By Subrina Singh
The Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha Shiva Mandir in East Elmhurst, Queens is considered one of the first West Indian Hindu mandirs to have been established in New York. Founded and built in 1987, it has since served as a religious center for many Hindu families in addition to playing a significant role in shaping a vibrant West Indian Hindu community in the city. The mandir welcomes devotees from all five boroughs as well as Long Island. While the services are officiated by pandits (Hindu priests) originating from the West Indies, the Shiva Mandir’s devotees comprise a range of nationalities—not only those connected with Guyana, Trinidad, and Suriname, but also with India.
Though dedicated to Shiva, the temple is home to a variety of other Hindu deities as well, including Surya Narayan, Krishna, Vishnu, Ram, Ganesh, Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Kali. Shiva, a deity of the Hindu trinity often regarded as the God of Destruction, is worshiped at all pujas held at the Shiva Mandir, both through offerings and the washing of the Shiva lingam. As understood in the mandir, Sanatan Dharma ideals encourage the worship of all Hindu deities; accordingly, puja is offered to different deities at different times of the month and year.
The Shiva Mandir focuses its practices, beliefs, and ideals on the creeds of Sanatan Dharma. The Shiva Mandir focuses on the importance of dharma both by emphasizing tradition and katha—storytelling performed by the pandits—and by encouraging devotees to follow a path of righteousness. The Shiva Mandir welcomes many visiting pandits to share in its regular satsang activities through puja and katha. All devotees are invited to perform and sponsor pujas, as well, and they take part in the celebration of Hindu holidays. Devotees who choose not to perform puja themselves are always welcome to join and share in the ceremony as performed by others and to participate in katha and other religious experiences offered at the Shiva Mandir.
The Shiva Mandir regularly provides the space for birthday celebrations, weddings, anniversaries, annual pujas, and memorial services. It also celebrates most major Hindu holidays. For some, like Diwali, the mandir collaborates with neighboring Sanatan Dharma mandirs to host special programs that include both pujas and cultural items such as song, dance and theater. The Shiva Mandir also emphasizes the importance of seva or community service and aims to foster a social conscience among its devotees, encouraging them to participate in events such as the Breast Cancer Walk.
Music, performed during both puja and katha, plays an important role at the Shiva Mandir, which many great musicians consider a “second home.” In addition to traditional Indian instruments such as the tabla, dholak, harmonium, and occasionally the sitar, musicians share their talents on the keyboard and even guitar. Young children and adolescents learning music frequently partake in kirtan.
The Shiva Mandir hosts two weekly services, on Thursdays and Sundays. The Sunday worship, commonly referred to as satsang, is the mandir’s primary service. Following the satsang, devotees share in a communal lunch, which over the past twenty years has provided the space for the formation of close-knit bonds between families. The Thursday service, referred to as Ramayan, takes place in the evening and is composed primarily of Ram-focused katha, recited by the officiating pandit. Special services called satsangs and yajnas are also held to celebrate Hindu holidays over the course of the year.
The Shiva Mandir takes pride in being a religious organization with a strong sense of tradition, ritual, culture, community, and family. The temple serves as both a religious center for Hindus and a common community space—a home away from home as well as a surrogate family for many of its members.