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A VISIT TO SRI VENKATESWARA
July 23, 2007
 
We saw the parking signs for the Indian-American Festival even before we saw the temple itself: we parked far, far away, and yellow school buses ferried us to the temple grounds. The temple entrance rose above the landscape, just as in India, its surface covered with depictions of as many of the gods would fit. Far from home, this Hindu temple must suffice for Indian-Americans from many parts of India; the practices of the south and those of the north mingle in the temple, so that anyone can find the devotion he or she needs.

It was crowded -- it felt the way India feels: India is always crowded, no matter where you are. Lacking personal physical space, devotees of the various gods created their own psychic privacy, not made shy by the presence of other bodies as they circled a shrine over and over again in prayer, as they prostrated themselves or knelt and touched their foreheads to the ground. You really can't be shy about much in India; there isn't room. You live your life in public or you don't live it at all.

We had never seen a new Hindu temple; all the temples we visited in India were very old. This one is shiny and well-kept, with a staff of thirteen priests, who perform worship services on request for anyone who comes to them. They spend thousands of dollars on fresh flowers every month -- the gods wear beautiful garlands, handmade by temple volunteers, a fresh one every day. The temple sell fresh coconuts for devotees to offer the gods, and have a special sink for breaking them open. The place where you wash your feet before entering has a very modern pair of faucets with electronic sensors: just stand there and the water bathes your feet. Then you're ready to visit the gods in a suitable state of humility.

And humility is appropriate. Other people's faith always has something to offer one's own faith, no matter where and no matter what. The work of the gods -- creation, salvation, the clearing of obstacles, the destruction of evil: we have the same trust in our one God that they have in their many. All of them are, after all, the incarnation of a oneness we and they alike affirm.

I saw a young man prostrate himself gracefully before Lord Shiva and spring back up with equal grace. I saw a tiny girl join her hands before her face in prayer, imitating her mother. I saw a young woman ring a bell three times to make sure the god was awake and listening to her prayer. Around and around the shrines the people walked, slowly and simply or briskly and full of confident energy. There were as many ways of worshiping as there were people doing it.

After the temple, we saw a dance concert and then, tired and hungry and thirsty, plopped ourselves on the ground in the shade for a picnic of wonderful Indian food and a cup of cool lassi. Then we got into one of the yellow buses and went back to our car. It was a fine afternoon.

The neighbors have a hard time with the temple, I have read. Too many cars, they say, too much noise. They've defeated a zoning variation the temple needs in order to expand its building. I wonder if they'd have worked as hard against a mega-church, but perhaps I am being too harsh.

Your neighborhood is going to change. It's not going to stay the same. The good things you did there were good things, but they cannot last forever -- something new must take their place. You can shrink from it, hating the whole process, or you can come out to meet it, and let your soul grow rich from the encounter. Because, if your faith and your life can be shaken just by encountering something new, you may have kept them under wraps for too long. It's probably time to toughen up a little.
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