Hinduism Versus Hindu Theology: The Case Of Swaminarayan Society

Hinduism Versus Hindu Theology: The Case Of Swaminarayan SocietyCover of the book ‘An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hindu Theology’
  • As one examines Swami Paramtattvadas’s book “An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hindu Theology”, one looks in vain to find any mention of the great Hindu philosophers and traditions.

Swami Paramtattvadas, “An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hindu Theology” (2017). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

The so-called Hinduism is a “rolling caravan of conceptual spaces, all of them facing all, and all of them requiring all”, said Bibhuti Yadav evocatively. Some have argued that there is nothing like Hinduism, and some others have chosen to call this collection of traditions “Hinduisms”. Yet others have argued that the term “religion” is itself a fraught Abrahamic/Western term that is applicable only to certain monopolistic faiths and prophetic traditions, and that by theologising and tying together the variety of Hindu practices makes it easy for Westerners to describe and understand Hindu practices and therefore seek control over it through their own commentaries comparing Hindu “theologies” with Christianity, with, of course, Christianity winning the battle.

Hinduism, if we are to accept the terminology, is a multi-layered set of mansions and manors, cave dwellings and hutments, occupied for millennia or newly built, and some only seasonally visited. We read about one of those new dwellings, with its rush of newly constructed marble and stone palaces set amidst rolling gardens, in this book by Swami Paramtattvadas.

We live in a post-postmodern world. Huston Smith titled one of his books, “Beyond the Postmodern Mind: The Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization”. When he spoke in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in 1986, I got an autographed copy of his book. It is thirty years since that quaint, “baby internet”, non-social-media, non-smart phone, pre 9/11 postmodern world. We wonder how Smith, one of the more serious and committed of world religionists, would make sense of the distracted, angry, anxious people who make this post-postmodern world such a fraught place.

In Britain “no religion” is the “majority religion”, and to be English now is not necessarily to be Christian. In the United States “none” is the fastest growing religion, even though America “remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world”. The massive movement of people across the world, displaced by war, lured into menial jobs or high-tech jobs in hyper-growth economies, or facing hunger and disease in poorly governed countries, has not been seen before, at least on this scale.

God has become suspect but God has also morphed – angrier than before, and even more jealous. Spirituality has become fashionable, as are a variety of “hot”, body-focused yogas. Meditational practices are just an app away, and one can pick and choose what to download, and as quickly and easily forget about it. Old religions have to reconfigure themselves, and new ones need to build, furnish, and occupy niches catering both to a God-hungering world and to the vast consumptive/consuming world of academics. It is in this context that I read Swami Paramtattvadas’s book.

Swami Paramtattvadas is an ordained monk in the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS). Swamiji earned his PhD in Hindu Theology at Oxford, and his attempt is to move a small group of Hindus and their version of Hinduism from the Indic altar of belief-philosophy-meditative perch onto the dominant Abrahamic space of “belief-theology” where monopolistic claims to “Truth” and “God” are sacrosanct. Monopolists wear their supremacist garb without guilt even as they travel the world participating in “inter-faith” debates at academic conferences and in television studios. No one seems to want to scrutinise and challenge these monopolistic faiths, except in polemical texts and quaint documentaries. If that is the religio-political battlefield, then seeking to theologise becomes an attractive proposition.

While the attempt to make the world Muslim or Christian has gone on for two millennia, we see new ventures by those who have sought to carve out their own mini-supremacist altars. Christians and Muslims, through bloody battle, chicanery, and the purchase of poor souls caught in life’s maelstroms, were indeed successful in ridding the world of most of its “heathens” over the past two thousand years. But we now live in an age where those of us from the “seeker” cultures (not “believer” cults) have to deal with the subtler, insidious, and more clever approaches to seduction: from sham inter-faith debates and academic sleight-of-hand to marketing and publicity initiatives advertising the faith group’s interest and investment in protecting the environment, saving the distressed, and educating the poor.

My own experience of the disciplined, trained, and determined Swaminarayan group is only through the visit to their grand temples – the one in Atlanta, close to where I live; the one in Chicago, when it was just about to be inaugurated, and where I rather tactlessly asked the nice man who was giving us a guided tour, “How much did it cost to build this?”; and the one in London, the Neasden Temple, which has its own smart website informing potential visitors how to get there, showing its concern for the environment, and running its own very successful school. I wanted to visit the Akshardham Temple in Gujarat when I visited Gandhinagar in 2003 but the temple was closed as repair work was still being done after the deadly terrorist attack by Muslims on the temple in 2002 that took the lives of thirty people, and injured more than eighty.

Each of these temples looks like a museum and a palace – with smart signboards, FAQs on Hinduism, an exhibition hall, and clean, anti-septic surroundings – unlike the rough and tumble and frequently unkempt traditional Hindu temples that, even in the US, struggle to keep a handle on cleanliness and timeliness. But the Swaminarayan temples, with their huge spaces, carefully sculpted marble and wood interiors, beautifully manicured gardens, clean, shiny toilets, and well-managed stores and eateries cannot manage to attract Hindu worshippers, especially the South Indian variety, who are used to listening to priests trained in their “sectarian” agamas and paddathis, and whose “dark Gods” talk to them and move them in a manner that the “white, marble murtis” and Swaminarayan gods and deities cannot. That the Swaminarayans also place their founder and their sampradaya leaders on equal pedestals reserved for the traditional deities makes the visit to the Swaminarayan palaces rather discomfiting.

How did this come to be, and what is the “theology” governing the Swaminarayan belief system? Paramtattvadas’s tome, written with enough rigor and edited professionally to satisfy scholars and academics, but not too intimidating for a lay reader, is a “comprehensive doctrinal account” of the Swaminarayan belief system. In the first part of the book, we find the “sources and tools” of the Swaminarayan theology, while the second part offers us an exposition of the tradition’s five eternal entities – “Parabrahman, Aksharabrahman, Maya, Isvara and Shiva –as well as mukti (spiritual liberation)”.

It is not this reviewer’s intent to compare the BAPS exploration of these concepts with those of other Vedanta schools. But it is important to ask the fundamental question: Why theology? It seems like that the Swaminarayans have found in the agenda of some Western scholars and religion departments the rationale to foreground “bhakti/belief” in the multimodal/multidimensional Hindu caravan. Paramtattvadas quotes Francis Clooney copiously and uses him as an authority to argue that “theology rather than philosophy (is what) most accurately describes some of the major trajectories of the Hindu tradition”. It is as if, having failed to trap Hindus and their traditions in the cages of monopolistic faith/belief traditions for this long, the Jesuit enablers of the Swaminarayans have found a way to “collar” Hinduism in the palatial Swaminarayan dens.

Paramtattvadas boldly proclaims that his work, in English, and using theological/technical terms “reserved solely for Christian theology”, will enable Hindu “theology” to move from within Indian/national borders to become a global/comparative project. Traditional Hindu thought, he asserts, would be better understood and could enrich theology as a whole, if unbridled and un-tethered from its present foci. We might as well argue that such a project would shake Hinduism from its philosophical moorings, Sanskrit terminologies, spiritual practices, temple traditions, and so on. Swamiji, however, believes that this attempt to “theologise” Hinduism will generate a “… respect for Hindu theology among scholars, students and serious readers, both in the academy and in Hindu and other religious communities”.

It could well be, but what would Hindu theology be if divorced or distanced from its Hindu philosophies, embedded and expounded and debated in Sanskrit and regional texts for millennia? Would Hindus become book-thumpers akin to Bible-thumpers? Would Hindu temple priests then proclaim loudly from their temple precincts that Hinduism should be the go-to faith for peoples of the world, and that he and his fellow “pujaris” (priests) should be heard as experts on matters of others and society, as well as their narrow understanding of God, just as Muslim and Christian priests do and claim from their pulpits? Would we then be teaching this new Hinduism in religion departments, divorced from “Indian philosophy”, which would then be taught in Western philosophy departments, and become marginalised as “ethnic philosophies” just as Indian classical music has become a marginal curiosity in ethnomusicology?

These are important questions to be asked but which do not get addressed fully in this otherwise interesting foray into theologising a neo-Hindu sectarian tradition. Swamiji does ponder about the inter-sectarian differences between the Swaminarayan traditions, about other Vedanta and Hindu traditions that have “already established commentaries on the same Vedantic texts”, and challenges from postmodernists who might scrutinise and challenge the “doctrines, premises, truth-claims” of Hindu theologies. He quotes Parimal Patil of Harvard University in this context, who rightly cautions that “for Hindus, properly theological work must be preceded by a great deal of work in religious history, philology, and philosophy”. But this presupposes a solution to the paradox -- “How will we fit the round Hindu traditions in the square Christian/Western theological framework”?

A Roman Catholic priest and Professor of Divinity and Comparative Theology at Harvard University Clooney claims that studying Hinduism has made him a better Roman Catholic. Speaking at the book release event, in the presence of His Holiness Mahant Swami Maharaj, the present head of the Swaminarayan movement, Clooney waxes eloquent on the Swaminarayan traditions. Not being a Hindu scholar, nor trained in the rigorous reading of Hindu texts, it would be remiss of me to do a scholarly critique of Swami Paramtattvadas’ book as well as the Swaminarayan sampradaya. However, talking to scholars, reading the book, and reading between the lines of the works and commentaries of the Swamiji’s Western/Christian mentors and advisers, I see this book as the first big attempt to bring both scholarly interest and investment in the Swaminarayan tradition as well as to claim a larger public space for the tradition’s limited number of its mostly Gujarati followers.

One scholar that I talked to, who has worked with the Swaminarayan monks and leaders, believes that the Swaminarayans are genuine worshippers but are not open to a wider Hindu conversation. He believes that they are not interested in expanding the scope of Hinduism beyond the Swaminarayan tradition, and that in his conversations with some of the monks and followers of the tradition he found that not even once did they accept the worth and value of reading the great acharyas and exponents of traditional Hinduism – Adi Shankara or Sri Ramanuja, Madhwacharya or Nimbarka, Abhinava Gupta or Sayana – and that when they propose starting a journal or organising a conference, it is nothing more than a celebration of the Swaminarayan tradition – to the extent that in Gujarat, where the Swaminarayans are headquartered, university curricula and philosophy departments teach only “Swaminarayan Vedanta”. With the Swaminarayans, it is a “one-way street”, he said.

He also bemoaned that “people who are writing on Hindu theology have zero command in Sanskrit”. “I see most of these Hindu theologians as Christian missionaries in Hindu garb,” he argued. He also compared the Swaminarayan effort with the Hare Krishna movement’s appropriation of Christian theology. “In my own conversation with Christian and Buddhist theologians, I have remained skeptical about the extent to which we can apply this model for fully fathoming the Dharmic tradition. This project has helped in making Hinduism one among the same set, and my understanding is that Hinduism is not from the same set. This project has enforced homogenisation and over-simplified complex philosophical issues,” he said.

Scouring Swami Paramtattvadas’s book one looks in vain to find any mention of the great Hindu philosophers and traditions. There are none, except one mention of “Dvaita” and that in a rather dismissive one line about a Dvaita follower asking Swaminarayan about “mukti” (p. 277); two mentions of “Vishishtadvaita” (p. 83, 309), and no mention of “Advaita” though there is a slew of mentions of “maya”. The concept of “maya” is borrowed without one mention of Adi Shankara. This kind of “branding and marketing” seems to have a Christian analogy: it is like the Mormons trying to distinguish themselves from “mainline” Christianity. Similar to the Mormons, the Swaminarayan tradition has gained adherents who give a lot to the movement, both in terms of money and physical labour and commitment, without which the nine grand temples (till now), and the hundreds of many smaller temples around the world, could not have been built and could not be maintained as well as they are.

My scholar friend, who noted the support of established academics like Father Clooney and Gavin Flood for the pursuit of the study and exposition of “Hindu theology”, said that at present the old narrative of “heathens do not have any faith” has been discarded for the new one, which proposes that “there are multiple brands/faiths and they all lead to Jesus”. He pointed out to two different tendencies emerging here: One, the tendency to "grow beyond Gujarat" and make Swaminarayanism palatable to other Hindus; two, make Swaminarayanism one of the orthodox regional practices that would define what Hinduism means for the 21st century.

After failing to galvanise scholars through the Dharma Academy of North America (DANAM), Clooney and others have been “feasting on the Swaminarayans,” he said, and BAPS is benefitting from this newfound recognition as there is little attempt from any of the other sampradayas(societies) to explore Hinduism outside of their own sampradayika window. The new Swaminarayan theology is a heavily filtered version of what the founders of the tradition sang or wrote about, he pointed out, and that just as new Sanskritised theology seeks to exploit the classical heritage in order to move to the center, appropriation of Christian theology appears to be an easy mechanism to gain a broader Western recognition. There is no other scholarly community that is cohesively writing to refine and counter non-dharmic categories, and it would not be surprising if Swaminarayan theology becomes the defining feature for the next generation of Hindus, my friend pointed out.

Hinduism remained defined by Vivekananda's 1893 speech for over one hundred years, and the Western world generalised Advaita as the Hindu view for a general introduction to Hinduism. Potentially, therefore, Swaminarayanism could become the new defining parameter for Hinduism, according to my friend. In this context, we should point out the other Western/modern/academic ventures into Hinduism studies where the primary thrust is to anthropologise Hinduism. “Honestly, I do not know at this point which one is less harmful,” my friend said. “The anthropological approach objectifies subjective experiences and beliefs and turns the human subjects to simple objects of observation. Theologising acknowledges the subjectivity of the others. The problem, however, is that this squeezes out the ‘subject’ from the other and infuses a new, more likable, subject – the subject that simulates the master. If I had my way, I would like to remain myself. Between being the body consumed by others or being alive for namesake only, with somebody else's soul infused with my body, both options are not preferable: the objectified subjects will eventually revolt, but the transplanted subjects may never wake up, and neither option is good,” he said.

So, will Hinduism become just another path to Jesus, and the Swaminarayans, with a program to mint new PhDs, and placing them in prominent positions in religion departments of the universities in the West and in India, become both collaborators and handmaidens in this new putsch from old monopolists? They will have to contend with some competition – not from the traditional Hindu sampradayas, but the new-age/post-postmodern gurus – the popular in the West, English-speaking, jet-set gurus like Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev and Sri Sri Ravishankar, or the less well-known but popular and earthy purveyors of spiritual succor and daily distractions in local languages in India.

Interestingly, with a Gujarati now as the Prime Minister of India, and the focus of India on development and modernity, something like a “homogenised Hinduism” could be appealing to many urban Hindus and to the newly modernising Indian villager. Indeed, it may be time for Hindu “theology” to bloom and for Hinduism to wither.

Ramesh N Rao is Professor, Department of Communication, Columbus State University


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