This profile was last updated in 2006
Activities and Schedule
The Atlanta mandir offers Swaminarayan devotees opportunities for daily worship, arti and darshan. Additionally, it holds weekly gatherings on Sundays from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m., which consist of satsang sabha for the large group and smaller meetings for children and youth. The temple celebrates a number of annual Hindu festivals with great pomp and devotion. For details of the schedule, a list of festival celebrations, and directions to the temple, please refer to the mandir’s official website: http://www.swaminarayan.org/globalnetwork/america/ATLANTA.htm. As a service to the community, the temple hosts a weekly medical clinic called BAPS Medical Care, which offers routine medical treatments for people without health care coverage. The medical clinic is just outside the temple on Sundays from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m.
Growth of the Atlanta Swaminarayan Satsang
Before the Atlanta temple was established in 1988, John Y. Fenton conducted a survey of Asian Indians in Atlanta, Georgia (in 1985), and estimated that there were approximately fifteen to twenty core Swaminarayan families who met regularly in their private homes (Fenton 1988). During the time I began to visit in 1993, the temple in Atlanta filled each Sunday with up to two hundred people and had as many as one thousand attend the larger festivals. The numbers of worshippers in the Atlanta BAPS temple grew dramatically in the last decade of the 20th century as they did in temples all over the United States. Current estimates have grown to about 900 regular members and as many as 5,000 to 6,000 worshippers on special festival days in Atlanta (Nurse 2001). The Atlanta temple leadership has become so strong that it has assumed the role of regional headquarters in the southeastern United States. Until a few years ago, the day-to-day, week-to-week leadership of the temple in Atlanta depended primarily on the laymen, who also maintained professional careers, and secondarily on temporary leadership from the sadhus (or saints) whenever they visited. As in other BAPS temples in this country, the members of the temple in Atlanta anxiously anticipated the frequent trips made by the sadhus from India who maintained close contact with the American male lay leaders and adherents of all ages. Until the 1990s sadhus were not permitted to live outside of India, and now, because of the enormous transnational growth of BAPS, and as a response to the pleas of the United States sanstha expressing the need for religious inspiration for their children, seven sadhus reside in this country and travel throughout the five regions in order to guide adherents (Williams 2001). Two of these sadhus reside in the Atlanta temple and serve the southeastern United States. Regardless of the fact that religious specialists now reside in Atlanta, devotees here most desire visits from their guru, His Divine Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, who has visited the United States with an entourage of saints, on several occasions. His last visit to Atlanta occurred in 2000, and devotees are still abuzz with delight when reminiscing about it. Visits from the guru and saints renew the spirits of American followers and enliven their activities, while assuring the preservation of the tradition on foreign soil. Through the 1980s Swaminarayans spent less energy and money acquiring and decorating temples in the United States than they spent in the promotion and organization of BAPS. In 1993, the Atlanta temple, housed modestly in a former skating rink, represented one of only six BAPS mandirs in the United States. Through the 1990s, the religion experienced enormous growth and prosperity resulting in a dramatic increase in BAPS temples, which now number at thirty-two. The structure of the current Atlanta temple is not as grand as some of its Hindu temple neighbors, especially, the Hindu Temple of Atlanta. But devotees here boast that their mandir offers more programs for children than any other Hindu temple in Atlanta. For the Atlanta sanstha, the importance of the activities that go on inside the temple, by far, outweigh what the temple may lack in outward appearance. In recent years the temple has begun to burst at the seams, especially on festival days, and Atlantans have determined that the current structure will not continue to serve their needs. While elaborate temples are no doubt part of the BAPS initiative around the globe, these enterprises only come about after successful implementation of first priorities to establish centers, and hari mandirs, other buildings converted into temples, where spiritual and cultural values may be transmitted to youth. Once this occurs and the community grows both financially and in numbers, then Swaminarayans invest in larger Cultural Festivals, like the month long Cultural Festival of India held in New Jersey in 1991, and grander, more traditional temples with capacity for housing a number of sadhus. Landmark temples built from the ground up with sadhus in residence, shikhar-badha mandirs, such as the Akshardam temple in Amdavad, or the elaborate mandir in the London suburb of Neasden, are currently under construction in the metro areas of Houston and Chicago. The Edison, New Jersey temple currently houses the sect’s United States headquarters, and plans for an additional cultural center in Edison the size of Akshardam in Gandhinagar, India have begun. In Barlett, Illinois, the Chicago sanstha has already begun building what may become a larger temple complex than the one in London. Atlantans too have made plans to accommodate their expansion. In fact, the two regional sadhus of Atlanta now reside in what seems to many a less than adequate accommodation, a former medical office building adjacent to the temple, which Atlanta devotees purchased for for use as an educational wing. In 2001, fundraising efforts allowed the Atlanta BAPS community to purchase land in suburban Lilburn, Georgia on which they intend to build an elaborate temple that will serve as the region’s primary temple, cultural center and pilgrimage site. The Atlanta Constitution reports: “The climax of the multi-phase project will be a 40,000 square – foot marble temple assembled by Indian craftsmen. It will be patterned after the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir on the outskirts of London… The Hindu congregation expects to spend up to $20 million on the complex and has already started work on a $300,000 community center” (Nurse 2001). Swaminarayans in Atlanta expect to fundraise for the next several years in order achieve this dream and to accommodate the needs incumbent to their role as the leading temple of the southeastern United States.
Fenton, John Y. 1988. Transplanting religious traditions: Asian Indians in America. New York: Praeger. Nurse, Doug. 2001. Ornate marble Hindu temple planned in Lilburn. The Atlanta Constitution, March 27. Williams, Raymond Brady. 1988. Religions of immigrants from India and Pakistan: New threads in the American tapestry. Cambridge,England; New York: Cambridge University Press. ________. 2001. An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Gender and Swaminarayan Hinduism: MA Thesis Abstract
From an initial glance into a Swaminarayan temple, one may conclude that women hold subordinate or marginal status in the sect. Because of the sect’s commitment to a strict ethical code that requires an uncompromising institutional segregation of the genders, women and men operate separate programs and worship separately. Likewise, women are not allowed contact with the tradition’s only religious specialists, the guru, or his saints. Satsangis attest that men and women are separate but equal. While I find it difficult to substantiate the argument of equality, so too do I find difficulty in the argument of women’s marginality. Williams describes the separateness as unequal, but even so, he does not express this unequivocally, “[A]pologists maintain that the separation is mutual and does not imply inferiority, but there is some justification for the feeling that women are separate and not equal in the sect” (Williams 169, emphasis added). I argue in my thesis that separate gender roles in Swaminarayan religion, even when not equal, do not necessarily marginalize or subjugate women. The question of equality between religious roles of women and men is more complicated than one gender acting as ordinate and another acting as subordinate. Vasudha Narayanan states that, “Hindu women have both been empowered and subjugated by religious traditions over the centuries” (Narayanan 34). I find this statement fitting within the Swaminarayan sect as well as in almost any non-Hindu religious sect. In the observation of inequities between the genders in Swaminarayan Hinduism, one must take into serious account the historical and religious reasons for the separation of men and women at the movement’s origin in the early 19th century as a tradition seeking to reform religious and social practices of its day. Moreover, the historical record of the movement’s founder, Lord Swaminarayan, includes the instigation of social and moral reforms in support of women’s rights, and devotees readily acknowledge his efforts for the “uplift of women” during a time of harsh discrimination. In my thesis, I carefully consider inequities in light of these facts, but my most significant findings have come from fieldwork in the BAPS Swaminarayan mandir in Atlanta, Georgia. Time spent in the temple has enabled me to identify modes of empowerment, yet distinguish those from gender equality, as “power and equality are not the same thing” (Narayanan 34). I discuss in detail women’s authoritative roles in food preparation, social service work, festival organization, and most importantly, in the education of youth, as various modes of empowerment. In addition, women satsangis adhere to their Swaminarayan faith by choice. In each of my visits to the Atlanta temple, women have by far outnumbered men in attendance of the mixed assemblies. Both men and women devotees assure me that “it’s always like that.” Not only do Swaminarayan women exhibit tremendous faith, but they also show evidence of thriving in temple life, home life and careers. Regardless of an apparent lack of prestige of the women’s wing, because of its lack of female religious specialists, women do find power within it. Laywomen leaders serve as trusted friends and role models. Weekly group educational meetings, sabhas, provide not only religious education, but also a place for participants to voice concerns, share joys and form long lasting friendships and alliances. Uncensored by male participants or leaders, women voice issues concerning constructed gender roles and creatively begin to change them. In joining voices together, they form an allegiance and find ways in which to assert their power from within their ascribed roles. This power may not be obvious at first glance. During the 1991 Cultural Festival of India women engineered the production of food for masses of people. They did this behind the scenes, but it was no small undertaking as the festival drew over one million people in its month long duration. Indian immigrants regard food as an integral facet of Indian culture, and therefore the preparation of food for festivals and for prashad in temples embodies a vital function in the transmission of culture. Such transmission is the Swaminarayans’ stated first goal in a new land. Women certainly demonstrate a strong presence in Swaminarayan religion, and to quickly equate gender separation with marginalization of women would be a fallacy. They have worked within the confines of separate spaces, and have created a system of power uniquely their own. Working without a great deal of prestige and with less visibility than men, women determine what facets of the religion are important and available to them and they thrive within those realms. Swaminarayan women find pride and empowerment from within their religious tradition, which rightfully claims a contribution to the struggle for gender equality, rather than from Western feminist theory. In their own way, they have translated cherished traditional domestic roles into valuable temple services. In negotiating their own forms of power, they have taken their “uplifted” position to greater heights. Globally, in the United States, and in Atlanta specifically, such new roles of power for women in the temple are vital, especially the role of teaching. In their responsibility as the inherently more faithful bearers of culture or keepers of the faith, women perform the task which has been identified as the most fundamental of all in a new land, that of transmission to future generations. In this role as teachers and perpetuators of culture, women’s power proves itself parallel to that of men.
Narayanan, Vasudha. “Brimming with Bhakti, Embodiments of Shakti: Devotees, Deities, Performers, Reformers, and Other Women of Power in the Hindu Tradition.” Feminism and World Religions. Eds. Arvind Sharma and Katherine K. Young. Albany: SUNY Press, 1999. Williams, Raymond Brady. An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
The Atlanta temple serves as an excellent case study for BAPS Swaminarayan temples in the United States because of its tremendous growth over the past two decades and because of its status as the southeast region’s lead temple. My contact with devotees in the Atlanta temple began over ten years ago. I have had the unique experience of engaging in participant observation in the early 1990s, then after a long break, again from 2002 to the present. I have observed the astonishing growth that has taken place in the temple community between my early and current involvement with the Atlanta satsangis. Women’s participation has become more dynamic and more varied, immediately apparent to me when I reentered the temple in 2002 for the first time in nine years. In the study, I gathered general information about the roles of women from talking to as many people as possible (mostly women) in the temple during my three visits during the summer of 2003, which included opportunities like chopping cilantro with women in the kitchen before the celebration of Lord Krishna’s birthday, Janmashtami, and listening in on a temple fundraising meeting of women leaders. My research also includes a visit to the Atlanta mandir’s grand Dewali celebration in 2002, and a few visits in 1993, one where I was fortunate enough to participate in an all women’s festival. From questionnaires and interviews I sought personal narratives of devotees. I asked women questions regarding why they come to the temple, how they feel about the separation of genders in temple spaces, issues of equality or inequality, how they communicate with their guru, their feelings toward their guru, their knowledge of Lord Swaminarayan’s advocacy of women’s rights in the early 19th century, women’s faith and devotion, and ideal female role models in the absence of women saints. Informants were selected from those women who attend regular Sunday sabhas, group meetings, which occur before the weekly mixed assemblies of men and women. I therefore cannot claim to have gathered a cross-section of informants from the temple, but rather, a cross-section from the group of women most involved. From the group with whom I engaged, approximately fifteen women volunteered to participate in the study by filling out questionnaires and surveys. Their ages ranged from nineteen to forty-five. Five from that group volunteered to participate further in personal interviews. Their stories provide texture to a thesis study that would otherwise seem flat and lifeless. My informants gave generously of their time, which is in much demand between multi-layered responsibilities to families, temple and careers. I deeply appreciate their participation.