22 October 2006

It's October, Happy New Year!

Now, this was something to see. I had no idea what Annakut was and, frankly, I didn’t bother to look it up because, if Hemu invited me, that was enough for me so I didn’t bring my camera. But I did find a few pictures on line... just wait.

By worship you will nourish the
gods and the gods will nourish you in turn;
by nourishing one another
you assure the well-being of all.

Bhagavad Gita 3.10

When I got to the Whittier BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (temple) in Whittier, Hemu was easy to find. Although crowds of people were talking in small happy groups or wandering in out of the hot late fall sun, I had now her cell phone number and she had mine. I was by her side in a moment and, when I bent down to touch her feet – or at least show some effort to get down there while we were standing on the black macadam- she grabbed me and laughed, “No, wrong person. I should be the one doing that to you!”

That wasn’t true, of course -- the student always bows to the person with the knowledge -- but we settled for a quick hug. Hemu is one of the only people who makes me feel tall. Her neat, shiny hair was parted in the middle and she was wearing yet another elegant sari in honor of the festive occasion. She said, “You know, I really feel like I’ve always known you.”

I knew exactly what she meant. “Me, too, Hemu.”

“Come. Let me show you something.”

I’d finally learned that you never come to a temple empty-handed so I’d brought flowers which, Hemu gently pointed out, was a perfectly fine offering on most days and was even perfectly fine that day as well but, on Annakut, the first day of the new year, what people were supposed to bring was food. As we walked in to the mandir, I found out why.

There are not enough excessive words to describe what was in that room. The entire length of the altar was blocked by a wooden, stepped platform covered with hundreds of individual plates of food, perfectly presented, as if ready for a commercial photo shoot. A second showcase for still more plates was actually a fountain with four separate sprays of water, each lit a different color by underwater lights. The variety of the food was astounding.

I asked Hemu, “What's this all this about?”

“This is the first day of the new year,” Hemu said, “and we are offering all this food to God so he will give it back to us all year. The target was like nine-hundred to twelve hundred items.”

“How many did you bring?”

“I brought like seven or eight.”

“I’ve never seen so much food put out like this.”

“It’s our way of saying thank you to Lord Ganesh for everything he will provide this year. There are about seven hundred items here today.”

And it turns out, seven hundred plates of food requires two rooms, two enormous stepped platforms to display because there was even more food, on an even larger stepped platform, in the main prayer hall where people were sitting, watching a video transmission of the sadhus officiating the service in the other hall – there were just too many people there to use just one.

I loved being there with Hemu, loved that she'd thought to invite me but I struggle in the midst of big pageants like these. It's hard for me to respond in anyway other than as an observer, a parade-watcher, a gawker. I'm certain I'd have a much different feeling about all of this had I stayed up, night after night, probably with family members, making one special dish after another to contribute to the offering. It'd be a family ritual, then, like decorating our Christmas tree or our nearly annual attempt to make a gingerbread house. (It's a good thing ours aren't ever meant to be on display.) But I think Annakut offers more than just annual ritual, if you're open to it.

So much of Hinduism involves treating whatever your idea of God is kind of like a revered corporal figure. Most of these rituals involve the symbolic feeding, bathing and clothing of whatever form of God you worship so there's an opportunity to develop an intimate, on-going relationship - not so easy when I find myself truly incapable of imagining any form that might even serve as a stand-in for the Divine. Not only that, I think I have a hard time with the display portion of organized religion. It might just be that I haven't had enough experience with it to feel comfortable but there may be more to it than that: the moments I've had in my life where I've felt something I might identify as the first rumblings of the sacred have always occurred in quiet, in solitude or something close to it, only on occasion in the midst of an event and usually those events involved a story that made me see things a different way - events like plays or movies, even songs.

I do know I was so much more comfortable being there with my current frame of mind than the one I've lugged around with me all of my life. I sat next to Hemu while she translated the service in in my notebook just trying to understand and to appreciate, to find what I could in it that might have meaning for me while accepting that whatever might not resonate still was beautiful and possibly moving to others. Boy, that hasn't been my natural state until recently. If I'd ended up some place like this decades ago I would have tried to soothe my feelings of dislocation and fear by cataloguing all that was "weird" instead of just taking the time to understand more. What a sad way I've lived some of my life.

As the service continued, I began to wonder if any of the sadhus I was seeing on the big screens (although they were just one hall away)was the one who’d read and written his reactions to my project. I pointed to one and asked Hemu, “Is that the one who answered my email?” Why I needed to see the face of the monk originally shocked by project, shocked by me, I didn't know but I did. I guess I wanted to see the face of someone my upbringing could shock.

Hemu answered, “No. That isn’t him.”

“Is the one who answered here?”

“Yes, I’ll show him to you.” We watched the screen showing the ritual in the other room for a while when all of a sudden Hemu said, “That’s him. He was the one just singing. He was born here.”

Just before the camera panned away, I caught a glimpse of a tall, thin man with a close-cropped beard, probably in his mid-thirties, possibly forty, but I doubted it. He didn’t seem all that shockable but, as alien as Hinduism was for me, my upbringing outside of any faith and practice must have been alien – and even shocking – to him.

I sat on the floor next to Hemu who, without discussion, had taken my notebook and was busily translating whatever was said. Around her right wrist were at least five of the magenta puja strings like the one she'd tied on mine at my very first "puja" or worship service, the string she’d told me was supposed to symbolize our devotion to God. Hers were all different shades: some new and bright, one pale and about to break. My single strand had frayed and faded a bit but was still, more than a month later, strong on my wrist. Hard to believe but, in all this time, no one had asked me about it or even seemed to notice it; it was just a piece of cotton kitchen string tied to my wrist and slowly losing its once uneven shade of magenta. I’d been wondering what I was supposed to do about it. Was I supposed to cut it off or what? But it felt strange to just call Hemu up to ask.

Now I had my answer: it's supposed to stay on until it falls off.

Well, okay.

22 October 2006

More Annakut pictures from various BAPS Swaminarayan mandirs around the country....

Cleveland & Houston....

Boston and New Jersey...

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