ADDRESS 1150 Brand Ln
ON THE INTERNET Swaminarayan.org/
ARTIS 6 a.m., 7:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 7 p.m., and 8:30 p.m. daily.
SOME IMMIGRANTS TAKE JOBS most Americans don’t want; others take jobs most Americans can’t do. Few groups in this second category have been more successful than immigrants from India and their descendants, whose ranks are packed with physicians and engineers. And if one wants to observe Texas Indians at worship, it is hard to find a better place than the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, an astonishing example of traditional Hindu sacred architecture incongruously set in a 22-acre field surrounded by mass-market apartment complexes not far off South Main (U.S. 90A), near the Houston suburb of Stafford.
The mandir, or temple, is a wonder to behold, with its myriad domes, arches, pillars, walls, and ceilings covered with fantastically detailed marble representations of deities, flora, and fauna. Everything was hand carved in India by more than 2,400 artisans, then shipped to Houston in 33,000 pieces and fitted together in tongue-and-groove fashion like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, without a single piece of iron or steel, even in the foundation. Its major foci, however, are not the carvings but the murtis, statues made from marble that are regarded not only as representations but also as the living presence of divine beings. So firm is this belief, the images receive a change of clothing and ornamentation every other day, and the doors of their chambers, open for darshan (reverent viewing), are closed to allow them to enjoy the food brought to them at mealtime and to take an afternoon nap.
As one might expect from a religion whose scriptures indicate it was already considered ancient thousands of years ago, Hinduism has experienced countless permutations, often focusing on one of the major deities, such as Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Rama, or Krishna, or on the teachings of an outstanding guru. The Shri Swaminarayan Mandir belongs to the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan sanstha (organization), which its members conveniently shorten to BAPS. The BAPS sanstha believes in karma and reincarnation, and it traces its origins to an eighteenth-century figure named Neelkanth. His early life is depicted in Mystic India, an IMAX film that tells how he set out at age eleven on a seven-year, eight-thousand-mile barefoot walk across India, spreading a message of peace, harmony, and “practical spirituality” that centered on good works and high ethical standards. Neelkanth eventually recruited a number of sadhus (monks) and came to be viewed as divine, taking the name Bhagwan Swaminarayan. BAPS members worship him and an apostolic succession of “choicest devotees” (including the present guru, Pramukh Swami Maharaj) as their preferred manifestations of the one supreme God.
Devout Hindus are expected to perform a daily arti, a simple ceremony of welcoming deities into their lives by waving burning sticks, called divets, in a clockwise circle before the murtis, usually while chanting or singing. It can be done at home, but the mandir is the ideal setting, and artis are performed there at posted times throughout each day. By far the best-attended arti, apart from major festivals, occurs on Sunday evenings; when I visited, the service attracted close to one thousand members.
Since the mandir itself will not accommodate such a crowd, many gathered in a large assembly hall on the grounds. Chairs were available for those who needed them, but most people sat on the floor. Although Bhagwan Swaminarayan disavowed female infanticide, the immolation of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres, and dowries, men and women entered and sat in parallel sections separated by a low divider. Most were dressed in “American casual,” but many ladies wore colorful saris, and a significant number of men wore kurtas, long cotton shirts reaching at least to the knees, over pants of the same material.
The Sunday meeting, known as the satsang, starts at four-thirty and might include a sermon from a sadhu, a lecture from a guest, and announcements about activities relevant to the community. On this occasion, one speaker encouraged parents to spend more time with their children and to emphasize the importance of education, and a doctor spoke of the annual BAPS Health Fair, at which 150 physicians from various specialties would offer free or low-cost testing and diagnosis. Meanwhile, children attended classes designed to strengthen their ties to Hinduism and Indian culture and language.
At about seven o’clock, the satsang in the assembly hall concluded with an arti. Accompanied by drums and gongs, the worshippers intoned a repetitive chant of adoration to Bhagwan Swaminarayan while gazing at a large-screen video of his image. As the service broke up, one of the leading sadhus, Tyagprakash Swami, who serves a pastoral role in the community, sat at the front of a stage and spoke individually with a long line of people who approached him with their concerns.
At the smaller arti, in the mandir itself, now dramatically bathed by interior light as darkness gathered outside, approximately 250 people filled practically every spot, with women in the back this time. All the doors to the murtis’ chambers were open, and as sadhus gracefully waved divets before several images of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, the throbbing blend of drums, gongs, and chanting seemed far more intense than in the cavernous meeting hall.
While this was happening, some worshippers stood in line at a side chamber, waiting their turn to pour a celebratory offering of milk into a long channel that ran beneath the images of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati (Hindus are radically ecumenical, and mandirs often honor several deities). Others bowed or prostrated themselves before images of Swaminarayan and his five (so far) successors, each with his own chamber at the rear of the mandir.
And in a chamber underneath the main floor, still others stepped up reverently to perform an act of adoration known as an abhishek by pouring a cup of clear water over a small but elegant gold-plated statue of the boy Neelkanth. These activities continued for an hour or so, until people drifted over to the dining hall for a sumptuous vegetarian meal.
Hindus are not evangelistic, and given its strikingly non-Western theological presuppositions, Hinduism is not likely to take deep root in this country. But within the growing and increasingly prosperous and influential Indian community, BAPS and other sansthas provide important cultural glue and, more broadly, serve as powerful confirmation of the founding fathers’ vision of America as a nation in which all religious people stand or kneel on level ground.