Visiting Divya Dham and BSS in Queens, NY

Paramacharya Sadasivanathaswami's and Sannyasin Senthilnathaswami's visit to New York included a courtesy call to our dear friend Swami Parameshananda, who participates each year at the Hindu Mandir Executives' Conference, and who participated in the Mauritius Innersearch last month.

Swamiji took us to Divya Dham Jalaram Mandir in Woodside, NY, opened in 1993 by Swami Jagdishwaranand when he brought by land and sea the flames from many of the holy centers of the North of India, combining them into a single flame that burns eternally here. After Swami passed away in 2005, the America Sevashram Sangh (branch of Bharat Sevashram Sangh) accepted his request to take over management of this large temple-museum in two conjoined warehouses in the heart of Queens.

The mandir is focused on Siva and Shakti. There is a giant black granite Sivalinga and many other Lingas, including a wall of 1,008 small Lingas--a curiously familiar concept. There is a Vaishno Devi cave, dozens upon dozens of murtis of all the popular Gods and Goddesses. Upstairs is a huge shrine to the Sakti Peeths, with 51 white marble murtis in individual shrinettes. There is also a scale model of the Himalayan range, including model trains, cars, bridges, temples, ashrams and hotels. Artifacts from across the North of India abound, and it's really quite a lot to take in.

After Divya Dham, Swami Parameshananda took us to his home, the America Sevashram Sangh Ashram in Jamaica, NY. And all along the way we saw mandir after mandir, ashram after ashram. We have known for a long time that Queens is home to many Hindu organizations, but to see them ourselves scattered here and there as we drove throughout the area was a revelation.

Hinduism Today Offers Gifts to BAPS Guru

On the second day of the Mandir Mahotsav in Robbinsville, New Jersey, the BAPS devotees were stunned and delighted with a second public darshan of their guru, Pramukh Swami Maharaj. Though 93 and frail, the guru had been brought on a chartered aircraft from India so he could be here for this amazing event. That he was here was amazing, that he was able to be with them for extended periods was regarded as historic. When devotees around the world heard he was here, they dropped everything, grabbed the next flight and joined in the grand opening of America's largest Hindu religious center.

The second darshan took place on Saturday. Near noon word went out that Swamishri would be coming again to the outdoor stage, something that happens without planning due to his health, and suddenly everyone was running to be present.

It took place in front of their completed buildings on the banks of the small lake in the first photo. Twenty thousand or more were gathered from around the nation and the world. Just before he arrived, the senior swamis spoke eloquently of this historic event, of the great efforts taken by thousands of volunteers and shilpis, of how this was the fulfillment of Pramukh Swami's long-held vision.

We had brought some gifts for the guru from Kauai: a rudraksha mala, a copy of The Guru Chronicles and a mango bowl turned by the monks and filled with 108 special rudraksha beads. Sadasivanathaswami was brought to the stage to present the gifts to Mahant Swami, who would then in turn hand them over to Swamishri, as only a few are permitted to approach him in respect for his health.

Paramacharya presented the gifts on stage and returned to the sadhu area below. Almost immediately Swamishri was brought on stage and the air was filled with joyous voices greeting him. Despite the mid-day heat (several suffered from heat stroke and the rest of us were overheated), men danced and called out his name. It was quite an explosion of guru bhakti.

Swamishri waved to them all, clearly rejoicing at their joint achievements, clearly moved by the ocean of love he was being bathed in. Then the swamis brought the gifts to him and placed them in his hands, wheeling him near Paramacharya and Senthilnathaswami who were asked to stand so Swamishri could see them in the crowd. Hinduism Today was honored by the spokesman who explained the gifts to the crowd in Gujarati and again the crowd cheered, clearly please that their guru was so deeply respected beyond their borders.

The darshan ended as quickly as it had begun, and all headed for shade and shelter, invigorated by a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with one of India's greatest spiritual lights.

Swaminarayan Prana Pratishtha in Robbinsville

On Saturday, August 9, the two swamis from Hawaii joined in the investiture of prana, life, into the murtis of the new BAPS Swaminarayan Temple in Robbinsville, New Jersey. It was the main event we were called to be part of, the central purpose of our travels.

The night before, the marble murtis were installed in their golden shrines, ready to be brought to life. At 9:00am the sadhus and devotees gathered in the temple, with some 20,000 outside watching on giant screens.

Elaborate puja with traditional Vedic mantras filled the equally elaborate chamber. Senior sadhus gathered just before the main sanctum, inviting our Hawaiian swamis to sit among them, offering rice and mantras together.

After about an hour of rites, led with such precision and perfect presence by Mahant Swami, Tyagvallabh Swami and Ishwarcharan Swami, the crowd suddenly stirred. It was announced that Swamishri would now do the all-important abhishekam for the new deities in three shrines.

Prahmukh Swami Maharaj arrived, a clear joy on his face as this was the culmination of seven years of effort by his devotees. He entered the inner sanctum, personally performed abhishekam to a tiny Neelkanth Varni murti on a tray, and then was handed a remote control. Pushing the button, he started the water flowing upon the heads of the deities, one and then another and another.

Afterwards, the senior and then junior sadhus were allowed into the sanctum to pour water onto the deities' feet. Our two swamis from Kauai were lovingly guided into the innermost chamber to do likewise, a rare blessing at this most holy event. Of all the Swaminarayan temple openings to which they have been invited and attended, this is the first at which they had been given this particular, central privilege.

All exited through a special chamber, to emerge at the back of the temple, prostrating there. When we stood and turned to the back of the temple chamber, there, amazingly, was a marble bas-relief showing the very thing we had seen just three minutes earlier--a carving in white marble, inset into the wall, of Prahmukh Swami Maharaj holding a kalash and pouring water on the feet of the murtis.

A remarkable thing it is to be at an event and see what just happened carved in stone moments later!

Swamis in New Jersey

The two days that Paramacharya Sadasivanathaswami and Sannyasin Senthilnathaswami spent at the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, New Jersey, seemed more like four or five. During this time, the organization's swamis kept our swamis very close, taking us right in to their private swamis-only ashram areas to be among the dozens of them who were here from around the world for the event, introducing us to their senior Sadguru Swamis and taking every opportunity to sit privately with us for planned and impromptu discussions on a wide variety of topics. We spent time with Pujya Sadguru Mahant Swami, the seniormost Sadguru Swami who has for the last year been the administrator and spiritual guide of the global congregation since Param Pujya Pramukh Swami Maharaj has reached an age and state of health that brought him to the decision to delegate even those duties. We met long-time friend Pujya Brahmavihari Swami, who was our Gurudeva's host at Pramukh Swami Maharaj's 75th jayanti celebrations in Mumbai and subsequently at their sadhu training center in Sarangpur, Gujarat, in 1995. He is by Pramukh Swami Maharaj's side almost constantly these days. We spoke with Pujya Aksharvatsal Swami, editor-in-chief of the organization's Gujarati and Hindi publications out of the world headquarters in Ahmedabad. We had long discussions with Pujya Paramtattva Swami, born in the UK and currently serving out of the London center conducting important and extensive research work in connection with Oxford, and Pujya Mangalnidhi Swami, born in the US and currently serving in the area of English-language publications out of the North America headquarters here in New Jersey. We had extensive dialogues with Pujya Bhadresh Swami, the order's senior Sanskrit scholar, who serves at the Sarangpur training center and central monastery where Pramukh Swami Maharaj now lives full time, setting up future projects that we will collaborate on. At the end of our visits, one swami turned to us and said, "Despite the fact that we come from a traditional Vaishnava sampradaya, and a unique, highly specialized one at that, and you come from an orthodox Saiva sampradaya, we really feel close to you, as if you are all part of our own order." Indeed, it is easy to set aside the five percent that is different and focus on the ninety-five percent that we hold in common, particularly when it comes to our shared foci of personal religious practice, spiritual progress, virtuous living, proper religious education, and, most of all, the central importance of the guru to show us the way in all of these most important pursuits of human life.

Deity Parade at BAPS Temple in New Jersey

On Friday evening, our two swamis were given seats of honor along with the three of the organization's five Sadguru Swamis who were present at this grand temple inauguration. The Sadguru Swamis of the BAPS monastic order are the equivalent of our Paramacharyas, their most senior monks who have received guru diksha. Our younger swami in attendance was particularly humbled (read embarrassed) to be on the dais with them all.

The traditional parade of the murtis through the streets of the town prior to their installation in the new temple took place entirely on the 167-acre campus in Robbinsville Township, a chiefly rural, farming town just outside Princeton. The participants in the parade were in top form, and everyone enjoyed the entertainment and darshan.

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