad acharya, the Lord vested spiritual leadership in Gopalanand Swami (1781-1852), from whom an unbroken line of ascetic spiritual leaders descends to the present (see under Symbols). The fourth in line declared himself to be the personification of the Swaminarayan Gadi, receiving thereafter divine honours. In addition, according to the teachings of this tradition, Lord Swaminarayan manifested Himself once again in Jivanpran (Abji) Bapashri (1845-1928). In contrast to the Akshar Purushottam Sanstha, exclusive claims to being the way to salvation are made.

History Sahajanand Swami was born in 1781 C.E. in what is now Uttar Pradesh, his childhood name being Ghanshyam; in 1792, on the death of his parents, he became a brahmachari - taking the name Nilkanth - and travelled all over India, finally settling in Gujerat. During his travels he mastered the teachings of all the major philosophical traditions, engaging in debate with their leading teachers, finally espousing the theological position of Ramanuja as being the true one.
In 1799/1800 he encountered the ascetic followers of Ramanananda Swami, a teacher in the tradition of Ramanuja. Initiated into this group as Sajanananda Swami, he was appointed by Ramananda to be the next acharya; his acceptance by the ascetic with the strongest claim to the succession legitimated what became an independent movement, Sahajanand soon becoming regarded as a manifestation of Lord Swaminarayan, with his image being set up in temples.
His public ministry (1802-1830) was carried out at a time of political chaos and moral confusion, even degeneracy. His teachings on morality (and in particular on such matters as sati, the immolation of widows); his example of probity and of non-violence in relation to religious sacrifices; and his corps of disciplined ascetics all brought about a change in the moral and religious climate. His injunctions on the practical life of a devotee are found in the Shikshapatri, and his teachings in the Vachanamritam.
He vested his authority in his two nephews, whose seats were established at Vadtal and Ahmedabad: their descendants rule from there.
In 1906, a certain sadhu (Yagnapurushdas) led a breakaway group (later to crystallize as the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Sanstha) from the Vadtal temple, mainly on account of doctrinal convictions (see above), and also possibly because he considered the incumbent acharya to be morally unworthy. He rejected the householder line of headship in favour of an ascetic line, spiritually descended from Gunatitanand Swami (see under Symbols).
The departure of another sadhu from Vadtal in 1947 led to the foundation of an independent educational trust, the Swaminarayan Gurukul.
A dispute in the 1940s between a prominent sadhu (Muktajivan) and the Ahmedabad acharya led to the foundation of the Swaminarayan Gadi. An ascetic line of spiritual headship descends from Gopalananda Swami.

Symbols The service offered to the deities in Swaminarayan temples follows the pattern laid down by Vitthalalnathaji; for this, see under Vallabha.
(a) Images or pictures common to all groups. Radha-Krishna; Lakshmi-Narayana (Krishna with Rukmini); Nar-Narayana (Krishna with Arjuna); Ghanshyam Maharaj; Ayodhyaprasadji and Raghuvirji (the nephews of Sahajanand Swami, the first acharyas).
(b) Images or pictures specific to the Akshar Purushottam Sanstha.
In addition to the above, the following are found:
  1. Akshar-Purushottam (Lord Swaminarayan with Gunatitanand Swami);
  2. Lord Swaminarayan with Gunatitanand Swami and Gopalanand Swami (the last-named is the representative of the released souls (muktas) who accompanied and assisted Sahajanand Swami). In some temples these are named , whilst in others the trio is known as Dham-Dhami-Mukta (i.e., Akshardham [Gunatitanand] - the indweller of Akshardham [Lord Swaminarayan] - Gopalanand).
  3. Mulji Brahmachaari, a celibate householder follower of Sahajanand Swami;
  4. the guru-parampara, the line of spiritual leaders: Pragji Bhagat (1829-1897); Yagnapurushdas ("Shastriji Maahaaraaj", 1865-1951); Jnanjivandas ("Yogiji Maahaaraaj", 1891-1971); Narayanpurushdas ("Pramukh Swami Maahaaraaj", 1921-);
  5. certain pictures of events in the life of Sahajanand Swami.
(c) Images/pictures specific to the Swaminarayan Gadi.
In addition to those listed under (a), the second appearance of the Lord Swaminarayan, Jivanpran Bapashri (1845-1928); the guru-parampara: Gopalanand Swami; Nirgundasji Swami (1817-1892); Ishwaracharandas Swami (1867-1942); Jivanpran Swami Muktajivan Swamibapa (the personification of the Swaminarayan Gadi, 1907-1979, in particular being weighed against gold, and in procession on an elephant); Purushottam Priyadasji Swamishri.

Adherents It is not easy to ascertain exact figures, perhaps 5 million (Harris et al 1994, 237), but this seems to be an estimate of an equally tentative estimate. Adherents are numerous in Gujarati trading communities not only in all large cities in Gujerat and in Bombay, but also in large commercial centres in East Africa, Great Britain and U.S.A.

Main Centre
 (1) Ahmedabad diocese. Swaminarayan Bagh, Ahmedabad 380 016, Gujerat, India.

(2) Vadtal Diocese. Vadtal, Gujerat, India.

(3) Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Sanstha. Bochasan, 388 040, Dist Kheda, Gujerat, India;
and Shahibaug, Ahmedabad 380 004, Gujerat, India.
In U.S.A. the Sanstha's title is The Bochasanwasi Swaminarayan Sanstha, whilst in Great Britain it is The Swaminarayan Hindu Mission.

(4) Swaminarayan Gadi. Maninagar, Ahmedabad 380 008, Gujerat, India.