Graduate School of Arts & Sciences
South Asia Institute
Master of Arts
An Ethnographic Study of the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir
a final paper
John Thomas Strasser
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of
Master of Arts
In the morning hours, light shines brightly through two sunroofs, spilling into a
large room. On its south wall, a pair of windows showcasing beautiful, avocado colored
hanging plants, allows more sunlight to penetrate the space. As the morning progresses,
the sharp rays of the sun begin to illuminate a row of deities positioned along the opposite
wall, all at home within their own tiny chamber (Fig. 1-4).
Meanwhile, outside, not far down the street, people hustle along the sidewalk
while gypsy cabs honk. Smells from fried chicken eateries and curbside fruit stands
permeate the air; reggae music billows out the front door of a nearby residence. This is
the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens on a fall Sunday morning, where, unexpectedly,
some of the most unique representations of Hinduism exist. Tucked away down a
residential street, just far enough from the hustle of the city, sits the Shri Surya Narayan
In this urban temple, standing together on a raised altar – beautifully dressed,
magnificent, and majestic – are what temple members consider to be the primary
members of Hinduism’s pantheon of gods and goddesses (Fig. 5-7). Positioned slightly
above them, however, riding a chariot led by seven horses, is the father of the entire
world, in his most powerful manifestation – Surya Narayan Bhagwan – the Sun God.1
Founded in 1993, the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir is Caribbean-Hindu, the
majority of its members having emigrated from Guyana to the United States.2 It has been
estimated that there are 300,000 Guyanese residing in New York City, and among them,
1 “Shri Surya Narayan Mandir.” http://www.shrisuryanarayanmandir.org/ “Details of
Surya Bhagwan” (accessed October 18, 2013). Shri Surya Narayan Bhagwan, according to the
SSNM website, is popularly referred to as “Sarva Loka Pitamaham” – the father of the entire
2 Until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, laws had excluded most Asians from
immigrating to the U.S.
some 60 percent are Hindu.3 There are more than fifty Indo-Caribbean Hindu temples
within the Queens milieu, and the majority of temple members are Guyanese or
Trinidadian.4 The Shri Surya Narayan Mandir is located in the Jamaica neighborhood of
Queens, where the most visible ethnicities are Latin American, African American,
Pakistani, and Guyanese.5 The SSNM serves as a teaching institution, with its primary
goal being to bring out the true essence, philosophy, and teachings of the Hindu
Shastras—sacred texts—in an easily comprehensible manner.6 Helping the devotees to
remain focused on this objective, the SSNM maintains a motto explicitly visible
throughout the temple property. Whether walking in the Mandir’s majestic front doors or
glancing across its sacred space to the pulpit, one cannot miss the words: “Keep Your
Dharma Alive” (Fig. 8-9). This motto states the priority of the community, while
remaining open to interpretation, since both Hindus and non-Hindus, as I was told by one
of the SSNM’s executive members, have diverse understandings of Dharma.7
As a graduate student at Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in
Religious Studies and pursuing a master’s in South Asian Studies, I experience an ever
3 Michele Verma, “Indo-Caribbean Hindu Practice in Queens: Ethnomethods of
Constituting Place, Practice, and Subjects,” Ph.D. diss. (Columbia University Teachers College,
4 She notes that not all Hindu communities go public because often the spaces in which
they congregate may not be governmentally sanctioned to be places of public meeting. Verma
5 Jack Hawley makes this same point, the only difference being that he includes
Philippino, an ethnicity I did not notice during my trips to Jamaica. John Stratton Hawley,
“Global Hinduism in Gotham,” in Asian American Religions: The Making and Remaking of
Borders and Boundaries, edited by Tony Carnes and Fenggang Yang (New York: New York
University Press, 2004). 121.
6 “Shri Surya Narayan Mandir.” http://www.shrisuryanarayanmandir.org/ “Shri Surya
Narayan Mandir About Us” (accessed October 18, 2013).
7 Dharma can simply mean “religion” or “sacred duty,” yet it can also be understood,
according to Pandit Ram Hardowar, the SSNM’s spiritual leader and guru, as people’s reactions
within the world in which they were created and how they should deal with others. It can further
be explained as that which is natural to one’s self and necessary for existence.
changing understanding of Dharma. After being raised Catholic and ultimately feeling
uncomfortable within the religion of my upbringing, only a few years ago I began the
process of understanding traditions outside of my own. I completed an Introduction to
World Religions course and subsequently signed up to attend a month-long Tibetan
Buddhism class in Kathmandu, Nepal. Because of a problem with my flight, on the
arduous journey across the world, I spent three days on a layover in New Delhi, India.
This experience led me toward the journey that I am on today—a journey that has taught
me what my World Religions professor announced on the first day of class. “True
understanding,” he said, “comes only from experience. If you want to understand
yourself, you must understand others.” Taking his advice has led me to seek an
understanding within a multitude of religious traditions all over Asia, yet few of the
places I have visited can compare with the experience offered in the Jamaica
neighborhood of Queens, not far from where I currently reside.
On my first visit to the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir, after I explained the intention
of my Columbia University Hinduism Here course project to the temple’s spiritual
leader—Guruji—he paused and then commented that I simply could not be taught
Hinduism; I would have to spend time there. “That’s Hinduism Here,” Guruji added,
“[spending time] with those who live it so that you can see for yourself.”8 What I have
witnessed over the last three months, however, is not Hinduism in any generic sense—or,
from the perspective of leaders of the SSNM, Hinduism at all. I asked one of the
Mandir’s executive members, “Is this Guyanese Hinduism?” and he responded, “We
8 This project began in the course, “Hinduism Here,” a Columbia University graduate
seminar taught by Professor Jack Hawley. Each student selected a local Hindu site in which to
perform an ethnographic study. Also, it is important to note, however, that Guruji, when speaking,
will often use the words “Sanatan Dharma” and “Hinduism” interchangeably, something he told
me in our interview.
don’t use the word ‘Hinduism.’ We prefer Sanatan Dharma.”9
Temple members offer various interpretations of Sanatan Dharma. One devotee
described the term as meaning a universal duty, which, for this person, includes having
families, maintaining virtues, and performing selfless service with no expectation of
return. Since all people are born with “baggage” from previous lives, everyone has a
responsibility. The devotee added, “Just like a sugar’s Dharma is to be sweet, we all have
a duty.” Another member described Sanatan Dharma as the utilization of one’s body to
perform dharmic actions and serve Bhagwan. Guruji, by contrast, explained that Sanatan
Dharma is a way of life, a part of which is utilizing the God-given ability to know right
from wrong. Another aspect of Sanatan Dharma is the idea that nature must be respected
In his work on diasporic Hinduism, Steven Vertovec explains that Sanatan means
“eternal,” and Dharma means “cosmic order, sacred duty, mode of being”—though in
many cases, it has come to mean “religion.”10 The notion of eternality denotes a sense of
the unchanging, yet no religion seems capable of remaining perfectly the same over time.
And while Vertovec’s view of Dharma includes three divergent interpretations, the
SSNM’s understanding of the term relates more to sacred duty than to the ideas of cosmic
order and mode of being. Vertovec also points out that “the forms and meanings of
Hinduism have continued to change in ways that are curiously both distinct from, and
9 Swami Vivekananda thought that unlike most of the world’s traditions, Hinduism is not
connected to the lives of founders but rather principles – a timeless collection of spiritual truths.
Prema A. Kurien, A Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism
(New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2007), 124.
10 Steven Vertovec, The Hindu Diaspora: Comparative Patterns (New York: Routledge,
continuous with, the still evolving forms and meanings in India itself.”11 The Shri Surya
Narayan Mandir’s eternal religion reflects those traditions found in the diaspora and also
mirrors the kinds of traditions one might find in India. During the Festival of Ganga Ma,
for example, devotees in Guyana go to the beach to perform pujas, while in New York
City they simply imagine themselves along the shore of the Ganges River. The cold
temperatures in November, after all, prevent them from performing pujas outside. By
contrast to the diasporic representations of the tradition and in comparison to them on the
Subcontinent, the SSNM is open every day, there is a diversity of deities for worship
within its space, and a group of selected and trusted servants who operate and maintain it.
While the condition of diaspora does reflect many of the aspects of Hinduism
found in India, the focus at the SSNM is on the expansion of some of its practices in
order to accommodate those outside the traditional boundaries of Hinduism. The
traditions of Hindus in the Caribbean, according to Vertovec, are the results of over one
hundred and fifty years of “inadvertent permutation, deliberate alteration or innovation,
and structurally necessary modification.”12 Indians first arrived in Guyana in 1838 as part
of a global relocation of indentured workers from India to European colonies in the
Caribbean.13 Governed by a system of indenture contracts, laborers worked on
plantations for periods of five or more years, typically cultivating sugar within
challenging circumstances, where many experienced poverty, malnutrition, and disease.
11 Vertovec, 1.
12. Ibid., 39.
13 Vertovec notes that a total of 238,909 Indians arrived in Guyana (then British Guiana)
between 1838 and 1917. 44. He also reports that migration from Bihar, which is where most of
the SSSN members emigrated from, was high in the 1880s, but dropped considerably at the turn
of the century. Ibid., 45.
While the conditions throughout the colonies for Indian indentured workers were
harsh, approximately eighty percent of the immigrants chose to stay in the Caribbean
after the period of indentured servitude ended because opportunities to obtain land and
enjoy social mobility seemed greater there than on the Subcontinent.14 During the
nineteenth century in the Caribbean, Hinduism was a minority religion, often considered
heathen and even demonic by the ruling communities, and making these conditions worse
were missionary activities aimed at Hindus in Guyana by Anglicans and Methodists.15 As
a result of such efforts, Hindu pandits debated with Christians, and this led to the
portrayal of Hinduism as a unified religion, eventually leading to the establishment of
formal Hindu organizations.16
It is believed that during the early part of the twentieth century an informal
pandits’ parishad existed among Brahmin priests in British Guyana, although they did
not consolidate the country’s religious practices. “The primary catalyst for the national
organization of a unitary, standardized Brahmanic Hinduism,” says Vertovec, “was the
introduction of the Arya Samaj.”17 This reformist movement, which called for a Vedic
cleansing of Hindu beliefs and practices, resulted in the creation of official organizations
in India and throughout the diaspora to endorse Sanatan Dharma, a formal orthodoxy.
14 Vertovec, 43.
15 Ibid., 52.
16 I asked a SSNM devotee what he thought about the history that Vertovec lays out, and
relating his own experience growing up in the West Indies, he said, “There was so much pressure
from Christians to convert that it made many go back and work harder for Hinduism. But if
people didn’t convert they couldn’t get jobs. If parents didn’t give their children Christian names
they wouldn’t have the same opportunities. Even when I grew up in the Caribbean, if you didn’t
know the cool music and act western you weren’t popular. But I don’t believe Christians
influenced our religion except to make us focus on it more.”
17 Ibid., 54.
In 1910, the first Arya Samaji missionaries arrived in Guyana, and as a result of
the debates between Sanatanist and Arya Samaj camps over Hindu orthodoxy and
orthopraxy, a Pandit’s Council was later created to be an authority on doctrinal and ritual
matters and to act as a nationwide representative body for the religion throughout the
country.18 What began, then, as controversies over beliefs and practices caused local
Hindu religious leaders to respond by articulating their philosophies, thus reforming the
religion and creating a more concise Hindu ideology.19 This reconstitution of beliefs is
present today in New York City. “Keep Your Dharma Alive”—the way in which the
SSNM maintains a mottoed form of dharma-consciousness—therefore, is an effort to
create a more coherent religious message and presence, a move typical of diasporic
Queens, the neighborhood in which the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir calls home, is
considered by many to be the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in America. Prema
Kurien, in her book on reform movements and the development of Hinduism in the
United States, explains how diasporic communities behave in environments outside of
India. In her view, multicultural environments create a need to become more ethnically
unique, and in comparison to the neighboring religious communities—the temples,
churches, mosques, and synagogues—the SSNM community is quite exceptional.20
Kurien further describes Hindutva movements in India, emphasizing the financial support
that Hindus in America offer those abroad.21 Similarly at the SSNM, each year the temple
sends money to three schools in Guyana, and they also help to pay for children to come to
18 Vertovec. 55.
19 Ibid., 69.
20 Kurien, 142.
21 Ibid., 136.
America and study Sanatan Dharma and Indian culture.22
Another aspect of the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir reminiscent of Hindu
communities in the Caribbean is the ability of devotees to participate in the ritual. Paul
Younger, in his work on diasporic Hinduism, explains that most of the care of temple
deities in Guyana is done by lay devotees or priestly assistants, while the pandits focus
their attention on presenting katha.23 Younger adds that the primary worship in the
mandir is conducted on Sunday mornings, a direct challenge but also a response to the
nearby Christian churches. During a yagna that I attended, the ritual sponsor and her
family completed most of the puja, pouring milk, chanting, offering fruit, and performing
arati. At one point, a glob of milk stuck to the side of the temple’s multi-faced Shiva
Lingam, and one of the women wiped it away with a gentle authority, as a mother might
wipe a tear from a child’s face.
It has been suggested that Hinduism in America has become “more of a theology-
and belief-centered religion,”24 and this certainly is the case at the Shri Surya Narayan
Mandir. Members of the community not only put their beliefs into a neatly constructed
religion, but also they put their beliefs into action, most of which help to create an
environment rich in understanding, often entertaining, and unique in comparison to what
we might find in the temples throughout India.
22 There is a significant difference, of course, between this example and that of Kurien.
When I asked if members of the SSNM sends money back to India in addition to Guyana, I was
told that they do not because only 1% of the population still has familial connections on the
23 Paul Younger, New Homelands: Hindu Communities in Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad,
South Africa, Fiji, and East Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). 78. Kathas are the
sermons or lectures delivered by the presiding pandit during services.
24 Kurien, 55.
Over three Columbia University semesters of study, beginning Sunday,
September 8th, 2013 and extending to Sunday, November 15th, 2014, I visited the SSNM
twenty-one times, including eighteen Sunday morning services, one Maha Shiva Puran
Yagna, a Monday night Abishekam, and a Surya Veer Sang Friday night “Hinduism 101”
class. I attended Holika Dahan, the burning of Holika ritual on a Saturday night in March
of 2014, as well as the SSNM 2014 Annual Walkathon. I also spoke regularly with
devotees during post-service meals, and in addition to interviewing the SSNM’s spiritual
leader and guru, Pandit Ram Hardowar, I asked several temple members questions over
the phone and on several occasions even communicated with one via text messages. I
also interviewed Roy Singh, the 2014 Phagwah Parade’s organizing secretary and floats
coordinator. Furthermore, I maintained email contact with one of Pandit Ram’s sons,
another temple leader, and I frequently asked a temple executive various questions.
Places like just the temple foyer, the line for lunch, or in a crowd awaiting the start of an
event became fruitful locations for gathering project information and improving my own
understanding of the community. Most special to me, however, was my experience at the
2014 Phagwah Parade in Richmond Hill. The Shri Surya Narayan Mandir invited me to
ride on their float, and I will forever be grateful for the extraordinary opportunity to
participate in such a way. The experience was an honor.
I would like to thank Professor Jack Hawley for generously agreeing to oversee
my project. I must thank the entire Shri Surya Narayan Mandir community as well.
Without their support, assistance, openness, and honesty, this project would not have
possible. More specifically I thank Pandit Ram Hardowar, Anand Hardowar, and Amar
Persaud. To these three men I repeatedly turned for guidance and help. I thank the SSNM
members who took the time to speak with me in person and over the phone, and I also
thank those families who prepared the post-service lunches each week, neatly stacking
the tiny brown bags filled with prasad I enjoyed later at home. Finally, I thank Sarika, a
young temple devotee and fellow Columbia classmate, for initially inviting me to visit
her Mandir. Ironically, however, it was not her invitation that drew me to the project but
rather her kindness. During our summer Hindi program, to Sarika I expressed interest in
watching a few Bollywood movies, mentioning that I had a Netflix account. She and I
agreed that the online movie service did not have a proper search engine, allowing a
Bollywood novice like me to search specifically for such movies. The following day,
though, Sarika handed me a full-page, hand written list of popular Bollywood films
featured on the website, each categorized by genre. In doing so, Sarika gave me
something more important than her movie recommendations—she gave me her time. To
my own insight now as I look back, what led me to the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir was
her altruism, which invoked within me a desire to see from where it came.
Throughout my project, while attending and examining the above-mentioned
programs, services, events, and community gatherings, I investigated the ways in which
the SSNM seeks to “Keep Your Dharma Alive.” This motto, then, became the lens
through which I have contextualized what I witnessed. In the remainder of this essay, I
focus on four primary categories: dharma-consciousness, community, space, and
activities beyond the temple. I explore how dharma-consciousness is an aspect of the
community’s self-conception, while pointing out the numerous ways in which the eternal
religion is sustained and protected. Further, I consider the community in which Dharma is
manifested by looking specifically at the temple’s primary Pandit and also the views of
the community on children, wives, and elders. I also examine the space in which the
actions take place, closely studying birthday celebrations, the process of questions and
answers, and the levity evident in much of the temple’s services. By examining the layout
of the Mandir, I show how it embodies Sanatan Dharma. After attending the SSNM
Annual Walkathon, the Burning of Holika Ritual, and the 2014 Phagwah Parade, I
highlight the ways in which the community expresses itself within the public.
Among the SSNM devotees and inherent within the teachings offered during
services, dharma-consciousness appears to be a major aspect of a Caribbean-Hindu self-
conception. Peter van der Veer, in a study of this tradition, describes Hindu identity as
one “acquired through social practice and, as such, constantly negotiated in changing
contexts.”25 “To be a Hindu,” he says, “is neither an unchanging, primordial identity nor
an infinitely flexible one which one can adopt or shed at will.”26 At the Mandir, in the
context of the Queens milieu, the identity of the community of devotees as well as the
temple itself is developed through a regular schedule of weekly events. These include:
Monday’s Lord Shiva Abishekam, Tuesday’s yoga and meditation, Wednesday’s kirtan
practice, Thursday’s pandit training and Vedanta course, Friday’s Sanatan Dharma
program for children, Saturday’s dance lessons, and, finally, Sunday’s morning service
The practice of developing an identity is also a practice of protecting the Dharma,
an integral part of keeping the Dharma alive. Like most of the tenets and beliefs of
Sanatan Dharma, the SSNM’s motto is open to interpretation. One temple member
25 Vertovec, 7.
described the motto as articulating the great values and traditions handed down by his
forefathers and passing the values and traditions on to future generations, while a second
said, “it means you come here and it helps you brighten your day—you feel better—
that’s what it’s about.” For another devotee, the motto has to do with keeping the
traditional Hindu values alive in America, outside of Guyana and India. And another
SSNM member explained that “Keep Your Dharma Alive” serves as a reminder for the
community to keep practicing what their ancestors practiced. She noted how Caribbean
Hindus preserve the culture more than East Indian Hindus because they must—they are
further separated from India. In this devotee’s view, Hinduism for the East Indians is
more accessible and therefore more easily preservable. “A lot of things they take for
granted we cherish,” she added.
While protecting the Dharma is a personal responsibility, which requires a certain
amount of appreciation, Sanatan Dharma principles, because of their openness and
fluidity, are not dogmatic. In an interview, Guruji explained that the motto “means
following the laws and teachings of the Vedas,” which, as he pointed out, are not
dogmatic like those found in many other religions.27 To his perception, unlike
Christianity and Islam, both of which contain founders, Hinduism evolved naturally with
the creation of the world, and as such, deals strictly with nature. Rather than containing
rigid laws and commandments, the Vedas simply clarify a person’s place within this
world—how one should act and also interact with others, and according to the Pandit,
“give the flexibility to have personal choices but still operate within the norms and
27 In his evaluation of the tradition, Vertovec agrees. He says, “There is no single, central,
or basic creed, doctrine or dogma from which all religious traditions of India derive.” Vertovec, 8.
guidelines of… Dharma.”28 To this end, God has given human beings intellect, which,
the Pandit notes, is an innate ability to discriminate between right and wrong. “Utilizing
that ability with the guidelines of our Dharma,” he added, “man lives in this world; and
that, in a sense, is Sanatan Dharma.”29
The Shri Surya Narayan Mandir’s motto is the impetus for the ways in which
Sanatan Dharma—eternal religion—is promoted and explicated throughout the temple
community. The Mandir and its pandits draw and distill their teachings from Hindu
Shastras, and responses to questions are consistently derived from these texts (Vedas,
Upanishads, Ramayana, Bhagavad Gita) as well. During my first experience at the
Mandir, Guruji’s son, who often leads the Sunday morning puja, mentioned the
Bhagavad Gita’s verse 2:20, reminding the congregation, “Krishna tells us we were never
born.” On another occasion, Guruji described the myth of Shiva and Sati. Since Sati had
thrown herself on the fire, Guruji condemned suicide, telling the devotees that it is not a
part of Sanatan Dharma.30 During Pitri Paksh, Guruji quoted the Rig Veda, first singing
the verse in Sanskrit before translating it in English, and then he cited the Mahabharata,
telling a story of someone performing charity for his or her foreparents. As he
encouraged those in attendance to make offerings to their foreparents, he said, “The
28 In the interview I conducted, Guruji described the four pillars of Sanatan Dharma,
likening them to a cow, an animal revered in Hinduism. The four pillars are seen as the four legs
of the cow, the first leg – the leg of truth, the second leg – the leg of purity, the third leg – the leg
of compassion, and the fourth leg – the leg of giving freely/service.
29 As a point of comparison, Guruji offered the notion of ahimsa or nonviolence, which
includes nonviolence to human beings, animals, and nature. He said, “So this law, this guide…
does not say Thou Shall Not Kill because Thou Shall Not Kill does not make sense because there
are situations in life where it is necessary to kill for survival.” According to the Pandit, one will
find similar decrees in Sanatan Dharma.
30 According to Kurien, reform movements sometimes criticize icon worship, excessive
ritualism, and customs such as sati and child marriage, much of which is evident at the SSNM.
Vedas declare that when our parents are blessed, we are blessed.”
Dharma is also disseminated to the community of SSNM devotees through their
website, as ShriSuryaNarayanMandir.org is brimming with information (Fig. 11).31 In
addition to details of the services and classes offered, upcoming events, and current
temple news, the website offers sections such as “words of wisdom” and “articles &
books.” If one is interested in the SSNM’s interpretation of Thanksgiving Day, for
example, one will find “The True Meaning of Thanksgiving.” This essay written by
Guruji’s wife, Guruma, describes the importance of being thankful for God’s gift of
human embodiment and also for the challenges God bestows upon us.32 Furthermore,
there is a separate section clarifying the significance of Surya Bhagwan, and Guruji has
even written a book—“Which Side of Husband Should Wife Sit During Pooja?”—made
available for free download.
The abundance of information, including published articles as well as other items
made available to communities of worshippers, is an aspect that Vasudha Narayanan, in
her study of the Srivaisnava Temple in Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, has noted. According to
Narayanan, while in India newspapers and television programs provide information
concerning rituals and religious discourses, in America the offering of information by
temples is often the only means for diasporic communities to receive regular religious
31 “Shri Surya Narayan Mandir.” http://www.shrisuryanarayanmandir.org/ Temple
executives determine what information goes on the website, and it is maintained by Amar
Persaud, the former SSNM President.
32 In addition to caring for much of the temple, including its deities, attending temple
services, performing rituals, helping with birthday celebrations and charity events, singing,
contributing to the website, Guruma teaches the Mandir’s weekly yoga class, something to which
she more recently obtained certification in order to help her congregation. Guruma appears to
help with the Mandir in every way, in the same way a mother contributes to her family.
education.33 The abundance of religious information and instruction on the SSNM
website, therefore, makes up for the lack of religious information in American society,
ameliorating the task of sustaining Dharma.
Besides a website, the SSNM maintains a YouTube channel and Facebook page,
as well as a newly introduced television program—Surya Sandesh TV, which airs each
week on a local cable TV station (Fig. 12-14).34 While the Facebook page keeps members
informed of upcoming temple activities, the YouTube channel is a tool that Pandit Ram
and the other temple priests remind the community to use if members want to reexamine
particular teachings that they have elucidated during past services. Similarly, the purpose
of Surya Sandesh TV is to bring the philosophy, culture, and teachings of the Hindu
Shastras to its viewers, and at the same time keeping them informed of the Indo-
Caribbean community’s current events and activities. As in the case of the YouTube
channel, it seems that the intention behind the creation of Surya Sandesh TV is to help
viewers better understand Sanatan Dharma teachings. In the inaugural episode, for
instance, Pandit Ram discusses the inner meaning of Navaratri and the spiritual
significance and philosophy behind Durga-Ma and her Shakti.35 The television program
includes a “medical minute”—a brief segment highlighting medical issues and useful tips,
and also Surya Sandesh TV will soon have a segment during in which questions can be
33 Vasudha Narayanan, “Hinduism in Pittsburgh: Creating the South Indian ‘Hindu’
Experience in the United States” in The Life of Hinduism, edited by John Stratton Hawley and
Vasudha Narayanan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006). 241.
34 Surya Sandesh airs each week at 10am on ITV in New York City, Time Warner Cable
channel 1539. For the YouTube channel, see:
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCz4NTQXoYkqTAy4tm5eBnvg For the Facebook page see:
35 The inaugural episode aired October 5, 2014, and can be seen here:
In addition to the multitude of materials available to assist members to better
understand the teachings, during his sermons Guruji regularly makes use of simple
comparisons or analogies. In the discussion of Pitri Paksh, for example, amid several
questions from the audience about Pitri Lok, he compared it to sending a UPS package,
explaining that when we ship a UPS package to Manhattan, the package has to be routed
somewhere else.36 Then from that central hub, it gets sent to Manhattan. In this same way,
believers can only have access to their departed ones via Pitri Lok. As another example,
on the sixth night of Navaratri, Guruji likened Lord Brahma to a movie screen, explaining
that he created the world, so he is the screen. Since Shakti is all that exists, he added, she
is what one sees on the screen. Guruji, therefore, helps members keep their Dharma alive
by making sure they understand it, sometimes repeating his explanations in ways more
easily understood by adherents who live in diasporic environments, places where little
religious education is offered in society.
Another innovation at the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir is the use of songbooks. In
the spring of 2014, the Mandir created and printed a songbook of Hindi and Sanskrit
prayers with which devotees are able to read and sing along (Fig. 15). To assist those
members unable to comprehend the words in their original writing, the prayers and songs
have been transliterated from the Devanagari script and into the Roman alphabet.37 While
citing the problems of cultural alienation and reintegration for some diasporic Hindu
communities, in his study of Hindu communities in New York City, John Stratton
36 Pitri Lok is the celestial home of ancestors.
37 In the back of the SSNM’s songbooks, there are sections entitled, “Why do we blow a
conch?” and “Why do we ring bells in the temple?” which, like their website, YouTube channel,
and television show, help devotees better understand Sanatan Dharma and Indo-Caribbean culture.
To the question regarding the purpose of ringing bells, for instance, the text reads, “The temple is
the house of God, so it is only polite to make a sound before one enters. Don’t we always knock
before entering one’s home? Besides, ringing bells is fun!”
Hawley points out that this type of focus on Hindi is not central to most Caribbean Hindu
communities. “The language of preaching and conversation,” he says, “is far more apt to
be English than Hindi.”38 At the SSNM nearly all conversations take place in English, but
one of the ways members hope to improve their Hindi speaking skills is through
For members of the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir, going on pilgrimage is a step
toward keeping their Dharma alive. Not only does pilgrimage connect devotees with the
language of their ancestors, which has been mostly lost in the diaspora, but it also, as
Hawley argues, helps “to close the India-Guyana-New York triangle that they and their
forebears have otherwise traveled for economic reasons.”39 In the coming year, from the
middle of February to the beginning of March, 2015, fortunate temple devotees will
travel to India—to the land of their ancestors—to undertake a spiritual journey. They will
visit the Brahma temple in Pushkar, Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Krishna, Vrindavan,
where Krishna is said to have grown up, Haridwar, the doorway to Lord Shiva, Rishikesh,
the gateway to the Himalayas, and Varanasi, which the SSNM considers the holiest of all
pilgrimage sites in India.40
Pandit Ram Hardowar, affectionately known by his congregation as Guruji, is the
son of the SSNM’s founder, Pandit Hardowar Panday, who began his career at the age of
39 Ibid,. 122.
40 It is worth noting that approximately 50 individuals from the SSNM community
traveled to Pennsylvania in May of 2014 and visited the Hindu Jain Temple of Pittsburgh and the
Sri Venkateswara Temple. According to one SSNM executive, as a means of purification through
a process called tirth yatra, Hindus visit other temples. “It is a blessing to visit other temples as it
is considered the home of Bhagwan,” he said, though he pointed out that this is from a relative
standup. From an absolute standpoint, Bhagwan is considered omnipresent.
ten as a priest in Guyana.41 Guruji himself was born and raised in Crabwood Creek,
Guyana, and after graduating from college, he spent several years working as an engineer.
As the son of a pandit, Guruji was raised in an environment in which the tenets of
Sanatan Dharma were a part of his daily life.42 Michele Verma, in her work on the
training of Caribbean-born Hindu pandits living in Queens, notes that within the
narratives of the lives of the pandits she examined, “there are instances when life events
demanded that they take responsibility for their own learning in order to serve the greater
needs of the group.”43 After immigrating to the United States in 1985 and recognizing a
need for another temple in the Queens milieu, under the tutelage of his father and his
Guru, Guruji immersed himself in Sanatan Dharma, becoming a pandit in order to fill a
Verma also asserts that traditional orthodox Sanaatanist interpretations of
Hinduism upheld by organizations such at the U.S.A. Pandit Parishad to which the SSNM
belongs, declare that only male Brahmins are eligible and ritually pure enough to become
pandits.44 The SSNM offers pandit training to male Brahmins, and according to Guruji,
he and the other younger priests meet often and practice. “We teach each other, and we
go along,” he said. The U.S.A. Pandit Parishad is a place where the pandits can go for
training if they think it is necessary. “But then you’re given the freedom to go and
practice,” he added, “not under their umbrella – [to] practice as an individual once you
41 “Shri Surya Naryan Mandir.” http://www.shrisuryanarayanmandir.org/ “Executives”
(accessed November 8, 2013).
42 Vertovec explains that subsequent their battles with Christian Missionaries, pandits in
Guyana at the turn of the nineteenth century “gained clients for their ritual services by offering to
all – regardless of caste background – the beliefs and practices previously within their own
exclusive preserve.” 53.
43 Michele Verma, “The Education of Hindu Priests in the Diaspora: Assessing the Value
of Community of Practice Theory” in Teaching and Teacher Education 26, no. 1 (2010): 14.
44 Ibid., 12.
have attained training.”
At the Mandir, in addition to their caste, learned male devotees must develop an
extensive knowledge of Sanatan Dharma and live dharmic and pious lives in order to be
eligible for pandit training. Guruji explained how in his particular tradition each person
has the individual freedom to choose this kind of devotional service. “Hinduism is
different than what we refer to as Judeo-Christian faiths,” explained the Pandit, “so
there’s no hierarchy like the Catholic system… no Pope that gives instructions down in a
triangular format.” And while knowledge and piety are essential characteristics of pandits
or potential pandits, an ability to sing is not imperative. One long-time temple member
commented on Guruji’s vocal skills, saying, “He’s not the best singer like the other
pandits, but he’s a great reader. He has a photographic memory,” he added, “and can
recall anything he reads.”
During Sunday morning services, pandits-in-training regularly participate with
Guruji. After the Pandit completed his sermon on Diwali, for example, he asked another
pandit seated at the altar to say some words. And he did so, elaborating more on the story
of Krishna and Mount Govardhan and then suggesting that we must take care of the Earth,
a topic that Guruji had not covered. Though contributing to the ritual work of the mandirs
is open to most Indo-Caribbean Hindus, “becoming recognized as a pandit-in-training,”
according to Verma, “is dependent on the ratification of others,” which is the case at the
Apart from the opportunity for individuals to become pandits, the Shri Surya
Narayan Mandir is an environment where lay members of the community are encouraged
45 Verma, “The Education of Hindu Priests in the Diaspora: Assessing the Value of
Community of Practice Theory,” 15.
to take part in ritual and service activities. Devotees regularly assist with pujas, making
offerings to the deities as well as particular temple attendees and pandits. During a
Monday night Abishekam, for instance, all six devotees in attendance handled ritual
lamps, rang bells, and beat the drum at the main altar, before moving to the back of the
mandir to worship Shiva in his linga form. Temple youth help out as well, as children
assist with puja and also participate in kirtan and bhajan.46
While participation among the community is encouraged throughout temple
events, the SSNM emphasizes the importance of educating temple youth. Throughout
Guruji’s weekly sermons, often he describes the responsibilities of the temple’s younger
members. On one Sunday morning, for example, the Pandit enumerated the five things
children must accomplish each day. He explained that they must pray to God, pray to
worship the rishis, say a prayer in honor of their parents, love everybody around them,
and always be compassionate to everyone.47
At the SSNM, the emphasis on education has led to the creation of educational
classes, which begin early for devotees. Starting at age six, children are encouraged to
enter the four-year Sanatan Dharma children’s program, Surya Veer Sang (SVS).48 This
program, which includes three 13-week semesters, is free to all youths with a desire to
learn more about their tradition, and its primary purpose is to build confidence within the
46 It is worth reporting that on one occasion, a man interrupted Guruji’s service, asking if
he could present the Pandit with a hat. The congregation laughed and clapped, and Guruji, in
response, accepted the gift and said he would keep it for Lord Shri Krishna. The man later raised
his hand and asked to speak, and Guruji granted his request. The man then offered a brief sermon
in Hindi, before breaking out in song at the start of kirtan.
47 It is also worth noting that the saying—“kids will be kids—is evident at the SSNM.
One youth I spoke with admitted that although he likes his mandir and comes frequently with his
mom, sometimes the Sunday services are long and a bit boring. He joked, “Hey, the new Call of
Duty (video game) is coming out!”
48 “Shri Surya Narayan Mandir.” http://www.shrisuryanarayanmandir.org/ “Surya Veer
Sang Class” (accessed October 18, 2013).
SSNM’s younger generation.49 According to the SVS pamphlet, since the United States is
a cultural mosaic, where various cultures merge, helping to construct a better American
identity, it is important for Hindus to help in this construction, and they can do so by
becoming more confident, a quality which comes from increased knowledge. The
objective of the SVS, therefore, “is to educate Hindus to build that confident Hindu
Identity and be model Americans.”50
In addition to the education of its younger members, the Mandir focuses special
attention on the importance of females and, in particular, wives. During a Sunday
morning service, Guruji spoke about the significance of chanting “Om Namo Shivaya,”
relating a tale about three men stuck on one side of a wide river. The men were unable to
get across, so the first man prayed to Shiva, chanting “Om Namo Shivaya” and asking for
help. Shiva appeared, and the first man asked for strength. Shiva bestowed strength upon
him, and as the result, the man swam across the water, but with much struggle, finally
making it to the other side. The second man asked Shiva for strength and the right tools.
He received them and subsequently swam across. The third man asked for strength, the
tools, and wisdom, and consequently, according to Guruji, Shiva “made him a lady!” The
entire congregation began laughing, and many shook their heads in agreement. The third
man became a woman and easily made it across because there was a bridge down river.
Thus, a person with strength, wisdom, and the right tools can only be “a lady” or a wife.
Afterward, Guruji added, “Don’t we all need a little help once in a while from our wives?”
Furthermore, even during Diwali, after describing how Krishna killed Narakasura, a
49 Surya Veer Sang is also open to adults, yet the primary focus is on children attending
50 While SVS pamphlet promotes the program, so too does the SSNM’s Facebook page.
A Facebook post from August 11, 2014 reads, “How do you keep your Dharma alive? Send your
children to Surya Veer Sang classes at Shri Surya Narayan Mandir.”
demon king, thus freeing 16,000 mothers from samsara, Guruji said, “He has to be God.
If you can have 16,000 wives, you can only be God!”51 It is the women—the wives,
therefore, that are regarded as really being the true strength and fortitude behind the
marriages, the temple, and the religion. One temple leader noted that historically “many
cultures relate power with the male gender, but Sanatan Dharma has always glorified the
female gender, and even places it on a pedestal.”
Although there is consistently much talk about the position and importance of
wives within the community, there is a deep respect bestowed upon elders as well. Bansi
Pandit, in his book on Dharma, explains that in Hindu culture, elders are “considered to
be the progenitors of spiritual instruction and training … [and] the relationship with
elders is, thus, viewed as a spiritual relationship by the younger generation.”52
Throughout every ritual I have witnessed, when arati is being performed, one or more of
the ritual actors will offer the light to nearby elders. Many of the younger devotees,
particularly the males, often stop and humbly touch the feet of the older members as they
walk by. There are chairs along one wall for the elders, and temple devotees will walk
them to their seats and help them sit down. It seems that intergenerational solidarity is an
aspect of the religion, and one SSNM executive confirmed this fact, saying, “Respecting
our elders or parents is one of the foremost tenets in Sanatan Dhamra.” The space within
the Mandir, then, is a place where sustaining Sanatan Dharma includes its reverent views
51 Found in the Shrimad Bhagwat Puran text, this story describes how Narakasura
kidnapped 16,000 women, and subsequently, Krishna rescues and marries them in order to restore
their place in society. At the SSNM, this day is celebrated as Narak-Chaturthi, the second day of
52 Bansi Pandit, Hindu Dharma (Illinois: B & V Enterprises, Inc., 1997). 77.
The Mandir is a place for celebration, with birthday parties taking place in the
midst of nightly or Sunday morning services (Fig. 16).53 Vasudha Narayanan, in her
forthcoming book on Hindu Traditions, asserts that Hindus may have more rituals and
celebrations than any other religion.54 Many of these celebrations, according to the author,
center “around food and fun and seldom involve going to a temple.”55 While food and fun
are customary aspects of most birthdays, at the Shri Surya Narayanan Mandir, they along
with the entire birthday celebration take place at the temple. Birthdays have been a part of
nearly every Sunday morning service I attended. My first time at the mandir in 2013, for
example, included Gurumaa’s birthday as well as one of my last visits. A temple regular
that has been attending services since he was a child explained how anybody could
celebrate their special day there. “In the same way you can celebrate your birthday by
drinking and eating meat, if you are religious you can celebrate your birthday [at the
SSNM] by praying.”56
At the SSNM, birthdays also become opportunities for the temple congregation to
further understand the tenets of Sanatan Dharma. During a Sunday morning service, for
instance, after explaining how Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita tells us that we never die,
Guruji asked the congregation, “What have we done? Where are we going in life?” In
that spirit, birthdays are a means of marking the passage of time in this life, allowing
devotees to reflect on the past to see how far they have come spiritually, while, at the
53 Although birthdays, at times, are celebrated on festival days, they are not specifically
aligned with the yearly festival calendar
54 Vasudha Nararayan, The Hindu Tradition/s: An Introduction, (forthcoming), 417.
56 This SSNM devotee explained that the particular birthday celebrant from that day was
very religious, and his father had even been a pandit.
same time, focusing on improving in the future. Amid another Sunday gathering, which
included the observance of a devotee’s eighteenth birthday, Guruji said to the young man,
“From what Lord Krishna says, it’s impossible for you to celebrate your birthday.” The
Pandit continued, explaining that although birthdays are celebrated throughout the world,
Sanatan Dharma declares that a person cannot be born. “How do we understand this?” he
asked the congregation. Guruji concluded this portion of his sermon by revealing that
people have two identities—relative and absolute. Relative identity is a worldly identity;
it is the identity one seeks at the Department of Motor Vehicles, while absolute identity
emphasizes the fact that a person is never born because the eternal aspect of existence
cannot be born or pass away.
Birthdays also allow temple members to share their gratitude for particular
celebrants. Another Sunday service included a birthday party for Guruma. After playing
numerous kirtans in her honor, several temple devotees offered thanks for her service to
the community and congratulations for her birthday. When her second son, one of the
main kirtan players, was asked to speak on her behalf, he paused, having trouble
articulating his comments. “I get emotional whenever I talk about my mom,” he admitted,
barely holding back his tears. Just as the words—“You have always protected me”—
came out of his mouth, he and his mother immediately began crying. At the end of the
service, after countless people had paid respects to her, Guruma explained that as a yoga
teacher, she should not be crying. This, like many of the comments made that day,
resulted in laughs from the audience.
In addition to gratitude, SSNM birthday celebrations highlight the entire Mandir
community. In her discussion of Diwali and how larger festivals showcase communities
in particular regions, states, or even around the world, Narayanan states, “a whole
community is understood sometimes through the prism of one celebration even though it
may be local in nature.”57 In an analogous context, through the birthday celebration of
one temple devotee, the entire SSSN community is on display. While tenets Sanatan
Dharma are disseminated during the festivities, helping to illustrate its importance, for
example, one can easily sense the community’s familial and social connectedness by
witnessing the heartfelt congratulations that members offer the celebrants. The birthdays,
therefore, not only serve commemoration purposes but they also offer on display the
various other aspects of the SSNM.58
In addition to the effective way in which the temple space allows for celebrations,
at the SSNM there exists a particular kind of levity, making the process of learning more
enjoyable and also efficacious. During Navaratri, for example, Guruji described the
importance of mothers, explaining how they are the first to teach children, and then he
shared a humorous story about a young boy asking his parents about the beginning of
humankind. Guruji narrated how the boy first asked his father about his origin, and since
the father was not a religious person, he told his son about Darwin’s theory of evolution,
which claims that humans are the descendants of apes.59 The child then asked his mother
the same question, and she explained that humans come from God. Her son was confused
by the two different answers, so the mother said both stories were true. According to the
boy’s mother, while her side of the family came from God, the father’s side of the family
57 Nararayan (forthcoming book), 440.
58 The SSNM employs a large projection screen during most Sunday morning services,
which often is used to congratulate celebrants.
59 Interestingly, Matthew Gervais and David Sloan Wilson, in their article, “The
Evolution and Functions of Laugher and Humor: A Synthetic Approach,” point out that Darwin
himself accorded laugher and humor high evolutionary significance. 396.
came from monkeys! Upon hearing Guruji’s punch line, the SSNM congregation erupted
into laughter. The temple leader, therefore, by employing a lighthearted tale to deliver his
message—that mothers are the keepers of true knowledge within families—did so more
In their work on the topic of ritual levity and humor within South Asian traditions,
Selva J. Raj and Corinne Dempsey point out that there exists among scholars and nonspecialists
alike a tendency “to view ludic expressions and behaviors as no more than
superficial and marginal aspects of human life, incongruent with the seriousness and
solemnity normally associated with religion.”60 Initially Raj and Dempsey offer
definitions of “levity” that suggest playfulness and lightheartedness, yet lack proper
seriousness; they, however, interpret “ritual levity” as a term denoting playful ritual
actions, simultaneously lighthearted and serious, a phenomenon I have personally
witnessed on several occasions at the SSNM.61 In fact, I have heard Guruji and the other
pandits repeatedly say, “Krishna tells us we were never born,” referring to verse 2:20 in
the Bhagavad Gita, and then make light of the teaching. After discussing the idea during
the birthday celebration service of Gurumaa and another temple member, for instance,
Guruji said to the celebrants, “we will now celebrate your birthday, even though you
60 Selva J. Ray and Corinne G. Dempsey, eds, Sacred Play: Ritual Levity and Humor in
South Asian Religions (New York: SUNY Press, 2010). 2.
61 Raj and Dempsey point out that the ludic dimensions of religious practices—the ritual
levity and playfulness inherent in various South Asian traditions—are seldom viewed from the
standpoint of humans. The majority of scholarly work on the topic, they argue, centers on the
tricks, adventures, and play initiated by divine beings, collectively termed “lila.” Their book as
well as my attention on the subject at the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir, therefore, focuses on the
human side of things (page 8). Ibid., 3.
weren’t born.”62 Guruji’s playful statement created a lighthearted environment, yet his
comment did not diminish the importance of Krishna’s teaching.63
Members of the SSNM community offered various understandings regarding the
idea of ritual levity. One SSNM member explained that when you are trying to
understand God, you have to understand that God is in everything and is everything. With
that, he said, God is happiness. Another temple member clarified this idea, explaining,
“When one realizes that there is no difference between oneself and God, then a state of
complete happiness/contentment is achieved. There is a sense of euphoria from this.”
“Once the teachings of Sanatan Dharma are internalized and eventually realized,” he
added, “one develops a sense of contentment, happiness, unparalleled by any other
experience in this world.” Raj and Dempsey agree, arguing that religious practitioners
turn to levity not merely for comic relief but also for the psychological, social, and
religious dividends it produces.64
In his explanation of the regular temple phenomenon, Guruji described how levity
and humor actually encourage devotees to surrender to the Divine because “God does not
want us to be serious.” He added, “God wants us to be loving and to be kind and to
supplicate and to surrender to him… We can surrender with laughter. Why not?”65 On
that particular day, I even made a comment to a fellow participant about the humor and
62 This was the second, consecutive year I attended the Gurumaa’s birthday service, the
first being my initial experience at the mandir.
63 During an interview, Guruji said that there are times when seriousness is important
because it can be necessary for people to think and grow. As such, humor and seriousness are like
playing Ping-Pong. “You have to send the ball so it can come back to you,” he said. “If you keep
the ball with you all the time being tense (or serious), you will need an opportunity to hit the ball
again (or to laugh). So you got to let it go – a little laughter – and it will come back – be a little
serious, and let it go again.”
64 Raj and Dempsey, 6.
65 This particular idea of surrender, according to Guruji, comes from the Bhagavad Gita,
when “God says come to me my child and I will take care of you.”
she said that in a normal context, “if you don’t make religion serious, people won’t take it
seriously.” This way of looking at spirituality, of course, is not found at the SSNM.
Lightheartedness and levity, it seems, can be anticipated in any context, as joking
and playfulness were a part of every SSNM event in which I attended.66 Raj and
Dempsey, using Victor Turner’s theories on ritual and liminality, further expounded by
Tom Driver, argue that ritual levity “occurs in borderline spaces and moments, in a zone
between the sacred and the profane.”67 To their perception, ritual levity can neither be
entirely sacred or merely profane but “sacrafane,” for it exhibits both sacred and profane
traits. “Levity,” then, according to the two scholars, “is neither an anomaly nor an
aberration but an essential, intrinsic part of ritual that serves multiple—both tangible and
intangible—functions.”68 One SSNM member, when asked if there is a place void of
humor, responded, “Laughter is like water – we need it to live. It’s like food – like
sunshine – there is nowhere that laughter cannot be.” In answering the same question,
another temple member said, “No. I think being jovial and making jokes is a part of our
culture. Back home they make a lot jokes and everything is taken lightly, taken with a
grain of salt.” “Even when someone dies,” she added, “you might make some jokes
because laughter is a part of the healing process.” In these respects, levity functions as a
tangible and intangible human basic need—quenches, sustains, heals, and is ubiquitous—
yet paradoxically beyond touch, ungraspable.
In their work, Raj and Dempsey propose six basic types of ritual levity, all of
which I have observed at the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir. The first basic type is vertical
66 It has been suggested in class by a Caribbean Hindu that for the Caribbean community,
humor is typical. This is where culture from the West Indies mixes with religion. Humor is a
“mark of Caribbean-ness,” she said.
67 Raj and Dempsey, 5.
levity, a kind of lightheartedness that narrows the gap between human and divine realms
and creates intimacy between the two.69 As an example, during Pitri Paksh, a teenage
female member asked Guruji a specific question about the best time to make offerings to
her ancestors, and he answered, “In the case of you, 3:00am.” In addition to causing
participants to chuckle, Guruji’s levity, based on the topic of members transcending
human existence and connecting with their deceased loved ones in the celestial realm
through the offering of prayers, helped close the vertical gap, making the human and the
divine closer to one another.
Horizontal levity, the second of Raj and Dempsey’s six types, brings people
together and improves their relationships with one another. Examples of horizontal levity
are most apparent throughout the SSNM services and events. During the birthday
celebration of Guruma, for instance, the temple President acted as an MC for the event.
Toward what would have normally been the end of Sunday service, he announced that
the event would continue an extra hour, making it three and half hours long. With
microphone in hand, the President then joked that elections were not until the following
year, so the congregation would have to wait until then to elect a new president. Forty
minutes later, as the crowd grew a bit restless, he again joked, saying he heard “talk of
impeachment,” but under his leadership, the service would continue a little longer, which
resulted in laughs. In this illustration, during a time when participants may have
otherwise become frustrated, levity actually helped them connect with each other, both
with their feelings of wanting the service to end and with the humorous notion that the
President could be impeached.
69 Raj and Dempsey, 9.
Transgressive levity, which confronts traditional conventions, orders, and
institutions, frequently through role reversals, is the third of the six types of levity. As an
illustration, during Gurumaa’s birthday celebration, among the people congratulating her,
there was much emphasis on Guruma being a devoted and dutiful wife. When Guruji
spoke, he attributed much of his success and the success of the Mandir to her, and then
joked, “I remember when she first laid eyes on me!” Guruji employed a common line for
describing romantic first meetings, yet he did so in an unconventional, contrasting way.
That is to say, by placing himself—a male—rather than the female at the center of the
compliment, the traditional male and female roles were reversed, a tactic exemplifying
The fourth of Raj and Dempsey’s six basic types of levity is restorative levity,
which reestablishes order and conventional distinctions. Holi, or in the case of Caribbean
Hinduism, Phagwah, is a time of chaos and disorder. At the Holika Dahan ritual, the
night preceding Phagwah, Guruji discussed the social and cultural unity that develops
during in the festival of colors. To this end, he explained that by throwing colors at each
other, the community would see how all the colors eventually blend into one. “Everyone
one of us will blend into one tomorrow,” he said. “And you will not know who is fair-
skinned and dark-skinned. You will not know who has blond hair, or blue hair, or who
don’t have hair.” Humorously commenting about not recognizing the people without hair,
Guruji added, “That’s the right day for me!” This joke, as part of greater teaching about
the unity and order reestablished through a ritual process of creating disorder and chaos,
represents a restorative form of levity.
Redemptive levity, which offers a peek into the transcendent nature of existence,
is fifth on the list. As an example, during a particular Sunday service, Guruji described
the nature of Lord Ganesha, saying that the elephant-headed God never sleeps because he
constantly travels the world solving the world’s problems. Guruji mentioned how his
granddaughter would be starting school for the first time the following day, and then he
asked Ganesha to help her turn in her book reports on time. While the congregation
laughed, in this moment, Guruji offered to his devotees a glimpse into the transcendent
nature of Ganesha, who’s redeeming quality is saving humankind from their problems.
The last of Raj and Dempsey’s six basic types of ritual levity is competitive levity,
which is created to edge out competition and show contests between opposing
participants within a religious group or between rival traditions. To illustrate this
competitive levity, I can offer my own personal experience at the SSNM. At Holika
Dahan, when Guruji noticed me sitting among the devotees, he introduced me to the
attending congregation and thanked me for the blog I wrote during the previous semester.
He then said, “You are a student from St. John’s right?” After I corrected him, Guruji
joked, “I didn’t mean to downgrade you like that!” This is a significant example because
throughout the SSNM community there exists both explicit and implicit pressure on the
temple youth to highly achieve in life. Several times I witnessed Guruji and other pandits
as well as temple executives congratulate young members for their successes, while all
the time talking about the importance of setting and realizing one’s goals. Guruji’s joke,
therefore, only added to the sense of competition among SSNM youth to exceed in life.70
The temple space is also a place in which Sanatan Dharma is disseminated to the
70 In stark contrast to what I have witnessed at the SSNM, Michele Verma cites a New
York Times article in which an East Indian, contrasting the educational aspirations of his
community with those of the Caribbean community, saying, “Our kids are in Ivy League colleges,
the Caribbeans—their parents are not so concerned to push their kids to be professionals.” Verma
congregation through a process of questions and answers. Sanatan Dharma is based on
this process, and the religion actually encourages devotees to question its teachings.
During a Sunday morning service, for instance, a woman asked Guruji what to do when a
non-Hindu marries a Hindu woman who wants to maintain her own tradition. Guruji
immediately responded, “That’s not a marriage.” He then explained that a marriage is
when two people come together and decide on what to believe. “Religion,” he added, “is
more important than race, [and] marriages built on belief last.” Prioritizing the tradition
within all aspects of a devotee’s life, therefore, is central to Sanatan Dharma, and through
this unique process of questions and answers, the SSNM Pandit is able to clarify this fact.
Regarding this process, Guruji himself explained how the idea of a student’s
ability to ask the teacher questions comes from the last portion of the Vedas. “Every
Upanishad,” he said, “is a student sitting at the feet of the master, asking questions… No
teacher will teach unless a question is asked.” He further illustrated this topic by referring
to a question as the mirror into the mind. In this way, a student’s query enables the
teacher to better understand the student’s intellect.71 On this topic, a SSNM devotee said,
““if you have a question you go to Pandit Ram,” and when I asked if he would ever look
to anyone else within the community, he responded, “No, you only go to him.” Another
temple member explained that normally when one asks a pandit questions, he or she will
wait for the service to end to do so. “Other Hindu temples don’t do that at all,” she added,
“… His service is different in that sense.”
71 Guruji, in the same interview, illuminated this concept by relating it to me personally.
“Whatever I say to you as a student during this course at Columbia,” he said, “you will interpret
my words one way. Another student in your class… would interpret my words differently.” This
is because as human beings, we all have our own inner makeup, something we are born with and
based on the actions in our previous lives. As such, questions are essential for individuals with
their own perception of the world to be able to understand Sanatan Dharma or any other kinds of
In related scholarship, Linda Hess, in her study on shankavali—collections of
questions in which devotees have asked Ramcaritmanas experts to resolve
misunderstandings about the text—demonstrates the significance of questioning and how
it enhances devotion to Lord Ram.72 “In the fellowship katha (oral telling of and
commenting on the text),” explains Hess, “devotees may pose questions to specialists, or
the specialists may pose the questions to give themselves a chance to answer.”73 This is a
phenomenon I witnessed several times at the Mandir. Throughout Guruji’s detailed
explanations of Pitri Paksh, for example, he encouraged questions by asking questions
himself. Repeatedly, he inquired, “Can I worship my parents—can I serve them—if they
have passed on? In Sanatan Dharma,” he added, “nothing is dead.” Initially, the room
was quiet until someone asked whether or not a married daughter could make offerings to
her foreparents. Guruji quickly replied, “No, except on the last day, or in the last hour.”
Among those in attendance, there was confusion over his explanation, so two or three
people asked more questions, which he answered.
Paula Richman, in her introduction to the text on the process of questioning the
Ramayana in which Hess’s work is featured, asserts that interrogating the story of Ram
“has played a generative role in sustaining the Ramayana tradition over the centuries,
across regions, and among different communities.”74 While the process of questions and
answers helps maintain the Ramayana tradition, similarly at the SSNM, the process also
72 Paula Richman, “Questioning and Multiplicity Within the Ramayana Tradition,” in
Questioning Ramayanas: A South Asian Tradition, edited by Paula Richman, (Berkeley:
University of California Press. 2001), 13.
73 Linda Hess,“Lovers’ Doubts: Questioning the Tulsi Ramayan,” in Questioning
Ramayanas: A South Asian Tradition, edited by Paula Richman, (Berkeley: University of
California Press. 2001), 27.
74 Richman, 2.
helps sustain Sanatan Dharma across the Indo-Caribbean Queens milieu and among the
same communities in diaspora throughout the world.
In addition to the way in which Guruji and his congregants participate in a process
of questions and answers in order to better understand Sanatan Dharma, the imaginative
invention of the SSNM’s temple structure and layout embodies Sanatan Dharma
philosophy as well. Hawley, in his study of Hinduism in New York City, emphasizes the
importance of space within the metropolis, saying, “Spaces have come to be a major
venue of urban creativity in New York.”75 Within the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir, the
worship hall is where the majority of the temple activity takes place.
Upon stepping into the Mandir’s front doors and passing through the foyer, you
will find yourself in the sanctuary or worship hall. Like the shape of the entire building,
this large room is rectangular in form, and it is also covered in smooth, short carpet.
Immediately to the right, there is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva (Shivala) at Mount
Kailash (Fig. 17-18). This large structure, which is made of fiberglass, depicts the
meditating form of Lord Shiva sitting atop the Himalayas, and beneath him is a five-
faced Shiva lingam, where devotees offer liquid libations to the Lord. One devotee
explained that more than anything else it allows people to make offerings on their own
when they enter the temple. In this member’s view, the Shiva display also shows the
importance of Shiva at the SSNM as opposed to others temples, such as the Prem Bhakti
Mandir on the same street, where the emphasis is on Krishna and Radha (Fig. 19).
A single, elevated altar on which the temple murtis rest is at the front of the space,
flush against the far wall, opposite the entrance, extending from the room’s right side to
75 Hawley, 126.
its left, cut off only by the entrance into the dining area.76 “For Sanaatanist Hindus,” says
Verma, “murtis, consecrated statues where the devatas are invited to be especially present,
are central to the temple and the temple experience.”77 The deities represented on the
SSNM’s main altar are: Hanuman, Ram, Lakshmana, Sita, Durga, Brahma, Vishnu,
Lakshmi, Saraswati, Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha, Krishna, Radha, and Suryanarayn. A crib
with the murti of baby Krishan rests along the left side of the altar, and at its front, closest
to sitting devotees, is a havan-kund, where the ritual fire takes place, as well as the
singhasan, the pandit’s elevated seat. The south wall contains 2 windows allowing light
to penetrate the space, while across the room the wall contains insets where Hanuman,
Durga, Shiva and Parvati, Krishna and Radha, and Kali are at home (Fig. 20).
Joanne Punzo Waghorne, in a study of the Sri Siva-Visnu Temple in Washington,
D.C., describes the decision making process of selecting the deities represented in
temples. Waghorne says that the decisions “to include certain images reflect the creation
of what could be called a new American Hindu pantheon.”78 She adds that choosing
deities from different regions in Indian—“an eclectic mix” as she puts it—is a
“phenomenon of modern times, especially of the rapid pace of temple growth in
America.”79 “This new model is crucial,” adds Waghorne, “because in America all the
gods live in the same house.”80 Hawley agrees, suggesting that this kind of extensive
display of Hindu deities would be abnormal in India, yet in diaspora, because there is a
76 Verma points out that while this arrangement maximizes the space within the worship
hall, it prevents devotees from circumambulating the shrine, a common form of worship in India.
Verma Dissertation, 133.
78 Joanne Punzo Waghorne, “The Hindu Gods in a Split-Level World: The Sri Siva-
Vishnu Temple in Suburban Washington, D.C.” in Gods of the City, edited by Robert A. Orsi,
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999). 118.
greater necessity to summarize than in the homeland, this is a familiar feature.81 In the
view of the temple members I questioned about the choice of deities, the gods
represented on the SSNM altar seemed to be the normal variety within the Indo-
Caribbean Hindu community. “Those are the only gods that we pray to and we do puja
for,” commented one devotee, “and every temple has the same ones.”
Like most of the existing Indo-Caribbean Hindu temples interspersed throughout
New York City, the SSNM was not built from the ground up but was renovated. Guriji, in
an interview, remarked, “We did some work to it—a lot work—to make it into a temple.”
He further explained that the construction of temples are guided by manuals, which are
attached to the Vedas. “But when you are renovating an existing building,” he added,
“you are kind of restricted to whatever is there.”82
As such, although the temple does not fully resemble traditional temple structures
in India, the architecture creates a space particularly beneficial for a temple dedicated to
Surya.83 Along the middle of the worship hall ceiling, for instance, are two sunroofs,
allowing mid-morning sunlight to soak the sanctuary space during Sunday morning
services. Guruji explained, “We thought why keep the Sun out; so we said we must have
the Sun coming in.” In addition, when devotees face the SSNM altar, they are looking to
the east, which is the direction from which the Sun rises, another important aspect of
Caribbean Hindu worship. Guruji elaborated on this subject, saying, “When you face the
east, you are facing the rising sun—you are facing the beginning of a new day.”
81 Hawley, 127.
82 In contrast, the Prem Bhakti Mandir, located just three doors down from the SSNM,
was built from the ground up.
83 Verma makes this same point, citing a study that refers to the buildings as having
“praxeological validy,” meaning they “work” for their intended purpose. Verma Dissertation, 130.
According to the SSNM’s spiritual leader, every day for the devotee is a new day, and
every day, therefore, is a day when people have the opportunity to redeem themselves.
An emphasis on sustaining the Dharma is found even in the decoration of the Shri
Surya Narayan Mandir’s walls. Michele Verma, in her PhD dissertation, explains how the
perimeter of Sanatanist temple halls are decorated with paintings, and then she explicitly
describes the SSNM’s interior, mentioning a temple painting entitled Migration of our
Forefathers from Bharat (India) to the West Indies.84 This painting, which depicts ships
leaving India and heading toward Guyana, offers a visual representation of the
community’s ancestry, while offering a quote from Vinayak Damodar Savakar’s 1949
text, Hindutva, Who is a Hindu, which defines just that. Savakar’s line reads, “Spreading
from Sindu River to Sindu Sagar (Indian Ocean) is the blessed land called Bharat (Fig.
21). He is a true Hindu who accepts it as his forefathers’ land and the land of the
righteous.” Furthermore, Joanne Waghorne, in her study of the Shri Siva-Vishnu Temple
in Washington D.C., argues that who belongs in the temple is written on the temple’s
walls, in its design, and in the rituals practiced there.85 At the Shri Surya Nayanan Mandir,
therefore, who belongs there is explicitly written on its wall—on the painting.
Beyond the Temple
At the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir, the process of sustaining and protecting
Sanatan Dharma extends beyond the temple itself. The SSNM community participates in
numerous activities within the New York City milieu. Each fall devotees join in for the
Annual Mahatma Gandhi Peace March, which is organized by the Federation of Hindu
84 This piece of art was created by a man who Pandit Hardowar Panday, Guruji’s father,
met in India. This man stayed in the temple for several weeks during the construction phase and
actually completed all of the temple’s artwork. Ibid., 132.
85 Waghorne, 115.
Mandirs. SSNM adherents march from the corner of Liberty Avenue and 123rd Street to
the Arya Spiritual Center Grounds in Richmond Hill, Queens with other members of the
entire New York City Indo-Caribbean Hindu community to celebrate Gandhi’s birthday.
Not long after, in October or early November, the SSNM partakes in the yearly Diwali
Motorcade, which is a vehicle procession with automobiles decorated in glowing colors
to celebrate the Hindu Festival of Lights. April 22nd is Earth Day, and each year Mandir
devotees join with others from the Indo-Caribbean community to help clean various New
York City beaches, parks, and recreation areas. The Ramayana in the Park, which is
organized by the Federation of Hindu Mandirs as well as the USA Pandits Parishad, takes
place every August, and over a period of nine nights, attendees witness the great Hindu
epic performed on stage, with each performance prefaced by a teaching from a local
Indo-Caribbean Hindu pandit. This past year (2014), in fact, Guruji opened the yearly
event by offering the first night’s sermon.
Another significant event that takes place in public is the SSNM Walkathon,
which the Mandir solely organizes. The September affair is held each year to raise funds
to benefit the children in the community. The purpose is also to increase awareness of
SSNM beliefs, events, and offerings throughout the public. The 2014 Walkathon began
with the communal recitation of the national anthem of India, “where we started from our
forefathers,” said Guruji, and it was followed by the recital of the national anthems of
both Guyana and the United States (Fig. 22). Afterwards, SSNM members formed two,
single-file lines and marched through the streets of Jamaica, Queens, carrying posters
displaying Mandir beliefs, sayings, and weekly events (Fig. 23-25).
Just as they are at all other Mandir gatherings, humor and levity were a major part
of the Walkathon. As members paraded down Jamaica Avenue, for example, the temple
president recorded participants with a video camera, and one said, “I just got interviewed
by Uncle Amar—this might be my big break!” The Walkathon also increased the
visibility of the SSNM community among the larger Jamaica community, as I witnessed
bystanders as well as people inside businesses, cars, and buses watching devotees
marching and singing through the streets. The various songs exemplified the level of
pride that the community feels for its tradition. One song, for example, went:
Everywhere we go, everywhere we go,
people want to know, people want to know,
who we are, who we are,
so we tell them, so we tell them
we are Hindus, mighty, mighty Hindus.86
While the SSNM takes great pride in its involvement in local events, no affair
makes a greater impact on the entire Caribbean Hindu community than the Phagwah
Parade (Fig. 26-29).87 The parade in Richmond Hill, Queens is organized each year by
The Hindu Parades and Festivals Committee (HPFC) to celebrate Phagwah, the Hindu
86 This song continued by detailing every event available at the Mandir each week.
Describing the offerings on Monday and Tuesday, for instance, devotees sang:
Come and join us, come and join us
every every Monday, every every Monday
for Abishekam, for Abishekam.
Come and join us, come and join us
every every Tuesday, every every Tuesday
for Yoga classes, for Yoga classes.
87 A portion of the following research was conducted during the 2014 spring semester for
a Columbia University course entitled “Traditional Indian Performance,” which culminated in the
completion of a semester paper, focusing on the Phagwah Parade as an example performance.
While the purpose of the project was to show how the Indo-Caribbean Hindu diaspora in Queens,
through their participation in the Parade, performs itself, with my thesis project, the lens is much
narrower, as the focus is specifically on the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir’s contribution to the
yearly public event.
Festival of Colors.88 The name of the festival comes from Phalgun, which is the last
month in the Hindu calendar. While the majority of Indians from North India and
throughout the diaspora refer to the festival as Holi, Indo-Caribbeans primarily call it
Phagwah, which can be understood in a multitude of contexts. The festival is a
celebration of the coming of spring, a time of love, fertility, renewal, rejuvenation, and
transformation. In India and abroad, it is harvest time, not only of crops but also human
passions.89 Perhaps the most important aspect inherent in the Phagwah celebration is the
idea of unity. One interviewee put it perfectly, saying, “Holi is about universal love,
rising above caste, color, and creed.”
In addition to a sense of excitement and unity, among the participants, there exist
feelings of forgiveness, as partakers let go of grudges and begin the new season in a
friendly atmosphere. For Hindus, Phagwah includes a process of commemorating the
disintegration of time—letting go of the past year and marking it with ritual through
another form of debauchery—Holi play—a tradition that involves revelers throwing
colored liquids and powders at each other.90 The celebration of Holi or Phagwah is
88 Parades have a rich history in New York City, where historically the participants are
ethnic groups, hoping to display their national and ethnic pride. Susan Slyomovics, in a similar
study of the Muslim World Day Parade, asserts that New York City civic and ethnic parades,
which typically consist of various groups or institutions marching together with identifying signs,
ethnic costumes, and school and student organizations, are patterned after the oldest and most
famous parade, the 254-year-old Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. Susan Slyomovics, “New York
City’s Muslim Day Parade,” in Nation and Migration: The Politics of Space in the South Asian
Diaspora, edited by Peter van der Veer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995).
89 Holi: A Hindu Celebration. Published by Princeton, NJ Films for the Humanities and
90 The idea of Holi comes from a myth. The word “Holi” takes its name from Holika, the
demoness and sister of the evil King Hiyanyakashipu. In the myth, the king wished to kill his son
Prahlada because of his devotion to Lord Vishnu. Believing that she was fireproof, Holika took
her nephew into the fire, but instead she perished and Prahlada survived. Holi, then, begins with a
bonfire, which symbolizes the end of Holika and the triumph of good over evil.
therefore known as the Festival of Colors, and in Richmond Hill, this part of the tradition
takes place immediately after the parade, within the parameters of Phil Rizzuto Park.91
During the 2014 Phagwah Parade, the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir’s float was
fourth along its route, which extended down Liberty Avenue, before turning on 125th
Street toward Phil Rizzuto Park, where the political speakers and cultural performers
gathered on stage, while Holi was played throughout the park’s grounds. For much of the
parade, I rode on their float, with traditional Guyanese Hindu music playing on board,
while temple devotees and friends danced. Many of the temple elder members walked
slowly in the street along the side of the float, which, unlike most of the other floats that
day, did not have any commercial advertisements for local businesses, but was decorated
in Guyanese flags.
While the SSNM participates each year in the local Phagwah festivities, the
Parade itself helps the temple community in several ways. The yearly procession allows
the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir to establish and affirm its ethnic identity within a city
where countless other ethnic groups are doing the same. Queens is considered by many to
be one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the world. Prema Kurien, in her
91 The first official Phagwah Parade was held in 1990 when organizers received a city
permit, allowing Indo-Caribbeans in Richmond Hill and the neighboring communities of Queens
to carry banners and drive trucks along Liberty Avenue in celebration of Holi. The parade’s
humble origins date back to the previous year, however, when the Arya Spiritual Center
sponsored Holi in a vacant lot on 133rd Street, just off of Liberty Avenue. According to Roy
Singh, the parade’s organizing secretary and floats coordinator, “The parade didn’t start out a
parade. It was children from the Arya Spiritual Center marching around the neighborhood.” The
Parade attracts between 25,000 to 75,000 participants each year. Since its inception, the parade
has continued to grow, gaining more and more attendance and involvement. With that, the HPFC
has developed safety precautions and instituted various guidelines. As Mr. Singh explained,
“Now for safety reasons, only professional floats are allowed.” Each float has a metal railing to
prevent people from falling off or jumping on. Powders and colored dyes are prohibited along the
parade route, although I witnessed attendees playing Holi in the streets several times. In an effort
to maintain peace and control, the HPFC employs individuals to monitor the parade because,
according to Mr. Singh, “the NYPD is not present everywhere.”
work on the development of Hinduism in America, argues that these kinds of
environments generate a need for ethnic groups to become more ethnically unique, which
certainly is the case in and around Richmond Hill.92 In an interview, one of the parade
organizers explained the importance to the Caribbean Hindu community of holding a
parade, mentioning the St Patrick’s Day Parade, the India Day Parade, the Puerto Rican
Day Parade, and the Dominican Day Parade. “All these ethnic groups,” he said, “have
parades to celebrate their culture from where and whence they came.” A local devotee
explained how the parade allows his “cultural heritage not to be lost in Richmond Hill,”
while yet another said that the parade “is to signify whatever traditions are back home.”
In addition to increasing the SSNM community’s ethnic identity, the Phagwah
Parade helps to reinforce each member’s personal sense of identity as Caribbean Hindus.
Because the members of the community are twice removed from India, their identity
must be further strengthened, especially in the New York City area, where they
experience less respect among their East Indian counterparts who have migrated to the
United States directly from India. Michele Verma, in her dissertation work on Caribbean
Hinduism in Queens, explains that the sense of identity enjoyed by East Indians “rests on
perceptions of their superior educational and professional attainments,” a definition of
Indianness, which excludes working class Indo-Caribbeans.93 Verma even cites an
editorial piece in which a Trinidadian American described the embrace of Indo-
Caribbeans by immigrants directly from India “like one extended to a poor cousin, not
denying kinship but certainly aware of its relative power.”94 These same kinds of
92 Prema A Kurien, A Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American
Hinduism (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2007). 142.
93 Verma, 87.
94 Ibid., 88.
misconceptions occur in academia as well. Steven Vertovec references Joanna Lessinger,
a scholar who has studied Trinidadian Hindus and faced suspicion from her colleagues
who have professed their opinion that diasporic Indians live “a diluted, watered-down
version of Indian culture.”95 By displaying and waving flags, wearing colors signifying
Guyana, and simply participating in the day of fun and unity, parade attendees from the
SSNM improve their own personal sense of identity within a city where some Indians
seem less equal than others.96
While the parade expands the ethnic identity of the SSNM community in New
York City, the parade also helps to advance the social identity of temple devotees by
improving their status in public. In a book deconstructing the processes through which
contemporary Hinduism is produced in social and political contexts, John Zavos asserts
that public Hinduisms exist in varied public spaces, which have a major impact on the
way particular Hindu communities are understood or conceptualized.97 Richmond Hill,
the public space in which Indo-Caribbean Hinduism takes place in the form of the
Phagwah Parade, affects how the SSNM community is understood by highlighting the
pride members of the community feel for their religion and native country. One attendee,
in describing the importance of how his community appears among an ethnically diverse
95 Vertovec, 1.
96 It is imperative to mention my experience on the morning of the Parade talking with
two men of East Indian origin. Exiting the subway train in Richmond Hill, I realized that my
miniature video camera did not have a memory card. I found a cellular phone store on Liberty
Avenue that sold memory cards, and while the store employee charged me for my purchase, I
asked if he and his coworker are Hindu. They both replied, “yes,” so I asked if they are Caribbean
Hindus. The two men laughed, and said, “no.” I then asked if they would be attending the
Phagwah Parade that day, and again they chuckled, responding, “No Indians will be there. It’s a
bunch of boys and girls drinking.” I was awestruck by their response, especially considering that
the two men were my first contact beginning a long day of ethnographic research. In further
conversation, however, they continued to explain how people from the Caribbean are not Indian.
“They have the same look, same skin color,” one explained, “and their forefathers [are] from
India, but they’re not Indian like us.”
97 John Zavos, Public Hinduisms (California: SAGE Publications, 2012). 12.
city, explained, “New York is a melting pot, but only for certain people. You don’t merge
your culture into other cultures. You don’t see non-Jewish people celebrating Yom
Kippur.” He went on to explain that because the Indo-Caribbean culture remains
distinctly unique they feel pride by displaying it in public, which motivates people to get
involved in such a positive display of culture. Further, in his pre-parade sermon, Guruji
interpreted the events as a means of identifying themselves with the land in which they
live. The Pandit encouraged his congregation, saying, “We can proudly declare to New
Yorkers that we are Hindus and we are here to stay.”
Within a social context, not only does the parade improve the identity of Indo-
Caribbean devotees, but it also expands the sense of unity among the Mandir. The idea of
unity was evident in the fact that the parade floats, including that of the SSNM, contained
flags from multiple Caribbean countries as well as America and India. Unity was the
major theme I heard when I asked participants about Phagwah as well. One person
explained that the point of the parade was to bring the community together. “Holi is about
the entire world embracing each other,” he said. And while in his sermon Guruji deemed
the oneness of humanity as the most important notion concerning the festival, one of the
Mandir’s youth offered a telling story of how the younger generation of devotees unite
with one another each year.
This young lady and member of the SSNM for her entire life explained how she
emailed several of her friends in the weeks before Phagwah to ask who would be free the
day of the procession and interested in riding on the SSNM float. Several agreed, and
since she and her friends love music, they created playlists of Bollywood songs or
traditional folk songs about Holi, using the website, Saavn, a free online, popular Hindi
music streaming service. It is a tradition, she said, that beginning the week before the
parade, she and her cohorts listen to their pre-selected music to get themselves in the
mood for the upcoming celebration. The young devotee reported that the best Holi songs
are the same from one year to the next, but last year (2013) a song called “Balam
Pichkari”98 was released, which she described as “a hot new Holi song that everyone had
on their list.” For SSNM youth, not only does the parade itself help to unite the
community, but also the music and pop culture around the event.
The Shri Surya Narayan Mandir maintains a sharp focus on sustaining Dharma.
At the center of it all is Surya, the God is his most powerful form—the sun.99 In this
temple, as God shines his light down upon his devotees, ignorance dissipates and they are
left with knowledge and also a sense of responsibility, both of which have resulted in the
creation of “Keep Your Dharma Alive.” This motto, however, is more than a mere slogan.
It is a call to action—a duty—one in which Surya devotees respond. Through their
continual participation in the plethora of activities offered, members of the Shri Surya
Narayan Mandir work hard to keep their Dharma alive.
To my perception, this sense of duty, results, in part, from the intimacy shared
between members of the community. I can recall, for instance, a conversation with a
98 A link to “Balam Pichkari” at:
99 That Surya Bhagwan, is the primary deity at the SSNM is significant, especially to
Hindus who have moved to New York City from places void of sun temples. During the post-
service meal, for instance, I met two Hindu men originally from Nepal, one of which has been in
America two years and coming to the SSNM nearly the entire time. I asked him why he chose
this particular temple, and he said that it because of Surya. The man explained that in Nepal,
although there are no temples dedicated specifically to God in his form as the sun, there when
Hindus walk outside, they always acknowledge Surya. He, therefore, is delighted by the
opportunity to worship Surya in a temple setting.
female devotee during which she explained how on occasion women from the SSNM go
with each other to visit the Ganesh temple in Flushing, Queens.100 I asked her to explain
the difference between the two communities—the East Indian temples in Flushing
compared to the SSNM and the other Indo-Caribbean temples in Queens—and she said
that the East Indians are not as close to one another. The environment around devotion,
family, and community across Queens, in her view, is too formal, and because the
temples in that part of New York City are open throughout the day and night, Hindus
come and go as they please, without gathering together to worship and serve God. The
closeness of the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir devotees, therefore, results in them each
taking a more active and personal part in protecting their Dharma.
It seems, too, that the sense of duty to protect and sustain Sanatan Dharma stems
from the fact that many of the SSNM devotees lack the kind of experience and education
that comes naturally to Hindus living in India. That is to say, a desire to know more
results in a desire to do more. During a Monday night Abishekam service, for example, I
witnessed a man showing a few devotees pictures of his recent trip to India, offering brief
explanations of each. It appeared that they were not familiar with some of the traditions
of India and that perhaps none of them had ever visited there. The devotees did, however,
exude an eagerness to listen and learn, which from my point of view, carries over into the
actions they take in order to protect their Dharma.
Protecting and sustaining Sanatan Dharma, as I have shown, includes an intense
focus on the importance of females and wives within the family unit as well as the temple,
yet not everyone who hears the message about the position and status of women within
100 This temple, located 45-57 Bowne St, Flushing, NY 11355, is formerly called Sri
Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devasthanam.
Sanatan Dharma agrees. On one of my Sunday visits, which included a birthday
celebration for one of the temple’s young, female devotees, I brought a female friend
along. During the service, Guruji asked God to protect the birthday celebrant and keep
her on a successful, scholarly path. He further explained how the congregation can
encourage temple daughters to become fully educated and earn their degrees, adding,
“they must also know how to cook, how to sew, how to wash dishes, and how to clean
the house.” Guruji went on to describe the importance of building confidence within the
temple daughters, and he finished that portion of the sermon by declaring that in many
ways, daughters are more important than sons. He then asked the congregation, “What do
you think about our philosophy here?” In response, they clapped. After the service ended,
my female friend verbalized her frustration over the teaching, describing it as
“backwards.” Although a few years ago I might have responded similarly, in light of all
that I have learned and witnessed throughout my experiences there, Guruji’s sermon
made sense. Sanatan Dharma is a step backwards in that the tradition is a move toward a
more traditional understanding of the human experience, which in this case includes the
idea that females should know how to properly perform their domestic dharma. From the
point of view of the SSNM, the woman is the true head of the family, and with that
responsibility, she must be equipped to perform all familial functions. Emphasizing
females over males, rather than a step backwards in time, is a step forward—a way to
ensure that Sanatan Dharma is sustained—since the female is the primary one to sustain it.
While keeping the Dharma alive is a process with which women maintain a large
portion of the responsibility, the joyousness and levity among the congregants and
throughout the Mandir, in my view, is what makes the process of sustaining the Dharma
easy and more enjoyable for participants. I asked SSNM devotees if they felt that the
humor and levity at the Mandir were similar to their experiences at other worship settings,
and I was offered several responses. One devotee commented that there is considerably
more joking at the SSNM than at other Indo-Caribbean temples she attended. Another
person explained that since most West Indian mandirs are made up of people from the
same villages in Guyana, Guruji uses jokes from those places to relate to his audience. He
added, “The jokes and references back to home (Guyana) are nice and remind us of
home.” Humor, it seems, plays more than an ordinary role. Throughout the Mandir
services and activities, humor becomes the vehicle for unity, connecting members with
one another through the sharing of a laugh, and at the same time, it is critical. Humor
becomes an absolutely necessary means for improving the perceived relationship between
God and his devotees, especially in terms of vertical levity, the kind Raj and Dempsey
argue that brings the Divine closer to humans. While SSNM members have said that
there is no difference between the kind of humor inside that temple and that found
outside of it, when it comes to the ways levity brings participants closer to God, there is a
difference between the two.
Throughout this project, I have noticed many differences between the practices of
Caribbean Hindus in diaspora and those in India and Guyana. From the ways in which
Sanatan Dharma is sustained at the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir to how the annual
Phagwah Parade helps the Indo-Caribbean community affirm its ethnic identity in New
York City, Caribbean Hindus continue to protect their Dharma in ways both innovative
and unremitting. My perception of things, however, has been influenced by the tradition
in which I was raised. Even though I am no longer a practicing Catholic, at times, I have
interpreted my experiences through the lens of my former tradition.
During Diwali, for example, Guruji said that a devotee touched by Lord Krishna
would be blessed or redeemed from samsara. The idea that a blessing from God can save
a person resonates with my understanding of Jesus as The Savior—the one who forgives
the sins of Christians so that they may enter heaven. Also, each Sunday I witnessed
SSNM members gathering in a single-file line to receive prasad, something that Hawley
noticed in his study of Caribbean Hinduism (Fig. 30).101 The weekly tradition reminded
me of my days at Incarnation Catholic Church, dutifully joining the line to receive
Eucharist from the priest. It seems to me I witnessed the same phenomenon, the primary
difference being that members of each tradition would most likely not agree with my
conclusion. Another aspect of the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir service, which is
reminiscent of my religious experiences years earlier, is the use of songbooks. In my
view, they are like the hymn books one might find in a church pew, only smaller. Their
intention—assisting attendees to better participate—however is the same. Even the fact
that the Mandir allows priestly assistants and certain devotees to help care for temple
deities appears to be an imitation of Christian practices. Throughout the years attending
Catholic school, I can still recall the nuns encouraging me to help clean the inside of the
church and, of course, commit to becoming an altar boy.
I must also mention that throughout this project, when I asked various temple
members questions, they regularly attempted to avoid answering, only to point me in the
direction of Guruji, another pandit, or a temple executive. I believe that did this out of the
best intentions devotees because they wanted me to obtain the best answers. At the same
time, in particular cases there appeared to be a sense of fear on the part of the SSNM
101 Hawley, 124.
member, as if he or she was afraid to say the wrong thing, which once or twice resulted in
an awkward experience between the two of us. This too I must attribute to good reason,
for keeping their Dharma alive is understood as a paramount duty, even when it causes a
person to become uncomfortable.
Throughout this project, I have not always felt comfortable stepping outside of
my own community, culture, or comfort zone. During the festival for Ganga Ma at the
end of my first semester of research, however, things changed for me. Toward the end of
the service, Guruji asked the congregation to come to the altar and offer her flowers. As
with most ritual actions, I planned not to participate. Yet, as I sat there and the entire
congregation lined up, an older devotee who always offers a smile signaled me to join
everyone in the offering. I agreed, and after waiting in the long line for several minutes, I
found myself at the front of the Mandir, at the edge of the raised alter, passing by Guruji.
He then reached out his hand, taking mine, and offered to give me an interview later that
day, something I desperately needed for this project and wanted for my own
understanding of things. In that moment and in the time afterward, I have felt much more
a part of the community, accepted, and also comfortable. In the subsequent interview that
day, Guruji explained that the message of Sanatan Dharma is universal love. “Eternal
Truth,” he said, “is the very truth that everyone of us yearns and searches for. It is that
truth that is the truth beyond all truths… That is the truth you have to protect and find.”
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