WEST ELMIRA, NY (WETM) – A new spiritual organization is moving into a former Catholic church in West Elmira with plans to welcome all members of the community through their doors.
Bhakti Marga, a German-based spiritual movement with roots in Hinduism, bought the former parish of Our Lady of Lourdes in West Elmira in January. The parish closed in the fall of 2021. Since then, the group – which does not define itself specifically as a religion or an institution – has been working to renovate the interior of the building for its own worship and prayers while retaining many features . of the Christian Church in order to respect the spirituality of the building’s history.
And that is what Bhakti Marga’s beliefs boil down to: individual spirituality. Swami Tulsidas, who oversees Bhakti Marga’s operations in the United States and Canada, said that although the organization is a denomination of Hinduism, it is totally open-minded and has no problem honoring the Christian history of the building.
“We truly embrace the love of God found in every religion, found in every spiritual path,” Swami Tulsidas said. “For example, mother, Mary, she is the embodiment of devotion…where she stands at the feet of Christ as he was crucified, showing her unending devotion. And so for us, it is an honor and a joy that we can build here a place of love for God.
Bhakti Marga bought the building directly from the diocese, saying the Catholic Church was very welcoming to the group.
“Right from the start, I wrote a letter, I sent it to the bishop explaining who we are, what we are doing and what we are planning for the place,” Swami Tulsidas said. “They were very welcoming.”
In the original announcement video for the purchase, Swami Tulsidas said the Catholic Church had allowed the group to keep a statue of Mother Mary in the building. However, since the purchase, the diocese has reportedly demanded the return of the statue, a request which Swami Tulsidas said Bhakti Marga was quite willing to comply with.
But Swami Tulsidas, who grew up in Wisconsin, recognized that many people, especially in a predominantly Christian region like the Southern Tier, wouldn’t know much about Bhakti Marga or Hinduism.
What is Bhakthi Marga?
Bhakti Marga, as Swami Tulsidas explained, is a branch of Hinduism, which is an “extremely broad” belief system. More specifically, Bhakti Marga means “path of devotion”, and one of the main philosophies of the group is individual devotion to the Divine.
“We fundamentally believe that no spiritual path or religion has a monopoly on God or the Divine, so we truly embrace the love for God that is found in every religion, that is found in every spiritual path” , said Swami Tulsidas.
Bhakti Marga was founded by Paramahamsa Sri Swami Vishwananda, the leader and master of the movement. He was born in 1978 on Mauritius off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Paramahamsa Vishwananda.
“From an early age he had a penchant for spirituality, for loving God,” explained Swami Tulsidas. He eventually moved to Africa and later to Germany where Bhakti Marga is now based.
The full 18 News interview with Swami Tulsidas can be viewed in the player below:
What does Bhakti Marga believe?
Swami Tulsidas explained that the most important of the principles of Bhakti Marga is that “everyone has his own unique and eternal relationship with God”. Another important point: “God is infinite by nature, so that means that if we say that God is only something or that God is not something, we have limited God and it is no longer God, but rather the projection of our own mind.”
Swami Tulsidas went on to explain that Bhakti Marga tries to ‘awaken’ this relationship with love and service.
Love is another important part of Bhakti Marga culture. “You exist,” said Swami Tulsidas, “and that is reason enough to love you… If I cannot love and respect myself, then I cannot love and respect anyone, and I cannot can’t love and respect God either.
What are the marks on Swamis’ foreheads?
Swami Tulsidas – whose title means a religious leader in Hinduism – explained that the marks on his forehead are called tilak which they put on every morning. The black lines are mud which represents respect for mother earth, said Swami Tulsidas. “Without her, we wouldn’t even exist.”
The “U” shape represents the feet of God. The act and image of bowing at someone’s feet is very important in Eastern religions, said Swami Tulsidas. “It’s to show humility.”
The mark on the bridge of the nose is a tulsi leaf, which represents devotion. And the red on the bridge of the nose is “symbolic of the teachings of the spiritual path”, Swami Tulsidas said.
The red line on the forehead is symbolic of the entire universe which is all contained in God, he explained.
What are Bhakti Marga’s plans for Elmira?
Swami Tulsidas rejoiced with joy at the welcoming nature of the local community. “I’m so grateful to be in Elmira,” he said. “The community has been so open-minded, so welcoming, endlessly kind.”
He said several people, including parishioners from the old church, came in to see the work in progress and “are excited, which is really touching.” Bhakti Marga has received offers to help with work donations of things like silverware or plates.
The West Church Street location will be the first Bhakti Marga – another word for a Hindu temple – ashram in America. The group has about 100 devotees across the country who mostly practice from home, but Swami Tulsidas said the doors will always be open to everyone, both inside and outside the organization.
He added that there will never be pressure on a visitor to participate in the daily prayers; “they can sit in the back and just enjoy.”
“We are certainly not here to convert anyone. We are not a missionary type organization. This would completely go against our basic principles of open-mindedness,” explained Swami Tulsidas. “We’re just here to share what we love, and if other people resonate, dope. Otherwise, dope.
Swami Tulsidas said that the stained glass windows and the fundamental architecture of the building will remain. He expressed his admiration for the “brilliant” design of the inner chapel, noting how it made the building appear much larger than one would expect from the outside and created a representative sense of grandeur. of the size and significance of God.
At the front of the main hall, Swami Tulsidas said there would be several murtis or sacred statues. The main murti in the center will be 8.5 tall and weigh eight tons, Swami Tulsidas said. This will require what is essentially equivalent to a concrete elevator shaft going through the ground to the basement and even down to the ground. The temple will also have 1,000 saligrams, sacred black stones collected from the Gandaki River in Nepal.
Hear more details about the renovation plans in the video below:
The exterior of the church will remain the same, Swami Tulsidas said. “The brickwork on the outside really gives that sense of permanence.”
At the end of the day, Swami Tulsidas said that Bhakti Marga was delighted to have her first ashram in the United States and to be in such a welcoming community, a measure he specified will be extended to locals. “The doors are always open to everyone.