By: Sarah Litwiller
First, a little background on Hinduism! Hinduism is indigenous to India and is the third largest religion in the world. It has no founding figure, no single holy text, and no single creed. While it is globally accepted as a polytheistic religion, many Hindus believe themselves to have one supreme and ultimate being named Brahman. There are also three main deities that all express different aspects of this God: Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma. This is why it is too simple to merely categorize Hinduism as purely polytheistic or monotheistic. The books that Hindus refer to are the Vedas, the Upanishads, and The Great Epics. The Great Epics are the most commonly owned and read books by Hindus and they are Ramayana and Mahabharata.
This past Saturday I had the chance to visit the Hindu Temple in St. Louis with one of my classes. Having little prior knowledge of Hinduism and never having gone to a temple before, my professor prepped my classmates and me with the appropriate knowledge so that we may know what to expect and understand the basics of Hinduism. The men were directed to wear slacks and a nice shirt and the women needed to have their shoulders and legs covered; the longer the shirt, the better. I wore a dress, sweater, and yoga pants. Shoes were of no importance because we took them off almost immediately.
When we first arrived, I was blown away by the ornate and detailed design of the all white temple. It was covered with depictions of different deities on all sides. After admiring the outside for a bit, we entered through a side door and walked downstairs where we removed our shoes and were greeted by a temple attendee. He was extremely friendly and knowledgeable. He informed us that Ram Navami, the service that day, would be placing special emphasis on Lord Rama, the 7th avatar of Vishnu, because it was his birthday. Starting at 7 that night, there would also be a 24-hour reading of the book Ramayana, which contains stories all about Lord Rama. Lord Rama and his wife Sita are considered to be the example of the perfect people and couple because they were considered to have always followed their dharma, or, their highest personal sense of right or duty. This revered couple is often depicted with Lord Rama’s brother Lakshmana and devotee Hanuman.
After the man finished speaking to us, we were offered a very sweet traditional Indian food that was considered to be a blessing and we were taken upstairs. This room was filled with shrines for many different deities. Each was decorated with many flowers and some had money placed somewhere on it. Many people were also walking around each shrine so that energy was being sent towards the deity. When walking around the temple you walk counter clockwise so that the deity is always on your right side.
We also observed many people walking up to the shrine, putting their hands close to a small flame and then pulling their hands up to their face and over their heads. This act is called aarti and by doing this they take the blessing for the deity and put in on themselves. If they had small children the parents did it for them. This is most likely seen as a blessing. Many were also going to the priest that was standing in front of Vishnu’s shrine and he would put a spoonful of a liquid substance, which appeared to be milk, in their hands which they would drink and then would again touch their hand to their head. This is also probably a form of a blessing.
The ritual began at 12 and we were invited to sit in front of Lord Rama’s Shrine with everyone else. While the priest, generally referred to as a Brahman, was chanting what I can only guess to be prayers, he took milk and honey and poured it over a small idol of Lord Rama. Over the duration of about 45 minutes, the Brahman took the flower offerings and placed them all over the shrine, read from what was most likely the Vedas, which contain rituals and prayers to guide the priests, and unwrapped all of the food offerings. He also preformed aarti occasionally through the ceremony, first circling the flame around Lord Rama and then holding it out towards us to take the blessing. This ceremony was mostly in Sanskrit until the end when everyone began singing. Through out the songs they continually said the names Rama and Sita. We then all stood up and many people began taking a monetary offering up to place in a tray. Then, the priest walked around and poured the milk mixture into everyone’s hands, including our group, and we all drank it.
Visiting the Hindu temple was a very enlightening experience. It put me in a very unfamiliar situation and required me to be open minded and observant. Since Hinduism is extremely different to anything I know, it was important to step out of myself for the time so I could try to understand the significance of each action and gesture. Although I could not understand what was being said, looking around at the faces of each individual I could tell that this ceremony had great meaning for them.
Much of the above information was from the talk with the temple attendee and from my own observations. The following site was also very helpful for identifying terms for some of the things that I saw taking place and to double-check myself. If you want to learn more, this is a very helpful site!