This was prayer that was being chanted in the Hindu temple when I entered it on the Hindu festival of lights called “Diwali”. I remember it because I was struck by the melodious chorus that was engulfing the whole temple. In the midst of lights and chanting, I remember how effortlessly I could gain an entry in to the temple. As a measure of precaution to avoid hurting anyone’s religious sentiments, I had placed a call before arriving to check if non-Hindus are allowed inside the Maha-lakshmi Temple (Temple of Hindu Goddess of Wealth).
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The call was surprisingly pleasant and no restrictions were mentioned apart from a small note which talked of “Proper Dressing”. Therefore, I took upon this journey of discovering Hindu faith in a pair of jeans and t-shirt. I have to admit that I was bit nervous about the dressing when I saw my Hindu friend waiting for me in a salwar which is the traditional Indian dressing for women.
Hinduism had always surprised me. A culture vastly different from mine, I was always curious to know their form of worship, their beliefs and their Gods. In fact, I had always found it very strange that they worship Gods with the face of elephant or monkey. But I never endeavoured to find out more. However, a recent scientific development renewed my interest in the religion. NASA has found a bed of rocks connecting South India to Sri Lanka under the Indian Ocean which has resulted in some chest-thumping religious reactions in India.
The reason behind this is the story of how Hindu God with the face of monkey Hanuman had made a bed of rocks floating on the Indian Ocean to connect to Sri Lanka so that Lord Ram can cross the sea and rescue his Goddess wife Sita. Religious heads in India now claim that this discovery has proved that the Hindu epic Ramayana is not a myth. Though the link to the 5000 year old epic has not been set, I sought out an opportunity to know more about this faith which had been referred to as “pure intellectuality” by Thoreau.
I chose to visit the Maha-lakshmi temple honouring the Goddess of Wealth Lakshmi on Hindu festival Diwali. Diwali is known as the “festival of lights” and Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped on this day for wealth and prosperity. As I stand barefooted on the marble floor of the temple surrounded by pious chanting and devotees, I cannot help but notice the huge difference. The temple itself was seeped in Indian temple architecture. As one enters the temple, one can see a room known as the inner sanctum or garbha griha (womb - chamber) where the idol of Goddess Lakshmi stood. Right above the inner sanctum crowning it is the tower-like shikhara. Outside the inner sanctum, there was a huge corridor where devotees stood or sat and offered their prayers.
There was only one person who had access to the Goddess and he was the priest. The devotees respectfully stood outside the sanctum in the corridor and gave their offerings to the priest who was busy in chanting prayers on behalf of the devotees. Since the occasion I chose to visit the temple was Diwali, huge crowds had turned up at the temple. This gave me the chance to notice that there wasn’t any dress code defined for the devotees! People were mostly in new clothes, thanks to the festival and lots of women had turned up in jeans and much stylish clothes than I had worn! Families including elders and children had come together and offered their prayers to the Goddess.
The typical cycle that was being repeated for each devotee was to stand just outside the inner sanctum with folded hands in the form of namaste and chant a prayer. The priest takes any offering one has to make and offers it to the Goddess along with some prayers for the devotees. The offerings mainly consists of flowers, a coconut which the priests cracks open for the Goddess, and red vermilion. After the priest completes his prayers, he gives back the offerings to the devotee to consume as Prasad (literally a gracious gift) and also puts vermillion on the forehead of all the members present. What was remarkable that the womenfolk in the family took the vermilion themselves and applied it on their fore head.
It was remarkable because in Hindu tradition a married woman applies vermilion and the only person allowed to put it on her is her husband. The devotee(s) then also offers some money that he/she deposits in the collection box or hundi that was placed outside the inner sanctum. This money is used for the maintenance of the temple. The family usually retires to a place farther back in the corridor and spends some time sitting and meditating. Same steps were repeated for me and though I didn’t chant any prayers, the helpful priest did it for me.
During the prayer, the priest asked for my name and added the name in the Sanskrit prayers he was chanting. Curious as I was, I asked my friend as to why that was necessary. My friend explained to me that the priest chanted my name in the prayer so that the Goddess would be aware that the offering is being done by me and he was just the process.
Visiting religious places on their festivals have their own advantages. You are going to be a spectator of special religious customs that are not performed on a daily basis. Diwali being a huge festival in India, there was an extra tinge of pomp and festivity in the temple. It is believed that Goddess Lakshmi visits every home on that day and therefore, people clean their house which actually starts from a complete paint, wear new clothes, visit temple and prepare various sweets and dishes. Later in the night, they light up their house and fire crackers to welcome the Goddess. As a witness to the whole celebrations, I was overwhelmed by a sense of happiness watching the gaiety of the families present. I was also a witness to a ceremony called aksharabhashyam.
During this ceremony, a Hindu kid gives his education an auspicious start by writing the name of God on a plate of rice grains. There were many parents with their toddlers waiting for the Puja (prayers) to be performed for their kids. A touching ceremony where not only the importance of God was reaffirmed but also the point that education is important for every child. I was glad to know that people had attached so much importance to education even in the olden times when these customs took birth. After almost an hour and quarter, as I was coming out of the temple, I was greeted by a news that poor people will be served free dinner at the temple today. This was organized by the temple devotees to mark the occasion of Diwali.
I couldn’t help but feel a sense of warmth standing in the temple as I saw kids playing, parents, and grand-parents sitting together chatting, young couples praying for togetherness and toddlers learning their first letters of wisdom in the auspicious gathering at the temple. What struck me the most was the fact that religion binds them all. I was apprehensive about visiting a Hindu temple. I had the notion that they have weird customs that made no sense. I had assumed that women are suppressed here. I had the prejudice that the culture belongs to stone-age and has to be discarded immediately. However, when I watched the proceedings in the temple, I realised the ceremonies may be weird but the intentions are not. This festival helped the families come together.
People do not have time to talk to each other all through the year in my country. However, with the help of festivals like these, these people make sure they connect to each other and strengthen their bonds. Women are not bound the way I thought they were. Yes, they are definitely not as bold as some of us would like to be but they are no where the image of fully-clad husband-serving wives that I had envisioned. In fact, they looked much confident and wise with their stylish out fits, and families together. Another thing that caught my attention is the respect that is bestowed on the Goddess. Everyone entered the temple barefooted. One cannot enter the premises with your sandals on. It is seen as a mark of disrespect. I came to know about a similar custom from my friend.
Touching anything with feet is considered disrespect to God. For example, if we touch another human with feet, that is disrespect to God as Human is His child. Similarly, touching food or books with feet is disrespect to the Goddess of wealth Lakshmi and Goddess of education Saraswati. This may sound weird but I found myself appreciating the custom. Religion just made another attempt to enforce respect among its followers, and hence peace and love among human beings. Nonetheless, there was one aspect of the religion that disturbed me. In a religion that boasts of so many Gods and Goddesses that stand of every good thing one can think about, I strangely missed out on God of Love. I could find only customs that filled up the religion.
The customs followed were definitely doing much good to the people with all of them together enjoying the good things in life. However, along the line I feel there would be a point that would choke the life of inpiduals who want to break free of traditions being followed. For example, I saw a couple praying fervently for a son as they needed an heir to their wealth. I had heard of stories where female child is looked upon by the society and are in fact, killed in some parts. I was appalled when I found some prayers that explicitly mention children as only sons and not daughters. I was a pacified a bit when I heard my friend telling that times are changing and women are no more in shackles as they were generations ago. Well, what better example than my own friend who is not only well-educated and well-dressed but also a confident woman!
This reminds me of what Socrates had said in his trial - “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Today, when I look back to my visit to the temple, I realise the significance of those words. For Socrates, every action in his life was a command from God. He talked to discuss Truth, he worked to apply Truth. Life was a journey that he took to discover the marvels of the Creator. My visit to temple was a new direction that I took and that helped me examine a life that was important. My visit to the temple opened the door to another world which I assumed did not exist. The temple revealed a whole new way God can be perceived. It revealed a brand new facet of the worship of the Creator and the faith that people hold in their hearts.
The offering of coconut was a way of saying thanks to the Lord for the various blessings He has shed on them. So similar to the prayers that I do. The Prasad was the special gift that God bestowed in us. The first letters written by the child talks about the grace that the Lord showered on him for he was able to see, move and feel this beautiful world. When I heard the temple is dedicated to the Goddess of Wealth, I was sceptic. I always disregarded money and always saw it as the root of evil. However, after my visit I realised it was not just material wealth that people come searching for in this temple. The wealth they seek in the temple is the wealth of happiness and prosperity that would enrich their and their family lives.
I got a glimpse of a Truth so different from mine but nevertheless, the Truth that has been sought since ages. When we pry into unchartered courses, one comes across things that challenge our wisdom and takes us on to a ride that we least expected. It teaches us another law of nature that we had closed our eyes on. I had always considered world to be right only the way I see it. A Hindu temple challenged my faculty of reason and gave me points that I need to work on. Now, I know I need to seek out the thing first and then develop views on it. My prejudice towards a particular school of thought has made me believe that all Hindus are closed minds that cannot open. In the temple I realised they are much more open than I am.
They recognise the importance of togetherness better than I do and they recognise the importance of faith better than I do. If I hadn’t examined this part of the world, is my life worth living? Won’t I have had a death that only saw life in a church and missed out on the cosiness of a temple? Won’t I have missed out on the innocent faces learning their first letters and their parent’s faces beaming with pride? Won’t I have missed out on the grand-parents playing with kids and enjoying the care they long for? Won’t I have missed out on the spectacle where everyone is enjoying bliss in the temple corridor under the auspicious care of the Goddess lakshmi? I would have…I am glad I examined this part of my life. My life is much more worth now!
Thoreau, Henry. “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers “ : 109 - 111
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