Friday, August 24, 2012

Chanting & Aarti at the Hindu Temple of Toledo

On Tuesday, August 14, 2012, from 6:30-7:30pm, I visited the Hindu Temple of Toledo for an evening chanting service and aarti (an offering of light to the deities). On the phone that morning, the priest had told me the chanting service started around 6:30, so I arrived around 6:10. There were not many people there when I arrived; I took my shoes off in the “Shoe Room” and entered the temple area. 

6:10pm  As I entered, I saw the priest and two adult laypeople near the statue of Ganesh (the one with the elephant head). It appeared that the priest was performing a small, private puja (worship/offering) before the community service; however, he may routinely perform a Ganesh puja before a service. Traditionally, Ganesh is always worshipped first (because he is “the remover of obstacles”, important for success in any endeavor) in a temple puja. He was anointing the Ganesh statue (murti) and decorating it—it seemed a fairly complex process.
After a few minutes he rang a small bell in front of the statue, then took an oil lamp and waved his hand over the flame toward the statue. During the whole process, the priest was constantly chanting (I assume in Sanskrit). When the priest gestured to them, the two laypersons placed small offerings before the murti. A few moments later, the priest gave the two devotees a “thumbs-up” sign and said: “And you’re all set”. Perhaps he was performing the puja on their behalf? Or, maybe he was just letting them know their role in assisting with the puja was complete.

6:20 – The priest came and spoke with me before the chanting service began. He handed me an offering (prasad – food that had been dedicated to the deity): a very sweet ball in a napkin. He told me a bit about the service. They are a diverse Hindu community, so they have a variety of services. Most Hindu families worship regularly at home. There is a large service on Sunday at the Temple that includes a meal and a discourse (sermon) on a couple of verses from the Bhagavad Gita – how this ancient sermon preached by Sri (Lord) Krishna is relevant to our lives today. The service this evening would consist of about 45 minutes of chanting “the Glory”—thanksgiving for good things—followed by the aarti, which involves a five-wicked oil lamp. He explained that the five wicks represent the five senses. If each sense is allowed to pursue its own desire, he explained, you are wasting your time. But when they are brought together, unified and focused, they can be very effective. (He used the analogy of how a magnifying glass focusing rays of sunlight can set a ball of cotton on fire quickly). And so, he said, Hinduism teaches moderation in all things. 

The priest also explained that the deities in the temple: Vishnu and Lakshmi (at the central altar), Durga (the divine mother), Ganesh, Shiva and Parvati, Krishna and Radha, and Mahavir (the Jain tirthankara [teacher]) are all manifestations (avataras or avatars) of the One Supreme Reality. He used the analogy of how one man might have many roles or titles, such as husband, father, son, brother, etc. 
He told me I should feel free to sit anywhere (that I should feel at home, like I was in my own church), and reminded me it was disrespectful to point my feet at the murti.

6:30 – For about half an hour, the priest, another older man, and three younger women sat on the floor in front of microphones and chanted, while the priest tapped out a melody (accompanied by a rhythm track) on an electronic keyboard. Another older woman wearing a sari (traditional Indian dress) sat in a chair and also chanted into a microphone. The chanting reminded me just a little bit of Bollywood music. There were a couple of kids and four other older adults participating as well. 

Reflections  During the chanting, I sat on the floor and just listened, and looked around the room. It felt like a very worshipful atmosphere: the (not too strong) smell of incense, the high ceiling and open space, the expression on one woman’s face as she sat on a cushion with her hands up, chanting. In some ways it felt very familiar. I reflected that it was easy for me to sense the divine presence (of God) here, easy to center and just be in that presence, and that it was harder for me to associate in any way that divine presence with the images in the temple. Was it just that I’m more used to associating that sense of God with an image of a cross, or a Christian icon, and that the Hindu icons were foreign to my tradition? Does it matter, I was thinking, (and how, and how much) that we (Hindus and Christians) worship in the presence of different visual symbols and use different names for God, or recognize God in different manifestations, or have different beliefs about God? (I do not believe that God is manifest in Krishna or Durga in the same way God is manifest in Jesus, nor do I confuse an icon with the real presence of God – but I do believe, in another way, that God is manifest in all things, and present everywhere, at all times). All symbols are imperfect representations of God (God is not represented by or present in an icon of Jesus, but neither is God not not represented by or present in an icon of Jesus)—are my symbols better, just because I come from a different culture that represents God in different ways? 

Different symbols do mean different things, though, and these differences can and do matter. A crucifix on which the incarnate God is dying and an icon of Shiva dancing on a defeated demon represent significantly different pictures of God defeating evil. 

7:00 – Close to seven o’clock, as the chanting continued, a man came in and put money in the large offering chest in front of the central altar, and left a grocery bag with a vegetable offering on the altar by Vishnu, and then went around the room, making signs of reverence before each altar. Then, at seven o’clock, everyone stood up for the aarti. The priest switched on a recorded chant; another man went to a large bell-pull and rang it in time with the chant. The priest took a five-wicked oil lamp and waved it before the central altar (Vishnu), ringing a small bell in his left hand. Then he moved to Durga, then Ganesh, Shiva, Krishna, and Mahavira – making his way clockwise around the room. Then he went back to the central altar and waved his hand over the lamp, as if pushing the light onto the statue, and went around to all the other altars doing the same thing. He then put the lamp on a tray, and a young woman took the tray to each participant. Some of them placed offerings (money) on the tray, and they waved their hands over the light toward themselves. The young woman gave the tray to a little boy (about age seven?). First, he brought the tray to me (while trying to be polite, I declined to participate), and then took it to the other large offering box, in front of the goddess (Durga), and put the money from the tray into the box. Then he took a fruit bowl and took it around the room, handing a piece of fruit (prasad again?) to each participant. This time, I graciously accepted an apple, and put it with the offering the priest had given me the hour before. 

After this, everyone spun around in place while the priest chanted (he switched off the recording). Everyone bowed, then raised their hands and chanted some more. It seemed to me that they were chanting praise to each of the deities in the room. Then, the group dispersed, and many of the worshipers sat on the floor again and resumed chanting as they were before the aarti service. I took a few photographs, and then made my way out.

As I left the building, I stopped at the bulletin board in the foyer, and noted a poster advertising a swami coming to the Toledo area to publicly chant the entire Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit (by participating in this one would fulfill the purpose of human life, the poster said), followed by a hour or so long discourse, presenting a “bird’s eye” view of the teaching of the Gita

Conclusion  I’m very glad that I finally went to visit the Hindu Temple for a service. It was in many ways what I was expecting, but offered a good opportunity for reflection, and even for worship. (Even while I did not participate in the rituals involving the statues and the lamp, nor did I try to participate in the chanting, I was able to center and reflect, and be in the presence of God). 

I think I would enjoy visiting the temple for a service like this again, or for one of their other special events. 

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