Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Tale of the Temple: Out of my "box"

Hi all! 

This week, I have had quite a lot of work to do with this new class. It is fast-paced and exciting, because it is only six weeks long. Fortunately, it allows me more time to do one of my favorite things: blog! 

The assignment required us to do something completely out of our comfort zone; hence, it was called an "out-of-the-box" experience. I thought about going to a mosque or maybe attending a Native American ceremony, but ultimately I decided that the thing I would be the most unfamiliar with and possibly uncomfortable about would be attending a Hindu temple service. I decided that I wanted to try to learn more about the experience not only from my own perspective in attending a service, but through the perspective of a male priest, as well as the perspective of a female member of the religion. 

Let me explain a bit more about why I felt this experience would make me so uncomfortable. First, the idea of attending pretty much any service other than a Christian or Jewish one makes me a little bit nervous. My mom was raised Reform Jew and my dad was raised in post WWII Catholic France, which basically meant you would be beaten if you so much as looked at your "no-no-special place", if you catch my drift. Therefore, my dad eventually has become agnostic while pretending at the same time to hate all religions, and my mom has bounced from religion to religion until at last she has kind of come back to her Reform roots.  Needless to say, I was not indoctrinated into any form of religion, though we briefly attended a Presbyterian church during my very early years. In my mid-twenties, I was actually so drawn to learning more about my Jewish roots that I dated a conservative Jewish man for a while, and we even joined a synagogue together! It was ultimately a great experience, and I learned a lot about the religion and Sephardic culture (I am Ashkenazi) through him, the synagogue, and his family. 

 Much like Judaism, Hinduism relies on a different language during services- Sanskrit. It also ties in deeply with the vast cultures of its home country, India. In having this experience, I knew those "dimensions" would be vastly different than my own American/Jewish/European-ish upbringing. I also felt the construct of race might give me away as a tourist, but when I look at myself, I am not sure if I could "pass" as Indian or not. I think I would have to ask an outsider's perspective on that one.  

Basically, everything that I know about Hinduism is from watching Gurinder Chadha's film, "Bend It Like Beckham" (2002) and eating Indian food. In the film, there are an overbearing Hindu mother and father who won't let their 'progressive' daughter play soccer because it is not something that nice Indian girls do. The mother is dead set on teaching her daughter how to make Indian food so that she can eventually run a household. As her mother says, "What family would want a daughter-in-law who can run around kicking football all day but can't make round chapattis?" To me, Hinduism has always seemed like a more restrictive, patriarchal religion.  

This perception affected me on the night before this little adventure-- I had a hugely hard time deciding what to wear. I tried to read as much as possible about how to act and dress respectfully at the temple. Most things I read said to dress in looser, longer clothing; that black is a funeral color, and just to try to cover up and be as modest as possible. I also read that hair should be pulled tightly to the head. Many writers said to wear long skirts or dresses. Strangely enough, I don't own one single long skirt or dress. In the end, I decided to go with what I perceived to be a flowy "Indian looking" top with lotuses on it and gray yoga pants, and yoga mat sandals.  

From what I had read about the ceremonies, I was nervous, mainly because I read that there is a specific way that you need to enter the temple and move around the room; a certain way to pay respect to each of the deities, and that you can interact with people if they are sitting in groups. I was nervous about being perceived as disrespectful if I did something wrong, and nervous about interacting with people; I think that I was unsure of what to say if I did have the chance to interact. I also read that it is possible that priests will pour milk into one's hands with a spoon, and that one should drink it and then pour the rest over one's head when finished drinking. This seemed very strange and like something that I would not particularly enjoy doing. 

Before I went to the temple, I briefly spoke with one of the priests of the temple on the phone. He had a very thick accent and was difficult to understand, but in the end I could make out that he said I could come to the temple around 10 to 10:30 AM on Sunday. I asked if I could speak with one of the priests, and he said if they had time, that would be fine. I asked him if I needed to bring anything, and he said no. He seemed a bit rushed, but friendly all the same. 

The morning of the experience, as we approached the temple, I was absolutely terrified. I was frantically looking up more information on Hindu services. I was worried about my appearance, and about whether or not I should have brought some fruit or flowers, as I had read. I grabbed five dollars in cash just in case.  

I am someone who is almost always early to things, so I shouldn't have been surprised that when we arrived at the temple, it was about 9:45 and there was almost no one there. There was one family that was leaving, and I decided to take a chance and ask them how to proceed. They directed me into the temple, telling me there is a welcome room and that I could just go in and take my shoes off and that the lady at the welcome center would help me. I did as they instructed, and the lady at the center, an older lady, was a bit abrupt and dismissive. She handed me a book and told me that I could just go in the temple, and learn about it through reading the book as I went through.  

I thanked her, and not really knowing what else to do, I just went ahead into the temple. I was surprised to see more than one priest inside. One was sitting by one of the deities, the other was busy cleaning one of them. Another entered and left occasionally, seeming to move miles per minute. I was surprised that the younger priest cleaning the statue made eye contact, smiled, and said a friendly "hello"--quite at a normal talking volume. I assumed this was a sacred place that deserved silence, but I was struck by his casual tone. I responded and told him why I was there, as a graduate student, and he said it was no problem, that I could use the book and take my time and walk through. I asked if he could answer some questions if he had a moment, or one of the other priests, and he said if he had time in between prayer services, he would. 

I went around the temple, starting from the left and pausing to bow at each deity, as I had read. I tried to thumb through the book as I went through, but the suggested prayers were long even in English and seemed a bit silly for someone who is not a member of the religion to say. So I contented myself with polite bows, reading silently, and examining each deity carefully as I worked my way around the room. There was a suggested path to follow, and unfortunately I did not realize that I had not followed it exactly, but nobody seemed to really be paying much attention to me, which honestly took a lot of pressure off. I noticed how beautiful the deities were. Some were made of porcelain, some of cast iron, some of gold; they were all so intricately detailed, and lovingly cared for, not a speck of dust to be seen. Ultimately, as I made my way around, I began to feel very peaceful, that it was a place I would actually enjoy going, if for no other reason than to spend time meditating and being in peace and quiet. 

Once I made my way around the entire room, I decided to go back and ask the volunteer welcome lady about whether or not I could speak with a priest. I had also wanted a female perspective, and she was the only female that I perceived as being attached to the temple, so I wanted to ask her if she would help me as well. She responded with resistance when I asked about the priests, saying, "Well, you can go back and ask them again, but weekends are very busy, so I cannot force them." I felt a little taken aback by this, as of course I did not want to be perceived as being pushy, so I told her that of course I would never force anyone to answer. Then I asked if she would be willing to answer some questions, and she turned me down fairly flatly, saying "No, I am too busy here, and I am just a volunteer, so you know..." I told her that was no problem, but inside I was a bit worried that I wouldn't be able to complete my assignment if I had no one to talk with. 

I decided to go back in and talk to the nice priest I had encountered. Again, I did not want to be perceived as being disrespectful, so I decided to go ahead and do a speed version of bowing again to each deity, though I think I must have looked incredibly strange to the onlooker. Then, I caught up with the priest, and asked him to help me. I told him I could email him the questions if it would be easier, and he agreed to email me back as soon as possible, handing me his card (yes, Hindu priests can carry business cards!).  

Still worried I wouldn't have a female subject for this interview, I spotted a family leaving the inner temple, going out into the welcome area. I confronted the female member, who looked to be about my age, and explained to her that I was a grad student, etc. She agreed to respond to my email questions, which I thought was very kind (especially considering that she didn't know me from Adam).  

After that encounter, I felt so awkward just standing there. I called my husband from the shoe room so he could come and pick me up. I had already seen the inner part of the temple, and I figured that was just how it was done, people came and went on Sunday mornings at their leisure. However, as soon as I walked out of the cool temple into the hot sun outside, I realized that more and more people were going in. Women in bright saris and tunic tops, with (surprise!) loose hair, carrying jugs of milk, fruit, and flowers; men in casual T-shirts, tank tops, and flip-flops; little girls in what could be seen as Sunday church dresses. Soon, I heard some kind of chanting sound, and that's when it hit me: I had actually missed the start of the formal service. 

In my head, I was going over the rational reasons why I should leave. First, my husband was almost there; second, I had already gone inside and seen the temple; third, I had just talked to that nice lady and now I felt awkward going back in after I had said goodbye. Really, ultimately, I think that I would have had a much richer experience if I had gone back in and actually witnessed the service itself. The people walking in seemed friendly and curious, smiling at me as they passed. After my husband arrived, I felt horribly guilty and ashamed of myself that I let my fear get in the way of having a potentially great, connecting, enriching experience.  

Unfortunately, though I did send my questions to the priest, he never did get back to me. The one redeeming factor in this experience, besides just being able to see and feel what it is like to be IN a Hindu temple, is that my connection with the lady I spoke with, Rajysahree, was a fruitful one, and she answered my questions almost right away. She seems like such a kind, caring person, even telling me, "treat me like a friend" (R. Shekhawatpersonal communication, July 3rd, 2017). 

Rajyashree (R. Shekhawatpersonal communication, July 2nd, 2017), answered several questions I had about Hinduism and how it affects the everyday culture of a female Hindu. I was almost surprised to hear that she and her husband both work, and that her husband helps out when they come home from work. She did say there are "responsibilities and duties", but did not elaborate on those- and comparing it to my own household experience as a non-Hindu, I can say that I also have responsibilities and duties. She did mention, however, that, "if the female is not working household work comes under her belt... Including [her]".  

Rajyashree also largely said that she doesn't believe there are big differences in female everyday Hindu culture as opposed to male culture, but that she believes it may be different in a "rural" setting. When I asked her to elaborate on this, she said, "you can find rural as well as traditional [Hindus] in urban [areas]. I am a good mix of traditional and modern." Additionally, I asked her what she found most rewarding about being a female Hindu, and she mentioned the "culture". I asked for more clarification on this, and she said, "When I say culture I mean respecting the elders, loving the younger ones. Not having sex before marriage. Until and unless something is really wrong not divorcing over little little things. Having big extended family and friends. Believing in god. Enjoying the ethnic life, along with the modern. Not forgetting our roots." When I examine these sentiments, I feel that they express beliefs held true not only in her own religious culture, but in that of other religious cultures. Indeed, other than "sex before marriage" and "believing in God", these values are often held by many Americans, religious or not.   

Hearing Rajyashree talk about her religion as a more contemporary way of being, but with some more "traditional" values, made me realize that perhaps I had badly misjudged and mischaracterized Hindu religious cultural values as a whole. Hearing her point of view makes me want to learn more, to continue to disspell my own perception of Hinduism as a sort of 'old-world', strictly traditional religion. In the future, as an educator, I believe that this is why it is incredibly important for me to ask questions of my students that may seem silly to them, but that help clarify things for me. This just reaffirms for me that at the heart of humanity, we really are all more alike than different in our everyday beliefs, practices, and feelings. That is very, very important to remember in the classroom.  

After reflecting on this experience as a whole, the surprises are manifold. I was surprised at myself, at how nervous I felt, and was disappointed in how I exercised avoidance when I could have had an even better experience. I was surprised at how my expectations and stereotypes of Hinduism were as a religion that exercised what I perceived as rather backwards and old-fashioned rules for everyday culture, but that my expectations were not met. What I am ultimately most surprised about is that Hinduism, on paper, seems just as traditional as perhaps other traditional sects of Christianity or Judaism. Finally, I am surprised at how much I enjoyed the small amount of time that I had at the temple; it is a place that actually makes me want to go back and explore another time. Perhaps, if I am brave enough, I will. 


(One of the main deities at Sri Satyanarayana Swamy Temple; Image courtesy of Sri Satyanarayana Swamy Temple Homepage)

References: 

Chadha, G.(Producer), & Nayar, D. Chadha, G. (Director). (2002). Bend It Like Beckham [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: Kintop Pictures

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