Gathering, Giving and Guru-ing

Inside a Gujarati Hindu Temple

Between 2 pm and 4 pm on any Sunday afternoon, a steady stream of cars approaches the 20-acre BAPS (Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan) temple complex in an eastern suburb of Los Angeles County. The cars, some of which have come from up to 50-75 miles away, are directed to a large covered parking lot by uniformed volunteers. Families drop off their children at age-appropriate, gender-specific classes where the Gujarati language and Hindu/Swaminarayan principles are taught by volunteers. Adults then enter the main temple building in order to engage in darshan (viewing/worship of sacred images), then they move to a huge meeting hall for the beginning of Ravi Sabha (Sunday meeting/assembly).

Men are seated the front half and women are in the back half, either in chairs or sitting on the carpet. Within 30 minutes there will be a total of 500-600 in the hall. All but me identify as Hindu and almost all are Gujarati. The meeting hall is decorated on and both sides with photos of various BAPS temples/cultural centers around the world. There are also large banners hanging from the sides of the hall with quotes from Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the late head of the global BAPS organization and Mahant Swami Maharaj, the current leader. Hashtags at the bottom of the banners include #samp (unity), #pragat (revealed), and #satpurush (true being). There is a wide stage with a table and several murtis (sacred images) on the left and a hichko (wide, cushioned swing) with a garlanded photo of Mahant Swami Maharaj on it. A massive video screen takes up almost the entire length of the back of the stage and two smaller video screens are at the right and left of the stage.

At exactly 4:30 pm the singing of bhajans (devotional songs) begins. The audience claps along but does not sing. There are no songbooks or lyrics projected. After 30 minutes a priest comes onto the stage and begins to teach from the writings of Swaminarayan (the movement’s founder, also known as Sahajanand Swami) and from the Bhagavad Gita. The priest sits on a large cushioned chair on the stage. He uses an iPad for his notes. There is humor to accompany stories and practical applications. No one in the congregation is looking at any printed words.

After the priest is finished, there is a video shown with interviews (testimonies) of people in Gujarat whose lives have been impacted by the teachings of Swaminarayan. After a few more bhajans, a lay leader comes to the podium and reads very quickly from his MacBook screen. He gives many requests for prayer for those who are ill, those who have had surgery, and those who celebrated marriage anniversaries. Then he announces upcoming events such as a large BAPS conference in another city and gatherings on Fridays in other regions (zones) of Southern California. Throughout the entire two hours of Ravi Sabha, virtually every word sung or spoken is in the Gujarati language. My informal research indicates that about 60% are Patels.

After the announcement period, a priest comes back and does darshan (to the murtis at the front of the stage), then a video is shown of Mahant Swami Maharaj doing aarti (offering light to a Hindu god). Plates are brought and passed with lit lamps so that all of the men and women can quickly do aarti. While the plates are being passed, a song is played and sung. “Swaminarayan, Swaminarayan, Swaminarayan, …” At the end, men and women put money onto the plate as they leave.

After the Ravi Sabha and the children’s classes are over, everyone lines up outside the gym for a free dinner, which the leaders call prasad (devotional offering to a Hindu god). The men line up at one door, and the women at the opposite door. A tasty Gujarati meal is dished out by volunteers. Men and women sit on tables or the gym floor separately. After the meal, most of the 800, including children and teens, gather in small groups and socialize for another hour or so before returning to their cars and heading for home.

Hindu “Congregations”

Even though Hinduism(s) is/are “noncongregational” in India, diaspora Hindus often gather in congregations. Many who come, especially the first few times, are not coming for “religious” reasons and do not consider themselves to be followers of Swaminarayan or particularly “religious.” Instead, large numbers of Gujarati Hindus are initially attracted to the BAPS congregational gathering because of the beautiful temple complex, high-quality sound system and video production, wonderful music, clean classrooms where children and teens are taught from a well-designed curriculum, Gujarati language and culture, free and tasty food, large team of friendly volunteers, gym and fields for athletic activities, opportunities for serving in volunteer roles that give status, multi-generational interactions, opportunity to network and discuss business ventures, and abundant parking.

The contrast between the attractiveness of the BAPS congregation and a typical Gujarati Protestant church is striking. Even though the language spoken, sung, and read in all of the congregations is Gujarati, a significant number of the Gujarati words used in the Gujarati church are not understandable to Gujarati Hindus. While BAPS has many roles for volunteers and many other positions of responsibility, the Gujarati churches typically have a powerful head pastor and often an assistant pastor who perform most of the roles, not volunteers. While BAPS attendees do not have any book or printed words in their hands, Gujarati church attendees all have a Gujarati Bible/songbook and need to be able to turn to the correct place throughout the service. The quality of the music, food, and children’s programs is much lower than at the BAPS congregation.

Giving and Seva

Another factor that attracts Gujarati Hindus to BAPS is the opportunity to give time in service and to give money. The giving of time is usually called “social service” in English and seva (service) in Gujarati. The BAPS congregation has a variety of service programs designed to help their neighbors and the wider community, including walkathons and events to raise awareness of a variety of causes. The success in business of many Gujarati immigrants yields considerable income, and many are motivated to give to their religious congregations. The giving of money leads directly to influence over the decisions that are made. Also, the giving of money leads to status. Those who give are recognized publicly through the posting of the donors on video screens at the end of the Ravi Sabhas. The giving of time as they serve within the congregation and within their community and the giving of money toward the building, expanding, and upkeep of the physical plant gives Gujarati Hindu immigrants opportunities for status and leadership.

A Guru’s Teaching

Gujarati Hindu immigrants are also attracted to the teaching of a guru, especially one who gives practical advice related to family, work, and other aspects of daily life. Another Gujarati congregation, called Swadhyay Parivar, listens to the teaching of founder Pandurang Shastri Athavale every Sunday morning, even though he died in 2003. On video, he comes across as a charismatic and caring man, and his teaching addresses practical aspects of life. One of the ways that his status as guru is enhanced and preserved is that his video teaching is only viewed during the Sunday morning meetings. It is not possible to watch any other time.

Studies show that religious teaching is not a major factor in the attraction of new people to a congregation. Instead, they come because the language, food, culture, friendships, support, and networking make it a place to belong. Once people come, they begin to behave like the others who are committed, even to the point of the religious practices that are taught. The priest or guru might say, “everyone needs to recite this shloka (Sanskrit verse) every day” and it is expected to be done. Those who regularly attend BAPS Ravi Sabhas are encouraged to download two apps on their phones: Vachanamrut Study App which contains a reading or listening plan for the holy writings of the Swaminarayan tradition and various Hindu traditions and the Swami Vato app, which contains the spiritual discourses of Swaminarayan. All who are committed to the BAPS congregation are instructed to read or listen to these every day. At some point, the person begins to believe what is being taught and become a regular attender and “believer” and perhaps even a leader. Gujaratis seem to be drawn to a guru’s teaching if it is practical and helpful to their lives.

Identity and Belonging a Foreign Land

Gujarati Hindu immigrants are also likely to be attracted to and regularly attend congregational gatherings that are culturally familiar, regardless of their religious experience before they immigrated. Therefore, if a Gujarati Hindu immigrant is invited to attend a congregation that believes in Jesus or believes in the tenets of Islam while being infused into a Gujarati Hindu cultural context, Gujarati Hindus would understand that following the Way of Jesus or the Way of Islam within their culture is akin to being committed to a congregation in a Gujarati Hindu context. Only the guru and teaching would be different.

The main factors that influence a Gujarati Hindu immigrant to make a choice to become committed to a specific religious congregation are strongly related to opportunities to construct identity and gain a sense of belonging in a “foreign land.” Places where Gujaratis themselves lead gatherings, make decisions, make plans, and even perform religious rites and rituals influence the choice. This is very different from the usual situation in their home countries, where priests or professional clergy are likely to be in the positions of power. Immigrant congregations also tend to become more engaged in service as a major way to cultivate positive relationships with community members who are not a part of their culture, and as a way to enhance their own sense of community, and that is likely to be a factor in commitment. As a Gujarati Hindu immigrant begins to become a regular attendee at a congregational gathering he or she usually is ready to give of their time in serving both within the congregation and in the community and to give money. Simultaneously he or she is usually attracted to the teaching of the guru.

Standing Out in the Spiritual Marketplace

Samuel Stroope uses the term “vigorous spiritual marketplace” to describe the situation where many different religious congregations need to engage in marketing methods in order to attract people. A large Christian church, for example, will describe its great buildings, professional quality music, teaching of children, opportunities to serve, abundant parking, sports facilities, practical teaching about life, and various other programs for all ages. A large mosque will also market itself in the same way (except for the music).

In my analysis, a gathering such as a satsang (truth gathering) is not very attractive to most Gujarati Hindus and not very “competitive” in the “spiritual marketplace” that exists in the U.S. It is for the same reason increasing numbers of American Christians flock to large churches, even if they do not consider themselves to be committed Christians. They are attracted to large churches due to the beautiful campus, high-quality sound system and video production, wonderful music, clean classrooms where children and teens are taught from a well-designed curriculum, free and tasty food, large team of friendly volunteers, gym and fields for athletic activities, opportunities for serving in volunteer roles that give status, multi-generational interactions, opportunity to network and discuss business ventures, and abundant parking. If these factors are attractive enough, they will come even if they have no interest in Christian teachings. When they come often end up in a serving role, such as parking attendant or serving coffee. They often begin to believe what is being taught by the pastor because it is practical and helpful. They often begin to read the Bible during the week and pray. Before long they believe!

This is quite different from the approach advocated by many who try establish a religious congregation by starting with a small group or satsang. A typical satsang consists of 8-12 people who gather in a home. The quality of music and singing is not usually high, the children of those who come are often bored because is not an appropriate class for them with peers, work often goes into the preparing and serving of the food, There are not many roles for volunteers to guide parking, lead, or serve, so status is not gained; and not much networking giving the small number of people. Those who come are usually already much more accountable to the teaching and not able to “check it out.” In a large gathering, it is easy blend into the crowd if one is “checking it out.” This is not as attractive to Gujarati Hindus, even though the cultural setting is Hindu and the language is Gujarati.

In my analysis and experience, someone who is interested in beginning a religious congregation such as a sampradaya (denomination or sect of Hinduism), Christian church, or mosque, will find it challenging to try to convince a few Gujaratis to believe in the teaching of their guru, then have them form a small satsang or gathering. A much better idea is to find a beautiful building with a kitchen, space for classrooms and sports, abundant parking, and large meeting hall. Then offer programs for all ages, especially children and teens, and especially Gujarati classes, have great music, have many roles for volunteers to serve, lead, and give, have free and tasty food served every week, and begin to teach practical principles from the Bible (if it is a Christian focus), or the Bhagavad Gita or the Qur’an.

In other words, the goal should be to have a place for Gujarati Hindus to Gather, to Give (of time and money), and to learn from the practical teaching of a guru (living or not).

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