"Being Swaminarayan: The Ontology and Significance of Belief in the Construction of a Gujarati Diaspora" by Hanna Hea-Sun Kim

Hanna Hea-Sun Kim

Deposited 2001

This thesis looks at a segment of the South Asian overseas community, the Gujaratis, who are members of the Bochasanwasi Shree Akshar Purushottam Swarminarayan Sanstha, a fast-growing, region-based, Vaishnava Hindu devotional sect. It is concerned with shaping a semiotic approach for the study of religion and religious behaviour and exploring the significance of belief and in particular bhakti devotionalism as articulated by the Swaminarayan Sanstha and its devotees. The thesis argues that the distinctive observable characteristics of the Swaminarayan Sanstha, the high degree of self-conscious commitment and intentionality required to follow Swaminarayan practices, and its success in establishing a diaspora presence, make it apparent that any effort to approach the Swarninarayan community would have to begin with the devotees themselves. To bridge the cultural gap, in other words, requires not a meta-cultural focus, determined by a particular theory of culture or religion, but a primary focus on 'being' and being's ways of knowing-about and going about in-the-world.

The chapters on theory and theoretical issues raise questions of how to access and re-present Swaminarayan reality as it is experienced and expressed by its believers while acknowledging the complexities of latent cultural constructions and historical contingencies. This section also investigates the location of “religion” and “Hinduism” in the discourses of anthropology, religious studies and the West at large. An outline of Peirce's semiotic is presented as a method to overcome the problem of cultural difference and to direct analytical attention to Swarninarayan categories and ways of being.

Ethnographically, the thesis focuses on the interface of Swaminarayan believers with Swaminarayan theology and practice and with the centralised religious hierarchy and living guru, Pramukh Swami These chapters look closely at the categories, concepts and narratives of Swaminarayan social and religious life and the ways in which devotees respond to and engage with their beliefs. The semiotic framework is used to examine the ways in which the emergence of commitment to Swaminarayan beliefs and habits is compelled by personal as well as external variables of gender, diaspora, and transnationalism.