Yesterday, I finally attended a Hindu service! My grandmother accompanied me because of her interest in Indian culture and curiosity in what happened at Hindu services.
We arrived at Brahma Premananda just in time to be forty minutes early for the eleven o’clock Satsang and Aarthi service. I believe that my grandmother overestimated the Sunday morning traffic and was very excited.
The temple looked out of place in the small Oregon town of Tigard. A marble-covered temple with astounding architecture rose up from behind a dusty Kinder-Care facility. You could only just see the temple from the busy town road.
We waited in the car until we saw a sari-clad woman slip into the temple. We went all the way to the temple before I remembered that the service was conducted in the less impressive residential building slightly to the left.
We were shown the correct room by a kind gentleman who spoke little English. After we kicked off our shoes (symbolizing leaving behind the grime and concerns of the material world as you enter the separate realm of worship), we entered through the white door. There was a beautiful shrine at one end of the room with a large, red-garbed deity in the center. Smaller deities ringed this centerpiece, along with photographs and paintings of people. When we entered, there a string bag of mandarin oranges sat near it, and, as people entered, more offerings joined those oranges.
A woman in a blue and green sari sat in a chair next to the shrine and welcomed us warmly. She knowingly asked, “Is this your first time here?” and responded to our resounding yes with some basic information on the service and kindly small talk. She was a first generation immigrant who arrived here fortysix years ago with her infant daughter. She recomended speaking to the priest about Hinduism, as he had taught her what it really meant to be a Hindu. My grandmother took a seat in a kindly provided chair next to this woman and I sat on the ground with crossed legs.
Once four more elderly individuals arrived and bowed to the shrine in formal Indian clothes, one woman took charge. She led a series of oms and a period of meditation, throughout which a few more individuals trickled in, payed their respects, left offerings, and took a seat.
The next portion of the service required small booklets from a bin in the center of the room. These books held the prayers that the majority of the service would consist of. In addition to being rendered in a language and alphabet I was unfamiliar with, most of the prayers had a phonetic version of the prayer in the Latin alphabet, and a few even had an English translation. I tried to read along as the congregation sang these prayers. At some point, a man fetched a pair of small finger cymbals (manjira) from a cabinet. Soon, the growing group was singing prayers accompanied by clapping and the loud chiming of the manjira. Though I had little idea what I was singing, aside from the familiar names of deities and characters from the holy books, the positive feeling in these songs was palpable. The devotees took turns choosing and leading the songs, however one man appeared to be permanently in charge of the manjiras.
After the singing of prayers concluded, there was another round of om chanting and mediation. After this, everyone bowed to the room’s deity, with hands,forehead, knees, shins, and feet touching the ground. Them everyone stood up. One woman attempted to explain to me what was to come next, ultimately giving up and just saying “you’ll see”. The man who played the manjiras now went to the side of the altar and picked up a conch shell, which he blew into, producing an astoundingly loud noise. A woman began ringing a bell, adding to the cacophonous affect. The group collectively began to turn in circles, with hands in prayer position at chest level.
Next, a tray of candle stubs was lit by a woman in a flowered kurta. She faced the deity and lifted and lowered the tray of candles in a circular motion several times. One by one, every member of the congregation received the tray. Part of the way through, I began counting and noticed that most individuals either did three or six revolutions. Several individuals and families went twice.
Once this was concluded, the woman who lit the candles took possession of them once again. She held them, as individuals came up, placed an offering of money in a bag, placed their hands over the flames for second, and placed their hands over their eyes. I feel the need to say that no one forced me to donate, and not everyone did. It was entirely a matter of choice that I gave a donation. I mimicked the motion of putting my hands of the flames then my eyes.
After this portion of the service concluded, the organized portion of the service appeared to be complete. A woman in a flowered kurta insisted that my grandmother and I stay to have lunch with them. She explained that the meal had been blessed by the gods and that everyone who participated in the service had to have some. The meal was absolutely amazing, and it consisted of some naan bread, a deliciously spicy yellow curry, spiced vegetables, a rice pudding called kheer, and an almond paste dish. I sat with a man and his daughter, each dressed far more Westernly than some of the older devotees. They both wore jeans with semi-formal shirts (a polo shirt for him and a forever21 blouse for her). He explained that the word “ana” was said so many times throughout the service because it meant happiness. The prayers’ content was just as joyful as the mingling voices of the devotees.
Bright small talk crossed the room in several languages, as everyone enjoyed their food. The manjira-playing man fetched a tray of figs from the altar and passed them around to individuals as they began to filter out of the room. I was slightly surprised to be offered one, but I quite enjoyed my first fig,once I deduced from observation that I was meant to eat it.
I actually assumed that the man who handed out the figs was the priest. This turned out not to be the case. When I asked to see the priest, a man said that he would call him and see if he was in the building. If he wasn’t then he was probably out doing home ceremonies (funerals, weddings, etc.). Luckily, the priest was nearby. However, he had not been present for the service. The man who I assumed to be in charge of the Hindu service was just one of the several devotees who took charge at different parts in the ceremony.
A man wearing an orange kurta and bluetooth earpiece turned up at the door, asking if I had questions. Read what happens next in the Interview section of the Hinduism tab.
Thank you for reading,