The BAPS Swaminarayan Akshardham in Robbinsville, New Jersey, is a marvel of architecture and spirituality. It is the largest Hindu temple outside India to be built in the modern era, standing on a 126-acre tract. It took a combined total of about 4.7 million hours of work by artisans and volunteers to hand-carve about 2 million cubic feet of stone. The four varieties of marble from Italy and limestone from Bulgaria traveled first to India and then over 8,000 miles across the world to New Jersey. They were then fitted together like a giant jigsaw to create the stunning temple.
The temple is one of many built by the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha or BAPS, a worldwide religious and civic organization within the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism. The sect, which will celebrate its 50th year in North America next year, oversees more than 1,200 temples and 3,850 centers around the world. The New Jersey Akshardham, which has been in the works for about 12 years, is the third Akshardham or “abode of the divine” the organization has built after two others in New Delhi and Gujarat, where BAPS is headquartered.
A tribute to the divine and universal values
The temple is not just a place of worship, but also a cultural and educational center that showcases the rich heritage and wisdom of Hinduism. The temple features a 49-foot-tall statue of Bhagwan Nilkanth Varni, who later became known as Bhagwan Swaminarayan, the founder of the sect who ushered in a moral and spiritual renaissance in western India. The temple also has intricate carvings depicting stories from Hindu scriptures, such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as well as scenes from nature and human life.
The temple stands for universal values that can be found in every religious text and in the hearts and minds of great thinkers and leaders of every era. Yogi Trivedi, a scholar of Hinduism at Columbia University who studies and follows the Swaminarayan faith tradition, said: “What we’ve tried to do is express these universal values in a way that relate to all visitors.”
A testimony of seva (selfless service) and bhakti (devotion)
The temple project brought forth volunteerism and service, which like the sculptor’s chisel, chip away people’s egos and prime them to learn, Trivedi said. “In that learning, one becomes a better person within and that is the end goal of seva,” he said. “It’s not just to give to the community or build these (ornate structures), but to better oneself.”
The temple also reflects the devotion of thousands of devotees who gave their time, talent and resources to create this masterpiece. This might be the first Hindu temple where women were involved in the actual temple construction under the artisans’ supervision, Trivedi added.
The temple opened to the public on Monday, Oct. 23, 2023, after a grand dedication ceremony that was attended by thousands of people from across the country. Devotees bowed to each other and to monks in saffron robes. Some worshippers prostrated on the floor pressing their foreheads to the ground in reverence. Others meditated and lit incense sticks before the deity.
Avani Patel was visiting from Atlanta with her husband and their two children, ages 11 and 15. She knelt inside the temple and marveled at the ornate ceiling, her hands folded in prayer. “It’s jaw dropping, mind blowing,” she said. “You can see divinity radiating through it all.”