Akshardham Temples in the US
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter uses examples from the temples in the US to synthesize ‘transcendental materialisms’, which signify the new globalizing realities that transcend older ones. Examples of transcendental materialism include: ‘Localism–globalism’, ‘Dollar divinity’, ‘Nation in global circulation’, and ‘Racial disjunctures’. ‘Localism–globalism’ indicates how temples are perceived as local safe havens, and also large and ‘global’. ‘Dollar divinity’ indicates how maintaining ‘culture’ is a cultural and economic process of negotiating visas, keeping books, managing food courts and gift shops. ‘The nation in global circulation’ demonstrates how the temples transcend their location in US cities by grounding the immigrant Indian’s patriotism for India. ‘Racial disjunctures’ indicate how temples must embrace the ‘racial others’ like Whites, Hispanics, and African Americans. The ‘other’ is desirable and yet perceived as culturally bankrupt and profane. Globalization, therefore, is constituted by the many contradictory materialism that exist in tandem.
Young Temples of Yore
Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, or BAPS, is a sect of Hinduism that is popular in the US among Gujarati Indians, who hail from the state of Gujarat in western India. According to the ‘who we are’ section of the Baps.org webpage, the sect describes itself as ‘a socio-spiritual Hindu organization with its roots in the Vedas. It was revealed by Bhagwan [God] Swaminarayan (1781–1830) in the late 18th century and established in 1907 by Shastriji Maharaj (1865–1951)’. Lee (2007) described BAPS Swaminarayan as a sect of Swaminarayan Hinduism, which began as a Gujarati reform movement in the early nineteenth century and now truly exemplifies globalization and transnationalism with 600 temples and 9,090 centres in 45 countries around the world. The temples in the US are the ‘foreign’ brethren of the Swaminarayan, or Akshardham temples near Ahmedabad and Delhi. The Swaminarayan sect swiftly became popular in India and is best known for their imposing and intricately carved complexes, which are replete with sound and light shows, musical fountains, and boat rides. In India, these temple complexes became attractive tourist destinations, along with the likes of the Taj Mahal. In that context, they are the temples of postmodern India, often financed by donations from the Indian diaspora (Lee 2007); in other words, they are very much the products of late capitalism. They are unique, both in India and elsewhere, because of the enormous acreage they occupy, their imposing architecture, and their (p.69) sudden and almost-unexpected emergence on the semi-urban land on the outskirts of cities. They appear as medieval spectacles superimposed on contemporary landscape, as if a slice of time and space from the past was torn away and pasted into contemporary life, with the intricateness of the temple architecture and the superbly carved marble pillars appearing as an aggressive attack on the starkness and functionality of the modern city. When I interviewed representatives at the Delhi temple, one informant mentioned that modern-day Delhi, the capital city, lacked a sacred space that represented Hindu culture. This angst appeared in Yoji Maharaj’s (the leading saint) dream, and he went on to actualize this desire to present Hindu culture in its grandeur and magnificence by ensuring the construction of a temple complex that occupied 100 acres. Therefore, the Swaminarayan temples, also known as Akshardham temples,1 are, in essence, a modern-day attempt to showcase the hoariness of Hinduism by ‘bringing back’ the classical style and temple architecture of a grand historic past, from which the ‘secular’ and ‘modern’ present-day seems to have been obliterated. Showcasing such ‘magnificence’ and ‘grandeur’ would require carving up a slice of life that is the very opposite of the everyday, mundane, ordinary, and functional; the hundreds of acres of Italian marbles and fine carvings accomplish that task. The only element of awe it cannot inspire, however, is the patina of age, the mustiness of history, and the moss-encrusted sediment of time. It cannot claim to be ancient, as it is an imitation of history, a simulated history, and a simulacrum that now supersedes its original relics, the ancient Hindu temples all over the world. Its postmodern newness, the sprawling acres, the glossiness of smooth alabaster, and its urban proximity evoke a ‘grandeur’ and ‘magnificence’ of scale, shine, and spatial spread that make up for the lack of age. To that extent, it is an interesting oxymoronic assemblage: a collage of new ancientness where the functionality of parking lots and the precision of LED lights contrast with the over-aestheticized, chariot-like façade that represents the local globality in which an intensely rooted identity is simultaneously transnational.
This format of sprawling acreage, water bodies, and gigantic marble magnificence has been exported to the US as well. The Swaminarayan temple in Atlanta looms large over the mundane landscapes of Lilburn, a suburb about a thirty-minute drive from the Atlanta airport. The Atlanta mandir (temple), the largest in the US was constructed in 2007 on 29 acres of land, almost an exact, but smaller, replica of the Delhi Akshardham temple. A representative of the mandir, who volunteers (p.70) at the gift shop, mentioned that the land for the temple and the cost of construction was entirely funded with donations collected from the Gujarati Indian community in Atlanta. The temple complex is characterized by the main mandir (temple) situated at the centre of a rectangular garden and courtyard. The main temple has a cluster of domes, the tallest of which is designed to look like a mountain peak. In classic Hindu architecture, this peak-like dome is referred to as the shikhara (mountain peak) and is curvilinear in outline. Some of the other domes that surround this main shikhara are curvilinear, and some are spherical (Figure 4.1). Sprawled marble staircase leads to the main landing on which the shikhara stands, supported by pillars.
At the very front of the landing is a sign stating: ‘No photography beyond this point.’ The domes and pillars are intricately carved out of Italian marble. A volunteer at the temple claimed that each piece of marble was hand carved in India and then brought to Atlanta to be assembled like a jigsaw puzzle. Construction workers were brought from India to supplement the local workforce, because the temple needed to be constructed without the inclusion of any metal, in accordance with sacred principles. Inside the temple, under the shikhara dome, is the inner courtyard. The courtyard’s canopy ceiling, which is the inner side of the shikhara dome, is held up by intricately carved pillars (Figure 4.2) that are connected by intricately carved arches. LED lights are strategically placed to illuminate the canopy, which is an imposing concave dome with concentric circles, with each circle sporting a theme. One entire circle is devoted to stone-etched men and women dancing, while another circle demonstrates holy men in different poses of meditation.
The perimeter of this inner courtyard is lined by individual cells that house gods and goddesses from the Hindu mythology, like Rama and Sita, and Krishna and Radha, along with Swaminarayan and his various successors, ending with the most recent ‘Pramukh Swami’. Each cell has an intricately carved donation chest placed on the front. At the entry to this courtyard is a shoe chamber, where shoes must be removed and stowed away, and another sigh alerts visitors that cameras, food/drinks, and talking on cell phones are not allowed. ‘Short sleeve’ and ‘sleeveless tops’ are also not allowed, and volunteers provide shawls if necessary. The temple is surrounded by large reflecting pools, meticulously maintained lawns, and deftly manicured gardens. At the four corners of the garden are four marble-carved umbrellas or chhatris (Figure 4.3).
(p.71) (p.72) (p.73) (p.74) A thriving food court exists just beyond the temple gardens, and the volunteers told me that chefs are brought in from India on a five-year visa. The volunteer lamented about the difficulty of procuring visas for the cooks and about the importance of bringing cooks from India, because they are familiar with the sacred traditions of purity and pollution and with the traditional recipes, as well as able to transform the highest quality ingredients that are provided to them into excellent food. The food includes traditional Gujarati sweet and savory snacks delivered in boxes stamped with labels indicating that the food was cooked following the BAPS Swaminarayan codes. The food court is an important source of income for the temple. There also exits a gift shop and an exhibit hall. One bill board in the inner sanctuary displays the price, in dollars, for the intangible ethereal commodities that can be purchased—these include a $5 price for the rite of abhishek, which involves a one-to-one ceremony with God in which the devotee is allowed to pour holy water on the idol of Swaminarayan as a boy. The same rite costs $11 as a family deal, and other rates apply for audio-abhishek, in which case the tape can be taken home.
The Houston temple is about 10 minutes from downtown Houston, in a suburban community called Stafford. We drove on a bleak cloudy day and arrived in Stafford at around 4.30 p.m. and branched into a narrow lane bordered with lower-middle-class apartments that were probably rented to first-generation immigrants. I thought for sure that I had taken the wrong turn. Suddenly the white structure of the gigantic mandir loomed on my right. As soon as I walked into the temple complex, however, the world outside washed away. I could have been somewhere in India. Like the Atlanta temple, the Houston temple is made of Italian and Turkish marble, intricately hand-carved into the image of the Dilwara Mount Abu temple in India. The temple brochure claimed that over 38,000 marble pieces were hand-carved by craftsmen and volunteers on a 22-acre plot. So intricate is the work that it seems to be carved out of some soft material, like wood or paper (Figure 4.4). The temple’s structure is similar to that of the Atlanta temple, with a peak-like dome surrounded by subsidiary domes. A gigantic array of marble arches marks the gateway to the complex, which is lavishly sprinkled with ponds, waterfalls, reflecting pools, and deftly manicured lawns and bushes (Figure 4.5). Although the weather was extremely cold and windy, devotees dressed in traditional Indian clothes still (p.75) (p.76) (p.77) rippled in to offer their prayers. The inner sanctum has massive tolling bells that hang in front of a light-skinned, androgynous-looking idol of Swaminarayan in gaudy clothes and jewellery.
Two other buildings stand near the perimeter of the complex: an exhibition hall and a gift shop and food court. Exhibition halls and their displays are standard fare in all of the temples in the US. The exhibition hall contains a diorama of handpicked symbols and images representing Indian heritage, culture, science, and technology. The exhibition’s posters and dioramas do not just claim pride in Hinduism and its famous members, but also emphasize pride in India; the religion and nation blend into each other to create an interesting assemblage of faith and patriotism presented as Hindu culture. Hindu culture becomes almost synonymous with Indian culture in this heady mix of faith, tradition, culture, and patriotism, even though, while Hinduism is the dominant religion in India, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and indigenous peoples account for a substantial percentage of the population as well. The religious minorities and indigenous groups are important components of the tapestry of Indian culture, if there can be such a thing as a national culture. The exhibition hall of the Houston Swaminarayan temple concentrates on showcasing ‘Hindu culture’—it is interesting that organized religions find it rather easy to leak out of faith’s container-box into the larger realm of ‘culture’, as if the two are the same. So, the posters and dioramas are not just about the life and teachings of Swaminarayan, which would be normal for an organized religious sect, but also claim and include famous Indian freedom fighters like Gandhi, Nehru, Shivaji, Rani of Jhansi, Netaji, as well as famous poets like Rabindranath Tagore, who had nothing to do with Swaminarayan Hinduism. It also prominently excludes Indian freedom fighters, national figures, and literary geniuses who were not Hindus. A very specific landscape is constructed here; it is a landscape of memory and nostalgia for the homeland, but a selective memory and nostalgia for a homeland predominantly imagined as Hindu. The specificity of Swaminarayan Hinduism is transcended to carefully include non-religious figures, and yet, at the same time, a very specific India is constructed that exclusively speaks only to the Hindu population. For the Gujarati Indian-Americans, transnational nationhood becomes a cultural-economic investment in the specific clan ties of Swaminarayan Hinduism, which is nested within the larger and more general fold (p.78) of reverence to the memory of the motherland. Globalizing India needs its expatriates to send money to support the construction and upkeep of temples back home while, at the same time, the immigrant Hindu needs to re-negotiate their clan, religious, national, and global identities in a foreign land. Resolving the particularities of sect, clan, traditional rites, and the generality of nationhood, patriotism, national culture, and global citizenship is a tricky task. The exhibit hall, through its careful and selective crafting of patriotism within the container of religiosity, attempts to resolve this struggle between the particular and the general. The invention of zero, the discovery of astronomy, and the practice of algebra among ancient Hindu sages are all highlighted in the colourful life-size posters. As one moves from the ancient period to the present, BAPS is highlighted among the contemporary flag-bearers of Indian culture. BAPS’ investment in the environment and community is highlighted through the emphasis on planting trees, donating medicine and blood, and anti-addiction campaigns. A huge poster proudly proclaims the efforts put forward by BAPS in the tribal belt of south Gujarat, where over 300 tribal villages were brought under its socio-cultural civilizing mission. Religion, culture, science, technology, social service, and the environment bleed into one another in producing a cosmology that is larger than religion and almost becomes a way of life in which faith does not have to be anti-science, anti-innovation, or the antithesis to a tribal way of life; it can incorporate each. The universal and global appeal of greenness, sustainability, science, and social and humanitarian relief work appeals to the transnational aspirations of a global Indian community, but membership in this transnational citizenship is earned only within the club of the Swaminarayan sect. The gift shop and cafeteria is teeming with people who drove in for their evening naasta and chai (snack and tea) and now feast on the traditional vegetarian fare of samosa and dhokla (Gujarati snack), which are prepared by following the appropriate religious codes. Kids run amok and mommies take a breather after a difficult day as the gift-shop-cum-cafeteria becomes a living and breathing site for re-inventing tradition, community, and network through an interesting assemblage of food and religion. All of the food bears a label stating that it is sanctified by the BAPS.
The gift shop at the Irving temple near Dallas displays a huge wall of CDs containing religious and inspirational speeches and hymns. (p.79) Another wall displays a collection of books, ranging from English to Gujarati, on the philosophy of Swaminarayan, Hinduism and women, parenting journals, and women and renunciation. There are also books on tourism in Europe and Africa to appeal to the wanderlust of the nouveau riche Gujarati. Children’s books providing pictorial representations of the Hindu epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana are available for Gujarati children, and textbooks on Gujarati alphabet are also available for sale. Glass, porcelain, and clay models of Krishna, Radha, and Swaminarayan, as well as Gujarati prayer stools and temple furniture are display for sale with the strict instruction ‘do not touch’. A large poster just outside the shop provides a menu for the various forms of seva, or services, that can be offered to the god. The services include grocery seva, fruit seva, vegetable seva, juice seva, milk seva, and the like, and the menu displays the corresponding weekly and monthly rates, in dollars, for each of these services. A devotee has the option of bringing these goods, or the money amount in dollars, to earn god’s blessings, peace, and deliverance from earthly sins. The Irving complex has a huge kitchen in which vegetarian meals are prepared daily, with more elaborate meals prepared for devotees on Sundays. The facility also includes a large dining hall, a huge party hall available for rent, an auditorium with a capacity of 600–1000 that is used for community prayers and hymns on special occasions, and a large basketball court that any university would be proud of. A volunteer explained to me:
It is very important to teach the children the core values of Gujarati-Hindu culture, especially because they are growing up so far away from Indian tradition. It is really hard for the kids because they negotiate the clash between foreign and tradition every day, they go to American schools, read and converse in English, acquire American taste for music and food, and put in a lot of effort to fit in with their peers. Then they must come home, eat vegetarian meals, converse in Gujarati, and pray to Indian gods. The outside world usually has a greater appeal to them than this private world, because it is more ubiquitous and more vociferous. That is why we ensure that we have special facilities for kids, to encourage them to appreciate their culture. Every weekend we have cultural and sports activity, Gujarati language classes, and dandia [Gujarati dance] practice. It is difficult to get kids interested in language lessons and religious education, the sports, dance, and food make it interesting for them. The boys and girls go to separate classes, we keep the genders separate.
(p.80) The angst of immigration—which involves the tearing away of roots, globalization, and loss of identity—and the need for cultural investment in the next generation is a common theme touched upon by all the temple complexes. A volunteer at the Atlanta temple claimed that the main purpose of the Akshardham temple was to pass down Indian culture to their children and grandchildren. He lamented about the hardships of raising children in a foreign country:
This country has no culture, it looks great from the outside, very rich and glamorous, but they have zero culture, and do you want your children to grow up with their values—they have no regard for their elders, their children tell their parents ‘Get the hell out of here’, ‘Why have you come to supervise me?’ We don’t want our children to grow up like that, that is why we built this temple so that they can be in-touch with Indian culture and spirituality. Every Sunday, we have sessions for children, women, and men, there are lectures, training in Gujarati language and spiritual hymns—this is our investment into the lives of our children. What is the point of being rich if your children are disrespectful and misbehaved? Remember to bring your children to the Akshardham temple, if they come here from an early age they will develop a pride in their culture—why do you think the white folks, the Mexicans come here and bring their kids here? Because they want to partake in our culture and spirituality.
I had been visiting the Swaminarayan temples in the US for some time now, because I felt they represent an interesting interaction between globalization and localisms, tradition and postmodernity, religion and the commodification of religion in unique ways. This interview also made me, for the first time, realize that these spectacular landscapes were not simply geographic sites on which these complex interactions played out, but also an immigrant’s narrative of a transcendental materialism. The immigrant could transcend the earthly realities of her material displacement (emigration from India and immigration to the US) by re-rooting tradition within the temple complex in this ‘foreign’ land. The temple complex is an immigrant’s narrative of ‘true culture’ and ‘authentic tradition’, a safe haven for the pure and sacred in the midst of a sea of ‘profane’ in the newly adopted country. In this narrative, material emplacement of the Swaminarayan mandir complexes allows for a spiritual transcendence that brings solace, a slice of home, a sense of belonging and therefore replaces the angst of displacement (p.81) (migration) with a feeling of emplacement in a community, a home away from home. The immigrant’s dream is to transfer this new narrative of emplacement to her children as well. In her study of Pakistani, Irish, Brazilian, and Hindu immigrants, Levitt (2006) indicated how immigrants bring their religion to the US and transform America while, at the same time, they powerfully transform their countries of origin by maintaining strong ties through advanced information technology and expatriate dollars. She used the metaphor ‘global religious citizenship’ to explain how religion does not remain discretely contained within the nation-state, but achieves fluidity as symbols, narratives, rituals, and rites travel to new lands, shaping life and landscape there. At the same time, the immigrants return home for important religious ceremonies, developing an intricate global network of churches, temples, and clergies. The American religious landscape is globalized and pluralized, and at the same time, expatriate remittances in the form of money and ideas like individualism and hard work are sent back home. My own effort, in this book, has been to understand the dialectics of globalization by looking at its culture economy metabolism through the lens of the city. I hoped that the religious landscapes of the Swaminarayan sect in the US cities and in India would allow me to do just that. Not only did they not disappoint me in that regard, they also went above and beyond that goal by revealing that this culture economy metabolism simultaneously carves a global reality of belonging and othering, inclusion and exclusion, and integration and marginalization. What is significant in this context and needs to be emphasized is that the Swaminarayan temple complexes in the US represent migrant landscapes. As landscapes, they are not just geographical edifices, rather, as discussed earlier they become the very narratives through which transcendence and emplacement is achieved. Therefore, it is imperative that in reading the dialectics of globalization from the temple landscape, we appropriately theorize landscape as a concept. I now turn to that task by re-visiting some of the key ideas in landscape literature.
In the Saureian humanistic tradition, landscape is a representation of material culture and, therefore, a cultural expression of human habitation (Sauer, 1925; Duncan, 1980; Rowntree, 1996). Space becomes the (p.82) canvas representing cultural processes. Cosgrove and Daniels (1988) contended that, although landscape is a cultural image, this does not mean it is immaterial. The materiality of landscape may be represented by paint on canvas and writing on paper, and on earth, dirt, and stone, which are material things. In that context, a farm landscape, cityscape, or mining shaft is no more material than a painting or a poem. They further contend that visual, verbal, and built landscapes are interwoven to produce the contexts of social reality. However, these contexts of social reality are not always farm fields, picket fences, and the English countryside; they are sometimes caked by dirt, grime, and sweat in the blind and narrow alleys of slums and favelas, or represent the big holes in the ground produced by drone attacks, or, at other times, the walls constructed to keep whole communities of people out. Therefore, the materiality of landscape produces a social reality that is textured by the grittiness of injustice and exploitation. Gold and Revill (2000: 15) contended that ‘landscapes of power and privilege’ are the flipside of ‘landscapes of exploitation and disadvantage’. Therefore, human geographers have, for some time now, argued for a closer inspection of the landscapes of alienation, exclusion, and injustice (Mitchell 2003; Olwig 1996), in order to reveal what Kirby (2002) termed the more ‘gritty’ aspects of social reality. Writing about the context following the 2001 Israeli occupation of Palestine, Gregory (2004: 183) borrowed Edward Said’s ‘imaginative geographies’ to indicate how culture and imperialism are stitched together in producing a neocolonial imagination of the ‘other’ that is not only circulated as ideas and ideologies but is also etched in space in such a way that ‘distance folds into difference through a series of spatializations. They multiply partitions and enclosures that demarcate “the same” from the “other”, at once constructing and calibrating a gap between the two by designating in one’s mind a familiar space which is “ours” and an unfamiliar space beyond “ours” which is theirs.’
Neighbourhoods, places, and landscapes represent domains controlled by ‘legitimate’ occupants, with legitimacy mostly defined in terms of duration of stay (Nieto and Franze 1997). Any physical intrusion into that domain by socially or culturally distant ‘others’ is perceived as a contestation to the expression of legitimate identities. Guarding the ‘pristine’, and ‘reclaiming’ it, becomes a project that is realized over space by protecting, annihilating, and (re)ordering landscapes (Nieto and Franze 1997). Landscapes are therefore a palimpsest (p.83) of realization and negation: the realization of identity, ideology, and politics alongside the simultaneous negation of identities, ideologies, and politics of ‘others’ who could not actualize their realities. When landscapes are negations, they are alienating. When landscapes are realizations, they are the appropriation of land, property, and life. While landscapes embody more than their physical form by encapsulating identities, politics, and ethno-racial discourses, it is also important to emphasize the ‘land’ in landscape; that is, its material and the physical forms. The material forms, like land use or real estate are just as important as subjective categories like identity, nostalgia, and ethno-racial discourses. Land use represents the supply side of urban development, and serves as a physical resource for developers such as private corporations, local governments, and policymaking bodies (Bourne 1976).
Clearly, landscapes have been conceptualized in a variety of different ways. Landscapes are intensely cultural, political, and economic, and they can embody power, privilege, realization, memory, and nostalgia while, at the same time, representing disadvantage, exploitation, negation, displacement, and trauma. They are geographical and temporal: they are sedimentations of time as well as conglomerations of space. They are a narrative, consisting of a text, picture, and poem, and also simultaneously consisting of land, brick, mortar, and steel. In the interest of a more complete understanding of globalizing social realities, it is important to explore how landscapes are local in their situation, context, expression, and are simultaneously also global. For instance, the Akshardham temples in India crop up in the US, England, Australia, and Belgium. Their cropping up elsewhere on the one hand, signifies globalization of landscape and globalization of culture, but at the same time, for the immigrant Hindu Indian, they provide a sense of community, clan ties, home, and local moorings in foreign soil. It is interesting therefore, that Akshardham temple landscapes transcend the contexts of their existence in India and re-emerge elsewhere to produce new global–local contexts of life. In the next section, I hope to theoretically trace this process of transcendence and then empirically ground it with some examples.
I propose ‘transcendental materialism’ to understand how material contexts of everyday life that emerge in one place are transcended (p.84) elsewhere through the production of new meanings and new narratives. Transcendental materialism is inspired by Hegel’s transcendental idealism, however, I contend that there are some very basic differences between the two (Albritton 1999; Berger and Pullberg 1965; Hegel 2010). For Hegel, contradictions between ideas produce history, as ideas clash with one another in a battle between thesis and antithesis, it leads towards a synthesis. The synthesis is a perfect combination of the two contradictory ideas and it informs practice and hence the production of history and, if I may add, geography as well. The synthesis is a little more perfect than the thesis and antithesis that it transcended, so the synthesis is an improvement. But soon this synthesis is challenged by a new idea, hence, the synthesis becomes a thesis and this new idea its antithesis, and the process continues. In this way, history progresses towards a perfect, or absolute, idea. The Spirit, in Hegelian ‘transcendental idealism’, is a larger consciousness that exists above and beyond the idea. The Spirit, informs ideas and is re-informed and enlightened by the process of contradiction. As an idea evolves towards perfection, it informs the Spirit at each stage, and hence the Spirit evolves towards perfection as well. Ideas are the motor of history, as they transcend their imperfect predecessors to move towards perfection, hence ‘transcendental idealism’. When an idea reaches perfection, there is no further challenge to it, there is no other antithesis, and there is no more transcendence, as history culminates in perfection. I use transcendental materialism to explain how time and space, geography and history—in other words, contexts of social reality—transcend the conditions of their existence to re-emerge and often be reproduced in other contexts. As they re-emerge they are often reproduced as the new avatar of the older contexts in which they thrived, the old contexts and the new contexts remain dialectically intertwined. I differ from Hegel on three counts. First, unlike Hegel, I do not contend that transcendental materialism results in a move towards a more perfect social reality or an absolute and perfect materiality. Second, I invest importance in materialism, rather than idealism, as the motor of transformation. My emphasis is more on the transforming material conditions, specifically globalizing cities, immigrant temple complexes, and globalizing cyber scapes. This does not mean that Hegel is wrong, ideas always inform the materiality of existence and cannot be artificially separated from reality, but it is my contention that ideas are material too, because they (p.85) emerge through forms of knowledge production, like research, teaching, dialogue, and the act of labouring, which are all material interactions. Third, I do not engage with the concept of a larger-than-life Spirit or consciousness. In order words, unlike Hegel, I do not assume that a larger force puts ideas in our head. Rather, I assume that ideas emerge out of material interactions. Therefore, for me, transcendental materialism refers to how certain social realities of the globalizing city inform the production and emergence of other social realities, both there and elsewhere—this production or emergence of new globalizing contexts of existence is a transcendence from the pre-existing contexts of material existence that informed its production. Various contradictions—like the culture economy, urban-rural, Fordist-post-Fordist, and pre-liberalization-post-liberalization are the metabolic mechanisms of globalizing cities, and these contradictions continue to be the metabolic force of the transcendent, globalizing realities. This conceptual nugget, I hope, will become clearer and as I explore some examples of transcendental materialism. I provide four examples below and I characterize them as: Transnational localism-globalism, dollar divinity, the nation in global circulation, and racial disjunctures.
The local and the global have become hotly debated in literature. For instance, Swyngedow (1997) argued that it is important to understand that the local and the global are not ontologically given confrontational scales, but rather mutually constitutive of each other in a process he refers to as ‘glocalization’. Globalization leads to an erosion of the importance of the national scale that allows cities, the major senders and receivers of flows, to transcend the national scale and become truly global cities (Sassen 2002), in a process of scaling-up that Smith (2000) called ‘scale-jumping’. It is not my purpose here to repeat the extensive discussions of geographical scale that already exist.2 Rather, my objective is to treat the global and local not as scales at all, but rather as constituted materialities of social reality. I am not interested here in their political, spatial, or physiographic expanse, but rather in their material construction through processes. The purpose is to steer clear of Cartesian logics of scale, which understands the ‘local’ as small, signifying a town or a village, while the ‘global’ as more continental (p.86) and transcontinental. Instead, in the context of globalization, where ‘space of flows’ and ‘space of place’ are simultaneously co-existent, where time–space compressions are ubiquitous, and where homogenization and indigenization cannot be pried apart from each other, social reality must be understood in newer ways than confining lenses of scales, coordinates, and diameters. The ‘local’ is local not because it is small or sub-scalar relative to something else that subsumes it, but because it represents a grounding of cultural, economic, and political processes making them familiar, and in-place. However, this does not mean that the local is untouched, or that it is not flowing, homogenizing, or being compressed. The ‘global’ is global not because it is continental or transcontinental in reach, but because it lacks the familiarity and in-placeness that the local sometimes possess—global is at home anywhere and nowhere.
The Akshardham temple complexes in the US represent a transnational localism for the immigrant Hindu. They are local not because they are smaller than the cities that encapsulate them, or because they represent numerically, a minority religious group in the US. Rather, the Akshardham temple complexes are local in the constituted materiality of the immigrant subject, in this materiality, the temple landscape is a familiar context, a community, and a place to enjoy tea and dhokla surrounded by children who fluently chatter in both Gujarati and English with a hint of a southern drawl. The ornately carved pillars, the reflecting pools, the sprawling staircase, and the displays in the museum are grandiose and magnificent, and at the same time, they re-create the mundaneness of everyday Indian existence that immigrants crave. The spectacle of the landscape is an essential ingredient for recreating the coziness of the distant local in the global immigrant’s mind. While being cozy and mundane for the first-generation immigrant, the spectacular landscape is simultaneously awe-inspiring in the minds of the second-generation immigrant children, who are completely unfamiliar with the sense of the ‘local’, ‘community’, and ‘home’ that their parents hunger for.
One interviewee at the Houston temple complex remarked:
This temple allows us to be who we are, here we no longer have to conform and fit into what others expect us to be. It is like being back home in the same apartment complex if you are in the city, and the same village if you are in a rural area. The temple ensures that sense of community: it (p.87) was built on a voluntary basis, men, women, and children contributed free labour and time in polishing the stones, laying the electric cables, planting the trees. It brought us together as a community, like we would be back home. The temple complex feels like home away from home.
In many ways, the Akshardham temple complexes are more local, familiar, and indigenous than their counterparts in India, because the temples in India are impersonally constructed by abundant and cheap wage labour. In the US, however, the devotees and their families pitched in to build the temples, alongside friends who were, in many instances, not even Hindu Indians. The temples were completely built with donations collected from the BAPS Hindu community, and volunteering became the essential route for avoiding expensive labour costs. For a middle-class immigrant Indian who lives in an American suburban—with its cookie-cutter homes, granite counter tops, and strip malls—it is impossible to escape the materiality of their transnational, global existence unless it is through the grandiosity and magnificence of this temple complex. The temple complex constructs an alternative materiality of the familiar in which one can be oneself. Everywhere else, the immigrant subject is a model immigrant who pursues the American dream and aspires for American citizenship, but within the food courts of the temple and its communal vegetarian meals, and in the weekend hymns and prayer rituals, he is Sajjan bhai (brother) or Sarla ben (sister). However, the younger generation, born in the US, does not relate to the temple complex in the same way as their parents. For them, their suburban home is the safe haven, and the school district they belong to is the ‘local’, and the ‘community’. The Walmarts, the McDonalds, and the neighbourhood bowling alley that they frequent are the happy hunting grounds where familiarity, memory, and nostalgia are produced daily. The grand young temple that has recently come up is a spectacular materiality that inspires awe and curiosity, but not necessarily familiarity and home. A 21-year-old at the Atlanta temple complex remarked:
We have always been taught about the greatness of India, the richness of its culture, the importance of Hinduism as a religion. We have grown up with it at home, and lived with it through the folktales that were narrated to us, through the prayer meetings we attended. It is so difficult to explain to our American friends who we are. This temple complex solves that dilemma, we have a piece of India’s heritage and history in our backyard and we can show it off to our friends as well, this is awesome!
(p.88) For the transnational, second-generation immigrant youth, their very familiar American neighbourhood is now being transformed by a ‘global’ and grandiose transnational India and an equally grandiose transnational Hinduism. The youth’s local materiality is now re-constituted by the globalizing ‘awesomeness’ of this Swaminarayan temple complex that has always been very distant. This globalizing landscape, which now exists in the backyard, is something that the second-generation immigrant youth help built, and something they can take pride in. The Akshardham temple complexes in the US are transcended materialisms, because they transcend the Akshardham temples in India, where they are simply grand Hindu places of worship. In transcending the temple landscapes back home, the Akshardham landscape simultaneously becomes a ‘local place’ for the first-generation immigrant who looks to recreate ‘home’, and at the same time, it is an exotic ‘global place’ for the second-generation Indian-American youth who looks to possess and share exotic India. For the first-generation immigrant, American cities represents the global places that they sought to immigrate to for economic opportunities, and so constructing temples that are almost mirror images of the temples they left back home is not just an attempt to replicate a sense of the local in the global, but also an attempt to create the local where it did not previously exist. The Akshardham temples in US cities are not just replicas of their Indian counterparts; they transcend them by becoming ‘a safe haven’, ‘a home’, ‘a community’, a space of place, and an indigenized reality in the midst of all the globalizing homogenizations. At the same time, these American-Indian temples also inscribe a globalism for the younger generation who were born in the US Indian heritage and Hindu culture flow through the conduit of the space of flows, to be a globalizing India near the American freeways and industrial parks. The Swaminarayan temple landscapes signify transcendental materialism where the narratives of the local and the global are so imbricated that they remain in dialectical cohabitation.
The Akshardham temples in the US are constructed with funds collected from local congregations. One interviewee at the Irving temple commented that God Swaminarayan had asked followers to donate (p.89) 5–10 per cent of their income to the upkeep and maintenance of the temples. A DVD sold at the Atlanta temple’s gift shop features a Toronto TV news clip in which the newsreader claims that 40 million dollars went into the foundation and construction of the Toronto temple in Canada, all of which came from private sources. Interviewees typically did not provide a figure for the construction and yearly maintenance of the temple complexes, usually claiming that the construction and establishment took millions and that yearly expenses are very high. They also did not know which community member contributed the largest amount, because no one really advertises how much they contributed. If, however, the Toronto temple is a benchmark, then the other temples in North America must amount to more than 40 million, and if the DVDs sold at the gift shop are any indication, then the local Gujarati businessmen that are prominently featured as giving speeches during the inauguration festivals must have important roles as financial contributors. Many interviewees claim that the voluntary contribution of labour has been the mainstay in construction and maintenance of the temples. The DVDs document every step of the construction process, which often starts with the acquisition of the land and includes signing the contract with the local city officials, breaking the land, laying the foundation stone, and then building the temple. The most important aspect of the building process prominently featured is the presence of men, women, and children who are shown carving, polishing, digging, and planting as a background voice narrator explains how the voluntary contribution of free labor made the temple complex possible. While volunteers played an important role, construction workers, engineers, and planners still had to be employed; often, hundreds of construction workers had to be flown in from India. Volunteers continue to play important roles even after the establishment of the temple: they run gift shops, participate in cleaning, run language classes on weekends, and organize various cultural activities. However, in spite of the volunteer’s contributions, security personnel must be employed, gatekeepers stationed, cooks brought in from India, and gardeners, landscapers, and custodial staff hired. The interviewees claim that donations from the local community provide enough funds for the smooth functioning of the temple. The point I am making here is that globalization of religion and the reformulation of local geographies costs money and institutional organization, and diasporic communities are happy to contribute (p.90) labour and dollars. Cultural globalization is therefore intensely political and economic—faith, divinity, spirituality, care, creativity, and artistic splendour require consistent supply of labor and funds. The BAPS group of temples is supervised by a board of trustees for North America, which consists of volunteers who help guide regional temples in their policies and activities. Each city chapter has multiple departments and committees consisting of local devotees who are advised by swamis (saints) who constantly travel in the region, moving from one temple to another and guiding the spiritual and non-spiritual activities.
The temples also raise money on a day-to-day basis from the sale of books, food, religious artifacts, and DVDs from gift shops, which sometimes host special discounts, as well as fresh snacks and tea at the BAPS-sanctified cafeterias (Figure 4.6) and huge ornate chests collecting daily contributions. The Irving-Dallas temple rents out its community hall and auditorium for various occasions, such as marriages and christenings, with a strict list of regulations for maintaining the sanctity of the temple. The various religious and spiritual services that promise peace and oneness with God, cost money. As noted earlier, most temple complexes display menus of sacred services that can be rendered in return for a few dollars. For example, the ‘Abhishek’ at the Atlanta temple has individual and family rates, and rates for audio recording as well. Grocery seva, fruit seva, and milk seva are popular everyday activities through which devotees can serve the temple’s kitchen by actually purchasing the groceries or donating the money equivalent.
Transcendence from the profanity of everyday existence, is a material act that is achieved through the production of sacred geographies, which are expensive. It is also achieved on a day-to-day basis through the material acts of consuming food, DVDs, and religious services, all of which pump capital in the continuous production of the sacred. The production of this sacred is intensely local in its financing and management, because the devotees that donate and form volunteer groups, departments, and committees are drawn from the region. At the same time, however, these local sacred assemblages are produced in the transnational, diasporic contexts of the US in order to allow God, divinity, and salvation to travel from the holy contexts of home (India) to the profane geographies of the foreign land. The established immigrant community’s desire for divine connection is actualized through systematic investment in the local community through the material acts of (p.91) (p.92) land acquisition and purchase, temple construction, management and committee building, hiring of staff, and maintenance. God goes global, travelling from his indigenous abode in India to be grounded locally in Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and London. This global–local grounding is not a nebulous act in the meditative mind of the devotee; it is material and tangible in the construction of the temple landscape through marble carvings of the stone arches, in the sweet kaju barfis (cashew-based sweets) sold in the gift shops, in the meticulously manicured temple lawns, and in the spiritual hymns that emanate when one inserts the temple DVDs into one’s computer. The transcendence from the mundaneness, the foreignness, and the profanity of existence into a divine plane of peace and spirituality involves an assemblage of local and global material acts. These sacred acts have an economic metabolism, as they are driven by millions of dollars and they in turn, generate dollars that are re-invested in the production of the divine. In the context of dollar divinity, the transnational global immigrant who carries economic and cultural capital with her does not automatically melt into America’s cultural melting pot, becoming homogenized into the predominant protestant Christianity. Instead, the capital is invested towards transcending the materiality of foreign existence by indigenizing the gods brought from home. The gods transcend their indigenous local roots and globalize in Dallas, Atlanta, and Chicago, in the process altering the landscape of urban America. The globalization of the sacred requires an economic engine that is meticulous in maintaining its books, generating funds, forming committees, honouring donors, organizing volunteers, and stocking gift shops and cafeterias. This motor must deal with the many materialisms that spring from the city regulations, visa issues, and producing and packaging religious foods and artifacts. As one volunteer at the Atlanta temple explained:
The ‘do not photograph’ sign that you see posted on the main landing applies to the inner sanctum of the temple. This is in compliance with the city regulations. The city wanted us to post it, they did not want people of other faiths—you know, whites, Mexicans, and blacks—from coming in, taking pictures, and misusing them. They did not want bad publicity for their city, we had to comply; this signage is rather expensive, we had to spend valuable dollars that could have gone elsewhere.
Another volunteer, also at the Atlanta temple, remarked:
(p.93) It is so hard to get a visa for the chef who cooks the daily and Sunday community meals and makes the products for the gift shops. It is hard to get a U.S. visa for working class groups like cooks and construction workers; the immigration authorities fear that they will not go back home. We have to make do with whatever we can get, sometimes the chefs come for five years and they go back, then we have to get another person, this is a big headache!
Culture is not, therefore, a super-structural manifestation of the deeper economic base, or a fleeting and unimportant subsidiary of the sweat, blood, and war that is political economy. Social reality that is inherently society and space—that is, reality in which neither society nor space can hold any meaning if they are analytically separated—is an inherent inflection of culture and economy. Sometimes ties are maintained with home by following the temple construction codes and religious teachings, sometimes they are transcended by forming independent and local congregational boards of trustees, regional bands of travelling saints, and local kitchens and production bases. Globalizing the divine requires an intricate process of dealing with food, architecture, religious customs, and religious artifacts that are predominantly cultural, but also simultaneously involve dealing with supply chains, visa fees, sale and retailing, pricing and listing, city regulations that are also predominantly economic. These simultaneously cultural and economic acts crystallize the materiality, landscape, geography, and narrative of a new city that transcends its earlier more ‘profane’ version. The many materialisms of dollar divinity allow the immigrant Indian to experience the divine by transcending the ‘baseness’ of everyday urban life. Therefore, through globalization, the city transcends itself in order to re-emerge in the light of the divine and hence formulate a new and more desirable urban experience for the immigrant.
The Nation in Global Circulation
One of the dominant strands in the globalization debate has been the argument about the ‘hollowing out’ of nations: scholars (Ohmae 2000; Brown 2001; Strange 2001) argue that, with increased economic deregulation, the political powers of nations will also shrink, giving rise to extra-national entities like region-states (for example, the European Union) and multi-national trading blocs (for example, NAFTA). The (p.94) hallowed years of the nation as the supreme political entity, demanding complete loyalty, reverence, and accountability, is on the decline. Cities, which are increasingly becoming more global, will transcend the confining holds of their regional and national governments to become almost like ‘city-states’ by advancing their own agenda of economic growth, privatization, and efforts to attract foreign capital (Sassen 2002). Therefore, an important question in the globalization debate is whether globalization signals the ending of the nation-state. On the opposite side of the spectrum are scholars who argue that globalization calls for a re-formulation of the nation-state, but not its erasure (Mann 2001; Slaughter 2001; Hirst and Thompson 2001). The process of economic liberalization, border porosity, and decentralized governance are not indicators of the disappearance of the nation-state, but rather are actualized because of the nation-state’s willingness to evolve. Brenner and Theodore (2002) took a middle path by arguing that economic liberalization does not lead to a standardized, one-size-fits-all transformation everywhere; in fact, the market rationality is very cognizant of the unique path-dependencies of places, and is hence grounded in locally meaningful ways. Therefore, in other words, more local variants, like the nation, have a great deal of agency when interacting with globalization and modifying it according to local and national trajectories. In the same vein Hobsbawm (1998: 1) argued:
But a ‘nation,’ however we define it, is by definition exclusive and particular. It is always recognizable by not being another nation. To this extent it is by definition not global. This is both objectively and subjectively so. From the national point of view, the ‘nation’ is primary and qualitatively unique. From the global point of view, it is just one component among many others of the total system. It may be quantitatively more or less important, but qualitatively all nations are equal. The question I will discuss today is how the ‘nation’ fits into, or does not fit into, the globalized world of today and the even more globalized world of tomorrow. Or, conversely, how that world adjusts to the heterogeneity of its components.
Following the same line of argument, he stated (1998: 2):
But if globalization has to adjust to local particularities, of which ‘nations’ are an important subvariety, particularities are much more powerfully affected by globalization and have to adjust to it or be eliminated by it.
(p.95) These ideas are therefore an attempt to understand how the contradictions between nations/particularities/uniqueness and globalization are resolved, and how to deal with homogeneity and standardization. The Akshardham temple complexes in North America provide an interesting narrative of the nation in global circulation. The temple complexes are not only a sacred space that celebrates, globally and internationally, the magnificence and grandeur of Hinduism, displays ancient Hindu architectural traditions, and cocoons memory and nostalgia for home, they simultaneously become an ad hoc India, a nation away from the nation. Handing down India to the younger generation is the central project among satsangis (fellow devotees), and this manifests not just as the need to celebrate Hindu Gujarati culture, but also as the need to celebrate nationalist imaginations and profess patriotism through nationalistic myths, flag, and national anthem. It is taken for granted that the imagination of the nation often becomes conflated with Gujarati Hinduism, which often understands the celebration of religious customs as national culture. As a devotee claimed: ‘Performing seva (service) at the temple is performing seva for India.’ In this particular devotee’s imagination, god and Hindu religion are just extensions of mother India. In the museum, Hindu saints (Figure 4.7) are portrayed alongside Indian freedom fighters, patriots, poets, and artists, as if they are extensions of the Hindu pantheon and hence share the divine project of defining an overarching India. India’s rich flora and fauna (Figure 4.8), diversity of language and culture, discovery of zero (Figure 4.9), and contributions to geometry and astronomy (Figure 4.9) are prominently featured and placed within the narrative of a nation constructed with the help of excerpts from high-school history textbooks (Figure 4.10). These displays are not found in Akshardham temples in India; rather, they are special features of the foreign temple complexes: a construction of ‘mother India’ for the education of the international citizenry through the careful production of a proud nation that can be the ‘mother of geometry’ and the mother of spirituality at the same time.
A skit organized by the youth members of the Atlanta Swaminarayan community presents a caricature of the tale of Alexander the Great and his aspirations to conquer India. The actor playing Alexander is shown as threatening to plunder India, a country he knows is ridden with many diverse cultural and hence, in Alexander’s mind, is easy (p.96) (p.97) (p.98) to break apart. He is met by a sage dressed in the saffron garb of an ancient Hindu holy man, who defies Alexander’s sabre rattling and humbles him through quotations from the ancient Hindu scriptures of the Vedas and the Upanishads that discuss the insignificance of the human body and the importance of enriching the soul. The sage makes a moot point: Alexander may kill him, but the death of the body will not extinguish the soul of India, which is enriched by its great diversity. Religious nationalism is a dominant political paradigm in India, often taken to an extreme, exclusionist stance against religious minorities in India (Balgopal 2002), where both dangerous and benign conflations between the Hindu and Indian cultures are common among those who ascribe to the majority religious group (Hindus). An important challenge of India’s post-independence nation-building project was (p.99) (p.100) to find a national imagination that could transcend the many rifts of language, culture, and religion without losing their uniqueness that enriched diversity. Nehru’s famous ‘unity in diversity’ slogan was an attempt to secularize the national imagination while also celebrating its many diversities (Nehru 1985). In the Alexander skit, religion and the nation are comfortably conflated and spliced with the celebration of diversity: Alexander is seen as diminished by the aura of an Indian god man, but this god man is Hindu and quotes from Hindu scriptures. At the same time, the imagination of the Indian nation that he projects extends beyond an exclusively Hindu image and emphasizes the importance of diversity. The skit is rife with the Hindu Gujarati American’s dilemma of how to include the values of multiculturalism of the American variety and also simultaneously glorify Hindu culture above and beyond anything else. Being marginal and part of a minority religion within the context of the American nation, the need to elevate Hindu culture through a global history of conquest becomes a potent theme; Hindu culture is of course conflated as Indian culture, and mythmaking replaces history.
Therefore, to answer Hobsbawm’s question, particularities like national imaginations, which fly beyond the national containers of their origin, adjust to globalization by existing in hyphenated collaborations with transnationalism and multiculturalism. For example, the inauguration of the Atlanta temple was a grand affair,3 where mayors, congressmen, and the chief of police brushed shoulders with Gujarati businessmen. The inauguration ceremony consisted of speeches, not only delivered by holy men speaking about Swaminarayan Hinduism, but also by American politicians who waved to the crowds hailing ‘Jai Swaminarayan!’ The American politicians constructed a multiculturalist narrative of how these temples are sites of India–US cultural exchange. Talking of America as a country of immigrants, and of the importance of immigrants lending vibrancy and innovation to this great nation, the speeches listed the many environmental and social initiatives enacted by the temple. Tree-planting initiatives, anti-addiction campaigns, and post-disaster relief efforts were highlighted as important programmes through which the temple invested locally and globally. These environmental and social programmes were viewed as enhancing both the economy and society, in addition to contributing to the culture and beauty of the suburb of Lilburn, Atlanta. It is as if, by (p.101) ascribing to universal goals of sustainability and social betterment, the temple transcended its cultural particularity, its placial fixity to unanimously meld with national and global goals. A congressman declared 26 August 2007 the ‘Mandir of Lilburn, Georgia day’. A Gujarati businessman who probably played an important role in founding the temple told a cheering crowd who were waving flags with the Indian tri-colour and US stars and stripes: ‘This great nation has given us the opportunity to embrace our Indian heritage and pass it down to the next generation.’ A choir and orchestra consisting of white and African-American boys sang the US national anthem, and a Gujarati-American boy waved a giant US flag. At the end of the song, huge numbers of red, white, and blue balloons were released. This was followed by a group of Indian-American boys singing the Indian national anthem and waving a gigantic Indian flag, and then by the release of white, green, and saffron balloons. The entire inauguration ceremony seamlessly stitched the particularities of Swaminarayan Hinduism, the celebration of temple architecture, and the emphasis on the greatness of Hinduism with the globalization of the Indian nation, the pride of Indian patriotism, and its comfortable cohabitation within the rubric of American citizenship. For American politicians, the Akshardham temple becomes an important site for the community’s ‘enhancement’, because it attracts tourists who will consume and spend, and therefore put Lilburn on the global map. However, at the same time, the temple’s establishment also becomes a caveat in the political narrative of Lilburn, serving as an example of cooperation, coexistence, cultural exchange, and social and environmental initiatives between model immigrants and host communities.
The inauguration festivities, which continued for days, also included nagar yatra or a tour of the city, during which processions carrying the temple idols in gaudily decorated chariots were followed by long trains of devotees, dancers, and children as they made their way through the city before returning to the temple. In essence, the gods were given a tour of their new foreign abode before settling into their new home. The inauguration DVDs begin with a promotional video on the city. For example, the Atlanta DVD introduced Atlanta as an emerging global city that has the world’s largest aquarium and excellent universities and convention centres, as well as a state of the art airport, and the headquarters of 15 of the world’s largest multinational corporations. (p.102) The Akshardham narratives do not contradict the globalization narratives, and the globalization narratives do not swallow the Akshardham narratives. The global city stays in comfortable cohabitation with local uniqueness, and the transnational nation acts as the linking logic between them. The nation away-from-home is no longer parochial, and no longer inward-looking; it is emancipated from its unique roots and acquires the global stamp of transnational globalism. Such a nation has global purchase, because it transcends the rooted identity of its existence to bring with it many materialisms like exotic foreign culture, interesting myths, age-old traditions, and marble architecture, thus becoming a universal solvent in which global America and local Swaminarayan Hinduism dissolve into an exotic concoction of mandir days, nagar yatras, and patriotic fervour. The global city of Atlanta is marked and charted by an intensely local Gujarati Hindu procession in a ‘medievalist spectacle’, which does not cause riots or anti-immigrant hysteria, and video footage of the temple inauguration unabashedly promotes and projects the globalness of Atlanta as it spearheads tourism, business, and culture. Such contradictory materialisms are in comfortable cohabitation, because, in the Akshardham narratives, both India and the US are no longer just nations with an inside and an outside, but the insider–outsider and citizen–foreigner dichotomies are now transcended through new globalizing narratives of multiculturalism and transnationalism. Multiculturalism and transnationalism help gloss over the exclusionary Hindu narratives that are produced in the many materialism of the temple’s skits and museums. That the Indian nation is actually much more than just Hindu culture is comfortably forgotten, as the ‘model immigrant’ carefully enables her motherland to transcend its local moorings in India, and dissolve into global narratives of transnational cultural exchange. The city proudly advertises aquariums, airports, corporate headquarters, Hindu culture, and Indian transnationalism as the new artifacts of globalization. As the Indian nation goes into global circulation through a very selective Hindu-Gujarati narrative, it transcends into new materialisms that help calibrate and adjust its particularities within globally acceptable folds of multicultural existence. In its many transcendent materialisms, the nation resoundingly answers Hobsbawm’s angst by being simultaneously national and global.
The Akshardham temples not only attract the local Gujarati community, but also other Hindu Indians, non-Hindu Indians, and other Americans. The temple landscape is so disconnected from the rest of the city that it causes passersby to pause and wonder. Usually, these temples are located in quiet suburbs outside the main city, often close to freeway arteries and sometimes in middle-class, suburban neighbourhoods. They rise suddenly and unexpectedly, towering over strip malls, parking lots, and apartment blocks in their pristine white glory. They have both vertical height and horizontal expanse. The shiny golden pitchers (kalasas) and bright red and white stripe flags that adorn the peaks of the temple dome reach out into the bright blue sky, and the sprawling courtyards and reflecting pools surround, reflect, and reach out into the distant horizons. Religious edifices of such intricacy, expanse, and height are rare in the New World, where churches and other religious monuments are more understated and quiet. The Puritans often arrived in the New World to escape religious persecution in the Old World, and England, where the puritans were protesting against the Catholic Church, the pope of Rome, and the wealth and power it had amassed. The Puritan ethic was therefore a reformation of Christianity from the pomp, show, and grandeur that the European church and Catholicism had come to represent (Peet 1997, 2000). Therefore, the Puritans who settled in the New England region and later spread all over the eastern seaboard to form Protestant churches of various denominations, which were congregational and disassociated from the Church of Rome, and therefore became intentionally austere in contrast to the grandeur and ornamentation of the cathedrals of Europe. In that context, the ornateness and grandeur of the Akshardham temples produced a spectacular slice of the city that is enticing to many. Non-Swaminarayan Hindu tourists quite happily come to the complex to revel in Hindu spirituality in a place so far away from India. Non-Hindu Indians and South Asians visit the complex to marvel at a piece of India so grand and so magnificent, so out of place and yet so appropriate in this foreign land. White Americans, Hispanic Americans, and African Americans come to look at this spectacular landscape as a site of exotic Hindu culture and tradition. Entrance to the temple is free, and people of all faiths and nationality are welcome.
(p.104) While Swaminarayan Hinduism professes respect for all religions, the Gujarati Indian devotees themselves are quite conservative in how they lead their everyday lives. Most interviewees, both volunteers and devotees visiting the temple, claim that one of the main motivating factors for founding such temple complexes is to infuse a sense of culture among their children, who are growing up in a foreign land. The temple provides a moral mooring against many distractions, like rap and hip-hop music, non-vegetarian food, alcohol, and dating rituals that are all ‘foreign’ to the Indian way of life. Going out on dates without the presence of elders and pre-marital sex are perceived as ubiquitous among the youth culture of the US and considered to be outside the paradigm of Hindu culture. Romantically interacting with Americans, especially African Americans and Hispanic Americans, is considered a direct violation of the Indian way of life. A volunteer at the Atlanta temple, for example, proceeded to tell me a story of an Indian woman who visited the temple some years ago. This volunteer noticed that she was crying and when he asked why, the woman replied that she was nostalgic for her culture and really sad that her own children had imbibed nothing of it. She was disappointed that her children were dating African Americans and having pre-marital sexual relationship with them (at this point, the volunteer lowered his voice and switched to Hindi to relay this to me, because the cab driver who drove me to this temple, an African American, was standing within earshot). As he proceeded with this story, the volunteer related, in a suspense-filled tone, how he then invited this lady to bring her children to the Atlanta temple and, when the lady visited with her children, this particular volunteer introduced them to the resident monks. The volunteer then paused for effect, and with suppressed jubilation claimed that upon meeting the monks and getting their blessing, the children changed and amended their ‘bad’ ways. He further qualified with emphasis that the mother was responsible for not inculcating her culture and value system in her children early on in their lives. Such narratives, where the racial other is welcomed to revel in Indian culture and benefit from spiritual guidance, but is not allowed to penetrate the inner sanctum of the Gujarati-Indian community, is quite common among interviewees. Many interviewees claim that Americans of ‘other’ races frequent the temple complex in search of spiritual purity, which their cultures do not provide. One volunteer at the Houston temple claimed:
(p.105) This country [the US] looks great from the outside, it is very glamorous, very polished; you can buy all kinds of cars, the best computers, expansive homes and a satisfying lifestyle. But this country lacks a spiritual culture, their only culture is consumer culture. We want our kids to be worldly wise and economically self-sufficient, but we don’t want them to lose our culture in the process. We don’t want them to be drinking and driving, doing drugs, shouting at their parents, going to jail, or carrying on with Blacks and Hispanics. We want them to retain their Indian ways. Children are our biggest investment: we have to ensure that we are enriching their souls so that they can reject the materialism, the consumerism, sexual promiscuity especially of the inter-racial kind. Mexicans, blacks want to partake in our spirituality, because they have none in their culture, we welcome them to the temple, but they are not like us.
These narratives should not be confused with the narratives that are materialized in the public sphere. In the public sphere, all races and colors are to be tolerated and welcomed and all faiths are to be respected. The inaugural ceremonies of the temples included white, black, and Hispanic public figures. These individuals are blessed by the Pramukh Swami (leading saint), garlanded by him, taken to the inner sanctum of the temple, and fed with food cooked in the temple kitchen. Within the private sphere, the temple functions as a community centre, teaching the Gujarati language, hymns, and organizing cultural activities and play groups in order to maintain a thick community network within which babysitting duties are swapped, marriage alliances made, and business deals sealed. In this inner sanctum of the Swaminarayan Gujarati community, critical perceptions and narratives about ‘others’, the ‘foreign’, and ‘the different’ are forged in the context of nested worlds of ‘we’, ‘the satsangis’, ‘the Gujaratis’, ‘the Hindus’, and ‘the Indians’.
These narratives are mostly racial narratives in which the various materialisms of public life in a foreign land also call for a transcendence into a very private world of ‘us’. However, this transcendent materialism is disjunctured, cleaved, and messy; it does not present, in a simplistic broad stroke, the racial hatred towards the homogenous others. The racism materializes differently in different spheres of existence, and so people of all colours and races can imbibe the spirituality of the temple complex; there exists an element of racial pride in being able to provide spiritual transcendence to those who are viewed as ‘culturally bereft’. Therefore, the Akshardham temples are not landscapes of exclusion in the sense that they do not physically keep anyone out, but the act (p.106) of welcoming-in is born out of a racial-disjuncture, a perception that the ‘vacuous other’ needs to be culturally and spiritually filled. While politicians and public figures of all colours are welcomed—and such meetings become symbols of inter-cultural exchange, co-existence and multiculturalism—private liaisons with the sons and daughters of ‘Americans’, particularly African Americans and Hispanic Americans, are not encouraged. While the US is viewed, as a ‘great’ country, there exists a disjuncture between ‘their ways of life’ and ‘our way of life’ in which ‘their way of life’ is often a racial extrapolation and selective reading of the ‘crime alert’ section of the local news. Materialism, consumerism, social dysfunction, and anomie become important lenses for viewing the ‘other’, while the ‘we’ becomes a culturally deep and spiritually rich community that must be protected from the sea of depravation that lies beyond the temple’s walls. The Akshardham landscape allows the immigrant to transcend the imagined debauchery and cultural poverty of her chosen land and materialize a safe haven of cultural purity that can be passed down to future generations.
The City as Transcendental Materialisms
I have, in this chapter, attempted a dialectical approach to globalization using the Akshardham temple complexes in Houston, Irving-Dallas, and Atlanta as slices of social reality. The purpose here is to understand how globalization is grounded in the US, a country assumed to be the very site from which flows of economic and cultural globalization emanate. The importance of the Washington-Wall Street alliance in influencing the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and hence in shaping neoliberal policies that define the contours of market liberalization and globalization, has been well documented (Peet 2003; Stiglitz 2002; Harvey 2005). The importance of American corporations vociferously pushing McDonaldization in the rest of the world has also been well documented (Ritzer and Malone 2000; Barber 2000). My intention here is to indicate that globalization, as a process, does not unidirectionally emanate from the First World to the Third World, even though this trajectory may be the most prominent. My intention here is also to emphasize an approach to cultural globalization that understands culture not as a discrete thing isolated from the economy, society, and landscape and treated as a manifestation, reification, superstructure, (p.107) and an echo of the economy. I attempt to understand globalizing social reality as transcendental materialism in which the metabolic processes (both economic and cultural) of the city undergo changes. The city therefore transcends itself to evolve into a new globalizing avatar (re)constituted by many material acts like, temple construction, immigrant re-imagination of home and community, racial imaginations and othering, ideas about patriotism, the nation, and multiculturalism, and acts of grounding the gods in a foreign land. Transcendental materialism is a take on Hegel’s transcendental idealism, in which Hegel contended that history progresses through contradictions between ideas. An initial idea or thesis is contradicted by another idea, or antithesis, to evolve into a new synthesis that influences human action and transforms the world. Ideas therefore produce action, each synthesis soon becomes a thesis and is once again challenged, and civilization proceeds towards the perfect, or absolute, idea. Each synthesis transcends its more imperfect predecessor to move history towards perfection, hence transcendental idealism.
In this chapter, I, unlike Hegel, emphasize the changing material conditions as the driving engine of globalization by arguing that ideas cannot be artificially separated from the materiality of existence because they are materially produced as well. Using transcendental materialism as my philosophical backdrop, I explore globalization through the Akshardham landscape. It is important to understand that landscape is not only understood as built geographic forms, but also as narratives, perceptions, texts, speeches, stories, and oral histories that flesh out the landscape as much as the marble and concrete. Therefore, the temple landscape becomes an important canvas on which to read the texts of globalization as they play out in some US cities.
In Chapter 2, I laid out the conceptual backdrop for this book, which I had proclaimed would be an attempt at a dialectical approach to globalization. I argued that the city would be a great microcosm of social reality for understanding that dialectic. A dialectical approach understands social reality as an organic whole in which the relational context of distinct elements in the social totality is emphasized. Although the relational contexts may be opposed to each other, or co-aligned, they exist in unity, and the context of relations that make up this whole are not imposed from outside, but are rather integral and organic to it. In the spirit of that conceptual backdrop, here I have (p.108) treated the Akshardham temple complexes not just as cultural landscapes produced on the surface layer of society, but rather as representing the social totality of globalization. The city encapsulates this totality through many transcendental materialisms which are the metabolic processes of this globalizing reality. These transcendental materialisms include transnational localism–globalism, dollar divinity, the nation in global circulation, and racial disjunctures. For many first-generation immigrants, a single city landscape becomes an intensely local space, a community, and a home transcended from the original version in Gujarat, while for the sons and daughters it becomes, at the same time, a transnational reality of a globalizing India. This transcendental materialism depicts a dialectic of globalization that turns the local–global ontology on its head by indicating that the local and the global are not fixed, pre-given containers. In the relational cultural-economy of globalization, landscapes can be simultaneously local and global depending on who constitutes this materiality. Dollar divinity indicates how the production of the sacred is an expensive political–economic process of negotiating visa issues for god-men and cooks, keeping the books, collecting donations, and dealing with city regulations and the law. It also indicates how the sacred produces itself through food courts, gift shops, and rental spaces that are important income producers. Spiritual transcendence therefore demands meticulous materialisms involving land acquisition and titling, managing supply chains of food and holy artifacts, forming committees, and pricing and valuing sacred encounters with God. These many cultural economic materialisms of dollar divinity allow the immigrant Indian to transcend the foreignness of everyday urban existence and chalk out a ‘sacred’ globalization. The foreign city, as it globalizes, is touched by the divine and hence transcends into a new avatar. Globalization has always been assumed to be a challenge to the nation’s existence as an identity, but the section ‘The nation in global circulation’ indicates how the Akshardham temple simultaneously becomes an extension of Indian nationhood and American multiculturalism. The pride and patriotic fervour of the American Indian is inscribed in national anthems, skits, and flag waving. The Indian nation transcends its place of origin to circulate through material acts of inter-cultural exchange like mandir days and nagar yatras carried out in American cities. A globalizing nation forms the linking logic between the ‘global’ America and the ‘local’ India to allow for the (p.109) co-adjustment of these opposing forces within the social totality of the city. The Akshardham landscapes also materialize several racial disjunctures: Indian immigrants often depend on this temple landscape for their transcendence, and hence deliverance, from a ‘foreign land’ that is imagined as culturally weak, often morally degenerate, and socially dysfunctional. The racial ‘other’, is welcome to the temple, and is certainly respected when she arrives in the public space as a politician, judge, or policeman, but she simultaneously becomes a disjuncture, a world apart, when she attempts to penetrate the private sphere of the Gujarati-American community. The materiality of the globalizing city is often seen through a racist lens through which the American ‘other’ becomes synonymous with cultural depravity, promiscuity, and drunkenness from which the temple landscape offers protection and solace. Globalization is fraught with many such racial disjunctures, where the distant ‘other’ is brought within the realm of familiarity but, doing so makes her simultaneously desirable and deplorable. Globalization needs a dialectical approach that can reveal these many materialisms (sometimes contradictory and sometimes compatible) that constitute it. In revealing some of the transcendental materialisms of the city, I hope, that the dialectics of globalization becomes clear.
(1.) The Swaminarayan temples are sometimes called Akshardham temples, because Bhagwat Swaminarayan (the god of this faith) was born in Akshardham, near Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, India.
(3.) Based on archival work examining audio-visual recordings of the entire 14-day inauguration ceremony, held from 16–30 July 2007.