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Members of the BAPS Hindu temple stay connected to their Indian heritage.

THONOTOSASSA - When Hina Darji talks about her faith, she smiles. As a practicing Hindu born and raised in the United States, she describes her religion as part of her identity. "When people take time to get to know me, they know about my faith," she said. "It's so much a part of me." Darji, 32, is one of about 400 people to attend BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, a Hindu temple in Thonotosassa. The temple was founded in 1998 by eight members who met on Sundays at private residences. As their numbers grew, the group began to gather at local meeting halls.
In April 2005, the temple moved into a 30,000-square-foot building at 9556 E. Fowler Ave. Members gather there at 4:30 p.m. Sundays for spiritual assembly, known as satsang. Men, women and children of all ages attend. Kash Darji, 35, moved to Tampa from England in 2004 to work as an operations manager and quickly found a home at BAPS Tampa. Soon after, he met his wife, Hina, and the couple became leaders at the temple. "When you move to a new area, the faith kind of finds you," he said. "You find a place with the cultural values and traditions you've come to know." The traditions mentioned date back to 1907, when BAPS - Bochasanwasi (based in Bochasan) Akshar (God's ideal devotee) Purushottam (God) Sanstha (Organization) - was founded. BAPS represents a type of Hinduism in which members are devotees of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Swaminarayan, who is believed to be God, was born in 1781 in northern India and contributed the sacred Hindu texts Vachanamrut and Shikshapatri. He inspired devotees to observe five basic principles: addiction-free living, vegetarianism, refraining from stealing, abstaining from committing adultery and maintaining purity of the body, mind and soul. The principles are in practice today. Keval Patel, 27, considers the teachings of Swaminarayan before making decisions at work, at home and at temple. "My faith teaches me how to manage my life," Patel said. "In times of sorrow and happiness, I rely on it." Patel, a pharmacist, leads BAPS Tampa's young professionals group for ages 22 through 35. The group meets on Sundays before main assembly. Members also work on community service projects and participate in charity walks. "The young professionals group teaches public speaking skills, leadership skills and the value of unity and learning to work with each other," Patel said. Unity and diversity are important principles within the Hindu religion. BAPS members are encouraged to accept the presence of other faiths while maintaining their own beliefs. Hindus do not aspire to recruit people to their faith. In fact, there is no conversion process. The religion is a birthright and is considered a gift. "I was born into this life; it is the life I have with my husband, and it is the life I will give to my children," Hina Darji said. "We are all connected through the generations." Family is at the center of the Hindu faith. BAPS children don't flee from their parents at age 18. Instead, families remain close. Parents, grandparents and grown children meet regularly for dinners and events. If possible, they attend the same temple. "In Hinduism, family values are extremely important," Patel said. "We teach that spouses and children should sit down together every night to eat, to talk about life and to talk about Hinduism." From childhood, Hindus are taught to respect their elders. Going against the advice of parents and grandparents is frowned upon. Family members look to one another for guidance. "Elders are considered wise, and wisdom can really help in life," Kash Darji said. Still, at BAPS, the generations work together. Elders are open to new ideas. When appropriate, they embrace change. "We look at what was done in the past and blend those ideas with the younger generation's ideas," Kash Darji said. "The younger generation is more interested in technology. So we use technology in our services. It's the same message, just in a different medium." The BAPS Tampa facility is modern and traditional. The prayer hall includes a presentation of idols and gurus linked to Swaminarayan. Members sit on chairs to the right side of the room or on the floor. The men and women are separated during assembly. The men gather in front and the women in back. Shoes are not permitted. Upstairs, there are rooms where women and young girls gather before the main assembly. The women are divided into age groups. The children are taught a variety of lessons, including how to speak and write the Indian language Gujarati. All BAPS services are spoken at least partly in Gujarati. Speakers address issues relevant to today's world and the community. They also reference the past. BAPS members take pride in their cultural heritage. Most travel to India whenever possible. Patel considers the journey essential, especially for children born in the United States. "My wife and I are expecting," Patel said. "I want to take my children to India every few years. It's important for them to know where their culture comes from." In general, BAPS members are pleased to represent the Hindu faith. The men display a powder mark on their foreheads at all times. The mark, a red dot with a yellow U around it, is a symbol of their dedication. It is called tilak chandlo. "It's a reminder that we are servants at the feet of God," Patel said. "It keeps me from doing things that aren't right because I know people will see the mark and associate what I'm doing with my faith." Patel and others don't mind answering questions about their faith. Questions come with living in a multicultural society, Kash Darji said. "One of the greatest things about this country is the emphasis on diversity," he said. "I get questions off and on. It's good because a single dialogue can change a person's perception and create a greater sense of understanding." Hina Darji answers peoples' questions without even trying. "It's how I live my life," she said. "My faith is part of everything I do and say."

Sarah Rothwell can be reached at (813) 865-4845 or [email protected]

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