Sunday, July 26, 2009

Church #30: Hindu Temple

For some reason, I felt super anxious about attending the Hindu Temple. I hadn't felt that nervous since the Church of Scientology back in February. Not completely sure why, but here are a few factors that I know added to my angst:

1) The Temple was in the middle of nowhere on the east side of Cincinnati (at the end of a long, narrow, winding gravel road). It was the stuff of horror movies.

2) The property had a gated entrance. Any building with a gated entrance makes me nervous. Why do they need to keep people out? Or do they want to keep me trapped inside? Either option seemed ominous.

3) When I pulled into the parking lot, there were five other cars. I sat in my car for fifteen minutes wishing the lot was full so I would feel much more anonymous inside.

So, I prayed. I know that sounds like a no-brainer, but for whatever reason, I almost never formally pray before I walk inside the churches I visit. But the prayer helped me relax, so I got out of my car and walked toward the building.

As a white, middle class, heterosexual man, being a minority is offsetting for me. Walking into the Hindu Temple definitely put me in that role. Probably a good lesson for anyone used to being in the majority.

I strolled up to the front door and saw a line of shoes outside, so I took mine off and walked in. The foyer had one sign telling me to take off my shoes and another informing me photography was prohibited inside the main room. That was unfortunate because I wanted to take a thousand pictures. Here is what I saw after I entered the main room:

Along the front wall, on a long platform/stage, there were approximately twenty life-size statues of gods, adorned in colorful clothing and fake jewels. People left decorative offerings at their feet, and incense burned in front of two of the gods. (Okay, so I did sneak a picture. It’s blurry because I was trying to be all covert spyish when I took it, but it makes the point.)

To my right, a family of four was walking around a table (which was decorated with smaller statues and other religious artifacts) chanting something. They circled the table a few dozen times before going back to their rug.

Speaking of rugs, they were covering the tiled floor. No chairs. Everyone sat on rugs.

Up front, a family was standing in front of one of the gods as the Hindu “priest” (I think they are called Pandits) chanted something and fanned the god. Then, he put the fan down and started ringing a bell. A few minutes later, the family left the stage and sat down. Then, they took lots of pictures of their little girl. I think I witnessed the Hindu version of a baptism, but I’m not 100 percent sure about that.

To my right, a different family sat together and listened to music (really bad music) while a different Pandit chanted.

There were two large (and loud) bells near the entrance of the main room, but only four people rang them upon entering. Not sure about the significance or why so few people rang them, but bells were a big part of the day. Lots of bells being rung during prayers and rituals.

Most men were dressed casually, but many of the women wore ceremonial robes.

I immediately sat Indian style on a rug next to a fourth family. And I waited. And waited. But nothing happened. I’m not sure there is such a thing as a Hindu “service.” People were in and out throughout my ninety minutes there. There were a few small ceremonies going on throughout the room, but there was no central service. (At least none I witnessed.) I saw about seventy-five people total while I was there (including lots of kids), and maybe as many as forty-five at any one time. No one spoke to me, although many did make eye contact and nod in a friendly way.

There were so many rituals going on all around me, but I had no idea what any of them meant. For example, people walked up front, and the Pandit put something in their hands. They smelled it, tasted it, and wiped it on their heads. Then, the Pandit picked up a pot-looking thing (like a huge candle snuffer), and placed it on their heads. Finally, he gave them a banana.


It made perfect sense. It was the old Hindu banana prayer. A classic.

At one point, I walked up front to look at all of the gods, but I felt like I was doing something wrong every second I was there. Like if I made eye contact with the wrong god, I would unknowingly curse everyone in the Temple. Or I would undo the Hindu baptism I witnessed earlier and sentence that poor child to a lifetime without bananas.

I was impressed with the elephant god and the monkey god. (The banana connection? Do they eat peanuts on elephant god day?) Many of you know about my love of monkeys. I could watch them all day at the zoo. Planet of the Apes is one of my favorite movies of all time. I even like the Marky Mark version, so you know it has to be love.

Near the end of my time at the Temple, one of the Pandits sat on the carpet to my right (near a large cluster of people) and started chanting. I thought maybe it was the beginning of an actual service, so I stuck around for another thirty minutes. By the time I left, he was still chanting.

Overall, it was an interesting experience. In the Christian world, it felt a lot like “prayer stations” or “stations of the cross,” which you often find around Easter. More of a personal reflection than a corporate service. Which isn’t a bad thing. And people were social with one another. In the midst of the serious rituals, people chatted, kids ran around and played, and there was laughter. It wasn’t a boring, depressing atmosphere. Just confusing for a first-time guest with almost no knowledge of the Hindu culture.

For some reason, I kept thinking a Hindu Temple would be similar to a Buddhist Temple, and I would get some quality meditation time. But Sunday, I realized they are quite different. I’m not sure I learned a lot about God or myself during this week’s visit, but it was definitely educational. And that’s enough for me.