Statement against Caste-based Discrimination: His Divine Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj on behalf of the BAPS Swaminaryan Sanstha (BAPS)
His Divine Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the fifth spiritual successor of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, has inspired millions of people across the world to lead a God-centered, moral life guided by Hindu principles. As the present leader of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), Pramukh Swami Maharaj travels from village to village, continent to continent, emphasizing the importance of family harmony, community service and spiritual progress. His compassion for humanity, universal wisdom and striking simplicity have inspired many, as has his quiet, undisturbed love for God which rises beyond all borders of nation, race and religion.
BAPS, a worldwide socio-spiritual organization in Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, is dedicated to community service, peace and harmony. Motivated by Hindu principles, BAPS strives to care for the world by caring for societies, families and individuals. Through a number of social and spiritual activities, BAPS endeavors to produce better citizens of tomorrow who have a high esteem for their roots - their rich Hindu heritage. Its 800 mandirs and 3,300 international centers support these activities of character-building. Under the guidance and leadership of His Divine Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, BAPS aspires to inspire people towards spiritually-elevated and addiction-free living.
BAPS Statement against Caste-Based Discrimination
The BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha is against discrimination based on caste and birth-based social hierarchy since it devalues human dignity. We are guided by Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s teachings that the spiritual ideals of Hinduism (the concepts of Atma and Paramatma) assert that human dignity and spiritual equality are meant for all members of society. As people of the Hindu way of life, we find caste-based discrimination morally unacceptable and urge everyone to collectively bring an end to it.
History of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha’s efforts against caste-based discrimination
Historians have noted that Bhagwan Swaminarayan (1781-1830) was among the first Hindu leaders to crusade against caste-based discrimination in society. Bhagwan Swaminarayan revealed a way of life based on the Vedas and Upanishads that taught that everyone is the divine atma (soul). Thus, there was no legitimate spiritual basis for caste-based discrimination. This spiritual perspective of Bhagwan Swaminarayan helped people develop love and reverence for all humanity without any discrimination.
Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s efforts to remove caste-based discrimination were sustainable and effective because he did not resort to coercion or violence. Instead, he inspired a change in people’s hearts through his love, teachings and personal example. In his discourses and scriptures he taught that those who promote discrimination based on caste cannot be called virtuous. He inspired people of all backgrounds to incorporate the moral values and righteous living taught by spirituality, thus levelling the man-made differences between caste groups. His teachings and their positive effects were documented by contemporary British officials, Christian missionaries and the scholars of the Sampraday.
However, as a result of his revolutionary teachings, Bhagwan Swaminarayan was opposed by orthodox groups. Despite the opposition, he continued his work in breaking caste barriers from society and from people’s hearts. This tradition continues today with Pramukh Swami Maharaj. Like Bhagwan Swaminarayan, he dissolves caste-based discrimination in society through his work and teachings. His efforts include visits to dalits’ homes, holding spiritual discourses in dalit areas and holding conventions for dalit advancement at BAPS mandirs and other venues. It is also noteworthy that while priests who perform ritual worship in Hindu temples have customarily come from upper-castes, Pramukh Swami Maharaj initiates sadhus irrespective of caste. Today, in the true spirit of Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s views on breaking down caste barriers, BAPS sadhus of dalit backgrounds are indistinguishable from sadhus of any other caste. For example, in BAPS mandirs, even pujari sadhus come from all caste backgrounds. Moreover, Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s second spiritual successor, Bhagatji Maharaj, who is today venerated in all BAPS temples and homes, came from a so-called low-caste background. Today, at BAPS mandirs and festivals, devotees of all castes take meals together, worship together, offer voluntary services together, participate in spiritual rituals such as yagnas together, and sit together to listen to spiritual discourses.
Supporting Material on BAPS Efforts against Caste-Discrimination
The BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha has published a book (in Gujarati) explaining in detail its stance on caste-based discrimination and outlining its efforts over the last two centuries in removing caste barriers. (Sadhu Aksharvatsaldas. Antyoday. Swaminarayan Aksharpith. 2nd Ed, (2002). (English translation currently in press)) A few passages from this book have been excerpted below:
Kishorelal Mashruwala says, “Swaminarayan was the first to religiously develop the Shudras of the Gujarat – Kathiawad region. He did such work among the low-caste people that people belonging to the Kadia, Darji, Suthar, Kharva, Mochi caste, etc. became his followers. And that became the main reason for many to oppose this Sampraday.” (Kishorelal Mashruwala, Sahajanand Swami and Swaminarayan Sampraday. Navjivan Publishing House. Ahmedabad. Second Edition, (1940) p.63 and 64.)
The famous Christian writer M.C. Parekh writes: “Even the untouchables were not excluded from the Satsang... they were made disciples, and in one or two places they built temples of their own. The attitude of Swami Sahajanand towards these unfortunate people in those early days, when neither reformers such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy nor Christian Missionaries gave any thought to them, is found in many stories.” (M.C. Parekh, Shri Swaminarayan, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1980, p.194)
The Asiatic Journal paid tribute to the great change in caste-based discrimination brought about by Bhagwan Swaminarayan in his lifetime, “The most intelligent people in the province, while they regretted (as Hindus) the levelling nature of his system, acknowledged their belief that his preaching had produced great effect in improving the morals of the people.” (Asiatic Journal, First Series, London, 1823 XV P.348-349.)
The scriptures of the Sampraday also highlight Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s effective efforts to fight caste-based discrimination through loving persuasion. Bhagwan Swaminarayan was very opposed to the notion of untouchability. He repeatedly urged all to fore-go feelings of superiority or inferiority based on the caste system. One such incident documented in the sacred texts of the Sampradya follows:
"When Bhagwan Swaminarayan visited Loya, a woman from Chuda village, called Ganga belonging to the Dhedh (untouchable) community, came for darshan. Shri Hari asked her to sit in the women’s assembly in the midst of high-caste women. The high-caste women started murmuring, ‘Why has Maharaj allowed her to sit with us?'
On hearing this, Maharaj asked the wife of Sura Khachar (a Kshatriya), ‘If a bullock dies in your verandah who comes to get it?'
The Kshatriya woman replied, ‘A Dhedh comes to get it.'
Bhagwan Swaminarayan continued, ‘Who removes the carcass, if a bullock dies in your courtyard?'
The woman replied, ‘A Dhedh hauls off the carcass.'
Then Maharaj rebuked, ‘If a Dhedh enters your house to fetch the carcass, and you have no objection to it, then how is it that you feel polluted if Ganga sits with you!” (Sadguru Nirgundas Swamini Vato, Publisher: S.G. Swami Jagatprakashdasji, 1996, P.242, talk-358.)
It should be noted that Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s 2nd spiritual successor, Bhagatji Maharaj was a so-called low-caste by birth. European scholar Rachel Dwyer observes, “Because of the stress placed on asceticism, leadership in the Sanstha is much more a matter of spiritual merit than hereditary descent. As a result its leaders have been drawn from a wide range of castes, which has undoubtedly contributed to its popularity. In a similar fashion, since 1981 the Sanstha has accepted members of all castes as sadhus, excluding Dalits, formerly called ‘untouchables’, and more recently Pramukh Swami has given full initiation to both tribals and Dalits, not restricting recruitment to this role solely to Brahmins. The movement’s strong commitment to asceticism, as well as its careful maintenance of the rules of ritual purity has ensured that this has not been achieved at the cost of a lowered status.” (‘The Swaminarayan Movement’. Rachel Dwyer, in South Asians in the Diaspora : Histories and Religious Traditions)
Be it a colony of Harijans or Wagharis or the huts of Adivasis, the resonant voice of Pramukh Swami Maharaj speaks out, “There is no distinction of high and low in God’s house. The distinction has been created by man.” In order to remove this distinction, Pramukh Swami Maharaj has undertaken many trips to the homes of Harijans, Wagharis and Adivasis. He often quotes the scriptural passage, “Janmanã jãyate shudra, sanskãrãt dvija uchyate’ i.e. Everyone is born a ‘shudra’ (lacking virtues). As he develops virtues, he becomes a ‘Brahmin’. Everybody can acquire virtues."
On 6 July 1987, while addressing a harijan society in Ahmedabad, he explained, “In the eyes of religion, all are equal. There is no high and low. Those who do not understand the nature of true religion play up the differences. But we have to remove this in a united manner."
Pramukh Swami Maharaj organized a Dalit convention on 13 Nov 1992, on the occasion of the inauguration of Swaminarayan Akshardham in Gandhinagar. A dalit guru, Pujya Baldevdasji Maharaj, who came to the gathering remarked, “It is said, ‘Nobody should feel he is alone as the saint is constantly by one’s side.’ These words apply aptly in the case of Pramukh Swami Maharaj. He is moving from street to street in Dalit villages and bringing about their uplift."
Pramukh Swami Maharaj addressed the convention saying, “You may be born in any caste, however, when you worship Paramatma, you are great. God makes no distinction. This caste or that caste, untouchability… these things go away. We are concerned with the qualities and conduct of a man. Everybody is born according to his karma and we should not foment hatred by making distinctions. Bhagwan Swaminarayan respected everybody. He elevated people by developing their virtues. If you have virtues, you are great, irrespective of your family and place of birth. Such people are pure. Through this spiritual perspective, untouchability can be removed. See Paramatma in all creatures. Muktanand Swami said in his kirtan, ‘Wherever you look, see God there, and nothing else.’ If we cultivate this attitude we will not look down upon anybody."