Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Finale: The Hindu Temple of Sri Ganesha

Forgive the formatting of this blog. I've lost internet in my home for the time being, so I had to type this out as a Word document and then post it using my mobile hotspot.

This past Sunday, I visited my very last religion for this blog, Temple Sri Ganesha in South Jordan, Utah. I decided that for my last blog, I would visit the oldest continuously practiced religion in the world.

A Brief History of Hinduism:

The roots of Hinduism are prehistoric. It is believed that a group of the Indo-European people, originating in south central Asia moved into the Indian subcontinent conquering the indigenous people and eventually blending the indigenous religion with their religion about 3,300 years ago.

This led to a period called the Vedic Period of Hinduism, named so for the volumes of their holy books called the Vedas. These books are still considered sacred to this day. As the peoples developed, so did their religion. The next major period of Hinduism was known as Classical Hinduism starting about 300 BCE (BC) and ending around 1100 CE (AD). Classical Hinduism moved from more primitive forms of religion to a very strong pantheistic and philosophical version of Hinduism. From 1100 onward, the Hindu religion has had influence from their encounters with Islam and Western Christianity particularly through the British occupation of India.

Today, Hinduism is the third Largest religion in the world (Christianity and Islam being the first and second) with 950 million members worldwide, most living in India.

With how big this religion is in the world, I find most people I know don't know much about it. Many think of gurus and snake charmers or strange rituals done in devotion to strange animal faced gods. Few actually know what Hindus believe. I've even heard many conflate Hindus and Muslims, though the two religions are unrelated and come from extremely different origins.

So what do Hindus believe? Well that's hard to pin down. Hinduism isn't like Catholicism or Presbyterianism within Christianity where there are clear beliefs and practices. Instead, Hinduism is a collection of religious traditions and belief systems which are often contradictory and diverse. Often Hinduism means something different from one individual Hindu to another.There are three main sects of Hinduism, Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism. These three sects have similar traditions, scriptures, and rituals, but have different primary gods and different philosophies and beliefs on how to achieve self-realization. Even within these three sects, there is radical diversity among them.

But before we delve into them let's talk about the basics. Remember, these are generalizations, and vary a lot among Hindus.

Basics of Hinduism:

  • Hinduism has many beliefs about the nature of divinity. Most Hindus believe that there is an ultimate reality called Brahman which is beyond form, consciousness, gender, expression, or comprehension. All things are part of Brahman and the ultimate realization is to realize that you are Brahman. Because Brahman is extremely abstract, most Hindus connect with Brahman through various gods which are expressions of Brahman. Some Hindus believe these gods exist as literal beings others believe in them more symbolically.
  • There are three gods involved in creation: Brahma (not to be confused with Brahman) who creates, Vishnu who preserves, and Shiva who destroys. Each of these gods has a female consort, Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Parvati respectively.
  • Vaishnavites believe Vishnu is the ultimate reality, and from him comes creation. Vishnu preserves the universe through 10 incarnations. Each of these incarnations preserves the universe in a different way, some are mythical creatures, others are men. The the best known incarnations are Krishna (the great teacher) and Buddha (the incarnation of compassion). They are currently awaiting the tenth and final incarnation before the world ends.
  • Shaivites believe Shiva is the ultimate reality and that his destruction leads to creation in an endless cycle.
  • Shaktites believe that the divine feminine, the mother Shakti expressed in many forms, is the ultimate reality. Many Shaktites worship Shiva, but believe all of his power comes from the Shakti and with the divine feminine, Shiva can create universes, but without it, he cannot even stir a pot.
  • In addition to these gods, there are dozens to thousands of other gods, including: Ganesha, Hanuman, Kali, Durga, Indra, Danu, etc.
  • Hindus believe in a concept called Dharma. Dharma is the teachings of life, but also your life's lot. You should do your life's work to the best of your ability.
  • Hindus also believe in Karma. Karma in Hinduism is not a concept of reward and punishment, but rather cause and effect. You do certain things, you can expect a certain result.
  • Hindus believe in an endless cycle of reincarnation. The life you're born into depends on the Karma you accumulated in your previous lives.
  • The ultimate goal is self-realization to lead you out of the cycles of reincarnation. This is known as Moksha.
  • Hindus believe attachment to material things (maya) blinds people to the spiritual realities of the universe.
  • Hindus believe the universe itself goes through many cycles just like we cycle through many lives.
  • Hindus have many diverse and rich religious traditions, most centuries old. Many of these ceremonies include purification ceremonies, weddings, funeral pyres, blessings, meditations, yoga, etc. One of the main religious ceremonies is known as Puja and it is an honoring of the deities as though they were real guests in your home and often involves welcoming the deity, clothing statues of the deities, offering songs of praise, offering food, money or other offerings, etc.

So what was my experience like at the temple?


The temple is located in South Jordan, which is about a 20 minute drive south of Salt Lake City. When we arrived, we discovered that the temple is under construction. Not knowing what to do, we saw others going into the cultural hall next door to the temple. We walked in and saw people's shoes in the doorway, so we removed our shoes. You must remove shoes as a sign of respect in a Hindu temple.

We walked in and saw several people eating in the main lobby. There was an open door to the gym with a sign that said something like, “Hindu Temple.” I looked inside and saw some kind of stage set up. A man with a green robe around him and a bindhi (a red dot signifying the third eye) on his head. He said something to us motioning us into the gym.

We walked in and saw a temporary shrine set up. On it were several statues of deities clothed in expensive robes and each with a bindi placed on their foreheads. In the center was Ganesha, the remover of obstacles and son of Shiva. The temple is dedicated to his honor. On each side of him were three other statues, though I couldn't identify them because the clothing was covering up their symbols. Directly in front of them was a sphere with a bindi on it resting on a statue of a multi-headed cobra (an animal often associated with Vishnu). In the very front were various items: a tray with a lit oil lamp in the center of it which contained various amounts of money, coconuts and other items brought as offerings. There were sweet burning incense which sort of reminded me of the smell of grape vines in fall.

The stage was surrounded by cardboard pillars painted to look like ancient stone pillars in an old temple. It was very elegant proving that even a temporary space put up for little money can be gorgeous and inspiring.

Directly before the altar were carpet squares for people to sit on.

Overall, the atmosphere, though temporary and put up for not a lot of money was quite stunning. I forgot I was in a gym and was instead transported to a temple in India.

The People:

There were a handful of people in the temple. Several were eating food in the lobby. The man with the green robe and bindi was one of the the priests, a priest of Shiva I'm assuming based on the pattern of his bindi.

After the brief blessing we received when we entered the temple (more on that below) we joined the people outside. They gave us a bit of food and talked with us briefly. They were very warm and friendly.

Afterward, we went back in the temple and while we were there, we met another priest, this one a priest of Vishnu, at least I assume so based on his bindi style. He was quite nice and spoke with us for a few minutes. He apologized that they were very busy setting things up, but if we wanted to talk with him and learn more, we could come back in the evening.

Overall, the people were very sweet and accommodating. Nobody seemed to judge us that we didn't really know what to do.

The Service:

So, there's not much to talk about as far as a service, and there's certainly no message that went along with this. The temple is open every single day of the year for about 10 hours a day. People are free to come and go, meditate, pray, etc. The website said that they had Puja at 10 in the morning on weekends. However, we arrived before that and the Puja had already been done. I guess they haven't updated their website and/or they have different hours during construction.

But we did get to see a ceremony. The priest who ushered us into the temple waved us to stand in front of the altar. He grabbed the platter with the money and oil lamp in it and held it in front of both of us. We stared at it unsure what to do. He then grabbed a silver lid with several decorations on it and placed it briefly on each of our heads. All the while he was speaking either Hindi or Sanskrit. After that, he grabbed some sweet smelling liquid and placed it in our hands. He motioned to put it to our mouths. I wasn't sure if we were supposed to drink it or smell it, so I smelled it. He then gave us a banana and motioned for us to take it to the lobby. We later learned that this and the food we'd been given to eat by the others was food that had been offered to Ganesha and was shared as a community meal.

We later saw others who came to the temple get this same ceremony performed for them and saw what we should have done. It's a blessing and an offering to the god. When you walk in, you go to the altar, the priest says a blessing, brings the offering plate to you, you can leave money on it, then you wave your hands over the flame then close it in a prayer position in front of your head. With the liquid, you anoint your head and sip it, then you are handed a bit of food that is offered and eat it with others in the lobby.

I wish we could have seen the Puja ceremony, but just getting the blessing and sitting in the temple for a while was quite an experience and I have no regrets about just getting a blessing.

Overall Experience:

Overall, it was quite peaceful and quite lovely to see this ancient culture in action. I would definitely go back and see the Hindu temple again.

Additional Notes:

Thank you all from the bottom of my heart. This blog has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. I've had so much fun, met some interesting people, made some new friends, had some amazing conversations, and learned a lot. Much of this is because of people like you who have read this. None of this would have been possible without you.

In the next week, I'll be posting an announcement for an evening in a coffee house. All are invited. I just want to do it to meet you guys and say thank you and you can ask me any questions or say anything you want to me.

Stay tuned for the details on that.

I normally say, “Until next time, peace be with you,” but this time I'll say something different. It's been quite the journey with all of you!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Sunday with the Sikhs

Yesterday, I was going to go to the Mennonite church in Tremonton, Utah. However, it proved nearly impossible to contact the Mennonites to find out when their service times were and they don't have a website. So, I considered alternatives, and after ruling out many churches which would seem like deja vu, I opted for a religion I hadn't considered attending before: Sikhism. It seems odd to me that I would overlook this relatively large religion that comes out of India, especially since I looked into other much smaller religions.

History of Sikhism:

While Sikhism is a major world religion, it's not well known in the West. Sikhism started in the early 16th century in the Punjab region of what is now India and Pakistan. Guru Nanak began the religion after rejecting both Hinduism and Islam, the two dominant religions of the Indian Subcontinent.

After Guru Nanak died, there were 9 additional gurus which followed him. The 10th and final guru, Guru Gobind Singh, was a heavily influential guru. He compiled a the scriptures of the Sikh people, known as the Granth, and declared that after him there would be no other human guru, but instead the Granth would be the Eternal Living Guru. As such, the Sikhs now refer to their scriptures as Guru Granth Sahib, roughly meaning the Master Guru Granth.

Guru Gobind Singh also created the Khalsa, a religious and military order all initiated Sikhs belong to. The Khalsa acts to defend the Sikh people and faith as well as act as a community for fellowship. In times past, the Sikhs did face actual military violence from both Hindus and Muslims in the region who wanted to wipe them out. Therefore, the Khalsa served much more than a ceremonial function being a military organization, but served as a real life defensive military to which all Sikh people belonged.

Today, Sikhs still largely remain in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan; however, many exist in other countries worldwide including large pockets in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Beliefs and Practices of Sikhism:

  • Sikhs are strict monotheists. Sikhs believe in one God who is without form or gender.
  • Sikhs believe that all mankind has access to God without the need of an intercessor.
  • All are equal before God, regardless of gender, creed, background, caste, etc.
  • God's presence can be seen everywhere and in all things. They believe God resides in all of us, therefore, good exists in all of us no matter how wicked we seem and thus all are able to change.
  • Sikhs believe in reincarnation and Karma like Hindus. That is that ones actions lead to cosmic consequences from one life to another. Sikhs believe that the ultimate goal is to liberate oneself from this endless cycle of rebirth and join entirely with God.
  • Sikhs believe that God's grace liberates mankind from the endless cycles of rebirth. Sikhs, similarly to Protestant Christians, believe that this cannot be earned by mankind. However, they do teach that living righteously helps mankind draw closer to God which allows God's grace to reach them.
  • Sikhs are bound to do three things: keep God in mind always, earn an honest living, and charity.
  • The following are considered vices which obstruct our relationship with God and continue us on the constant cycle of rebirth: lust, greed, attachment to material things, anger, pride.
  • In addition to these vices, Sikhs also do not participate in nor financially support gambling, alcohol, drugs, or tobacco.
  • Sikhs will only go to war for self defense.
  • Sikhs perform weddings, funerals, and baby blessings.
  • Sikhs are initiated into the Khalsa (Sikh community) through a baptism ceremony called the Amrit Ceremony, which involves them drinking a mixture of blessed sugar water and being blessed with the water.
  • Sikhs which have undergone the Amrit Ceremony are required to wear the 5 K's as a sign of their commitment. Men and women both wear these items. The 5 K's are ceremonial things which distinguish Sikhs as members of the Khalsa and must be worn at all times for the rest of their lives. The 5 K's are:
    • Kesh - Uncut hair on the head and body. This hair represents accepting what God has given you as it is and also represents adopting a simple lifestyle. Because of the need to keep their long hair clean and tidy, Sikhs wear a distinctive turban on their heads.
    • Kangha - A wooden comb carried with the person representing grooming and caring for God's body which has been given to you.
    • Kara - A steel bracelet which represents servitude to God.
    • Kachera - Cloth underwear which look like boxers with a draw string. This represents chastity.
    • Kirpan - A sword or knife representing a willingness to defend those in peril and the faith.
  • Sikhs do not seek converts but welcome those who wish to convert.
  • Sikhs strive to live in harmony with people of all ethnicities, creeds, castes, gender, background, etc.
  • Sikhs do not have priests. Anyone from the community who is able to do so may lead the services.
  • Men and women are seen as equals in Sikh society. Women are allowed to lead the services and fully participate in all aspects of religious life and have been allowed to since the beginning. They are not seen as spiritually inferior to men.
  • Sikhs don't believe in ritual and blind ceremony. Therefore they do not have a set liturgy, candles, bells, religious artwork, or incense, nor do they fast or make pilgrimages.
So what were the Sikhs like?


The Sikh temple is located in Taylorsville, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. My phone was acting up, so I couldn't get a picture of the outside of the temple. It's located next to a strip mall and is a fairly basic white bricked building which says Sikh Temple of Utah on a blue awning over the doorway and several smaller blue awnings over the windows with Punjabi writing on them.

When you first walk in the doorway, there is a little area with cubbies to put your shoes in. Sikh customs state that you must remove your shoes and cover your head when you enter the temple. So we took our shoes off and placed them in the cubbies. We then walked over to the box which had bandannas and other head coverings you could borrow. By the time we got to it, all of the good head coverings had been taken and we got the left over rags. After picking through a few, I found a goldenrod colored bandanna that was a little tattered but in decent shape. I put it on and my friend said I looked like a bar wench. But I found the experience kind of fun.

Just past the foyer for your shoes were two sets of stairs, one leading up and one leading down. It was unclear which we were supposed, but most of the activities seemed to be taking place upstairs. So we followed a couple people upstairs and ended up sitting by a group of men in the back.

The main hall was a large room with two large crystal chandeliers. Everyone was sitting on the floor cross legged. There were clusters of women sitting together and men sitting together, but no clear distinction that they had to be separated.

At the front of the hall were two main areas, a raised platform with a band playing bongos and sitar music with another man chanting out hymns and scriptures in Punjabi. Occasionally, the words of the hymns would be projected on a screen behind him with an English translation. On the other side was an ornate altar with a blue canopy over it. The altar was a raised platform with a table covered in an expensive pink and white cloth. On this altar is a copy of their scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib. This is the holiest part of the temple and should be treated as though you were in the presence of a living breathing guru. Directly before this are a series of small platforms that have a number of Khandas (several interlocking swords, the official symbol of their faith) and a few swords. People would leave offerings on these platforms throughout the service.

Overall, the atmosphere was interesting. It didn't feel much like a house of worship so much as a large contemporary building with an altar in the front. It sort of reminded me of an Indian version of an Evangelical church with the area for the choir with a projector screen and simplicity of design.

The People:

Most of the people were Indian or of Indian origin. Most of the women were wearing traditional Indian clothing like the saris and head coverings, all very colorful and ornate. The men were mostly wearing traditional western clothing, but had beards and turbans on their heads.

Few talked to us, a couple of people at the end gave us some pamphlets, said they'd be happy to answer any questions if we had them. I asked if we could take some pictures. They said that we could absolutely take some and even had a man pose for the picture I took above. Had my phone not been acting up, I would have taken a few more pictures.

Overall, not a very talkative bunch, but very warm and kind to us nonetheless.

The Service:

There will be no message section of this blog. The reason why, every word of the service was in Punjabi, so I have no idea what was said. When we first came in, they were playing music on the bongos and sitar and someone was chanting along. We sat and a hymn was playing talking about the death of Guru Nanak. The lyrics were pretty talking about how everyone was mourning when he went away.

After that, the man who had been chanting said something for nearly 45 minutes. I have no idea what he was saying, but while he was talking, another man was accompanying him on the bongos.

They then sang another hymn about what your mother's ultimate desire would be, that you remember God all the days of your life. After this, everybody stood and recited a prayer together. At one point in the service, everybody knelt and touched their head to the ground as Muslims do in their worship, before they stood up again.

Once the prayer was over, everyone sat back down on the floor and the man who had been chanting went up to the altar and uncovered the Guru Granth Sahib. He opened it to a random page and began reading from it. This apparently is a tradition and it's decided from randomly opening to that page it is what the lesson of the day should be. 

After that, a group of men went and washed their hands. While they did that, children went around handing napkins to everybody. The men then came around with bowls giving handfuls of something to everyone. I learned later that this stuff is called Karah Parshad and it's a mixture of equal parts semolina, clarified butter, and sugar. It is blessed and symbolizes hospitality and should be taken as though it were given directly by God or the Guru. To turn it down is one would be quite an offensive thing to do. It was rather tasty and I enjoyed eating it.

After the service is a community meal. This meal is an important symbol of charity and Sikh temples offer food to anyone who needs it completely free of charge as well as having it be part of the community celebrations. My friend who was with me had a family dinner he needed to go to afterward, and so didn't want to join in. We were getting ready to live and an old lady with a thick accent asked why we weren't staying. She insisted we go down and join in and that it was free. I've never been able to turn down the guilt trip of an old woman, so I went down and got a small bowl of Indian food and a piece of naan. My friend didn't and was waiting for me outside, so I took the bowl and left.

We both probably committed a big cultural faux pas in doing that, him for not partaking in the meal at all, and me for not eating with everyone, but instead leaving with the food. I kind of feel bad about that, but given that my friend was on a tight schedule, we didn't have much of an option.

Overall Experience:

Overall, other than not understanding what was going on, it was a fun cultural experience. The music was very upbeat and traditional Indian music, the food was good, the people were very warm, and the atmosphere was nice. I would definitely return again to the Sikh Temple of Utah.

Additional Notes:

Next week is the last religion. I've decided that the best way to end my blog is to go with the oldest continuously practiced religion in the world, Hinduism.

I want to say to everyone thank you from the bottom of my heart for following me in this journey. It's been so amazing and I have loved the entire process.

To say thank you, I'm going to have a coffee clutch with anyone in the Northern Utah area who wants to get together and talk to me and my friends about this journey and answer any questions you may have. I'll have more information on that in my next blog.

Thanks once more!

Until next time, peace be with you.