I tried to practice a bit of the Hindu ritual I didn’t get very far. Using the small morning “puja” kit Hemu suggested I buy from the bookstore at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan mandir, I struggled, alone in my room.
Inside the tan zippered pouch was: a square of stiff fabric to sit on; red fabric on which the devotional items should be placed; a string of wooden beads; a red velvet, L-shaped pouch open at only one end; five laminated images of Lord Swaminarayan and the spiritual leaders who came after him; a round mirror; a ceramic mortar; an orange pastel-like stick; a tube with a red chalky substance inside; a dropper bottle for water; a piece of metal bent into a U-shape on one side; and a long, streamer-like folded pamphlet with the words “Daily Puja” in brown ink.
When Hemu first walked me through all the items inside, she explained that the L-shaped pouch was for the rosary beads, which were supposed to remain inside it. The meaning and use of all the rest, she said, I’d find explained in the little manual inside; the directions would show me her entire daily morning ritual. I figured if Hemu could do it when she was busy raising two children not much older than my own and running a business with her husband, I could too.
Here’s what it said to do: “Awake before six in the morning every day, brush your teeth and …take a bath.” Then, without eating or drinking anything, “do not put on your normal work clothes…but wear… a newly washed set of clothes.” After laying out the cloth to sit on and the cloth with all the other items on it, a devotee was supposed to sit facing north or east. Next, I was to make an orange paste in the mortar by mixing drops of water with the soft orange stick, which the bent metal wire is dipped into it and then pressed “between the eyebrows” leaving behind a yellow-orange U-shape. In the middle of it, I had to “imprint a red chandlo of kumkum” - the red chalk.
Next, there was a brief period of meditation in which I was supposed to contemplate thoughts like: “I am Atma. (God within me) I am not this body.” Followed by “imagining the Lord (Swaminarayan) and His best Sadhu (monk) to be before you. Gently awake Them. Lead them through the daily morning routine. Offer them clothes, ornaments, garlands, aarti (light or fire), thal (food), etc”
At this point three of eleven steps were complete. The remaining steps were: inviting the Lord and his best sadhu to come into the puja; the chanting of various mantras; “telling the rosary” which involved chanting “Swaminarayan” with each bead; standing on one leg with the other crossed and “resolve to offer devotion to God no matter what the hardship”; walking around the mats - in a clockwise direction - eleven times still telling the rosary; prostrate five times, “fully stretched out on the ground” to “show our total surrender to God” and become humble and then, one more time, to ask forgiveness for any mistakes made; then came a period of prayer followed by thanking “the Lord for being present in your puja” and for forgiving “any mistakes you may have made during your puja.” The final steps were cleaning up the puja things, hanging up the special clothes you wore some place where they wouldn’t get touched, cleaning your home temple and bowing down to your parents and anyone else present saying, “Jai Swaminarayan.”
I made a complete mess. The little pamphlet was streaked with red. I couldn’t get the wire to dip into the yellow chalky stuff enough to be able to leave behind the U on my forehead. Instead, I had a smear of yellow between my eyebrows more like a baby with its first solid food than someone in prayer. And, when I got to the directions where it told me to stand on one leg, well, that seemed just plain silly, especially since I’d have to do this while holding on to the pamphlet so I’d know what to do next. I gave up.
Hemu did this every day?
I felt hopelessly inadequate, yet again, to the task at hand. How many working people with families to care for were able to do this every day, to follow every single step to the degree their devotion called them? Did they end up feeling inadequate, too, as though their faith was simply out of reach? Was my inability to charge headlong into such daily ritual significant? If so, of what?
(8 September 2006)