Neelkanth Varni Biography | Who is Nilkanth Varni in Hinduism or Hindu mythology?

Swaminarayan, also known as Neelkanth Varni and Sahajanand Swami, was a spiritual leader believed by his followers to be a manifestation of Krishna. Born in 1781, he became a yogi and ascetic.

Who is Nilkanth Varni in Hinduism or Hindu mythology?

Under the guidance of his guru, Swami Ramanand, he was initiated into the Uddhava sampradaya in 1800.

Despite opposition, he assumed leadership in 1802. He later became known as Swaminarayan, and his followers formed the Swaminarayan Sampradaya.

Swaminarayan focused on moral and social improvement, emphasizing non-violence and initiating reforms for women and the poor.

During his life, he built temples, created scriptures like the Shikshapatri, and established two dioceses with hereditary leadership.

NeelKanth Varni Biography | Who is Nilkanth Varni in Hinduism or Hindu mythology?


Childhood of Neelkanth varni as Ghanshyam

 Ghanshyam Pande by his parents, Hariprasad Pande (also known as Dharmadev) and Premvati Pande (also known as Bhaktimata and Murtidevi).
Swaminarayan’s birth coincided with the Hindu festival of Rama Navami, celebrated for Lord Rama’s birth.
Swaminarayan’s followers observe both Rama Navami and Swaminarayan Jayanti on the ninth lunar day in the fortnight of the waxing moon in the month of Chaitra (March–April).
According to a legend, Swaminarayan is believed to be the earthly incarnation of Narayana from the Nara Narayana pair, cursed by sage Durvasa.
Swaminarayan had two brothers, Rampratap Pande and Ichcharam Pande. Legend has it that he mastered scriptures, including the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, Ramayana, and Mahabharata, by the age of seven.

Travels for Sadhna as Nilkanth Varni

After Ghanshyam Pande’s parents passed away, he left his home on June 29, 1792, when he was just 11 years old. During his travels, he took on the name Nilkanth Varni.

Nilkanth Varni journeyed extensively across India and parts of Nepal in search of a hermitage that followed what he believed was a correct understanding of Vedanta, Samkhya, Yoga, and Pancaratra. To find such a place, Nilkanth Varni asked five basic questions related to Vaishnava Vedanta:

  1. What is Jiva?
  2. What is Ishvara?
  3. What is Maya?
  4. What is Brahman?
  5. What is Parabrahman?

During his travels, Nilkanth Varni spent nine months mastering Astanga yoga under the guidance of an aged yogic master named Gopal Yogi.

It’s said that he visited significant temples, including the Jagannath Temple in Puri, as well as places like Badrinath, Rameswaram, Nashik, Dwarka, and Pandharpur.

In 1799, after seven years of wandering, Nilkanth’s yogi journey led him to Loj, a village in Gujarat.

There, he met Muktanand Swami, a senior disciple of Ramanand Swami, who satisfactorily answered Nilkanth’s five questions. Impressed, Nilkanth decided to stay in Loj to meet Ramanand Swami, whom he encountered a few months later.

Nilkanth later shared in the Vachnamrut that during this time, he underwent severe penance to eliminate any attachment to his family.

Leadership as Sahajanand Swami

According to the group, senior swamis of Ramanand Swami were impressed by Nilkanth’s understanding of metaphysical and epistemological concepts, along with his mental and physical discipline.

On October 20, 1800, Nilkanth Varni received sannyasa initiation from Ramanand Swami, who granted him the names Sahajanand Swami and Narayan Muni to signify his new status.

At 21 years old, Sahajanand Swami was appointed as the successor to Ramanand Swami, becoming the leader of the Uddhava Sampradaya[33] before Ramanand Swami’s passing.

The Uddhava Sampradaya was then known as the Swaminarayan Sampradaya. Sahajanand Swami advocated the worship of a single deity, Krishna or Narayana, according to sources. He considered Krishna his own ishtadevata.

In contrast to the Radha-vallabha Sampradaya in the Vaishnava sect, Sahajanand Swami took a more puritanical approach, rejecting licentious elements in Krishnology in favor of worship in the mood of majesty. This was similar to the views of earlier Vaishnava teachers, Ramanuja, and Yamunacharya.

Manifestation of God

According to the Swaminarayan tradition, Sahajanand Swami later became known as Swaminarayan after introducing a mantra at a gathering in Faneni, two weeks after Ramanand Swami’s death.

He gave his followers a new mantra, the Swaminarayan mantra, which they repeated in their rituals: Swaminarayan.

Some devotees claimed to go into a deep meditative state, called samadhi, while chanting this mantra, asserting that they could see their personal gods. Swaminarayan was also referred to as Ghanshyam Maharaj, Shreeji Maharaj, Hari Krishna Maharaj, and Shri Hari.

As early as 1804, Swaminarayan, known for reportedly performing miracles, was described as a manifestation of God in the first work written by a disciple and paramahamsa, Nishkulanand Swami.

This work, the Yama Danda, was the first literature within the Swaminarayan sect. In a meeting with Reginald Heber, the Lord Bishop of Calcutta, in 1825, Swaminarayan himself hinted that he was a manifestation of God.

Some followers believe Swaminarayan was an incarnation of Krishna, and the images and stories of Swaminarayan and Krishna align in the sect’s liturgy.

The narrative of Swaminarayan’s birth mirrors that of Krishna’s from the Bhagavata Purana scripture. Many followers consider Swaminarayan the complete manifestation of Narayana or Purushottama Narayana, surpassing other avatars.

The belief that their founder was the incarnation of the Supreme God has faced criticism. Professor Raymond B. Williams notes criticism directed at Swaminarayan for receiving significant gifts from followers, dressing and traveling like a Maharaja despite taking vows of renunciation.

In response, Swaminarayan stated that he accepted gifts for the emancipation of his followers.


Swaminarayan encouraged his followers to live a righteous life by combining devotion and dharma. He established a global organization rooted in Gujarati traditions, using Hindu texts and rituals as its foundation. Swaminarayan was strict about maintaining gender segregation in temples.

He advocated against practices such as meat consumption, alcohol, drugs, adultery, suicide, animal sacrifices, criminal activities, and appeasement of ghosts and tantric rituals. Even for medicinal purposes, he prohibited the consumption of alcohol.

Many followers took vows before becoming disciples. According to Swaminarayan, conquering four elements—dharma, bhakti (devotion), gnana (knowledge), and vairagya (detachment)—is crucial for ultimate salvation.

Doctrinally, Swaminarayan aligned with the eleventh-century philosopher Ramanuja and disagreed with Adi Shankara’s concept of Advaita, asserting that the supreme being is not formless and that God always has a divine form.

Relations with other religions and the British Government

Swaminarayan worked to foster positive relationships with people of various religions, often meeting influential leaders. His followers came from diverse backgrounds, including Muslims and Parsis. Notably, some of his personal attendants were Khoja Muslims.

In Kathiawad, many Muslims wore necklaces given by Swaminarayan. He even met with Reginald Heber, the Lord Bishop of Calcutta and a Christian leader in India, accompanied by a significant number of disciples.

Despite a potentially tense situation with both leaders having their own guards, mutual respect developed between them.

Swaminarayan also maintained a favorable relationship with the ruling East India Company. The first temple he constructed in Ahmedabad was on land spanning 5,000 acres provided by the company government, and it received a 101-gun salute upon opening.

In an 1825 meeting with Reginald Heber, Swaminarayan hinted that he was a manifestation of Krishna. In 1830, he met with Sir John Malcolm, the Governor of Bombay, who credited Swaminarayan with bringing stability to a previously lawless region.

During this meeting, Swaminarayan presented Malcolm with a copy of the Shikshapatri, which is now housed at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford.

Temples and ascetics

Swaminarayan directed the building of many Hindu temples, personally overseeing the construction of six grand temples. In these temples, idols of various deities like Radha Krishna, Nara-Narayana, Laksmi Narayana, Gopinath, Radha Ramana, and Madanamohana were installed, highlighting the significance of Krishna.

Disciples of Swaminarayan composed devotional poems sung widely during festivals. Swaminarayan introduced fasting and devotion, organizing traditional folk dances like raas during festivals like Vasant Panchami, Holi, and Janmashtami.

The first temple, constructed in Ahmedabad in 1822, was on land granted by the Company Government. Responding to devotees’ requests, Swaminarayan instructed the building of temples in Bhuj, Vadtal, Dholera, Junagadh, and Gadhada, among other places.

Construction of these temples began in 1822 and continued until 1828. Before his passing, Swaminarayan also planned temples in Muli, Dholka, and Jetalpur.

Ascetics have played a vital role in the Swaminarayan sect, contributing to its growth and encouraging followers to lead virtuous lives. Tradition holds that Swaminarayan initiated 500 ascetics as paramahamsas in a single night.

Paramahamsas, esteemed spiritual teachers considered enlightened, held the highest order of sannyasi in the sect. Well-known paramahamsas included Muktanand Swami, Gopalanand Swami, Brahmanand Swami, Gunatitanand Swami, Premanand Swami, Nishkulanand Swami, and Nityanand Swami.

Ahmedabad and Vadtal Gadi

Before Swaminarayan’s passing, he made arrangements for the continuation of his spiritual lineage by establishing two leadership seats, known as gadis.

These seats were created in Ahmedabad (Nar Narayan Dev Gadi) and Vadtal (Laxmi Narayan Dev Gadi) on November 21, 1825.

Swaminarayan appointed acharyas, spiritual leaders, for each gadi to propagate his teachings and maintain the Swaminarayan Sampradaya.

These acharyas were chosen from Swaminarayan’s immediate family, specifically adopting sons from his two brothers—Ayodhyaprasad (son of elder brother Rampratap) and Raghuvira (son of younger brother Ichcharam).

Swaminarayan decreed that the acharya office should be hereditary, ensuring a direct bloodline connection from his family.

He detailed the administrative division of his followers into two territorial dioceses in a document called Desh Vibhag Lekh.

Swaminarayan instructed his devotees and saints to follow both the Acharyas and Gopalanand Swami, considered the main pillar and chief ascetic of the sampradaya. Presently, Koshalendraprasad Pande and Ajendraprasad Pande serve as acharyas of the Ahmedabad Gadi and Vadtal Gadi, respectively.


In 1830, Swaminarayan told his followers that he would be leaving. On June 1, 1830, he passed away, and his followers believe that he went to Akshardham, his heavenly home, after his death. Swaminarayan was cremated following Hindu rituals at Lakshmi Wadi in Gadhada.

Social views


Swaminarayan believed in the right to education for everyone, including women, despite facing criticism from those who opposed the empowerment of lower-caste women. During his time, affluent families privately educated their girls, but male followers of Swaminarayan arranged for the education of their female relatives.

This led to an increase in female literacy, and women could discuss spiritual topics. Swaminarayan opposed harmful practices like sati, considering it a form of suicide. He also discouraged female infanticide by offering help with dowry expenses.

While some practices within the sect may seem restrictive to women, Swaminarayan’s efforts were seen as pioneering reforms in Hinduism during his time. He advocated for women’s rights without direct personal involvement and criticized cults that mistreated women.

Swaminarayan emphasized celibacy for ascetics and discouraged any contact between male and female ascetics.

The restrictions on women entering certain temple areas and participating in daily worship were attributed to concepts related to the menstrual cycle.

Widows were directed to remarry if they couldn’t follow the path of chastity, and those who could had specific rules to follow, including living under the control of male family members.

Despite some practices perceived as restrictive, Swaminarayan’s efforts aimed to provide women with a respected and secure place in society at that time.

Caste system and the poor

After taking charge of the sampradaya, Swaminarayan focused on helping the poor by providing food and water. He initiated various social service projects and established almshouses for those in need. Swaminarayan also organized relief efforts, supplying food and water during droughts.

Some believe that Swaminarayan aimed to abolish the caste system and welcome everyone into the Swaminarayan Sampradaya. However, he did not support consuming food from lower castes or caste pollution.

Mr. Williamson, a political officer in Gujarat, reported to Bishop Herber that Swaminarayan had “destroyed the yoke of caste.” Swaminarayan instructed his followers to collect alms from all sections of society and appointed individuals from lower strata as his personal attendants.

This approach attracted members of lower castes to the movement, improving their social status. Swaminarayan would share meals with the lower Rajput and Khati castes but not with any lower.

He permitted dalits and people from lower castes to visit places of worship. However, formal exclusion of Dalits from Swaminarayan temples persisted. Lower-caste members were not allowed to wear a full sect mark on their forehead.

Even today, the majority of Gujarat’s lower-caste, Untouchable, and tribal population is restricted from the sect.

Lord Bishop Reginald Heber noted that Swaminarayan’s disciples spanned all castes, even including Muslims.

He observed that they prayed to one God without distinctions of castes, living as if they were brothers. In a meeting with Swaminarayan, he mentioned that Swaminarayan did not consider the subject crucial but wanted to avoid offense to the ancient Hindu system.

Swaminarayan worked to dispel the myth that salvation (moksha) was unattainable for everyone. He taught that the soul is neither male nor female and is not bound to any specific caste.

Animal sacrifices and yajnas

Swaminarayan opposed animal sacrifices. To address this issue, he organized numerous large-scale yajnas with priests from Varanasi.

Through these events, Swaminarayan successfully emphasized non-violence (ahimsa). He encouraged lacto-vegetarianism among his followers and prohibited the consumption of meat, outlining these principles in the Shikshapatri.


Swaminarayan promoted widely accepted Hindu texts. He highly valued the Bhagavata Purana. Additionally, within the Swaminarayan sect, several texts authored by Swaminarayan or his followers are considered scriptures or shastras.

Key scriptures in the sect include the Shikshapatri and the Vachanamrut. Other significant works include the Satsangi Jeevan (Swaminarayan’s authorized biography), the Muktanand Kavya, the Nishkulanand Kavya, and the Bhakta Chintamani.


Swaminarayan wrote the Shikshapatri on February 11, 1826. Although the original Sanskrit manuscript is not available, it was translated into Gujarati by Nityanand Swami under Swaminarayan’s guidance and is highly revered in the sect.

Described as a book of social laws, the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency summarized it as guidelines for followers to observe.

This small booklet contains 212 Sanskrit verses, outlining the fundamental principles Swaminarayan believed his followers should follow to lead a disciplined and moral life. The oldest copy of this text is preserved at the Bodleian Library of Oxford University, presented by Sahajanand Swami himself.

In various parts of the Shikshapatri, Swaminarayan describes Shri Krishna as the greatest entity. In Shlok 1 and Shlok 108, he mentions his deep prayer to Shri Krishna.

Shlok 1: “With all My heart, I meditate on Shri Krishna, who resides in the divine abode Vrindavan; with Radha on his left and Shree residing within his heart.”

Shlok 108: “The Lord, Shri Krishna is the greatest entity. I admire Him the most. He is the cause of all incarnations and is thus truly worthy to be worshiped.”


The Vachanamrut is a sacred Hindu text that includes 273 religious talks given by Swaminarayan from 1819 to 1829 CE. It is regarded as the main theological text in the Swaminarayan Sampradaya.

Four senior disciples compiled it under Swaminarayan’s supervision and approval. Because followers see Swaminarayan as God (Parabrahman), they consider the Vachanamrut a direct revelation from God.

It’s viewed as the most accurate interpretation of the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and other important Hindu scriptures. People in Swaminarayan temples worldwide regularly read this scripture, and daily discussions based on it take place.

Satsangi Jeevan

Satsangi Jeevan is the authorized biography of Swaminarayan. It was written by Shatanand Swami and completed in Vikram Samvat 1885. The book contains details about Swaminarayan’s life and teachings. Swaminarayan decided to settle in Gadhada permanently at the suggestion of Dada Khachar and his sisters. He instructed Shatanand Swami to write a book about his life and experiences.

To assist Shatanand Swami in writing about Swaminarayan’s childhood, Swaminarayan blessed him with Sanjay Drishti, a special power to see the entire past from Swaminarayan’s childhood.

Once Shatanand Swami wrote the book, Swaminarayan checked and approved it. He was pleased with the content and instructed his disciples to narrate stories from Satsangi Jeevan.



After Swaminarayan’s death, different groups with varying ideas about succession emerged over the decades. This led to the formation of Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) when its founder left the Vadtal Gadi in 1905.

Another group, Maninagar Swaminarayan Gadi Sansthan, was established when its founder left the Ahmedabad Gadi in the 1940s. In BAPS, followers consider Gunatitanand Swami as Swaminarayan’s spiritual successor.

They believe that Swaminarayan revealed on several occasions that Gunatitanand Swami was the manifestation of Aksharbrahm.

BAPS followers think that acharyas were given administrative leadership, while Gunatitanand Swami received spiritual leadership from Swaminarayan. Mahant Swami Maharaj currently leads BAPS.

On the other hand, followers of the Maninagar Swaminarayan Gadi Sansthan believe that Gopalanand Swami is Swaminarayan’s successor. The present leader of this sect is Purushottampriyadasji Maharaj.


When Swaminarayan passed away, he had around 1.8 million followers, as noted by biographer Raymond Williams. By 2001, Swaminarayan centers were present on four continents, with a congregation of five million people, mostly in Gujarat, the homeland.

According to the Indian Express in 2007, the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism was estimated to have over 20 million members worldwide.


Swaminarayan’s beliefs and teachings faced criticism from Hindu reformist leader Dayananda Saraswati (1824–1883).

Dayananda questioned the idea of Swaminarayan as the Supreme Being and disapproved of the notion that visions of Swaminarayan could lead to perfection.

Dayananda accused Swaminarayan’s followers of deviating from the Vedas, engaging in illegal wealth collection, and practicing frauds and tricks. According to Dayananda, Swaminarayan adorned himself as Narayana to attract followers, a claim he made as early as 1875.

In 1918, Mahatma Gandhi, in a letter to his nephew, expressed that Swaminarayan’s values didn’t align perfectly with his interpretation of Vaishnavism.

Gandhi felt that the love taught by Swaminarayan was more about sentimentalism, and Swaminarayan had not fully grasped the essence of non-violence.

However, in 1924, Gandhi praised Swaminarayan’s efforts in Gujarat, stating that what Swaminarayan achieved in the region could not be accomplished by the power of the State.



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