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Test of Faith

Followers of a Hindu sect that embraces a puritanical lifestyle, face opposition to their proposed temple.

August 20, 2000|MARGARET RAMIREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A pungent stick of incense burns in the living room as the sun sets over this La Palma home. Dinner is almost ready as Rakesh Patel prepares for arti. The Long Beach pharmacist lights the divo flames on the little lamp and passes it to his 7-year-old daughter, Shatabdi.

With her little hands, she takes the lamp, steps before the family's home shrine and begins waving the flames. She chants loudly and sweetly to Lord Swaminarayan.

"Jay Sadguru Swami Prabhu Jay Sadguru Swami Sahajanand Dayalu. . . ."

Her 13-year-old brother, Yogi, rings a bell to the rhythm. Her mother, Jayshri, runs in from the kitchen when she sees they have started arti without her. Soon, the family is chanting, clapping, smoke swirling above their heads, eyes closed, immersed in prayer.

For devotees of the Swaminarayan religion, arti is one of the rituals that shape daily life. Behind closed doors, thousands of followers of this Hindu faith live and breathe Swaminarayan. Their faith saturates almost every aspect of their lives--from the golden U and vermilion dot known as tilak and chandlo that men apply to their foreheads during morning puja to the flames and devotional songs chanted before dinner.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 20, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 4 Metro Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Incorrect caption--A photo caption in today's Southern California Living story about a sect of Hindus was incorrect. In the picture, women are shown dancing around an image of Pramukh Swami, considered to be an incarnation of Lord Swaminarayan.

Here in Southern California, where sin and temptation pervade so many aspects of life, droves of Indian immigrants are embracing the puritanical lifestyle mandated by the Swaminarayan faith as a way of preserving culture and protecting their children from what they perceive to be the evils of Western society.

Every weekend, their immense devotion is on display as hundreds converge on the temple in Whittier. After resting shoes in the shelves at the entrance, they pad into a cavernous hall. The worn carpet becomes hidden under the bare feet of worshipers lost in prayer in this holy place. The temple, or mandir, is filled with hundreds of women wrapped in silk saris cooking samosas in the kitchen, teenagers learning Gujarati and Sanskrit in the bungalows, and the beat of the tabla drum coming from the back room.

Fueled by immigration and a fear of losing touch with Indian culture, the Swaminarayans have emerged as one of the fastest-growing and dynamic Hindu sects in the U.S.

Central to the faith is intense devotion to a spiritual leader and guru, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, a 78-year-old man believed to be the manifestation of God on Earth. Under his guidance, monumental temples are rising in Houston, San Antonio, Toronto and Miami, as Swaminarayans put their mark on the religious landscape of America. The newest mandir, a $15-million project in Chicago, will be dedicated by Pramukh Swami in October.

Locally, however, the sect has faced opposition and misunderstanding. Searching for a place to build a $50-million temple complex of Bulgarian marble, the group believed it had discovered the perfect 5 1/2-acre site, on Beach Boulevard in Buena Park. But to the group's shock, the plan was rejected last year by local officials, who refused to change zoning. At the public meeting last November, one Buena Park resident criticized the temple as "out of character with our city."

But City Council member Jack Mauller says the issue came down to money. "That piece of land is a prime location in the city for a shopping center or hotel. Those are all tax-based businesses," says Mauller. (Though Swaminarayans proposed building a hotel as part of the project, city officials say their religious restrictions would discourage tourists.)

"A lot of things were said by residents, and I'm not proud of some of the things they said," says Mauller. "But it was decided that project was not correct for the location. It's the right of the community to decide what they want and where they want it."

Swaminarayans were stumped. Were they victims of racism? Religious discrimination? Cultural misunderstanding?

Bharatsingh Zala, president of the temple, maintains that the city acted "out of ignorance and prejudice. We were not given an opportunity to explain the project or ourselves. If they really understood what we brought to the community, they would have welcomed us."

Just when their hopes for the new temple were dimmest, Swaminarayans received news that lifted their spirits.

He is coming! Swami is coming to Los Angeles!

And when he arrives--tentatively on Sept. 7--blessings will come, that much they are certain of. Many hope that his visit will work a miracle . . . and that somehow their temple will rise among the strip malls of Orange County.

Contradictions of the Faith

To some, the Swaminarayan way might seem contradictory. Extensive community outreach is coupled with the group's isolation from "wayward" Western society. Followers use multimedia displays and the Internet extensively to uphold ancient Hindu philosophy. The swami and his disciples embrace a life of poverty while followers are praised for wealth and financial success.

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