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Friday November 19, 2004: Lakshmi Puja

             What a joy it was to finally arrive at the retreat last weekend, after hours on the road -- big smiles, big hugs all around. Will this become an annual trip for me? Last year was my first retreat and only because V.G. insisted I come. I was delighted to see so many familiar faces, to rekindle so many old friendships, and form many new ones.

.           One of last year's delights was having my eldest son come in from Annapolis for the retreat. This year, my middle son drove down with me for the entire weekend, and my youngest surprised me by appearing with his father at the Friday night puja. I'm not sure how much my boys understand of Hinduism. Their father has included them in puja's, meditations, and lectures whenever Dr. V.G. Kulkarni came to the States; but like me, they approach Hindu rituals as an observing participant -- not as educated devotees.

           This is not the case with most people who attended the retreat -- many of these people have been practicing Vedanta yoga for thirty years or more. I've known most of the old-timers for twenty-five years, from my first husband's involvement with the American Yoga Group of Cleveland, Ohio. When the group's leader moved to Florida, some of these dear souls moved with her, and I've missed them over the years.  Dr. V.G. Kulkarni has been the force that kept everyone together.

            This year's retreat took place during DIWALI, which I learned afterwards was one of the major Hindu Holidays, celebrating a 'new beginning, happiness, a time of togetherness, and good fortune.' From the reading I did afterwards, it sounds like a combination Thanksgiving (celebration of the harvest), Christmas (giving of sweets, gifts) and New Year's (new beginnings).  In India there would be thousands of lamps lit, gifts distributed, fireworks, etc. over the five day celebration.

            I am always a bit uncomfortable sitting in on a puja, because V.G. insists on everyone participating.  I do not follow the Hindu religion; I am not a ritual-type of person.  Puja is a symbolical offering, revering some aspect of the divine through prayers, songs, and ritual.  I sat there Friday night wondering what my Christian co-workers would think of the puja table, crowded with statues and pictures of various gods and goddesses.

           Hindus believe in one all-inclusive divine, which they call Brahman. Like many other religions, Hindus feel the divine is unlimited and unknowable in its entirety. There are many ways to approach the divine, to express the invisible divine reality. The various Hindu deities serve as a visual metaphor, allowing the devotee's attention to focus on a particular facet of how the divine manifests itself within creation. One or another of the divine facets may hold significance and appeal to the individual, but focusing on one deity does not lessen the existence or importance of other aspects.

           "Whenever puja is performed it includes three important components: the seeing of the deity; puja, or worship, which includes offering flowers, fruits, and foods; and retrieving the blessed food and consuming it.  By performing these sacred acts the worshiper creates a relationship with the divine through his or her emotions and senses."

             I have brought two apples to offer, and carefully add them to an overflowing tray of assorted fruits, placed on the floor before the deity table. Bowls of nuts and trays of flower petals are present; I notice a large pile of currency has also been offered. The yogis sit in chairs, or in lotus position on the floor, most wrapped in prayer shawls.

              V.G. has very carefully washed, chanted, and prepared himself for this ritual. There is a number of East Indians, now living in the United States, who are friends or students of V.G.  Of the half-dozen attending this retreat; two of the men are of the Brahmin caste. V. G. has had them prepare also, and all three of them are dressed in the traditional manner; bare-footed, bare-chested, their lower bodies wrapped in yards of gorgeous Indian cloth, fabrics yellow and woven with intricate designs.

             Is V.G. conditioning the Americans here to accept the other Brahmins as capable of performing traditional pujas when V.G. is not here? He has the two men go around to each person, placing coom-coom, a red cosmetic paste on their forehead. I think my bangs were in the way.  It felt like the paste ended up on my hair.  Do I have any on my forehead, or am I now truly an outsider, lacking a common mark? For someone not normally drawn to ritual, these little things become an issue of fitting in, of respecting other people's customs. The puja continues: chants and songs in Sanskrit (I know neither Sanskrit nor its English translation); the ritual of sprinkling water on statues (there is a logic to ritual; I can only apply a generalized symbolic meaning). We move to the ritual of offering food to the Goddess Lakshmi and my attention becomes more focused.

To be continued.....


Posted on Friday, November 19, 2004 at 05:01AM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | CommentsPost a Comment

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