Bushwick’s religious landscape contains everything from hex-busting Botánicas to a hipster Chabad; it’s hard to be surprised by any house of worship here. But walking down Stanhope Street from Irving Avenue to Wyckoff Avenue, it’s still arresting to see a saffron-orange Hindu temple, silk flags swaying next to a narrow side gate. The gate is usually closed, but a sign lists the times for prayer (Sundays, 9:00-11:30 AM), and arriving then we’re welcomed into a building alive with music. This is Bhuvaneshwar Mandir, the first home of one of the city’s most important temples.
"Here is the abode of peace. Without peace, brothers and sisters, we cannot exist," says Pandit Bob Durga, leading the service. He is back visiting from Guyana, the birthplace of many of the devotees, but he knows the temple well; he was here in the 1980s when Bhuvaneshwar Mandir came to be. The soft-spoken Pandit sits surrounded by about thirty temple members, some with musical instruments, some taking turns singing devotional bhajans and call-and-response kirtans. The youngest member crawls between the cushions on the floor, trying to play with his father’s tabla. He’s here on his first birthday.
After the service, an aarti (offering of lamps to the many deities enshrined here), and a short birthday party, Pandit Durga talks to us about the temple’s history. What we’ve seen here isn’t very different from what we would see at his temple in Guyana, he says. "Going to the mandir in Guyana is similar, but they’re larger there and people come from all over for the service. Here in New York, every community has its own small temple. We don’t have to travel far."
This temple was founded by Shri Prakash Gossai, an important Guyanese religious leader who passed away in 2009. Gossai came to New York as a biology teacher in 1983, but it was his efforts to keep his family’s Hindu traditions alive in a new country that he came to find most fulfilling. In a Bushwick basement he gathered friends and family to start a Satsang – Sanskrit for "true company" – a small group of devotees who gathered for reflection and meditation. Over the next few years this grew into the temple at 307 Stanhope Street.
Guyana is a country with a heterogeneous mix of races and religions born out of a complex colonial history. The Hindu traditions practiced by many in the large Indo-Guyanese population are quite syncretic, a unique heritage resulting from 200 years of exchange with Christian and Muslim communities. Gossai was part of a new generation of Hindus who returned to India to reconnect with the ancient roots of the faith. He traveled to Haryana, India in the 1990s to study with a Guru and pursue a lifelong study of Shri Ramcharitamanas, a sixteenth-century poetic work expanding on the spiritual content of the Sanskrit epic Ramayana.
Gossai became known both as an expert interpreter of this work – an important text for Guyana’s Vaishnavite Hindu traditions – and a religious leader whose lectures and devotional songs were widely recognized for promoting acceptance of other paths to faith. In 2007, two years before his passing, Gossai returned to his home country to serve as an aide to President Bharrat Jagdeo, advising on ethnic relations and culture. This political involvement inevitably raised some tensions late in Gossai’s life, as did – in Bushwick at least – his decision to move the temple out of the neighborhood.
In 2004, an expanded Bhuvaneshwar Mandir opened at 86-06 101 Avenue in Queens. This new home has become one of the largest Indo-Caribbean temples in the country, serving a large Guyanese community in Richmond Hill and Ozone Park. The old location on Stanhope Street was shuttered, the dozens of member-donated idols standing in silence within. But the Brooklyn community demanded their own space back, and in this past year they were allowed to reopen the mother temple.
Pandit Bob Durga was with Gossai when the temple was founded, and has returned for a brief visit to lead prayers. The newly reassembled members praise his service, saying it’s "just the way Prakashji used to do it." For an outsider, however, it’s a new tradition. The service, complete with a short sermon from the Pandit, combines the offerings of Hindu puja with a lengthier program of group song and prayer that seems to borrow something from Christian modes of worship. The Sunday morning schedule reinforces this feeling.
This observation is not to the detriment of Bhuvaneshwar Mandir; the open-minded community, following Shri Prakash Gossai’s teachings, accepts all traditions of worship and welcomes all devotees. At the same time, this small community celebrates an Indo-Caribbean tradition of song and prayer all its own, filling the small, historic room with the many names of divinity. "Bhajans and kirtans," Pandit Durga says to his fellow devotees, "prayer and music together, are the most direct path to God."