New Jersey’s Largest Hindu Temple Opens Amid Controversy

The BAPS Akshardham in Robbinsville, New Jersey, is the largest Hindu temple outside India in the modern era. It is also the third Akshardham, or “abode of the divine”, built by the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), a worldwide religious and civic organization within the Swaminarayan sect. The temple, which took about 12 years of planning and construction, will open to the public on Monday, October 9, 2023.

 Hindu Temple

A Monument of Faith and Art

The temple is a marvel of architecture and craftsmanship, featuring four varieties of marble from Italy and limestone from Bulgaria that were hand-carved by artisans in India and shipped to New Jersey. The temple covers an area of 162,000 square feet and stands 141 feet high. It has 97 domes, 66 pillars, 220 archways, and over 500 statues of Hindu deities and sages. The temple also has a museum, a theater, a library, a cafeteria, and gardens.

The temple is designed to showcase the principles and values of the Swaminarayan sect, which emphasizes service and devotion. The temple’s name, Akshardham, means “the abode of the supreme God who is eternal”. The temple’s main deity is Swaminarayan, the founder of the sect who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. The temple also honors his successors and other Hindu sages who have contributed to the spiritual tradition.

The temple’s construction involved about 4.7 million hours of work by artisans and volunteers from around the world. The temple’s spokesperson, Mahendra Patel, said that the temple is “a labor of love” and “a gift to humanity”. He said that the temple aims to promote peace, harmony, and spirituality among people of all faiths and backgrounds.

A Source of Controversy and Criticism

However, the temple’s opening has also been marred by controversy and criticism. In May 2021, a civil lawsuit was filed against BAPS by six workers who alleged that they were brought from India to work on the temple under false pretenses. They claimed that they were forced to work long hours for meager wages and faced harsh living conditions. They also accused BAPS of confiscating their passports and visas and threatening them with deportation if they complained.

The lawsuit sought compensation for unpaid wages, overtime pay, damages, and legal fees. It also sought an injunction to stop BAPS from continuing its alleged labor practices. The lawsuit was filed under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which prohibits forced labor and human trafficking.

BAPS denied the allegations and said that it was “naturally shaken” by the lawsuit. It said that it was cooperating with the authorities and conducting its own investigation. It also said that it was committed to upholding the dignity and rights of all its workers and volunteers.

The lawsuit drew attention from various human rights groups, labor unions, politicians, and media outlets. Some called for a boycott of the temple’s opening until the workers’ grievances were resolved. Others expressed concern about the exploitation of migrant workers in general and urged for more oversight and regulation.

A Symbol of Diversity and Unity

Despite the controversy, many people are looking forward to visiting the temple and experiencing its beauty and spirituality. The temple is expected to attract thousands of visitors from across the country and around the world. The temple is also seen as a symbol of the diversity and unity of the Hindu community in America, which comprises about 2.4 million people according to the Pew Research Center.

The temple’s opening coincides with the celebration of Navratri, a nine-day festival dedicated to the goddess Durga. The festival is marked by fasting, prayer, dance, music, and cultural events. The temple will host various programs during the festival, including a grand opening ceremony on October 9.

The temple’s opening also comes at a time when hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The temple’s leaders hope that the temple will serve as a bridge between different communities and foster mutual respect and understanding.

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