A modern monk completes the Swaminarayan Bhashyam, a scriptural commentary in a formal Sanskrit style not exercised for centuries
BY SADHU BHADRESHDAS
MINE IS A STORY ABOUT WHAT MAMMOTH WORK CAN BE ACCOMPLISHED BY THE GURU’S GRACE. The Swaminarayan Bhashyam is a commentary on the Prasthantrayi—the Upanishads, the Brahmasutras and the Bhagavad Gita—formulated according to the ancient Sanskrit commentarial tradition and guided by the teachings of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Through my journey in writing the bhashyas, I have come to realize that seemingly impossible tasks, in any field, can be accomplished when the guru’s grace blesses human effort.
I was initiated as a swami in 1981 at the age of 14, having just completed the ninth grade. Upon entering the seminary for swamis in Sarangpur, a remote village in Gujarat, I was immersed in its focused and devotional atmosphere. Because of my young age, I was very lighthearted and had little sense of responsibility, yet from the beginning I felt indebted to His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, my guru, for accepting me and shaping me during every phase of life.
I passed my time listening to bhajans, playing tabla, and most of all, swimming in the step-well that supplied the ashram’s water. The senior swamis who taught us would have to force me to attend class! My sharp memory helped me get good marks, but the seniors were concerned about my irregular study habits. They even commented about it to Guruhari on a few occasions. However, Guruhari flashed an indulgent smile at me and said, “Even the mischievous can accomplish great things.” Bolstered by his tender support, I felt a greater sense of duty and began to study more responsibly.
Guruhari Pramukh Swami Maharaj had pandits come to Sarangpur to teach me and other swamis the traditional philosophical systems of Nyaya and Vyakaran (logic and grammar). He advised us, “Never study only to take exams. I want you to study each scripture fully. Knowing the difficulty you have had in finding capable teachers, you should study so thoroughly that you can teach the material to future swamis.” At that time we only took internal exams, which were designed to be even harder than university exams. We studied each line of each scripture. I spent my time so immersed in different philosophies that for ten years I had no idea what was happening in the outside world.
We could not find teachers in Gujarat for all of the topics Guruhari wanted us to study, so he arranged for us to study in Mumbai. After completing our education there, he instructed us to learn the scriptures methodically using ancient traditions. There were only a few pandits in India who could teach in this traditional manner. Since they were all too aged to come to us in Gujarat, Guruhari arranged for us to stay in Bangalore and study from them there.
Having spent over 25 years in rigorous study of Sanskrit and the shad darshans (the six schools of Vedic philosophy), I was able to excel in university exams for postgraduate degrees from Sampoornanand Sanskrit University in Varanasi and the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Mumbai. Through my studies I had compiled over 8,000 pages of notes and stood at the top of my class. Each time my results would arrive, Guruhari, despite his rigorous travels, would write a letter of encouragement. He would inspire me to study harder and do even better the next time.
The seeds for writing the Swaminarayan Bhashyam were planted in 2005 on the day I finished my PhD in Sanskrit. I brought the certificate to Pramukh Swami Maharaj two days before the Vasant Panchami festival, which marks the beginning of spring. As I presented my dissertation to Guruhari in his room, other swamis requested that he give me a sanctified flower to commemorate the occasion. He replied, “I want to honor him in the main assembly of the festival.” It was that afternoon that he instructed me to write bhashyas, commentaries, on the Prasthantrayi.
Monk’s life: The author as a young sadhak in 1982
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The Bhashya Tradition
In the ancient tradition of Indian philosophy, many different beliefs and principles were born out of deep study and contemplation by great rishis and acharyas. They contemplated upon the ancient sacred texts of the Prasthantrayi, and the commentaries they wrote established their schools of Vedantic thought. The principal acharyas who wrote bhashyas were Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, Nimbarkacharya and Vallabhacharya. Centuries later, these commentaries are still highly valued and remain the basis for philosophical debates and novel elaborations.
Not all commentaries are called bhashyas. To earn this designation, the author must have a thorough knowledge of the shad darshans and possess intellectual maturity, clarity of principles and an expertise in the Sanskrit language. Each acharya reveals his philosophy through his interpretations of the original texts. Every word of each mantra, shloka or sutra must be interpreted and commented upon in accordance with his philosophy. Sometimes the words are interpreted to have novel meanings, and these must withstand the academic scrutiny of other scholars.
A bhashya includes references from other shastras to support the acharya’s philosophy. In addition, it raises questions and satisfies arguments from other Vedantic philosophies by providing reasonable references and logical answers to prove one’s own philosophical principle. In brief, a bhashya intends to reveal a novel philosophical perspective derived from the three main shastras in a logical, clear and consistent manner. Any meaning given for any word in any one Upanishad must be consistent for all ten Upanishads. It must also represent the same meaning in the Brahmasutras and the Gita. The ten principal Upanishads have thousands of mantras, the Brahmasutras are written in a concise form and also require thorough knowledge of the philosophical school known as Purva Mimansa; and the Gita has 700 shlokas. Therefore, as one can imagine, the process of writing a bhashya is incredibly complex.
Congratulations: Sadhu Bhadreshdas receives blessings from his guru, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, in Amdavad upon completing the first draft of the commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
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This Bhashya’s Journey
I thought about why Guruhari would want me to undertake this task and why writing the Swaminarayan Bhashyam would be unique. Any new interpretation of the Prasthantrayi must not merely be novel; it must also be textually valid and profoundly meaningful. The Swaminarayan Bhashyam would need to satisfy these criteria based on the teachings of the progenitor of our sampradaya, Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who referred to a variety of mantras from the Upanishads and shlokas from the Bhagavad Gita in his discourses, often adding to them his own philosophical explanations.
Knowing this, I was struck dumb when Guruhari commanded me to write the bhashyas; I felt wholly unprepared for the task. Senior swamis encouraged me to view this mammoth task as a golden opportunity to please the guru. They even prayed for me! However, I was lost. I could not sleep. “I have studied bhashyas,” I thought, “but now I am to create one?! What if I made a mistake? Even a small mistake in a bhashya would be a disservice to Hindu Dharma.” In my daily puja I prayed that Guruhari would request that someone else write them.
A few days after Guruhari gave me the instruction, we took part in the Vasant Panchami celebrations, which also marked the birth anniversary of Shastriji Maharaj (1865-1951), Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s guru. Guruhari garlanded me before the large assembly and insisted, “Promise me that you will write the bhashyas.” Though I agreed with great hesitation, the promise brought tears to his eyes. When I asked him to sanctify a mala I had with me, he told me to put it around his neck. He turned the beads of that mala for over a month and returned it to me after the Pushpadolotsav (Holi) festival. Whenever I worked on the bhashyas, I would keep that sanctified mala around my neck to invoke his divine presence.
ALL PHOTOS: COURTESY BAPS SWAMINARAYAN SANSTHA
The author at work on the original, handwritten manuscript. Dr. S.P. Sabharathnam of Chennai said of the bhashya, “A wonderful work. The Sanskrit is in the medieval style as used by Shankara and free from grammatical error.
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I began my work in a small, secluded room in the basement of the ashram in Sarangpur. My brother swamis built a rotating bookshelf with five large shelves to hold a collection of over 450 books, some of which were centuries old, making it easier for me to cross-reference ideas.
From the day I started, I would spend nearly 20 hours a day working and praying. Senior swamis advised me that I should punctuate each hour of research with five minutes of intense prayer and remembrance of Guruhari. The only time I would break would be to teach a class to other swamis, engage in our daily devotional rituals, eat and sleep.
After putting a thought on paper, I would examine it from several different perspectives and pose a series of questions: Are my interpretations valid? Has it been formulated correctly linguistically? Is the idea consistent with the principles of Bhagwan Swaminarayan? Does the idea hold according to what Guruhari has taught me? Is that thought consistent with my previous thoughts? And so on. If I was not satisfied, I would rewrite the idea. If I thought I had a good idea, I would even share it with senior swamis, and they would often question my ideas, ultimately strengthening the work. This journey was to continue for almost three years.
Persistence: The flooded entrance to the author’s basement workplace in Sarangpur in February 2007.
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Guruhari had advised me, “Make sure you take inspiration from the principles given by Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Make sure your arguments are clear and straightforward and thus universally acceptable. You will have to engage with the ideas of other acharyas, but you should do so respectfully. Our purpose is not to efface the work of others, but to expound our own. They are right in their own way, but that does not mean we are wrong. Stay focused, and whatever you write will be well received.”
These words constantly played in my mind. When I experienced bouts of confusion and sleepless nights, I would pray to Guruhari’s murti in my puja. I would ask for his inspiration, and it always came. The most profound ideas in the bhashya were not written by me; I cannot take credit for them. They were inspired by my guru.
Damaged books and notes spread out to dry.
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Once, I worked until 2:45am, then went to bathe and sat for my puja. I spoke to my guru in my puja, and he inspired me with a few thoughts. Choosing to write those thoughts down before retiring to bed, I went back into my basement room and began writing. One thought led to another, and I finished writing at 3:45pm—over 12 hours of flowing inspiration! I also kept a diary and pen near my bedroll in case I was inspired at night, and there were countless such incidents.
AKEY VERSE IN THE MUNDAKA UPANISHAD (2.1.2) READS “Aksharât parata˙ para˙,” translated as, “(Parabrahman) is greater than even Akshara, who is greater than all.” Below the interpretation of the meaning of the word Akshara in the context of this verse as given in the Swaminarayan Bhashyam is presented alongside those of three of the traditional commentaries.
In this Upanishad, the three medieval scholars interpret the word Akshara as “Parabrahman” in mantras previous to this one. But in this mantra, they have been forced to change their definition in order to maintain their philosophical perspective, as this very mantra states that Akshara is distinct from Parabrahman. This verse and the consistency in definition of the word in question turns out to be pivotal in establishing the point of view from which this new commentary looks at the scriptures. A unique concept lies at the very center of the Swaminarayan philosophy: that Aksharbrahman is a sentient, eternal, divine entity, ontologically distinct from the Supreme God, Parabrahman, and that Parabrahman resides on Earth through Aksharbrahman, the living guru.
Trial and Tribulation
Bhashyas have an important place in any sampradaya, and a commentary on the whole Prasthantrayi in a traditional manner had not been undertaken by anyone in the past several centuries. At times I felt apprehensive that I would fail in my colossal task.
In 2006 I pleaded to my guru, “Swamishri! You have complete realization of Bhagwan. You are the Satpurush. You have spiritual experience. You understand the essence of all the scriptures. You are the only one with the right and the insight to write bhashyas. I am afraid. I have no experience. What if I fail?” He replied, “You feel that you are writing, but you are wrong. You will not write the bhashyas; our gurus, Shastriji Maharaj and Yogiji Maharaj, will write through you.” We are not the doers in anything; we are merely instruments through which the guru works. It was this realization that allowed me to remain strong despite the many obstacles I experienced.
In 2007 Sarangpur was struck by a flash flood. Within minutes my basement room was completely submerged. All my books and notes were ruined. For years I had compiled over 2,500 pages of notes on eleven bhashyas by various acharyas. These notes on their arguments and definitions of important philosophical terms would form the framework of the commentary I was to write. Moreover, I had even handwritten some chapters of the Brahmasutra Bhashyam. All of this was washed away in the flood, and I was in a state of absolute shock at this unforeseen calamity.
At the time, Guruhari Pramukh Swami Maharaj had gone to America for the inauguration of our mandirs in Atlanta and Toronto. When he was informed of the flood, he called to bless me. He laughed and said, “Everything that you weren’t supposed to write has been washed away. Now, when you write, Bhagwan Swaminarayan and our gurus will write everything through you.” That, in fact, is exactly what happened.
Guruhari had told me to finish all the bhashyas before the Centenary Celebration of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha in December, 2007, which was only six months away. Even without the setback, it was going to be difficult to meet the deadline—and now all my notes and books were covered in mud. Over the next ten days we put them into large pots, washed each page and set them out to dry; however, almost nothing could be salvaged. Now, with no notes or books, but only the blessings of Guruhari before my eyes, I started writing again.
Just as Guruhari had predicted, I experienced his divine presence as I wrote for 18-20 hours a day. By his grace, I was able to complete all the bhashyas on time. The bhashya on all 700 shlokas of the Gita took only one and a half months!
The completed five volumes of the Swaminarayan Bhashyam, which are available at major BAPS Swaminarayan Mandirs in Gujarat, India.
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Throughout the whole writing process, Guruhari and other senior swamis checked each argument and scriptural reference, providing priceless guidance and support. I still vividly remember when my guru personally tested the grammar and arguments of everything I wrote from the Gita’s eighth and fifteenth chapters.
My journey culminated on December 17, 2007, the day of our Centenary Celebrations in Amdavad. I presented the bhashyas to Guruhari during his morning puja. He responded in a very loving and satisfied tone, “Our gurus Shastriji Maharaj and Yogiji Maharaj are pleased, and they have blessed you. You have done a tremendous service for Hindu Dharma.” I asked, “Swami, are you pleased?” Guruhari replied, “I am extremely pleased.” The smile on his face and his sincere blessings made my long and arduous journey and all of the efforts I had made completely worthwhile. I felt at peace.
Fast forward six years to just a few days before I began writing this article, when a fellow swami related something that left me awestruck. On March 20, 1989, in Sarangpur, years before I had begun my journey, he had written of the following incident in his diary. On that day, after Guruhari had dinner, several swamis were reciting the philosophical topics they had learned in their Sanskrit studies. A senior swami told Guruhari in a joking tone, “Instead of just studying, someone should write bhashyas.” Guruhari pointed to me and declared, “He will write them.”
I was only 22 at the time and a complete novice to scriptural scholarship! Never in my wildest dreams had I thought that what Guruhari said was his vision. But therein lies the lesson of my story: All of us have capacities that we have never utilized, and may never utilize. If we find a genuine guru, put faith in his words and live according to his guidance, we can accomplish much more than our innate capacities would allow.
These bhashyas are important for scholars as well as for society at large. They will help generations of people in two ways: First, they will provide valid answers to life’s deepest challenges. It is becoming clear that spirituality will provide solutions to intractable social issues in an increasingly materialistic society. The scriptures explain that spirituality is brahmavidya (knowing God). The Swaminarayan Bhashyam provides clear and unique understandings of brahmavidya, and one who understands and imbibes brahmavidya in his or her life will find lasting solutions to life’s most challenging problems. Second, in the history of Indian and Western philosophy the Swaminarayan Bhashyam sheds new light, which will inspire scholars in India and abroad to conduct further research to find new perspectives on and relevance in these central, ancient scriptures.