BAPS SWAMINARAYAN SANSTHA
A Distinct School of Vedanta
Hinduism has been blessed with magnificent scholars over the centuries who have written commentaries on the Prasthanatrayi and established or consolidated their respective schools of Vedanta. Among these, some of the most notable exponents and the distinct darshan they each propounded include the following: Shankara’s Advaita Darshan, Ramanuja’s Vishishtadvaita Darshan, Madhva’s Dvaita Darshan, Nimbarka’s Dvaitadvaita Darshan, Vallabha’s Shuddhadvaita Darshan, and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s Achintyabhedabheda Darshan.3 Akshar-Purushottam Darshan, as revealed by Bhagwan Swaminarayan, is positioned within this rich tradition of Vedanta darshans.
In line with this hallowed tradition, His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the previous spiritual guru of BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, instructed Bhadreshdas Swami in 2005 to write Sanskrit commentaries on these sacred texts. Bhadreshdas Swami, one of the leading scholars of our time, had already been studying Swaminarayan texts, Sanskrit and the classical schools of Indian philosophy for over 24 years under the inspiration and guidance of Pramukh Swami Maharaj. With his guru’s blessings and his own scholarly expertise and tremendous hard work, Bhadreshdas Swami completed the mammoth task in less than three years, offering the five-volume, 2,000-page classical commentaries to Pramukh Swami Maharaj before the end of 2007. Titled Swaminarayan Bhashyam, these commentaries provide a word-by-word explanation and elaboration of the Brahmasutras, ten principal Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita according to the teachings of Bhagwan Swaminarayan.
Bhadreshdas Swami subsequently composed the Swaminarayan Siddhanta Sudha—a classical vadagrantha, or didactic treatise that offers a systematic and comprehensive exposition, justification and defense of the Akshar-Purushottam Darshan’s theological and philosophical principles. He offered this work to His Holiness Mahant Swami Maharaj in 2017. Together, these classical texts have helped Akshar-Purushottam Darshan be recognized among scholarly communities in India and abroad as a distinct, authentic school of Vedanta.
The scholarly works of Bhadreshdas Swami have received worldwide critical acclaim from eminent experts of Indian philosophy, theology, Indology, Sanskrit and other related fields, where they have both praised the literary value of the texts and recognized Akshar-Purushottam Darshan as a distinct school of Vedanta.
The late Professor N. S. Ramanuja Tatacharya, former Vice-Chancellor of the prestigious Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth at Tirupati and award-winning researcher at the French Institute of Pondicherry, was one of the most senior and renowned scholars in India on Navya-Nyaya and Ramanuja Vedanta. He writes: “In the past, eminent ācāryas such as Śkara, Rāmānuja, Madhva and Vallabha have put forth immense effort to establish Advaita, Viśiṣṭādvaita, Dvaita and Śuddhādvaita, respectively. They have done this by composing commentarial texts based on the Prasthānatrayī according to their own teachings and corresponding schools of thought…. Sadhu Bhadreshas’ complete commentary on the Prasthānatrayī, entitled the Svāminārāyaṇabhāṣyam, is exemplary of this continued tradition. The work presented by Sadhu Bhadreshdas is a monumental exposition of a novel philosophy and is a priceless contribution to the world.”4
Professor Tatacharya further explains, “Although some of the principles of Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja, Madhva and others of the Vedānta tradition are similar to one another, there are many principles… that are characteristic of these schools of thought, and hence, distinguish them from one another. The Svāminārāyaṇa tradition is also to be understood as being distinct for these same reasons.”5 Furthermore, “Although Swaminarayan did not himself compose commentaries on the Upanishads, Gita, or any other sacred texts, he often cited and offered his interpretations on them in his discourses. These interpretations of the verses were distinct from those offered by ācāryas including Śaṅkara and Rāmānuja, who preceded him and offered their own interpretations according to their respective schools of thought. Swaminarayan’s expositions were unprecedented and novel; thus, many were unaware that his sampradāya has its own distinct philosophy.”6
The late Professor Radhakrishnan Bhatt, former Head of Sanskrit Research and Publication at Karnataka State Open University in Mysore, deduced from the Brahmasutra Swaminarayan Bhashyam: “By studying this commentary, one concludes that the Svāminārāyaṇa sampradāya and the Akṣara Puruṣottama Siddhānta is an independent tradition that is based on the ancient Vedic principles. The tradition’s principles greatly differ from Rāmānuja’s Viśiṣṭādvaita, Vallabhadāsa’s Śuddhādvaita and the philosophy of Madhva, Nimbārka and other Vedanta darśana.”7
On 31 July 2017 in Varanasi, India, prominent members of the Shri Kashi Vidvat Parishad,8 after studying the Swaminarayan Bhashyam commentaries and the Swaminarayan Siddhanta Sudha, concluded that “Sadhu Bhadreshdas is an acharya and a contemporary commentator in the lineage of commentators on the Prasthanatrayi” and “it is in every way appropriate to identify Shri Swaminarayan’s Vedanta by the title of Akshar-Purushottam Darshan. Therefore, we all unanimously endorse that this Akshar-Purushottam Siddhanta revealed by Parabrahman Swaminarayan is a Vedic siddhanta that is distinct from Advaita, Vishishtadvaita, Dvaita and all other schools.” In commemoration of this historical contribution to Vedanta Darshan, the Shri Kashi Vidvat Parishad presented a written proclamation attesting to the above, which they presented again, as an engraved copperplate, in New Delhi on 13 August 2017.
At the 17th World Sanskrit Conference at British Columbia University in Vancouver, Canada, in 2018, Bhadreshdas Swami presented a succinct introduction to Akshar-Purushottam Darshan in the inaugural session, outlining its salient features and roots in the Prasthanatrayi. The assembled scholars welcomed the lucid presentation and applauded the Swaminarayan Bhashyam and Swaminarayan Siddhanta Sudha as a major contribution to the world of Sanskrit literature. Further sessions also saw various academic papers presented on Akshar-Purushottam Darshan and a panel discussion of leading Sanskrit scholars of Western and Indian academia on the Swaminarayan Siddhanta Sudha.9
This 16-page educational Insight offers a brief overview of this distinct school of Vedanta called Akshar-Purushottam Darshan.
The Philosophy: Akshar-Purushottam Darshan
Sources: God, Guru and Scripture
Bhagwan Swaminarayan was Parabrahman Purushottam. He himself revealed Akshar-Purushottam Darshan, which is an exceptionally significant feature of this darshan. God himself is describing what he is and how to realize him. Indeed, when he manifested on earth just over two hundred years ago, he is showing who he is, making the revelation especially gracious, direct and powerful.
During his manifestation on earth, Bhagwan Swaminarayan delivered extensive discourses in which he articulated the doctrines of Akshar-Purushottam Darshan. These discourses were meticulously documented by four of his most senior and learned swamis. This compilation came to be known as the Vachanamrut. Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s teachings from the Vachanamrut thus form one of the most important sources of Akshar-Purushottam Darshan.
According to a central Hindu belief, it is imperative to seek a qualified guru to understand such scriptural wisdom. For example, the Mundaka Upanishad instructs:
Tadvijñānārthaṃ sa gurum evābhigacchet
samidhpaṇiḥ śrotriyaṃ brahma niṣṭham |
“To realize that [higher knowledge], imperatively go, with sacrificial wood in hand, to only that guru who is the knower of the true meaning of revealed texts, who is Brahman, and who is firmly established [in God].”
That is, only the guru who is the living form of Brahman (“brahma”) and fully established in Parabrahman (“niṣṭham”) can have the most direct and perfect realization of scriptural truths (“śrotriyaṃ”), making him the most qualified and able to convey them.1 To be precise, according to the Bhagavad-Gita at 4.34, such gurus are not only knowers of the revealed truth (“jñāninaḥ”), but direct seers (“tattvadarśinaḥ”) of it.2
In Akshar-Purushottam Darshan, the guru is the human embodiment of Brahman on earth and is referred to varyingly by such names as Sant, Ekantika Bhakta or Satpurush. In being a pure and complete vessel of Parabrahman, through whom Parabrahman Purushottam reveals himself and leads devotees to himself, the Aksharbrahman Guru serves as the perfect medium to correctly explain the meaning of the scriptures. Thus, Bhagwan Swaminarayan proclaims the guru throughout the Vachanamrut as the exclusive authoritative guide to scriptural knowledge and spiritual realization. For example, after delivering an exceptionally important discourse on the nature of God, in particular alluding to himself as Purushottam, Bhagwan Swaminarayan appends his address with the following caveat: “However, such discourses regarding the nature of God cannot be understood by oneself even from the scriptures. Even though these facts may be in the scriptures, it is only when the Satpurush manifests on this Earth, and one hears them being narrated by him, that one understands them. They cannot, however, be understood by one’s intellect alone, even from the scriptures.”3
As perfect vessels of Parabrahman Purushottam, the life and teachings of the Aksharbrahman Gurus also serve as vital sources of Akshar-Purushottam Darshan, including, for example, the Swamini Vato of Gunatitanand Swami. The Siddhanta Alekh written by Pramukh Swami Maharaj,4 a succinct creedal treatise of Akshar-Purushottam Darshan, is another example of an exceptionally valuable and venerable source of theological revelation.
The Swaminarayan Bhashyam and Swaminarayan Siddhanta Sudha also have a prime place within the corpus of primary sources for Akshar-Purushottam Darshan, having been commissioned, guided and ratified by gurus Pramukh Swami Maharaj and Mahant Swami Maharaj.
It is through this revelation of Parabrahman Purushottam Bhagwan Swaminarayan as received through the Aksharbrahman Gurus and the scriptures they explain that one is able to properly understand Akshar-Purushottam Darshan. Currently, that guru is Mahant Swami Maharaj.
Ontology: The Five Eternal Entities
Ontology is the study of being; the philosophical inquiry into the nature of reality and existence. A discussion of any classical school of Vedanta Darshan invariably begins with such an inquiry into its basic entities of existence or realities: Which metaphysical entities does it accept as real? The answer to this fundamental question more often than not reveals much about the school’s basic premises and beliefs. For example, Shankara posited a singular, attribute-less Brahman, which necessarily requires the visible world to be unreal and illusory.5 In contrast, Ramanuja argued for a Brahman that qualifies sentient and non-sentient entities, allowing for the world to be real as well as individual souls to be distinct from God.6 Madhva, on the other hand, propounded a Brahman that is radically distinct and independent from all else.7 Uniquely, Bhagwan Swaminarayan revealed that there are five metaphysical entities that are eternal and forever distinct from one another:
1. Purushottam (also known as Parabrahman)
2. Akshar (also known as Aksharbrahman & Brahman)
Strikingly, he posited two Brahmans—Aksharbrahman and Parabrahman. How can this be? And what implications does this have for such a system of Vedanta? The ensuing discussion based on Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s teachings and the Prasthanatrayi commentaries will help explain some key aspects of Akshar-Purushottam Darshan while affirming its position as a distinct and authentic school of Vedanta.
Akshar and Purushottam in the Vachanamrut
Akshar and Purushottam are the two ontological entities expounded throughout the Vachanamrut, which covers every aspect of their nature, function, relationship, means of knowing, etc. Below are excerpts from two separate discourses in which Bhagwan Swaminarayan reveals the essence of Akshar-Purushottam Darshan.
In Vachanamrut Loya 12, when outlining varying degrees of faith, Bhagwan Swaminarayan explains that a person with the highest level of resolute faith “realizes that countless millions of brahmands [planetary realms], each encircled by the eight barriers, appear like mere atoms before Akshar. Such is the greatness of Akshar, the abode of Purushottam Narayan.” He then immediately states: “One who worships Purushottam realizing that [Akshar] to be one’s own form can be said to possess the highest level of resolute faith.”
BAPS SWAMINARAYAN SANSTHA
Pramukh Swami Maharaj (center, seated on black chair) with several hundred of the more than 1,000 BAPS sadhus;
Bhagwan Swaminarayan reiterates this doctrine in Vachanamrut Gadhada 2.3. This time, when defining brahmagnan, he uses Brahman for Akshar and Parabrahman for Purushottam. He first describes Brahman as “the cause of all,” as its “support,” and that which “pervades all through its indwelling powers.” When describing Parabrahman, Bhagwan Swaminarayan expounds:
“Transcending that Brahman is Parabrahman Purushottam Narayan, who is distinct from Brahman, and is the cause, the support and the inspirer of even Brahman.”
Bhagwan Swaminarayan thus clearly distinguishes Aksharbrahman from Parabrahman, and clarifies Parabrahman as superior to Aksharbrahman.
Bhagwan Swaminarayan goes on to add in the same discourse:
“With such understanding, one should develop a oneness between one’s jivatma and that Brahman, and worship Parabrahman while maintaining a master-servant relationship with him. With such understanding, brahmagnan also becomes an unobstructed path to attaining the highest state of enlightenment.”9
This is the essence of Akshar-Purushottam Darshan, which is comprehensively described and established throughout the Vachanamrut.
Akshar and Purushottam in the Upanishads
Brahmagnan is synonymous with brahmavidya, which is the focus of the Upanishads. For example, the Mundaka Upanishad, which forms a part of the Atharva Veda, lauds brahmavidya as the “highest”10 and “foundation of all forms of knowledge.”11 It then defines it explicitly in the following verse:
Yenākṣaraṃ puruṣaṃ veda satyaṃ provāca tāṃ tattvato brahmavidyām ।
“Brahmavidya is that by which Akshar and Purushottam are thoroughly known.”12
The Swaminarayan Bhashyam substantiates this definition by citing profusely from the entire Mundaka Upanishad and other Prasthanatrayi passages. For example, the distinction and relationship between Akshar and Purushottam is evident in the Mundaka Upanishad at verse 2.1.2. It states:
Puruṣaḥ… akṣarāt parataḥ paraḥ //
“That Purush’ [i.e., Purushottam] is… greater than
Akshar, which is greater than others.”
The Swaminarayan Bhashyam explains that Akshar is described here as greater than all other beings and things—jivas, ishwars, maya, even liberated souls—except Purushottam, thus confirming the mutual distinction and relationship between Akshar and Purushottam.13 Bhagwan Swaminarayan also repeatedly describes Purushottam’s supremacy in relation to Akshar, often using the adjective aksharatit (transcending Akshar),14 demonstrating that Akshar is the highest benchmark by which to understand Purushottam, but one which he still surpasses. In other words, it is only after understanding the greatness of Akshar that one can truly appreciate the greatness of Purushottam. That is, it is essential to know both Purushottam (Parabrahman) and Akshar (Aksharbrahman) to master brahmavidya.
In further support of the two types of Brahman, the Swaminarayan Bhashyam cites from the fifth chapter of the Prashna Upanishad. Here, in reply to the question posed by Satyakama pertaining to the after-life, Pippalada states:
Etad-vai satyakāma paraṃ cāparaṃ ca brahma yad-aumkāraḥ।
“That, O Satyakama, which is the syllable of Aum, is verily the higher and lower Brahman.”)
The dual classification of “higher” and “lower” confirms the metaphysical distinction between “para” Brahman, i.e., Parabrahman, and “apara” Brahman, i.e., Aksharbrahman. This distinction between the two is especially evident when the fruit of meditating on Aum is described in the same verse as attaining “either” of them.15
Akshar and Purushottam in the Bhagavad-Gita
The two entities Akshar and Purushottam are evidently established in the Bhagavad-Gita by these two very names. Indeed, the eighth chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita is titled “Aksharbrahman Yoga,” while the fifteenth chapter is titled “Purushottam Yoga.” Both chapters hold key discussions about Akshar and Purushottam. For example, Arjuna asks in the opening verse of the eighth chapter,
Kim tad brahma (What is Brahman?)
Krishna replies simply: Aksharam brahma
(Akshar is Brahman.)16
The eighth chapter then goes on to describe the glory of Akshar as a divine place entered by those who practice brahmacharya and are without desire, and as proclaimed by the knowers of the Vedas.17
In the fifteenth chapter, the Bhagavad-Gita succinctly and clearly describes the nature of Purushottam and its distinction from Akshar and other entities. As the Swaminarayan Bhashyam explains, there are two types of beings in the world: kshar and akshar. All those bound by maya are kshar, i.e., subject to change; whereas the one who is unchanging—forever beyond maya—is Akshar. The Supreme Being is distinct from and superior to both kshar and Akshar; he is called Paramatma and known in the world and Vedas as Purushottam.18
Akshar and Purushottam in the Brahmasutras
The Brahmasutras is an esoteric text of aphorisms that elucidate Brahman. It seeks to clarify, systematize and harmonize the meaning of the Upanishads, hence its focus of study is also “brahmavidya” or “brahmagnan.” The first aphorism, “Athā’to brahmajijñāsā,” holds the key to unlocking the various schools of Vedanta. Every acharya, while describing Brahma according to his own particular system, deconstructs brahmajijñāsa in largely similar ways, that is, to mean “the desire to know Brahman,” where brahma in the Sanskrit compound is in the singular. The Swaminarayan Bhashyam commentary on this aphorism provides a remarkable new interpretation, claiming that the brahma in brahmajijñāsā denotes not just Parabrahman but also Aksharbrahman; that is, taking brahma not in the singular but in the dual case. This makes the subject of brahmagnan both Aksharbrahman and Parabrahman, also known as Akshar and Purushottam. The Swaminarayan Bhashyam substantiates this interpretation by citing several passages of the Upanishads and Bhagavad-Gita, a few of which have been mentioned above.19
In this way, some of the fundamental and key distinguishing doctrines of Akshar-Purushottam Darshan are established and articulated in the teachings of Bhagwan Swaminarayan and the Prasthanatrayi scriptures.
Mukti and Sadhana
The goal and fruit of all darshan is liberation from the ravaging influence of maya so that one is free of all suffering and can experience supreme bliss.
In Akshar-Purushottam Darshan, such liberation, or mukti, is more than a state of being maya-free and released from the pain and limitations of the incessant cycle of births and deaths. It is a new, higher spiritual state—indeed, the highest, perfect spiritual state—that is enriched by the complete realization of Parabrahman Purushottam. It entails not merely the dispelling of ignorance, but the positive receiving of Aksharbrahman’s qualities, so one is perfectly faultless and fulfilled, absolutely free of all worldly desires and ego, and forever engrossed in unhindered devotion to God while experiencing his limitless, unending bliss. Bhagwan Swaminarayan calls this preeminent spiritual state being aksharrup or brahmarup (“like Akshar or Brahma”).20 It is described in the Bhagavad-Gita as brahmi sthiti21 or being brahmabhuta.22
This state of liberation is of two types:
Jivan-mukti, meaning “living mukti,” is attaining and experiencing the state of aksharrup while alive, in this very body.
Videh-mukti is liberation after death, enjoying the superlatively blissful darshan of Purushottam in Akshardham along with the personified form of Akshar and other liberated souls (muktas).
While the location of the experience might be different, the experience of bliss for both muktas is the same.
The way to mukti is called sadhana. Bhagwan Swaminarayan explains this extensively throughout the Vachanamrut, as do the Aksharbrahman Gurus through their teachings and lives. Primarily, it entails the complete loving association of the Guru through thought, word and deed.23 This incorporates Ekantika Dharma, a four-fold system of praxis (spiritual endeavors) defined by Bhagwan Swaminarayan as comprising the following:
1. dharma: leading a righteous life by observing the moral codes of the scriptures;
2. gnan: realizing oneself to be the atma, distinct from the body;
3. vairagya: being dispassionate towards worldly pleasures; and
4. bhakti: offering selfless devotion to God while realizing his greatness.
This sadhana is summarized in the sadhana mantra provided by Mahant Swami Maharaj: Akṣaram aham Puruṣottamadāso’smi. It is chanted by devotees daily, reminding them to offer devotion to Bhagwan Swaminarayan as Purushottam—albeit through his most accessible form, the current Aksharbrahman Guru—after qualitatively realizing oneself as Akshar by spiritually and lovingly associating with that same Aksharbrahman Guru. This is the essence and foundation of Akshar-Purushottam Darshan, by which all of its doctrines are illumined and consummated.
Darshans are a way of life, not just a topic of philosophical debate. Indeed, the success of any system of thought is how it is applicable to and implemented in daily life. True to this, the Akshar-Purushottam Darshan is a living tradition being practiced by hundreds of thousands of devotees around the world today. It is lived out in their daily acts of devotion, such as the personal nitya puja with which they each start their day, the religious markings they apply, the two-stranded kanthi of tulsi beads they wear around their necks, the darshan they enjoy of the murtis at mandirs, at home or online, the arati they sing, the discourses and bhajans they listen to, and much more. All these are reflective of and imbued with the doctrines of Akshar-Purushottam Darshan. Indeed, in thousands of mandirs, homes and hearts, there thrives the daily worship of Parabrahman Purushottam Bhagwan Swaminarayan as exemplified by the Aksharbrahman Gurus.
This vitality and flourishing of Akshar-Purushottam Darshan is possible because of the living guru. The Swaminarayan Siddhanta Sudha concludes with this very thought, that the principles expounded at length in the text are lived and experienced by devotees in their daily lives through the association of the Aksharbrahman Guru. In fact, it stresses, there are many devotees in the Swaminarayan community who have been and are perfectly fulfilled by their absolute conviction in Akshar-Purushottam Darshan. They are unburdened by any lack of knowledge of the scriptures, because they have the direct association of the guru, which exceeds millions of such texts. Indeed, it asserts, nothing is greater than the blessed association of the Aksharbrahman Guru through whom devotees experience the supreme love, bliss and inner fulfilment of Parabrahman Purushottam Bhagwan Swaminarayan here and now.24
What Are the Five Eternal Entities?
Jivas are distinct, individual souls, indivisibly minute in size and innumerable in quantity. Each one is bound by maya, which shrouds the jiva’s radiant self that is composed of existence (sat), consciousness (chit) and bliss (anand). They are doers of good and bad karmas, and experiencers of the fruits of those karmas.
Ishwars, by the will of Purushottam, are assigned various tasks of creation, sustenance and dissolution within a particular brahmand (planetary realm), of which there are countless millions. Compared to jivas, ishwars have greater power, knowledge and lifespan, but like the jivas, ishwars, too, are shrouded by maya since the beginning. Compared to Akshar and Purushottam, however, ishwars are utterly powerless. Like jivas, ishwars also are doers of good and bad karmas, and experiencers of the fruits of those karmas.
Maya is characterized by the three gunas—sattva, rajas and tamas. It is eternal while continually mutating. As an instrument of Purushottam, it constitutes the base substance from which this material world is formed. It also forms the ignorance in the form of “I-ness” and “my-ness” that shrouds jivas and ishwars, causing them to be bound in the incessant cycle of birth and death. Akshar and Purushottam are eternally and entirely untouched by maya and transcend it, yet they also pervade it and control it. Maya is the only non-sentient (non-living) entity of the five; the other four are all sentient (living).
Akshar, also called Aksharbrahman and Brahman, is distinct from and subordinate only to Purushottam; it transcends jivas, ishwars and maya. Like Purushottam, it is one, eternal and a sentient entity. It is forever divine, replete with infinite redemptive virtues, devoid of all qualities of maya, and forever faultless. The form, qualities, powers, etc., of Akshar are dependent only on Purushottam. By the eternal will of Purushottam, Akshar is the cause, support, controller, indweller and shariri (“soul”) of the entire insentient and sentient creation.
Although Akshar is one entity, it serves in the following four ways:
1. Abode: Akshar takes the form of the divine abode of Purushottam, known as Akshardham. There is only one such Akshardham; it is eternal and forever transcends the three gunas of maya. Only liberated souls who have become aksharrup (“like Akshar”) are able to enter it.
2. Sevak: Akshar also serves Purushottam in Akshardham as an exemplary devotee. Like Purushottam, Akshar has a divine human-shaped form complete with two arms and other features. He remains forever engrossed in the worship of Purushottam and is the ideal for the liberated souls worshiping Purushottam in Akshardham.
3. Divine Light: This is a form of ethereal space, known as Chidakash. It is extremely radiant, and is an all-pervading form of Akshar that permeates, envelopes and upholds the infinite brahmands.
4. Guru: Akshar manifests in human form as the Guru, with Purushottam, in every brahmand. He is the eternal and complete vessel of Purushottam. Through his divine association, he establishes in jivas and ishwars the highest level of resolute faith in Purushottam and elevates them to the state of aksharrup so that they may offer perfect devotion to Purushottam. He thereby grants them eternal liberation from the bondage of maya, releasing them from the cycle of birth and death and ultimately granting them an eternal place in Akshardham where they experience the highest bliss of Purushottam. Purushottam remains forever manifest through an unbroken succession of such Aksharbrahman Gurus, by whom he grants liberation and devotees experience his highest bliss. While this succession continues forever, the path to ultimate liberation remains open through only one such Guru at any one time.
Purushottam, or Parabrahman, can be understood through the following four aspects of his being:
1. Sarvopari (“supreme”): Purushottam is the supreme being, the highest existential reality; one and unparalleled. He is forever beyond time and space—he is eternal and all-pervading—and forever limitless in his power, knowledge, splendor, bliss and virtues. He is always completely free of any defiling qualities of maya, hence “nirguna,” and is replete with countless superlatively excellent auspicious qualities, hence also “saguna.” He is the cause of and master of all avatars; he is the avatari. An avatar manifests when, by his special wish, he pervades an ishwar for a particular task, but that avatar is, by its very being, distinct from Purushottam. Purushottam is also distinct from, transcendental to and the lord of even Akshar.
2. Karta (“doer”): Purushottam is the ultimate all-doer. Nothing can happen without his will. In fact, he is the shariri (“soul”) of the entire world; just as a soul is to an otherwise inert body, Purushottam indwells, enlivens, supports and governs everything, including the mayic world, jivas, ishwars, liberated souls, even Akshar. He is both the efficient cause (agent) and material cause (substance) of the world, thus its ultimate creator, sustainer and dissolver. While permitting jivas and ishwars to act according to their free will, and inspiring them to will, know and do, he is also the dispenser of the fruits of their karmas.
3. Sakar (“with form”): Purushottam is eternally human in form yet fully divine. In his abode, Akshardham, he is seated on a divine throne in his eternally divine, extremely radiant and human-shaped youthful form, complete with two arms and other human-like features. There he is worshiped by the personal form of Akshar and infinite brahmic-bodied, aksharrup liberated souls. Without relinquishing this transcendental distinct form, Purushottam pervades the infinite brahmands through his immanent form by his divine powers.
4. Pragat (“manifest”): Purushottam cannot be perceived by mayic senses and minds. Yet, while remaining in Akshardham, he manifests in each brahmand with all his divine virtues, powers, etc., in human form and becomes visible to all. This is by his own divine resolve and out of loving compassion, to fulfill the wishes of his beloved devotees and for the ultimate liberation of infinite jivas and ishwars. That manifest form of Parabrahman Purushottam is Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Even after he retracts his earthly manifestation, he forever remains fully manifest through the Aksharbrahman Guru, making possible his worship in a manifest form and the path to ultimate liberation here and now.
The above summary is based on Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s creedal treatise, Svāminārāyaṇ Darśannā Siddhāntono Ālekh, and summarized from Swami Paramtattvadas’, An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hindu Theology (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
Dynamic fellowship: A weekly satsang assembly at the BAPS temple in London, UK;