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!”