Explained: The fight between two warring factions of Akshar Purushottam Swami temple in Vadodra

On May 9, a preliminary meeting began to arrive at a settlement between two warring factions of the Akshar Purushottam Swami temple in Haridham Sokhda, Vadodara, popularly known as the Sokhda Swaminarayan Sect, in the presence of Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court, M.S. Shah. The fight between the two factions began following the demise of Hariprasad Swami, the presiding swami, in July 2021.

What is the dispute regarding the Haridham Sokhda Swaminarayan trust?

What began as a conflict for the control over the administration and presidentship of the trust, following the demise of 87-year-old Swami in July 2021, has now turned into a contention regarding the right to spiritual life and access to the assets of the trust between the two groups.

By way of being the founder of the Sokhda sect, Hariprasad Swami was the only seer to have occupied the Gadi as the President of the Trust since the early 1970s. Therefore, there has never been a previous example of electing a successor in the sect. Speculations on his successor gained momentum after his death with his close aides – Premswaroop Swami and Prabodh Swami – being front runners. However, when a committee appointed by Hariprasad Swami during his lifetime ruled that the seer had wished to see both his disciples run the legacy of the trust jointly, a conflict began.

On April 21, about 150 male and female seers from the trust appeared in the habeas corpus hearing before the Gujarat HC via video conferencing from the premises of the Vadodara district court. (Express Photo)

In the Gujarat High Court, the counsel for Prabodh Swami — who was seen as the spiritual successor to Hariprasad Swami — has said that Premswaroop Swami — who was responsible for the non-spiritual administration of the trust — has presented allegedly forged documents to claim that Hariprasad Swami had handed over the Presidentship to him in 2018.

Pavtira Jani, a private secretary to Hariprasad Swami, filed a habeas corpus petition in the High Court to secure the release of seers allegedly held hostage on the Sokhda campus since December. Jani has also challenged the claim to Presidentship made by Premswaroop Swami. The HC has left it open for the Prabodh Swami group to challenge the claim of Presidentship made by Premswaroop Swami in a competent forum, as it is not connected to the habeas corpus petition. The two groups have decided to mediate for other contentious issues.

Mystery death

A member of the Gunatit Charan Swami, 67, was found dead on April 27 under mysterious circumstances in his room in the premises of the Sokhda dham. Vadodara Superintendent of Police Rohan Anand has said that the saint had died by hanging on the evening of April 27 and that the trust administration had decided to ‘hide the facts’ from the police.

The Haridham Sokhda trust

Based in Vadodara district, this trust, a breakaway faction from the BAPS (Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha) — which separated from the original Vadtal Swaminarayan Gadi in the 1900s — has followers across the country and in the UK, US and Australia. However, the sect only has campuses in India so far, as compared to the global reach of BAPS. Haridham Sokhada also has women followers, which was a point of contention on which it broke away from BAPS that prohibits women from joining as disciples or seers.

The habeas corpus petition

to Pavtira Jani’s petition in the HC, Premswaroop Swami and his supporters, including Joint Secretary of the trust JM Dave and Swami Tyagvallabhdas had allegedly illegally detained the resident saints – male and female, who followed Prabodh Swami – on the Sokhda campus since December 2021 , in an “attempt to usurp the trust properties and control” and “prevent them from breaking away to continue spiritual campaigns in the name of the Sokhda trust”.

The petition also contended that the saints and devotees have been forced to surrender their cellphones and passports among other belongings, in order to keep them confined to the campus.

On April 21, about 150 male and female seers from the trust appeared in the habeas corpus hearing before the Gujarat HC via video conferencing from the premises of the Vadodara district court and sought freedom to leave the Sokhda campus. A division bench of Justice Sonia Gokani and Justice Mauna Bhatt had directed the women seers and disciples to seek shelter in Ahmedabad while the male seers and disciples were directed to head to the Bakrol campus of the trust in Anand district.

The court has also directed Premswaroop S, JM Dave, and Tyagvallabh Swami to refrain from trying to visit the two premises or establishing contact with the seers and disciples evacuated from Sokhda.

What is the contention regarding the presidentship of Sokhda Swaminaryan trust?

Following the demise of Hariprasad Swami, a trust committee announced that “as per the wishes of the departed guru of the trust”, it had been decided that his closest disciples — Premswaroop Swami and Prabodh Swami — would “jointly take forward the legacy and charity works of the trust”. While Prabodh Swami had been involved in delivering sermons like Hariprasad, Premswaroop Swami was involved in the administrative work of the trust during the life of Hariprasad, disciples recall.

Jani, through his counsel, has informed the court that Premswaroop Swami “shockingly proclaimed” himself as President by stating that Hariprasad had allegedly resigned from the post of the President and the trust in August 2018 and appointed Premswaroop in his place. Jani has contended in court that Hariprasad Swami did not mention anyone the 2018 resolution– as claimed by Premswaroop Swami — in which he claims appointed the latter as the single-authority President of the trust after resigning from the post himself.

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What are the contentions for mediation between the two groups?

The two conflicting groups, after much deliberation agreed to choose an arbitrator — the proposal for mediation was first rejected by the Premswaroop Swami group in the HC. However, in the hearing before the HC on May 2, the counsel for Premswaroop Swami, senior advocate Sudhir Nanavati informed the court that the party had consented to pick an arbitrator. Accordingly, based on the suggestion of the HC, retired Chief Justice of Bombay High Court MS Shah has been chosen as an arbitrator and the HC has directed the two parties to file their mediation report by June 13.

However, the two parties had agreed to hold a single meeting at the Mediation Center of the Gujarat HC on May 9, to attempt at arriving at a mutual agreement over the contentions and division of the sect before Justice Shah is asked to join for mediation.

An official from the petitioner’s party, however, added that the issue of Presidentship is no longer the main contention in the mediation as the Prabodh Swami group is all set to challenge the claim made by Premswaroop swami in a competent forum.

The issues that have now come to the forefront of the mediation is the claim on the ideology of the group. According to disciples in favor of a united sect, the Premswaroop swami group has put forth the condition before the Prabodhswami group that they will not indulge in any spiritual discourses or activities in the name of the Haridham sect, after separation. Supporters of Prabodhswami, however, say that since he has been associated with sermons after Hariprasad Swami, disciples of the sect automatically view him as the spiritual guru and “no one can prohibit him from reaching out to disciples”.

The other contentious issues pertain to the large assets of the sect, including the campuses, money and other spiritual data. While both groups have contended that the other has mischievously destroyed important data and financial tracking of funds, it is said that four donations of high amounts received by the trust during the last four foreign discourses by Hariprasad Swami during his lifetime are a major bone of contention . The two parties are expected to also discuss the way forward for the divided groups in the use of the title of the Haridham sect and the right to the intellectual property of discourses rendered by Hariprasad Swami during his lifetime. Sources said that a stash of 50 TB data of Hariprasad Swami’s life sermons has been ‘missing’ from the Sokhda campus.

Have there been divisions in Swaminarayan Sampraday previously?

According to the beliefs of the Swaminarayan sect, it was Lord Swaminarayan, who established two Gadis (diocese) to administer the temples in Vadtal in Kheda and in Ahmedabad.

In the 1900s, Shastriji Maharaj, a seer of the Vadtal Diocese broke away to form the BAPS (Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha), based on the disciple-God doctrine, in which he sought to consecrate a joint idol of Swaminarayan with Gunatitanand Swami, a disciple of Swaminarayan. The first Akshar-Purshottam temple was built in Bochasan in 1907.

In the late 1960s, some disciples in BAPS, led by Hariprasad Swami, wished to initiate female disciples into the fold, which was against the Swaminarayan tradition. The then BAPS guru, Yogiji Maharaj, refused the idea and Hariprasad Swami went on to form the Sokdha sect after separating from BAPS in 1966.

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