I had no intention of posting another entry until later this week, but life doesn’t usually play out according to our plans, does it?
During this month of exploring Hinduism I’ve paid visits to a local temple during their Sunday School services, which are held every other week. One of the board members of the temple suggested that while attending Sunday School that I sit in on a class of teens as they discuss various subjects within the Hindu faith. My attendance has, for the most part, been on the sideline–in the periphery–watching and listening as the students, all sitting in the lotus position on the floor in front of the teacher, answer questions and share their thoughts. I am silence, watching, listening, all the while. Until today, I haven’t said a word, not one question…but they’ve burned inside me.
Today, the teacher asked the class “How many of you recite the Gayatri Mantra?” No one raised their hands…except me, and for the first time since I’ve attended Sunday School there, I spoke. It was only a few words, and we shared a laugh over the irony, then it was over. Afterwards I felt this release, as if all the tension of being the “new kid in school” had melted away. I was finally part of class.
After class was concluded, everyone attended aarti in the main hall. This is where songs of devotion are given to the deities at the front of the room. The youth sit on the floor in the front while the parents and senior members sit in the chairs behind them. I usually sit cross-legged alone in the back of the room and watch, all while trying to sing along. Today, I was welcomed to sit with the parents. I was given a song booklet to follow along. I mumbled what I could pronounce and stumbled upon the rest, all while tapping my foot to the beat of the congregation’s voices.
Once the songs are over, a flame lamp–which is first offered to each deity present–is then passed among the devotees. Here, each devotee cups their hands above the flame, taking in the warmth, and then spreads their hands over their face and/or top of head–as if washing oneself in the warmth and blessings of the divine. I’ve watched it happen, but today, the lamp was offered to me. Of course, I knew what to do, but I was so taken by the fact that it was being presented to me for the first time that I hesitated. Then I took the warmth onto my palms, closed my eyes, and washed my face with the heat.
Another aspect of aarti is the prasad, food that has been blessed by first offering it to the deity(s). When given to devotees (a congregation) it becomes a sort of communion, only it tastes much better. This usually consists of fruits or nuts. When I was given the prasad, the irony of its sweetness and that which was shown to me by these people, did not escape me.
As we filed outside of the sanctuary to gather our shoes, a woman asked me about the nature of my visits to the temple. This had not happened often and soon, as I was answering her, I found myself surrounded by the teens from my class and other women from the temple. I told them about Project Conversion and how I’m trying to learn about different faiths and perspectives in order to serve as an example for others to learn. They were intrigued, happy and thankful that someone would take so much time and devote it to their way of life. It was a threshold crossing. After all this time among them and in practicing the faith in private, a connection was made. Their encouragement, thankfulness, and excitement for what I am doing validated my efforts and laid to rest any doubts that what I’m doing is in vain. While I am not a Hindu, they had embraced me.
I was overwhelmed with what was happening. Don’t get me wrong; at no time have I felt unwelcome at the temple, but I was an outsider–a foreign body, acknowledged as a visitor. But today–and perhaps it’s just me–I felt as if the beautiful gravity and warmth of these people, their culture, their religion, had finally captured me from the cold fringes of a wandering comet and brought me into their orbit as a satellite…finally accepted and at rest. I can tell you now that leaving this faith–these people–will be extremely difficult and oh so bittersweet.
So there you go. It was a little long-winded and off schedule, but this is what Project Conversion is all about. The month is almost over and I know now that every month will be this heart wrenching. Sure, it’s only been a month and a lot of detractors like to say that one month isn’t enough time to truly grasp a particular religion. This is true…but it is enough time to fall in love.