Hindu Festival Shines Light Far and Wide

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 10, 2007

Diwali, a major Hindu festival that is as important in India as Christmas is in the United States, conjures many images: fireworks, rituals honoring the goddess of wealth and dressing up in traditional garb for New Year's Day, which some Hindus celebrate today.

For adherents of a fast-growing segment of Hinduism known as BAPS, Diwali (also called Deepawali or Divali) is a chance to do what the group focuses on all year: intense social service. So, on Wednesday night at the BAPS temple in Beltsville, that meant preparing for today, when more than 1,000 elaborate dishes will be served to the public, for free.

Cauliflower poodles by the thousands, cakes and pumpkins carved into temples -- all vegetarian and all without garlic or onion, foods that BAPS followers believe "lead to spiritual regress" or aggravated tempers.

Experts say BAPS (formally known as Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha) has become the fastest-growing Hindu organization in North America largely because of its discipline and highly organized structure. The overall Hindu population is rising here as well, primarily because of South Asian immigrants and their children.

Although charity and volunteerism are general tenets of all faiths, they are virtually mandatory for BAPS devotees, hundreds of whom shined stones, planted plants and cooked for construction workers to keep costs down at the $19 million BAPS temple, or mandir, that opened in the summer in Atlanta. In Beltsville, as in other BAPS centers, everything is free: children's classes, events, special services. Adherents split into mini-committees to run the center without paid employees.

Social service events are frequent at mandirs of this century-old, global social service group. There are educational fairs for high school students to learn about college aid and health fairs, such as the ones the Beltsville BAPS runs twice a year offering free blood and hearing tests. BAPS's charity arm estimates that 15 million hours are donated a year by tens of thousands of volunteers.

"I think the community is held together by their sense of community and commitment to social service; it's very strong and much more than other Hindu traditions," said Vasudha Narayanan, a religion professor at the University of Florida and author of multiple books on Hinduism. "They are not as organized."

Followers say they are inspired by their guru, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, who is treated as a demigod and whose smiling, white-bearded face adorns the temple in a wall-size photo.

"He has picked up dirt and cleaned bathrooms," said Phalguni Patel, 43, an architect from North Potomac who joined BAPS with her husband in their home town of Mumbai about 15 years ago because of the group's "simple, practical, humble" style, she said Wednesday night.

"There is nothing that is beneath anyone," added Manish Patel (no relation), 36, an Internet technology manager from Hanover.

About 200 people were at the mandir Wednesday night to clean and prepare for the holiday and to pray.

Hindus around the world have different narratives for Diwali, which has become a cultural festival for people of Indian heritage, including Jains, Muslims and Sikhs, even though its roots are in Hinduism. Most people refer to it as the Festival of Lights and celebrate it over several days. Some, including BAPS Hindus, consider it the end of their calendar, and view today as the first day of the year. The festival traditionally marks the victory of good over evil.

Thousands of South Asians attended a Diwali fair last weekend at Prince George's Stadium in Bowie. Wednesday was the day many Hindus honored Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. At the Beltsville BAPS center on Wednesday night, rows of men and women sat on the floor with small pictures depicting Lakshmi before them, throwing rice in all directions to ward off evil and listening as the many names of God were chanted in Sanskrit.

About 4,000 families are connected with the Beltsville center -- the only one in the Washington region -- which opened nine years ago and has been growing. In that period, the number of BAPS centers in North America has gone from 18 to 57. The movement began in the Indian state of Gujarat. Most BAPS followers are Gujarati, coming to the centers for language and cultural training. But BAPS officials say they are reaching out to other ethnic Indian groups as well so the organization can keep growing.

The success of BAPS has mirrored the growth and success of the Indian American community, said Raymond Brady Williams, a professor emeritus of religion at Wabash College who has written about BAPS and other guru-based Hindu communities.

Indeed, late last month the House passed the first congressional resolution recognizing Diwali; a similar measure is pending in the Senate. Hindu American advocates said they hope the measure leads to more recognition of their faith in the United States, including by public school districts.

About 5,000 people came to the New Year's Day event last year in Beltsville, and the parking lot at BAPS on Wednesday night was crowded with the vehicles of worshipers and volunteers. Carts of food were being wheeled out to college students, and invitations to other community groups were being double-checked.

"No one is going to go hungry," Phalguni Patel said.

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