- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2009

The largest Hindu temple in North America is not in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago, but just outside Minneapolis.

Specifically, the 43,000-square-foot Hindu Temple of Minnesota sits in Maple Grove, northwest of the Twin Cities. The sight of a $10 million edifice surmounted by a 65-foot-high tower of sculpted gods in the midst of the cornfields is a jolt in the land of Lake Wobegon and Lutheran Jell-O.

The vegetarian cafeteria serves up a mean curry and the sandalwood incense wafting through the temple itself is enough to make you think you’re back in Delhi. Shortly before I was taken on a tour of the place last week with a bevy of religion reporters, we were informed that Hindus don’t believe in many gods; they believe in one God with many manifestations. Like about 30,000.

The main deity for this temple is Vishnu the preserver, one of the Hindu trinity of gods; the other two being Brahma the creator and Shiva the destroyer. We saw an idol representing him draped in red silk. Multiple other deities had places of honor in 21 shrines — representing different regions of India — scattered about the temple area.

As we walked about the place, we heard priests chant prayers in Sanskrit and saw offerings of grains, turmeric powder and betel nut leaves. In one shrine, we saw the goddess Saraswati sitting on a peacock; in another was Lord Krishna in pink silks. Ganesha, the elephant god, had the most plates of fruit offerings in front of him.

Ever since Swami Vivekananda became possibly the first Hindu to visit the United States in 1893, the community has struggled to find a foothold in America’s competitive religious climate. Yoga, which has made a comeback, is its best-known calling card.

The land of 10,000 lakes is an unlikely spot for such an edifice as most Indians were far more acclimated to the familiar environment of subtropical India than Minnesota’s snowy climes.

Still, the state has been welcoming, even to the point of electing a 27-year-old Hindu lawyer, Satveer Chaudhary, to the state House of Representatives in 1996 and the state Senate in 2000.

The story of how the temple was built is a list of obstacles overcome: How they had to raise enormous amounts of money; import stonemasons — called “shilpis” — from rural Tamil Nadu in south India to carve the many statues; weather a vandalism attack in 2006; and find just the right 80-acre parcel of land with a water source in a tranquil setting. The temple is $6.5 million in debt from the construction, according to the New York Times, so its leaders are hoping the state’s 40,000 Hindus will support the place.

Although Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion at 837 million adherents (after Christianity and Islam), the vast majority resides in one country. A panel of Hindu speakers informed us that only 60 million Hindus live outside of India; about 2 million of them in the United States.

There are small advances, such as the presence of Anju Bhargava, a female Hindu priest, on President Obama’s faith advisory council. Yet, the same panel was clearly put out that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, the most prominent Indian-American in U.S. politics today, converted from Hinduism to the Roman Catholic Church.

“What does that say to Indian youth?” asked Suhag Shukla, managing director of the Hindu American Foundation.

But all is not lost there. Celebrations for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights on Oct. 17, are increasingly “big ticket items” on college campuses, another panel member told us. Religion in America is a free-market enterprise and the buyers are everywhere, even where Shiva has staked out a place between the soybeans and silos.

Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at [email protected] times.com.

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