In the morning hours, light shines brightly through two sunroofs, spilling into a large room. On its south wall, a pair of windows showcasing beautiful, avocado colored hanging plants, allows more sunlight to penetrate the space. As the morning progresses, the sharp rays of the sun begin to illuminate a row of deities positioned along the opposite wall, all at home within their own tiny chamber.
Meanwhile, outside, not far down the street, people hustle along the sidewalk while gypsy cabs honk. Smells from fried chicken eateries and curbside fruit stands permeate the air; reggae music billows out the front door of a nearby residence. This is the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens on a fall Sunday morning, where, unexpectedly, some of the most unique representations of Hinduism exist. Tucked away down a residential street, just far enough from the hustle of the city sits the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir (SSNM).
In this urban temple, standing together on a raised altar – beautifully dressed, magnificent, and majestic – are what temple members consider to be the primary members of Hinduism’s pantheon of gods and goddesses. Positioned slightly above them, however, riding a chariot led by seven horses, is the father of the entire world, in his most powerful manifestation – Surya Narayan Bhagwan – the Sun God.
Founded in 1993, the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir is Caribbean-Hindu, the majority of its members having emigrated from Guyana to the United States. It has been estimated that there are 300,000 Guyanese residing in New York City, and among them, some 60 percent are Hindu. The SSNM serves as a teaching institution, with its primary goal being to bring out the true essence, philosophy, and teachings of the Hindu Shastras—sacred texts—in an easily comprehensible manner.
Helping the devotees to remain focused on this objective, SSNM maintains a motto explicitly visible throughout the temple property. Whether walking in the Mandir’s majestic front doors or glancing across its sacred space to the pulpit, one cannot miss the words: “Keep Your Dharma Alive.”
The Shri Surya Narayan Mandir’s motto is the impetus for the ways in which Sanatan Dharma—eternal religion—is promoted and explicated throughout the temple community. The Mandir and its pandits draw and distill their teachings from Hindu Shastras, and responses to questions are consistently derived from these texts (Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayan, Bhagavad Gita) as well.
Sanatan Dharma is also disseminated to the devotees through their website, as ShriSuryaNarayanMandir.org is brimming with information.  In addition to details of the services and classes offered, upcoming events, and current temple news, the website offers sections such as “words of wisdom” and “articles & books.” There is a Youtube channel, too, because the SSNM films various temple activities. This tool is something that the SSNM’s spiritual leader Pandit Ram Hardowar and his other temple priests remind the community to use if members want to reexamine particular teachings that they have elucidated during past services.
An emphasis on sustaining the Dharma is found even in the decoration of the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir’s space. One particular mural, Migration of our Forefathers from Bharat (India) to the West Indies, depicts ships leaving India and heading toward Guyana, offering a visual representation of the community’s ancestry. Another mural depicts a devotee washing the feet of Lord Ram, an act of devotion that teaches humility, which is necessary in understanding Sanatan Dharma. The temple’s walls, areas where a devotee’s eyes might wander, therefore serve as platforms for the continual articulation and dissemination of Mandir teachings and beliefs.
Pandit Ram Hardowar, affectionately known by his congregation as Guruji, is the son of the SSNM’s founder, Pandit Hardowar Panday, who began his career at the age of ten as a priest in Guyana. Guruji himself was born and raised in Crabwood Creek, Guyana, and after graduating from college, he spent several years working as an engineer. As the son of a pandit, Guruji was raised in an environment in which the tenets of Satanan Dharma were a part of his daily life. After immigrating to the United States in 1985 and recognizing a need for another temple in the Queens milieu, under the tutelage of his father and his Guru, Guruji immersed himself in Sanatan Dharma, becoming a pandit in order to help fill that need.
While the position of pandits is central within the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir, there is another quality to the community, one in which children are encouraged to participate. At the SSNM, educating the young is paramount, and it begins early for devotees. Starting at age six, children are encouraged to enter the four-year Sanatan Dharma children’s program, Surya Vir Sang. In addition to classes, temple youth participate in kirtan and bhajan, and at times help with puja and other ritual activities.
The Mandir also focuses special attention on the importance of wives and elders. Wives are regarded as being the true support behind marriages, and a deep respect is bestowed upon temple elders. Throughout rituals when arati is being performed, one or more of the ritual actors will offer the light to nearby elders, and many of the younger devotees often stop and humbly touch the feet of the older members as they walk by. “Respecting elders or parents,” according to a temple executive, “is one of the foremost tenets in Sanatan Dharma.”
The Mandir is a place for celebration, with birthday parties taking place in the midst of nightly or Sunday morning services. Birthdays are a means for community members to see how far they have come spiritually and focus on improving in the next year. During the Diwali service, after explaining how Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita, tells us that we never die, Guruji asked the congregation, “What have we done? Where are we going in life?” In that spirit, birthdays are a means of marking the passage of time in this life, allowing devotees to pause and reflect on the past and the future.
In addition to the effective way in which the temple space allows for celebrations, at the SSNM there exists a particular kind of levity, making the process of learning more enjoyable. One SSNM member explained that when you are trying to understand God, you have to understand that God is in everything and is everything. With that, he said, God is happiness. Another temple member clarified this idea, stating, “When one realizes that there is no difference between oneself and God, then a state of complete happiness/contentment is achieved. There is a sense of euphoria from this.” He added, “Once the teachings of Sanatan Dharma are internalized and eventually realized, one develops a sense of contentment, happiness, unparalleled by any other experience in this world.” The process of understanding Sanatan Dharma at the SSNM, then, results in pure enjoyment and satisfaction, a phenomenon apparent during temple services.
The temple space is also a place in which Sanatan Dharma is disseminated to the congregation through a process of questions and answers. Sanatan Dharma is based on this process, and the religion actually encourages devotees to question its teachings. Guruji explained that the idea of a student’s ability to ask the teacher questions comes from the last portion of the Vedas. “Every Upanishad,” he said, “is a student sitting at the feet of the master, asking questions… No teacher will teach unless a question is asked.” It is through this process of questions and answers, therefore, that temple devotees are able to truly and deeply understand Sanatan Dharma.
Keeping Your Dharma Alive is an interactive process wherein the temple community not only fully participates but also helps to initiate it. The boundaries between teaching and learning – truth and understanding – are porous; ideas come and go.
The motto, then, is a call to action, to which the members of the Mandir, through their continual participation in the plethora of activities offered, respond. Keeping Your Dharma Alive is something that must be practiced and experienced to be fully comprehended, an idea I learned early in this project.
On my first visit to the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir, after I explained the intention of my project to Guruji, he paused and then commented that I simply could not be taught Hinduism; I would have to spend time there. “That’s Hinduism Here,” Pandit Ram added, “[spending time] with those who live it so that you can see for yourself.”
.“Shri Surya Narayan Mandir.” http://www.shrisuryanarayanmandir.org/ “Details of Surya Bhagwan” (accessed October 18, 2013). Shri Surya Narayan Bhagwan, according to the SSNM website, is popularly referred to as “Sarva Loka Pitamaham” – the father of the entire world.
. Michele Verma, “Indo-Caribbean Hindu Practice in Queens: Ethnomethods of Constituting Place, Practice, and Subjects,” Ph.D. diss. (Columbia University Teachers College, 2008). 93.
. “Shri Surya Narayan Mandir.” http://www.shrisuryanarayanmandir.org/ “Shri Surya Narayan Mandir About Us” (accessed October 18, 2013).
. In addition to “eternal religion” and “sacred duty,” Sanatan Dharma can be understood, according to Pandit Ram, the SSNM’s spiritual leader and guru, as people’s reactions within the world in which they were created and how they should deal with others.
. “Shri Surya Narayan Mandir.” http://www.shrisuryanarayanmandir.org/
. “Shri Surya Naryan Mandir.” http://www.shrisuryanarayanmandir.org/ “Executives” (accessed November 8, 2013).
. “Shri Surya Narayan Mandir.” http://www.shrisuryanarayanmandir.org/ “Surya Veer Sang Class” (accessed October 18, 2013).