The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Christian Fundamentalists Continue to Block Hindu Temple

By Brad A. Greenberg, Staff Writer

Most 15-year-old girls drift into thoughts about cute boys, but Megha Nayyar daydreams about a Hindu temple rising from the High Desert sand.

"For the past 15 years, I was not able to go every Sunday to a church or place to worship because we didn't have one up here,' said Megha, a sophomore at Granite Hills High School in Apple Valley. "There are so many children. You can just see it on their face. They are confused. They need a temple now.'

When Megha's father, a neurologist, told her he would buy a 2.35-acre lot in Apple Valley if she raised $1,500, she did. Then Mammohan Nayyar upped the challenges: Raise another $3,000 and we'll build it. Megha petitioned peers and adults and collected the money in two weeks.

But in January the Apple Valley Planning Commission denied the temple proposed for 13356 Apple Valley Road because of the traffic it would generate.

"They deserve a place to worship,' Commissioner Peter Allan said. "But you also have to take into account people who drive on Apple Valley Road and who live in the neighborhood.'

The commission's denial is not uncommon for Hindu temples, also called mandirs. Last year, Chino Hills didn't fully give the go-ahead to a group that wants to build a massive mandir in a residential neighborhood. The city said "yes' to the proposed temple but "no' to its design.

As Hindus have populated new communities across the country, neighbors have resisted their Eastern culture and ornate architecture, Hindus say.

"There is a racial component to it. We look different,' said Vardhan Nadadur, head of the Hindu Temple Society of California in Calabasas. That temple, too, was opposed before it was built more than two decades ago, he said.

"I don't understand why they have a problem approving temples when you have churches at every street corner. Just as Christian needs a church, Jewish needs a synagogue and Hindus need temples,' Nadadur said.

The perceived paradox challenges religious pluralism a characteristic of the United States that minority religions often reference and majority religions often overlook.

"Imagine how Christians would feel if they could not build their church in town,' said Alison Dundes Renteln, a professor of political science at USC.

Cities often use zoning codes to keep minority religions out, said Dundes Renteln, author of "The Cultural Defense,' which argues the legal system fails to protect against such discrimination. She is not familiar with the proposed Apple Valley temple.

But plenty of people around town thought the Planning Commission's denial was based in bigotry.

"I believe your decision, if not against the U.S. Constitution, is against its spirit,' wrote resident Anne Pyle, a Catholic. "Your arguments are farfetched and seem racist if not down right prejudice.'

After receiving letters like Pyle's and impassioned appeals from local Hindus, the commission agreed to rehear the project tonight.

Temple vs. traffic

The 7,950-square-foot temple and 7,415-square-foot cultural center would centralize a Hindu community that is accustomed to moving religious meetings from house to house. It would be the only mandir house of God between Riverside and Las Vegas. The Riverside mandir is 58 miles southwest of Apple Valley; Las Vegas is 202 miles northeast.

The temple would be built across the street from Sonlife Community Church, which the city has prevented from accessing Apple Valley Road a traffic treasure the temple wants.

Sonlife pastor Mark Allen Mikels said the temple would congest the road and could establish it as a strip mall of religious centers.

"When there is already something else there (Sonlife), why put something else balled up on the same corner?' said Mikels, who recommended the temple be built elsewhere. "If it was a Baptist church, we still would have said we didn't want it there.'

Deputy Town Engineer Richard Pedersen told the Planning Commission that during peak commuting times, the temple would add about four cars to Apple Valley Road. On Saturdays and Sundays about 100 vehicles would visit, architect Robert Martinez said. There would be 148 parking spaces. Hindus do not hold services on a specific day of the week.

"I'm not convinced the traffic impact is as small as it appears,' Commissioner Allan said in an interview.

Commissioners Brian Hawley, David Hernandez, Bob Tinsley and Chairman Elliotte Fajardo did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

A pointed problem

Traffic also has been an issue in Chino Hills, where a group of Hindus wants to build a temple it once billed the next "Wonder of the World.'

"We are not a tourist attraction, nor do we want to be,' said Councilwoman Gwenn Norton-Perry, who voted in September against the project's size and location, when the City Council overruled the Planning Commission. "We are a quiet community, and that is the way we want to keep it.'

The group no longer wants to build the largest temple west of London, said Paresh Patel, the chief developer for the group, Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swarminarayan Sanstha, commonly known as BAPS.

He said about 38,000 people would visit annually a 90 percent reduction from traffic numbers once filed with Chino Hills that said 380,000 would visit each year.

"That was an error and no one was willing to accept it,' he said.

After a year of heated public debate, Chino Hills temple talk had been dormant since September.

Patel met with city staff Feb. 14 to discuss plans for the 164,372-square-foot development that stalled when the council denied a request to build five spires two at 52 feet, two at 67 feet and one at 73 feet.

The group has been waiting to see if religious leaders in India will allow them to build the temple without the spires, which have religious significance. In India, many temples are built in the center of town or atop hills. The spires, which point to the heavens, are like God's calling card.

"I do not have a definite thing right now, but I know that 42 feet doesn't work for us and 80 feet doesn't work for the city,' Patel said. "So we have to find a compromise.'

Structured faith

Architecture is a fundamental part of the Hindu religion.

"Temples are typically a whole philosophy in stone,' said Vasudha Narayan, a religion professor at the University of Florida.

Temples in the United States, she said, are built with visions of India but "are more of a creamy white instead of the loud colors from India.'

There are 29 temples in California, according to the Council of Hindu Temples of North America. It is unknown how many Hindus live in the state. (The U.S. census does not track religion.)

Most Hindus are of Indian descent. There were 4,370 Asian Indians in San Bernardino County in 1990, the census shows. That number grew to 7,368 in 2000. That year, there were 5,526 in Riverside County, 60,268 in Los Angeles County and 314,819 statewide.

As the home-building boom continues in the High Desert, more and more Indians are moving to the sun-baked region.

Hinduism is unlike most Western religions. It has no documented origin, founder or central authority. And believers worship various gods that are different representations of "The God.'

One place to go

The Shri Lakshmi Narayan Mandir in Riverside is the only temple in the Inland Empire.

At 9292 Magnolia Ave., the mandir does not stand out from the cityscape. It sits nondescript between a thrift store and an office building that looks like a motel.

Ten years ago the temple was a bank. Its walls are white. There are no commanding colors. It is unlabeled and the tallest spire is only 35 feet.

"Those really should be much higher, but you have to compromise,' said Shukavak Dasa, head priest of the temple and a part-time Yucca Valley dweller.

About 500 people each week worship at the mandir, run by the Hindu Society of the Inland Empire. They come at their convenience. Unlike other religious gatherings, there isn't a big once-a-week meeting; Hindu worship, called puja, occurs at home and in the temple.

Though the temple's edifice is uninspiring, its interior is flush with Hindu carvings and decorations. Beautifully painted sacred images sit atop marble flats.

The smells of incense waft in the air. Indian music plays quietly. Shoes are piled outside the front door.

"When you come in here, it should look like a temple. It should smell like a temple. ... And it should put you in a state of mind,' Dasa said.

His temple is preparing to grow into bigger clothes a 35,000-square-foot temple and cultural center will be built nearby at a cost of $5 million.

"They've been really good neighbors and good people and we are glad to have them in Riverside,' Mayor Ronald O. Loveridge said.

The Hindu Society was born 21 years ago when Hindu doctors met in San Bernardino. The temple draws people from Anaheim to Apple Valley and beyond.

The base is building and "the seeds are going out,' Dasa said.

True believer

Nayyar is one of those seeds. The Apple Valley neurologist visits the Riverside mandir once or twice a month.

Nayyar estimates there are 200 to 300 Hindu families in the High Desert who choose between a long drive and worshipping at home.

"Indian population has grown and our children don't have much exposure to our scriptures as we had in India. The children are urging us to build a place where they can learn about the scriptures,' Nayyar said.

He believes local temples will stabilize the Indian community and will encourage their children who leave for college to return.

"If my children have somewhere to educate their children (about Hinduism), they will come back. Otherwise, they will settle somewhere else,' Nayyar said.

That could prevent a group of highly educated adults from living in the area, where more than 50 Hindus, of several hundred, are physicians most in specialized fields. Last month, Nayyar and 33 others formed Physician Hospital Management and took over the administration of Victor Valley Community Hospital in Victorville. The doctors lent the troubled hospital $6 million out of their own pockets.

"There is no doubt they are a tremendous asset to Apple Valley and to Victor Valley as a whole,' Apple Valley Mayor Scott Nassif said.

He is glad the commission will reconsider the temple proposal and hopes traffic solutions will be found. "I'm fairly certain some amicable solution will be coming forward.'

Megha, the 15-year-old visionary, and her friends will pack Town Hall tonight.

"We are looking forward to the reconsideration,' she said. "All the kids are so anxious right now. We are all going to be there.'


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