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Largest modern-day Hindu temple outside India opens in central New Jersey

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ROBBINSVILLE, NJ (AP) — If stones could talk, sing and tell stories, Yogi Trivedi thinks the marble and limestone that adorn the spiers, pillars and archways of central New Jersey’s magnificent Hindu temple would compose an anthem to the divine.

The stories these stones tell are those of seva (selfless service) and bhakti (devotion), which form the core of the Swaminarayan sect, a branch of Hinduism, said Trivedi, a Hindu scholar at the Columbia University.

It took a total of approximately 4.7 million hours of work by artisans and volunteers to hand carve approximately 2 million cubic feet of stone. The four varieties of marble from Italy and limestone from Bulgaria first traveled to India, then traveled more than 8,000 miles around the world to New Jersey.

They were then put together like a giant puzzle to create what is today considered the largest Hindu temple outside of India built in the modern era, on 126 acres of land. It will be open to the public on Monday.

The largest temple complex in the world is Ankgor Wat, built in the 12th century in Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia, and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu by King Suryavarman II. It is now described as a Hindu-Buddhist temple and is one of 1,199 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

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The Robbinsville Temple is one of several temples built by the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha or BAPS, a global religious and civic organization within the Swaminarayan sect.

“Service and devotion are the two basic elements that form the subtle foundation of how such a majestic temple is built here in central New Jersey,” said Trivedi, who studies and follows the Swaminarayan religious tradition. .

This temple will be the third Akshardham or “abode of the divine” that the organization has built after two others in New Delhi and Gujarat, where the BAPS headquarters are located. The first is the largest Hindu temple complex in the world. The sect, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in North America next year, oversees more than 1,200 temples and 3,850 centers around the world.

The New Jersey Akshardham, in the works for about 12 years, has faced scrutiny and criticism after a civil lawsuit in 2021 alleging forced labor, low wages and dire working conditions.

Twelve of the 19 plaintiffs have now withdrawn their allegations and the trial is on hold pending an investigation “with which BAPS continues to cooperate fully”, Trivedi said.

The complaint alleges that those exploited were Dalits, or members of India’s ancient untouchable caste. Caste is an ancient system of social hierarchy based on birth and linked to concepts of purity and social status.

The case continues to raise questions among activists fighting caste discrimination and workers’ rights about the blurred lines between unpaid work and the concept of selfless service, which followers of the faith say , constitutes their fundamental belief.

Trivedi said these allegations weigh heavily on community members because their faith has always taught them “to see the divine in everything, to love and serve them as manifestations of the divine.” He said Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the fifth spiritual successor of the sect, who envisioned such a temple campus in the United States, was a progressive guru deeply concerned about social equality.

“Caste and class do not divide us,” Trivedi said.

The temple project gave birth to volunteerism and service that, like the sculptor’s chisel, erode people’s egos and inspire them to learn, he said.

“In this learning, one becomes a better inner person and that is the ultimate goal of seva,” Trivedi said. “It’s not just about giving back to the community or building these (ornate structures), but about improving yourself.”

He said the temple would not have been possible without the service of thousands of volunteers, many of whom took time off from school and work to serve in different capacities. This is perhaps the first Hindu temple where women were involved in the construction of the temple under the supervision of artisans, he added.

This week, families from across the country visited the temple campus to get a glimpse. The worshipers bowed to each other and to the monks dressed in saffron robes. As the sun set, two men in white robes performed a ceremony in front of the 49-foot-tall statue of Bhagwan Nilkanth Varni, who would later become known as Bhagwan Swaminarayan, the founder of the sect that ushered in a moral renaissance and spiritual. in western India.

Other worshipers prostrated themselves on the ground, pressing their foreheads to the ground in reverence. As night fell, Nikita Patel meditated and lit an incense stick in front of the deity.

“All religions, all communities are welcome here,” she said, “and here they will feel peace. »

Avani Patel was visiting from Atlanta with her husband and their two children, ages 11 and 15. She knelt inside the temple and marveled at the ornate ceiling, her hands folded in prayer.

“It’s breathtaking, breathtaking,” she said. “You can see the divinity radiating through it all.”

Patel said she and her husband, Pritesh, were among the volunteers who gave their time to create the complex, and that she is proud to be part of an organization that would build such a resource to convey these values ​​to posterity.

Trivedi said he did not view the temple “only as a Hindu place of worship.”

“It’s not even just Indian or Native American,” he said, adding that the temple represents universal values ​​found in every religious text and in the hearts and minds of great thinkers and leaders of all eras.

“What we tried to do is express these universal values ​​in a way that relates to all visitors.”

Bharat reported from Los Angeles

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