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.
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.
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, 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.
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!