The priest, who has lived in the US since 1988, forgives the attacker, resumes temple duty.
It is early Monday morning in Queens, New York, and Swami Harish Chander Puri, even though he is still recovering from the injuries he suffered at the hands of an attacker late last week, has chosen to resume his temple duties.
He is carefully examining the preparations at the Shiv Shakti Peeth Temple for the oncoming Sharavan festivities, a Hindu calendar month associated with the time of monsoons in the Indian subcontinent.
Though the priest still has physical signs of the attack, he maintains a calm demeanor. On being asked why he is back at the temple so soon, he says, “This is where I belong. The temple is my home, I live here. I have dedicated my life to it, and I will continue doing it.”
Swami Harish Chander was attacked by a white man on Thursday morning, at around 11.00 am just as he stepped out of the temple in Floral Park, NY. The man confronted the priest, who was in a religious garb. The man, wielding an umbrella, struck the priest with it and also punched on his legs, arms, hand and head. The man also reportedly said, “This is my neighborhood.”
As the community is still grappling with the news that, in a neighborhood so bustling with diversity, a hate crime such as this can take place, the priest remained magnanimous. “God bless my attacker,” he says. “He is human, too. He made a mistake and we should all take it as that.”
Asked what raced through his mind, when he was confronted by attacker, the priest says, “I was, of course, surprised because incidents such as these have not happened to me ever since I made America my home back in 1988.”
But then, he also views it philosophically. “I take it as an accident,” he says. “Things happen sometimes which have no reason or meaning but one has to bear it. Sometimes we are in a car and there is a collision and an accident happens. I view it like that and would move on. One incident would not change my impression of America.”
Police have arrested 52-year-old Sergio Gouveia for the attack. He faces criminal charges on possession of weapon, and second-degree assault. The police are currently investigating the incident as hate crime. The attacker, according to reports, was arraigned on Friday and was released on his own recognizance.
“Yes, the police are dealing with it,” the priest says. “I do not know whether that guy was suffering from a mental disorder or if he was mentally sound. The police would investigate that and find out.”
On his injuries, he says, “I am doing better now and healing, and the temple work keeps me busy.”
Swami Harish Chander Puri is a sanyasi — a Hindu ascetic, who renounces marital life for worship — and the temple, Shiv Shakti Peeth holds a special significance in his life. “This is the temple that I built, we bought the land and made a mandir and moved here in 1998.”
Talking about his early life as a religious man, the priest says, “I am a sanyasi and I came to the US in 1988 to be a part of Satya Narayan Mandir in Jackson Heights. I was also a part of Geeta Mandir for 10 years and many mandirs in the New York City area before we set up Shiv Shakti Peeth.”
The priest, who hails from Kurukshetra in India, religiously attends the Kumbh Mela in India when it is held.
On his daily life in America, he says, “Most of my time is spent taking care of the temple and the responsibilities that come within. For instance, we are now prepping up for bhandaras (religious feasts) which will be held for the Sharavan month. This apart there are various other mandir programs and weekend activities.”
Swami Harish Chander signs off by saying, “I wish the best for everyone, including the attacker. Things happen but we need to move beyond that.”
Civil rights organizations have urged the police to probe the matter as a hate crime. Many of these groups have pointed out that hate crimes have seen a steep rise under the Trump administration. The activists also urge that there is an urgent need to step up to stop the growing religion, color and race-based extremism in America.
The incident comes in wake of an already volatile situation when there is an ongoing uproar about President Trump’s remarks and tweets about four congresswoman of color who were asked to go back to “their” countries.
Civil rights groups have pointed out that people of color from all faith and nationalities are target of increasing white supremacist attacks. Earlier this year, in the month of May, the South Asian American civil rights organization SAALT tracked 8 incidents of hate violence and 7 instances of xenophobic political rhetoric toward Muslims and those perceived as Muslim in the month of May, making it the second highest month for hate violence incidents in 2019.
“Since November 2016, we have documented over 484 incidents of hate violence and 252 incidents of xenophobic political rhetoric aimed at South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab American communities around the country,” SAALT said in a report. “The recent cycle of vitriolic xenophobic, anti-black, and Islamophobic political rhetoric has fueled violence against our community members. Our communities continue to be targets of horrific incidents due to race and perceived religious identity.”