Dilatato Corde 1:1
January – June, 2011
Students from Fordham University Theology class along with their professor Vincent Sekhar, SJ and the Ganesh temple priest.
Students from Fordham University Theology class along with their professor Vincent Sekhar, SJ and the Ganesh temple priest.

A Way of Experiencing Multiculturalism in the United States

On a rainy October evening the students of a Fordham theology class on the Hindu scriptures that was taught by Father Vincent Sekhar SJ made their way to Queens for the celebration of the Hindu goddess, Durga.

The Ganesh Hindu Temple, located in Flushing, is an immense and palatial building that serves as one of the main centers of the practice of Hindu religion in New York City. As one of my classmates exclaimed, the temple seemed as if it had been plucked out of India and transplanted into the middle of the urban landscape.  Like many of the others in my group, I felt nervous and perhaps intimidated as I took off my Wellie boots (shoes are not worn in the temple as a sign of respect and cleanliness in such a sacred space) to enter the temple.

Many of us come from Catholic backgrounds and expected the familiar calm reserve and hushed silence that resounds throughout a church, so the bright and exuberant interior of the temple came as a surprise. The first thing some of us noted was the smell of incense and the chanting of rhythmic prayers that almost sounded like the humming of a serene song.

Striking black granite shrines and ornate decorations lined the walls. Worshippers in colorful sari (generally worn by women of India) venerated sacred images and chanted mantras. Bare-chested Priests in colorful robes flowed about, performing various sacred rites, like bathing the gods and goddesses with honey and milk or offering them flowers and fruits while reciting Vedic and other mantras. Statues and images of gods and goddesses are sacred to a Hindu and they serve as a point of focus for devotion. One member of our group said she was surprised to find priests pouring milk and yogurt over the deities to cleanse them, as if they were small children! Tiny bells were rung periodically by the temple priests while they kept swinging oil lamps in front of the deities.  Someone explained that the sound of the bell was used in Hindu worship was to chase away all the evil spirits from the premises.

The meaning of worship for Hindus can be explained best by a quotation from  Swami Sivananda of the Divine Life Society: “Just as the flag arouses martial valor in the soldier, so also the image [of God] arouses devotion in the devotee. The Lord is superimposed on the image and the image generates divine thoughts in the worshiper.”

Mr. Padmanabhan, the Public Relations Officer of the temple, said in his brief introduction, that worship was that which brought God at home with us and devotion to God in its several forms made religion a dynamic force in life. Indeed we were fortunate to visit the temple at the time of Navaratri (nine festive days), when the goddesses were propitiated with colorful ceremonies.

During our time at the temple my classmates and I witnessed and partook in a variety of devotional practices. A small girl prostrating and chanting in front of several deities typified the devotion shown by young and old. One student in our group found that the most interesting ritual was the breaking of the coconuts, perhaps a way of symbolizing that through breaking the self, we all became the same before God!

There was a station where the devotees applied holy ashes with vermillion to their forehead as a sign of devotion. As the other worshippers had done, one member of our group accepted (holy) water, drinking some and applying the rest to the back of his head. 

A priest brought to life a fundamental aspect of Hindu faith that we had been reading about in certain Vedic and the Upanishadic texts. He explained that each god and goddess was an avatara or manifestation of the one Divine Brahman, a universal and unified Spirit. Each god or goddess represented one or the other aspect of the numerous attributes of life. For example, the goddess Durga represented the power of the Supreme Being that preserved moral order and righteousness in the creation. The goddess was thus invoked by devotees to bring about prosperity in their life and to ward off jealousy, prejudice, and selfishness.

Our visit to the Ganesh Hindu Temple temple made it possible for us to come to a better understanding of the Hindu faith we study in class.  Actions (karma), knowledge (Jnana), and Moderation (Yama and Yoga) are important issues in our lives as college students. It was easy for us to relate to the Hindu wisdom as we read its sacred texts. At the temple we witnessed an expression of the unity between the earth, people, and the Divine Spirit that is uttered in the familiar mantra “Ekam Advitiyam,” All is One.  As others in our group put it:

“I got the feeling of ever present holiness and felt at peace exploring the temple.”

“The dedication and devotion to the faith could be visible in every slight detail, from the adorning of the shrines to the meticulous carving of the stone architecture, and the careful practice of rituals and traditions.”

“What I took away as valuable from this trip was the understanding that other religious cultures express great reverence for ancient traditions.”

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