Hundreds are expected to attend a memorial service Sunday held by local Hindus for the late Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the spiritual leader of India-based BAPS group that has become one of the largest sects of Hinduism around the world and in the United States.
The guru, who was 94 and had led BAPS for decades, died Aug. 13 in the village of Sarangpur in the state of Gujarat. An estimated 2 million people, including India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, traveled to the village to pay their respects.
Long Island BAPS adherents will hold the memorial service at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Hilton Hotel in Huntington — not far from their new temple.
The 48,000-square-foot building on Deshon Drive in Melville is the first constructed specifically as a Hindu temple on Long Island and promises to become a religious focal point for the region’s growing Indian and Hindu community. It is nearing completion.
“It’s been a very emotional journey for us,” Girish Patel, a BAPS leader from Westbury, said of the guru’s death. “Everybody, irrespective of their beliefs, respected Pramukh Swami for all that he has done for humanity.”
BAPS, which stands for Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, established itself as a major Hindu sect around the world partly because of the impressive temples that followers built built under the guru’s leadership, said Hanna Kim, an associate professor of anthropology at Adelphi University.
The group has constructed major temples in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Toronto and Robbinsville, New Jersey. Another in New Delhi, India, is the largest Hindu temple in the world.
The guru was recognized in 2007 by Guinness World Records for the largest number of temples consecrated by a single individual — 713. The sect now has about 1,100 temples or centers around the world, including 150 in North America, said Lenin Joshi, a BAPS spokesman.
The group also engages in extensive community outreach; for instance, it recently donated $100,000 to the Nature Conservancy to plant 70,000 trees, Joshi said.
Pramukh Swami Maharaj visited Long Island several times and approved and provided guidance for the Melville temple, Patel said. The region already is home to at least a dozen Hindu temples, though all were renovated from previous uses, such as a former YMCA.
Long Island had nearly 56,000 people of Indian descent according to the 2010 census, with many concentrated in Hicksville, where the Island’s annual “India Day” parade is held.
The guru was a towering figure for BAPS followers. He was made administrator of the sect in 1950 at the age of 28 and became spiritual head as well in 1971. In the United States, he held monthlong festivals that helped recruit new members. The first, in New Jersey in 1991, drew 935,000 people, Kim said.
His parents were followers of the founder of BAPS, Shastriji Maharaj, who was said to have blessed the guru as a child because he saw the potential for greatness in him, Joshi said.
As head of the sect, he met with many world leaders and religious figures, including President Bill Clinton, Prince Charles, the Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II. In a statement after his death, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said, “Pramukh Swami didn’t just teach virtues — he lived them every day.”
After his death, the guru was succeeded within hours by the man he had secretly chosen to be the new leader of BAPS, Mahant Swami Maharaj. His choice was revealed in a letter he had written and that was kept by top BAPS leaders.
BAPS and its beliefs
- BAPS, which stands for Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, has at least 1 million members and is one of the largest Hindu groups in the world.
- The progressive, reformist movement, led by a charismatic spiritual leader, was founded in the 19th century and requires vegetarianism, social service and transcendence of caste and gender distinctions.
- Members commit to five lifelong vows: no impurities of body and mind, including vices such as anger, lust, greed and envy; no adultery; no consumption of meat, eggs, poultry or seafood; no alcohol; and no addictions, including to tobacco and drugs.
- BAPS built the world’s largest Hindu temple, in New Delhi, as well as large and architecturally stunning houses of worship in Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Robbinsville, New Jersey.
- It has 1,100 temples or centers around the globe, including 150 in North America.