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Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion

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Overview

For the hundreds of millions of Hindu people in India, devotional practices offer meaning and balance to daily existence. Household rituals and community festivals frame Hindu life, and prayers enfold the hours--acknowledging the sacred dawn, honoring the spirits within the tools of one's work, seeking the protection of deities in the night. This beautiful book is the first to enable readers in the West to witness the breadth and vitality of the reverential Hindu experience in India. With hundreds of pictures to fire the imagination and eloquent descriptions of the wide scope of Hindu beliefs and practices, the book is a deeply satisfying introduction to the religion embraced by one-sixth of the world's people, including more than one million adherents in the United States.

Stephen Huyler's arresting photographs document the spirituality of common men and women in India. His evocative pictures, set in houses, at roadsides, and in temples, enable us to see directly into the heart of Hindu belief: the essential moment of worship known as darshan, or "seeing and being seen by God." With definitions, descriptions, and captivating stories of Hindu individuals at worship, Huyler offers us a deep understanding of the Hindu people, their belief in the spiritual component of all human activity, their awareness of the sacred, their daily worship experiences, and their ways of meeting God.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Religious Imagination

Stephen P. Huyler, author of Painted Prayers: Women's Art in Village India and Gifts of Earth: Terracottas and Clay Sculptures of India, is no stranger to Hindu art and life. He has worked with internationally renowned museums curating exhibits of Hindu art, and has spent most of the past 28 years traveling in India and studying its rituals. Meeting God is the first book of photographs to bring to Western eyes the many colorful varieties of Hindu daily devotional ritual.

In hundreds of vivid images, we are introduced to the practices that make of everyday life an omnipresent opportunity to both worship and acknowledge the divine ground of all existence and to engage in darshan, or "seeing and being seen by God." The book spans sunrise bathing rituals in the Ganges River to the sunset of life, during which the elderly are revered as repositories of spiritual and practical knowledge. Along the way, Huyler's text explains the rich diversity of Hindu devotional life and faith in prose that is as vivid and illuminating as the photographs themselves.

One of the most startling series of photographs is of a ritual performed by ummarried women seeking divine aid in finding a good husband. On the floor of a temple to the Goddess Mariamman, three women join together to meticulously create a lotus flower with 1,008 symmetrical petals, which are connected by trickling rice flower through the fingers. This process takes approximately six hours, and, once completed, small terracotta lamps are placed in each petal, and then burn for one hour. The haunting image of the darkened temple floor pierced by a thousand-plus small lamps burning in the shape of an extraordinary lotus blossom that will be dismantled as soon as the flames die out is a powerful visual metaphor for the Hindu belief in the impermanence of all material existence.

As Thomas Moore writes in the introduction, "The magical world of India that Stephen Huyler evokes with his wondrous photography and devotee's manner of observation shows that it is still possible to live in the world religiously.... We need nothing less than a renewal of religious imagination, and to that end there is much to be learned from the concrete, touching, simple Hinduism filtered through the brilliant lens of Stephen Huyler."

—Sara Laurent

Bill Broadway
A full color tour of India through the eyes and lens of a noted historian-photographer.
Washington Post
Dallas Morning News
Pictures with amazing color and beauty line nearly every page, and the author's written portrayal of Hinduism is just as enticing. Focusing on the various ways of Hindu worship, or puja, Mr. Huyler explains how Hindu practices fit into everyday life in India. . . . Huyler put [Meeting God] together so that outsiders to the Hindu tradition might appreciate what often seems strange and even threatening.
Hinduism Today
An engaging story book, an exquisite photo journey into the heart of India and especially, a superb overview of the ways and whys of Hindu worship.
(— Hinduism Today
Hinduism Today
An engaging story book,an exquisite photo journey into the heart of India and especially,a superb overview of the ways and whys of Hindu worship.
Sandra Marshall
Anyone with an interest in religion and specifically in the traditions of India will be invigorated by this splendid treasure! Truly in a class by itself.
Napra Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
For centuries, India's strict caste system prohibited many Hindus from worshipping their gods in a public way simply because lower caste Hindus could not afford the services of a brahmin (a priest). Yet Huyler, co-curator of the Puja: Expressions of Hindu Devotion exhibition at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, notes that these lower caste families and individuals found many ways to worship and to keep alive devotion to their own religion. In what is sure to become an enduring work, the author provides descriptions of the many devotional rituals that occupy Hindus as they seek darshan, seeing and being seen by God. In an opening chapter, Huyler explains the major concepts of Hindu devotions: puja, "a ceremonial act of showing reverence to a God or Goddess through invocation, prayer, song, and ritual"; dharma, "the supreme law of righteousness"; karma, "the doctrine of absolute responsibility"; varna, the caste system; Brahmanas, priests and their families. Using stories and photographs, Huyler describes the elements of public worship in a Hindu temple, the rituals accompanying worship in the home, the practices surrounding community festivals, processions that honor specific deities and the coming-of-age ceremonies that mark adolescence and old age. Photos grace every page: 200 in all, gorgeous full-color depictions of temples, household shrines, statuary of deities, sacred sites such as the Ganges River and people engaged in particular ritual activities and processions. Huyler's riveting prose and lavish photos bring Hinduism and its practices to life in all their richness and diversity. (Sept.) FYI: The book will accompany an exhibition that opens at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in fall 1999. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Richard Lannoy
...a vivid, perceptive, occasionally moving exposition of a subject too long ignored or treated with contempt. Huyler illustrates his informative text with a large number of his own colour photographs, some of which are remarkably beautiful.... We are permitted to enter that holy of holies, the shrine at the heart of every Hindu home.
The Times Literary Supplement
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300089059
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 268
  • Sales rank: 925,050
  • Product dimensions: 6.90 (w) x 10.04 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

A damp chill pervades the air as Amita wends her way down the dark street to the river. For warmth she pulls her sari about her head and adjusts her light wool shawl more tightly around her shoulders. Then she reaches down with both hands to pull her two young children along with her. They stumble sleepily as she guides them through the narrow passageways. Just above the river she stops quickly to buy a small lamp made of a curled dried leaf. In its center a daub of clarified butter holds a wick. The three sidle through the huddled bodies of unidentifiable figures and down the ancient stone steps that run as far as they can see along the river's edge, steps grooved through centuries of use. And then the black expanse of the river fills their gaze and they slip off their sandals and walk down the last steps into the icy cold water. The children are reluctant, their teeth chattering; their mother is determined, intent on fulfilling this ritual, which begins each day of her life.


First she takes her ten-year-old daughter, Meenu, and presses her down into the water. A bar of soap materializes from a plastic bag in her waistband, and she briskly scrubs Meenu's head and neck, arms and legs, reaching up under her clinging dress to wash her hips and torso. The girl then dunks quickly and clambers up the shore. Then Amita similarly washes Bablu, her seven-year-old son. He is cold, but uncomplaining. Finally, it is her turn to dip deeply into the river, wash herself while still dressed in yesterday's sari, and return to the bank to collect the children. Now they are clean and ready to greet the day.


Allthe while the sky has been lightening. Across the river the promise of sunrise turns the water from deep purple to rich blues tinged with orange. The shivering three step again into the water, which now seems warm compared to the biting air. Amita is immersed to her knees, Meenu and Bablu to their waists. Together they sing prayers to the Goddess Ganga, who is also the river. They visualize her magnificence, her nurturing presence as the Purifier and Mother of All Existence. With a match Meenu lights the small leaf lamp and gently floats it out before them. At that moment, the sun's first rays peek above the sandy horizon, and they begin singing to the Sun God, Surya, the Source of All Energy, the Great Provider. In acknowledging the two they also acknowledge the One, for in Hinduism the supreme deity is the absolute complement of opposites, of masculine and feminine, of dark and light, of wrong and right, of good and evil. By beginning each day in this way they attune themselves with the universe and validate their place in it. They are essential parts of a greater whole.


As the sun rises to warm the river and the ancient city crowded on its banks, Amita and her two children climb the stone steps back to dry land. Reaching into a shoulder bag that she had left on the shore, she pulls out dry, clean clothes for them all. First she deftly strips Bablu and helps him into a pair of shorts. Then she holds up her folded sari as a screen behind which Meenu quickly changes into a clean, dry cotton skirt and blouse, her school uniform. Finally, with rapid and remarkable dexterity, Amita wraps the dry sari around herself as she peels off her soaking underlayers, pleating, draping, and folding the outer garment until she is properly dressed. She then squats down on the river's edge and rubs all the wet clothes with a bar of soap, scrubbing them against the ancient stone steps and rinsing them in the water.


Amita puts the laundry into her bag and the three climb back to the street that leads to their home. Once there, the clothes, cleaned by the sacred waters of Ganga, will be hung out to dry in the warmth of Surya, the sun. For in Hinduism the sacred and the mundane, the spiritual and the practical are in constant balance, the one providing context for the other. For Amita the day has begun as it will continue, honoring the Divine in acts of simple ritual.


As Amita and her children prayed on the banks of the Ganges River, all around them hundreds, thousands of others were beginning their day in similar fashion. The rituals of each were slightly different from those of his or her neighbor. Throughout India, millions use water in their daily prayers to the sun. But the ways these prayers are enacted are as varied as the participants because in Hinduism, alone of all the major religions in the world, there is no one right way. Hinduism is a religion of individuality. Many Hindus start their day praying while standing in water. Others pour water from vessels as the sun rises. Some may choose to worship at sunset, or at any other time. And not everyone worships Surya and Ganga. Many choose other forms of the Divine as their means of essential contact with the Absolute. But virtually all Hindus believe that the Absolute is the pure blend of opposites, neither masculine nor feminine. The focus and means of worship are many, but the process has a common thread. It acknowledges one of the fundamental principles of Hinduism: God is a universal force, indivisible and yet infinitely divisible, the one and the many, the perfect mixture of all facets of existence.


Literally, Hindu simply means "of India," a term devised by those outside the culture attempting to understand it. Many contemporary followers of this indigenous religion of India call it Sanatana Dharma. Hinduism is often said to be a religion of millions of Gods, and it is indeed a religion of diversity. But it is essential to understand that underlying all is the belief in the unity in one great God: the Absolute, often known as Brahman. Some Hindus believe that this Absolute is formless, a supreme cosmic force that cannot be completely known by humankind. Hindu philosophers state that existence as we know it is an illusion. The universe is relative, ever changing, whereas its source, the Absolute, is the only permanent thing, never changing. To truly reach the Divine we must divest ourselves of all physical attachments and open our minds and spirits to the great void. Most Hindus, however, believe in an Absolute that manifests itself and its powers through the Gods and Goddesses. By selecting one or more of these deities to worship, and by conducting rituals designed to facilitate contact with them, a Hindu devotee is striving to recognize his or her unity with the Absolute—like Amita and her children in their prayers to the masculine and feminine, God and Goddess, sun and river.


India is a complex country. Throughout its several millennia of history, its many kingdoms, empires, invasions, and trading contacts have created unparalleled cultural diversity. For example, its people speak 325 languages expressed in more than two thousand dialects and twenty-five scripts. Each region has a pronounced individual character: usually its own social and ethnic composition, language, climate, geography, agriculture, and industry. A recent government anthropological survey documents eighty thousand subcultures. Each community has a specific and unique regional mythology and belief system, and every town and village has its own names for the Gods and Goddesses worshipped there. Although several centuries of theologians have identified the similarities of many of these individual deities and have urged that they be called by common names, such as Rama or Durga, regional personalities still exist.


With all of these individual perceptions and traditions, it is easy to understand why definitions of Hinduism have baffled so many Westerners. In fact, Hinduism is not one codified religion but a compilation of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of smaller belief systems. Today one of every six human beings living on our planet is a Hindu (of India's present population of almost 1 billion, 82 percent are Hindu). Statements are frequently made that Hinduism incorporates thousands or millions of Gods, but that number refers to the entire country, not to individual beliefs. In practice, each Hindu worships only those few deities that he or she believes directly influence his or her life.


Hindus rarely proselytize; most respect the rights of others to their own beliefs. According to the tenets of Hinduism, all philosophies and belief systems are considered equally valid paths to salvation, and it is thought inappropriate to judge the choices of others. Exceptions to this attitude are found in politically motivated disturbances, such as the Hindu-Muslim or Hindu-Sikh riots of the twentieth century. Without political exploitation, Hindus usually live in close harmony with those of all religions. Hindu children grow up learning to follow the tenets and customs of their parents, but in adolescence and young adulthood they are encouraged to make their own choices as to which primary Gods or Goddesses they find personally inspiring. Many Hindus continue to observe the rituals associated with the deity to whom the family has prayed for generations, but it is by no means unusual for a son or daughter to realize that his or her needs will be better met by focusing on a different deity and its corresponding rituals. Although as adults they will continue to practice many family rituals, they will also conduct their own private worship. To perform these rituals correctly, Hindus usually rely on the advice of respected religious teachers and priests. In most cases, Hindus who choose different deifies still will retain the respect and goodwill of those who continue inherited traditions. In this way, one frequently finds husband and wife worshipping different principal deities. For example, a man might worship the God Shiva, while his wife, coming from a different birth family with different needs, prays to the God Krishna. Their children, as they grow older, may observe the rituals of either or both parents, or the son might choose to worship, for instance, the Goddess Durga, and their daughter yet another manifestation of the Divine, Hanuman. The worship of different deities within a family does not negatively affect family equanimity.


No emphatic statement can be made about Hinduism that cannot be contradicted; it truly is a religion of opposite and complementary forces that embraces an extraordinary diversity. Three primary sects harmoniously coexist in India: the worshippers of Shiva, also known as Devi (the Creator and Destroyer of all Existence), the worshippers of Vishnu (the Protector or Preserver of the Universe), and the worshippers of Shakti (the Pervasive Feminine Principle, the Dynamic Power). Each of these deities is believed by their millions of devotees to be the Supreme Personified Godhead. Most Hindus, however, also believe that the universe functions by the symbiotic coexistence of all of these powers, each of which must be acknowledged in order to maintain balance. Those that consider themselves Shaivas, the disciples of Shiva, often still worship Vishnu and Shakti, while Vaishnavas, the adherents to faith in Vishnu, may still pray to Shiva and Shakti. Their allegiance to one primary deity does not deny the importance of their recognition and honoring of the rest. Furthermore, each sect has its own mythology, which includes complex substrata of incarnations and/or attendant deities and the subsequent texts, rituals, and social and cultural observances.


Many descriptions of Hinduism focus on the two most popular sects: the Shaivas and the Vaishnavas. Scholars often define the religion as centered upon the worship of the two male deities for whom these sects are named. In doing so, they misinterpret Hinduism. All Hindus recognize the feminine complement to a masculine God. In fact, the word for "power" in most Indian languages derives from the Sanskrit word Shakti, which means Divine Feminine energy. A male deity's strength comes from his feminine consort. Vishnu is almost always shown accompanied by either one Goddess, Lakshmi, or two, Bhudevi and Shridevi. Shiva is incomplete without the Goddess Parvati. In fact, a common image of Shiva depicts the God as Ardhanari: the right half of the body is male, the left half is female. A devotee may choose to pray to only half of the manifestation of the Divine; but she or he will always be aware that the other half is of equal importance to the existence of all creation.


The concept of multiple deities can be overwhelming to an outsider. For the believer, the Absolute unmanifested Brahman has taken forms in order to govern specific aspects of existence and to provide direct and indisputable guidance to devotees. It is considered natural that as humans we respond to those deities that meet our individual needs. Some, such as Shiva, are demanding of a rigorous and disciplined life. Rama, one of the ten incarnations of Vishnu, is a leader and warrior whose qualities are justness and social balance. Krishna, another of Vishnu's incarnations, is linked to the heart and to salvation through love. The Goddess Durga is the embodiment of the feminine power of action, invoked as a decisive force to bring about change by vanquishing evil and restoring peace. Lakshmi is the feminine provider of wealth and prosperity, prayed to for the health and welfare of the family. Ganesha, one of the sons of Shiva, is beseeched at the beginning of any endeavor to bring about its success.


As they worship, almost all Hindus direct their prayers to several deities, either at once or individually, attuning themselves to those aspects of the divine essence that they find pertinent to their own needs. For example, each profession has a patron deity who, if properly honored, is believed to facilitate success. Craftsmen pray to Prajapati or Vishvakarma, the Progenitor and God of Creativity. Farmers pray to the Earth Goddess Bhudevi or Gauri for fertility and good harvests. Most shops have within them a shrine to the Goddess Lakshmi in order to attract prosperity. Teachers, dancers, and musicians honor Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning and the Arts. Soldiers might pray to Rama or Hanuman for might in battle, or to one of the many forms of Shakti (for example, Durga or Kali) for her supreme strength and undefeated power. A cook honors Annapurna, the Goddess of Culinary Arts. A pregnant woman may pray to the Goddess Parvati or the Goddess Mariamman to ensure a successful childbirth.


PUJA


Puja is the ceremonial act of showing reverence to a God or Goddess through invocation, prayer, song, and ritual. An essential aspect of puja for Hindus is communion with the Divine. The worshipper believes that with this contact she or he has established direct contact with the deity. Most often that contact is facilitated through an image: an element of nature, a sculpture, vessel, painting, or print. When the image is consecrated at the time of its installation in a shrine or temple, the deity is invited to invest the image with his or her cosmic energy. In the eyes of most devotees, the icon then becomes the deity, its presence reaffirmed by the daily rituals of honoring and invocation. Certainly most Hindus recognize that the magnitude of a God or Goddess is far greater than any image. Nevertheless, most also believe that divine power is so magnificent that it can be present anywhere in the world at any time. In other words, while one image of Shiva in a small town temple is believed by his devotees to be the God incarnate in stone, it is nevertheless consistent in Hinduism that every other sculpture of Shiva in each of hundreds of thousands of shrines throughout the world also contains his divine presence and power. Many Hindu sages have remarked that very few are able to understand the abstract, formless essence of the Absolute. Most individuals, they state, need to approach God through images and with rituals specific to that deity, not so much because the deity requires it but because of the limitations of the devotee. They believe that humans need something concrete on which to focus in prayer. Hinduism fulfills that need through innumerable manifestations. Although many images are exquisitely and elaborately fashioned by sculptors or painters, and, for the devout Hindu, artistic merit is important, it is secondary to spiritual content. Images are created as receptacles for spiritual energy; each is an essential link that allows the devotee to experience direct communion with the Gods.


The principal aim of any puja is this feeling of personal contact with the deity. Darshan, literally translated from Sanskrit as "seeing and being seen by God," is that moment when the worshipper is receptive to recognition by the God or Goddess. Darshan may be achieved in a variety of ways. It may be felt by an individual during his or her daily household pujas or meditations, when the contact is made alone. A person may experience darshan simply by viewing a particularly sacred sculpture or holy spot, perhaps during a pilgrimage or at a festival. Or the individual may feel a special communication with the deity through the intervention of a priest during a strictly regulated temple ritual. Through whatever means it comes, darshan brings both peace and blessing to Hindu devotees, and through it, they believe, miracles can and do occur frequently.


Hinduism is not in general a congregational religion. Its adherents worship singly or in small family units. Most sacred rituals take place in the home or in temples or shrines that may be visited at any time from early morning until late night (in some parts of the country they may be closed for several midday hours). Unlike most other religions, Hinduism has no sermons. Priests are trained to act as liaisons with the Divine, learning the complex prescriptions of rituals that must be enacted precisely to show proper respect to the Gods and to facilitate darshan for the devotee. Learned priests and holy scholars may conduct discussions on sacred texts and philosophies, but these informal meetings are held outside the temple's sanctum. The closest parallel to Judeo-Christian services are bhajanas, in which followers of the Bhakti movement join to sing hymns and praises to their Lord Krishna, yet there still is no preaching as it is known in the West. Although anyone may worship at a temple at any time, there are auspicious times during the day when many people gather to perform pujas. The format is not congregational in the Judeo-Christian sense of the word; instead, each person lines up to get as close as possible to the image of the deity in order to have his or her darshan.


In spite of its focus on the individual, Hinduism still provides many occasions for group activities. Perhaps the most common are the numerous religious festivals held each year, usually joyous celebrations involving the entire community. Although some festivals are centered on the home, most involve special pujas at the appropriate nearby temples, which are thronged with devotees in their finest apparel. Others revolve around huge parades in which consecrated processional images of the deities are brought out once each year for public darshan by the elderly and infirm, who might not be able to visit the temple. Through pilgrimages a large group of devotees from one community can visit sacred spots in other parts of the country, gaining darshan and subsequent merit by performing pujas in these distant shrines and temples. Finally, recitations and reenactments of sacred stories are often held within or outside the temple, and they may be followed by discussions led by scholars and priests.


DHARMA AND KARMA


Two underpinnings of Hinduism are dharma and karma. Dharma is translated as the supreme law of righteousness, the belief that there is an undeniable pattern to which all existence must adhere. Guidelines have been set down by the Gods and by the many sages, saints, and prophets in the form of ancient texts that prescribe the courses of action that one must follow in order to attain a balanced and fruitful life. The Vedas, compiled at least four thousand years ago, are the four primary Hindu sources that form the basis of most orthodox rituals, in the same way that the Bible, the Torah, and the Q'uran do for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The Upanishads and Puranas are later compilations, the former discussing the fine points of theology and the latter further specifying the means of approaching both worship and the practical aspects of living. The two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, provide paradigms in the form of detailed stories that illustrate appropriate choices in all aspects of life: education, marriage, child-rearing, family relationships, war, and death. One of the most common phrases used by Indians today to describe their actions is "This is my duty." By duty they mean that an action is beyond choice; it is a part of dharma. By doing whatever is required they are fulfilling their roles as conscientious Hindus, attentive to the cosmic ebb and flow, the innate reciprocity that governs all existence.


Karma literally translates as action. It is the law of cause and effect based on the fundamental belief that every action creates an equal reaction, either obviously in the present or subtly in the future. Karma is the doctrine of absolute responsibility: everything we do or even think has repercussions. It is inextricably related to reincarnation, another basic belief of Hinduism. Hindus believe that the soul is eternal, reborn in countless forms. In each life we are different, given new choices that challenge our integrity. The way we conduct ourselves, our karma, governs the form and life into which we will next be born. The goal of a devout Hindu is to improve with each life until he or she will no longer have needs but, like the great sages and saints, will live to serve others, the one soul gradually merging with the greater soul that is the Absolute, Brahman. The doctrine of reincarnation has received criticism from practitioners of other philosophies, who state that it discourages initiative in India. In their opinion, many Hindus are so accepting of their status in life, their karma, that they are unwilling to make changes. Indeed, some do suffer from social apathy; but the sages state that this inertia is a misinterpretation of the principles of dharma. Appropriate behavior requires that one live by right thought and right action with heightened awareness of possible consequences. Dharma and karma underline the belief in ultimate culpability: man is defined by what he says and does. Optimally, this approach restrains initiative only when action is inappropriate."


VARNA


Varna refers to the traditional Hindu social order, known to outsiders as the caste system. Contemporary empathy for social equality has influenced the opinions of many people worldwide, causing them to condemn the caste system without attempting to understand its historical relevance. Varna was established in the Vedas to regulate and categorize society into four primary hereditary groups: the Brahmanas (priests), Kshatriyas (administrators and soldiers), Vaishyas (merchants), and Shudras (farmers, craftsmen, and laborers). Thousands of years of cultural expansion and resettlement have resulted in the further division of each of these varnas into countless subcastes (jatis). Conquered subjects and prisoners of war outside the primary society were forced into necessary but undesirable occupations: butchering animals, tanning leather, removing waste products. These hereditary positions were outside the four varnas (outcaste), and the people were considered "untouchable" because their labor made them susceptible to contagious diseases; contact with them was a health risk. Over the millennia the position of outcaste became canonized into an inviolable and socially discriminated position that is infamous worldwide. In some ways, however, the Hindu caste system may be seen as simply a feudal social order no worse or better than that of Europe or the rest of the world prior to the Industrial Revolution. It remained vital in India long after the relative dissolution of similar social organizations in other countries because of foreign imperial policy, not, as is often believed, because Indians were "naturally" reluctant to change. Indeed, until India came under the power of the British Empire, its cultures were considered by Western travelers and writers to be among the most advanced and forward looking. The British motto "Divide and Conquer" succeeded by inhibiting indigenous education and bolstering the caste system. Since Indian independence in 1947, prejudice and favoritism according to caste have been explicitly outlawed. Nevertheless, change is slow, and social inequality is as common in India as it is elsewhere.

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

Foreword 10
Preface 17
1 Concepts of Hindu Devotion 20
2 Approaching God: Elements of Worship 44
3 The Soul of Family: Worship in the Home 64
4 Honoring the Spirit of Community 90
5 Answered Prayers: The Evolution from Shrine to Temple 114
6 Deities on Parade: Sacred Images in Procession 156
7 Embracing the Ephemeral: Transitory Images 174
8 Healing, Sacred Vows, and Possession 208
9 The Final Stages: Old Age and Renunciation 232
Notes 254
Bibliography 258
Glossary 263
Acknowledgments 267
Index 270
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First Chapter

A damp chill pervades the air as Amita wends her way down the dark street to the river. For warmth she pulls her sari about her head and adjusts her light wool shawl more tightly around her shoulders. Then she reaches down with both hands to pull her two young children along with her. They stumble sleepily as she guides them through the narrow passageways. Just above the river she stops quickly to buy a small lamp made of a curled dried leaf. In its center a daub of clarified butter holds a wick. The three slide through the huddled bodies of unidentifiable figures and down the ancient stone steps that run as far as they can see along the river's edge, steps grooved through centuries of use. And then the black expanse of the river fills their gaze and they slip off their sandals and walk down the last steps into the icy cold water. The children are reluctant, their teeth chattering; their mother is determined, intent of fulfilling this ritual, which begins each day of her life.

First she takes her ten-year-old daughter, Meenu, and presses her down into the water. A bar of soap materializes from a plastic bag in her waistband, and she briskly scrubs Meenu's head and neck, arms and legs, reaching up under her clinging dress to wash her hips and torso. The girl then dunks quickly and clambers up the shore. Then Amita similarly washes Bablu, her seven-year-old son. He is cold, but uncomplaining. Finally, it is her turn to dip deeply into the river, wash herself while still dressed in yesterday's sari, and return to the bank to collect the children. Now they are clean and ready to greet the day.

All the while the sky has been lightening. Across the river the promise of the sunrise turns the water from deep purple to rich blues tinged with orange. The shivering three step again into the water, which now seems warm compared to the biting air. Amita is immersed to her knees, Meenu and Bablu to their waists. Together they sing prayers to the Goddess Ganga, who is also the river. They visualize her magnificence, her nurturing presence as the Purifier and Mother of All Existence. With a match Meenu lights the small leaf lamp and gently floats it out before them. At that moment, the sun's first rays peek above the sandy horizon, and they also acknowledge the One, for in Hinduism the supreme deity is the absolute complement of opposites, of masculine and feminine, of dark and light, of wrong and right, of good and evil. By beginning each day in this way, they attune themselves with the universe and validate their place in it. They are essential parts of a greater whole.

As the sun rises to warm the river and the ancient city crowded on its banks, Amita and her two children climb the stone steps back to dry land. Reaching into a shoulder bag that she had left on the shore, she pulls out dry, clean clothes for them all. First she deftly strips Bablu and helps him into a pair of shorts. Then she holds up her folded sari as a screen behind which Meenu quickly changes into a clean, dry cotton skirt and blouse, her school uniform. Finally, with rapid and remarkable dexterity, Amita wraps the dry sari around herself as she peels off her soaking underlayers, pleating, draping, and folding the outer garment until she is properly dressed. She then squats down on the river's edge and rubs all the wet clothes with a bar of soap, scrubbing them against the ancient stone steps and rinsing them in the water.

Amita puts the laundry into her bag and the three climb back to the street that leads to their home. Once there, the clothes, cleaned by the sacred waters of Ganga, will be hung out to dry in the warmth of Surya, the sun. For in Hinduism the sacred and the mundane, the spiritual and the practical are in constant balance, the one providing context for the other. For Amita the day has begun as it will continue, honoring the Divine in acts of simple ritual.

As Amita and her children prayed on the banks of the Ganges River, all around them hundreds, thousands of others were beginning their day in similar fashion. The rituals of each were slightly different from those of his or her neighbor. Throughout India, millions use water in their daily prayers to the sun. But the ways these prayers are enacted are as varied as the participants because in Hinduism, alone of all the major religions in the world, there is no one right way. Hinduism is a religion of individuality. Many Hindus start their day praying while standing in water. Others pour water from vessels as the sun rises. Some may choose to worship at sunset, or at any other time. And not everyone worships Surya and Ganga. Many choose other forms of the Divine as their means of essential contact with the Absolute. But virtually all Hindus believe that the Absolute is the pure blend of opposites, neither masculine nor feminine. The focus and means of worship are many, but the process has a common thread. It acknowledges one of the fundamental principles of Hinduism: God is a universal force, indivisible and yet infinitely divisible, the one and the many, the perfect mixture of all facets of existence.

Literally Hindu means "of India," a term devised by those outside the culture attempting to understand it. Many contemporary followers of this indigenous religion of India call it Sanatana Dharma. Hinduism is often said to be a religion of millions of Gods, and it is indeed a religion of diversity. But it is essential to understand that underlying all is the belief in the unity in one great God: the Absolute, often known as Brahman. Some Hindus believe that this Absolute is formless, a supreme cosmic force that cannot be completely known by humankind. Hindu philosophers state that existence as we know it is an illusion. The universe is relative, ever changing, whereas its source, the Absolute, is the only permanent thing, never changing. To truly reach the Divine we must divest ourselves of all physical attachments and open our minds and spirits to the great void. Most Hindus, however, believe in an Absolute that manifests itself and its powers through the Gods and Goddesses. By selecting one or more of the these deities to worship, and by conducting rituals designed to facilitate contact with them, a Hindu devotee is striving to recognize his or her unity with the Absolute -- like Amita and her children in their prayers to the masculine and feminine, God and Goddess, sun and river.

India is a complex country. Throughout its several millennia of history, its many kingdoms, empires, invasions, and trading contacts have created unparalleled cultural diversity. For example, its people speak 325 languages expressed in more than two thousand dialects and twenty-five scripts. Each region has a pronounced individual character: usually its own social and ethnic composition, language, climate, geography, agriculture, and industry. A recent government anthropological survey documents eighty thousand subcultures. Each community has a specific and unique regional mythology and belief system, and every town and village has its own names for the Gods and Goddesses worshipped there. Although several centuries of theologians have identified the similarities of many of these individual deities and have urged that they be called by common names, such as Rama or Durga, regional personalities still exist.

With all of these individual perceptions and traditions, it is easy to understand why definitions of Hinduism have baffled so many Westerners. In fact, Hinduism is not one codified religion but a compilation of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of smaller belief systems. Today one of every six human beings living on our planet is a Hindu (of India's present population of almost 1 billion, 82 percent are Hindu). Statements are frequently made that Hinduism incorporates thousands or millions of Gods, but that number refers to the entire country, not to individual beliefs. In practice, each Hindu worships only those few deities that he or she believes directly influence his or her life.

Hindus rarely proselytize; most respect the rights of others to their own beliefs. According to the tenets of Hinduism, all philosophies and belief systems are considered equally valid paths to salvation, and it is thought inappropriate to judge the choices of others. Exceptions to this attitude are found in politically motivated disturbances, such as the Hindu-Muslim or Hindu-Sikh riots of the twentieth century. Without political exploitation, Hindus usually live in close harmony with those of all religions. Hindu children grow up learning to follow the tenets and customs of their parents, but in adolescence and young adulthood they are encouraged to make their own choices as to which primarily Gods or Goddesses they find personally inspiring. Many Hindus continue to observe the rituals associated with the deity to whom the family has prayed for generations, but it is by no means unusual for a son or daughter to realize that his or her needs will be better met by focusing on a different deity and its corresponding rituals. Although as adults they will continue to practice many family rituals, they will also conduct their own private worship. To perform these rituals correctly, Hindus usually rely on the advice of respected religious teachers and priests. In most cases, Hindus who choose different deities still will retain the respect and goodwill of those who continue inherited traditions. In this way, one frequently finds husband and wife worshipping different principal deities. For example, a man might worship the God Shiva, while his wife, coming from a different birth family with different needs, prays to the God Krishna. Their children, as they grow older, may observe the rituals of either or both parents, or the son might choose to worship, for instance, the Goddess Durga, and their daughter yet another manifestation of the Divine, Hanuman. The worship of different deities within a family does not negatively affect family equanimity.

No emphatic statement can be made about Hinduism that cannot be contradicted; it is truly a religion of opposite and complementary forces that embraces an extraordinary diversity. Three primary sects harmoniously coexist in India: the worshippers of Shiva, also known as Devi (the Creator and Destroyer of all Existence), the worshippers of Vishnu (the Protector or Preserver of the Universe), and the worshippers of Shakti (the Pervasive Feminine Principle, the Dynamic Power). Each of these deities is believed by their millions of devotees to be the Supreme Personified Godhead. Most Hindus, however, also believe that the universe functions by the symbiotic coexistence of all of these powers, each of which must be acknowledged in order to maintain balance. Those that consider themselves Shaivas, the disciples of Shiva, often still worship Vishnu and Shakti, while Vaishanavas, the adherents to faith in Vishnu, may still pray to Shiva and Shakti. Their allegiance to one primary deity does not deny the importance of their recognition and honoring of the rest. Furthermore, each sect has its own mythology, which includes complex substrata of incarnations and/or attendant deities and the subsequent texts, rituals, and social and cultural observances.

Many descriptions of Hinduism focus on the two most popular sects: the Shaivas and the Vaishnavas. Scholars often define the religion as centered upon the worship of the two male deities for whom these sects are named. In doing so, they misinterpret Hinduism. All Hindus recognize the feminine complement to a masculine God. In fact, the word for "power" in most Indian languages derives from the Sanskrit word Shakti, which means Divine Feminine energy. A male deity's strength comes from his female consort. Vishnu is almost always shown accompanied by either one Goddess, Lakshmi, or two, Bhudevi and Shridevi. Shiva is incomplete without the Goddess Parvati. In fact, a common image of the Shiva depicts the God as Ardhanari: the right half of the body is male, the left half is female. A devotee may choose to pray to only half of the manifestation of the Divine; but she or he will always be aware that the other half is of equal importance to the existence of all creation.

The concept of multiple deities can be overwhelming to an outsider. For the believer, the Absolute unmanifested Brahman has taken forms in order to govern specific aspects of existence and to provide direct and indisputable guidance to devotees. It is considered natural that as humans we respond to those deities that meet our individual needs. Some, such as Shiva, are demanding of a rigorous and disciplined life. Rama, one of the ten incarnations of Vishnu, is a leader and warrior whose qualities are justness and social balance. Krishna, another of Vishnu's incarnations, is linked to the heart and to salvation through love. The Goddess Durga is the embodiment of the feminine power of action, invoked as a decisive force to bring about change by vanquishing evil and restoring peace. Lakshmi is the feminine provider of wealth and prosperity, prayed to for the health and welfare of the family. Ganesha, one of the sons of Shiva, is beseeched at the beginning of any endeavor to bring about its success.

As they worship, almost all Hindus direct their prayers to several deities, either at once or individually, attuning themselves to those aspects of the divine essence that they find pertinent to their own needs. For example, each professions has a patron deity who, if properly honored, is believed to facilitate success. Craftsmen pray to Prajapati or Vishvakarma, the Progenitor and God of Creativity. Farmers pray to the Earth Goddess Bhudevi or Gauri for fertility and good harvests. Most shops have within them a shrine to the Goddess Lakshmi in order to attract prosperity. Teachers, dancers, and musicians honor Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning and the Arts. Soldiers might pray to Rama or Hanuman for might in battle, or to one of the many forms of Shakti (for example, Durga or Kali) for her supreme strength and undefeated power. A cook honors Annapurna, the Goddess of Culinary Arts. A pregnant woman may pray to the Goddess Parvati or the Goddess Mariamman to ensure a successful childbirth.

Copyright © 1999 by Steven P. Huyler. All rights reserved.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2002

    Fascinating and passionate look at world's oldest religion

    Tons of books have been written that explain and glorify the wisdom and philosophy of Hinduism. Many non-Hindus have been more than happy to embrace some or all of these concepts, one of the most ubiquitous being the concept of ¿karma¿. But even they can feel awed, confused, surprised or a combination of these emotions when they first encounter the seemingly anachronistic practices of Hinduism- like worshipping the stones or trees. This is one of the few books that explain well to the western audience the whats and whys of the oldest religion in the world. It focuses on the approach of common Hindu folks to their religion and how it enhances their day-to-day life. Author starts with some basic concepts and then goes on to draw pen-pictures of daily lives of devout Hindus that, at least in the religious sense, defy modernization in contemporary India. The text aided by vivid pictures fires the imagination and magically transports the reader to India. The deep passion of the author is clearly reflected in the knowledgeable text. Hinduism is a very flexible religion, which is primarily the reason it has survived thousands of years. It is perfectly acceptable to practice faith in ways different from those of ancestors, provided certain basic tenets are kept in mind. The approach to religion may vary by region, by economic status, or caste but the important thing to note that diversity is acceptable. Author has presented the approach to Hinduism in rural India or that practiced by lower income strata of the society, which comprises of 80% of Indian Hindus. This approach is different from that practiced by urban Hindus or those in middle or upper income class. Recipedelights.com highly recommends this book to all who have interest in religion, those who have an unquenchable thirst for anything Indian and even practicing Hindus.

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