Tag Archives: Hindu

Hindu Temple in Lake Wobegon

Minnesota is home to more than ten thousand lakes; the Twins, Vikings, Wild, Timberwolves, and Gophers; five synods of ELCA Lutherans with nearly a thousand congregations; a Roman Catholic diocese in each corner of the state, one in the middle, and a metropolitan archdiocese; and the fictionalized Pastor Inqvist and Father Emil of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. 

And the largest Hindu Temple in North America.

St Olaf College of Northfield is one of four ELCA private colleges in Minnesota.  Not surprisingly, it has a robust religion department with over twenty professors plus another half dozen faculty emerti. 

And the chairman of the department is a Hindu.

Along with jello salads, tater tot hotdish, and sausage with kraut, Minnesotan’s ethno-religious meals now include vegetarian curries.

Earlier this month, religion reporters from around the US were invited to tour the new 43,000 square foot Hindu temple located in the Twin Cities suburb of Maple Grove.  Thus, we see excellent articles about the temple and the Hindu faith popping up in major newspapers around the country.

Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world behind Christianity and Islam, but the vast majority of Hindus remain in their Indian homeland.  Barely a quarter of one percent of all Hindus reside in the United States, and most of them have arrived since 1965 following a change in US immigration law.

Christina Capecchi of the New York Times reported on the Temple’s grand opening earlier this summer:

Perhaps the greatest diplomacy was needed among fellow Hindus, managing the tangled politics of religion. They come from various parts of India, where favored deities vary as widely as the dialects and cuisines. Temple planners decided to embrace that diversity, so they incorporated 21 hand-carved minitemples that replicate real Hindu temples across India into the building.

Reporter Julia Duin of the Washington Times reported:

As we walked about the place, we heard priests chant prayers in Sanskrit and saw offerings of grains, turmeric powder and betel nut leaves. In one shrine, we saw the goddess Saraswati sitting on a peacock; in another was Lord Krishna in pink silks. Ganesha, the elephant god, had the most plates of fruit offerings in front of him.

Michael Paulson of the Boston Globe blogged:

This temple is unlike anything you would see in India — there, temples are typically centered on a single deity, but because this is the U.S., where the Hindu community hails from all over India as well as the Hindu diaspora, the temple opted for a variety of shrines to meet the needs and devotional practices of a diverse group of worshipers. When we visited, there were families and individuals bringing offerings of food and money to various shrines, there were worshipers praying silently, touching their foreheads to the floor or lying fully prostrate for a while, there was a large group praying collectively as a priest performed a ritual at the shrine of Lord Vishnu, and there was a group of adults and children silently circling a group of statues intended to represent the planets.

Anant Rambachan Following the tour, three Hindu scholars participated in a panel discussion, including Dr. Anant Rambachan, the chair of the religion department at St Olaf.  Dr Rambachan is of Indian ancestry via Trinidad.  Blogger Paulson moderated the panel, and he reported:

The biggest challenge, of course, is transmitting the faith from immigrants, most of whom grew up in a predominantly Hindu society, to their children, who are growing up in a predominantly Christian society. Temples are launching religious education programs, modeled after those in churches and synagogues, but Rambachan said there are other issues – for example, Hindus will have to decide what language to use for worship, and, he asked, “can we visualize English being a liturgical language for Hindus?” He called Hinduism “the least understood among American religious traditions,’’ noting Judaism, Christianity and Islam which “are all suspicious about imaging the divine” and emphasize the oneness of God, whereas Hinduism offers a plethora of iconography and “celebrates a multiplicity of divine names and forms.’’

Capecchi concluded:

“Even in India you don’t have a temple like this,” Ms. Chari [the Temple president] said. “But because all of us are immigrants who came here years ago, we were each yearning for our own parts of home.”

Now the same place feels like home to many Hindus in the area.

“This is home — the sounds, the smells, the colors,” said Vidya Subramani, 48, a banker who lives in Minnetonka.

A moment later, she cupped her hand above a flame to absorb Ganesha’s divinity. In a year of layoffs and foreclosures, this temple is imperative, she said. “This gives you a sense of hope that a door will open,” she said. “When you bring in good spirits, they will vibrate all around.”

Book Review: Another Incarnation

In a lengthy book review in the Sunday New York Times, Pankaj Mishra offers an indepth discussion of western cultural and religious bias against the “polytheistic muddle” of Indian religions. His review is reprinted here.

Visiting India in 1921, E. M. Forster witnessed the eight-day celebration of Lord Krishna’s birthday. This first encounter with devotional ecstasy left the Bloomsbury aesthete baffled. “There is no dignity, no taste, no form,” he complained in a letter home. Recoiling from Hindu India, Forster was relieved to enter the relatively rational world of Islam. Describing the muezzin’s call at the Taj Mahal, he wrote, “I knew at all events where I stood and what I heard; it was a land that was not merely atmosphere but had definite outlines and horizons.”

Forster, who later used his appalled fascination with India’s polytheistic muddle to superb effect in his novel “A Passage to India,” was only one in a long line of Britons who felt their notions of order and morality challenged by Indian religious and cultural practices. The British Army captain who discovered the erotic temples of Khajuraho in the early 19th century was outraged by how “extremely indecent and offensive” depictions of fornicating couples profaned a “place of worship.” Lord Macaulay thundered against the worship, still widespread in India today, of the Shiva lingam. Even Karl Marx inveighed against how man, “the sovereign of nature,” had degraded himself in India by worshipping Hanuman, the monkey god.

Repelled by such pagan blasphemies, the first British scholars of India went so far as to invent what we now call “Hinduism,” complete with a mainstream classical tradition consisting entirely of Sanskrit philosophical texts like the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads. In fact, most Indians in the 18th century knew no Sanskrit, the language exclusive to Brahmins. For centuries, they remained unaware of the hymns of the four Vedas or the idealist monism of the Upanishads that the German Romantics, American Transcendentalists and other early Indophiles solemnly supposed to be the very essence of Indian civilization. (Smoking chillums and chanting “Om,” the Beats were closer to the mark.)

As Wendy Doniger, a scholar of Indian religions at the University of Chicago, explains in her staggeringly comprehensive book, the British Indologists who sought to tame India’s chaotic polytheisms had a “Protestant bias in favor of scripture.” In “privileging” Sanskrit over local languages, she writes, they created what has proved to be an enduring impression of a “unified Hinduism.” And they found keen collaborators among upper-caste Indian scholars and translators. This British-Brahmin version of Hinduism — one of the many invented traditions born around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries — has continued to find many takers among semi-Westernized Hindus suffering from an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the apparently more successful and organized religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

The Hindu nationalists of today, who long for India to become a muscular international power, stand in a direct line of 19th-century Indian reform movements devoted to purifying and reviving a Hinduism perceived as having grown too fragmented and weak. These mostly upper-caste and middle-class nationalists have accelerated the modernization and homogenization of “Hinduism.”

Still, the nontextual, syncretic religious and philosophical traditions of India that escaped the attention of British scholars flourish even today. Popular devotional cults, shrines, festivals, rites and legends that vary across India still form the worldview of a majority of Indians. Goddesses, as Doniger writes, “continue to evolve.” Bollywood produced the most popular one of my North Indian childhood: Santoshi Mata, who seemed to fulfill the materialistic wishes of newly urbanized Hindus. Far from being a slave to mindless superstition, popular religious legend conveys a darkly ambiguous view of human action. Revered as heroes in one region, the characters of the great epics “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata” can be regarded as villains in another. Demons and gods are dialectically interrelated in a complex cosmic order that would make little sense to the theologians of the so-called war on terror.

Doniger sets herself the ambitious task of writing “a narrative alternative to the one constituted by the most famous texts in Sanskrit.” As she puts it, “It’s not all about Brahmins, Sanskrit, the Gita.” It’s also not about perfidious Muslims who destroyed innumerable Hindu temples and forcibly converted millions of Indians to Islam. Doniger, who cannot but be aware of the political historiography of Hindu nationalists, the most powerful interpreters of Indian religions in both India and abroad today, also wishes to provide an “alternative to the narrative of Hindu history that they tell.”

She writes at length about the devotional “bhakti” tradition, an ecstatic and radically egalitarian form of Hindu religiosity which, though possessing royal and literary lineage, was “also a folk and oral phenomenon,” accommodating women, low-caste men and illiterates. She explores, contra Marx, the role of monkeys as the “human unconscious” in the “Ramayana,” the bible of muscular Hinduism, while casting a sympathetic eye on its chief ogre, Ravana. And she examines the mythology and ritual of Tantra, the most misunderstood of Indian traditions.

She doesn’t neglect high-table Hinduism. Her chapter on violence in the “Mahabharata” is particularly insightful, highlighting the tragic aspects of the great epic, and unraveling, in the process, the hoary cliché of Hindus as doctrinally pacifist. Both “dharma” and “karma” get their due. Those who tilt at organized religions today on behalf of a residual Enlightenment rationalism may be startled to learn that atheism and agnosticism have long traditions in Indian religions and philosophies.

Though the potted biographies of Mughal emperors seem superfluous in a long book, Doniger’s chapter on the centuries of Muslim rule over India helps dilute the lurid mythology of Hindu nationalists. Motivated by realpolitik rather than religious fundamentalism, the Mughals destroyed temples; they also built and patronized them. Not only is there “no evidence of massive coercive conversion” to Islam, but also so much of what we know as popular Hinduism — the currently popular devotional cults of Rama and Krishna, the network of pilgrimages, ashrams and sects — acquired its distinctive form during Mughal rule.

Doniger’s winsomely eclectic range of reference — she enlists Philip Roth’s novel “I Married a Communist” for a description of the Hindu renunciant’s psychology — begins to seem too determinedly eccentric when she discusses Rudyard Kipling, a figure with no discernible influence on Indian religions, with greater interpretative vigor than she does Mohandas K. Gandhi, the most creative of modern devout Hindus. More puzzlingly, Doniger has little to say about the forms Indian cultures have assumed in Bali, Mauritius, Trinidad and Fiji, even as she describes at length the Internet-enabled liturgies of Hindus in America.

Yet it is impossible not to admire a book that strides so intrepidly into a polemical arena almost as treacherous as Israel-­Arab relations. During a lecture in London in 2003, Doniger escaped being hit by an egg thrown by a Hindu nationalist apparently angry at the “sexual thrust” of her interpretation of the “sacred” “Ramayana.” This book will no doubt further expose her to the fury of the modern-day Indian heirs of the British imperialists who invented “Hinduism.” Happily, it will also serve as a salutary antidote to the fanatics who perceive — correctly — the fluid existential identities and commodious metaphysic of practiced Indian religions as a threat to their project of a culturally homogenous and militant nation-state.