NEW YORK (RNS)-- A torn sheet of paper with the word "peace" on it liesamong quarters and dimes at a shrine to the Hindu goddess Parvati, thearchetypal mother.
Visitors felt moved to leave these offerings here, but the shrine isnot in a temple. It's in the American Museum of Natural History, part ofthe exhibit "Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion."
"We have people coming and giving offerings in the exhibitiondaily," said Stephen Huyler, guest curator and an anthropologist who hastraveled in India for 30 years.
The Parvati shrine is one of 10 recreated shrines in the exhibit,which is on view through February 2002. The exhibit is not a consecratedspace, but was designed to introduce visitors to Hindu beliefs, godsand goddesses and methods of worship in a cultural context.
"It shows how one in six human beings live," Huyler said. "It showshow the sacred affects their daily lives, and it's a means forunderstanding more about ourselves."
There is a need for understanding the faith. Although an estimated1.2 million people in the United States are Hindu, a recent survey foundthat 83 percent of Americans had little or no familiarity with Hindubeliefs and practices.
A video of one of those practices, morning prayers at the GangesRiver, opens the exhibit. The displays that follow are grouped bythemes, including worship in the home, community, and temple, and atreligious festivals. Each section features color photographs taken byHuyler, images of the gods, and objects ranging from wall hangings toprocessional trumpets. Earth-toned walls and Indian music highlight thesetting.
The shrines in each section were designed to create a particularexperience for the viewer. A life-size re-creation of a tree shrine wasinspired by thousands of similar community shrines in India, Huylersaid.
When the exhibit opened in September, a Hindu priest recitedscripture, sprinkled holy water and lit incense to venerate this shrine.
The images of gods and goddesses, often housed in shrines, arebelieved to be personifications of the divine, so they are treated withgreat respect. To convey this sense of awe, the re-created shrines inthe exhibit, like the shrine to Parvati, have wooden doors and contain aphotograph of an image of a god used in worship in India.
"When you open those doors, there's a light shining on the picture,and you're in the darkness, so the focus is on god," said Mary McGee,associate professor of classical Hinduism at Columbia University and aconsulting curator. "That's very much like the experience of theworshipper, where the focus is on god."
Worshippers appeal to individual gods and goddesses because mostHindus believe in a universal divine that takes on many forms. Thedivine contains a complement of opposites that balance all existence.The exhibit features three principal deities: Shiva, creator anddestroyer of existence; Vishnu, protector of the universe; and Shakti,divine feminine strength. Each deity has other incarnations andrelationships. For example, Parvati and Shiva have a son Ganesha, who isthe remover of obstacles.
"We think of the divine as being one and many simultaneously," saidUniversity of Florida religion professor Vasudha Narayanan. "You canthink of each one of the gods as kind of a hologram of divinity. Theycontain within them the entire universe."
Believers seek "darshan"--a Sanskrit term that refers to meeting god--and that Huyler used to help name the exhibit.
"You look into god's eyes and god looks into you," McGee said,describing darshan. In Hinduism, that intimate relationship with thedivine is very important, she said.
Other sections of the exhibit explore aspects of that relationship,such as healing, divine possession and efforts to improve karma, the sumof good and bad acts in this and previous lives, which influencesreincarnation.
The exhibit ends with photographs of evening prayers and of theelderly who renounce their more worldly pursuits to improve their karma.
A display of photographs of personal shrines belonging to Hindus andothers in the New York area accompanies the exhibit, and reinforces theunique aspects of relationships with the divine.
"There are as many different ways to imagine god as there arepeople," McGee said. "That's one of the riches of the Hindu tradition."
When individuals do make the effort to contemplate the infinite,Narayanan said, "It should boggle the mind."