Last week I left behind the Abrahamic religious traditions. On Wednesday, February 29th, I visited two temples: the Hare Krishna Temple in St. Louis’ Central West End, and the Hindu Temple of St. Louis on Weidman Road in Town and Country. I was blessed to be the guest of Harry Shukla, a long time friend of Emerson Chapel, who agreed to take me to visit these temples. Harry Shulka is a first generation immigrant from India. I asked to be his guest as I felt uncomfortable simply going by myself. I do not know the customs and I did not wish to intrude in any way. I am so glad I made this choice because Harry could give me insights that I would have never been able to see on my own.
1) Hare Krishna Temple of St. Louis. When Harry told me he was taking me to the Hare Krishna Temple downtown, I was a bit skeptical. Many Westerners became aware of Hare Krishna when it became very popular among North American white religious tourists, especially in the late 1960s and 1970s during the Hippie movement. In fact, Harry’s reasoning for bringing me here was precisely because of that. This is the form of Hinduism that most North Americans think about and there are a lot of stereotypes about it.
The temple itself looks worn. It’s a white stucco building that needs repair. The front door was locked, but when Harry knocked, the priest came to the door and invited us in. The very modest entry way had a bench to sit down on and take off our shoes. He invited us into the temple once we had done so.
The Temple was a large room filled with the strong scent of incense. At the front was a beautiful collection of gods and goddesses. Of course Krishna was the focus. All the gods and goddesses were adorned with bright flowers. The four primary gods were at the highest elevation. The first, of course, was Krishna. The other was his devotee, Bhajan. To their left, Krishna and Bhajan have changed places – Bhajan is the god and Krishna is the devotee. The meaning is abundantly clear. There is no separation between the gods and humanity. We are one. The work of the devotee is to eliminate this separation in themselves so that they can unite with the highest.
I learned that the offering of food and the care of the gods is a central practice and they are intimately connected. The priest and his wife awake very early, at least 1 1/2 hrs before the sun rises, and begin to pray and care for the gods. When the food is made, nothing is tasted until it has been offered to the gods. Why is this? Because the food is from the gods so to take it for oneself before offering it to the gods is to take something that is not yours. Once it has been offered to the gods, it is prasadah (mercy, or the divine grace of God), and then it can be eaten as a gift from god to you.
The purpose of this is to nurture our humility. Nothing in this life is ours. It is all from the gods. Every bit of food you eat is from the gods. When a stranger comes to you, welcome them, because it is god visiting you. Feed them, for then you are serving god.
They spend a lot of time cooking at the Hare Krishna Temple because they give away all the food, the prasadah, to those who come to worship. We were no exception. We were unexpected guests but they took us in, welcomed us into the temple, and even though all they had were cold leftovers from breakfast, they offered to feed us and we returned the gesture by accepting the offer.
I learned that the priest and his wife had recently arrived from India. There is no permanent priest at the Temple. Instead, a new priest arrives from India about every six months. He brings his wife, if he has one. In fact, one must be married because to not be married means to have not experience a crucial aspect of life. There is no prohibition against sexual activity or marriage in this faith. It is considered a key aspect to experiencing this world.
I asked him how he had come to be a priest. He told me that he had felt called as a young man, newly married, with his wife expecting their first child. He was a small businessman. One day, a devotee of Hare Krishna had come through the market speaking of Krishna and selling copies of the Bhagavad Gita. He was hesitant to spend the money, but his wife told him that it was good for them to purchase a Bhagavad Gita when she was pregnant. It would be a good omen. So he bought it and began to read it. He felt deeply called and moved by what he read. He attended a gathering at the temple, then another, and another, and gradually became more and more involved in temple life until he made the decision to enter the priesthood. That was more than 20 years ago. Today, their son is studying in Belgium and will join them in the United States before they return to India.
He offered to give me a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and I felt it an honor to accept the gift. When we left, I was invited to their prayers, which take place on Wednesdays and Sundays. I also learned that their day ends at the last prayer, when the put the gods to bed. Most of their day involves carrying for the gods by cleaning them, dressing them, praying to them, and offering them gifts, including food.
As I listened, I found myself thinking of that Lutheran minister who said that Hindus worship dead stone gods. I can certainly understand how it might appear that way to an outsider. I did not get that impression at all. Yes, they spend much time and energy in the phsyical caring of these statues and they invest the statues with considerable power and meaning. But I also felt that all this energy was not simply about worshipping the statues themselves, but they were seen as vehicles towards enlightenment. As you loved them, cared for them, fed them, prayed to them – your actions, your humility, your intentions brought you into closer harmony with god. This didn’t seem very “dead” to me. It seemed very alive.
This was nothing like what I expected. I was expecting an Americanized form of Hinduism, maybe a bit sensationalized. I experienced a quiet visit in very modest surroundings, and humble and generous hosts.
2) The Hindu Temple of St. Louis. This is the temple where the Hindu Indian community of St. Louis comes to worship. It is an impressive structure, with glistening white walls and much intricate detail. As we turned off Weidman and into the drive, it felt like the whole building was glistening. Breathtaking.
We entered through a side door and walked down the stairs where we took off our shoes. The entry area had several bulletin boards. I saw brochures for English as a Second Language, Immigration lawyers, social functions, houses for sale, job listings, and community events. Then we walked through a fellowship hall with a kitchen where women were preparing flowers, then up the stairs and through a door into the temple.
It was very warm and bright. The temple is filled with worship stations to various gods and goddesses, each with their own story, much of which is symbolically told in the stations themselves. Every one is a stunning work of art. Almost every one had gifts before it (mostly food), left by someone who had come to pray. When you arrive, you can ring a bell, which signals to the priest that there is someone wishing to pray/offer homage to a god. People will bring gifts for the god they are honoring. The priest will take those gifts, walk with the person and or people to the god they wish to see, and pray the proper prayers and offer the gifts.
I wish I could remember some of the particular stories Harry shared with me about this god or that. I am not so good with these kinds of details. What I remember is that each god has a story that applies to certain situations in life and devotees will call on that god when they are challenged in their lives. Perhaps they are concerned about finances, health, or a loved one, or are having to make a difficult decision. Perhaps they wish health for a daughter that is expecting. Perhaps they are celebrating something. Each of these situations will bring them to a particular god. Also possible is that a family will have a tradition of honoring certain gods and will go to those gods with all their hopes and fears and desires and joys. Regardless, when they come to the temple, they ring the bell, which alerts the priest, who joins them, takes them to the gods home, and begins the prayers.
In one of the rituals I saw, the prayer involved reciting every name of a certain god, and there were more than 100 names for this particular god, and with each name, the priest anointed the god with flower petals. The person who came to honor this god brought with them nuts and dried fruit. This fruit was given to the gods, then became prasadah, which was offered back to the person and others who had gathered near. They were also given a small spoonful of milk and sugar. The priest would pour the spoonful in the palm and each person drank the milk out their palm and wiped the rest in their hair. I do not know the significance of this. Perhaps it is another sign of welcoming the blessing of god.
This is what I take with me from this visit.
1) I absolutely felt like a foreigner. I understood little and wanted to respect what I did not understand. I felt blessed to have this small glimpse.
2) I felt like I was able to see a world that is largely invisible to non-Indian St. Louisans. Aside from marveling once in a while at the glimpse of glistening white as we drive by on Weidman Road, what do most of us really know about this community? Hindus from India are now the largest minority in West St. Louis County, and most of us have no idea about this growing community. And yet here it is, with a beautiful thriving temple that receives devotees through every day. The temple is open seven days a week. At the time I was there, mid-day on a Wednesday, there were no less than 7 people coming for prayers, and more were arriving. There is a constant flow of people in and out of the temple. It is a place that is alive.
3) I learned that the priests serving the temple are all from India. Just like the priest at the Hare Krishna Temple, the Hindu Temple of St. Louis brings in priests who are from India and trained in India. When I asked Harry why, he simply said because there is not the means and critical mass in North America to train priests here. It is a lengthy and demanding process. You have to learn so many prayers and they must be executed perfectly. It is a life’s work.
4) I thought about how much this temple felt like a creation by and for first generation immigrants. It was not unlike a combination of religious instituion/community center.
“First generation” means those who come from the homeland. “Second generation” means those whose parents come from the homeland, and “third generation” means those whose grandparents come from the homeland. Most sociologists will say that it takes at least three generations for full assimilation to happen because the memory and experience of the homeland grows more and more distant, and the experience of the new world grows more powerful. By the fourth generation, there will be no one in that family with living memory of the homeland. All that is known is life in America and the stories told by those who knew the first generation.
For many immigrant communities, religion and ethnicity are merged in a very powerful way, especially by first generation immigrants establishing the anchors they need for spiritual and psychological survival in the new world. Think about Italian Catholics, or Greek Orthodox, German Lutherans, or Palestinian Muslims. Practicing your faith will gain a different dimension in the new world than it had in the old world, where more than likely you were surrounded by those like you. Your identity and way of being was reflected in the society around you. In North America, you are now a minority. The practice of your religion now becomes a way to maintain your identity as a minority and your connection to your roots.
Most immigrant religious institutions are very strong when run by the first generation immigrants who establish them. They have a clear purpose – cultural and spiritual survival. Those institutions have to change when the first generation is replaced by the second generation, or they don’t survive. At this time, the Indian community in St. Louis is dominated by first generation immigrants, so it’s understandable that their priority was that this temple be as exact a replica as those they knew from India. I wonder if this may be why it is so important that the priests come from India. It is the source, after all.
I found myself wondering what will happen to this temple when the second generation, third generation, and then fourth generation Indians take their place. Will they find their Hindu faith as relevant to their everyday lives as their parents or grandparents? What will it mean to be Hindu when you are born in the U.S., or your parents are born in the US., or if you intermarry?
I suspect that if the U.S. continues to underfund its public schools, universities and colleges, the demands of the private sector for highly skilled professionals will keep the doors open to immigration from countries like India. The U.S. just isn’t filling that need from within. Perhaps immigration from India will continue and there will always be a new set of first generation immigrants for whom their temple is an important center in their lives.
I left the temple deeply impressed with the experience. I wondered what it would mean for us as Unitarian Universalists to reach out to this community, the largest immigrant community in West County. What would it mean to be allies? What are the issues in this community? What do they care about? What are the differences within the community?
So many questions.
Many thanks to Harry Shukla for his generosity of time and spirit.