This data was last updated on 11 November 2020.
Description: Braj Mandir is a spiritual sanctuary of the Hindu Nimbarki Vaisnava tradition housed in a repurposed, single-story, red brick building in the Boston-area suburb of Holbrook, Massachusetts. Upon entering the temple, there is an area for removing shoes and washing hands and feet. Most of the interior is open space to allow for seating at the temple’s many events and services. The altar, with a garden mural as a backdrop, lies at the head of the hall, displaying the golden murtis or divine images of Radha and Krishna. With each holiday, the altar is decorated with colorful floral arrangements and the murtis are dressed in elaborate robes. The property has a spacious lawn and parking lot to accommodate large crowds for celebrations of holidays like Holi. There is also a garden that provides ingredients for the many vegetarian prasadam meals that are prepared by volunteers in the temple’s kitchen.
Community: Quoting from Braj Mandir’s logo, “The whole world is one family,” temple president Keshav Kishor Sharan said, “Our community is quite big, but we focus on who shows up.” Typically, that is about one hundred people on Sundays, and fifty at mid-week services. Festivals draw bigger numbers, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand. Braj Mandir’s website lists over a hundred individuals and families who are regularly contributing members. The temple is run entirely by volunteers, led by a board of directors including a president, treasurer, and secretary. Initiation for performing priestly duties at services is open to people of all backgrounds, including men, women, and children. Services are conducted in English and, thanks to the generosity of donors, all activities and meals are free. Sharan emphasized that anyone is welcome: “we don’t consider anyone to be ‘other than us.’” In line with that philosophy, the temple engages with the wider community in a number of ways, including delivering prasadam meals to healthcare workers at the Bridgewater State Hospital and allowing Narcotics Anonymous meetings to be held in their building free of charge.
Activities: Braj Mandir is open for darshan and holds morning and evening services daily. Additionally, the temple holds a number of weekly services, detailed and kept up-to-date on their website. The main Sunday program includes darshan, kirtan, a lecture, arati, and prasadam. A kirtan fest is held every first Friday and includes a drumming circle, kirtan, and prasadam. Additional services, like weddings, pujas, and yagnas can be scheduled by request. Holidays and festivals are a significant part of life at Braj Mandir, with anywhere from two to nine festivals celebrated each month. Some of the major festivals include Holi, Diwali, and Krishna Janmastami.
Distinctive aspects: Sharan is quick to point out that Braj Mandir differs from other Hindu temples and organizations in some significant ways: “Our temple is not focused on promoting religious dogma,” he explained. “Our temple is very much all-inclusive and involves people from all different backgrounds.” All forms of prejudice, whether linked to caste, gender, race, or ethnicity, are rejected. “We are not bogged down to follow any information that promotes hate or discrimination,” said Sharan. “So that’s why our practices are unique.” This affects not only the make-up of the community, but the kinds of sermons that are preached. As Sharan put it, “we are replacing religion with relation and replacing God with unconditional love.” These principles also influence how services and festivals are conducted. “When we are doing arati, the goal is to cultivate joy. So the music and the dance is part of it.” The temple avoids images that include weapons or violence. The altar is occupied by a Krishna deity playing the flute and a dancing Radha. “When we look at our representations of music and dance and unconditional love,” said Sharan, “we should be able to do the same things ourselves.” Though many of these ideas have developed in response to traditional religion, and especially to traditional Hinduism, Sharan assures that the intention is not to attack, challenge or burn bridges. What it all comes down to, he says, is allowing “everyone [to seek] joy in their own way. Children seek differently, adults seek joy differently, males seek joy differently, females seek joy differently. And our goal is to actually say, ‘Joy can’t only be established in one way.’ It is beautiful when we can actually cater to the people, who are able to understand what they want to be joyful.”
History: Braj Mandir founder Keshav Kishor Sharan’s organizing efforts began long before he came to the United States. In his hometown of Vrindivan, India, Sharan went from school to school, speaking about environmental values. He also organized community projects to clean the streets and plant trees. “When I first came to the U.S. in ’96,” said Sharan, “I was not able to let that go and I wanted to continue supporting environmental activities in Vrindavan.” In 1998, Sharan founded the Vrindivana Preservation Society (VPS), a non-profit organization in Quincy, Massachusetts. While the Boston-area chapter immediately began partnering with its chapter in Vrindivan to support the work Sharan had started there, it also saw that there were needs to fill locally. In order to bring together New England’s ever-growing community of young families and professionals from India, VPS began organizing cricket tournaments, Hindu festivals, programs for children through the Vaisnava Academy (including Hindi lessons), and other gatherings for all ages. These gatherings took place in homes or rented or public spaces. Bhakti practice also became a part of these activities and offered wider appeal than the regionally-specific environmental work. In response to demonstrated interest from the VPS community in music, mediation, yoga, and the celebration of festivals, Sharan acquired the building that would become Braj Mandir in Holbrook, Massachusetts in 2008, and in 2009 organized another non-profit specifically dedicated to worship called Sri Radha Bhakti. With a place of its own, Sri Radha Bhakti could facilitate worship services, weddings, and other gatherings. The building, which had previously served as a Friendly’s restaurant, underwent significant renovations, but the decision to retain the ice cream pick-up window proved a fortunate one during the Covid-19 pandemic. Because health regulations prohibited indoor dining during the height of the pandemic, Braj Mandir began using the window to hand out take-out prasadam meals to the community. With this and other adjustments, including drive-up darshan and outdoor and livestream services, Sharan proudly reported that during the shutdown “we did not close the temple even for a single day.” As of 2020, Sri Radha Bhakti had acquired a new piece of land in Holbrook and was raising money and applying for permits to construct a new, purpose-built temple.