Hours of chanting a Goddess's name. A hair-raising drive up New England's tallest mountain. Offering food and precious objects to a sacrificial fire. A typical day in the life of a modern American Hindu?

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Mt. Washington
Well, no, not really. But such activities are one part of that life. Just a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of experiencing the first-ever performance of an important yagna (rite) on New Hampshire's Mt. Washington.

But first, the backstory.  The Goddess in question is especially meaningful for me. As a little girl, I would sit next to my mother and listen to her recite the Lalitha Sahasranamam. Lalitha is another name for Parvati or Shakti, the consort of Shiva. The Lalitha Sahasranamam is a Sanskrit chant derived from the Brahmanda Purana, which has 1008 names of the mother Parvati, in her many avatars.

I loved hearing the rhythmic verses. Best of all, towards the end of the chant my own name would appear. It would thrill me to hear my mother say my name and look at me out of the corner of her eye to gauge my reaction. Over the years I learned the mantra, and made a habit of chanting it on Fridays, which is an auspicious day for the mother. It was my escape from daily chores, and also a sort of meditation.

The Lalitha Sahasranamam chant is supposed to generate big results--it's a "power mantra," if you will. The more you chant it, the better. Hindu devotees chant it for themselves and for their loved ones; priests intemples chant it for the well-being of temple devotees.

So why not use a chant this good to help an even bigger group? In Boston, a non-profit organization called "Soundarya Lahiri" decided to get a group of people together and collectively chant this 10 million times for the benefit of humanity. In a way, this was a response to 9/11, but more broadly it was for the good of mankind. The theory here is that if you pray for everyone's well-being and contentment, you will ultimately find your own happiness.

When I came across a flyer requesting people to join in the group chant, I was eager to attend. But where did the number come from? Why did they want to chant the mantra 10 million times?

It turned out that this organization wanted to perform a homam--an offering to a sacrificial fire where the Mother Goddess would be invoked. But before the fire stage of the yagna, there was the little matter of reciting the Lalitha Sahasranamam 10 million times in the space of 24 hours. According to custom, only then could the homam happen. As if that wasn't challenge enough, this homam could only be performed atop a mountain or in the middle of an ocean!

Luckily, tradition allows for the first stage of the yagna--chanting the name 10 million times--to be done well in advance of the second stage, the fire ceremony. Soundarya Lahiri organized the chanting event in June; a few months later came the homam on the mountain.

The chanting part of the rite took place at a Hindu center in a Boston suburb. It began one Friday evening at 6 sharp and ended on Saturday evening at 6. As I entered the center on Friday, I was given a small piece of paper to indicate how many times I had chanted the Sahasranamam. There were already hundreds of men and women chanting, people of all ages and color; I've heard that the numbers increased on Saturday.

The energy and motivation to reach the 10 million target was overwhelming. Several people stayed for the full 24 hours, continuously chanting the Sahasranamam. I had the pleasure of chanting it about nine times, which was long enough.

Several Hindu devotees joined in from various parts of the globe, chanting via the Internet. It was amazing to watch this unity among Hindus from all over the world.

The 10 million target was achieved. Next stop: Mt. Washington.

The Saturday chosen for the homam event, which occurred a few months later, was a bright and sunny day. My husband and I got together with three other friends and headed for Mt. Washington. We left home at 6 a.m. and started winding our way up the mountain's steep, scary Auto Road around 10.

Making it up the mountain was a harrowing hour-long ride. The road was very narrow, with barely enough room for two cars one going each way. There was no barrier to prevent a car from falling off the road. Still, the Auto Road wasn't terribly crowded, and I began to wonder if anyone else would show up besides the five of us. Had we made the trip only to be disappointed?

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