A Hindu Presence in Birmingham
By Sarah Johnson, Lauren Nott, and Addison Toy
The brightly painted BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir is a sacred space that sustains and promotes a community within the age-old religion of Hinduism. The Swaminarayan form of Hinduism seeks to lead its followers closer to each other, the world, and most importantly, the primordial truth. Hindus practice in a variety of ways, in a variety of places, with a variety of things that they value, to lead them deeper into their faith. To understand the significance of Birmingham’s Swaminarayan temple (or mandir) it will be helpful to identify core Hindu beliefs as well as distinctive aspects of Swaminarayan Hinduism. These will facilitate a better understanding of what the icons, colors, and visuals mean to the Swaminarayan Hindus who visit the Birmingham temple.
Core Beliefs of Hinduism
While Hindus vary widely in their beliefs and practices, the concept of being connected and more importantly acknowledging interconnectedness is fundamental to them all. Hindus understand themselves to be connected to the world, the self, Dharma, and the gods they worship.
As the Indian writer Hindol Sengupta explains, “to the Hindu, his relations with God and man, his spiritual and temporal life are incapable of being distinguished” (Sengupta 2018, 52). Hindu religious practices are not confined to temples or certain days of the week. They take place in many places every day as Hindus acknowledge the inter-affecting connections between the world and the self. Both physical rituals and internal meditation are important. As Sengupta explains, “for every mention of ritual practice — including sacrifice — there are also teachings of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which preaches meditation in its place” (Sengupta 2018, 115).
The world is interconnected with the inner self and this is the gateway to ultimate truth. Sengupta explains, “in Hinduism, there is no truth to be found outside the self . . . everything outside [the self] is an illusion . . . One only comes to know the self . . . by becoming the self, and one only becomes the self by recognizing at some fundamental level the self and the world are one” (Sengupta 2018, 53). To know the self is to know the world, to know the self is to know the truth.
There are multiple avenues in which Hindus can reach the fundamental source that is Dharma, and in doing that, leave samsara (the continuous cycle of the soul in rebirth). Knowledge, devotion, meditation, and action are all paths that can bring you to the same spiritual truth (Sengupta 2018, 117). In Swaminarayan tradition, they believe that there is a form for Bhagwan (“God” or “Lord” in English), and therefore can be depicted and should be an integral part of worship and devotion. The topic of God having form has been a debate in different Hindu traditions. Devotion is a focus of the Swaminarayan tradition due to the fact that they believe that Bhagwan does indeed have a form.
Beginnings of Swaminarayan Hinduism
Swaminarayan Hinduism began to be established in the early 1800s in Gujarat, a state in Western India. During this time, the British East India Company had established its administration of the region, with Sir John Malcolm as governor. At the same time, the new tradition of Swaminarayan Hinduism was growing, centered around the leader Sahajanad Swami. Sahajanad Swami, later known as Bhagwan Swaminarayan, came to this position after being initiated as an ascetic in the Ramananda tradition. Following Ramananda Swami’s death, Sahajanad became the leader of this group and was revered as a manifestation of god. Gujarati society was very unsettled at this time, characterized by violence and crime. Swaminarayan is credited by his followers with having a very positive influence on this disorderly state. Two violent practices occurring at this time were infanticide and sati, the sacrifice of widows shortly after their husbands’ deaths. Swaminarayan, in agreement with the British administration, was strongly opposed to both these practices. Instituting social reform in Gujarat was truly a joint effort between Sahajanad Swami and the British government. Swaminarayan Hinduism benefitted from protection of the British administration. As Historian Raymond Brady Williams explains, “What the British could not accomplish in the ultimate transformation of individuals and society by the force of arms was accomplished by the preaching of Sahajanad” (Williams 2001, 32). Acknowledging Sahajanad’s significant influence, Malcolm wanted to meet with him. The two leaders met, and Swaminarayan gifted John Malcolm a copy of scriptures he had written called the Shikshapatri,.
What makes Swaminarayan Hinduism different?
One thing that differentiates Swaminarayan Hinduism from other forms of Hinduism is that Swaminarayan is reverenced as the supreme god. This is the most widespread understanding of him among his followers. A few, however, hold instead that Krishna is the supreme manifestation of God, and deserves the followers’ primary worship and devotion. Most followers see Swaminarayan is a manifestation of God. The BAPS (Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha) organization to which the Birmingham temple belongs, however, holds that Swaminarayan is the supreme person, also known as Purushottam. Thus he is superior to all other gods, even Krishna (Williams 2001, 82). Swaminarayan made many changes to Hinduism, and is known as a redeemer of the people, and a reformer of the religion. The reform Swaminarayan brought about really set apart this tradition of Hinduism from the rest. Williams explains, “Sahajanad is called a reformer, and followers assert that he preserved the best of the beliefs and practices from the past, and forged a new form of Hinduism well suited to the modern period” (Williams 2001, 2). He required his followers to strictly obey the teachings of no violence, no slander, strict vegetarianism, no suppression, and other moral commitments. These were very contrary to the violence in Gujarat at the time. Swaminarayan and his followers served the community around them, by participating in social welfare activities, such as repairing roads, feeding the impoverished, and digging wells. To summarize his impact on the world, the official BAPS website says, “Bhagwan Swaminarayan did not simply reform society; He spiritually charged it with faith, virtue, and integrity” (“BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha” 2021). In alignment with who Swaminarayan was, this tradition of Hinduism still heavily prioritizes social service and community betterment.
Understanding Iconography in Swaminarayan Mandirs
The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir contains a sanctuary in which Swaminarayan practitioners pay respects to their gods represented by statues within a grand shrine. The physical images in the front of the temple’s sanctuary stand as objects of adoration and are treated as living deities. Contemporary mandir images reflect those of early Swaminarayan iconography in being modelled after humans rather being like statues in the Vaishnavite tradition that have many appendages and exaggerated holy features (Williams 2016, 240). The practice of worshipping these holy images is called “murti puja,” which is essential for Swaminarayan Hindus to magnify their relationships with their revered deities (“BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, London” 2021).
In the figure above, the statues on the far left represent Shiva, Parvati, and Ganesha. Shiva, the furthest left image, is known as the wandering deity, and he is married to Parvati, whose image stands by his side. The smaller, elephant-resembling entity below the two figures is Ganesha, the son of Shiva and Parvati. Ganesha is known as the lord of wisdom, the lord of beginnings, and the remover of obstacles.
Directly to the right of these, in the second alcove are Bhagwan Shri Krishna and Mata Radha Rani, Krishna’s divine spouse. They are esteemed by Swaminarayans for teaching that “although evil often prowls the earth, it is righteousness that ultimately prevails” (“BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Birmingham” 2021).
The central place of honor belongs to the shrine of Shri Swaminarayan Bhagwan, the founder of Swaminarayan Hinduism and Shri Gunatitanand Swami, his first successor.
In the next alcove are images of Shri Swaminarayan Bhagwan other five successors. The top left image is of Bhagatiji Majaraj, who was the second successor to the founder. The top right photo is of Shastriji Maharaj, the third successor to the founder. The bottom left picture is of Yogiji Maharaj, the fourth, and to his right is Pramukh, the fifth divine successor. Lastly, the smaller, central photo of that alcove presents Mahant Swami Maharaj, who is the sixth successor to the founder and “the current spiritual guru of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha” (“BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Birmingham” 2021). As a whole, this section of the shrine represents founder Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s continual presence on earth.
Finally, the three statues on the far right of the altar represent Rama, Sita, and Hanuman. Rama, a warrior, is an avatar of Vishnu, who is defined by Hinduism as the preserver. Sita is Rama’s spouse, and Hanuman is Rama’s devoted companion. Hanuman’s devotion is frequently shown by him having Rama and Sita in his heart.
These deities allow the mandir to be a place of sacred worship, and all the temple’s activities revolve around devotion to these beings. Each image is regarded and served as a living god. This is why visits to the temple and devotional activities there are so important. To facilitate these visits, the temple is easily accessed from I-59, and followers are planning to relocate to an even more accessible location near the junction of I-65 and I-459 in Hoover (Anderson 2020.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Birmingham
Location: 500 Biscayne Dr, Birmingham, AL 35206
Affiliation: Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha
Anderson, Jon. 2020 “Hoover Council OKs Plans for Hindu Temple.” Hoover Sun. October 20, 2020. https://hooversun.com/news/hoover-council-oks-plans-for-hindu-temple-new-subdivisions-i/
“BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Birmingham.” BAPS, 2021. https://www.baps.org/Global-Network/North-America/Birmingham.aspx#.
“BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, London (Neasden Temple).” n.d. BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir London. Accessed October 27, 2021. https://londonmadir.baps.org/.
“BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha – Home.” n.d. BAPS. Accessed October 29, 2021. https://www.baps.org/.
Parikh, Vibhuti. “The Swaminarayan Ideology And Social Shange In Early Nineteeth Century Gujarat.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 66 (2005): 778–84. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44145890.
Sengupta, Hindol. 2018. Being Hindu. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
Williams, Raymond Brady. Swaminarayan Hinduism: Tradition, Adaptation, and Identity. 2016. Edited by Yogi Trivedi. Delhi: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199463749.001.0001.
Williams, Raymond Brady. 2001. An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism. Cambridge University Press.
Sarah Johnson ‘23, Lauren Nott ‘24, and Addison Toy ‘24 were students in Introduction to World Religions in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in fall 2021.
Published November 29, 2021