On a recent Saturday evening, 150 Indian worshippers continued a more than 20-year-old spiritual tradition at the local Swaminarayan temple. Men in sweaters and button-down shirts and women in colorful shalwar kameez prayed and sang while facing a golden shrine encasing vivid paintings of Hindu deities.
The temple, tucked away on Louisa Place overlooking the Hudson River, is an A-frame made of stone and wood. It looks like an old New England church or schoolhouse. Before it was converted into a Hindu temple in 1987, the building was a Christian Science church.
“You find many [places] with the Swaminarayan name, but we are the original.” – Bahkti Patel
“This is the headquarters,” the temple president, Bahkti Patel, explained. “You find many [places] with the Swaminarayan name, but we are the original.”
A foreign faith with a universal message
The Swaminarayan faith is a sect of Hinduism. Devotees worship Swaminarayan, an Indian holy man born in 1781, as an incarnation of God.
According to biographies of his life, by the age of 8 he had completed his study of Hindu scriptures. At the age of 11, he set off on a pilgrimage. In the classic tradition of great Indian saints, he lived a bare and simple life, meeting the common people and gaining wisdom.
Swaminarayan, who is known by several different honorific names, ended up in the state of Gujarat, where he taught widely the virtues of belief in God, brotherhood among men, and the universal principles of truthfulness, self-restraint, detachment, and nonviolence – an enlightened message that is no less relevant to our own time and place.
“In order to tell us,” said a young worshipper calling himself Shirvan, “he had to do all the human activities.”
He was asked whether Swaminarayan has reincarnated in other human forms.
“He’s always here,” Shirvan answered with a smile.
Today, estimates on the number of adherents of the sect range from five to 20 million worldwide, and there are hundreds of temples from Sweden and England to Australia and Kenya.
There are more than 20 other Swaminarayan temples in the United States, including temples in Colonia, Parsippany, and Cherry Hill, N.J.
Though the Weehawken temple is open all week, the main puja, or religious ceremony, is held every Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m. There are usually around 200 faithful in attendance, and the atmosphere is tranquil and uplifting. Asked if Weehawken has been a good home for the temple, Shirvan replied, “It’s been here since 1987, so yes. The coming generation will be here.”
Like many of his fellow worshippers, Shirvan has been coming to the temple for a long time – 11 years, in his case.
Another young man named Ravi Patel, from North Bergen, said he had been praying at the temple “all my life, 24 years.” As is common, he was in attendance with his parents and siblings.
As Weehawken does not have a large Indian community, many of the attendees come from other parts of New Jersey. While the majority of followers are Gujaratis, the faith is open to all. Indeed, a visitor to the temple was treated as an honored guest and was graciously offered prasad, the blessed food that is served after worship, and welcomed to eat with the faithful on plastic sheets spread across the red carpet.
“A few years ago we had a white American guy who used to come every Saturday,” President Patel said. “He lived on Bergen Avenue.”
Jan. 31 is a particularly holy date in the Swaminarayan calendar as it marks the day on which Swarminarayan is said to have penned the Shikshapatri, or “Book of Knowledge.”
In the text he lays out a code of conduct for followers, giving practical guidelines on how to dress, worship, and behave in society.
Shirvan explained that the faith teaches a way of life. “Basically, to be a good human being,” he said. “As [believers] grow up, they know what is right, what is wrong, and they associate with people who know what is right, what is wrong.”
To a person, when asked what they got from their worship of and faith in Swaminarayan, the devotees said it gave them a sense of peace. “It frees your mind,” said Ravi. “You feel relaxed.”