Pluralism Project Research Archive
The Hindus of New Jersey thought the YMCA Building in Sayreville would be the perfect site for a new temple to Lord Krishna. They first negotiated to buy the building in May of 1992, but a year later their dreams still seemed distant. On May 11, 1993 the Sayreville Planning Board had held an open meeting to discuss the temple proposal, with more than two hundred people packed into the hearing room. Among the standing room only crowd were about twenty-five New Jersey Hindus who supported the temple. Many of the others, however, came to persuade the Board to reject the proposal.
The arguments were heated and the microphone was much in demand. Much of the testimony concerned traffic: just how much would a new Hindu temple generate? Washington Road, where the YMCA is located, is a busy street, also marked on maps of Northern New Jersey as Highway 535. It winds through green and pleasant suburbs, past a high school, a public library, and eventually a shopping mall, the Dupont Laboratories, and Our Lady of Victory Knights of Columbus Hall. The building was already a YMCA. Would there really be that much more traffic?
The Hindus had retained a traffic engineer, who explained the pattern of worship that could be expected at the temple. Attending the six services a day, seven days a week, might be between five and twenty-five people. On Friday nights, there would be a few more and on Saturdays and Sundays, as many as two hundred spread out through the six services. The major holy days three times a year might garner from 1000 to 2000 people. How much traffic would such a pattern of use generate? Would the current parking lot provide adequate space? Could there be overflow parking in the large lot of the Dupont company across the street? “They only challenged us on traffic, but they were not in favor of having a temple here,” concluded one temple member at the hearings.
The plan was rejected by the Sayreville Planning Board, citing these issues of traffic and parking. But many who had been at the hearing felt that the deeper issue was one of animosity. The fears of the Hindu community were confirmed when the building, still empty, was sprayed with graffiti. “Written on several walls of the building were such expressions as ‘Get out Hindoos’ and ‘KKK,’” the newspaper India Abroad (May 28, 1993) reported. “The mayor of Sayreville, New Jersey, John B. McCormack, says he is ‘not taking lightly’ [these] slogans…”
The Hindu community filed suit in U.S. District Court against the Sayreville Planning Board for “bias and discrimination against Asian Indians and practitioners of the Hindu faith.” They insisted their religious freedom was being denied in the decision of the Board to reject their proposal for a temple. As the New Jersey Law Journal (December 20, 1993) put it, “The plaintiffs also note that the board cited traffic concerns in denying the permit even though the state’s Municipal Land Use Law prohibits use of off-site traffic considerations as a basis for making planning decisions. In addition, the suit alleges that the use of the YMCA as a temple conforms to the borough’s zoning regulations and that even the board’s chairman recognized that there was no legal basis for denying the trust permission to operate its temple.”
The case eventually was settled in mediation between the Hindu community and the Planning Board. The records of the Planning Board meetings reveal the new questions that arise with entirely new patterns of worship. For example, there were no seats in the site plan for the large room planned as the main sanctuary of the temple. The worshippers would sit on the carpeted floor and, when the service began, would stand to sing and press forward toward the altar for the darshan of Krishna. One board member said, “It is not clear in a religious facility without seats how much of that is space where people could be praying at a particular moment.” Another asked what would be “the maximum praying area” Another noted that “people attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve stand all over the place” and asked how that would be handled in estimating numbers of worshippers and need for parking.
And just how many would come on those three holy days? Should they park some distance away and come in vans? If they parked across the street, should there be a crosswalk? When they filled in the old outdoor YMCA pool, how much new on-site parking would this create? Eventually, the temple agreed to add more on-site parking, and to prohibit on-street parking on its three major holy days, making other arrangements for the large attendance. A representative of the planning board said, in retrospect, “The main consideration had to do with traffic. There is already a lot of traffic on the street, Washington Road. But the temple was a small part of the traffic problem and should not be asked to bear the burden of correcting an already existing problem.”
The temple opened on November 13, 1994, with priests coming from India for the occasion. This particular community of Krishna devotees is called the Pushti Marga, the “Path of Grace,” and the form of Krishna they honor is Krishna as the Divine Child. More than three thousand flocked to the newly-renovated building, which was painted a pale pink and decorated with thousands of flower garlands for the occasion.
Every day since the temple’s opening, the devoted service of Lord Krishna has brought immigrant Hindu Americans to Washington Street in Sayreville. On the carpeted floor sit a cluster of women, chatting in a mixture of Gujarati and English and participating in the seva—or service—the worship of Krishna. One is making a fresh flower garland that Krishna will wear at the next darshan, the happy moment six times each day when the curtain is pulled back and Lord Krishna can be seen. Two other’s are sewing the tiny clothes that Krishna will wear. “This is Krishna’s house now,” explains one, “When we come to the temple, we say in our hearts that it is going to Nanda Baba’s house, where Krishna lived as a child.” The bell rings for the 5:15 evening darshan. The temple room has begun to fill with people stopping by after work. The women stand at the altar rail, hands pressed together in a gesture of greeting, honor, and prayer as the curtain is pulled back. “Jai Shri Krishna!” they exclaim. “Victory to Lord Krishna!”