First Experience in a Hindu Temple
In September 2009, I attended the Lakshmi Puja ritual of Navaratri in downtown Manhattan. The only information I had prior to the experience was some fundamental understanding of Navaratri based on a preliminary internet search: the nine-day festival time is used to celebrate the three Most High Goddesses in the Hindu tradition, and I would be going on one of the three days dedicated to the goddess Lakshmi. Other than that, I knew nothing.
The puja took place in a small, ornately decorated room. Somehow I had been expecting a big palace-like temple, but what the temple lacked in size, it made up for in color and exquisite beauty. We meditated with mantras, gave offerings of rice and other food objects I could not identify, and washed the idol of the goddess I presumed to be Lakshmi.
There was a great deal of ritual surrounding all of these processes, much of which was so specific that I can barely remember it, even just the next day. Clearly a great deal of emphasis was placed on the things and the symbolism they contained in relation to the Other World.
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Power of Doing
I kept thinking about the fact that this entire ritual is all about practice; it does not have the same meaning if the followers of Hinduism merely believe in it. Instead, they must go through the motions of actually washing the idol many times, saying the mantras with their own lips, et cetera.
And yet, many of the definitions of religion in the common understanding barely mention practice at all. Religion is usually treated as internal, contemplative, and individual. This ceremony, though, had almost nothing to do with what people were feeling and was more centered on the action and the community. This seemed to rub up against (if not to conflict with entirely) the definitions I generally hear when people discuss religion.
John Caputo is a theologan whose book On Religion describes the roots of religious thinking and behavior as being in the innately human feeling of love.
What is Religion? Passion vs. Action
For example, I am sure that John Caputo would agree that these people are religious: the puja ritual exists to express love and adoration for Lakshmi (so that, I learned at the temple that night, she would bestow prosperity and health on us), and for Caputo religion is all about the love of a Higher Power.
But at the same time, this is not the type of love Caputo required for religion to be present. He seemed to think that the outward appearance of our love was less important than what was inside, and yet here the complete opposite seemed to be true. The entire point of the ceremony was that Lakshmi saw us performing those acts of devotion.
This conflict between the reflective nature of religion and its alternative, active nature is interesting, to say the least. Caputo seems to think that the former is important and only mentions the latter as an afterthought, but it seems to me that a definition of religion cannot fully exclude the practices of a tradition. Why would the Navaratri festival still exist after millennia if the religion of Hinduism did not need it? Surely the ancient tradition would have shed excess practices by now.
At the same time, Caputo’s requirement of passion in his definition of religion clearly has important implications. Surely most people would agree that going through the puja ritual does not make me Hindu, and that is because I do not necessarily believe that the ritual is doing exactly what it claims to do. On the other hand, merely having strong faith that Hindu beliefs are universal truths would not make me Hindu either. This entire experience reinforced for me the idea that religion is not one thing or another: it is the interplay of belief and practice that creates religious experience.