This essay was for my Craft of Popularization writing class at the University of Baltimore. We attended a worship service then wrote about what we saw. Our professor told us “not to settle for the externalities and to explore why people practice certain rites and rituals or recite certain prayers, what these rituals and prayers mean.” My professor gave me an A on this paper, noting it was “almost lyrical and certainly evocative.”
A Visit to Sri Siva Vishnu Temple
I visit the Hindu temple on a gloomy Saturday morning. Outside things are drab and gray. Inside there’s an explosion of colors, sounds and smells. Incense hangs heavy in the air. There are bunches bright yellow bananas, plastic jugs of white milk, wreaths of delicate flowers and glittery banners adorn rectangular structures scattered throughout the large room, each with its own mystical-looking deity statue tucked inside.
Sri Siva Vishnu Temple may be just a few miles outside D.C. in Lanham, Maryland, but it feels worlds away. Looming over visitors at the entrance to the temple is the Rajagopuram (the “Royal Tower”), which is a 56-foot ivory tower with multiple tiers rising to the sky. On each tier are dozens of intricately-carved depictions of Hindu deities. Yet the temple property and building are so discretely tucked into this residential neighborhood that at first I drove right by without seeing it.
Once inside, it takes me some time to for my apprehensions to fade away. I have done my research; I know its hard to offend these exceedingly tolerant Hindus. But everything is so foreign! There is no chapel, no clergy telling me what to say, no ushers telling me where to sit. Instead, there is a large room, filled with smaller temples housing beautiful onyx statues of strange gods. To my right old women are sitting in a corner, snipping flowers and stringing them into wreaths. To my left, about 15 people sit in a loose group, chanting in Sanskrit. The sound of chants also drifts in from the far right side of the temple. This is my first interaction with Hinduism and with puja, Hindu worship. And while it does seem foreign to me, its also quite relaxing.
Hinduism traces its roots to India, and there is no single founder or authority in the faith. Hindus may offer prayers or mantras to multiple deities, but those deities simply represent the many attributes of a single, supreme god. Most Hindus believe in a cycle of birth, death and then a new birth determined by karma, a Sanskrit word for “action.” Karma dictates each successive incarnation of the soul, which will reincarnate as many times as necessary for that soul to become one with the Divine. The Vedas, which translates as “knowledge,” are Hindu ancient texts, created between 1700 and 100 BCE and passed down orally for generations before finally being written down.
Understanding Hinduism can be difficult for anyone used to the comparatively rigid structure of Western religions. The oddest but most fascinating aspect of Hinduism for me is the very personal approach most Hindus bring to their religious practices. Puja is often done at an individual pace, not communally as is done in Christian, Jewish or Muslim services. Hindu beliefs, practices and dogma vary greatly from person to person. But however a Hindu approaches their religion, that approach is valid because no authority dictates what Hindus believe or how they should worship.
“Our religion is very democratic,” Sri Siva Vishnu Temple administrative employee Mohan Sriram tells me. His use of “democratic” throws me at first. I don’t think of religion as a democracy. Yet, as I sit on the corner of a threadbare oriental rug beside the sacred structure to Siva, what I see is most definitely democratic. How else to describe the flow of the temple? Some people sit while others stand or walk from one statue of a deity to another. There is no particular order to how visitors work their way through the temple, but no one bothers or bumps into anyone else. It is at once chaotic and peaceful. Everyone follows their own path, at their own pace, and no one passes judgement.
This philosophy of individual belief is evident everywhere I look. It is obvious in people’s clothing—some worshipers wear beautiful, brightly-colored traditional clothing such as saris. Others are in jeans and t-shirts. The personal approach to religion is visible in people’s behavior—one young man checks his smartphone compulsively as the chants for Vishnu surround him. As he squints at his phone, I notice a middle-aged woman across the room rise and scurry away, quietly crying and discreetly wiping her tears away.
Given the personal nature of Hinduism, why even have temples? While Hindu worship can be, and often is, practiced at home, the temple offers something home rituals cannot—a consecration, a dedicated place devoted to worship by many souls making it sacred. That consecration manifests itself as powerful energy that you cannot experience at home where the distractions of real life are always fighting for your attention.
The energy at the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple is intense for Mohan. For him, the power of the temple was instantly evident. “I moved here [from Virginia] two years ago,” he says, “and as soon as I drove through the gate… Aaahhh, I felt at peace. I walked inside and felt instant happiness, even bliss.”
“Hinduism is both a religion and a way of life,” the temple’s website states. The Hindu idea that belief and behavior are intertwined resonates with me and with everything I experience at the temple. From the smell of burning incense to the sounds of melodic chanting to the cool tile beneath my feet, everything feels related, important and peaceful. Even as I leave the temple I am enveloped by a sense of goodwill instead of strict dogma as the Hindus I spoke with say goodbye not by blessing me, but by offering me their hope for my happiness and for whatever my heart desires.