Compassion and community abound at the Shree Swaminarayan temple

photography by Tina Sargeant

Throughout the world, communities of people gather around causes and beliefs, commonalities of every kind. We gather to celebrate, to mourn, to learn, to teach. We gather to join forces toward a common cause because, together, we are stronger than we are apart. People commune because, in community, there is peace.
Lakeland is no different. It’s a community of many smaller communities tied together by their love of this city and its residents. Different communities attract residents from all over the country — all over the world, even — who find themselves drawn to our sunny lakefronts and
small-town attitude. One such community has sprung up around the Shree Swaminarayan temple located on New Tampa Highway. Members have flocked to Lakeland from all over the state and all over the country to gather together in the peaceful rooms and hallways of the temple, because they, too, believe there is peace in community.
The Lakelander spent some time at the temple, or mandir, to learn more about the people who gather there. The sense of peace that presides over Shree Swaminarayan temple was palpable. Stepping through the doors, the main room of the temple was a blur of activity; men paced through the area, setting up microphones and drums before the evening prayers. They wound their way through worshippers who prayed or meditated in silence. A group of middle school-aged girls walked in circles around the altar performing a puja, an act of worship which represents that God is the center of their lives. One of the girls, Krusha, used a string of beads to help her keep track of her prayers.
A stunning statue is at the center of the temple. Nalin Patel, the president of the mandir, explained that it is Krishna, the central figure of their faith, and the statue is carved from a single piece of marble. It was made in India before being brought to the temple in Lakeland, and it is a most remarkable piece of art.
Continuing through the temple, Patel explained the importance of devotion in their culture, and introduced me to several of the temple’s worshippers. “That man behind you drives from Ocala every week,” he said, gesturing toward a man who was bowing at the altar. “The man near him comes from
Jacksonville. He drives three, maybe four hours each way. Every week.” Bhavesh Babariya, who often goes by Bobby and owns a small business in north Lakeland, made the move from Ocala to Lakeland so he could participate more frequently with the services at the mandir, and he brought his business with him.
Patel and I were startled when someone behind us rang a brass bell that hangs from the ceiling. As if on cue, Patel motioned for me to follow him through a set of doors that leads into the kitchen, where a group of women sat together, chatting while they prepared a meal. As Patel guided me out of the main room and into a large hall, he began to explain how the temple was established in Lakeland.
He said that he and some other families had belonged to another temple in New Jersey, but that they had moved to Lakeland for business. They missed worshipping in their mandir at home, so they decided to establish one here. Opening a mandir is no small undertaking; it requires approval from the heads of their particular organization, the ISSO (the International Swaminarayan Satsang Organization), which is based in India. After the long process, the temple was formally opened in 2005. The congregation has since grown to several hundred people.
After the tour, Patel guided me to a pew that runs along the back of the main temple room. “I have to get ready for the service,” he said and explained that he asked one of the women in charge of teaching the temple’s children to come talk to me. His departure gave me the opportunity to joyfully watch the bustle of worshippers as more and more families showed up for the service. In one corner, Patel and several other men set up microphones and drums they would use to sing prayers. A little girl approached a murti, a sacred image, along the side of the room and bowed respectfully before showing her toddler sister how to bow, too. Giggling students sat in clusters around the room, occasionally earning a stern glance from their parents if they got too noisy.
Before long, I was approached by Sona Ghia, a smiling young woman in charge of the cultural classes taught to the youth whose families worship at the temple; her husband serves on the temple’s governing committee. The temple offers many classes for their students, including traditional drumming and language instruction. Students of the temple receive lessons in Gujarati, a dialect spoken in the Indian state where the sect was founded. Ghia explained that the vast majority of her students are first generation Americans, and that it’s important they learn Gujarati to keep them connected to their heritage.
Ghia also explained how the priests and teachers at the mandir are committed to building a sense of community and compassion among their students. Compassion is an important part of being a satsangi, a follower of Swaminarayan, Ghia explained. Students are taught to care for everyone, whether it’s a student at their school, a homeless family, or a stranger they encounter on the street. “The ISSO network’s mission is to follow the teachings of Lord Swaminarayan,” she said, “and they want to teach followers to become better human beings who serve their families and societies.”
It’s working. Their followers work hard to extend the sense of community that dominates the mandir beyond the temple’s walls. The mandir is part of a larger Swaminarayan community that participates in everything from religious classes to summer camps to public events. They regularly host fundraisers and food drives for organizations that support people in need.
The sense of community surpasses religious boundaries, too. “It’s not only with our own religion; we have a sense of community with all of Lakeland, the whole county, and over into Hillsborough County,” Ghia explained. “It’s not only amongst ourselves, but it’s the kids and the surrounding community. We’ve helped with Metropolitan Ministries, we’ve helped with other organizations — it’s all about community.”
That passion for community fuels the Shree Swaminarayan temple’s excitement about the future. Even as they prepare to celebrate the mandir’s 10-year anniversary, they look forward to attracting more people to their services and becoming a bigger part of the community of Lakeland.
They’re the only ISSO mandir in Florida, said Patel, and they hope to spread the word about their presence. And when people seek them out, they’ll be there, as peaceful as ever — the praying men; the girls performing puja; the priests caring for the temple; and the gods themselves, smiling over the mandir, listening to the songs of the faithful as they pour out their compassion on Lakeland, thecommunity they call home.
Special thanks to Jayna Aekash Bhudia, who worked with me all the way from London.