November 28, 2015

The Hindu Temple Society

Revisiting the Hindu Temple Society expanded my knowledge of Indian religious life in Allentown and addressed important questions that were left unanswered during our last visit only weeks ago. The initial tour was brief and reiterated much of what we learned in class. This second visit was a chance to delve further into the life of Sri Shyam Prasadji and his family, the history of the society, and Indian religious practice in the United States.

I went with a small group of students from class on the night of Sunday, November 15th at 7pm. We entered the temple from the back, hoping to find community members in congregation for arti—where firelight is offered to deities. To our dismay, no one was in the central room. This was our chance to more carefully observe the room and its adornments.

The edges of the central room have swirled, golden patterns that decorate otherwise off-white walls. The carpet is red and worn, hinting at the many religious observers who have sat for puja in past years. Three shrines dominate the back wall: Hinduism prominently in the center, Jainism to the left, and Sikhism to the right. Buddhism is accounted for, though only a small, white statue of the Buddha sits around the corner from the three main shrines. Hindu gods are decorated with grandiose clothing, flowers, and colors. Shiva, the largest icon, stands to the right of Parvati, his wife—the Hindus of the temple are Shaivas. Other gods such as Ganesha and Hanuman are smaller icons and reside on lower steps under Shiva and Parvati. Each god has an upside-down golden cup hanging above its head, which the priest explained is in regards to showing reverence. The Jain icons, in contrast, are not clothed nor colored. They are polished white with some parts gold. The Sikh shrine, or Gurdwara, has no icons. Instead, it has a framed portrait of Guru Nanak and a pedestal for the Guru Granth.

When Sri Shyam Prasadji entered the room, he greeted us with the utmost respect and hospitality. During our first visit it seemed that he did not know English very well, but after speaking extensively with us it became apparent that he knew the language well. He called upon his wife and 17-year-old daughter to enter the sacred space with us and gestured for us to sit as he began a short, daily puja. Shyam was dressed in orange—different from the usual white robes of a priest. He explained that all colors, especially in clothing, have meaning beyond their beauty. The orange in his robe represents saffron, which in turn represents both physical and mental strength. The puja he performed was identical to the puja performed upon our last visit. The only noticeable difference was the prasad offered—a banana instead of little orange dough clumps. His daughter (whose name was difficult to transcribe from audio recording) assisted with the puja by holding a small flame and waving it around the deities.

Each member of our group bathed in the flame when offered, however, not all of us partook in the giving of bindis. When asked, Shyam explained that kumkum is the powdered mixture used to make bindis. It is placed over the ajna chakra, otherwise known as the third eye. The kumkum is said to be medicinal and antibacterial, which led to a discussion about Indian medicine and treatment of illnesses. Before moving to that discussion, it is interesting to note that bindis, a symbol of strength, are traditionally worn by women, which points to cultural gender equality. Though many aspects of Indian religions—including the gender of gods—point to patriarchy, this symbol on women offers quite an interesting disparity.

Shyam handed some questions off to his daughter and wife for answers which he could not so easily explain. The next set of questions was about medicine and treatments. Shyam’s daughter, who will be called D, talked about the use of pain killers and other chemicals. She explained that a certain type of doctor—who I transcribed as an ayurveda doctor—is sought by the Indian community for advice on natural cures. They offer different ways to stay healthy mainly involving the consumption of enriching foods versus fatty foods. Besides sickness, another misfortune requiring treatment is that of inflicted violence. D explained that when violence occurs, the best treatment is meditation. Since meditation involves stillness and inaction, it counteracts violence and pain. Meditation is also used to show respect and reflection for others who have experienced violence such as in acts of terrorism. When D does not have time to meditate or spontaneously experiences fear or sadness or pain, she relies on the recitation of om. She gave the example of waking up from a bad dream. When she is scared and sits up in bed, repeating the om mantra calms her and gives her strength to overcome fear. Shyam’s eyes lit up as he talked about the importance of om. The syllable O represents the self, M represents the outer world, and H is the transference of energy between the self and the outer world.

Transference of energy is constant. Shyam’s wife, who will be called W, assisted in her family’s description of god. She used a metaphor that beautifully simplifies the abstract idea of god—god is electricity. Electricity itself cannot be seen, but it flows through everything, and can be seen where it is concentrated. When the temple bell is rung, god is called into the shrine figures just as a light switch brings electricity to a bulb. I was humbled by all of the different offerings made to god—in this case, Shiva—during puja. I was curious, however, as to what is offered when certain physical offerings are unavailable such as during travel. Shyam said that Shiva understands when physical offerings cannot be made and he accepts love and reverence in their absence. Shyam’s answer brought up many more deep questions: What is the purpose of existence? Is it love? Shyam, D, and W, all looked at each other upon hearing this question. Shyam then turned to me and said that we exist for others.

Others have differences and differences, historically, keep people apart. How could we exist, then, for others? This brought up the question of caste, which D took without hesitation. D explained that some Indians marry within their caste because it is simply easier. Members of the Prasadji family Brahmin caste, for example, are vegetarians. It makes sense to marry another vegetarian so food utensils are not cross-contaminated with meat products. This answer really opened my eyes to the practical applications of Indian religions. Before, my western ideals led me to think that castes were a facade—a justification for discrimination. Now, I can see the practical side of adhering to certain age-old traditions. There are many misconceptions about the caste system making it out to be a corrupt, separative system. There are also misconceptions about the meanings behind certain traditions and figures. The bindi, discussed earlier, is often mistaken for a fashion item. Though there are fashionable variations of the bindi worn mostly by younger generations, the bindi has a powerful meaning which goes far beyond beautiful, exotic appearance—which is why it is so often appropriated. When asked about common misconceptions in Hinduism and specifically with Shaivas, both Shyam and D said that people who are not Shaivas often do not entirely understand their god.

Shiva is known as the destroyer god—the thought of destruction is not very welcoming! Though what Shiva destroys, Shyam and D informed me, is evil. Shyam’s family, being Shaivas, believe that Shiva is the destroyer of evil and thus is the most important god. How do they spread this idea to other Hindus? Is it possible to persuade a person raised Vaishnava to the beliefs of a Shaiva? Shyam said that Hindus do not seek converts because it is not instructed in the Vedas. It is difficult to think that a group of people with a shared belief does not have the intention of spreading their ideas upon others, however, in Hinduism, according to Shyam, this is true. I asked how Shyam knows as much as he does and how he is able to so readily recite prayers. He told me that he spent 12 years in India at a school for priests starting at a very young age and by his decision. I then asked if his jewelry had any significance to a priestly ranking. He said that Hindus believe expensive materials such as gold bracelets or BMWs can bring temporary happiness and that seeking temporary happiness through objects is not shunned.

Shyam enjoys his gold bracelets. He also enjoys dosa, his favorite Indian food. He speaks both Kannada and Tamil—languages of his region of India. D is studying to become a chemistry professor. W assists her husband and the Indian community in Allentown. The Prasadji family moved to America after being called upon to guide the local Indian community. They have been here ever since; leading pujas, religious holidays, and keeping the Hindu Temple Society temple in good, clean shape. Two visits to their beautiful, sacred space has given me and my classmates a glimpse into the practical side of Indian religions—specifically Hinduism—in the United States. While I am still curious about exploring other religions and talking to more practitioners, Sri Shyam Prasadji’s hospitality was very inspiring and I was eager to investigate his history after our first visit. Though class has taught us about religions of India through text and images, religion is truly a living entity that can only begin to be understood through sensory exploration and human exposure.

Written for Professor Purvi Parikh’s Religions of India at Muhlenberg College.


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