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The founder and devotional focus of a Gujarati Vaiṣṇava bhakti movement, now named after him (the ‘Svāminārāyaṇas’ or ‘Svāminārāyaṇa movement’). Born near Ayodhyā, he became a wandering mendicant while still a child. In 1800 he joined a group of Gujarati ascetics under the leadership of a teacher called Rāmānanda (who claimed to be in Rāmānuja's lineage). When Rāmānanda died in 1802, Sahajānanda (now called Svāminārāyaṇa) succeeded to the leadership of part of the group, which, over the rest of his lifetime, rapidly developed into a full-blown order of around 2 000 initiated ascetics. At the same time, Svāminārāyaṇa instituted a lineage of male householder devotees (in the first instance, two of his nephews) to administer the organization, which initiated both ascetic and lay followers. Svāminārāyaṇa's message, spread through preaching tours of the area, was recognizably Vaiṣṇava in its devotionalism, and had much in common, particularly in its recommended pattern of worship, with the teachings of the Vallabha Puṣṭimārga. At the same time, it propagated both a conservative (according to some ‘puritanical’) Brahmanical orthodoxy in relation to maintaining caste distinctions and ritual purity (including the separation of men and women during worship), and a socially reforming stance towards such practices as female infanticide, satī, and enforced widowhood. It was also adamantly opposed to animal sacrifice, and demanded strict vegetarianism from its members. In 1906 the movement split into two, with a new school, the Akshar Puroshottam Sanstha (Akṣara Puruṣottama Saṃsthā), claiming that the true spiritual descent from Svāminārāyaṇa had been carried, not through the ācāryas, but through a lineage of disciples or ‘abodes of God’ (Akshars), starting with Guṇātītānanda (Gunatitanand) (1785–1867). Both schools regard Svāminārāyaṇa himself as an unmitigated and full manifestation of Nārāyaṇa (Viṣṇu), also known as Puruṣottama. Initiates take refuge in him, and his image is central to temple worship, with Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā given secondary roles. In addition, followers of the Akshar Puroshottam Sanstha hold that Svāminārāyaṇa (i.e. God) is eternally present in ‘perfect devotees’, i.e. the heads of their order (pre-eminently Guṇātītānanda), so their images too are the objects of temple pūjā. Textually, the movement aligns itself with the Veda, but pays most attention to the scriptural presence of Svāminārāyaṇa collected in his sayings (Vacanāmṛta) and teachings (Śīkṣāpatrī). Svāminārāyaṇa temples, and other institutions associated with the movement, are found throughout the towns and villages of Gujarat, as well as abroad. It has proved particularly successful among the middle-ranking castes of the commercial and business classes. (The increasingly popular Akshar Puroshottam Sanstha abolished distinctions in the ascetic order between brahmins, other dvijas, and śūdras in 1981, but castes below śūdra level have never been admitted to either school.) The movement is currently estimated to have around five million followers, including a large proportion of Gujaratis living overseas. A spectacular new Akshar Puroshottam Sanstha mandir (temple), said to be the largest Hindu temple outside India, was opened in Neasden, North London in 1995.


Subjects: Hinduism.

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