Stepping into San Antonio’s Shri Swaminarayan Mandir on Sunday evenings means walking into a world of color and light, idols and flames, faith and good deeds and ancient traditions.
Hindu men and women sit in separate groups in the temple, the women dressed in brightly shaded sarees and salwar kameezes, the traditional garments of India, and the men dressed in duller Western clothes.
Separation of the sexes inside their temples is one of the main tenets of the Swaminarayan faith, which was established in the late 18th century by Bhagwan Swaminarayan and adopted by mostly Gujarati-speaking Indians.
Gujarati is a language spoken in the North Indian state of Gujarat.
The religion has about 1 million followers, whose social work has created medical centers, schools and colleges, and environmental efforts.
Local devotees, who number about 300, continue this tradition in San Antonio. While most Westerners might consider the arrangement unfair to women, the sect speaks with pride about the freedom of worship it gives both sexes and the faith’s long history in advancing women’s rights.
Bhagwan Swaminarayan advocated against female infanticide and Sati, the practice of burning widows at their husband’s funeral pyre.
Lila Patel, a San Antonio devotee, said the separation is not an attempt to discriminate but to allow women and men to worship without harassment or temptation.
“I used to feel that it is a discrimination against women,” Patel said, adding that she later realized it gives men and women a clean environment to pray in.
“Some people don’t have purity. They have dirty minds.”
There are no restrictions on men and women socializing outside the temple, and women are encouraged to educate themselves and have careers.
Patel said women are more devout than men, encouraging the men to be more spiritual.
But the separation is not the only tradition San Antonio Swaminarayan devotees have kept alive from their native India.
On Sunday, the San Antonians celebrated Rath Yatra, or chariot procession, a festival connected with Lord Krishna in Hindu mythology.
Episodes from Krishna’s life are remembered during the festival, which is celebrated nationwide in India as huge chariots with the images of Lord Krishna, his brother and his sister are paraded through the streets.
Raju Trivedi, the priest at the San Antonio temple, said Hindus believe there was a victory procession the day Krishna vanquished his evil uncle, Kamsa. The day has been celebrated annually ever since as Rath Yatra.
Mukesh Patel, no relation to Lila Patel but also a San Antonio devotee, said the festival tells people “to know there is a God and to know the importance of having God in their lives throughout the world.”
Another Hindu tradition kept at the temple, the Aarti ceremony, ends daily services with small flames circled from top to bottom in front of the images of God.
The ceremony is often accompanied by devotional music, incense and flowers.
Trivedi said that in ancient times when temples were housed in caves, the flames helped devotees to see God in darkness.