The mandir within: Pramukh Swami Maharaj (in chair) personally performs the consecration rituals, investing the marble statue of Bhagwan Swaminarayan with divine prana, thus transforming it into a living murti
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville is the latest phase in what will become the Western world’s largest Hindu temple complex
LAST AUGUST SAW THE INAUGURAtion of the first of two new temples being opened by the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) in rural Robbinsville, New Jersey. Amid weeks of festivities, an all-marble mandir was ritually consecrated by His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the organization’s spiritual head.
This mandir is unique among the many temples BAPS has built around the world in recent decades: the entire Nagara-style structure—87 feet wide, 133 feet long and 42 feet high, including domes and shikhars—is enclosed within a modern building to protect the ornately carved, soft Italian Carrara marble from the harsh northeastern winters. Without such protection, the structure would disintegrate long before the 1,000-year lifespan specified by the guru.
The temple was designed according to the Shilpa Shastras by architect Prakashbhai Sompura, three BAPS sadhus and several others. Its construction took just over three years. Along with the connected sant ashram, it represents Phase Two in the development of a 167-acre property which will become BAPS’ North American headquarters. Phase One included a satsang activity center, assembly hall, kitchen, dining areas, gymnasium and classrooms. Phase Three will be a dedicated youth center, and Phase Four is to be a welcome center for visitors.
Phase Five of the project will see the completion of the second, larger temple, Akshardham Mahamandir, as envisioned by the guru in 1997. This massive edifice of Bulgarian limestone and Greek marble is currently being carved 8,000 miles away in Rajasthan, as was the marble for the temple just opened. It is expected to be complete, with accompanying circumambulatory path, ornate gardens and exhibition halls, within seven to eight years. It will be a pilgrimage destination for devotees of Bhagwan Swaminarayan near and far and a spiritual, educational and cultural center for the broader community.
The powerful murti pratishtha (ceremony to make a statue into a murti) was transformed into an even more special occasion for devotees who had the rare opportunity to be with their beloved Swamishri—as Pramukh Swami Maharaj is affectionately known—on American soil. Defying assumptions that at 93 he had reached an age and frailty prohibitive of long-distance travel, Swamishri resolved in the weeks before the festival to board a specially chartered flight to Newark and inaugurate the temple himself. News spread quickly, along with shock and delight, and devotees from around the globe made last-minute pilgrimage plans to join him, so many as to cause a spike in Delhi-New Jersey/New York airfares.
PHOTOS COURTESY BAPS SWAMINARAYAN SANSTHA
The mandir within: Hundreds of volunteers help clean every nook and cranny of the ornately carved marble in the weeks approaching the festival; a family participates in a yajna; Swamishri in front of the finished masterpiece, complete with a sky-lit outer building to protect it from the weather
Over 20,000 visitors (including two of our editors) arrived to participate in this historic event. Parking lots quickly exceeded capacity, and fallow soy fields were flattened to accommodate thousands more cars and buses. The indefatigable Swamishri gave darshan the very night of his arrival and every day of the elaborate festivities, often coming out in the midday sun to bless excited crowds who packed the acres surrounding a giant stage.
It is Hindu tradition that many blessings are available through participating in the consecration of a temple. In one special activity, 17,566 devotees participated in six yajna (fire ceremony) sessions held over four days for world peace and family harmony. There were 231 yajna kunds (individual fire altars) in an 80,000-square-foot, 40-foot-high tent. In addition, the murtis were paraded around the complex’s circular road, along with Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s personal Harikrishna murti, which he worships daily. The murti rode in an orange Lamborghini loaned for the parade. (Visit bit.ly/BAPSRobbinsville for full coverage of the event.)
New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone was effusive in his praise when he addressed the assembly following the first half of the murti pratishtha ceremonies on August 9: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such carvings and such magnificence in any religious facility anywhere. I think it is a testimony to all of you, to the Indian community and to the Hindu community that you have built this facility. It preaches tolerance for other religions, it preaches peace and nonviolence.… It will not only be a place where all of you can come and meditate, contemplate and think about God and what you can do for your community spiritually, but I think it also will provide an opportunity for those who are not Indian or not Hindu to see what Hinduism is all about, and appreciate the beauty and spirituality of it.”
Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer addressed the crowd on the following day: “This mandir will surely not only be a place of worship, but also of service; it will be a place where the saying ‘in the joy of others lies our own’ is translated from words into actions, as followers of this movement have done throughout the world for the benefit of millions and millions of people.… It will bring some of the vibrancy, diversity and spiritual richness of India to the northeastern United States to the benefit of all of us.”
Swamishri in front of the finished masterpiece, complete with a sky-lit outer building to protect it from the weather
Hundreds of BAPS volunteers from nearby and around the world, inspired by their guru, offered a complete array of services—from design and engineering in India to stone selection in Italy, from carving coordination to shipping in Rajasthan, from site preparation to supporting the stone artisans at the construction site, from lighting and electrical wiring to polishing and cleaning the assembled marble, from sweeping paths to building tents and stages, from cooking meals to caring for the medical needs of thousands of visitors at the mandir’s inauguration.
HINDUISM TODAY interviewed several of the sadhus in charge of BAPS activities in North America to understand the trends and impacts of temple building, membership growth and youth development in recent years.
On Temple Building
Yagnavallabh Swami, head of satsang activities: “Today BAPS has 90 mandirs in North America, including six large stone-carved shikharbaddh mandirs. [It has more than 1,100 mandirs worldwide, including 34 in the shikharbaddh style.] The mandir is primarily the home of God, where we come to have darshan, offer our devotion and pray. It offers spiritual education, where the wisdom of our scriptures and sages is conveyed in an accessible manner on a weekly basis. It also offers service opportunities, and devotees offer their time, energy, intelligence and resources to serve God, guru and society in a variety of ways. The only large-scale mandir being constructed now is Akshardham in Robbinsville. Five or six smaller Hari mandirs are also being completed. New mandirs will be planned based on the need of each local community.”
On the Two Types of Mandirs
Chaitanyamurti Swami, head of outreach activities: “BAPS builds two types of mandirs: shikharbaddh mandirs and the smaller Hari mandirs. The former are traditional stone mandirs that have been built exactly according to scriptural standards. Hari mandirs utilize modern building materials and styles.
“In a shikharbaddh mandir, arati must be performed five times a day, thus allowing worshipers more opportunities for darshan. Hari mandirs offer only one arati in the morning and one in the evening.
“The campus of a larger mandir offers auxiliary facilities for a wide variety of activities. A spacious assembly hall allows larger spiritual gatherings. Greater classroom space enables more youth to learn basic Hindu concepts. Gymnasiums encourage teens to engage in sports. The beautiful structures and positive Hindu peer group enhance the youths’ sense of pride, inspiring them to learn more about their religion and introduce it to their non-Hindu friends.
“A large, stone-carved mandir subtly creates an environment of grandeur befitting a home of God and helps keep us humble in the vastness of His greatness and glory. The scriptures mention that when speaking of God’s greatness, all we can say is “Neti neti” (not this, not this). The larger traditional mandirs help create this sense of awe when approaching God for worship.”
On the Mission of Akshardham
Aksharvatsal Swami, member of the design team: “For Hindus young and old, Akshardham will be a place to celebrate traditions, foster faith and inspire a spiritual lifestyle full of peace and happiness. For those unfamiliar with the Hindu faith, Akshardham will serve as an educative introduction. By expressing our shared values and a message of universal peace, Akshardham will foster harmony and respect among all faiths and communities.”
On Membership and Satsang
Yagnavallabh Swami: ”Following the advice of Swamishri, many families are doing ghar sabha, where the entire family gather in front of the home shrine to sing kirtans, listen to scriptural readings and explanations, and communicate about family matters. Daily ghar sabha enhances family unity and openness, providing a forum to communicate within a spiritual atmosphere, thus counteracting the outward pull of mobile devices, the Internet and social networks.”
On Engaging the Youth
Amrutnandan Swami, head of children’s and youth activities: “In 1995 we had approximately 40 weekly children and youth forums for different age groups in North America. Today we have 400. In 1996 our national youth convention attracted only 350 youth; in 2013, 8,200 attendees participated in national conventions for children, youth and young adults. The growth in numbers reflects the growing interest of children and youth to engage with their spiritual heritage and in service beyond themselves.
“Together with growth in scale, there has been continued development in the quality of these programs, with well-organized activities that cater to the children’s and youths’ overall development—spiritually, intellectually, socially, emotionally and physically.
“The seeds of this growth in scale, scope and leadership of children and youth were planted 40 years ago when Swamishri first traveled the length and breadth of North America, personally reaching out to youth and inspiring them to live a spiritual and devotional life. Over his next 15 visits he showered love on them, nurturing a dedicated core of young people who manifested the principles of spirituality in their own lives and became the young leaders we have today.”
On Translating the Faith to America
Mangalnidhi Swami, head of publications: “The expressions of faith are globally consistent, for the most part. The bhakti elements (arati, puja, kirtans, scriptural reading, etc.) are uniform. But the transmission of knowledge (katha, scriptural reading, etc.) can encounter a language barrier. Conveying concepts in English that were originally in an Indic language requires extra effort. Sometimes in the presentation of these concepts, people from a Western background are naturally more comfortable using presentation formats that are in vogue in the Western world (TED talk presentation, etc.), but the message stays the same. Fortunately, India is quick to adopt new styles of presentation.”
When complete, the Robbinsville project will be by far the largest Hindu temple complex in not only the US, but all of the Western world including Europe. It is a part of an outburst of temple building activity not seen since the days of the great Hindu kingdoms of India—let alone by a single spiritual organization. It is all a reflection of the intent of BAPS’ leader, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, to not only bring the fullness of Hinduism to the West, but to nurture and empower the Hindu youth to hold fast to the Sanatana Dharma despite their immersion in Western culture.