Arun Shouries Articles

Spiritual Renewal the Hindu Way -II | May 25, 2008

The Buddha’s Garment
Arun Shourie
‘It is a miracle… can be likened to the building of the Gothic cathedrals of Europe… There is no doubt that London has acquired a significant new building of traditional Indian beauty and interest… We can be grateful that this has happened in a part of London that needed transforming.’

“By day, London’s magnificent Hindu temple is impressive enough, but at night it becomes a truly wondrous sight. It is likely to become one of London’s tourist attractions alongside its role as a place of worship…”

“Little short of a genie from a magic lamp could explain how, amid the unremarkable houses and offices that are Neasden in north London, the depressing landscape suddenly explodes upwards into an astonishing temple from the East. Neasden’s new mandir looks as if it has been transported on a magic carpet — this spectacular temple in such unlikely surroundings.”

“If ever a place needed a miracle, however, Wembley is it… The miracle has happened. No non-Christian religious organisation in Britain has built with such confidence in the long-term future. It is a beautiful building that enriches London enormously. A vision that beggars belief – a new Hindu temple of historic stature and beauty, a strange and exotic magnificence.”

“Something altogether extraordinary has happened in Neasden. There has been an almighty outbreak of Hindu faith. Its the sort that political parties can only dream of harnessing when they talk of community. Whole families have given months, some years, of their time. Bankers have turned electricians, accountants have laid drains. Some have given up their jobs. Solicitors, doctors and architects have sacrificed annual holidays and been assigned by saints what might be seen as labour. Women cook and organise the festivities. Children play their part”.

“The new temple in Neasden is a remarkable building by any aesthetic standard and it will probably become one of the sights of London. Amongst other things, the temple is a monument to family values. Visitors have been amazed by the exquisite craftsmanship involved. But this is not just an aesthetic treat in the most unlikely of venues: It is a symbol of the coming of age of Britain’s Hindu community.”

“It would, I think, appear unlikely and wonderful wherever it was. But in Neasden, it is like an epiphany. The profusion of the carving, so startling at first, is even more startling close up”.

“A startling sight… The whole project illustrates the possibilities of drawing on India as the crafts workshop of the world. Indian craftsmen can make almost anything… Asian communities deserve the gratitude of all of us for ornamenting our suburban wastes, for providing us with case studies in the architecture of cultural identity and continuity. The Swaminarayan Mandir serves as a point of reference, a miraculous extreme. A warning against bland assumptions about the inevitability of industrialised and commercialised building production, the gleaming shikaras of Neasden will stand witness to what is possible…”

That is how the British press — The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, and others — wrote last August about the new Swaminarayan Temple in London. True to secular commitments, Indian papers were too embarrassed to say anything comparable: It is a Hindu temple after all. As usual The times of India led all the rest — with a carping report entitled, “Britain sees the gentle face of Hinduism”. It mocked at L K Advani for claiming “the high moral ground for Hinduism” at the convention held to coincide with the inauguration of the temple, and remarked that “his speech would have been equally applauded at a ‘Combat Communalism’ meeting”. It devoted a paragraph to a “former Shankaracharya” who, it said, “was swayed by his own oratory and evoked violent imagery in his reference to anyone trying to harm Hinduism.

An average Swaminarayan devotee is unlikely to be inspired by militance that seeks to mimic the extreme trends in Islam”. It reported the then chief minister of Gujarat, Keshubhai Patel quoting a poet, and added, “Mr Patel emphasised ‘valour’, and some got the impression that the 19th century poet was a card-carrying member of the BJP!” Even the attention the temple had received in the British press was put in context, so to say: “The Swamiji’s followers projected a gentle face of Hinduism which received considerable publicity in British media,” The Times of India report concluded, “Mr. Hinduja found this equally surprising, for, as a long-time resident of London, he has been witnessing New Delhi’s inability to properly project India in the British media”. In a word, a typical report soaked in the old, familiar secular sickness.

But to get back to the temple. It is located in a 12 acre plot and is made mainly of limestone from Bulgaria and marble from Italy. The limestone and marble were shipped to Kandla and other centres of craftsmen in India. Each piece was carved, shipped to London and eventually the 23,600 pieces were assembled to raise the temple. Adjacent to the temple is a cultural complex covering 100,000 square feet.

The materials alone are estimated to cost anything between �3 million to �10 million. A British architect looking at the architectural plans is reported to have estimated that in the normal course the structures would have cost �50 million – that is, Rs 300 crore. And yet the building was constructed entirely by voluntary contributions of the followers of the Swaminarayan movement.

Among those who made the most significant contribution were children. An average household in Britain throws away about 500 aluminium cans every year. The children went from house to house, restaurant to restaurant, stadium to stadium and collected the used, discarded cans. In this way, they collected about seven million cans. These were given to a reprocessing plant, and the earnings were given to the temple’s fund.

Everything about the project is an Indian statement. That scale of voluntary participation was an astonishment to the British papers — one of them after the other could think of only one parallel: The cathedrals that were constructed, not now but 500 years ago in Europe. The blessing such participation spells will be manifest: Every volunteer worked with his hands and thus learnt the dignity of labour: there was no distinction of wealth, caste or anything else: as every one contributed his might, every one sees the temple as her and his own: as families have laboured together, family ties have been strengthened: the community has acquired a great symbol.

But there is something else also which is specially Indian: It is evident both in the location of the temple and in that mode of financing it. Recall that the temple has been in a particularly squalid part of London, a part that has been the butt of derision and mockery. And recall that one of the main ways of financing has been to recycle refuse, those discarded aluminium cans.

Both features are Indian symbols: For our texts always point to the lotus — which grows out of and blooms amidst mire. We are taught of the Buddha’s garment: By the time he awakened from the path of austerities to the middle path, his garment was in tatters: there was nothing with which to clothe himself: a coarse shroud which had been use to cover corpse lay discarded by the river: the Buddha took the sheet for his garment — and thereby taught us to make holy that which we find repulsive and unclean. That the Swaminarayan temple should come up in blighted surroundings, that its marble and limestone should come of discarded cans: that the Swadhyaya Vrikshmandirs should be “constructed” in barren land: that the followers of Acharya Rajneesh in Pune should convert a filthy, stinking nullah into the most exquisite garden — that is the Indian statement, it is the Buddha making that shroud holy.

That a temple should come up in the very land which had enslaved us, that a temple housing 17 idols should come up in the very land missionaries from which heaped untold calumny on us and our idolatry — that is not just an Indian, it is a historic statement. Just as the British journalists were grateful to the movement for bringing a thing of beauty to a blighted area, I am grateful to it for this ever so-gentle act of retribution!

There is another special feature: Movements such as the Swadhyaya and Swaminarayan movements are led by, they owe their inspiration, their very existence to the most Indian of figures. I remember how surprised I was when I first heard Martin Luther King: I had learnt that he had been influenced by the example of Gandhiji, but his voice was so loud, his words so grandiloquent, his gestures so theatrical that the influence of Gandhiji could only be taken on assumption. Run-of-the-mill Christian evangelists of course appear hysterical, apocalyptic, almost epileptic. By contrast, Shri Pandurang Shastri Athawale is so much an elder in the family, so much a friend: You would never detect from meeting him the reverence in which he is held, you would never hear him mention the sea-change his life and teaching have spelled for lakhs and lakhs, a man who carries his enormous learning as lightly as a feather. Pramukh Swami Maharaj — the current head of the Swaminarayan movement — is similarly venerated by lakhs, the movement has attained enormous expansion and prosperity under his guidance. Yet he is the last word in humility, in self-effacement.

I learnt later that once a brash visitor remarked to Pramukh Swami Maharaj, “Lakhs revere you, because of you the lakhs pour in. Yet none of it shows on you. What is the secret?” “Because I know that I do nothing. Jo hota hai, Bhagwan ki kripa se hota hai — whatever happens, happens because of the grace of God.” the truly Indian response.

I was reminded of a exchange that my friend, the scholar Arvind Sharma, had told me about. A poet was famous as much for the generosity with which he helped every one in need as for his profound poetry. Another poet was in dire need. As usual, he was helped. To express his gratitude the latter sent a quatrain:

Aisi deni dekhiye Jo deve din rain,
Jyon jyon haath upar hoi
Tyon tyon neeche nain

Ah, behold such munificence
That bestows day-in, day-out
As the hand rises higher to pour out more and more.
The eyes incline lower and lower.

On receiving the lines, the great poet scribbled back:

Devan har koi aur hai Jo deve din rain
Log bharam ham pur kare
Yan to neechu nain

The One who bestows is Another
Who gives day as well as night
But the people, they suspect me
And so my eyes are lowered

The Indian tradition — it is seen to this day in reformers such as Shri Pandurang Shastri Athawale, in Pramukh Swami Maharaj.

And there is the Indian condition too — it too can be seen today in the fact that few of us will be able to recall the name of that fine and Large-hearted poet who was the subject of those lines.

But there is a deeper significance to the work of these reformers — a significance which transcends them as individuals. It is to this that I shall turn.

Part I – The Indian Way of Seeking The Almighty

Part III – Signs of Renewal

The Observer
January 19, 1996

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