The largest Hindu temple outside Asia opened its doors earlier this month—in New Jersey. The BAPS Swaminarayan Akshardham occupies 183 acres in Robbinsville Township.
After 12 years and the labor of 12,500 volunteers from around the world, the Akshardham—“abode of the Divine”—represents a watershed moment to Columbia University religion scholar and temple volunteer, Yogi Trivedi.
“I wake up every morning… thinking, ‘Am I still in central New Jersey?’” he said. “It’s like being transported to another world, specifically to India. This is the American Dream. The sacred geography of India and beyond is here in this one place and you can experience, witness and admire it all here in New Jersey. I anticipate, as a scholar of religion, that this will become a popular place of pilgrimage for Hindus from across the world.”
Built with 2 million cubic feet of white sandstone, limestone, marble and granite intricately carved by temple artisans in India, and other materials from around the world, the temple, named after its founding Hindu spiritual organization, is Indian in conception but universal in execution. The 7-foot marble carvings include not just iconic figures of the Hindu religion but also Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, making it a hybrid of cultures.
Nine shikharas, or spires, sit on top of the four characteristic domes of the temple—each one themed with a different aspect of the Hindu scriptures, like Vedic astrology. Below, a vast traditional Indian stepwell contains waters from 300 Indian rivers and all 50 U.S. states.
Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, more familiarly known by its acronym BAPS, follows the teachings of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who is said to be present on earth through six spiritual leaders—the current of whom is Mahant Swami Maharaj. Devotees of BAPS are known for their selfless service, or seva, which they see as an act of devotion to God.
That service has led BAPS to create 100 Hindu temples in America alone.
Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the fifth spiritual successor, who had a hand in building 1,000 temples around the world, dreamed of a majestic spiritual campus in the United States when he became the guru of BAPS in 1971. That dream has now become a reality. “Having this Akshardham here on American soil is not just the triumph of a community or the triumph of the diaspora—it is the triumph of the nation,” said Chaitali Inamdar, a devotee.
“Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s ultimate singular vision [was] that, no matter which belief, which background you come from, this place is here to enrich everybody and allow everybody to feel peace and inspiration,” Inamdar said. “The Akshardham is truly allowing the world to be one family.”
“Now people who visit here from the American community will realize that the brown family two houses away from them is not all that different,” Yogi Trivedi said, reflecting on a time that will see a mix of peoples and cultures under the roof of the temple. “That kind of inclusivity is not just talked about, it’s actually seen on the walls.”
And for the BAPS community, the temple’s October opening will show the world what can be done when volunteers in faith come together from around the world with a single goal.
“The ability to come together in volunteership, in selfless service, it created a sense of comfort and commonality,” said Ashini Parikh, a devotee from Atlanta. “We just had an immediate kinship.”
For Parikh, a first-generation American Hindu who has seen first-hand a growing awareness and appreciation for Hinduism among Americans, being a part of Hindu-American history is at once empowering and humbling.
“I am so proud that we as a community can come together from all walks of life, and we’ve all been able to be a part of this one thing that is going to have ripple effects for so many generations to come,” she said. “We all want to leave the planet a better place, and my contributions towards Akshardham allow me to leave the planet a better place well beyond my time.”
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