Throughout the coronavirus stay-at-home social distancing restrictions, technology has been a beacon for faith groups. With the UK government easing some of the lockdown rules to allow religious institutions to open up for private prayer from this week, 'iGlobal' speaks to London's BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir - popularly known as Neasden Temple - as part of a regular FaithTech Series.
The temple hosts a congregation of over 3,000 devotees and attracts thousands of visitors on a weekly basis. In the interest of public health and safety, the temple officially closed its doors on March 13, days before the official government lockdown announcement on March 23. Here, we explore how this world-famous north-west London hub of Hindu worship has been utilising cyberspace and some of the next steps it has planned as the UK capital gradually eases out of lockdown.
Since its physical closure, the temple has moved all of its spiritual activities and devotional rituals online to maintain religious connectivity with its congregation and the community at large.
A daily evening aarti is broadcast live from the temple, followed by scriptural readings. For those who are not well-versed in English, a Gujarati translation is provided by the Head Swami on all relevant news updates from the government's Department of health and NHS England.
The temple's host of online spiritual activities are tailored for young adults, children as well as the elderly.
“We deliver a whole range of modern-day topics, addressed and discussed by Swamis living in the temple. This encourages the youth and young adults to be proactive in their life, including motivational talks to keep people energised in the time of lockdown,” says devotee Bhavik, in reference to some of the Saturday programmes available.
Whilst every Sunday, children can enjoy a variety of interactive activities designed to enhance their knowledge of Hinduism in a way that stimulates the brain and encourages their creativity. All activities are emailed before the date, allowing parents to plan accordingly.
“Previously, the children participated in a word-search and had to run to the left or right side of the room, when asked by the voice-over on what the right answer is - activities like this engage the children in a practical way, where they can digest and understand Hinduism in a practical way,” explains Bhavik.
For the elderly, the Sunday evening programmes are primarily focused on spiritual wisdom given in Gujarati, the native language for many of the temple's worshippers.
With over a thousand daily views on its YouTube channel BAPS UK & Europe, the temple recently launched the 'Timeless Hindu Wisdom' web series delivering insightful teachings from ancient Hindu scriptures. One of the very first sessions 'Resilience for Everyday (Quarantined) Life' explores how teachings from the 'Mahabharata' can help one cope with the current global crisis.
Every Tuesday evening, a special seminar is delivered on Hinduism, with guest speakers from the US and India, besides the UK. Recently, the focus of these sessions has been on the life of Lord Krishna through the 'Srimad Bhagavatam' -a key text in Hinduism with 18,000 verses giving the reader a detailed account of God's names, forms, nature, personality, our relationship with God and the process of realising that relationship.
Although the pandemic has brought life to a standstill, religious ceremonies such as the initiation of a newborn and funeral rites are of sacred importance in the Hindu faith.
In Hinduism, when a child is born the sacred syllable 'AUM' is written on the baby's tongue with honey, and the name of God is whispered into the child's ear; 11 days after the parents celebrate the name-giving ceremony (namakarna). Since quarantine rules have come into force, Swamis from the temple have been conducting these initiation ceremonies via Zoom, marking not only the birth of the child but of his or her first step into spirituality.
The temple has also been providing support to families who have lost loved ones during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Ordinarily, the temple would send someone to conduct the ceremony, however, due to the current times we are in, the temple has provided scripts and guidelines for the family to follow. Including the supporting equipment needed to carry out the last rites within reason and within the laws of the land as well,” explains Bhavik.
The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in London, along with its other mandirs across the UK, will not be opening up on June 15. Its religious worship and programmes will continue to operate on its online platforms.
In reference to the decision, Bhavik says: “The mandir is preparing diligently to open its door for personal prayer and worship, but the safety of our devotees and visitors is paramount.
“The mandir will only open for personal prayer and worship once we are confident and comfortable that the health and safety of our devotees and visitors can be assured in line with government guidance.”
by Preeti Bali