In this article, we will talk about Shastriji Maharaj and how he established BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha in 1907, and Yogiji Maharaj who furthered the cause of BAPS outside India and amongst the youth.
Shastriji Maharaj was born in the village of Mahelav on 31 January 1865. He was initiated as a sadhu in Vartal in November 1882 at the age of 17 as Sadhu Yagnapurushdas. His guru at the time was Sadguru Vignananand Swami, a senior sadhu from the time of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. It was while serving in Surat with his guru that he first met Pragji Bhakta (Bhagatji Maharaj) of Mahuva, the dedicated disciple of Aksharbrahma Gunatitanand Swami.
It was Pragji Bhakta who spoke at lengths to Yagnapurushdas about the principle of Akshar-Purushottam as given by Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Yagnapurushdas became a great scholar (Shastri) and so he was popularly known as Shastriji Maharaj. He became very active in propagating this knowledge of Akshar-Purushottam, but it was not easily accepted by some in the Swaminarayan Sampradaya.
In November 1905, he left Vartal to further the cause of Akshar-Purushottam. Within a short space of 20 months, he established the first mandir dedicated to Akshar-Purushottam in the village of Bochasan on 5 June 1907. That day is now widely regarded as the date of the formal establishment of BAPS (Bochasanvasi Akshar-Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha) as a branch of the wider Swaminarayan Sampradaya. Despite the many difficulties, Shastriji Maharaj and his few sadhus toiled day and night to help explain this philosophy to many in Gujarat and beyond and succeeded in convincing thousands.
Yogiji Maharaj and a few sadhus from Junagadh joined Shastriji Maharaj in 1911. Over the next 40 years, another four traditional shikharbaddh mandirs were established with the murtis of Akshar-Purushottam consecrated in the central shrine – Sarangpur (1916), Gondal (1934), Atladra (1945) and Gadhada (1951).
In the last few years of his life, Shastriji Maharaj took steps to preserve the growth and future of BAPS by registering BAPS as a charitable trust under India’s new legal code in 1947. In 1950, he appointed the 28-year-old Shastri Narayanswarupdas (Pramukh Swami Maharaj) as the administrative head (Pramukh) of the organisation and instructed him to serve under Yogiji Maharaj who would become the spiritual head of the organization. Shastriji Maharaj passed away on 10 May 1951 in Sarangpur and was succeeded by Yogiji Maharaj.
Yogiji Maharaj was born in the village of Dhari on 23 May 1892. A very devout child, he took initiation at the young age of 16 and served at the Swaminarayan Mandir in Junagadh before joining Shastriji Maharaj in 1911, as he knew him to be the most influential in understanding and explaining the philosophy of Akshar-Purushottam.
Touring the villages with no care for his personal needs, Yogiji Maharaj was instrumental in nurturing the growth of BAPS by reaching out to many devotees through various spiritual programmes and initiatives including the weekly Satsang assemblies, as well as formally establishing activities for children and youths.
During his tenure as guru (1951 to 1971), he consecrated two shikharbaddh mandirs (Ahmedabad in 1962 and Bhadra in 1969) as well as around 40 smaller mandirs in India. He arranged for the organization of large festival celebrations in India and abroad. At the behest of devotees living abroad, he travelled to East Africa in 1955, 1959-60 and 1970 where his travels transformed the lives of many and resulted in the establishment of mandirs in Kenya (Mombasa and Nairobi) and Uganda (Kampala, Jinja, Tororo and Gulu).
Despite the handful of devotees present in London in 1970, he visited UK to fulfil their spiritual needs which resulted in the opening of the first Swaminarayan temple in the UK in Islington, London on 14 June 1970. During Yogiji Maharaj's spiritual tours, young aspirants often decided to join him during their school vacations. One such youth, Vinu Patel of Anand, was inspired to join the monastic order, and Yogiji Maharaj ordained him as Keshavjivandas Swami in 1961. Popularly known as Mahant Swami, he later became the president and guru of BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha in 2016.
After serving as guru for 20 years, Yogiji Maharaj passed away in Mumbai on 23 January 1971. Before his passing, he appointed Pramukh Swami as his spiritual successor, and he accepted both the functions of administration and spiritual oversight. A beautiful memorial shrine called the Yogi Smruti Mandir currently stands in Gondal at the site of Yogiji Maharaj’s cremation.
Pramukh Swami Maharaj took over the helm of BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha in 1971 and led the organisation to great heights all over the world over the next 45 years until his passing in 2016.
Subsequent articles in this series will be dedicated to the life, work, and teachings of Pramukh Swami Maharaj on the occasion of his centenary year