I am terrible at making posts on time these days. On the other hand, I’m getting better at remembering japa and other useful spiritual practices, so I guess it’s a fair tradeoff, no?
Anyway, I started this post a while ago, a couple of days after Ram Navami, which is a special holiday for me. I am excited about any holiday that celebrates Sri Rama and/or Sita Maa.
I had several options available to me for temple celebrations. Last year I chickened out and spent the holiday at home, celebrating in my own small (and actually kind of lovely) way – a quiet puja, some readings from the Ramayana, and a special dinner. That was really nice, but this year I thought it was good to see how people celebrate together, and be festive with other Hindus. The Atlanta Hindu temple had an all-day festival planned, as did the Hare Krishna temple, the Swaminarayan temple, and a couple of others.
I chose the Hare Krishnas. This is mostly because I am still very confused by temple goings-on, even though I’m starting to get the hang of it. I am conscious of the fact that I’m still sort of an outsider (though I’m making great strides to not feeling like that so much any more), and I thought that maybe a group that actively invites in “outsiders” (not really outsiders, but I’ll use that word for the time being, as it communicates fairly well the idea I’m getting at) might help me feel more included and also help me understand what was going on a little better.
I both got that totally right and totally wrong, all at the same time.
I had never been to kirtan before, so I thought I’d test that out, and it was nice! Not at all what I was expecting, but nice. At first, the constant sound was uncomfortable, but then after a little while I discovered that I had tuned it out and it actually helped me focus.
After an hour or so of kirtan, the temple started filling with devotees. I moved closer to a few of the female devotees who had arrived, which ended up being fortunate because the devotees very carefully segregated themselves into a male half and a female half. I had heard about practices like this (for example, in the Swaminarayan tradition) but found that it was actually a little more comforting than I had expected. I’m not terribly good at being in crowds, touching other people, so it was easier to only have to deal with brushing up against other women.
We sang some more, and then the priests came out and started the abhishek of Lord Rama. His murti was small, obviously not something that was used a lot except for on special occasions. They had an ingenious system for catching the water, ghee, and other things used to bathe the murti; Rama stood on a small dias in the center of a large bowl with a hole in the bottom, which drained into a bucket under the stand the bowl sat on. As the abhishek was open to all devotees (who arranged to participate beforehand), a priest changed the bucket periodically, so that it would not overflow.
After that, one of the priests gave a lecture on Ram Navami and its significance, which I found very interesting, and then he spoke a little on the duty of the assembled devotees. I have to admit that this portion of his lecture made me a little uncomfortable. I am still not comfortable with the idea of trying to get others to adopt your faith. This is something that Christian churches teach, and I find that there’s a bit of this in the ISKCON tradition as well, though certainly this is a generalization. So I listened and learned a little more about the beliefs of the people around me.
After the lecture, the priests came back out and performed an aarti. This was the portion of the evening that was the most educational for me, not because of the aarti (honestly, I didn’t see very much of it, but I’m relatively familiar with aartis at this point), but because of the way the devotees celebrated during the aarti.
I have to preface this by saying that I am very, very Western. My family is very English and very German, which is to say that we’re fairly reserved in public. Especially in church. So when the devotees began to dance and clap and sing, I had no idea what to do. I think I sort of swayed in place, until one of the more exuberant dancers grabbed my hand and pulled me into the dance with her.
And aside from one stray small child I tried not to squash (he was joyfully underfoot), I danced and danced, and came to understand that there are lots of ways to worship God, not all of which involve being solemn and silent (although those are good, too, in their own place and time).
We sang Happy Birthday to a very small boy, and then sweaty and glowing, poured out onto the lawn to eat prasad and birthday cake. I nabbed a plate for my husband (this was a little embarrassing; he had taken the train and only showed up for the meal), ate some really delicious food, and then received a warm “Hare Om” from the woman who had pulled me into the dance.
I think that sometimes it’s useful to do things that are not totally comfortable, because you figure out things about yourself you didn’t know before. I figured out that I can do things that are really alien to me, and that at the moment, ISKCON is not where I’m meant to be. This journey seems to be one of discovering the paths I’m not meant to take as much as those I am meant to be on. And even though I will probably not attend regularly, I think I’m also understanding how various Hindus I know go to temples of other sects, or even places of worship of other religions, and feel just as comfortable there as at their home temples.
I don’t want to be an ISKCON devotee, but I did feel at peace in the temple.
Jai Sri Krishna!