One of the first Hindu priests in New York had his finger on the pulse of his flock

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Pujari Pratapbhai Raval, the first Hindu priest at the first BAPS Swaminarayan Temple in Flushing, Queens, NY, who officiated from 1974-2000, and continued to help after that, died May 13, 2020. (Photo: courtesy BAPS)

From the day he stepped in to officiate as the first priest at the first BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir in the U.S., located in Flushing, New York, Pujari (priest) Pratapbhai Raval busied himself with getting to know every single devotee who visited the temple. That was more than 40 years ago.

By the time he retired in 2000, and passed away May 13, 2020, the venerated priest knew just about everything about everyone in his congregation. And that congregation grew by leaps and bounds from just around 150 devotees coming from all over tri-state to some 500 attendees at every weekend prayer, just from adjacent areas in Queens. The growth of the congregation mirrored the massive expansion of the Indian-American Hindu community in this borough of New York City.

When the temple opened in 1987, “He singlehandedly handled the temple even though being new to the country – conducting the aartis, making food, answering phone calls, helping devotees,.,” said Lenin Joshi of BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, New Jersey. “He was very humble.”

‘LIKE A SAINT’

He’s like a saint, always caring, helping everybody else, comforting one and all, with no expectations,” says the son, Priyam Raval, 64, a civilian working in the New York City Police Department. It’s been just a few days since his father passed away so he is not used to referring to him in the past tense.

Priyam Raval tried raising is own son Urdhva Raval, 26, with the same values as grandfather, Pujari Pratapbhai. Asked if he had any anecdote in particular, Priyam Raval says, “There are too many things in my mind right now for him to remember any particular one. but the main things to learn from my father were – no expectation, no addiction, positive thinking, looking for and finding the good in everyone.”

“He had information about everyone who came to the temple,” says  Bakuben Trivedi, has been a daily visitor and regular volunteer at the temple since it opened more than 40 years ago. “Pujari ji even wrote down the details of each person so that he could put people in touch with others when they needed something,” Trivedi adds. She made sure to visit the temple every morning before going to office, and would be there promptly on Sundays to help Panditji with cleaning and cooking, like the many other devotees. “The routine is the same, but the crowd is much bigger  now.” she says.

“People kept his number and called him to make time for discussing their problems,” Trivedi recalls.

“I was here in 1999, and experienced his way of doing things personally,” says Dilip Chauhan, former deputy comptroller of Nassau County and a community activist who frequently visited the BAPS temple in Flushing.

Late Pratapbhai Raval, primary priest at the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir from 1974-2000, died May 13, 2020. Seen here with H.D.H Pramukh Swami Maharaj. Photo: BAPS)

“Pratapkaka’s loss is a loss for the entire Indian American Community,” says Chauhan. “I have personally witnessed who he has helped (including) number of new immigrants – to find accommodation, as well as helping students with temporary housing.”

Chauhan remembers one specific incident where a new immigrant couple from Gujarat had  turned down their promised  job from their sponsors  and didn’t have any way to find another because they didn’t know many people. “I reached out to Pratapkaka, and within 2 days they found decent job at a local pharmaceutical company. This is one example out of many,” Chauhan says.

Pujariji kept a “nice, beautiful diary” diary of everyone, he adds, and he gave his personal reference if it was needed by anyone he knew to help them on so many different fronts.

As one of the first Hindu priests in New York, Pujariji served the Hindu community “at the behest of his gurus – His Holiness Yogiji Maharaj, His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, and His Holiness Mahant Swami Maharaj” for over forty years, said a press release.

Before he came to the United States, Pujari Pratapbhai served BAPS in Mumbai. He then went to London as his gurus wanted. And after that  his calling was in New York.

Described as a “Selfless Sevak” Pujariji “was instrumental in guiding and encouraging hundreds of Indian-Americans over the years,” the press release notes, reflecting the views of his son Priyam Raval, and all who came in contact with him.

Born in Jaliadiwani, a village in Gujarat, Panditji moved to Bombay in the 1960s to get a diploma in electrical engineering. He got married to Nirmalaben, 88, who survives him.

When the priest of the temple passed away in 1970, Pratapbhai Raval took over the duties. In 1972, Swami Maharajji asked him to go to London where a new Swaminarayan mandir was opening. It appears that Panditji did such a good job, that when the new temple was opened in Flushing, New York, Pramukh Swami , wanted him to open it, says Vipul Patel, the media outreach person for the Flushing temple.

From 1974 to 2000, the Flushing temple was his life and work, but even then, he was loath to stay away, Despite a heart attack which required a pacemaker, he continued to come to the temple, help with the aarti, take over if the new priest had to go away,

“He helped so many kids to became sadhus themselves under Uncle’s guidance,” Vipul Patel told Desi Talk. “Some of them were born and brought up in the United States.”

“He was very instrumental in spreading the word about BAPS. That was very inspirational,” said Lenin Joshi.

Pandit Pratapbhai Raval’s antim vidhi is scheduled to be held May 20, 2020 at 1 pm Eastern Time, and will be transmitted live on YouTube and begins at 1 pm Eastern Time.

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