If stones could talk, sing and tell stories, Yogi Trivedi believes the marble and limestone that adorn the spires, pillars and archways of the stunning Hindu temple in central New Jersey would compose a paean to the divine.
The tales these stones tell are those of seva (selfless service) and bhakti (devotion), which form the core of the Swaminarayan sect, a branch of Hinduism, said Trivedi, a scholar of Hinduism at Columbia University.
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 what is now touted as the largest Hindu temple outside India to be built in the modern era, standing on a 126-acre tract. It will open to the public on Monday.
The largest temple complex in the world is the Ankgor Wat, originally constructed in the 12th century in Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia, and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu by King Suryavarman II. It is now described as a Hindu-Buddhist temple, and is one of 1,199 UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The Robbinsville 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.
“Service and devotion are the two basic elements that form the subtle foundation of how a temple so majestic gets built here in central New Jersey,” said Trivedi, who studies the Swaminarayan faith tradition and follows it.
This temple will be the third Akshardham or “abode of the divine” the organization has built after two others in New Delhi and Gujarat, where BAPS is headquartered. The former is the largest Hindu temple complex in the world. 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, came under scrutiny and criticism after a 2021 civil lawsuit alleging forced labor, meager wages and grim working conditions.
Twelve of the 19 plaintiffs have now retracted their allegations and the lawsuit is on hold pending an investigation “with which BAPS continues to cooperate fully,” Trivedi said.
The complaint alleges that those exploited were Dalits or members of the former untouchable caste in India. Caste is an ancient system of social hierarchy based on one’s birth that is tied to concepts of purity and social status.
The case continues to raise questions among activists fighting caste discrimination and those advocating for workers’ rights, about the blurred lines between uncompensated work and the concept of selfless service, which followers of the faith say constitutes their core belief.