The Home Temple


Hindus are home worshipers. In any Hindu house, you will find an altar of some sort, often in a spare kitchen cabinet or a bedroom, that holds the Gods of the house. In every house I lived in with my parents, ours was in the kitchen, though there were pictures of the Gods and Goddesses of our religion hung all over the house. The idea, my Mother said, is to put it somewhere “more sacred and clean”. So she didn’t want hers in the bedroom for, ummm, less than chaste reasons. The cupboard or shelf has little statuettes of the Gods of your family in it, along with images and candles, and often some lights. In the mornings, it’s common to say some devotional prayers in front of your altar, light an oil lamp and some incense and even feed the Gods by offering a piece of fruit for blessings.

We are Vadakalai Iyengar Brahmans and Vaishnavite. That mouthful is our caste and class (Vadkalai Iyengar Brahman),and our religious preference (we worship Vishnu as the Supreme Lord -Vaishnavite). So most of the hangings in our house are of Vishnu and his avatars. There are ten avatars of Lord Vishnu – perhaps the most famous in Western circles is Krishna. It is said that these avatars have all come to Earth at one time or another to get rid of evil and reestablish Dharma (good).

The Hindu religion has a trinity – three main Gods who represent creation, preservation, and destruction of evil (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva). The premise: That everything is created, preserved, and eventually all evil is destroyed. The Hindu woman wears the bindhi to represent the third eye of Shiva and it is often red to signify fertility. When I was a young girl, traveling back and forth to India, I was fascinated by the ways that Indians celebrated their religion and dressed – in color and with vibrant, often sexy, clothing, with music and dance, and long prayer ceremonies. Temples and old buildings are decorated with beautiful statues of women and men in provocative attire. The British, back in the colonial days, thought that these were barbaric overly sexual displays, and had many cut down or decimated.

When you go to India it seems like there is a temple on every corner, brightly lit with candles. The smell of incense pervades the country – inside stores, in houses, even on trains. We would only go to certain temples – in particular the temple in Srirangam where my grandfather lived is a vivid memory. We could walk to the huge stone structure from my grandfather’s house. Everyone took off their shoes before entering the temple. Barefoot and crowded together we would listen to the priests’ recitation of prayers in Sanskrit and watch them bathe the Gods. There was an enormous statue of Lord Ranganathan lying on his side (it had to have been 50 feet in length). And bathing and dressing him could take a whole afternoon. The result was a transcendence into the depth of India – it was ethereal, and often magical.

In America there is not a temple on every corner, indeed, there is rarely a temple near any city unless a large population of Indians live within it. When we were in Allentown Pennsylvania, our nearest temple was in Pittsburgh, when we were in Sacramento the closest temple was in Livermore (3 hours away). And since the temples often cater toward many Hindu types there are mixes of Gods worshiped there (unlike temples in India that may be devoted to just one God/Goddess).

The door to the home temple in our house was always open, and our house always smelled like incense.  I grew up with my father waking up early in the morning, coming out in his dhoti and praying. We never disturbed him – it was his meditation time, and it was important to be as quiet as we could. Interesting, in this country (US) of “my room/my space” we shared our space and were able to quietly eat our breakfast while our Dad prayed in the same room. I’ll never forget when my Dad answered the door to some of my friends in high school while he was wearing a dhoti and said, “forgive my dress.” I was mortified while I haltingly explained that he meant, “forgive my attire” and that he wasn’t really wearing a “dress” but a traditional Indian outfit.

Every family has a primary God that they worship (based on their background and tradition). Our family God is Srinivasa (another avatar of Vishnu) but I chose Krishna as my primary deity. The reason: One of my favorite stories as a kid was (and still is) the story of Mirabai. A princess, Mirabai was given a beautiful wooden statue of Lord Krishna when she was five years old. Her mother told her that he was her bridegroom, and she took her seriously. For the rest of her life, through her marriage to a Rajput King, his death, and countless torments, she worshiped Krishna through song, dance, and poetry that she composed. It is said that at the end of her life that “the call” of her Lord was so powerful that she fell at the feet of his statue and passed away. At that time the Lord appeared and took her to him. The beauty of her everlasting love to one of the most handsome Gods of the Hindu religion (in my eyes) was so romantic and captivating; so much so that I tried to sing and dance to Krishna myself. But Mirabai lived in the 1500s in India, and I lived in the 1980s in Sacramento. Not the same. I couldn’t quite capture the magic.

Since that time I’ve gone back and forth embracing prayer and my religion – though I have always had a temple in my homes. When times are hard I focus on an image of Krishna and take deep breaths. It’s not prayer per se, but rather a way to clear the mind during meditation. At this point in my life I feel that the beauty of the home temple is the accessibility of the display. It’s like keeping your guitar out so that you can pick it up and play whenever you have a moment to strum. It’s a constant reminder that maybe there is something more than this world we live in, and our tiny microcosm within it.

I’m still not sure about the religion part. While I love the stories of the Hindu religion, I find Buddhism to be more inclusive, more kind and gentle. I gravitate toward it – along with the mechanisms of worship – meditation, quiet, calm. Some might think this movement between religions as flawed, that one should just believe and follow. Others may see this as a product of my scientific background, questioning, shaping, shifting. I see it as my inner struggle to find peace in my world, to be the best kind of person that I can be, to ensure that my life someday has meaning.

Mirabai sang, “Nothing is really mine except Krishna.
O my parents, I have searched the world
And found nothing worthy of love.
Hence I am a stranger amidst my kinfolk
And an exile from their company,
Since I seek the companionship of holy men;
There alone do I feel happy,
In the world I only weep.
I planted the creeper of love
And silently watered it with my tears;
Now it has grown and overspread my dwelling.
You offered me a cup of poison
Which I drank with joy.
Mira is absorbed in contemplation of Krishna,
She is with God and all is well!”



The Hot Breath of India

When you get off the plane in India, the first thing that you feel is a whoosh of hot air blowing onto your face. The air is thicker, warmer, and has a distinct smell about it . Each time I arrive, I am jumping in my seat with anticipation of that first breath of India. As I walk down the gangplank toward the airport building – where someone (or many someones) is inevitably waiting for me, I feel a surge of pleasure to be back.

Now India is not my native home, indeed I was born in the United States, I’m a classic Indian American Princess (IAP), except for the Princess part of course. My parents took me back and forth to the Motherland every chance they got to visit their family who, for the better part of my youth (from age 0-21) all lived there. My Mother missed her family desperately and in spurts. Suddenly she would be very lonely and upset that she was so far away, blaming my father for bringing her to this very different home. I watched as the years passed, where she came into her own, became more American, yet remained Indian, and ceased her intense yearning to be in India. Maybe it was because so many of her little nephews and nieces and one brother (of six) came here to settle. Maybe it was because her Mother, her great love, died. Maybe it was because she moved to a place where so many Indians live, and there was a temple, so she felt included. Or maybe it was just because after 48 years, you resign yourself to where you live and you become its resident.

All of our travels back and forth made India a part of me. I loved it. I loved the music, the people, the animals on the streets, the temples on every corner. I loved the clothes and the sounds and the whiz of the auto rickshaws as they flew by on the roads. I loved the uncomfortable heat, and the way I never really seemed to sleep at night while I was there – too hot, too hard of a ground to sleep on, too many bugs all over me. ZZZZZ that mosquito that got into the net plagued me night after night.

India is a romantic place for me. When we would go there it would usually be my Mother, sister and me for much of it (Dad only got 1 month off a year, so he would come in the middle of the three month trip). We would leave right when school ended in June and come back in September, maximizing the time and cost it took to get there. We would always bring extra suitcases filled with presents from America, shoes, clothes, pens, stuffed animals. And we would return with those suitcases filled with salwar kameez, saris, caftans, books, and trinkets. When we arrived at the airport we would immediately be swept into a series of sari-clad/dhoti-clad relatives all talking at once as loudly as they could. Exhausted, we would get our bags and into someone’s car that would take us to my grandparents’ house – where the loud conversation would get even louder, and everyone would talk into the night. Inevitably my sister and I would find a bed, crawl under the mosquito netting put there just for us, and curl up asleep.

The rest of the journey would be a series of home visits to this auntie and that uncle and this friend and that friend. We would eat sweets and food and drink lots and lots of tea.We would visit one or two landmarks – that was for me and my sister I’m sure. And I would find books everywhere – old books of my grandfather’s, or uncles’ or aunties’ and read. One summer I read all of Dickens’ classics. Another was devoted to Steinbeck.

India was where I wasn’t me, but I was. I wore beautiful clothes hand tailored, and stiltingly spoke a different language mixed in with English. I had gorgeous jewelry (bangles, earrings, necklaces) on all the time.  I listened to people speak of the Gods I read about over and over again – the intricacies of the Ramayana, the strength of the Mahabharata. I would go into temples and smell the incense and transform into a believer. It was sticky hot but beautiful.

And then I would return. Again I was me but wasn’t. But here I no longer belonged. One year, in the fifth grade, I returned and wore a bindhi on my forehead and bangles on my wrists to school to match every outfit I wore. It was 1980 in rural Sacramento. Is it any wonder that I didn’t have many friends? I would return from the magic that was India, from the cloud of love, and crazy noise and music and passion that was my family, and just not be…right.

Who was I? Not Indian. Not American. Where did I belong? These are questions that have plagued me for much of my life. Lately I find myself less apt to question but just be. This IAP Buddhist/Hindu has a Christmas tree. My children believe in Santa Claus. I cook Indian food but I also cook all kinds of things. Our house is distinctly a mix of Indian/American. We have Buddhas everywhere, I read Indian stories to my kids, and we don’t wear our shoes in the house. We burn incense but listen to 80s pop music.

We haven’t been to India as a family mostly because of the cost of the trip – so my kids don’t understand many of the things that I did when I was their age. They are sheltered, and don’t have the exposure to poverty that I had from age two. It hurts me that they are this way, as I want them to really understand the world – not travel first class like some of my friends kids – but to really experience people of all kinds (sit next to the super smelly guy for 10 hours who keeps snorting into his hanky, come off the plane and relish the feeling of the hot, thick air on their face, look at the boy who has no food and empathize, and know how lucky they are to have food every day, without fail).

I find myself yearning to give my family more of me as an Indian, to teach them what it is to be Indian. But I live in Pacific Grove. There is no temple. There are barely any Indians. There is no strong Indian community. I don’t want to lose that feeling and I want my kids to have that feeling. The romantic love that is India. The beauty that is Hinduism. The joy of our culture. It’s difficult when you have to do much of it yourself. I dream of a temple here in the Monterey Bay Area, that will speak to me as a Viashnavite Hindu from India.

My Mother has found a place in a Buddhist monastary where she lives, and says that in that place it doesn’t matter if you are Indian, Chinese or otherwise. So perhaps that is where I will look next. Or perhaps it will take a long trip that allows my children to feel the breath of India on their faces. Or maybe something else. Stay tuned.