The Vraj affiliate research project documented the creation of a multi-million dollar temple (haveli) near Pottsville, Pennsylvania, the spiritual headquarters in the western hemisphere for the Vallabha Sampradaya, a north Indian bhakti sect. The research project explored the creation of sacred space in a transplanted North American environment, examining sources of authority within the tradition and in the perception of devotees who are first and second generation immigrants. The principal investigators, Dr. Allen Richardson and Dr. Catherine Cameron both of Cedar Crest College in Allentown, explored these relationships on site and involved their students in the research process.
In 1989 leaders of a Hindu devotional tradition, the Vallabha Sampradya, purchased land eight miles outside of Pottsville where they have now erected a 3.5 million dollar temple. The temple is intended to be a pilgrimage center for members of this Krishna-centered tradition which holds several major festivals annually which are often attended by 2,000 to 5,000 people from all over the East Coast.
The area of land now known as Vraj was purchased by the Hindu sect from another Hindu group that housed an ashram there, making this a convenient place to begin construction. Vraj is an area designed specifically for pilgrimage. The group has established a home for Sri Nathji (a form of Krishna) that resembles His sacred home in India, a major pilgrimage center for followers of Sri Nathji. The area is an intentional creation of sacred space in a site purchased for convenience. This raises many questions about sacred landscape that are explored by the research project.
The temple was dedicated in the summer of 2002 over a month long period in which visiting goswamis or spiritual leaders performed rituals that brought life to an image of Sri Nathji. The dedication of Vraj was attended in great numbers: 10-15,000 people on weekends, and at the end of month around 18,000 people visited Vraj. A summer Gujarati language camp was also held at the temple complex.
The project began another phase of research examining the relationship between the sect and residents of greater Pottsville which is part of northeastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region. This area, where perceptions of religious difference have often been understood as divisions between Roman Catholics and Protestants, is heavily populated with persons of eastern European descent. This phase of the project included a course (Rel 250 – “Researching American Communities”) in which students conducted first hand research in the context of service learning and bridge building between the temple and the community.
Researchers found that Vraj has become an important economic unit in an area that has suffered many economic setbacks in recent history. Vraj is major employer and employees are treated very well. This has given the Hindu community a very positive image in the surrounding area. Despite this positive image, the Pottsville area remains segregated by religious tradition and there is a strong dynamic of insider-outsider when it comes to Vraj. The project also assessed the Pottsville community’s reactions to Vraj, asking such questions as: what are you hearing, what are you thinking about Vraj? For students, this research project was a constant learning experience.
The original research project was part of a new course on American Communities (Anth 250) in which students enrolled in the “Comparative Cultures and Religions” program at Cedar Crest College engaged in fieldwork in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Pottsville is in the heart of the anthracite coal culture and has historically been dominated by Protestant and Catholic forms of Christianity and an older immigrant population. The research aimed to examine the ways in which the community has responded to this new diversity. While proclaiming their resistance to racism and prejudice, the residents of greater Pottsville have little to guide them in developing relationships with the Hindus who also find themselves in much the same situation. The applied value of the research was to help the community redefine itself and build bridges between the diverse communities that are now included within it.
Selected Links and Publications
- Faculty webpage: Dr. E. Allen Richardson
- Faculty webpage: Dr. Cate Cameron
- Article: The Morning Call Newspaper, July 15, 1999
- Article: The Harrisburg Patriot, May 31, 2002
- Photos: A Pushti Marg Temple in Pennsylvania
- Photos: Vallabhacharya Temple (Schuylkill Haven, PA)