Archbishop Nichols visits Europe's first traditional Hindu temple

Archbishop Nichols with the Temple's spiritual leader Yogvivek Swami

Archbishop Nichols with the Temple's spiritual leader Yogvivek Swami

The Most Rev Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, has made an official visit to the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Europe's first traditional Hindu temple in Neasden, north London.

The visit took place on Saturday, 21 November during Interfaith Week and on the birth anniversary of the worldwide spiritual leader of the Hindus who pray at the Mandir (Hindu Temple) at Neasden, His Holiness Pramukhswamiji Maharaj.

Archbishop Nichols was greeted by the Mandir's spiritual leader, Yogvivek Swami, ( Head Sadhu, BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha (UK & Europe)) and the Trustees of the Mandir. He was welcomed in traditional Hindu style - with a red vermillion mark applied to the forehead and the tying of a sacred thread on the wrist, symbolising friendship and goodwill.

Yogvivek Swami guided the Archbishop around the Mandir complex, including the sanctum sanctorum where the Archbishop offered flowers at the altar to the deities. He then moved to the deity of Shri Nilkanth Varni (Bhagwan Swaminarayan) where he joined Yogvivek Swami in praying for world peace and harmony.

After a private meeting with Yogvivek Swami, Archbishop Nichols spoke to an audience of around 2,000 Hindus about a number of common concerns. These included the vital role religion contributes to the common good, the importance of supporting family life, the education of children and young people and the understanding and valuing of different cultures and traditions.

Before departing, Archbishop Nichols presented Yogvivek Swami with a special candle, "a sign of the lovely light of God in our lives and a sign of the prayer which, in return, we offer to God." Yogvivek Swami also presented Archbishop Nichols with a memento of his visit to the Mandir.

Those accompanying Archbishop Nichols on the visit included: Father Stephen Willis - Dean of Brent, and Parish Priest of the parish of Our Lady of Willesden, Willesden; Rev Jon Dal Din - Director of Westminster Interfaith; Katharina Muller - Secretary of the Bishops' Committee for Relations with Other Religions; Father Antonio Ritaccio, Parish Priest
of Stonebrige.

A number of local civic, political and religious leaders were also present. They included Cllr Jim O'Sullivan, Mayor of Brent; local MPs, Dawn Butler MP, and Sarah Teather MP; Ervad Rustom Bhedwar Head Priest, Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe; Imam Abdullah Salloo of the Islamic Cultural Centre, Stonebridge; Venerable Galayaye Piyadassi Thera MBE President, World Buddhist Foundation Head, Sri Saddhatissa International Buddhist Centre; Shri Ashok Shah, Chair, Oswald Community (Jainism); Sardar Rajinder Singh Bhasin, President, The Central Gurdwara, London (Sikhism) ; Mr Aleksey Koudryakov representing the Russian Orthodox Church and Hassan Afnan representing the Bahaii community.
Full text of Archbishop Vincent Nichol's speech

Dear brothers and sisters,

Let me thank you first of all for the generous invitation and warm welcome that I have received in your unique and beautiful Mandir. I thank your spiritual leader, Sadhu Yogvivek Swami and the trustees of the Mandir for their invitation, especially as it falls on the celebration of the birthday of your worldwide spiritual leader, His Holiness Pramukswamiji Maharaj.

The story of the building of this Mandir is well known. Indeed I was glad to visit it not long after its opening in 1995. It is moving to see that even the architecture of this special place symbolises co-operation and peace between the cultures. The structure of the haveli, built from Burmese teak and English oak, is a poignant sign of how cultures and religions can join together to build something beautiful and enduring.

It is always good to come together like this, to strengthen each other, to learn of each other's faith and to rejoice in a spirit of dialogue and love. Indeed for a long time now, the Catholic Church has made dialogue with other faiths a priority in her actions, for the Church urges us to appreciate that the entire human race shares a common origin and a common destiny. This human and spiritual unity in our origins and our destiny impels us to seek common elements in our path through life as we play our part in the quest for fundamental values so crucial in our time.

This is, in part, why the Catholic Church, and many others, is insistent that every human person has a right to religious freedom. Such freedom means that all should have immunity from coercion, that no-one should be forced to act against his conscience in religious matters, nor prevented from acting according to his conscience, whether in private or in public, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

There are some today who seek to set aside the right to act on the basis of religious faith in a reasonable manner in the public forum. Yet we know that religious faith cannot be left alone at home and still retain its integrity. It requires public expression in word an deed. This is an essential part of the right to religious freedom. This is something to which we must all be alert today.

We as a Church feel very strongly that religious sentiment and beliefs of the majority of the citizens of this country are important factors which can contribute significantly to the building up of a true culture of peace and harmony. They are not a matter of private conviction to be excluded from the public forum, but crucial elements of a true and generous citizenship in this land.

We are, for example, all convinced of the unique value of prayer in the search for peace. In fact it is impossible to have peace without prayer, the prayer of all, each one in his own identity and in search of the truth. The experience of prayer is a manifestation of the unity which binds us together, beyond our differences and distinctiveness. Every authentic prayer, we believe, is under the influence of the Spirit "who intercedes insistently for us...because we do not know how to pray as we ought." Yet every person, all of us present here, is capable of prayer, that is of submitting ourselves totally to God and of recognising ourselves to be poor in front of God. Prayer is one of the means to realise the plan of God among us. It shows us that the world cannot give peace, but that peace is a gift of God and that it is necessary to entreat it as a gift by means of the prayers of all.

Both of our religions teach us that we fall short of the fullness of being to which we are called. We share the sense that we are to consistently seek to be more authentic, more generous especially in helping those in need. Indeed the search for peace in prayer goes hand in hand with the strong responsibility for helping those who are at the margins of society, and are in dire need of care and support. We are aware that many people live in fear and insecurity, and we consider it our duty and our privilege to extend a helping hand where we can.
Particularly in a time of economic hardship, this helping hand becomes important and valuable. It is thus with great pleasure that I see the continued efforts around this Mandir to serve the community in its many worthwhile projects, providing support to an admirably wide range of people, and offering diverse services that reflects the needs of the whole community -be it education for children, opportunities for young people or support for parent in raising children.

The needs of elderly people are especially close to my heart. We know the plight of the elderly in our society. We face the real danger of seeing the elderly not as the gift of wisdom and experience they embody, but as a burden. Instead, we need to recognise the contribution that they bring society. The Mandir is making a very important contribution to this in organising events such as the recent Health Fair that empower the elderly to live life to the full. Thus, we are joined together in our concern for the elderly and their well-being, as we are joined in our concern for everyone who is vulnerable and in need of attention in our society.

It is also very good to see that young people are at the heart of your community and that they are offered opportunities to develop both their physical and spiritual health. Providing young people with opportunities for exercise can give them a positive focus for their overflowing energy, and those who "come to play can learn to pray" to use your own words. Again and again, it has become clear during interfaith week that our hope and our trust must be placed in the young generation of today, so that they in their boundless and admirable enthusiasm, may try to achieve for future generations what this society has not been always able to offer - peace, understanding and community.

It is with admiration that I see the many events and opportunities on offer in this complex for the wider community, and I salute the valuable contribution that you are making to the peaceful world we all strive to create. The concern and care that is shown here for our natural environment is just one example of the many causes on which we can work together.

In these and other ways I hope we can work together for the common good of all members of society.

So, once again, let me thank you for this wonderful opportunity of dialogue and of being together to pray, and for your very warm welcome to all your guests here this evening. It is truly inspiring to see the beauty of this place, and no less inspiring to see the commitment to helping the community that comes with it.

My hope and my prayer is that the simple candle, which I am pleased to bring to you this evening, may be a sign of the lovely light of God in our lives and a sign of the prayer which, in return, we offer to God. May peace and truth be the gift that God bestows on us all.
Yogivek Swami gave the welcome address, on behalf of His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj.

Your Grace, the Archbishop of Westminster, venerable faith leaders, and distinguished guests. Firstly, on behalf of our spiritual leader His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, and the entire BAPS Swaminarayan community in the UK, may I extend a very warm and gracious welcome to the Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols.

It is indeed a historic occasion today to have - for the first time - the leader of our country's Roman Catholic Church visiting our Hindu Mandir, here in Neasden. This is not to say that ours is a new relationship, of course. For our faith communities have enjoyed warm ties stretching back several years. Our spiritual leader - His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj - met with His Holiness Pope John Paul II in 1984, at the Vatican. I know my spiritual leader holds fond memories of that meeting and also recalls his visit to Bethlehem in 1999, to the birthplace of Jesus Christ. It is indeed wonderful that we are able to renew and reaffirm this valued association twenty five years on, here in London, at our Mandir.
This Mandir, created through a selfless spirit of volunteerism and devotion, is celebrating its fourteenth anniversary year. Almost 7 million people and more than 8,000 school groups have now visited the Mandir. And I am pleased to say that, true to the multi-cultural and multi-faith diversity of Great Britain, more than a quarter of these visitors have been from a variety of faiths other than Hinduism. The Vedas, our ancient Hindu scriptures, reflect similar sentiments: "Vasudhaiva kutumbakam" - The whole world is one family - explaining that there can be unity in diversity, and that we are a single human
family, capable of living together, loving one another.

And that is why Pramukh Swami Maharaj has allowed this Mandir to be open to all - to people of all faiths and none. All are welcome to learn and explore and enjoy. This Mandir truly is a place of peace, joy and spiritual inspiration, where people can put aside their differences and unite, to build bridges of friendship across generations, cultures and faiths, and ensure that ours is a society where children are loved, families are sturdy, the young are creative, people are honest and hard-working, nature is protected.

This is a call, I believe, that each true religion teaches its adherents to fulfil. For each one of us has the power and light of God within us. Each one of us is loved and cherished by God within Him.

What greater bond could we share? As the Upanishads proclaim: "Amrutasya vayam putraahaa". We are all the children of God, irrespective of our race or gender, our creed or credentials, our colour or our country. And while it is admirable to tolerate others; better still is to respect them. By growing closer to each other, we grow closer to God.

In serving and loving God, we are guided to love and serve His children.

I am reminded of Pramukh Swami Maharaj's words during his address at the United Nations Millennium World Peace Summit in New York. He said: "The unity of all faiths will make our common future strong and protected. Flourishing together by working together is the key to lasting peace. We must not progress at the cost of others, but sacrifice a part of ourselves for the good of others. For in the joy of others, lies our own."

It is the wisdom of our religious leaders which inspires us to create not only magnificent buildings such as this Mandir, but to craft a beautiful society enriched and empowered by understanding and trust, mutual respect and peaceful cooperation. It is by such leaders that we are guided. It is by such guidance that we are inspired to serve God, community, and our country.

Let me conclude then by thanking Your Grace for sparing the time to be with us this evening,and thanking also the other representatives of our country's many faith communities for joining us today on this auspicious occasion, which, as we know, coincides with the culmination of Inter Faith Week and the birth anniversary of His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj.

Your Grace, we pray your visit today is the beginning of a continued and rewarding dialogue of shared will and respect for many happy years to come.

May our loving almighty Creator bless us all with strength, wisdom, courage and judgement.

Thank you and Jai Swaminarayan.


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