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The Savior Down the Street: Shri Swaminarayan Mandir 

Wednesday, Nov 25 2015

There's a young man in his 20s who lives in a defunct grocery store set on the top of the hill in the Excelsior District near McLaren Park. He cannot talk to or touch women; he cannot eat meat, onions, or garlic — in fact, when he does eat, he must dip his food in water to eliminate the taste — and he cannot handle money. And, as I sit on the carpeted floor in front of him in his antechamber, he explains with a friendly, knowing smile that he can't tell me about any of it, either.

Jay Swaminarayan is a Hindu monk. Speaking about himself, and about the life he abandoned in order to become a monk, is frowned upon. That leaves the other adherents of this Mandir, like the two other young men in the room — a teenager in a black 49ers jersey and a 20-something wearing a T-shirt that says "my Mandir is my home" — to explain.

During an evening Sunday service prior to my meeting with the monk, a friendly and enthusiastic Menlo Park native named Vijay Patel — who attended Catholic school on the Peninsula — leads me into the temple's main room. At one end, visible under five golden domes, are statues. There are the major Hindu deities, Shiva, Parvati and Ganapati (Ganesh) among them, as well as, in the center, a white-faced figure in regal dress that represents the Swaminarayan, the figure most responsible for this sect of Hinduism (which today is equal parts house of worship and civic organization).

The rest of the room, where 80 people are gathered, is movie-theater dark, the better to see the Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the fifth spiritual successor to the Swaminarayan, deliver a sermon on a projection screen suspended from the ceiling. I'm on the right, with the other men. Women are on the left (so as to reduce "distractions," Patel tells me. He adds, almost by way of apology, "The soul has no gender.").

This gray, single-story building — visible during Sunday evening prayers thanks to the colored holiday lights slung on the outside — became San Francisco's sole Hindu temple about 13 years ago. There's a cultural center in the Tenderloin area, but this is the only full-fledged temple.)

It was destined to be so. Pramukh Swami Maharaj predicted it, temple board member Vijay Patel tells me. "He said, 'One day, you will have a temple here on the hill," Patel says.

Before that, in contrast to the grandiose temples seen in India, Los Angeles, New Jersey, and Atlanta, San Francisco-based Swaminarayan Hindus worshipped in someone's home.

You might not finger Patel, a trim man with a neat graying goatee who works in the hospitality business, as religious. One meeting with the Swami changed that, he tells me.

"This guy, he's like the wishing well," he told me. "His aura will just bring you in."

The Savior Down the Street

THE TRADITION, Mission Minyan

THE REVIVAL, Rock of Ages Baptist Church

THE CHANTING, Hokke-shu Buddhist Church

THE MYSTERY, Immaculate Conception Chapel


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.


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