Of Gods and Temples…

I’d just got home last night when two of my friends showed up saying they were going to the Berkeley ISKCON temple for Janmashtami pooja and I could tag along. After a quick dash upstairs to change (I wasn’t planning to show up in my school clothes – a skirt and a random t-shirt), I was ready to go. Except that once I got to the temple I suddenly remembered that since I got to the US, I’ve stopped wearing bindis on a regular basis. So there I was in a temple, and no bindi. I could hear my conscience talking in my grandmother’s voice – “achicho, pottu ettukame kovil poriya?” (Oh my! Are you going to a temple with no bindi?) Anyway, being there was more important so I soon forgot about it.

The temple itself brought back thoughts of my childhood in the Middle East. It was more like the living room of a house transformed into a temple-type setup. When we got there, the previous aarti was ending and the doors were closed on the idols. Then began our wait for the 12.00AM aarti. All around us people were chanting the Hare Krishna. In some ways, it reminded me of all those Thursday bhajans in Doha. Except in this case there was just the same “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama” line in different tunes. And the pujari was white which meant this entire exercise had an American twang to it.

The whole experience gave me the sense of familiarity that was still unfamiliar. As I was waiting for the aarti, I spotted a couple of kids running around and playing. Two of them decided to approach a painting that depicted the war between Rama and Ravana, and have a detailed discussion about it. “That is Vibheeshana. He is the second in command.” (This was said in an all-knowing manner so the listener just made a questioning face but did not comment on the accuracy of the statement) “See there. All the people in black are on Ravana’s side. The ones who are white or blue are on Rama’s side. That is because black means bad” (I felt like this kid would grow up and use Fair & Lovely for men to avoid being the bad black guy). And so on. I shamelessly eavesdropped and was happy when I realized they knew quite a bit about the Ramayana. It reminded me of listening to my grandfather telling me of stories from the Ramayana and then showing off by telling people obscure facts like the name of Bharatha and Shatrugna’s wives (Mandavi and Shrutakeerthi. I remembered, I did not use Google for this!)

Then there was the random guy who sat next to me at the end of the event and insisted that the Gita claims that all the people in temples are demons and they pretend to be God’s messengers to fool the unsuspecting people who flock to them. “You are better off keeping a temple in your house, eh?” he slurred while I slipped away. 

There was another guy who took the trouble of picking out all the boys who looked like they’d come for the free food (including my friends who had made that declaration to me while we were on the way), and making them serve everyone. For some reason, he only picked boys. He was thwarted in his attempt by this one guy though, who insisted “Bhaiyya, bhookh lagi hai” and then stubbornly refused to stand up. 

The night ended with the pujari shouting at everyone – “No talking! No talking!” This was because the police showed up at 1AM and insisted that it was noisy and that people had to leave. The pujari insisted that we had to shut up, eat our food and leave because the police were asking for a $1500 fine. Quite ironic, given that I’ve left bars past 1.00AM, and the people leaving those are far more rowdy than the people leaving a temple. I hear that this happens every year during Janmashtami though – I guess it’s just the timing of the aarti etc.

The highlight of the evening though was when the aarti happened at midnight. The pujari opens the doors (the lights were switched off so only the shrines were illuminated), and I was busy trying to stand on tip-toe so I could see the idols. And then, as they swayed to the rhythm of the chant “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare…” people lifted up their cell-phones and began snapping pictures. The line of moving cell-phone lights a-la the wave, brought home the fact that tonight, Krishna was a rockstar.



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