Faith Communities: Swaminarayan Hinduism
By Dana Clark Felty ("Savannah Morning News," December 6, 2008)
Savannah, USA - Kalpana Patel can't remember a day when she hasn't prayed.
The Savannah mother and her family start and end each day with fasting and then prayer. She also spends at least 30 minutes in prayer at the Hindu temple on Canebrake Road.
"I don't miss a day," Patel said. "If I got up late and had to go to work, I wouldn't eat or drink all day. Once I would get home from work, I'd pray and then I'd eat."
That ritual is repeated among hundreds of practicing Hindus living throughout Coastal Georgia.
Watch an audio slideshow of the Oct. 26 Diwali festival.
Adherents say the religion's presence has grown in the area as more Indian families come to the U.S. seeking work.
Patel and her family have lived in Savannah for about 20 years. Both of her children were born here. They attend public schools in Savannah.
Although Hindus represent less than half a percent of Americans, Patel said she's confident the Hindu community can provide her children with a strong cultural and religious identity.
"If parents are following it, they'll learn from you," she said.
What they believe
The Patels are among about 700 local Hindus who worship at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, the temple located on Canebrake Road, near the intersection of Ga. 204 and Interstate 95.
It's one of about 60 temples, or mandirs, in the U.S.
Members practice a modern sect of Hinduism called Swaminarayan. It teaches that a 19th-century priest known as Swaminarayan was the most recent incarnation of God on earth and that his spirit survives through a succession of leaders.
Like other Hindus, Swaminarayans believe in one supreme being.
They also hold the Veda, the Hindu Bible, as divinely inspired scripture, which they believe was composed about 6,000 years ago.
Although often mistaken for being polytheists, Hindus from various sects worship different beings as earthly incarnations of the one, true God.
The ultimate goal in Hinduism is to liberate the soul from the cycle of birth and death, known as reincarnation, and from the bondage of earthly laws, known as karma.
At the mandir and in homes, followers pray for strength to observe the basic tenets of the faith.
Believers practice nonviolence against all living beings and are proponents of religious tolerance.
Hinduism discourages partaking in foods, drinks or activities considered addictive. Many are also vegetarian.
Most Hindus who worship at the Savannah mandir claim origins in the northern Indian city of Gujarat, where Swaminarayan was born.
Before building the temple, area Hindus were limited to worshipping in their homes or in rented conference centers, said Henry Sharma, a volunteer leader.
Throughout the 1990s, they held weekly services at a Red Carpet Inn. Leaders stored religious items in a community room during the week and set them up each Sunday.
Then in 2001, adherents sought to create a more structured and permanent presence in Savannah.
That year, Sharma and other local leaders purchased a site for a temple on Canebrake Road.
Today, members are gathering at the mandir to celebrate its fourth anniversary.
Rooted in tradition
Mandirs serve as both houses of worship and cultural centers.
In addition to being a place where followers come to pray, Mandirs are also where the community hosts classes on Indian culture and holds the numerous Hindu festivals.
The largest of the festivals is Diwali, the "Festival of Lights."
Diwali traditionally comprises of a four- or five-day series of festivals starting on the last day of the Hindu calendar year.
Throughout the day on Oct. 26, more than 700 Hindus gathered at the temple dressed in colorful sarees, for women, and white tunics or business casual clothing for me.
Men and women sat on opposite sides of the arena-sized sanctuary as is the tradition. The tradition is partly designed to keep the visiting priest from getting too close to women. Priests, or sadhus, do not touch gold, money or women.
The reason, Sharma said, is to help them stay focused on serving God.
Serving humanity, and thus serving God is key to breaking the cycle of birth and death, Hindus believe.
It doesn't require adherence to their faith. Hindus believe every major religion offers a path to God.
"The main belief is that we have our soul and the soul never dies," Sharma said.
"It just goes from this form to another form. It just puts some new clothes on."