An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism

3rd Ed.

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Raymond Brady Williams
Introduction to Religion
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , November
     2018.
     308 pages.
     $34.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781108431514.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The third edition of An Introduction of Swaminarayan Hinduism constitutes a welcome and overdue update to Raymond Brady Williams’ popular summary of one of the fastest growing Hindu groups in the world. Williams, respected as a longstanding expert on Swaminarayan Hinduism, has updated his second edition (2001) with new information about the tradition’s evolving presence, impact, and development—both in India and abroad.

Similar to earlier editions, An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism traces the developments of the tradition over the past quarter-century since the text’s original publication in 1984, chronicling its dramatic and dynamic shifts, while also providing a comprehensive introduction of the tradition’s history, theology, and practices. Retaining the structure of the second edition, this latest update uses the same familiar chapter and sub-chapter headings. Certain chapters have been re-worked to include the tradition’s use of the evolving virtual world. In chapter 4, specifically, Williams includes a section titled “Sacred Cloud in Cyber Space,” which details how the various Swaminarayan groups have crafted an online presence in order to reach their growing transnational audience. The “transnational” framework from the earlier text is emphasized in this edition given the rapid expansion of the Swaminarayan global network at the beginning of the 21st century. Accordingly, statistics have been updated and the borders of the tradition’s regional presence redrawn. For instance, in chapter 7, Williams adds a section on the “Uttermost Parts of the World” to trace the tradition’s growth into the Middle East and Australasia. Historical accounts have also been updated to include information on the current achary as in the Vadtal and Ahmedabad dioceses, as well as the current guru of Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS). 

Overall, this updated account provides a thorough study of the origin, development, and transnational growth of the tradition. It incorporates the research of emerging Swaminarayan Studies scholars, and carefully (and humbly) makes corrections according to new findings that have surfaced within the last twenty years. However, though the author acknowledges that “the last word has not been spoken”—that interdisciplinary analyses and trajectories of study on the tradition beckon—this edition does not afford any attention to a number of recent, significant contributions to the field, or the masses of literature on the tradition composed in various Indic languages. On this point, there is also oversight of a topic significant for any historian of South Asian religions: the recent production of classical commentaries on the vedāntic corpus within BAPS, and its wider recognition within conference settings, in the same line as what took place in the court of Jai Singh 250 years ago. 

This leads to my main concern with the book. It is clear that the author is avoiding Indic sources. Though he addresses each component of the Swaminarayan canon, as well as how it sits within the various denominations, we do not find any focused attention on the tradition’s vast literary archive. Certain texts are referenced within accounts of the various leaders’ lives, but for a predominantly Gujarati-speaking (and -writing) community—now with an emerging Sanskrit scholarly corpus—the lack of engagement with, or reference to, this essential primary source material is sorely missed. This trait filters down throughout the book with Swaminarayan-specific terminology often misspelled or mistranslated. The glossary similarly requires some consistent method in the romanization of terms; sometimes the author is utilizing Sanskrit transliteration rules, sometimes Gujarati, sometimes Hindi.

Taking on the criticisms from the reviews of his previous edition, Williams separates the historical accounts, descriptions of theological systems, praxis, and activities of the various Swaminarayan denominations, rather than writing about one’s activities as representative of an umbrella Swaminarayan Hinduism. However, what emerges is an imbalanced account of all the denominations; only the Ahmedabad and Vadtal dioceses and BAPS are fully represented in the book, whereas the other, smaller groups only really appear as short summaries within chapter 2. Where the book falls short in addressing its past reviews is in how it does not present the lives of Swaminarayan followers in their own words, and how it does not compare and contextualize the tradition with other contemporary Hindu groups that have a similar transnational presence. Even the sections dedicated to women’s activities have retained the same information provided in the first edition, with only minor updates. One would have expected revisions that reflect the changes that have taken place in the last twenty years on the status and role of women within the tradition.

Nonetheless, Williams makes it clear that his intention is to lay the necessary foundation for the future of Swaminarayan Studies, and he has indeed succeeded in introducing his reader to this rapidly growing and visible religious tradition, chronicling its history and development across three editions. With over forty years of expertise and experience writing on the tradition, Williams’s important contributions to the study of Swaminarayan Hinduism have been, and will be for years to come, a foundational reference point on all things Swaminarayan.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Avni Chag is a doctoral researcher in South Asian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Raymond Brady Williams is LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities Emeritus and Professor of Religion (Chair) Emeritus of Wabash College, Indiana.

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