People driving from Trenton, New Jersey to New York City now have an architectural marvel to behold, one that presents a unique religious perspective the average American may have never encountered before. The BAPS Swaminarayan Akshardham is a sprawling Hindu temple located in Robbinsville. It spans an impressive 183 acres and is the largest modern Hindu temple outside of India. The grand opening of this sacred place represents a great achievement for the Hindu American community, but some controversies have followed in its wake.
Background and Context
The Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) is a global Hindu religious and civic organization founded in 1907. It has roots in the Swaminarayan tradition and has a widespread global presence. The organization is committed to preserving Hindu culture, conducting religious activities, and engaging in cultural, social, and humanitarian initiatives.
BAPS focuses on acts of service but also builds massive temples as places to gather for worship and various activities. Other BAPS temples exist in the UK, Australia, and Africa. Because the temples require massive amounts of resources and labor, the organization has been accused of exploiting workers to build its holy sites.
Building the BAPS Temple
The construction of the BAPS temple took the combined efforts of 12,500 volunteers from across the globe to bring it to life. They started building the temple in 2011, and it officially opened its doors in October 2023. The temple's structure presents an eye-popping mosaic of 2 million cubic feet of hand-carved stone.
The materials that went into making this temple include four types of marble, sourced from Italy, and limestone from Bulgaria. Volunteers meticulously pieced the stones together like a colossal jigsaw puzzle, forming what is now hailed as one of the grandest Hindu temples worldwide.
Controversy and Legal Battles
For as beautiful as the temple is to behold, controversies have plagued its construction. In 2021, a group of immigrant laborers filed a lawsuit against BAPS, the global organization responsible for the temple. The lawsuit alleged appalling working conditions, including forced labor, excessively long work hours, harsh living conditions, and caste discrimination.
While building the temple, workers made $1.20 per hour. Many of the laborers who contributed to the temple's construction arrived in New Jersey from India on religious visas. Some of them come from Dalit communities, historically marginalized groups within South Asia's caste system. The lawsuit claimed that temple leadership enforced this caste hierarchy at the worksite, raising concerns that the organization routinely blurs the line between religious service and labor exploitation.
BAPS argues that the artisans who worked on the temple did so as volunteers, not employees. The organization also claims to have provided support to the artisans' families in India.
The Fight for Recognition
The BAPS Swaminarayan Akshardham temple is a symbol of cultural fusion and represents a long fight for recognition for Indian Americans, specifically Hindus. There are more than 3 million Hindus living in the U.S., but Hindu culture and religion are largely absent from the public eye. The opening of this temple in New Jersey feels like a victory for many Hindus who have practiced their religion on the margins of American society.
Women also played pivotal roles in running the project, which is rare in temple construction. The temple, with its diverse design and inclusive spirit, mirrors the community it aims to build, uniting people from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds.
Critics of the organization have been waiting patiently for a conclusion to accusations of labor exploitation, but in a surprise turn, the lawsuit was put on hold. 12 of the original 21 plaintiffs chose to withdraw their claims. The reason for this is not clear, but the BAPS temple can seemingly continue to perform its functions and duties now without fear of consequences.