In a sermon transcribed in 1824, Swaminarayan (1781-1830) emphasized the centrality of texts to the growth and development of his nascent religious community. Although the majority of the Swaminarayan sampradāya comprised Gujarati-speaking laypeople, Swaminarayan instructed his monastic disciples to compose texts not only in Gujarati, but also in Sanskrit. He subsequently mandated that pāṭhaśālas be set up for Sanskrit education and the dissemination of “sadvidyā.” His immediate followers composed hymns, sacred biographies, philosophical treatises, and scriptural commentaries, considering the composition and teaching of these texts to be a profoundly devotional endeavor. Today, the Swaminarayan sampradāya is rapidly-growing, transnational, and comprised of discrete denominational sects. This talk examines the Sanskrit knowledge production of one of these sects, the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), which established itself as a distinct community in 1907. I will first explore the historical trajectory of Sanskrit education amongst the monastic order within the tradition, and then examine the textual output from these monastic-scholars. While the sudden appearance of a series of Sanskrit texts in a modern Gujarati religious community may seem at first to be an anachronistic, tangential scholastic project, I argue that it is reflective of a sustained endeavor to substantiate and corroborate the novel theological tenets of the community on a classical Sanskrit register, broadly conceived. Further, though this appeal to Sanskrit tradition seems directed to an external audience of Sanskrit scholars, we must also consider how a substantial internal audience of faithful laypeople—with varying degrees of Sanskrit fluency—engage with these Sanskrit materials.
Prof. Arun Brahmbhatt is Assistant Professor of South Asian Religions in the Religious Studies Department at St. Lawrence University. He received his PhD from the Unversity of Toronto in 2018 and studied at Harvard University and Tufts University prior to that. His research is centred on Sanskrit textual practices in Gujarat during the late colonial period and on Sanskrit commentaries in the Swaminarayan Sampraday. Arun also explores sectarian and community formation and the manner in which regional religious movements negotiate interregional publics. Together with Dr. Lucian Wong (Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies) and Dr. Avni Chag (British Library), he directs the Rethinking Hinduism in Colonial India research project, hosted at the OCHS.