Saturday, November 6, 2010

fourteenth visit: Nov 5th 2010 Hindu, Diwali

10:00am friday
Kedara Gauri Puja
at Sri Venkateswara Temple
1535 McCully Rd, Monroeville PA 15146

Timing is on my side: ends up that I had began researching a visit to the SV Hindu Temple just in time to catch the Kedara Gauri Puja, the prayer ceremony for Diwali (also known as Deepavali) or the "festival of lights". (Deepavali translates into "row of lights.") This is often considered Hindu's most important holidays and, if you know the story from the Ramayana, signifies the return of Rama and Sita from banishment in the forest. It also marks the beginning of the financial year, and involves sweets and fireworks. Overall, the light stands for good winning out over evil, and love and wisdom over ignorance. I also remember my mother-in-law saying that it's an evening during which all the homes have all their lights turned on, late into the night.

I leave our house a full half-hour later than intended... but am familiar enough with Indian culture to know that I have no reason to speed. Sure enough, upon arriving I have plenty of time to leisurely deposit my shoes on the wooden shelves near the door, find the main office and buy my ticket. "Now, just go up those stairs, around the main temple, and you'll see people waiting." Yep, still waiting. I have time to add my fruit (prasad) to the pile near the alter, to acquaint myself with the seven other puja-partakers (six women, one man) and situate myself comfortably in front of the alter on the long narrow Indian rug covering the white tiled floor, before the start of the ceremony.

The puja begins with the Panditji approaching each participant with several questions spoken in Sanskrit. At first the pundigee skips over me... "No, no, do her!" My new friends insist. Long, long beautiful sentences in Sanskrit. "He's asking your name," my friends whisper. "Now your husband's name. Any children?" I answer, touching the plate he is holds out to me with the tips of my fingers, as the others did. I can tell by their reaction that apparently having a husband named "Arohan Subramanya" is in a way, a more valuable ticket than one I had purchased in the office.

The ceremony is physical, recalling my day at St Boniface and inludes rising several times at key moments to shower the alter with rice or flower petals we each receive from Panditji. We stand and pirouette, turning several times around before sitting again. Some take full prostration on the ground to pray, child's pose, forehead to the rug.

We tie bracelets made of a yellow string with one head of a chrysanthemum knotted in. It's a sort of protector... to ward off evil... remembrance of the puja—you should wear it all day... not to be thrown away, but instead tie it to a tree. (or to a dress, maybe?)

Pujas are ceremonies for all senses. (Perhaps you can say the same about Catholic Masses.) Here, fruit, flowers, garlands and rice: a sight adorning the alter. The smell of chrysanthemums, incense and burning oil wicks, waved in circles. The ringing of a bell. Touching plates, fingers to foreheads applying the tilak just above and between the eyes, right hands cupping rice and flower petals. And taste...

At the end we eat prasad together—fruit that now has the deities' blessing residing in it. Prasad perhaps carries a somewhat similar idea of the bread and wine of Christian communion, if you are familiar with that. In Indian culture, eating in general is a VERY important part of any gathering and is an expression of happiness, gratitude—almost praise toward others. "Eat, eat, Becky," I hear repeatedly (and often not much else) for hours during visits with relatives. Additionally, the kitchen in SV Temple (and probably most other Hindu temples?) is always full of hot food. But that's a different ticket that my new friends and I did not buy.

I can't resist saying, this brings to mind food at gatherings of another sort. One of the first things I learned about a co-op gallery that I joined years ago... "We always have food here. Food for all at monthly meetings. Planning meetings always happen at a restaurant and retreats are always pot-lucks. Not to mention the openings: food for the crowds." Bonds created, secular and sacred.

After the ceremony, more questions to me: "Where do you work? And your husband? I'll take your email. I can introduce you both to many other people who work where you both do. Have you been to the main temple? We must sit there just one minute. We never leave before we sit there just one minute. Come. We believe that there are many ways to reach god and this is one way and you grew up with a different way but it is all the same god and so you are always welcome. It is so good you are doing this. So good that you have come today." Malini said this last part so many times that I had to mention to her that I've been going to a lot of different worship places over the past two months. She gets a little quiet then, but not for very long. We eat some rice (prasad left over from a different puja) before going to find our shoes and heading out.

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