However men try to reach me,
I return their love with my love;
whatever path they may travel,
it leads to me in the end.
Bhagavad Gita 4.11
I stood in my closet, looking at my clothes. All of my life I’ve tried to blend in, to belong. Respectful, I was being respectful, I told myself – but I was just plain tired of it. On the left, there were the black and blue suits for the formerly “in-charge” me; next to those were a bunch of fiercely colorful silk tops and skirts I thought I needed to buy in order to live and to work in Los Angeles; beyond them, were a handful of flirty short dresses I used to wear when I thought I didn’t want to be in charge of anything except maybe date night with my husband; on the other side, were the baseball caps, men’s t-shirts and even an Eisenhower jacket for the I’m-so-afraid-I’d-better-look-tough me; and finally, in drawers, on the shelves, even on some of the hangars were the worn, torn jeans, cotton sweaters and loose tops for the at-home me, the no-make-up me. Ever since I’ve given up the running of things, I’ve given up the costuming, too, reverting to what I’ve always worn since college: long cotton and sometimes silk shirts I’d recently found out were called khurtas, Indian khurtas. I hate clothing that grabs at me.
Well, religious services called for more than torn jeans. If it were anywhere else but an Indian temple, I would have grabbed the pale pink silk khurta with white pants that were my current favorites but now I kind of had the opposite problem: Would it look like I was trying too hard to blend in and, therefore, would it be inadvertently disrespectful?
I just can’t do that, get caught up in meaningless external details, over-think and over-plan, and end up as something I’m not. Not wearing what I’d normally wear was just as bad as wearing something I thought might please. I went to Whittier in the pink and white.
But first I had to find the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir in the thick Thomas Guide of Los Angeles I kept in my car. Kevin had given me a plastic-coated version for Christmas as a joke because I keep accidentally shredding and then losing the square we live on in the regular spiral-bound guides. But, after years of use and abuse, many of the laminated book’s pages - maps to places I hadn’t been - were stuck together by coffee that had spilled and baked dry long ago. Sounds kind of gross but it makes going someplace new very satisfying: I get to peel two new pages apart with a great crinkly cracking sound like cellophane on Easter morning.(Yes, my atheist mother and father not only stuffed Christmas stockings, they gave us Easter baskets, too.)
When I peeled Map 637 from the other pages, it showed that the temple was just two freeways away, no more than a half-hour drive.
The only thing I’d known about Whittier before was that President Richard Nixon had something to do with it and so did Quakers. Growing up in Pennsylvania, you know about Quakers. My brothers even went to Quaker school. It always seemed incongruous that Nixon, that imperious, formal man was a member of the Society of Friends which rejected ritual, had no one leading their services, and was devoutly against war but he was. Whittier, itself, was founded by a group of Quakers in 1887 and about 90,000 people live there now.
I got off the freeway exit closest to the temple. If Whittier had a downtown, I wasn’t in it. Within a few quick turns, I was in a tiny, packed-in neighborhood of tan and brown houses. It was a strange place: many of those small houses had horses in their backyards and trailers for them in the driveway. The traffic flow was choked by a couple of men on horseback chatting with their neighbors on foot.
I thought I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere so I was looking for a place to pull over to reexamine my map when, right in front of me, I saw it, the words “Hindu Temple” on a light-brown building.
People, dozens of them, were walking through the narrow opening in the wrought iron gate into the full parking lot. The women were all in saris, the men mostly in light, long sleeved shirts and slacks. As I backed into a parking space on the street, I felt my heart start to slam into my chest. All I didn’t know felt like a brick wall I was about to hit. I wanted to stop, back up, go home, drive, drive away fast while the rest of my head committee demanded that I get over myself and just get out of the damn car. “But,” the balkers argued, “what if you’re in the “wrong” place? What if you’re about to walk into some peculiar off-shoot of Hinduism or an extreme cult?” Well, if it was, I consoled myself, I could get out before talking to anyone, there were so many people walking in, no one would notice me.
I was wrong. One foot over the base of the sliding gate and a man in a dark blue shirt, the only person in a dark color, leapt forward to say, “May I help you?”
I stopped dead. If it hadn’t been more awkward to run, I would have. I said, “There’s a service today, isn’t there?”
“May I come?” I asked. “I’m interested in Hinduism.”
There were only Indians in the crowd. Even the one red-head turned out to be an Indian woman with dyed hair.
The man in blue said, “Come on. I’ll take you to someone.”
The chance to check the place out anonymously, to get a feel for it before going further, was gone. The man in blue politely herded me toward the first doorway. On the landing outside the plain door, a number of women were standing and talking. Metal racks up against the stucco wall on either side of the doorway were filled with shoes, and a pile was on the ground beside each. It was clear that the men’s and women’s were on separate sides of the doorway. Once inside, the man placed me in front of a woman in a beautiful gold and ivory sari.
They waited for me to explain myself. It was the first time I had to describe what I was doing to someone other than an academic or a loved one, the first time I had to lay out my whole strange mission to a practicing believer. I wrapped my arms around my notebook and said, “I was raised without any real spiritual tradition. I mean, I was literally raised with nothing.”
We were standing in a brightly carpeted room that could have once been a school auditorium with a raised stage except that, on it, were red and gold devotional figures draped with flower garlands. The man and woman smiled, confused, so I continued, “With all that’s going on in the world right now, I just didn’t think I could remain ignorant any longer. So I want to understand what each religion teaches its converts. I’m starting with Hinduism. That’s why I’ve come here.”
It still didn’t look like they quite knew what to do with me so I added, “I thought I’d start with Hinduism because, from the little I know about it, it says that there are many paths to God and it was up to each of us to find our path, our way to the Divine, so it seemed like a logical place to start.”
The woman smiled big and warm. “I’m Rekha,” she said and put her hand on my arm. “Could you wait here for a moment? I have the perfect person for you but I must go find her.”
Rekha began bouncing from one woman in silk to another, asking each one something in an unrecognizable language, eventually disappearing down a hallway, leaving me in the center of the room with the gatekeeper. I wondered what I’d said that made Rekha know the “perfect person” for me. Was there someone whose job it was to wrangle strays?
There was an odd padded divider, no more than eighteen inches high, mostly down the middle of the room; the men and women were observing it as an official separation between them. Somehow, without making a big deal of it, the man in blue, who finally introduced himself as Upen, had put himself on the men’s side while I found myself standing on the side for women.
After a moment of just standing there, Upen pointed to a model under plexiglass and said, “This is the temple we’re building in Chino Hills. It will be the third temple in the United States, the other two are in Chicago and Houston.”
The model showed an ornate temple of white stone with many other smaller buildings. Two of the buildings were exact replicas of each other. “What are those?” I asked.
“That’s a school for boys and there’s the one for girls,” he said.
So the separation was a big deal, at least for this sect. I assumed I’d find it in Islam but I hadn’t expected the separation in Hinduism. I didn’t know whether to talk to Upen or not but he clearly wasn’t going anywhere until the “perfect person” showed up so I asked, “So, there are only three temples in this country?”
“Oh, no, those are the mandirs, the large temples. There are many more centers than that. And the temple in London was in the Guiness Book of World Records (in 2000) as the largest Hindu temple outside of India."
Upen was running out of things to say and clearly wanted to return to the gate so he was relieved when Rekha returned with a slender woman wearing glasses who somehow managed to make her pink sari seem simple.
“This is Hemantika Patel,” Rekha smiled. “You’ll never hear this from her because she is very modest, very humble, but everyone here at the mandir respects her more than anyone else. She’s very wise.You’ll be in the very best hands with her.”
Demurely deflecting the words, the woman in pink offered her thin hand, “I am very pleased to meet you.”
The din was growing so I just handed her my pen and notebook, “Would you write your name down here? I want to make sure I spell it right.”
“It’s Hemantika,” she said while writing it down. “But you may call me Hemu.”
As I started to explain, again, why I’d appeared on their doorstep again, a man with quiet authority came up to us on “his” side of the divider to check me out. After we introduced ourselves – he said his name was Peter - I asked him for his card so I wouldn’t hold things up trying to get the precise spelling of his last name.
Peter brightened when he heard why I was starting with Hinduism. “You know, I teach in the Sunday school, the children, and I always tell them: ‘What shape are the planets? They aren’t cubes or pyramids or trapezoids; they’re circles. And what is one of the greatest inventions in the history of mankind? The wheel. And it’s a circle. But, if you push on one side of the circle, it will collapse unless, of course, there are spokes to make it strong. That’s what all the religions of the world are, spokes of the wheel, and it’s important that all the spokes, all the religions of the world stay strong. If any one of them gets weak or collapses, then we will all be affected. But, what’s the most important part of the wheel? The center. The Divine. That’s where all the spokes are connected.’”
I’d never heard anything like that before, a devotee of one religion saying he thought it was “important” that other religions stayed strong. Even Hemu and Rekha were moved.
In the moment of silence that followed, I glanced down at Peter’s business card. It said he worked for a financial services company.
“May I come to your class?” I asked.
“Well, I only teach boys and all the children’s classes are taught in Gujarati.”
Hemu said, “Perhaps you might come to one of the young adult classes for the women. They’re taught in English.”
Comfortable I was being handled, Peter and Rekha left. Hemu hesitated, unsure where to go for a longer conversation. Then it was clear why: she was looking for a chair, assuming that I would need one, but there were none available on our side of the room. In fact, there were only a handful in the large room and they were taken by the elderly and infirm.
“I can sit on the floor,” I said. Anything to stop sticking out. “I really don’t mind.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m completely fine.”
So Hemu, in her sequined sari, and I, in my white pants, sat down on the carpet near the wall beneath photographs of the BAPS temples around the world. “You’ve come on a good day, she said. “Today is the day we celebrate our main deity, Krishna’s birthday. That’s why everyone is so dressed up.”
There was coming and going, greeting and warm touching going on all around us. The closest I’d even been to something like it was a high school reunion.
“May I stay?”
“Of course. But it isn’t in English, you know.”
Not in English? Everyone I’d met so far spoke elegant English. But I said, “That’s okay, if it’s all right with you.” I mean, what else was there to do? Say: Oh well in that case, I’m outta here? Was I going to let language get in the way of my understanding some of what all these people found meaningful? I figured Hemu spoke English and that, for the moment, was enough. “What language are the services in?” I asked.
I’d never heard the word before but, when I looked it up later, I found out forty-six million people spoke it. It was the first language Mahatma Ghandi spoke because he was born in the Indian state of Gujararat. Each state in India is free to choose its own official language so there are more than twenty of them.
I asked Hemu to explain the kind of Hinduism practiced at the temple.
“This mandir has been at this location just since 1984. The founder of our faith is Lord Swaminarayan who was born in 1781. We believe he is a God-realized saint.”
“And is there a current spiritual leader?”
“Oh yes.” Hemu pointed to one of the many pictures of a balding man in orange robes with a kind face and said, “Param Pujya Pamukh Swami Maharaj is the direct spiritual successor to Lord Swaminarayan.”
“Does he live here?”
Hemu looked surprised. “No, he’s in India, but there are about seven hundred “saints,” forty of which live at various temples across North America. They wear orange robes and are complete celibates. They don’t associate with women at all. They don’t own anything or have any money. We say that they have no taste, food-wise, which means they will never ask for anything or say they want to eat a specific food or even ask for something to eat, even if they’re hungry. They are supposed to be egoless and without desire, eating whatever is put before them, practicing complete detachment even from their own most basic needs.”
All I could think was what a picky an eater I could be: cold soup, blue cheese, lima beans - things I still hated - Hemu’s monks would have to eat all of them if they were served, whether they liked them or not. And the excitement of figuring out just what you want to eat and then getting it? I mean, I drive forty-five minutes to go get the cheesesteaks I grew up eating and I love every minute of having and fulfilling that craving. Not for them. They have to get beyond like and dislike. How is that even possible?
But, wait, they didn’t “associate” with women at all? I asked Hemu, “So, you can’t talk to any of them?”
“No, not directly.”
If Hemu couldn’t talk to the “saints,” then I couldn’t either.
Hemu explained that, while this sect’s faith was fundamentally Hindu and used the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas, the Upanishads and all of the traditional Hindu literature, its Holy Scripture was an “historical collection of 262 spiritual discourses delivered by Lord Swaminarayan in Gujarati” written down by the “saints” at the time. The text, The Vachanamrut, was considered by its followers to be “the essence of all scriptures.”
The room was slowly beginning to thin out.
Hemu said, “It’s about to begin. Would you like to go?”
“Go? Where?” I thought we were already in the main shrine. It certainly looked like one.
“This is a very big day for us, a very big celebration, so we have to go next door.”
Some people were leaving but no one seemed in a particular hurry or even necessarily headed for the same place. After we picked our shoes out from what had become an unruly heap, we walked toward the back of the building, stopping at the bookstore to buy a copy of The Vachanamrut in English and a small travel bag with all the items necessary for morning rituals. We then put our shoes outside another door and walked into an even larger room with hundreds of people sitting mostly cross-legged on the carpet, men and women again on separate sides of the room. Only the very young boys disregarded the separation, taking advantage of a gap between the blue padded dividers to dart back and forth between their mothers and fathers.
A group of men was already performing on the stage, mid-song. Hemu pointed to the back of a gray couch up near the stage on the men’s side and said, “Those are the sadhus, the saints.”
I could just make out a small flash of orange silk draped over the back of the couch and the shaved head of the “sadhu” sitting on the end. From where they were sitting, the only thing the “saints” could see was the stage.
Behind the men singing and playing string instruments on stage was an altar with many large figures and a handful of small ones. In a chair in the center of the stage, I thought I saw the man from all the photographs, sitting in meditation pose with a garland of live flowers around his neck and a lit candle in front of him.
I whispered, “I didn’t know your spiritual leader was here.” Everyone seemed way too calm for that.
Hemu turned and looked at me like I was daft. “No. That’s a picture of him.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know what else to say. “Of course.”
Well, you don’t start something like this unless you’re able to spend a heck of a lot of time being stupid. I mean, it sure looked real from way back there. He was very still but I assumed he was just very good at meditation after all those years of doing it.
Soon a group of men began acting out a scene from Krishna’s life, followed by a sermon, all in Gujarati, while Hemu translated as best she could into my notebook.
The first sadhu who spoke was a tall, rugged man whose shaved head couldn’t quite make him blend in with the others. He had great personal dignity and, even though I couldn’t understand a word of what he said, he was a dynamic and moving speaker.
One part of the monk’s sermon got real belly laughs. I couldn’t wait until later, so I whispered, “What did he say?”
Hemu tried to answer and keep writing so I would miss nothing. “He said, ‘People are afraid to put trust in God, yet every day people get into to airplanes, trusting their lives to men, to pilots they don’t even know.’”
Yes but those pilots are real people, people they can see as they walk off the plane.
After some more singing, another sadhu came to the podium, a thin man with large eyes. Hemu said, “That’s the spiritual leader of this mandir.”
The senior sadhu, Priyavrat Swami, leaned on the podium as he spoke, not much more than his head and shoulders were visible above it. It was odd sitting there, understanding nothing but the emotion of the swami’s words and his flock’s reactions while Hemu took notes in my notebook, trying to turn the Gujarati into words I might understand. Without Hemu, I knew it would be hopeless for me here but, with her? Hemu had the conviction and the clarity I longed to know. Maybe it could work.
The rhythms of the unfamiliar syllables, sentences, inflections and pauses floating through the room began to feel like music, its beats became regular and expected, when I finally looked down at my watch. It was two hours past the time the website said the service would end, past the time I’d told my husband I’d be home. I whispered to Hemu, “I’m really sorry. I had no idea how late it’s gotten. I have to go.”
Without a hesitation, in the middle of her spiritual leader’s sermon on this most holy of days, Hemu got up to walk me out. She wouldn’t let me leave without going to get me a full meal which she put inside a styrofoam container so I could eat it when I got home, along with a plastic container filled with pastries in the shapes of various fruit. One small “watermelon slice” even had “seeds.” Loaded down with my books, pamphlets, food, desserts and Hemu-written notes, I headed back out to the street with a promise to return in two weeks to begin my studies in earnest.
(20 August 2006)