A Most Precious Resource

Durga Puja LDK and CKWe came to the Laxmi Narayan Hindu Mandir (Temple) in Surrey, Canada, expecting to see unfamiliar religious practices. But, as often happens in interfaith encounter, we were surprised. We — Christian and Jewish visitors from the Vancouver School of Theology — recognized familiar quirks of spiritual community, and learned valuable lessons from the spiritual leader.

Our host, VST Student and multi-faith chaplain Arun Chatterjee, gave us a tour of the Mandir’s spacious main hall. Today, he explained, was Durga Puja, the annual celebration of the Goddess Durga. Durga is a universal spirit, formless and elusive, yet dwelling in all that exists. She is a cosmic mother, birthing other spiritual powers and their divine expressions. Arun showed us the altar, featuring a porcelain family of gods and goddesses, dressed in fine, glittery clothing. Statues of the divinities, he said, help devotees concentrate on the powers the gods represent. Without idols and the rituals performed around them, seekers would have no concrete, communal focus for their spirituality.

We watched as the priest conducted his rituals, chanting from the Vedas (scriptures) and ringing bells, accompanied by enthusiastic amateur drummers. Members of the community came forward in small groups to dance in honor of the Goddess, carrying incense pans. A short cultural program featured dancers performing different styles of traditional Indian dance, followed by singers both female and male. Volunteers served sweet pudding donated by a family who had asked us to pray for a relative’s healing. Finally, an abundant vegetarian dinner was served.

During the priest’s rituals, people talked and socialized. A few reluctant teens awkwardly participated in the goddess dance. Overly enthusiastic dancers dropped burning incense, and were rescued by the priest’s intervention. Friends videotaped performers during the cultural program. A family made a donation to the Temple, asking us to pray for healing. Tired children ran, jumped and shouted with their friends. Volunteers served food, asking anxiously, “Did you get enough to eat?”

After the ceremonies, the priest Rathin Bhattacharjee spoke with us about his philosophy of spiritual leadership. Pointing at the altar of Durga he said, “See her ten arms? That symbolizes the greatness of her reach. Religion is not just spiritual these days, it’s cultural. It’s a way of life. Here, we never want to be orthodox. Religion belongs to the people. At our Temple, we try to give them some spiritual resources for their lives.”

He described the fine line walked by many religious leaders in North America. It’s not easy to promote appreciation for an ethnic heritage and teach a beloved spiritual path, yet flow with changes brought by a new social context. Still, he seems to know the way: above all, be open to people, with all their quirks; they are a tradition’s most precious resource.

Image: Laura Duhan Kaplan, Charles Kaplan, and a Temple volunteer. Photo by Lorraine Ashdown.

Originally posted at Rabbis Without Borders.

  1. My interfaith study, on Sunday, was to sing sections of Faure’s “Requiem” (and many hymns) for an Anglican Church remembrance service. I got a strong sense that those Christians were solving the same spiritual problems as Jews — just solving them a little differently. When you read the names of those who had died in the preceding year, it’s a yahrzeit service, whatever you call it, and it serves a common human need.

  2. Laura, a happy story. Just one quibble: your use of the word “idols,” which I believe is irredeemably negative. It carries a payload of false and ignorant religion. I prefer the neutral term, “images.” I know that many of the Hindu faithful do use the word, but my sense is that this is just because we do. Over to you!

  3. “It’s not easy to promote appreciation for an ethnic heritage and teach a beloved spiritual path, yet flow with changes brought by a new social context.”
    To me, that says it all. Like some people as they age, some religions refuse to stray from the well-trodden path, no matter how much harm their judgement may inflict on others. To not-think, to not-change is always easier than to wrestle with hard realities. When religions stay stuck in the past in the name of “tradition” and take every written word in it’s most literal meaning, they lose the very essence of their spirituality.
    Durga is but another name for Shechinah , a universal spirit, formless and elusive, yet dwelling in all that exists. May she help us all find and give expression to our spirituality.

  4. Sorry, I’m not sure what or who maxmil may be. I did mean to post the above in my name – Helen Waldstein Wilkes.

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