By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Religion News Service
Epping, N.H. – Six Hindu men and a woman huddled together on a 20-degree January morning along a dirt road beside a series of posted “NO TRESPASSING” signs.
They had come to save their deity.
Having been evicted from their bucolic, 100-acre temple grounds two weeks earlier, they drove from as far as 40 miles away to salvage a 3,000-pound marble goddess statue and a dozen smaller ones.
But preserving the sacred, they found, isn’t as easy as renting a storage unit. Not to mention the question of what to do with an aging cow named Lakshmi.
“I couldn’t sleep last night,” said Pandit Ramadheen Ramsamooj, the bearded and robed leader of the Saraswati Mandiram community. “We all came here to move (the goddess), but my conscience does not allow it.
“It would be,” he said, “like taking your mother and putting her out in the snow.”
The 11-year-old community had operated a temple, monastery and organic vegetable farm before a sheriff arrived with an eviction order on Jan. 4. At issue is how to maintain reciprocal relationships with sacred icons and cows (both are believed to be living channels of divine blessings) in a time when the residential community has scattered and rituals have ceased.
It’s a challenge no one here takes lightly. For them, as for thousands of Hindus who’ve visited the temple, the rotund statue known as Saraswati (Goddess of Learning) is a living being who requires daily food offerings, baths and other attendance.
“The deity is starving!” Ramsamooj cried out. Every face in the circle shared his deadly serious expression.
For believers, the statue has become a living manifestation of the Supreme Being, much like the consecrated bread and wine of Communion becomes the real presence of Jesus Christ for Roman Catholics, according to Vasudha Narayanan, an expert on Hinduism at the University of Florida.
She says the deity and its strength are associated with one location, as though the powers of earth and spirit have become concentrated in a single spot. Eviction poses a wrenching dilemma: to move the deity would be to strip its potency. Yet to leave it alone in the dark and cold would invite the prospect of its starvation and overall indignity.
“As long as (the Supreme Being) has a form and you have the temple, you are bound by the rules of hospitality,” Narayanan said in an interview. “The Supreme Protector, in a sense, needs to be protected by you, by the devotee.”
The community now has precious few models to follow. It’s the first time a Hindu temple has been forcefully evicted in U.S. history, according to the Maryland-based Hindu American Foundation.
Hindus of Saraswati Mandiram still hope to regain their property.
They’re alleging predatory lending and breach of contract in an appeal pending before the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
Still, with their situation growing bleaker by the day, they’re under pressure to find interim solutions. As they grapple, they’re trying to preserve ties to the sacred, do no harm and avoid desecration–at least at their own hands.
Forced to leave their cows behind, former residents relied on nearby farmer Dan Davis to give the animals temporary shelter. Selling wasn’t an option since “they are sacred cows,” Ramsamooj said. The cows customarily received fruit and slept on soft mats as signs of the community’s respect. Ramsamooj said he couldn’t reduce them to mere commodities.
But Davis could, and did. With permission from other Hindu devotees, he sold three to another farmer for $800. Davis gave the money, minus trucking costs, to the Hindus but mercifully left the spiritual leader out of the transaction.
Still, cow problems persist. The eldest and most revered one, an arthritic Jersey named Lakshmi, must vacate a pen on Davis’ farm to make room for his new calves. She needs to go elsewhere, perhaps to a rented stall or a sanctuary farm, to avoid a painful and humiliating fate.
“I told them, `I run Black Angus, and this old sacred cow just doesn’t mix,”‘ Davis said. If she were to stay on the farm and share a pen, “she’d be pushed around and outcast, banged up and beaten.”
Ramsamooj and devotee Vivek Vimal explained that euthanasia is not an option; that would be morally akin to killing an elderly family member. On a visit to the barn, they offered her hay and oranges. But as with the neglected deity, feelings of guilt proved overwhelming.
“Don’t be angry with me,” Ramsamooj pleaded as he petted the cow’s horned head. “She’s very upset with me. I can see by the way she moves her eyes.” As he left, he wiped away tears and spent a couple minutes in silence.
“This place is so cold,” he said finally. “She’s away from those who nurtured and fed her. It’s very disturbing. I cannot abandon her in the time of her needs.”
Back at the temple, priest Tumkur Sampath Kumar brought devotees in to see the goddess. All removed their shoes before entering the modest space and approached a recessed shrine where only priests and approved worshippers could enter.
They recalled how the goddess was made from black marble, mined from a holy mountain in India. They proudly recounted how sculptors had fasted and meditated continually to keep the process sacred.
After prostrating, singing and anointing the goddess with incense, the devotees said they supported the decision to leave it in place. “We really don’t want to move it,” said Raja Sharma, a longtime devotee at the temple. “The deity belongs in this place.”
This place has its own sense of purity, the devotees said.
Christians operated a retreat center for 50 years before the Hindus bought it and continued the tradition of organic farming. Now, they said, the goddess’ sacredness exists in her consecrated connection with that place.
“I will not allow anyone to force me to desecrate my own temple with my own hands,” Ramsamooj said. “The deity is supposed to be in this place and not be moved. … I’m just hoping (the creditors) will have a conscience.”
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.