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franciscan - September 1997

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1997

A Passage to India

by James Anthony SSF

Neasden. The symbol of suburban banality in the mocking pages of Private Eye. The home of IKEA. The never-ending traffic of the North Circular Road thundering past an enormous branch of Tesco, temple of consumer Britain. Five minutes walk down a quiet side street is another Temple, a white marble vision that seems to have just landed from some other world and that might as easily take off again and sail away.

There is a surreal feeling to it. Not Disneyland exactly, because the white marble is really white marble and not plastic, but there is something of that feel about it. Perhaps it is India’s answer to the early-English Gothic churches left behind by the Raj in that sub-continent.

The Shri Swaminarayan Mandir was built between 1992 and 1995 by the Swaminarayan movement, together with a large and very impressive community centre next door. The founder of the movement, Lord Swaminarayan, lived in Gujerat at the end of the eighteenth century. He started a renewal movement in Hinduism which, led by a succession of Gurus, has spread world-wide. All of this is imaginatively explained in the exhibition in the undercroft of the Temple, along with a pretty comprehensive display of the glories of Hinduism.

Here, again, I felt the bemusement of a traveller in a strange land, a different world. I felt overwhelmed by numbers: Swamiji has read and replied to 435,000 letters; the Rig Veda has 10,552 mantras; Sanscrit has sixty-five words for earth and seventy words for water; two thousand tons of Carrara marble were carved by fifteen hundred craftsmen into more than twenty-six thousand pieces. I floundered, at sea in the amorphous vastness of Mother India, without landmarks with which to navigate.
Upstairs, in the white-domed Mandir, strangely enough, I felt more at home. In size and plan it was very much like an Orthodox Church, and the worshippers brought a homeliness to the quiet transcendence much like Orthodox worship. The figures of Shiva and Parvati, Hanuman, Akshar and Purushottam, could easily have been exchanged for Ikons of the Panagia or Pantokrator, Michael or John the Forerunner. Here was a place where reverence and worship came easily, ‘where the mind becomes still, and the soul floats free.’

Perhaps it is here, and only here, in the stillness, in quietness, in the place where all our traditions, forms and words fade away, that we can find that deep unity beyond all our diversities. §


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