Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the fifth spiritual successor of Swaminarayan, was born as Shantilal Patel on December 7, 1921, inGujarat’s Chansad village to Motibhai and Diwaliben Patel. Shantilal’s parents were disciples of Shastriji Maharaj and part of the Akshar Purushottam religious order.
The Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) describes itself as a “socio-spiritual Hindu organisation with its roots in the Vedas”. According to the BAPS, the organisation “was revealed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan (1781-1830) in the late 18th century and established in 1907 by Shastriji Maharaj (1865-1951)”. It was founded “on the pillars of practical spirituality” and reaches out “far and wide to address the spiritual, moral and social challenges and issues we face in our world”.
Shastriji Maharaj is said to have blessed Shantilal when the child was born and told his father to give the child to them “when the time is ripe” as he was destined to lead people to God. Shantilal grew up in a simple home till he turned 17, the age when he became a sadhu. Inclined towards spiritual matters from an early age, he would go to the village temple to listen to religious discourses. He would also offer prayers at the local Swaminarayan temple and interact with Shastriji Maharaj and his disciples besides other holy men who came to the village.
In November 1939, Shastriji Maharaj wrote Shantilal, asking the 17-year-old to join him and the other sadhus. When Shantilal entered into the religious order, Shastriji Maharaj renamed him Shanti Bhagat. Shanti Bhagat was initiated as a sadhu on January 10, 1940, and given the name of Sadhu Narayanswarupdas.
The young sadhu adopted several vows on the occasion, including those of celibacy and non-attachment. He soon studied scripture and philosophy which earned him the title of ‘Shastri’. He also took up several initiatives to improve the facilities at the various temple premises, including better cleanliness and cooking for disciples and priests. He helped in the building of the Atladra mandir. As secretary of Shastriji Maharaj he learned about the workings and ideologies of the BAPS.
Shastriji Maharaj made Shastri Narayanswarupdas the head of the BAPS mandir in Sarangpur in 1946. The young sadhu spearheaded the expansion of the temple. Shastri Narayanswarupdas was appointed administrative president or Pramukh of BAPS by Shastriji Maharaj in May 1950. Since then he came to be known as Pramukh Swami.
After Shastriji Maharaj’s death in 1951, Pramukh Swami remained BAPS president under the overall guidance of Yogiji Maharaj. The duo helped in the faith’s expansion abroad to places likeEnglandandEast Africain the next two decades. Yogiji Maharaj publically stated that Pramukh Swami Maharaj would carry on his work after his death.
Pramukh Swami Maharaj, who became the supreme spiritual guru of the faith, oversaw the growth of BAPS into an organisation with over 10 lakh followers, at least 900 sadhus and some 3,300 temples and congregations. He visited more than 50 countries to spread the message of the faith and peace and inaugurated hundreds of temples across continents.
The Swaminarayan Akshardham temple complexes in Gandhinagar andDelhiare famous Indian landmarks.
People from all walks of life would come to Pramukh Swami Maharaj to seek answers to questions that were troubling them. Explaining the difference between worldly pleasures and spiritual devotion, in an answer to one such question, Pramukh Swami Maharaj said in 1986: “Love for the body induces one to seek pleasures in worldly objects; that is kam. Today, you will notice that the entire world strives to attain such pleasures. Whereas the scriptures say, that if one can love God as much as one loves his body, in effect, diverting love from the body towards God, then kam becomes prem.”
To a query from a government official, the Maharaj said: “Work in such a way that the people, the government and all parties benefit from your efforts. Today, man uses his status to distance himself from the public, but that is not a practical approach to working. Basically, we are here to help solve problems. Yet, if we refuse to even meet them, then our work becomes meaningless. When someone comes to you with a problem, even if you do nothing else but simply listen to him, you will have lifted half the burden off his shoulders.”
After an encounter with Pramukh Swami Maharaj, Ronald Patel, an editor with the American newspaper Philadelphia Enquirer, said in 1993: “As a journalist, I’m used to searching people through their eyes. When I encountered Swamiji’s eyes, I found them honest, trusting, intelligent, and above all comforting . . . At 75, most people reflect upon the money and status they have acquired. But today, Swamiji has no money, but the wealth of devotion he has, and the respect he has earned — no one can amass that wealth.”
Also on this day:
1939 — L.R. Eswari, playback singer of south Indian cinema, was born
2001 — Subrata Mitra, legendary cinematographer who worked with Satyajit Ray, passed away