Reflections on Fieldwork

Fieldwork Reflection – March 2011

During the five visits I had over the span of ten weeks, I have realized just how much of a gem the Minnesota Hindu Milan Mandir is, both within Minnesota but also within the Hindu community. I knew very little of this temple or of the Indo-Caribbean community before my first visit, and while there is still much to learn about the theology, rituals, and specific activities of the mandir, what I did gain was the opportunity to document the life and philosophy of Satya Balroop. The small, cozy temple in many ways takes on the personality of Mrs. Balroop, and during my short time there I was able to catch a glimpse of the passion, trust, and dedication that members have  benefited from for 11 years.

The most immediate remark about the Mandir is how accessible the teachings and all of the people there are. Rarely did I encounter skeptical or mistrusting glances because all members are incredibly tolerant of different religions and backgrounds. Never in my time there did I hear a negative word about another member of the temple or of the greater Hindu community. Because the temple is so self-selective, everyone there is assumed to have the curiosity required to form a personal relationship with god. There is a trust among the members that transcends family or ethnic ties, and merely being there is enough to deserve god’s grace.  I hope that the work I produce about the Mandir can match the dedication and hospitality I received during my time there.  It is my hope that this site will help the MHMM get the recognition is deserves, and perhaps allow Mrs. Balroop’s wonderful teachings to reach more ears, even if the internet clips do her charm no justice.

While I visited the mandir for only a short amount of time, I observed that the salient effects of the Minnesota climate had a profound effect on religious practice. The amount of snow on the ground severely limited the space available for use by the members. While the temple has a large lawn and a gazebo that normally houses the Shiva lingum, during the winter all activities are confined to the small two-car garage. This means that all activities, including prayer, chanting, hawan offerings, discussion, eating, playing, meditating, and even my interviews happened in the exact same place and under the gaze of all of the murtis. The building is reminiscent of an old schoolhouse in that there is virtually no separation between families, genders, ages, or different religious beliefs. There is a communal bond that arises from this proximity that brings all members to the same level. The intimacy and friendliness of the temple makes for an environment that stresses communal teaching and equality among members. All attendees are urged to participate, but none are forced to do so.

However, a severe negative aspect of Minnesota winters is the affect the weather has on driving conditions. In my visits to the temple, two occasions were marked by very scarce attendance. Mrs. Balroop did not seem that concerned with this, because she considers even a few devotees well worth her time. While I do not think this reflects disinterest in the temple or the community, it does reflect the impact that physical distance has on religious communities. No concentration of Hindus exists in the Twin Cities area, so the MHMM must draw its members from a variety of distant places. While many members are from Mrs. Balroop’s immediate family and live nearby, quite a few others live more than half an hour away. Most members are also family units, and driving distance poses a much greater constraint if children are involved. Part of the mandir’s mission is to provide a personal and practical Hindu upbringing that is unavailable at bigger temples, and thus the high concentration of families is quite expected. While Mrs. Balroop is very hospitable toward children, many ceremonies span multiple hours and require long stretches of chanting, which is not always appealing for many of them. One member expressed severe dissatisfaction with the frequency with which she attends service, but cited the difficulties in being able to bring her entire family during the morning as the main limiting factor to her attendance. There is a marked tension between the passion and consistency displayed by Mrs. Balroop and the practical concerns faced by attendees. While the remote location gives the Mandir much of its personality and charm, it also has potentially severe implications for the eventual size and cohesion of the mandir’s community.

While attendance to the weekly satsangs during the winter months was modest, the various festivals receive a much more diverse set of members. In the time at the Maghi Purnima Festival, I witnessed a total of 22 different members show up for some amount of time, although none stayed for the entirety except Mrs. Balroop. The core group of members were made up of Mrs. Balroop’s family members and a few other key devotees that remained constant for most services. However, during festivals a wide variety of people showed up for very short amounts of time to pay their respects to the deities. These members were relatively uninvolved in worship of the temple’s community, and thus represented the peripheral role the temple plays for Hindus who do not necessarily share the same beliefs.

All attendees are welcomed with open arms, but there seems to be two different levels of membership. One consists of the dedicated few who are largely from Guyana, and wish to connect to their heritage and Hindu community through the teachings of Mrs. Balroop. These members bring their kids to Youth Camp, attend important festivals, and assist in practical temple matters. The other, less devout set of members come to the temple but do not participate in most temple activities.  They come and go when they have the time, and Mrs. Balroop keeps the side door open at all hours for this  purpose. By her account, this set of members is usually from India, and do not have the time to make a larger commitment to the Mandir or the community. These members perhaps attend the temple because of its convenient location, and they usually are much less concerned with a religious and Indo-Caribbean community than the Guyanese members. However, both groups appear to be vital to the mandir’s upkeep and mission of acceptance, and they are all welcomed as part of the larger MHMM community.

Because of the often scarce attendance, in depth conversations with the majority of members were hard to come by. However from impressions given by a few members, this lack of popular support reflects very little on Mrs. Balroop’s generosity or on the temple’s religious and community value. It is a suburban haven from the traffic and stress of St. Paul, and thus presents an escape for many devotees caught in a “material rat race”, to use Satya’s term. The atmosphere of the temple is calm, the music relaxing, and the teachings of Mrs. Balroop are practical and reassuring. It is there that members can gain the practical ritual knowledge, ask any questions they please, and feel as though they are watched over. The temple is then a site of symbolic importance to the Hindu community, even if it does not hold strong community ties to itself because of its remote location.

The value of the temple should not be measured in attendance, but rather in the devotion of its leadership. For myself, the value of this temple lies in its genuine character, Mrs. Balroop’s inspiring devotion to her guru, and the striking non-judgmental attitude adopted towards members outside the immediate community. Not to mention the wonderful Guyanese food! I could not have had a more helpful and warm group of people to work with, and I wish to thank all members involved for their patience with me and all of my lingering questions.