As a child, Bhagwan Swaminarayan was called Ghanshyam. Ghanshyam was born on 3 April 1781 in Chhapaiya, a small village in the northern part of India (Uttar Pradesh). After living in Chhapaiya for a few years, His family moved to nearby Ayodhya to escape being harassed by wicked people.
Ghanshyam was no ordinary child. At the age of seven, He started learning Sanskrit from Dharmadev, His father. It takes most intelligent people years and years to master all of the scriptures, but Ghanshyam did it in just three years! He traveled to Benares with His father. There, ten-year old Ghanshyam defeated many learned scholars in a debate on the scriptures.
Ghanshyam did many things that are impossible for a normal human to do. Being seen at different mandirs at the same time, reviving a basketful of dead fish to teach a sinful fisherman a lesson, and killing many demons with just a single glance are just a few drops from a vast ocean of miracles that Ghanshyam performed as a child.
As a child, Ghanshyam was not interested in worldly matters. He was interested only in devotion. He would often be seen at mandirs doing darshan or listening to religious talks.
Nilkanth - A Teenage Yogi
Soon both of Ghanshyam's parents passed away. Ghanshyam was now eleven years old. For years he had been planning to travel throughout India. Now was the time. One morning, walking barefooted and wearing just a simple loin cloth, He left Ayodhya for the Himalayas.
From here on and throughout His travels, He was known as Nilkanth. Nilkanth visited over 177 shrines, sacred places, and monasteries in His travels throughout India. He fearlessly trekked up and down dangerous mountain slopes. With no one to guide Him, no one to feed Him, and without any travel gear, He walked through the mountains and jungles of India. The howling winds of the Himalayas pierced His body. The snow and ice cracked and crunched under His bare feet. Man-eating tigers and leopards, bears, hyenas, jackals, pythons, scorpions, bees and poisonous wasps lurked in His path. Unfazed by any danger, Nilkanth continued His journey.
Nilkanth was not just on an aimless journey. He wanted to redeem hundreds of thousands of Yogis in the Himalayas and countless others throughout India who had patiently been offering devotion and performing austerities to please God. But wherever Nilkanth went He also found that the sadhus and religious leaders had become immoral. Many of these people were spoiling the name of religion by performing evil practices and spreading false beliefs. Nilkanth wanted to get rid of these evil practices and give people a true understanding of God. He used His divine power, and also His pure life, to inspire transformations in the lives of countless people. Wherever He went, Nilkanth tested peoples understanding by asking about the nature of the five eternal realities, or the five things that have always existed and will always remain - Jiva, Ishwar, Maya. Brahma, and Parabrahma. To His dissatisfaction, nowhere did He receive the reply that He wanted. Finally after 7 years, 1 month, and 11 days, he arrived in Loj, a small village in Gujarat. Here, in the ashram of Ramanand Swami, Nilkanth not only found a proper answer to His question of the five eternal realities, but He also found morality and saintliness in the sadhus and devotees.
Ramanand Swami was overjoyed. He explained to all of the devotees that Nilkanth was God Himself. He explained that he himself had been the drum beater to gather the crowd and now, Nilkanth, the chief player of the drama, had finally arrived. Before passing away, Ramanand Swami initiated the eighteen year old Nilkanth and named Him Sahajanand Swami. Ramanand Swami also appointed Sahajanand Swami as his heir at the age of twenty - one.
His Social Work
At the age of twenty-one, Sahajanand Swami founded the Swaminarayan Sampraday. He gave the Swaminarayan mantra to His followers. Out of respect, people began to call Him Shriji Maharaj and Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Many great sadhus and yogis bowed before Him and accepted Him as their God and Guru. Shriji Maharaj initiated over 3000 sadhus. Of these, 500 were known as Paramhansas - sadhus of the highest level. He asked His Paramhansas to go out into the towns and villages and make society better. He elevated the poor and ignorant from bad habits and inspired faith and devotion. Shriji Maharaj taught people not to fear superstitions, but to have faith in God. He taught His followers to live a life free of addictions. He stopped the killing of innocent animals in sacrifices.
Shriji Maharaj performed many miracles in His time. But, the biggest and most difficult miracle that He performed was changing evil people into devotees of God and law-abiding citizens. He taught the message of love, brotherhood, and respect for all. Although He and His Paramhansas did much to serve society, Shriji Maharaj did more than just make society better. In His time, He was worshipped as the supreme God. The reason that He came on this Earth was not to kill evil people, but to get rid of the things inside of people's minds that make them evil. He did not just want to make people's lives better in this lifetime; He wanted them to attain God so that they would not have to take birth again and again. To do this, He taught His followers to walk the path of Ekantik Dharma, the perfection of dharma (righteousness), gnan (knowledge), vairagya (detachment) and bhakti (devotion to God).
Shriji Maharaj left two treasures of wisdom for His followers. First, He inspired the Shikshapatri, a scripture teaching His followers what to do and what not to do. In it, He showed that the ultimate goal of life was to realize ourselves to be the atma, and then offer devotion to God. His day-to-day teachings were put together in another scripture, the Vachanamrut. To make it easier for people to worship God and follow Ekantik Dharma, Shriji Maharaj built six beautiful mandirs in Ahmedabad, Bhuj, Vartal, Dholera, Junagadh and Gadhada.
Before leaving this world at the age of 49, Shriji Maharaj gave His greatest gift to His devotees. He declared Gunatitand Swami, His abode, as His successor. He promised to always remain present in this world through a God-realised or Gunatit Sadhu.