Interviewing a Hindu priest

Dear reader of World Religion Weekly,

When I asked the priest for an interview, he declined. He said that he would give us a tour of the temple, and answer some questions. However, some questions he would not answer, and he definitely did not want to be audio-taped.

As we walked back, towards the temple, I gave a question a shot. “What do you feel is the most important part of Hinduism?”

Shaking his head, he declared that question one of the questions he did not answer. We all kicked off our shoes, as we entered the temple. I remained quiet as we entered, absorbing the sight that greeted us. Niches in the walls held many deities, richly attired and knowingly smiling. Some were very pale, seeming to be made from something like ceramic or white stone, and others were made of some dark substance, perhaps stone or wood. If you would like to see them, you can see the temple gallery here. The floor was of black stone and the walls of the same white marble as the front of the building, creating a breathtaking image.

The priest gestured to each of the deities, and he explained that each represented a god. He elaborated that, while there appear to be many gods, Hindus believe in one God. The one God manifests in many ways, he elaborated, leading us to the first niche. I asked what the names of these gods were. He gently reminded me that there was only one god, then informed me as to the names. I’ll try to accurately recount a few of them to the best of my abilities. The first shrine featured the cast of the Ramayana. With a slight blue tint to his alabaster skin, Rama stood alongside his brother Lakschmana and wife, Sita. Hanuman, one of the monkey-people who played a large role in rescuing Sita, crouched slightly in front of them. Offering trays were set in front of the deities. Sita, Rama, and Lakschmana each had a few dollar bills and coins in front of them. Hanuman had the same, with the appropriate addition of a banana. The next deity was a four-armed, larger version of Hanuman. The priest explained that he was an incarnation of God as well. Later on we came to a deity which was different. He was a man seated cross-legged instead of standing, who lacked the sumptuous clothing of the others. This was in fact not a Hindu god, but an individual of importance to Jainism. The priest explained that they wanted this space to be a place of worship for people of many religions. I believe this statue was of Mahavira, the main prophet of Jainism. For those who are curious, Jainism is a religion that believes that basically everything has a soul and preaches extreme nonviolence. The extremely devout are reported to go to such lengths as wearing masks, and sweeping the ground before they walk on it , in order to avoid harming bugs, air motes, and dust. Obviously, most do not go these lengths, but nonviolence and respect are held high in this religion.

The priest then pointed across the room to a more familiar figure. The Buddha sat in a mirror image of Mahavira’s cross-legged contemplation. The priest explained that these two religions were deeply connected. I assume that this referred to the nonviolence (ahimsa) preached in both. Another group of gods was pointed to, and the priest explained that they were the ones worshiped by the Sikhs.

We walked over to a group of three. The priest explained that they were the Generator, Operator, and Destroyer (G. O. D.). This trinity showed the main manifestations of God in taking care of the universe. A central display showed Vishnu (the Operator) with his wife, Lakschmi. The priest gestured back to Rama and Sita, and he explained that these two couples were one and the same. The next pair was Shiva and Parvati, who were once again explained as being the same.

The next set of deities were a showing of the extreme tolerance and inclusion that this temple offered. Mother Mary clasped Baby Jesus in front of an offering tray. The priest explained that Hindus believe that there is one God, who manifests in many different ways in many different cultures. He drew a parallel between Jesus and Rama, both of whom were manifestations of God in human flesh, and who appeared when humanity was in need. Rama appeared to deliver the world from the Rakshasas, and Jesus appeared to help deliver the Jews.

We then moved to a statue of a woman in a beautiful red gown. She held all manner of weapons in her bejeweled fingers. She was Mother Nature, the priest explained. She fought off monsters for nine days and nights in order to save humanity. She is our mother, and we must care for her, he added.

The next thing we came to did not look much like a god or goddess. It was black and had what looked like a channel for liquids in it. The priest explained that this was also Shiva. For festivals and ceremonies, milk and other substances were poured on it as offerings. He explained that this belonged to Shiva even more than the depiction of him in human-like form.

The tour concluded, the priest went into more detail as to why he would not answer my broad questions or participate in an interview. He explained that any answer to those questions would be his opinion, which he didn’t want to present as the truth. He gestured to his eyes and explained that his was not the only or necessarily correct view. Most people would answer questions such as “What is the most important part of Hinduism?” completely differently. He did not feel that his view should be elevated, especially in the view of someone with little experience in Hinduism. This is an admirable and refreshing view, especially in this age where everyone is trying to yell their opinions over each other. Facts often lose out to these roaring, subjective statements that blast from the people around us and ourselves.

The priest continued that he was sorry he couldn’t answer more of my questions and hoped that I understood. I finally did. Hecontinued that he had a book I could read in order to get a much deeper understanding of Hinduism. In fact, this was the book he generally gave to students. ¬†He fetched an English translation of the Bhagavad Gita, which I gratefully accepted and promised to return.

Though I did not receive the interview I expected, I felt that I had learned a great deal about Hindu worship and temples, and I possessed a new respect for Hindu priests.

I dare you to spend a day or even an hour trying to avoid putting your own unconscious biases and well-declared views above those of others. Just avoid putting them into speech and think deeply as to why you think that and examine facts and truths. I will clear a piece of time in the next few weeks to do just that. I will comment my experience, and I would love if you commented to share yours.

Thank you for reading,

Audrey Cole