An Architectural Tribute to the Psychology of Seva

7 min read

“See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation; the one who believes will never be shaken.” (Isaiah 28:16)

Psychologically, what compels humans to see God in a stone and to build majestic stone abodes for the Divine? If marble stones could speak, they would sing from the depths of the human psyche some of the highest aspirations of the human mind. Is this what Abraham Maslow (1968) had in mind when he spoke about the search for transcendence or self-actualization as our paramount human need?

Since time immemorial, civilizations have built monuments to celebrate their fundamental divine impulse – the Egyptian pyramids, Jewish temples, French cathedrals, Islamic mosques – all reaching for the heavens, trying to touch the hands of the Gods.

BAPS Akshardham Mahamandir

Shri Nilkanth Varni Murti

Source: BAPS Akshardham Mahamandir

On Oct 18th, 2023, in a swampy farmland of Robbinsville, New Jersey (near Princeton), a BAPS Swaminarayan Akshardham, a Hindu place of worship opened with similar grandeur, and longstanding commitment to the psychology of seva or selfless service, where the seeker gives without expecting anything in return.

As Yogi Trivedi told me, he has been contemplating the 189-foot-tall mahashikhar or central steeple of the Akshardham Mahamandir. As a scholar of religion and a journalist who has taught at Columbia University, he has dedicated his life to thinking about the mission of the Swaminarayan movement and their Hindu temples.

Yogi Trivedi has written, “Each stone has a song to share – stories of selfless service, harmony, and devotion. I heard the stones calling out to Bhagwan Swaminarayan and the other Hindu deities to whom this mandir is dedicated. I heard the stones calling out to the diverse group of volunteers and sadhus from around the world who helped complete it while putting their education, careers, and family matters on hold” (Yogi Trivedi, 2023).

The Vedic parable of the boy who goes to his guru to seek enlightenment describes how the guru gives the boy 400 cows to herd, and instructs him to return when there are 1,000 cows. You will find enlightenment, the guru tells him. The moral is that he must serve selflessly, not knowing what’s in it for him. He will learn something about the meaning of life and self-transcendence. Such is the story of the Akshardham temple. People serve without an expectation of reward. They give to the larger community to make it grow.

BAPS Akshardham Mahamandir

Visitors Praying

Source: BAPS Akshardham Mahamandir

Positive psychologists such as Daniel Goleman (2005) speak about empathy, an ability to put yourself in other’s shoes, and to be able to give of oneself selflessly, as a hallmark of emotional intelligence. It is one of the higher-order socio-emotional abilities that informs our social awareness, an essential leadership skill.

“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” said John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president of the United States (President Biden continues that lineage proudly as a devout Catholic). The BAPS temple implores all Americans to do the same. Along the walls of the temple are carved images of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., the timeless martyrs of one of the oldest constitutional democracy.

At the intersection of psychology and religion, seva permeates many of the interrelated Hindu faiths, such as Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism. It means to serve without expectation for rewards, to serve God or humanity. Seva is the highest form of action or karma, seen as part of one’s righteous duty or dharma in order to achieve moksha or liberation. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna urges Arjuna to perform his duty or dharma without any desire for returns. In the modern context, karma yoga has become somewhat synonymous with volunteerism. This seva is the subtle foundation of Hindu yogic practices and in particular the Swaminarayan movement. Today, it has a great appeal for Americans in different forms of yogic practices, perhaps rooted in the psychological finding that many more Americans now identify as “being more spiritual than religious,” almost one-third who took the survey (PEW, 2017).

The psychological and historical roots of the Swaminarayan movement stretch back to the late 1700s and early 1800s when the British with their East India Company were actively dueling with Hindu feudal chieftains and Mughal monarchs for the control of India. Swaminarayan (April 3, 1781-June 1, 1830), also known as Sahajanand Swami, became a yogi and an ascetic, believed to be a manifestation of the Divine around whom the Swaminarayan movement flourished.

BAPS Akshardham Mahamandir

Mahamandir at Dusk

Source: BAPS Akshardham Mahamandir

In 1800, Swaminarayan’s guru initiated him and gave him leadership of the religious community, which has been a continuous monastic order for more than two centuries. Partly in response to the British claims that Hinduism was world-negating, the Swaminarayan movement stressed the importance of service or seva as deep engagement with the social world, alongside the practice of yogic asceticism.

The psychologically destabilizing influences of European colonialism, the disruption of syncretism between Hinduism and Islam, and the rise of new religious sects such as Shaktism, Jainism, and Tantric cults, may have given the impetus to the monastic asceticism which kept Hindu practices from degrading further. The reform movements that emerged in India at the end of the medieval or early modern period strategically negotiated with the British and the Mughals with varying degrees of success (Hatcher, 2016). In fact, the first Swaminarayan temple in Ahmedabad was built on a land grant from the British Imperial Government, and Swaminarayan himself embraced with all other faith and social communities, including Christians, Muslims, Parsis, and even those often unnoticed by the rest of society, the Dalits. Swaminarayan built six temples during his lifetime, and led reforms for the poor, women and different caste groups.

Psychologically, the Swaminarayan movement was a precursor to India’s independence movement and led to the rise of stalwarts like Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, and Sri Aurobindo (Sharma, 2014). Today, the movement is a transnational network of thousands of Hindu temples, actively involved in social service in the local communities. Savita and Soma Patel had purchased a beachfront property in Hawaii for their retirement, but when they heard of the construction of the new Hindu temple in New Jersey, home to one of the largest South Asian communities, they decided to change their plans and moved to Central Jersey to help build the temple.

BAPS Akshardham Mahamandir

Volunteers performing Seva

Source: BAPS Akshardham Mahamandir

Satish Jangid, a skilled sculptor of wood and stone crafts, had rarely traveled outside of his home district of Rajasthan. But when he got the opportunity to contribute to what was once considered a dying art, he took up the challenge. You can find him instructing volunteers and visitors about the work he did on the marble pillars and carved statues. He is one of the artisan volunteers or Vishwakarma sculptors, named after the Hindu deity of architecture.

During the Covid-19 period, the Hindu temple still under construction was active in administering 40,000 free vaccines, donated 170,000 PPE items, and contributed almost a million dollars to local healthcare and community organizations. The effects of seva are not just to the community, but also to the individuals who serve. Many of the young men and women who helped build the temple, speak of their growth and development within and without — confidence boosts, skillset development, and spiritual centeredness.

In other words, the underlying psychological needs filled by the Swaminarayan temple, in addition to increased sense of belonging and identity, are manifold and touch on every aspect of the human lifecycle: socialization needs of the younger generation (K-12), counselling and healthcare needs of the adult population (25-65 years), and keeping the elderly engaged in community service are just few of the benefits derived from volunteerism (65-above). Specifically, seva or selfless giving can lead to the following effects: enhanced psychological well-being, stress reduction, improved morale, less isolation or loneliness, increased self-esteem, greater overall happiness, and inner calm and resilience.

The temple took over a decade to build. Despite some of the ongoing labor disputes, the largest Hindu place of worship outside of India is an architectural landmark; with contributions from 12,500 volunteers, it is a tribute to the values of seva or selfless service in the spiritual, cultural, and social realms.

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