03 September 2006

Back to BAPS

It is better to do your own duty
badly, than to perfectly do
another’s; you are safe from harm
when you do what you should be doing.

Bhagavad Gita, 3.35
When I drove home at the end of the day, there was a red dot on my forehead. Here’s how it got there.

No one stopped me at the front gate of the temple this time. I walked in with too much purpose, past the people greeting each other, to put my sandals in the women’s rack before opening the door. Hemu told me the time to come so I was shocked to see a service already in progress and it looked like it'd been going on for a while. I hate being late - hate it - but I was beginning to get that it might not matter here. There was an informality to the services with people coming and going all the time, saying hello, even chatting for a bit.

A man’s voice was coming over the PA system but it wasn’t clear where the speaker was – no one was facing the crowd. Women were sitting cross-legged with styrofoam trays in front of them on the far side of the room while, on the near side of the knee-high divider, two men sat on a special rug in front of a low table draped with silk. A few elderly men watched from plastic chairs along the wall. I felt lost standing there in the middle of the room, wondering where Hemu was so I gave up trying to figure out who was speaking and headed for a small group of women at the back who were sorting through a pile of pink and white flowers.

I bent down to whisper, “Hi, I’m sorry to bother you but...I’m Marley. Do you know where Hemu is?”

One of the women smiled and pointed to the rows of women sitting on the floor.

Hemu was in a yellow sari up front and deep in the rows of seated women. She waved me over when she saw me. I picked my way over knees and trays to sit in the space created when the entire row of women shifted over to make room for me. I felt like a lummox.

“Sorry, I’m late! I thought I was supposed to come at two,” I said. “What’s going on here?”

Hemu said, "We're doing puja.”

There was no time to ask what a "puja" was. Hemu moved the extra tray she'd made for me over along with a styrofoam bowl of water with a plastic spoon in it. On the divided tray, were two piles of uncooked rice, a round nut, pink rose petals and white jasmine stars, some red-pink powder and some white, and a piece of kitchen string that had been dyed magenta. The tray was beautiful to look at, beautiful to smell.

Embarrassed by the commotion I’d made coming in late, causing women I didn’t know to move, mid-devotion, I decided not to ask anything for the moment and just go with whatever was happening.

Hemu grabbed the string on the tray and tied it around my right wrist, whispering, “It shows your devotion to God.” Then Hemu used the spoon to scoop water from the bowl, first into my right hand, and then into hers. I held the water in my palm like she did while whoever was chanting in Gujarati or Sanskrit continued to chant. I wondered what Hemu was feeling, if a particular feeling was what she was after or if it didn’t matter. I longed to feel something, some thud in my gut that felt true, but I also knew there was little chance of that without a willingness to do things I didn’t understand at least until I understood them. But I did know I was afraid I’d forget some of what Hemu was teaching me so I moved the water from my right palm to my left to open my notebook and uncap my pen.

I could feel Hemu tense beside me. “Right hand only?” I said.

Hemu laughed that I got it, then she said into my ear, “Everything on the right side. Nothing on the left.”

A moment later we poured the water from our palms onto the small pile of rice in the center. Hemu then pointed to the magenta powder and asked, “Do you mind?”

I wasn’t entirely certain what she meant but I said, “No, not at all.”

With that, Hemu dipped one finger in the red powder and touched my forehead.

All those times I’d noticed people on the street or in shops with red dots, I wondered what the dots meant. Now I had one. And I had no idea why.

I wanted a mirror, bad.

I wondered what my mother would say if she saw me.

The thought also occurred: if I had done this to myself, I would have felt like a fraud but, since Hemu had done it to me, I guessed there was nothing wrong with a non-Hindu wearing a ritual string or having a dot on her head. I couldn’t wait for the service to be over so I could ask her what it all meant but Hemu had already moved on, picking up a few rose petals and jasmine blossoms and holding them in her right palm. I did the same. A few chants from the disembodied male voice and we put those petals on top of the small pile of now damp rice.

The chanting was so loud and people were coming and going so frequently, I thought I could ask a few questions. “What are we doing?”

“Well,” she said, “Every eleventh day is a fast. But the eleventh day of this month is a waterless fast and a special festival, very joyful. It’s called Jaljirni (This 11th day falls in September during a monsoon season in India and in way of thanking the God for brimming the rivers and lakes with rain, the small idol of Lord is taken for a boat ride in the ocean, a lake or a river. ) The priest is performing a Maha puja over there and we are following along here.”

The two men sitting on the floor before the low table held the microphone I couldn’t see. They were doing the official puja ritual and the women were doing symbolic ones on these styrofoam trays.

When younger men came in during the ceremony, they prostrated themselves before the statues of the deities on the stage, touching both sides of their heads and then their chins to the floor before standing upright and then doing it all over again. Women only kneeled and touched their heads to the floor. I counted the number of times two different men did it figuring, if it was the same, it must be part of the ritual. It was. The number was five. I started to write a note so I would remember to ask Hemu about this later but I got distracted by what one young man did next. He went down the line of elderly men, greeting each one by touching the bottom of their feet and then putting his hands together and bowing.

The elderly men seemed pleased by the attention and smiled back, reaching out to touch his hand when it was finally offered. While all the younger men that came later also greeted each of the elderly men by making some gesture towards their feet, none went quite as far as the first.
Hemu scooped another spoonful of water into my hand.

“But what, exactly, is “puja?” I asked.

We poured the water from our hands into the pile of wet rice.

“We are gently waking God and our spiritual leaders up and taking them through their morning routine just like we do. We bathe them, offer them clothes, ornaments, food – inviting them into our home. We do a similar puja kind of in our mind at home every morning.”

So that’s what was going on: while doing this ritual with the water and the flowers and the food, they were actually imagining a being they could take care of, a being with whom they could have a direct relationship.

Hemu leaned in to help me follow along. “Take a handful of rice, we’re going to chant the 108 names for God.”

A hundred and eight names for God? I could barely handle one.

The chanting began and, with every name, we took one grain of rice and put it down in the pile of petals, rice and water from before. The dry grains made a surprisingly loud sound when they hit the bottom of our trays. Some of the names of God were long and complicated (although all seemed to begin with the sound “om”) so it took almost four minutes to say them all.

What did the rice mean? Was it fertility? Or simply food? It wasn’t either. Hemu explained that rice was used because of its purity. “It is the only grain that is always whole, never fragmented.”

The entire congregation then started chanting “Swaminarayan,” the name of Lord Swaminarayan, the original spiritual leader of the BAPS branch of Hinduism while clapping out every syllable.

Hemu explained, “If we chant ‘Swaminarayan, Swaminarayan, Swaminarayan’ over and over while thinking of God, our problems will be taken care of.”

Seven breaths and dozens of “Swaminarayans” later, there was singing – it sounded like the fragment of a song – and then a loud bell sounded.

“It’s the lighting of the fire. Aarti,” Hemu said.

Across the room, a brass candleholder on a tray was lit and then ceremonially waved from down low to up high.

I asked, “Fire is called “aarti?”

“Yes. In the olden days, there were no lights, no electricity. It was dark so you took the fire closer to God to see each part of God from His feet up to His head. This is our way of giving Him honor, of respecting Him more.”

“And wanting to see Him more?” The tray of fire was coming closer to us. I could see its blaze reflected in Hemu’s eyeglasses.

“Yes, and to see Him more. But then it became a ritual. It’s also a form of welcoming someone.”

The fire was walked around the room, from person to person. Each, in turn, waved some of its heat over their head and then into their heart and then put a dollar on the tray holding the fire. The money seemed symbolic, not meant to be a contribution, as there was an official window near the bookstore set up to process donations and a locked box in front of the altar.

Taking more flowers in her hand, Hemu said, “Now we ask for forgiveness.”

With the perfume of jasmine and rose petals floating out of my hands, asking for forgiveness was lovely but over too quickly for my list. When we were done, those petals, too, were added to the pile of wet offerings on our styrofoam tray.

When the service ended, the men left the room so the women could walk around the table where the main puja had taken place. At least twenty women were already walking around the table when Hemu and I went over. “We walk six times around,” she said. “It symbolizes that you’ve done the pilgrimage to all the temples, all the pilgrimage places that there are. You get the boon of that, the blessing of that, by doing it symbolically right here.”

Hemu, who appeared to be shy and self-effacing, didn’t even try to insert herself in the slow-moving knot of women. She zipped around the outside of the circle which meant she had to step over or around a chair that was up against the wall without bumping into the circle of devotees. Caught between my desire to be respectful of the people in this unfamiliar environment but also wanting to keep up with Hemu, I tried to stay as close to her as I could without knocking anyone down. I’m on the short side of average but Hemu couldn’t be more than 5’ 2” and her thin frame made her seem even tinier, so I couldn’t quite keep her bright yellow sari in sight. Searching for Hemu while trying not to be rude put any kind of devotional feeling out of my reach. My guess was the slow-movers had a better shot at it.

At the end of the circling, someone handed us a cube of cake – “blessed food” – which we ate as we cleaned up after ourselves, tossing our trays full of rice and flowers and cups of water in the trash. We were already late for the only class taught in English at the mandir so Hemu and I walked out the back door and down a driveway along a number of buildings that might have once been homes.

Suddenly, Hemu stopped short and turned to face the wall of the main hall. “The sadhus!” She edged even closer to the building.

On the other side of the driveway, two men with shaved heads were walking towards us, in flying orange robes, fit and confident.

“Are we not supposed to look at them?”

“No, you can look at them but they won’t look at you. We try to be respectful and make it easy for them.”

It's hard for someone who lives for eye contact to avoid it but, out of respect for Hemu, I tried... though I can, of course, tell you that the sadhus bounded up a few steps to one of the buildings and then disappeared inside.

After they were gone and we continued walking to the building on the end, I asked Hemu, “How does someone convert to this kind of Hinduism?”

“You don’t really become a Hindu," she said. "You just start coming. Well, we do take a vow to follow five niyams and those are: never to drink alcohol; never to eat meat; not to kill; not to steal; and not to commit adultery. These are the five things that apply to humanity as a whole.”

“So I could walk in right now and take those vows and I would be considered a Hindu?”

“Well, yes.”

“Isn’t there more I would have to learn before doing that?”

“No. This is basically it. And you wear sacred beads (around your neck) which means you have surrendered yourself to God. And when you surrender yourself to God, God will protect you. That’s what it means.” Hemu’s hands punctuated her words. “Because you have surrendered yourself to God, it is now his total responsibility to look after you.”

Wouldn’t that be great, to have Someone who was totally responsible to look after me? “And those are the beads that you are wearing,” I asked. “could I wear any beads?”

“Yes, you can but these are made from tulsi. It’s like a basil plant. It’s a sacred plant. When you offer food to God, we put a leaf of tulsi plant on it and offer it to God. Well, when we offer ourselves to God we can’t put a leaf on our heads so we just wear these. Ladies give it to ladies and saints give it to the men. So, what we do is we give you water in the palm of your hand and you say these five vows and you abide by those five vows and then we give you the beads and, basically, you practice Hinduism. That’s the initiation.”

We stepped up on the small landing outside one of the houses on the temple's grounds and started to take off our shoes. Maybe I've fantasized the mystical rigors a convert has to go through to join most any faith. Maybe it's as simple as signing up for a club and then just showing, just waiting for the feeling of belonging, the feeling of belief kicks in.

In my very first job in television news, I met Father Miles Riley who was, at the time, the press handler for the Archbisop of San Francisco. Aside from referring to me as a "heathen" - with great warmth - Father Miles Riley told me the story of Father Bob Duryea, a priest who fathered a son, secretly married, but continued ministering to his blue-collar parish which knew and kept his secret. Father Duryea and his brother, also a Roman Catholic priest and Stanford’s chaplain in the late sixties and early seventies, were raised to be priests by a mother who had converted to Catholicism. She'd made it clear to her sons from an early age that no other life choice was possible for them.

Father Miles tried to explain a woman like Dorothy Duryea to me when we really had no shared language. He tried to explain that those who are raised in a religion could, in some sense, take what they like and leave the rest, unlike a convert; converts feel they must accept it all, believe it all, hew to it all, or they shouldn’t make the leap. Conversion is hard. Converts think it must be all or nothing. Father Miles found this absolute thinking amusing, even quaint. All I saw was how destructive it was to the Duryea boys.

Now, I finally understand why Dorothy Duryea felt she had to be absolute once she’d made the choice to become a Catholic. Standing on this side of the chasm, it does seem all or nothing. Accept all the tenets of a particular faith, or what's the point of converting, no matter how simple the ritual? But how can you do that when you don't know anything about anything?

I took off my shoes for the second time that day. What am I was getting at with this idea of mine, am I looking to convert? I know I'm trying to figure out what I believe. I know I want to get at the mystery of why believers go to war with other believers. Academic study just can't get at what I want to understand; it's too clinical, too cerebral, too far removed...I think. Even if I can't figure out what I believe, I'm desperate to understand the connection people feel with their god and with their community of believers, something I’ve never had. Doing seems like the only option, doing what a convert might be told to do in preparation, doing until I can feel, well, something. Some Thing.

Hemu and I walked inside the tan building, inside the hot, dingy room where a small group of truly beautiful young women sat gracefully on the floor - their saris, hair, and skin flawless, even though the floorstand fan was doing nothing to disturb the incredible heat. That Hemu showed up with me elicited no apparent curiosity. Had she warned them?

It seemed like more of a study group than a class; there was no teacher. Sima Patel, a dark-skinned, almond-eyed beauty wearing a luscious green and rust-colored sari, was trying to get the computer she brought to work with the projector and screen in the room.

While waiting for the class to begin, Hemu said she liked the idea of what I was trying to do. She thought it was like Hinduism’s notion of many paths all leading to the same goal, God. “It’s like if you want to get to the Los Angeles airport, there are many, many ways to get there. From anywhere in the world, you can get there, and by many different means. It all depends on where you start and what transportation method you use but you can always get there.” This sweet embrace of difference felt gentle, kind, warm, like someone offering to share their blanket at an outdoor concert.

Sima was finally ready. “Can someone read this section from Gadhada III, 28 out loud?” Sima wanted someone to read from The Vachanamrut, a book containing the spiritual discourses of the founding leader, Lord Swaminarayan.

When I took out the English copy I’d bought at the bookstore to find my place in it, the tallest, most self-assured of the women leaned across a few people to hand me a ring binder to place under it so the Swaminarayan text wouldn’t touch the floor.

Hemu leaned over to whisper with pride. “That’s my daughter.”

One of the young women started to read, “If one has realized God with the knowledge of His greatness…then how can one feel egotism, jealousy, or anger towards a sadhu of such a God? If one still does, then there is a flaw in one’s understanding. …If one understands God’s greatness in such a manner, then egotism is eradicated.”

In the role of teacher, Sima asked, “What does this mean?”

One of the young women answered, “There is no greater glory than to understand the glory of God.”

“How can we attain this higher devotion to God?

“Follow the rules….The easiest way we can show that we are completely devoted is by following the spiritual vows in our every day life.”

“Will someone read the last one?”

The most perfect beauty in the group, Meera, whose elegant whisper of a body was draped in shell pink, complied. “If I would shake the earth with the toe of my foot, the world with its countless (cosmoses) would begin to shake. If one develops the conviction of my form in this manner, one’s mind would become fixed on me, God, and one would never stray anywhere else.”
The women seemed intent on their studies while I was just intent on their intentions, their feelings, their beliefs. Maybe it was all too much to process, the rituals, the languages, the beliefs, the dozens of new people. And it was confusing to know who I was in that room. I'm used to meeting new people and then reporting what they said and did. But, if I am a reporter, who's the subject? Them? Hinduism? Or me? I mean, all my outward actions are the same: I have a pen and notepad; I'm asking questions and writing down answers; I'm observing and trying to see connections between things. But one of those "things" now includes me and none of my training or job experience has taught me how to do that; I'm used to being as invisible as possible. Going ahead without my invisibility cloak is as big a stretch as practicing a faith.

Suddenly a newspaper was put in my hands. I was expected to read the next question and Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s answer. Hemu nodded for me to do it. So I read out loud, “My mind is like Saddam; it is stubborn, it doesn’t obey me.” My eye was desperate to look at the date of the newspaper – could they really mean Saddam, THE Saddam, Saddam Hussein? – but all eyes were on me and I was too afraid I’d stumble over the words I was supposed to read. It was already hard enough, what with all the anglicized Sanskrit or Gujarati words that weren’t written the way they’re pronounced. (Siva, for instance, is pronounced She-va.) So I just mumbled my way unintelligibly through any words I didn’t understand. “Swamiji: That’s why we have to fight with our mind. We should bombard it. What will be our bombs? Constant discourses. Seva and devotion?”

I looked to Hemu for the okay on how I pronounced the words. She gave me an insanely generous nod so I continued on with the swami’s answer to the devotee. “The mind will never be free to retaliate. Then, will it not be destroyed? Aspirant: But my mind is hiding in a bunker. Swamiji: Then we have to use our laser weapons, follow agna.” Relieved that my question was over, I had no idea what I’d said or even really what it meant except that was important to keep reading sacred texts and discussing them with other believers as a way of fending off the mind’s doubts.

During a small break in the class, Hemu introduced me to some of the women. Pointing to the fragile beauty, Meera, she said, “Her sister is serving in Iraq right now.” Meera was so ethereal it was hard to think of her as related to anyone in the real world, let alone to someone fighting in Iraq.

“How long has she been there?” I asked Meera.

Meera said, “About seven months, now.”

Then Hemu added, “And she’s also a marine.”

Much as I tried to imagine Meera in combat fatigues, going through basic training, I couldn’t even imagine her driving a car, lifting anything heavy or, indeed, even walking around. She looked like someone who should float.

I asked her, “Will you have to go?”

“I’m not sure.” But her gaze said, ‘I’m not afraid to go if those are my orders.’

It turned out that the rest of this room was filled with future pharmacists, engineers, medical technicians and doctors.

Near the end of the class came a question – and an answer – that seemed louder to me than all the rest: “Is a guru really necessary?”

The answer: “Swamiji: Absolutely.”

“Are you saying that without a guru one cannot attain God?”

“Swamiji: That’s right. Just like when we go to school, we only acquire knowledge by learning from teachers.”

Teachers. I still need a teacher.

Hemu’s translation of the sadhu’s sermon in my notebook said, “Right, positive understanding is the key to our spiritual progress” and that understanding could only come from “a God-realized guru.” Hemu wasn't that, so it couldn’t be her. And I couldn’t talk to the mandir’s sadhus: they were men who couldn’t talk directly to women and, when they gave public sermons, they only spoke in Gujarati. I was going to have to find someone I could talk to, in a language I could understand. Warmth and acceptance were not enough.

I knew, with clarity and sadness, my teacher was not there.

Driving home, I caught sight of my forehead in the rearview mirror in the late afternoon sun. I was shocked by what I saw. The red dot. It had been there all afternoon long and I had forgotten all about it. I pulled off to the side of the highway to study my face with such a mark in the center. Although I hadn’t put it there, I also knew that it didn’t belong, yet anyway, to me. I felt disrespectful wearing it. How could I when I didn’t know enough yet, understand enough, to let it remain? As I took a napkin from the small pile I kept in the pocket on my car door and wiped it off, I noticed the magenta string still on my wrist.

That, I left on.

Where was my teacher?

(3 September 2006)


  1. Amazing article.

    This is very well written and very descriptive.

    It's interesting how you end with "Where was my teacher?"

    Maybe you could have asked Hemu.

  2. Thanks, Anonymous! A lot.

    You know I thought about asking Hemu - she was, after all, teaching me - but I don't think she could be my official "teacher/guru." I believe she considered the male sadhus her teachers and the spiritual leader of the Swaminarayan faith as her guru but I'll email Hemu and ask her directly. I'm kind of curious what she might say about this.

    You have no idea how nice it is to get feedback. Thank you for taking the time to give it.

  3. Okay, Anon -- may I call you "Anon?" -- I emailed the question to Hemu and here's what she said:

    Jai swaminarayan

    No, I couldn't have been your official
    Yes, women can be spiritual
    teachers/guides for other women if they
    have an official right.
    There is only one guru at BAPS His Divine
    Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj.
    The rest are all sadhus or saints.
    I hope this clarifies for you.


    Thanks for asking because I got the sense Hemu couldn't have been my teacher but now I know for sure!


I'm interested in any and all comments although it may take me a while to post them.