The News Tribune (N.J.)
July 22, 1991 (a very hot day)

H.D.H. Pramukh Swami Maharaj, center in orange, blessing child during a prayer for world peace yesterday in Edison.

KEITH A. MUCCILLI/The News Tribune

News Tribune Staff Writer

EDISON Take 500 bowls of wheat, 500 dishes of rice, add Indian spices, betel nuts, and flower petals. Arrange on large green leaves, bake at 100 degrees for three hours in a large warehouse, then toss ingredients pinch-by-pinch on an open flame. Serves 5 billion.

   Devotees of the Indian deity Swaminarayan think of it as a recipe for world peace.

   Hundreds of worshipers put together all the ingredients yesterday in a yajna ceremony as part of the Cultural Festival of India at Middlesex County College in Edison.

   For participants, the gathering was a rare chance to congregate with a large number of compatriots and a way to teach their children the ways of their homeland. And above all, the yajna -- intended to cleanse evil from the individual and the world -- was an occasion of spiritual renewal.

   "You have to drive out the bad thoughts. Before you can start thinking good, you have to filter everything out," said participant Mukund Patel, a volunteer worker with the festival. The fire symbolically burns away a person's bad thoughts so he or she can gain new purity and wisdom, he said.

   "See, all the problems we have in life are because we are ignorant, and that is the symbolism of fire: enlightenment," Patel said.

   The ceremony was led by 70-year-old Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the spiritual leader of the Bochasanwasi Swaminarayan religious group, which is putting on the festival.

   After Maharaj performed some of the rites with other priests on a dais and gave a sermon-like invocation that observers said was a message about peace, he left the hall and worshipers gathered around brick fire pits to continue the ceremony in smaller groups.

   Sparks kicked up from the burning coals as a priest chanted into a microphone and worshipers tossed grain onto the fires in response.

   "These are things we use in daily life," said Dr. Avalesh Patel, a volunteer from Leicester, England, as he explained the grains, spices, and nuts in dishes in front of the participants.

   Kumkum, for instance, is a red powder that is used to paint the red dots that adorn men's foreheads as a symbol of faith. Chandan is an orange spice, and gulan a pink one. Burfi is a sweet paste of milk, milk powder, and sugar, offered to the deities as nourishment.

   After the service, Kirit Patel of Cherry Hill said he felt the ceremony did contribute to peace and goodwill.

   "We have so many problems between nations. Between neighbors we have trouble. And a yajna like this brings about peace, brings about harmony," he said.

   Patel, who was born in Uganda and lived in Tanzania and India before moving to the United States 23 years ago, said it was a rare, exciting opportunity to worship with such a large gathering of fellow Indians.

   "It is very difficult to come together with this many people. It is very unusual. This is like an ocean of Indian people," he said. "I notice one thing: A lot of us have not lost touch with our ideals, our religion, our families."

   Family involvement was one of the most important aspects of the festival and the service for Narnit M. Barot, an Indian native living in Hoffman Estates, Ill., who attended with his Indian-born wife and their three American-born daughters.

   "They get tremendous values about India" from seeing an Indian religious service, Barot said. "They get to know what our cultural values are."

   Barot said he has raised his children to be aware of both their Indian heritage and the American lifestyle.

   "They get the benefit of both cultures. In fact, my daughters -- whatever they like here, they adopt, and whatever they like from the Indian culture, they adopt as well," he said.

   For instance, the daughters decided for themselves to eat a vegetarian diet, in accordance with a custom of their homeland. But they also are growing up with what their father considers positive characteristics of American life.

   "The openness, the curiosity -- if they want to know something, they do not hesitate to ask," Barot said.

   "I think with the combination, they can be better."

   Ashish Oza, a German-born 10-year-old visiting from Buffalo Grove, Ill., with his mother and aunt, was one of those who learned about Indian custom by participating. He received a janoi, which boys wear like a sash over one arm and under the other.

   "It's a thread with three strings, and it means, when you get that thread, you are with God," Oza explained.

   Oza said the service made him feel happy, peaceful, and proud to be an Indian.

   "I feel the Indians -- it should be spread and people know about India and its culture," he said.

   Neha Jani, 19, of Pennsville in Salem County, said even though she lives a typical American life in school and with friends, her sense of heritage was reinforced when three of her cousins received their janoi.

   "To see my cousins going through their rituals -- I'm sure my father and uncle went through it too. It's really important. We have to keep the tradition alive too," she said.
   "It happens to a lot of kids here: They get estranged, and they don't know what's happening in their home country," she said. "You need to know."