Friday, November 09, 2007

Diwali in the Capital

In the spirit of inter-faith dialogue, I decided to invite anyone in the house who was interested to come with me to a pooja at a Hindu temple around Diwali (which is today). Five of us (A priest, a deacon, a seminarian and two novices. Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke ...!) ended up at the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, MD for a 7:00 pm Mahalaxmi Pooja (a prayer service to the goddess of wealth and prosperity).

[On the way over I was talking to my uncle in Chicago. Normally, for Gujaratis, the day after Diwali is the New Year, bestu varas, "The year sitting down." Except, some years, when it's two days after. My mom was sure that bestu varas was Sunday. Uncle and aunt thought it was Saturday. I still don't think I'm sure who's right! Gujaratis tend to wish each other on bestu varas rather than on Diwali itself.]

Well, a little later than 7:00. The Balt-Wash parkway was, well, a parking lot. However, the pooja itself was just starting (good old Indian Standard Time, I guess!). This is the first time that I've been to a service at a diaspora temple (I've been to the Hindu temple in Columbia, SC a couple of times, but that was for cultural events). This structure is actually quite decent -- white plaster and marble, with traditional south Indian architecture and carvings, and an impressive gopuram.

Inside, however, it doesn't feel like India at all. It's all covered, it's all clean, partially carpeted, and climate controlled. There were three main shrines -- to Shiva, Vishnu and Balaji (an incarnation of Vishnu), and a host of smaller side shrines --- Ram, Laxman, Sita (protagonists in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana), Durga (power), Saraswati (knowledge), Ganesh (new and auspicious beginnings), Hanuman (the monkey god, and Ram's lieutenant) and others. and, given the general south Indian orientation of the temple, Venkateshwar (also a form of Vishnu). The idols were all made of black stone (another south Indian trait), and signs warned that only priests were allowed into the enclosure around the idol.

There was one main hall, which had been decorated for the Mahalamxi Pooja, with candles, diyas mirrors and flowers, and small number of families sat on the carpets as the pooja started.

The place wasn't as crowded as I'd expected. Certainly not everyone was south Indian. Apart from my companions, I spotted a few other non-Indians, and at least one Caucasian-Indian couple with a few kids.

Nor was it as noisy or chaotic as temples in India ... the offering system was well organized (people wrote their checks and got a receipt at the front desk as one entered, instead of haggling with, or being harassed by the brahmins as is not uncommon in many places in India!), though, of course, people came and went, and, unlike a church, no one felt that they had to stop talking. [My father used to always remark how he found it so strange -- and powerful -- that people actually would be silent in church! The Hindu custom of ringing a bell loudly as one entered a temple (or an individual shrine within a temple) he'd always jokingly suggest was because "one wanted to make the god notice one's presence."] At some of the shrines, families sat around, as the priests performed various poojas.

The main pooja itself started with the first prayer being chanted by the priest in Sanskrit, with each line being repeated back by the worshippers. I'd never really experienced this in India -- there, in most cases, the brahmins blaze through the chants, and no one really seems like they are paying attention. I suspect there is a diaspora dynamic underway here, a sense that people should follow what's going along, participate actively, and understand the prayers. Another thing I've never seen in India at a temple -- printed prayer books, in a variety of Indian languages and in English.

In an email briefing for my brothers, this is what I wrote:
This is not a liturgical service. The priests chant, people come and go, say their prayers, bow to the gods(esses), offer flowers, receive prasad, give a donation, etc. It's rather individualistic. There may be some bhajans (hymns). There may not be. There may be a homa (consecrated fire), but I suspect not. I've no idea really what the "order" of the "service" will be.

For me, I go there and observe and listen respectfully. Most people in temples assume I'm Hindu, and most of the time I'm with family, and there's no issues. In the US, no one is going to mind obviously non-Hindu folks (such as y'all) being there. [In India, many temples will not admit non-Hindus to the garbha-griha -- the inner sanctum.] As to what you want to do, that's up to you. The priests will almost certainly be willing to give prasad to you. I tend to stand at the back and be as unobtrusive as possible. I don't offer anything to the gods (flowers, or whatever), though I'll receive prasad if it comes around. I'm trying to balance an attitude of dialogue with the First Commandment :)
We ended up sitting for about 15-20 minutes at the back as the main pooja went underway, and then wandered around a bit.

For dinner, we went to an Udipi place not too far away, pure South Indian vegetarian food. Delicious! Topped off with a good masala paan at the end. Of course, dinner got a little delayed, since I locked us out of the car. (Don't ask.) Thankfully, we'd taken two ... and there was a spare set at the house, so the car belonging to a Catholic order isn't still sitting in the parking lot of a Hindu temple. :)

Diwali mubarak, y'all. And saal mubarak (Happy New Year) too.

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