How BAPS Built a Global Brand of Hinduism — and Brought Its Practices Stateside

The group, over a 100 years old, has recently come under scrutiny for casteist labor practices in New Jersey, but has long been known for temple building around the world.

Aarti Virani

May 26, 2021

How BAPS Built a Global Brand of Hinduism — and Brought Its Practices Stateside

An agrarian patch off Route 130 in New Jersey is an unlikely address for a hand-carved Hindu temple, built per millennia-old specs. Yet, here in Robbinsville, members of the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) constructed their multi-million-dollar marble marvel, unlatching its peacock-studded gates in 2014.

The temple’s three-day inauguration, led by BAPS’s late spiritual leader Pramukh Swami Maharaj, and attended by prominent U.S. politicians such as New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, first made headlines seven years ago, as the group’s largest temple in the U.S. Earlier this month, the property was thrust into the limelight again, when federal investigators arrived at the 162-acre campus, prompted by a lawsuit. The suit claimed that BAPS had recruited about 200 workers from Dalit and other marginalized communities in India, brought them to the U.S. on religious visas typically reserved for clergy and missionaries, paid them the equivalent of $1.20 an hour for extensive labor over nearly 90-hour weeks, forced them to live in fenced-in compounds, and prohibited them from leaving the temple grounds.

“The heart of this case is caste discrimination,” journalist Yashica Dutt, author of the 2019 memoir Coming Out As Dalit, told The Juggernaut.

To many, BAPS is shorthand for a transnational brand of Hinduism and diasporic community, thanks to the group’s focus on temple building around the world. BAPS, which was founded in 1907, has been in the United States now for half a century. Though some in the Hindu Indian diaspora have historically been drawn to BAPS for its community, for others, the recent accusations demonstrate how — just as BAPS has helmed a global brand of Hinduism — caste-based discrimination, too, has crossed borders. To them, the casteism endemic to Hinduism does not disappear stateside.