As the United States marks its 241th anniversary, a Hindu temple in Queens is marking its 40th. NY1's Josh Robin filed the following report.
The chants are in Sanskrit. But they speak to universal questions that have long confounded us.
"Why is God the way he is, and larger questions," said Gokulanand Iyer of the Hindu Temple Society of North America. "My parents, whenever I have questions about that, they try their best to answer, but that's something they themselves are still trying to figure out."
Answers aren’t easy. But amid the smoke, and offerings, you may find that your existential anguish eases. And it comes just by sitting still.
"No human being is complete until the mind and the body and the spirit are all in sync, and you're happy feeding all three of those. And this temple feeds all three," said Ramaswamy Mohan of the Hindu Temple Society of North America.
This is the Hindu Temple Society of North America. Forty years ago on July 4, the first prayers echoed through this Flushing neighborhood.
They dedicated the congregation to Lord Ganesha, an ancient Hindu deity said to have created obstacles in order to overcome them. Fitting for the improbable feats of the temple founders, emigrants from Southern India, arriving in a continent at a time when no one looked the same.
Uma Mysorekar came here for training as an obstetrician and gynecologist at what was then Long Island Jewish Hospital.
"Basically, we came to better ourselves. Financially to do well, and also in our different fields, we wanted to do better," Mysorekar said. "We never thought of religion at all. But after you've come here, and you began to realize, 'Yes, I have done well in my practice in medicine,' likewise, my colleagues did well in their own professions, there was something terribly missing."
What was missing was a place for community and worship.
"As I approach the temple, there's some burst of energy that comes. And then I am able to function perfectly well, and even more with energy the rest of the day," Mysorekar said.
It is energy that still fuels one of the founding trustees into her eighth decade and the president since 1994.
Pediatrician Gaddam Reddy is another founding trustee.
"It was originally a Russian Orthodox church, a small one here. And a group of people like me and others joined and took it," Reddy said.
The Russian Church of the Holy Annunciation, 7,000 square feet, bought for $60,000.
Though of a different faith, the spot was seen as sanctified from churchgoers' prayers.
"We were kind of confident that this would be the right place to begin a temple," Mysorekar said.
The street's namesake also brought some hope of security. It was named long ago for John Bowne, a 17th-century English advocate for religious freedom in the colony of New Netherland.
When then-Governor Peter Stuyvesant prohibited religions other than the Dutch Reformed Church, Bowne defied him, inviting Quakers to his own home.
Centuries later, another religious group bought the land.
"And then opening of the temple, consecration, was July 4, 1977, Independence Day of the United States," Mysorekar said.
It was the first Hindu temple in North America, modeled after the temples of Southern India, with imported stone.
The familiarity brought comfort.
Still, in a city then with few from South Asia, there was trouble.
"We look different, we dressed different, we have this bindi in the center. Lots of problems, we went through," Mysorekar said.
Cults were in the news after a murder-suicide left hundreds dead in the Jonestown commune in Guyana.
Locals thought another mysterious cult had moved in. They threw eggs and rotten tomatoes and stones.
Temple leaders didn't call the police, and they didn't turn inward either. Mysorekar instead wrote letters and invited neighbors to visit, which they did.
"This country will do very well if all faiths can come together," she said. "For me, religion is very important. And I think people who are religious-minded will have a better understanding, will have a closer association with other people, and maybe can resolve some of the existing hardline problems."
Hundreds of congregants turned to thousands. The 7,000 square feet of that Russian Orthodox church became 120,000 square feet.
And as she tried to dispel myths, Dr. Mysorekar turned into a minor celebrity.
Meanwhile, the campus serves many more than Hindus. On one day we visited, a 700-seat auditorium was to host a Chinese group. Below it, a hall was set for an interfaith wedding.
"The only thing that's different is, we tell them no alcohol and no smoking. If they can abide by this, no problem," Mysorekar said. "And no non-vegetarian food, of course."
On that, they're strict.
There is also weekend school for Indian culture and language in an adjacent house it bought.
The temple now owns four more nearby houses, and the plan is for more expansion, including a yoga center, a library, and a school, all in one building.
And on another side of the temple, four homes are already knocked down and construction ready to start. The plan is for staff homes for as many as 15 families.
There are no members, per se. There are no dues. But thousands come. And the change hasn’t pleased everyone.
In 2001, members upset at temple governance sued to remove its board of trustees. After years of contentious litigation, the matter went to New York's highest court, which ruled in the temple's favor in 2008.
Then, traffic, and a small parking lot, can be overwhelming, says one neighbor who didn't want to give her name.
"It's not enough to accommodate that congregation, and because of that, there's nowhere to park on this block," the neighbor said.
It's much more serene inside the complex. First, break a coconut, symbolically smashing your ego.
Inside, a trance can take hold as a recorded ohm repeats.
Around are idols of deities. Prayer is to them. They are conduits to a supreme god too complicated for the mind to directly consider.
On another visit, Lord Vishnu is bathed in milk.
Outside, the deity Maha Lakshmi is presented offerings through a fragrant fire.
"Definitely, that gives the atmosphere for you to reach higher levels in your thinking. And then you start to tune out all the other day to day mundane materialistic stuff," Mohan said.
They chanted vedas, those searching questions that cut to the core of our being.
"They ask questions about the origin of the universe," Iyer said. "They ask who was it that came from nothing, came to everything."
At the end, no answers emerge, really, other than the comfort in the asking.