How a Small Wisconsin Town Became Home to 4 Dharmic Temples

(RNS) – Nestled on a hill beyond a vast commercial landscape are the first two Dharmic Temples to exist in the Midwestern state of Wisconsin.

The 22 acres that house Wisconsin’s Hindu and Jain temples were located “in the middle of nowhere” when they were built in 2001, according to Sarvesh Geddam, the secretary of both congregations. Today, the area is full of surplus fast food restaurants and warehouses, and Pewaukee, a village next to Waukesha in the western suburbs of Milwaukee, has become home to two other groups: devotees of Shirdi Sai Baba, a 20th-century Hindu saint, and BAPS, or Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, a larger Hindu denomination that follows gurus, or swamis, and is often recognizable for its large temples.


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When the Hindu and Jain temples were completed 20 years ago, the community was decidedly unmarked by South Asian culture. Even today, outsiders might wonder if suburban Wisconsin — and a state known primarily for its freezing temperatures (as well as its dairy farming and prominence in national elections) — would attract people from the homelands of Hinduism and of Jainism.

In fact, Wisconsin’s Indian population is the second-largest Asian minority group after the Hmong and its population has grown more than 80% since 2000-2010, according to the Forum on Asian American and Islander Health. Wisconsin Pacific.

The Midwest has given members of the four temples what it has given any immigrant: a place of their own.

Of the nearly 2 million Indians in the United States today, more than half identify as Hindu. The first immigrants to arrive worshiped at makeshift shrines in people’s homes, but with the expansion of immigration quotas from Asian countries in 1965, more than 1,450 temples now exist in the United States in New Jersey, California and Texas, where the majority of South Asian Americans live, there are enough adherents to populate temples dedicated to particular deities, as is common in India.

Although Jainism also contains several sects within it, JAINA society now has over 80 Jain centers nationwide and an estimated population of 30,000 devotees.

“It’s a pan-Indian umbrella,” Geddam said. “We help people who are struggling to cope with change to come here.” When the first devotees came to the temple, Geddam said, they felt grateful and amazed to find a slice of home.

To accommodate the needs of the nearly 1,000 Wisconsin residents who frequent the Pewaukee Hindu Temple, the building was constructed to house what Geddam calls an “arcade” of deities – a collection of marble statues representing the many manifestations of God. worshiped by Hindus, Krishna, Shiva and Ganesh. being only the most widely recognized of dozens of forms of the divine known as deities or gods.

The Hindu temple initially offered to house Jain idols as well, but it soon became apparent that different sects had different needs. The Jain festival Samvatsari and the Hindu festival of Ganesh Chaturthi often fall on the same day, for example. While the Jain festival is one of quiet meditation and reflection, the latter is an event of great jubilation and noise.

As the South Asian community continued to grow, the other two Indian religions began to meet at the Hindu temple. Sai Baba devotees and BAPS members used to schedule worship services around each other at the Hindu temple, but soon they too wanted their own spaces.

In 2013, devotees of Sai Baba walked into a non-denominational church that had been listed for sale in downtown Pewaukee and saw a large hall with no pews or pews to remove. Sai Baba followers, who also focus on service to others, raised $200,000 in just two days from the small surrounding community, many of whom had never set foot in an Indian place of worship.

The location, now Wisconsin Shirdi Sai, feels like visiting Baba’s home temple in Shirdi, India, say its new owners, who claim on their website that it was selected by their founder, Sai Baba himself.

“It wasn’t magic, it was a miracle,” said Satya Karri, the temple’s chief administrator. “We were waiting, and with Baba’s grace we got it.”

The BAPS Swaminarayan Temple opened in 2018 on the same street as the Hindu and Jain temples in what was once a mattress warehouse. BAPS temples are nearly uniform wherever they are, with a store offering Indian snacks and books, gender-segregated classrooms, and a large assembly hall.

The idea is to create continuity not only with the faith but also with the culture of western India, where BAPS originated. “When they come here, it gives them a sense of where they grew up,” Mayur Brahmbatt, the teenage son of the temple’s chief priest, said of its oldest members.

For larger events that cater to a wider audience, such as Diwali, the Hindu temple remains the hub. Thousands of American Indians, young and old, flock to this small epicenter of the Indian Midwest.

The surrounding community, more than 70% Christian and many of them evangelicals, responded with typical Midwestern hospitality and practicality, mixed with curiosity. Teachers from the local school district attended seminars at the temple to learn more about their Indian students. The temples have also given back to the community: in 2020, they hosted clinics that administered 5,000 COVID-19 vaccines, more than 87% of them to non-Hindus.

“We believe we can achieve ‘moksha’ here in this lifetime,” Geddam said, referring to the devotion to service that characterizes Dharmic beliefs.

While the temples have helped anchor new South Asian American families in the United States, Kamal Shah, president of the Jain temple, said they also nurture hope that basic Jain teachings, such as vegetarianism and ‘ahimsa, would be passed on to subsequent generations.

“When I first came here, people said, ‘When you come to this country, you can’t continue to be in the old religion,” Shah said. “Although our belief is very, very ancient, we are able to maintain it in America. It is the greatest transformation.