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Worship abroad, 'desi' style

How do Indians in the U.S. stay tuned to their religion? This formed the core of a recent talk by Vasudha Narayanan, which was organised under the aegis of the Prakriti Foundation.


THE INDIAN sub-continent is dotted with innumerable temples. That is the house of worship for the Hindu. But what does the Hindu do when he migrates from his home country to distant shores? The answer is that he creates his places of worship in an alien land. This formed the core of a talk given under the aegis of the Prakriti Foundation by Vasudha Narayanan recently. .

Vasudha kept the audience totally engrossed by her well-researched and scintillating lecture, supported by a slide presentation. The focus of her talk was temple culture in America. The talk covered almost 40 temples all the way from Ankol to Atlanta. It was in 1905, said Vasudha, that the first `Vedanta temple' was built in San Francisco by Swami Trigunatirtha. But this was just the beginning of a temple building spree. The temples were created in all shapes and sizes and were of varied hues. The architects were from India — Ganapati Sthapati, Muthiah Sthapati and others. The materials used for construction were from America but the spirit infused into them was Indian. The consecration of these temples was done with holy water — a blend of `imported' Ganges water mixed with the waters of the Svali, the Mississippi and other rivers. The temples, she said were first conceived of as a house for Indian culture; the most common activity conducted there being the Bharatanatyam classes. The famous Lord Venkateswara temple in Pittsburgh is built on top of a hill. Note the similarity! They even publish a magazine called "Saptagiri". At Bridgewater-New Jersey, the local temple has a special location for the `car puja' and the temple at Pennsylvania has a cute snowman in front.

America seems to be dotted with temples for, as Vasudha said, one can sight a Kasi Viswanatha temple in Michigan, a Ganesha temple in Tennesee, a unique temple in Virginia that houses not only the Hindu Gods but also caters for the Jains and Sikhs as well. If at one location a temple has stained glass ceilings like a church, in another it is a Presybyterian church that has actually become a temple. An interesting feature of this temple is that an election was conducted as to which God was to be consecrated in the sanctum sanctorum. The results went in favour of Ganesha but later, a fraud was discovered in the elections. Subsequent to this, a compromise was arrived at and now this temple houses several Gods of the Hindu Pantheon.

Is this what is called Indianisation to the last detail?

Judging by the tone of Vasudha's lecture, there seems to be a fervent attempt to give an unadulterated Indian flavour to the `temple building process.' In fact, she said, the key word in the whole activity seemed to be `authentic.' Nevertheless, in keeping with the times, certain changes seem to have been introduced. Women participate in the temple affairs in ample measure right from stringing garlands to sometimes even having the honour of carrying the deity on their shoulders. Community temples are common and there are even generic temples aptly called " Bharatiya" temple.

Humanitarian activity forms a substantial part of temple activities. In some places, even a blood donation camp is arranged on the temple premises. A Hindu temple in Atlanta launched a `Gandhi Food Drive.' It did seem ironical that the food mobilisation campaign was named after a man who undertook innumerable fasts during his lifetime in support of some cause or the other. The Swaminarayan sect, though comparatively small, has its own temple.

Vasudha drew attention to the fact that the sacralisation of the American landscape was not restricted only to the brick and mortar structure that rose on its soil but also permeated deep down to temple rituals.

Starting with the sankalpas recited by the priests at the start of an archana and even in the slokas chanted there seems to be a sincere attempt to give the whole exercise a definite Indian flavour though necessarily adapted to American surroundings. To this genre belongs the American Venkatesvara Vaibhava Stotram, composing and singing songs in different `kshetras' akin to the Alwars of yore and many others. As Vasudha aptly remarked, "Indeed it does seem to be "America vasa Jaya Govinda" (Victory to Govind who lives in America)."

LAKSHMI DEVNATH

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