Part 3: Saturday – Me, The Visiting Deity?
Saturday morning, the day I was supposed to stop by the temple before hitting the road to Tennessee, well, that did not happen. Instead I settled into a full day at the Temple, a day I would not have had had I gone to Tennessee, yet I still would have been returning home days earlier than originally planned. The problem with returning was that my objective had not been met, in that my anxiety had not yet diminished in the least, and I had not counted on, nor was I fully prepared for, how seductive the hospitality of the Indian people can be. A practice unknown to most Westerners is that when visitors come to Hindu homes, the guests are to be treated like visiting Deities. This is rather convenient when one has guests in ending that awkward personal dilemma that arises when you’ve made something delicious and secretly want to keep the bigger piece for yourself… if you wouldn’t short Ganesh the big piece, you cannot short your guest. I often get very special treatment when I am among Hindus, and though my ego would like to believe it’s due to my smile and surrender to their spiritual truths and culture, it’s more likely that they are simply extending that philosophy to me, or, peradventure, they are simply hospitable people. In light of their openness to Westerners partaking of their culture, here’s one point I need to make in regards to this “cultural appropriation” nonsense. Whenever I wear Indian bangles, skirts, a bindi, or Gods on my jewelry, the Indians light up. The Indians I have met LOVE seeing a Westerner embracing their culture. I have been complicated more than once on my dress. Even in the temple back in Ohio the Priest complimented me on my Indian-influenced style. Want to see an Indian smile? Talk about their mythology, food, Bollywood or Hinduism, or wear a bindi and sari. So, here’s the deal, culture police… you don’t know what the hell you are talking about when it comes to the myth of “cultural appropriation” and, believe it or not, no one appointed you as a spokesperson for other people and other cultures, so keep your holier-than-thou hostility, bigotry, judgments and cultural ignorance to yourselves. Once you have informed and enlightened yourselves, you can go around telling the rest of us what to do, wear, or sing, until then, follow my Granny’s advice and mind your own business.
Now, on to more pleasant matters. Again, here at the Atlanta temple, the Indians have welcomed me with open arms into their culture, into their temple, and into their sense of style.
OK, confession time, maybe the thing I miss most about temple life isn’t the spirituality, the Satsang, or the culture, maybe it’s the food! See, I LOVE Indian food, and one of my biggest frustrations with Indian restaurants in America is how the food is often dumbed down to suit our limited palettes. For one thing the food is mean to be very spicy, and for another chai is NOT chai if it is not sweetened with sugar! I know it’s some weird American pride thing to drink coffee and tea black, but that most definitely is not culturally authentic. If you are not sugaring your chai in restaurants, you are drinking bastardized American chai… period! Me, I want an authentic experience, hot food and sweet chai. The food at temples is prepared lovingly by fellow devotees to suit an Indian audience, so the food is spicy and delicious. I have eaten nothing but temple food since I have been here (confession… a couple chocolate chip cookies), and most of it free. Sure, I paid for some of it, but Saturday as I was enjoying my first temple meal, one of the kitchen staff came to me and welcomed me, and upon talking to me was pleased to hear of my genuine interest in their culture and devotion to their spirituality, and he told me that all day long all my food would be free and that I could take whatever I liked. He then handed me some Indian sweets, including the BIGGEST Laddoo I had ever seen–as in the size of softball. For those of you who have never had Laddoo, it is a little like a round Indian sticky donut hole, but far more textural, flavorful and delicious… especially when prepared in a temple. The problem with laddoo is were I to eat them as much as I would like… I too would be the shape of Ganesh.
In mythology, Ganesh had eaten so much laddoo that Chandra (moon God) saw him struggling to walk and laughed at him. Ganesh fell and his extended belly split open and all the laddoo spilled out, so he grabbed a cobra and tied it about his belly and cursed the moon. This is the story of why the moon is not full year-round. And, by the way, no most Hindus do not believe this to be literal scientific fact, it is accepted as mythology.
One of my bigger disappointments was that the temple gift shop was not open. This temple is more than a temple, it is a community center and for many, a spectacular tourist attraction. Additionally, as Hindus love their murti (so-called “idols”), they need a place to buy not only them, but books of wisdom that are otherwise hard to find, and this book store even had lots of Indian ACK Comics, which are all based on Hindu mythology, history, and so forth. I wanted in, so I went upstairs and asked the little old white lady if someone could open it, as it was supposed to have been open anyway. I told her I had driven almost 5 hours just to be here and really wanted a chance to pick up a few things. She, with complete disinterest, rather flatly and unsympathetically told me no. Rather cold.
OK, so I wasn’t going to get in to the gift shop, then I thought about it a little longer and realized I had approached this thing all wrong… all wrong. I realized that if I know Indians, and I am beginning to, then all I had to do was ask one of them, and soon I would be in the gift shop, so I asked one. Also, I knew that if I knew Indians, and I am beginning to, that no one would know who would open it, where the key was, and there would be a certain amount of confusion and disorganization… but give or take ten minutes, and the shop would definitely be open. Confusion and disorganization aside, that was a huge improvement over the unfriendly, disinterested and unsympathetic little old white lady who had no interest in helping me because it was simply easier to tell me tough luck. Well, I sat on the stairs of the shop and watched them go at it, and soon enough, in some great swoop of karmic justice, along came the Indian woman I had talked to about getting in, and toting along behind her… guess who? Yep, the cranky little unsympathetic white lady… with the key… and a stern scowl. Oh, no, she did not smile at me when she saw me sitting on the stair, but my smile was big enough for both our faces. The woman who sat in the shop, Sudha (if I have that right) was all smiles and kindness. We talked a little as I selected a few books and comics, and I thanked her and went along my way. The lesson here… if you’re at a temple and you want something done, always ask an Indian.
Between the free food and the lovely gift shop experience, I was beginning to realize more and more that I was gonna miss the hell out of this when I left in the morning.
Of course food and gifts were not really why I had gone there, so I went back upstairs to the temple to watch the rituals which Ram had promised would be unforgettably beautiful and “auspicious,” and he was right. The first thing I saw was a lengthy pujah to Lord Vishnu. They have, in this temple, an astounding larger than life shining black Vishnu. I don’t know how much you know about Indian temples, but there are sanctums. There is the outer sanctum in which all shoes must be removed as no outside dirt is allowed inside the temple. This is a symbolic practice, as it symbolizes that we are also not to bring any outside dirt into the temples in our hearts, minds and souls. Now, encased within (or beyond) that is the temple proper, and upon entering you are to bow to the Deities, many, myself included, prostrate themselves flat on the floor. Within the temple are numerous smaller inner sanctums which house the Deities. The most significant Deities (such as Shiva and Vishnu) are housed in their own small structures or sanctums, and the devotees are allowed in the outer sanctum that houses the Deity, but only temple Priests are allowed within the innermost sanctum where the murti reside. Now, contrary to the limited Christian viewpoint, Hindus are not “idol worshipers,” and to say so is a gross over-simplification based on ignorance and cultural bias. The so-called idol, or murti, is really nothing more than a representation of the Deity that we focus our meditation or prayers on to connect with the Deity. This day Vishnu was being offered milk, honey, and various sensual and delicious offerings. Ram was right, the sight of the shining black face and body being coated in milk was lovely beyond description. All the while the Brahmin (Priests) are chanting in a call and response whose strange harmonies stir the soul.
Shortly before the Navagrahas (planetary Deities) pujah, my new friend Ram talked to me for a while explaining that I should consider staying through Monday as it was a major Shiva festival, Karthika Deepotsavam. He said the temple would be decorated with thousands of lights and that “two eyes are not enough to see” the beauty of the event. I thought about this for a while and realized that my original plan was to be gone at least as long as Tuesday anyhow, so I would stay around and witness that before I tended to my oil leak. Besides, the hospitality that had been shown me had warmed my heart and had left me feeling as though I was in no way ready to go back home, and I was feeling far less lonely than I had in a long time. It is also important to note that as a Shiva devotee, it seemed astonishingly fortuitous that I had arrived there with an oil leak at the precise time of year when a major festival in honor of Shiva was taking place. I realized more and more that my oil leak was most definitely an obstacle placed in my path to keep me where I was meant to be (Ganesh not only removes obstacles, but places them in your path if you are going the in the wrong direction). So it was that my plan to stay until Tuesday remained, the only difference being that I stayed in one place and saved myself 4 more hours of drive time. Thanks, of course to Ganesh… though now that I think about it, as Shiva is Ganesh’s father, it’s no wonder he had a hand in keeping me at the temple, a devotee of his father’s, for his father’s sacred day.
So here’s another confession, though I stayed after and participated in the Navagrahas pujah, I had no idea what the significance of it was. Hinduism is a 10,000 year old religion, and I have only been a practitioner for about six years, and have had to practice my devotion in practical isolation, so there is much I do not know. For example, yesterday when the Brahmin poured yellow liquid over Vishnu… I was moved to tears by the sheer beauty of the act, but I’m not 100% certain what the vibrant yellow liquid was.
While waiting for a similar pujah to be performed over the Shiva Linga, one of the Priests explained that most milk, even organic milk, contains fish oil extracts, so is not appropriate for Lord Shiva. One of the devotees asked why we do not use vegan milk. The Priest patiently explained that he was not here to change their traditions, just to educate them about the milks they were buying.
Now, there is a rather troubling question, or attitude, that is passed judgmentally upon these rituals in the form of a heavily loaded question, “Why do Indians pour milk and honey over their Deities when so many people are starving?” This is a question that demonstrates a “pragmatic” Western bias or comes from a person who clearly does not value spiritual practices highly enough, meaning that, to them, there will be no satisfactory answer. It must be understood that in order to advance spiritually sacrifices must be made. When a devotee comes to the temple with an offering, they come as an offering. One cannot just take from God, one must give as well.
This evening, once the Shiva pujah was underway, was when the most significant event of the trip took place. Now that I had decided to no longer allow fear to dictate my actions (meaning I did not run home), and chose instead to stay in the temple and attend the Karthika Deepotsavam, right then and there, in the middle of the worship of Shiva, a miracle happened. Within ten minutes, give or take, all at once, as if I had sprung a leak, all of the anxiety I had been carrying around in me for the past weeks and months simply drained away… all of it! I noticed soon that not only had all that anxiety drained away, but ALL anxiety had drained away. I was perfectly clean and clear for the first time in decades! I had simply forgotten what it felt like to not be carrying some anxiety in me somewhere, and it felt amazing, as though a dead dog I had been carrying forever had been lifted off my shoulders. God has reset my nervous system. Now it would be up to me to reset my mind.
Just prior to the Shiva pujah I had gotten in line for another meal, but they were briefly out of chana masala, so Sudha (from the gift shop) asked me to step aside and wait for the food, after a while I left, not because I got impatient, but because I didn’t want to miss the conclusion of the Shiva pujah. She arrived in the middle of the ceremony and was genuinely concerned that I had not gotten my food. I held her hand and told her it was OK, I just wanted to participate in this. After I drank the holy water and ate the prasadam (blessed food), she took me into the closed kitchen and the staff sent me home with boxes full of free delicious food, enough that I have not had to buy a meal all weekend.
Yes, the hospitality of the Indian people can be moving and seductive, I was definitely staying on through to Tuesday morning. Though I was concerned about the additional hotel bill, when Sunday came I was cosmically certain I had made the right sacrifice (i.e. money for wisdom and Satsang), as early Sunday morning I had what was another peak experience, the very Satsang that had been so sorely missing from my life since I had moved away from my home temple in Ohio, that which could end my loneliness, if only there was a way for me to continue the Satsang… but, there was and is a way…
NEXT (Part 4, Sunday): Satsang Sunday