Photos Courtesy of Seth Brady
Today was a much tougher day mentally for me than yesterday. Hinduism is such a vast and wieldy religion to attempt to understand. Just when I thought I was starting to make strong connections and develop my understanding something new would be shared that would shift my thinking and my tenuous grip on understanding would loosen and seem to slip away. Starting the day with the brief overview by Seth had me thinking that I could make sense of all of it by the end of the day. Boy was I mistaken! Visiting the Balaji Temple in Aurora was fascinating being able to witness the rituals in awakening each of the Hindu gods. There was a meditative quality about the chanting and the behaviors as it seemed that the priests were able to block out the people and the sounds around them and focus solely on their spiritual tasks. It was somewhat shocking to me to see a gentleman walking through the temple while talking on a cell phone. The mix of old and new seemed natural for him but unsettling for me as I felt that I was witnessing an ancient tradition and today’s technology seemed very out of place.
A very kind woman took the time to talk to a group of us about each of the manifestations of God through the ages, pointing out the changes over the time as well as the symbols that were embedded in these manifestations. The symbolism in Hinduism is amazing and I would imagine so helpful to Hindus in focusing in on ways of living their best life. Similar to the Sikh temple yesterday, I felt welcomed and comfortable in the Balaji Temple.
Next we traveled to the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir and as soon as we entered the drive, I felt a sense of awe looking out at the temple. Since moving to the Chicagoland area, I had seen the temple numerous times when travelling around the area and had always wondered about what it would be like to visit it. The architecture is outstanding. The fact that the temple is built with blocks of white marble that interlock with one another and without the assistance of steel for reinforcement is a sight to behold. It was very evident that our guide is quite proud to be a member of BAPS and to be able to share it with visitors. As soon as we removed our shoes and entered the courtyard our group talked in hushed tones while scanning the room and marvelling at all of the intricate wood carvings. He explained that all of the wood carving that we were viewing as well as all of the white marble carving we would be seeing in the Mandir were completed by artisans in India and then shipped here to the Chicagoland. I struggled to comprehend the sheer enormity of the work that had taken place. I wished for the artisans to be able to visit this temple and to see their work all coming together to create this work of art and ingenuity.
As we prepared to enter the Mandir by walking through the tunnel, I was struck by the celebration of Hindu accomplishments portrayed on the placards that lined the tunnel hallway. Hindus have really helped humans to advance science, technology and medicine! Walking up the stairs and entering the Mandir felt like we had left the Chicagoland area and had travelled to a distant country. The architecture and beauty of the Mandir is unmatched by any building that I’ve toured in the US. The intricate carvings on each of the columns and the arches the spanned between each pair of columns were breathtaking. Then, our guide led us to the center of this vast chamber and explained how the dome above his head was carved from one HUGE piece of marble and when it was set into place, the weight of it settled all of the other puzzle pieces of marble of the building locked in place together. Magnificent. A truly phenomenal human feat.
As the worship service was about to start, the men and women were directed/reminded to move to different areas to conduct their worship rituals. The men were placed in the front and the women in the back of the room. I was surprised and somewhat bothered by this division as I had not anticipated this hierarchy between humans given the plethora of goddesses in the Hindu religion as well as the more openness we had experienced in the Balaji Temple.
By the time we left the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Temple my head was swirling with many questions and thankfully the student Hinduism Panel followed our return to NCHS. The students were very forthcoming in their experiences as Hindus within our school district. Each of them talked about how difficult it is to separate their Hindu faith with their Indian culture. They all grew up in households where their parents were practicing Hindus and so they could not remember a time when their faith wasn’t a part of their day to day behaviors and lives. I found it especially interesting that the consensus by the students is that how one practices Hinduism and Hindu worship varies from home to home and family to family. There are subtle differences between families as well as within families. Also, there are differences between Northern and Southern Indians. These differences flew in the face of my assumptions about Hinduism. I was naive in thinking that if I talked with a couple of Hindus I would be able to develop a sense of how the faith is universally practiced. Just as in Christianity, there are basic tenents of the Hindu faith, (the belief that God is present all around us and that God’s energy is flowing in all of us, the belief in Karma and the goal to live the best life without causing harm to others), but the act of worship varies between houses of worship and followers. There are no hard-fast rules for practicing and following in the Hindu faith.
Shereen Bhalla of the Hindu American Foundation closed out our day with a very well thought out explanation of Hinduism that helped me to once again feel like I have a grasp on the basics of Hinduism. Ms. Bhalla helped me to realize that I still have a long ways to go in understanding the Hindu religion and she also helped me to gain a healthy respect for those who strive to reach Moksha and liberate themselves from reincarnation by living their best life seeking the truth.
Like the students, I am having a difficult time parceling out the Indian culture from the Hindu religion. All of my background knowledge and today’s experiences are based upon Indians practicing the Hindu religion. They appear to go hand in hand and so tightly woven together that to pull them apart seems impossible. I believe this has helped me to better understand that religions are always situated in culture. When I think back to my childhood, Christianity was the backbone of my small town. The town leaders were also leaders in the local churches. They were the moral compass for the rest of us to follow and strive to emulate so that we could achieve success and a moral way of life. So it goes with Hinduism, it seems.
The most striking part of my learning today was the identification of the diversity within the Hindu religion. To visit two Hindu temples within a half hour of one another and to experience such different styles of worship and then to hear the student panelists talking about the differences between the four of them and also between their other peers was astonishing. It pointed out to me just how complex Hinduism is and how an outsider such as myself was so ignorant about the subtle differences between congregations, families, individuals and geographic locations. I hadn’t realized that Hinduism is a collection of beliefs that have developed over many thousands of years and that is dynamic because of the interaction with society and culture. It seems to be a religion continually changing because of the interactions between Behaviors, Beliefs and Belonging of the followers and of the leaders within our ever changing global society.
After reading Melanie's reflection I appreciated her word choice in describing the student panelists' sense that Hinduism is "fluid and personal." I believe that this phrasing really captures the essence of what I was trying to articulate in my own post. By thinking of Hinduism as fluid, it helps me to understand that it is an ever changing religion. Then to add that it is also personal helps me to realize that Hinduism is different for each person. It reminds me of teaching, we all have a curriculum and set of standards to work from, but how we implement the lessons varies from teacher to teacher and student to student. As grade level teachers, we all have the same goal for our students. But how we help our students to reach the goal will be based upon our assessment of student need and consequently our actions to meet those individual needs. In Hinduism, the followers all have the same basic goal of living the best life by seeking the truth and without causing harm to others but how each life is lived is based upon the needs and wants of the individual. Hinduism is the lessons (behaviors) based upon personal beliefs with a support system (belonging) that can help individuals live that best life and to live the truth they seek.