Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Immodesty and Retribution

September 9, 2009 · No Comments

It takes a lot to make me feel emotionally uncomfortable. I pride myself on my open mindedness especially in the face of different, unfamiliar cultures, ideologies, and religions. For instance, besides some minor worrying about potential offensiveness of our silly attempt at head covering, I didn’t feel the least bit anxious at the Sikh gurdwara in the same way some fellow students did. I venerated our unprepared, yet clearly impassioned tour guide on his ability to speak from his heart. I deeply respect anyone capable of complete devotion to his or her beliefs.

I was uncomfortable in the Mandir. The temple itself was beautiful beyond words. The grandiose structure stuck out in bland Neasden like a Ganesh in the room. (Get it? ‘Cuz Ganesh is an elephant? Sorry). Incredibly intricate masonry and woodcarving adorned the Mandir inside and out. It looked like it belonged on the list of Wonders of the World.

Images from www.mandir.org (since I forgot my camera, of course)

From www.mandir.org (since I forgot my camera, of course)

So yes, the mandir was gorgeous. Truly beautiful beyond words. What bothered me was the overbearing sense of pride conveyed by our guide. I lost count of how many times he mentioned that 2,800 tons of Bulgarian limestone and 2,000 tons of pure Italian marble were hand carved in India by the greatest craftsmen on the planet. “It is a masterpiece of exotic design and workmanship that rises above London’s skyline…replete with luminescent white pinnacles and glittering marble pillars, it stands as a beacon for Hindus, both young and old throughout the world” (www.mandir.org).   In the featured exhibition on Hinduism inside the temple, the writers claim that Hinduism is “the most tolerant, most resilient, most peace-loving of all religions.” In addition, the BAPS (Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha) faith has grown worldwide, without a hue of hypocrisy or an fever of fanaticism.” These are some very bold statements for a religion based upon the principle of ego-free modesty. Nirmãn, the fifth prime principle of Swãminãrãyan sadhus (monks) preach a life “untouched by pride or anger.” Modesty wasn’t exactly the most clearly conveyed quality of the Neasden mandir.

That was the negative. Now for the positives. For all the outright bragging done by our guide and the self-revering scripture on display in the exhibition, BAPS has redeemed its apparent immodesty through acts of charity and respect. Disaster relief is their forte. According to www.bapscharities.org, BAPS members donated their invaluable services to reparation efforts of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the 2004 South Asia tsunami, the September 11th attacks in New York, and just about every natural disaster that has ever occurred in India. They also provide rehabilitation clinics to those with addiction problems, ecological ventures such as tree planting and recycling campaigns, and perhaps most importantly, teaching literacy skills to those in regions with poor educational institutions.

Despite my initial discomfort of the grand Neasden BAPS mandir, learning of their selfless acts was cathartic. Verbal modesty is overrated in the face of philanthropic action. So go ahead, Mr. Mandir Tour Guide, tell me about the Italian marble one more time…

Categories: Andrew B
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