A guru smolders

On this Saturday morning, just like every morning, Guru Maa Jyotishanand Saraswati sits barefoot on an altar in her temple below a bejeweled Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god. She douses mini-statues of other gods with water, chanting in metered bursts of Hindi and Sanskrit. Another man sits before Guru Maa, upright and pretzel-legged, chanting in quiet, nonstop bullets that rise and then fall when he runs out of breath.

At the end of the prayer service, or puja, they stroll to the backyard, landscaped with rows of marigolds and potted ferns, basil and chili-pepper plants, and join a few other temple members. They take their places on mats around what will become a small fire scented with sugared candies and almonds and rice and coconut for a three-hour cleansing and prayer ritual called havan.

It's easy, sitting here, to forget that Hempstead's busy Jerusalem Avenue runs by like a moat right out front. But Guru Maa and her devotees were roughly reminded of the outside world recently, when their havan fire was doused by what they say was a biased, hose-wielding village cop.

Officer Marlon Bottoms, says Guru Maa, showed up in June with a building department official in tow, responding to a neighbor's complaint about smoke from the fire. She claims Bottoms spoke nastily to her and the other worshippers, ordering them to put the fire out. When they refused, Guru Maa says, Bottoms drowned it with a nearby garden hose.

"That's kind of like taking a Muslim person and asking him to kiss a pig," explains Guru Maa devotee Paul Klecka, who says dousing the havan fire invites negatives into worshippers' lives.

Then the officer issued her a public-nuisance summons for lighting an open fire too close to a residence—in this case, the apartment complex next door.

On Wednesday, Sept. 15, Guru Maa, decked out in a crisp, peach-colored sari and surrounded by about 25 temple members, showed up in Hempstead Village Court to contest the summons. It was dismissed after Guru Maa agreed to build future fires at the back of the property. Before Judge Raymond McGrath's decision, though, a debate between Guru Maa's camp and village officials grew heated in a crowded conference room outside the courtroom, with Guru Maa declaring, "If I have to stop the havan, I'll go back to India," and a building inspector telling her, "This is the wrong forum for a grievance against a policeman."

Guru Maa got her forum on Monday, Sept. 20, when she met with Mayor James Garner and Police Chief James Russo in a tete-a-tete that she says was productive. Garner, she says, has agreed that Officer Bottoms will write her a letter of apology. (Bottoms couldn't be reached for comment.)

"Today what he has done to me, tomorrow he will do to somebody else," Guru Maa says of the cop. "He has to get a punishment." She says she would be satisfied with the letter.

In the 16 years Guru Maa has run the Vedic Heritage Shree Hanuman Mandir temple in Hempstead, she says, no one had complained about the scented, low-smoke fires. Klecka, of Hicksville, says temple members think the ill will might have started when the temple fenced off a strip of asphalt where neighbors had become accustomed to parking. The incident occurred, he says, shortly after the fence went up.

Neighbors have mixed opinions about the fire. "I don't have a problem with it," says one mother, who gave her name only as Janet. Two doors down, however, 21-year resident Dale Spinner says that, although she has never complained, she is concerned the smoke could be a hazard. "They're just doing it because that's what they believe in," she says, but adds it's not a good enough reason. "It's a safety hazard."

The journey that brought Guru Maa, 60, to open her temple in 1983 was a long and strange one. For years, she says, she had been living in England as a popular astrologer. She became disenchanted with her career in the late '70s, studied to become a guru and came to New York for a break. Shortly after her arrival, she recalls, she walked by a YMCA in Manhattan with some friends, and realized it would make a perfect ashram. "I told my friends, 'I am going to buy that,' " she recalls with a laugh. "They told me, 'You can't buy such a building!' " From that point on, she decided stubbornly, she would find a YMCA and make it her own.

Five years later, a real estate agent alerted her to an empty, former YMCA in Hempstead. Guru Maa bought the building and fixed up the dilapidated interior and overgrown backyard. Now it's a thriving Vedic Heritage center, with services attracting up to 100 people and financial support coming from members slipping bills into a safe after meetings and buying tickets to classical Indian music concerts. She also runs a temple in India, north of Bombay.

Guru Maa, who lives in the Hempstead building, has made out so well she drives a Lincoln Town Car, complete with vanity plates that say "Guru Maa." It's fun to pray at the YMCA.

 
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