I had quite the evening tonight! My wife accompanied me to the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir of Greensboro to experience one of their services. As we entered the building, we were greeted by a man who motioned that we should place our shoes on the shelves in the entryway. The women’s shoes went on the left in between the women’s restroom and the entrance to the assembly hall. The men’s side, on the right, mirrored the women’s. So my wife gave me a slight wave and entered on her side while I hurried to remove my shoes. I could hear that the music had already started inside. Once inside, I secured a place on the back row, joining a group of forty that would eventually grow to over one hundred before the end of my visit. My wife, however, ended up in the only empty seat on the front next to a very helpful English speaking young woman. And it was lucky that she did because I could not understand a word of what was going on. I afterwards learned that the music and speaking was in Gujarati and the videos were in Hindi, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The shrine consisted of eight murti and intricately carved woodwork. On the far left and not pictured are Shiva, Pavarti, and Ganesh. Next to them stand Krisha and Radha. I have to guess at the two in the center because I failed to identify them for sure, but I would think that they are Vishnu and Lakshmi. Then there were four paintings of past and present BAPS spiritual leaders. On the far right stood Rama and Sita with Hanuman sitting at their feet.
As you can tell from the photo, there was a little boy helping with the music by ringing little bells and occasionally trying to sing. He was cute as could be and he enjoyed getting to be right next to, I strongly believe, his father. There were three songs accompanied by a hand organ of some type, two hand drums and the bells. At the break, the musicians left the stage and a devotional video played. When it ended, some men came forth, some of whom were the musicians, that were dressed up and the put on a drama. I wish I knew what happened because several people would occasionally laugh at the performance. Another video began as the men reset the stage, followed by a song and another, longer video. That video demonstrated the wretchedness of trying to satisfy your life by gambling, drinking, smoking, bribery, and ignoring the pleas of the needy. Such themes transcend language and I easily understood.
About an hour into the service, one of the leaders sat on the floor and delivered a message, followed by another short video and a song. At this point that little boy I mentioned ended up falling into the wall and hurting his head. There didn’t seem to be enough room for all of his rescuers to get to him, but he was fine. Another video started and I learned that this one was made especially for the 150th anniversary of the BAPS organization. It ended with a blessing, recorded this week, by the current spiritual leader of the group. After that, a man came to the podium and gave a series of what sounded like prayer requests because he would speak for a bit and then mention nearby towns. He then issued a special thanks to my wife and I by name (they had come around and asked us to write down our names separately).
The final part of the service was called Aarti. The leaders brought down small, red and painted plates with lit ghee candles and handed them to those in the crowd. One of them handed it to me and instructed me to move it clock-wise. And so, once the music started up and I saw others do so, I followed along. My wife received a plate at the start as well. Those without plates sang and clapped to the music. After some time, the plates were passed along so that everyone had the chance to offer the light to the murti at the shrine. Once the Aarti plates were collected, the light was offered on at the shrine directly to each murti and image of the spiritual leaders. Then, the light was carried back to each and every member where they could receive the blessing and give a monetary gift to the temple. I followed the example of those in front of me and symbolically pulled the flame from the candle to my forehead. Then there was more music that led into a fast chant and then it just ended. I admit that I was a bit confused when it ended, but stood up and wen to put up my chair with the others.
Afterwards, we were invited to stay and eat, but I did not want to have a dinner separated from my wife so we left. We told each other our side of the story on our way to pick up the kids. I learned that the women were separated from the men simply reduce distractions – even from the stage. I had wondered why it was only the men who were directly addressed. But the people there were very kind. The sense of family was definitely strong in the assembly. Even though it lasted over two hours and we couldn’t understand a word, my wife and I greatly enjoyed it.