A birthday for the gods

Even as Marylanders flocked to the barbecues, swimming-pool parties and fireworks displays that have come to represent celebrations of the nation's birthday, a community of Hindu Americans threw a significant anniversary party of their own.

Amidst the beating of drums, tossing of flower petals and burning of incense, about 500 members of the growing ISSO Shree Swaminarayan Hindu Temple congregation in Reisterstown came together Tuesday for their final day of celebrating the installation of gods in their house of worship in 2013.

The ceremony, known as patotsav, is essentially a birthday for the set of gleaming idols that stand on the altar at the front of the building, statuettes of Hindu gods that are believed to contain the beings' divinity.

The congregation bought the one-story building on Cockeys Mill Road just south of Historic Main Street in 2012, but it wasn't until the governing body of their tradition, a sect of Hinduism known as the Swaminarayan faith, installed the figures that the structure became a fully consecrated temple.

The governing body — the International Swaminarayan Satsang Organization, more commonly known as ISSO — oversees the millions of people around the world who follow the teachings of Swaminarayan, an Indian yogi who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and codified in books what he believed were the essential beliefs of Hinduism.

Many Hindus believe that the Supreme Being of the universe, sometimes known as Vishnu or Krishna, appears in the form of revered gurus or other human beings at various moments in history, some times when most needed by mankind.

To those who follow his life and teachings, Swaminarayan is just such a god.

The most prominent idol at the Reisterstown temple is a marble figure of Swaminarayan as a child.

"This patotsav is our way of celebrating our god's fourth birthday in this temple," said Dixit Shah, a founding member, or satsangi, of the congregation.

Temple leaders say the house of worship regularly draws 150 people to its daily services and can attract about 1,000 for special occasions.

After spending several years worshipping in various members' homes, a small community of local Hindus bought the building that once housed Adat Chaim Synagogue, making the purchase at auction.

As the community grew, members pooled their resources to provide the murti, the elaborately lit, wall-to-wall altar and the many other artifacts of Hindu worship that fill the place, a mission that added more than $250,000 to the total bill, Shah said.

Swaminarayan is considered the founding figure of the sect that bears his name. All his succeeding leaders, or acharyas, are his descendants.

The faith focuses on salvation through total devotion, or bhakti, to God as developed through the virtues (dharma), detachment (vairagaya) and spiritual wisdom (jnana).

Followers say Swaminarayan's earthly life began in an era when Hindus had begun to forget those virtues.

"He came at a time of evil, to lead people on a righteous path," said Kishan Patel, a board member and head of the congregation's youth efforts. "He preached about respect, nonviolence and acceptance. God wanted that to happen because he knew there was a time of evil coming in."

The Reisterstown temple is the only one in Maryland — and one of 23 in the U.S. — in the Swaminarayan tradition, though there are about 15,000 worldwide, the majority of them in India.

Shah said services are open to Hindus of every tradition; the Swaminarayan murti is positioned in the center of the altar, but eight others flank him, including Krishna, the central deity of the Hare Krishna faith.

The ISSO Shree Swaminarayan congregation consists of members from across Maryland as well as a few from Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia.

Shah, a board member who lives in Laurel, said members range "from blue-collar workers to white-collar professionals, and everything in between."

As many as a thousand Hindus from multiple sects filtered through the temple during the four days of celebrations, which began Saturday.

The culmination of the festival came Tuesday, when a packed house looked on amid singing, chanting, and upraised arms as eight swamis — celibate Hindu priests — from across the U.S. led a succession of traditional rituals.

Decked in muted orange garments, the swamis hung garlands of fresh flowers around the icons' necks; bathed the Swaminarayan figure in milk, yogurt, ghee, sugar and honey; covered him in rose petals; fanned him with horsehair fans and swung lit lanterns before him, symbolizing an eternal form of witness to the events. They also laid food, money and household items before him in tribute.

"Members rarely get to see these devotions in all their glory," Shah said.

The entire service was conducted in Gujarati, the language of Gujarat, the western Indian state in which the sect was born.

Each swami took a microphone and addressed the crowd for several minutes, some sending the attendees into peals of laughter with what sounded like standup-comedy patter.

Shah said many also spoke quite seriously of the meaning of the festival and of how far the congregation has come in five short years.

But as lively as this week's celebration was, Shah said, next year's is likely to be even more appealing.

"When we reach five years — now that's a celebration," he said.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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This story has been updated to correct the name of Adat Chaim Synagogue. The Sun regrets the error.

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