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January 20, 2000


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Temples are not enough!

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Balamurali K Ambati and Jayakrishna Ambati with Ambati M Rao and Gomathi S Rao

Recently, His Holiness the Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram chided Indian-Americans for the exuberant proliferation of temples in the US while neglecting the decrepitude of temples in India. Indeed, there may be more temples per Hindu in America than in India.

He bemoaned that many Hindu temples in America are principally ostentatious vehicles for flaunting the wealth of their rich benefactors rather than hallowed ground for community worship. Sadly, this charge is largely correct. Many temples here have lost their sense of purpose and direction; worse yet, some came into being for the wrong reasons.

The raison d'etre of a temple should be to provide a place for spiritual realization and worship. Temples can also serve as centers of community gathering, relief for the downtrodden, and development of youth.

The commitment that a community invests in a temple should be to preserve and transmit cultural values and ideals, not just the erection of yet another edifice. By any measure, a great number of our temples in America fall short.

There is a deep-seated malaise, a crisis of the spirit, which besets many Indian households. Perhaps it is symptomatic of the larger American cultural malaise as well. Our community has made great strides in the professional and academic arenas; materially, Indian-Americans have the highest median income of any ethnic group. Clearly, we have succeeded in large part in achieving the 'American Dream.'

Yet many first-generation Indians feel that their successes are for naught if they do not pass on their culture to the next generation, or so they say in the lip service they give at the ethnic conventions that are even more numerous than new temples. Many Indians lament that their children are so Americanized; perhaps some try to atone for their guilt by building temples.

But this quest for redemption is based on a false premise and therefore turns into a quixotic pursuit. Temples per se do not guarantee cultural transmission; stone and marble are merely vessels and not the culture itself. No matter the majesty of the architecture, making our cultural ideals a reality and keeping our heritage alive requires people with the skill and determination to teach.

Culture and heritage is kept alive by parents and community leaders taking the time to tell, to show, and to explain to the next generation the meaning, the significance, and the essence of our traditions. That is the point that our community's army of temple builders is blind to, the key element that in its absence brings down all the rhetoric, chest-thumping, and spending sprees of would-be temple builders like a house of cards.

An even more disturbing phenomenon is that of temples being used for personal advancement. Many individuals seem to build temples only to have their names listed as benefactors or office-bearers. Only a warped psyche and a diseased spirit would seek to curry divine favor through self-aggrandizement. Why else have plaques displaying the names of the donors?

Further, in some unfortunate situations, temple management staff have treated the temple as their private fiefdoms. Witness the pathos of the nation's first temple in its largest metropolis: a president, unencumbered by elections, wedded to perennial power locked in legal combat with a shadow board of trustees bent on her ouster. This internecine conflict is neither the first nor will it be the last. It is a tragedy when temple affairs become the subject of court proceedings, but it is inevitable when egos take precedence over purpose.

Most Indian temples are also conspicuous in their absence in community outreach and uplift. How many temples feed the hungry or serve the poor? How many temples offer programs to enrich children's education, academic or spiritual? How many temple leaders teach what the meanings of the different rituals and services are, or discuss the many religious texts and scriptures with ordinary people? Too often, our temples are grossly underachieving.

We must realize that religion alone cannot bind our community together in this country in this millennium.

While we would be delighted to see the myriad temples flourish, it is more likely that many of them will shrink to hollow shells of their current state within a couple of generations. Current temples were built by first-generation immigrants who have done well.

The continued migration of educated Indians to this country is far from certain. While today's America is the shining economic star, it is foolish to think it will be so forever. The current computer influx will soon ebb. As economic parity draws closer, fewer professionals will migrate, and while the economic pilgrimage will continue, how many newer immigrants have the wealth to sustain the temples? Many of these temples may suffer the fate of the silkworm which dies of its wealth.

Is this too pessimistic a prophecy? Consider the following. The sustenance of temples depends on youth. Increasingly, it seems that one of the fruits of assimilation is loss of identity. How many of our teenagers and young adults attend religious services, let alone become committed to temple proliferation and management? Even many of those who do have a spiritual inclination have an intellectual rather than a religious attraction. Just go to any temple and witness the dearth of youngsters participating in any puja.

Despite the high-sounding claims of combining the best of both worlds, most are woefully ignorant of and oblivious to traditional religious services and teachings. What is more, they could not care less. Whether this is good or bad is for the reader to decide. But the root cause is that our community did not emphasize traditional ways in the home. Too many parents did not teach their kids their native language, did not insist that they remain vegetarian, did not explain the meaning of the Mahabharata, Ramayana, etc. Even an armada of temples cannot reclaim those lost battles.

As a faith, Hinduism is not dogmatic, but rather vague and indeed amorphous. We possess neither the bond of persecutory fear nor the glue of zealous fervor that binds other religious groups.

What to do? Education and guidance about our culture and heritage must begin at the home; by trying to offload that responsibility onto temples, Indian-Americans breach a sacred trust. The temple can serve to foster spiritual growth and development.

But to view temples as one's legacy to posterity is a sad testament on the state of our community affairs.

If we are to successfully pass the baton in the relay race that is life, it will be through vidyalayams, and not devalayalams.

Temples are not merely places to congregate and worship; academic achievement has classically fallen within the purview of temples. In ancient times, they were also havens of scholarship from which emanated grand literary, dramatic, and philosophical work.

Modern exercises in excessive opulence betray the ideal of a temple as a fountainhead of the sublime. We advocate not the creation of elitist enclaves, but rather the establishment of institutions of excellence that preserve and perpetuate our collective heritage, foster excellence in professional arenas, and nurture spiritual growth. Our culture is not solely the province of religious institutions; such a parochial worldview is in sharp dissonance with the traditional role of temples in nurturing knowledge and learning.

In the half century that Indians have been in America in substantial numbers, there is not a single college or university, or even to our knowledge, a high school to our name. By stark contrast, American Jews have built 2 medical schools and a phalanx of colleges, universities, schools, and hospitals. Catholics and Muslims have also been very active in these areas.

Educational institutions are a powerful engine to promote cultural values and transmit heritage. They can provide an environment devoted to educational excellence in a landscape littered with academic decadence. Ensconcing our culture in a cocoon of temples insulates our community; harnessing our heritage to educationally-oriented institutions can energize it. Surely, our community can channel enough financial and managerial capital to accomplish such an endeavor. The potential rewards would be enormous.

Long unmindful of the folly of abdicating culture at home, the first generation has turned to the wrongheaded approach of constructing temples to restore their birthright. But the punya attained by building temples is outweighed by the paapa of abandoning them. In many towns in India so many temples go untended that people are eagerly solicited by monetary considerations to take care of abandoned temples!

Do we really want our legacy to be scores of missionless and abandoned monuments? It behooves us to try to refocus the purpose of our temples and to rededicate ourselves to building institutions that will be fonts of dynamism for years to come.

The Ambati family has conducted the Educational Excellence Program for more than a decade for middle and high school students. More than a dozen of these students have become National Merit Scholars. These free classes are conducted every Saturday at the Swaminarayan Temple in Flushing, New York. For more information call 718 464-9391.

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