Shri Amba Mandir Hindu Community Center
1 Gaston Avenue, Garfield, NJ 07026
156 Schuyler Avenue, Kearny, NJ 07030
Established as a non-profit religious and cultural organization in 1980, the Hindu Community Center is said to be the first Hindu mandir to have come into existence in New Jersey. The initial property located on 1 Gaston Avenue in Garfield, New Jersey was purchased to house a Sanatana Mandir for the Indian community. The term sanatana dharma, usually translated as “the eternal religion,” refers to a religious tradition that is not considered to have been established by a particular founder but rather to have been in existence from time immemorial.
Following a year of renovations, the murtis (images) of Shri Ambaji, Shri Krishna, Hanumanji, Ganeshji, and the Shiva Lingam were installed in Garfield. Presently they are displayed in an altar that is crowned by three large domes, the central dome greater than the others in size. Each dome is covered by a layer of gold paint. The simplicity of the building and the hall itself is not reflected in the presentation of the murtis. Adorned in intricate and vibrant finery, topped with fresh flower garlands, and attended by offerings of fruit and fresh flower decorations, the murtis present a majestic contrast to the simplicity of the building’s white walls and big windows.
In the early 1980s, with limited options elsewhere, a stream of devotees from the local Gujarati community began to attend sabha gatherings every Sunday at the mandir in Garfield. These devotees established a non-profit religious and cultural organization with a strong volunteer base and a secure source of donations. The community speaks of itself in its normal Gujarati parlance as a sanstha, a term meaning institution, organization, or association.
As parents and elder members of the community participated in bhajan (devotional singing) and listened to discourses called kathas, it became rapidly evident that a forum for the children was also a necessity. With a vision of developing a facility where children could develop an understanding of Indian culture and heritage, the sanstha established a Vidyakendra, a term that literally means “learning center” and has associations to the Goddess of Learning Sarasvati. Initially the Vidyakendra was a sort of one-room school located in the mandir itself. From early on, its curriculum was not restricted to Hindu and cultural themes, but also branched out to other educational opportunities such as an SAT preparatory course.
In 1993 the Hindu Community Center expanded the Vidyakendra by establishing a new location for it in nearby Kearny, about a half hour’s drive away from Garfield. They called it Vaikunth Dham, adopting a term that designates the eternal abode of Lord Vishnu, the ultimate destination for souls who attain liberation. The community purchased a building large enough to allow space for eight classrooms, a banquet hall (which also serves as a multi-purpose classroom), a kitchen, and a hall dedicated to a display of murtis. These include Shri Ambaji, Ganeshji, a Shiva Lingam, Laxmi-Narayan, Vedmata Gayatri, and Hanumanji.
Over the years Vaikunth Dham has become a very busy center, with ongoing activities that include not only regular curricular offerings but the celebration of major Hindu festivals on an annual basis. Holi, with its often uproarious theme, is celebrated in the rear parking lot. Divali, by contrast, is more decorous, involving a puja in which only youth participate. On that occasion parents are requested not to sit with their offspring, so that the children can learn with and from their peers. The restriction of parent participation in the performance of pujas also extends to what happens on a weekly basis at the Vidyakendra. Signs on the classroom doors request parents not to enter the classrooms so that the area within can function as a traditional school environment.
Another aspect of the Vidyakendra’s seasonal celebrations is its rangoli competitions, which are held around the time of Divali as means of introducing and maintaining festival traditions that are commonly observed in India but might not be visible to children growing up in North America. Rangoli is a traditional art form in which the floor is decorated with bright colors that form decorative designs. This art form, which typically accompanies Hindu festivals, makes use of a variety of materials ranging from dry colored flour to paint, flowers, and colored rice. In Kearny, judges are invited to conduct competitions based on rangolis the students design, thus instilling additional motivation in the minds of young participants.
The final major activity in the year-round calendar is the Annual Program, for which a new theme is decided every year. Students of the Vidyakendra then prepare a program of dance, drama, and music to match the theme. The Annual Program has featured many such themes, including the Mahabharata and “Legends of India.”
On a regular weekly basis the Vidyakendra offers classes in Bharatnatyam, Gujarati, Hindi, Arts, Yoga and, as mentioned above, SAT preparation. Students qualify for registration at the age of 6 years and are able to continue straight through to their completion of high school. Classes run every Sunday beginning at 9:00 a.m. and ending at 1:20 p.m.
While the younger generation develops an understanding of its culture and heritage every Sunday, parents and elderly devotees attend bhajan and katha at the mandir in Garfield. Unlike the Vidyakendra in Kearny, however, the Garfield mandir is not only active on Sundays but functions on a daily basis. Scheduled rites and rituals are performed regardless of whether individuals other than the priests themselves are present. The practice of religion at the Garfield mandir thus abides by a continuous set of scheduled timings that is dictated by the belief that prana–literally “breath” but more broadly the extension of God’s spirit into this-worldly media–is present in each consecrated murti. Such presence requires that the temple adhere to a diligent schedule of devotion and prayer whereby human beings serve the divinities on a continuous basis. In this way prayer and worship can be as much about individual experience as they are about collective celebration.
With daily hours set from 8:00-11:00 a.m. and 5:00-9:00 p.m., individuals and families have the option of attending morning and evening aarti services every day. They may also take part in the Shri Shiva Rudra Abhishek, in which the Shiva Mahimna Stotra is recited, on either Sunday morning or Monday evening. Rudra represents one of the forms of Lord Shiva. The Shiva Rudra Abhishek is a puja in which Lord Shiva is honored with the pouring (abhishek) of five immortal substances (panchamrut)–milk, ghee (clarified butter), curd, honey and sugar–over the Shiva Lingam while Sanskrit verses called shlokas are chanted. The purpose of performing an abhishek, as understood at the Shri Amba Mandir, is to attain inner peace and to pray for the fulfillment of desires and for prosperity.
Although the separation of the locations that constitute the Shri Amba Mandir and its Vidyakendra may initially seem indicative of a divided institution, the structure in which the temple and school are based is meant to imply a smooth transition from one to the other. The intent is that the Vidyakendra will provide children with a strong foundation for understanding Indian traditions and the heritage they imply while also forging an emotional attachment that develops in the course of every school year. Eventually the students do graduate, however, and then begins the transition to adult life with its different and additional responsibilities. At that point students are prepared to be in full attendance at the mandir in Garfield, where worship and prayer are conducted in a more individual context than the Vidyakendra provides. The difficulty is that a great number of students move away for further schooling after they graduate from high school, which makes the transition from the Vidyakendra to the Garfield mandir a less regular occurrence than might seem ideal. Nonetheless the Garfield/Kearny community continues to thrive as it has over years, benefiting not only from the fruits of the Vidyakendra curriculum it has established for families who have been a part of the Shri Amba Mandir organization through the years, but also from the ongoing migration of new Hindu families into the area.