I’d like to start by saying that it’s a coincidence that our first experience ever on this blog was at the Hindu Temple of Rochester and the first experience that we’ve written about on the new, self-hosted blog that you’re reading here is also about a Hindu temple. Or, maybe there are no coincidences, but I promise it wasn’t planned. This is a long, long post and though I can’t promise my writing is worth reading, I guarantee with all that I have that the Sri Rajarajeswari Peetham is worth knowing about. By the way, the Temple is sometimes referred to as the Sri Vidya Temple Society, since the particular brand of Hinduism they actually practice in the Temple is known as Sri Vidya, but that name refers to the congregation and not necessarily the Temple itself.
Luke and I made the drive out to Sri Rajarjeswari Peetam [SRP] on East River Road in Rush and we talked about how we had been wanting to go there for well over a year. Every time we’ve called we have gotten someone to talk to us, and they always have said, ‘Ohhh! Yes! We’d love to have you! Just show up.” I always reply, “Well, will there be someone that we could talk to..maybe..? We don’t know the customs or anything at all…and…well, we just wouldn’t know what to do when we got there.” The response has always been the same, “Just show up, someone will find you.” Our faith has never been strong enough to do so until now. We’ve been told about this place by our friend Ashok back at the Hindu Temple of Rochester, and our friend Denise over at the Interfaith Chapel at the University of Rochester, and they’ve both explained it to us as something that we would definitely enjoy. So, if we’ve called and been given the green light and others have told us just to show up–what are we so nervous about??? We kind of batted the topic around while we drove. We decided we were nervous because we are two random dudes who show up at very sacred places and often don’t know the culture or customs. Catholics kneel before they enter the pew, Sikhs don’t allow the bottom of their feet to face the holy book, Jews wear a yarmulke while in the sanctuary, some places are explicit about non-believers engaging in practices and some don’t care either way–we have always wanted to be as respectful as possible, while still having somewhat of a child-on-a-new-playground type of excitement and reverence for what we’re experiencing. We knew SRP was going to be entirely unlike anything we had done before, and wanted to be sure we didn’t offend anyone. Denise recommended we go during a festival, which from the website we gathered the next festival was four days long at the end of June and was a celebration of the founding of their temple–this June would be 15 years! The calendar on the website is all in Hindi so none of it was explanatory, so we chose a random time on Sunday and decided to ‘show up’ and hope that some divine intervention would place the right person in our path.
We parked on the lawn in the line of cars with license plates indicating that we weren’t the only visitors, and began walking up the driveway to the collection of pole barn looking buildings with people milling about. Just before getting to the buildings, there is a small black shrine housing a very welcoming and familiar deity, Ganesha. Since Ganesha is known to be the Overcomer of Obstacles, it’s probably no coincidence that it was here, before getting further than the parking lot, that the only other Caucasian woman we saw all day looked up and smiled to us and said, ‘Hello!! Is it your first time here??’ Everyone we had talked to on the phone when we had called before was right, someone would find us. We told Kathy what we were doing there and how we came to be standing in front of her and Ganesha. Luke mentioned something about her being dressed in a traditional Hindu sari and she said she was a regular at SRP but was only able to get there a couple times a month. We inquired about the idea that she clearly was ensconced in the Hindu way of life–why only attend a couple times a month? Kathy explained that she lived in Connecticut and many of the people present were from out of state and even from out of the country, but that there was almost nothing else like this particular temple anywhere else. She seemed genuinely excited to be there and just as excited to show us why it was so unique and worth the trip for her.
The three of us met in a parking lot in a rural area just South of Rochester, NY but as we walked through the doorway of a plain, common looking building we entered into a world that felt as though we had been ported to a different place entirely. There are essentially two rooms inside the temple and the entranceway places you between the two. We stood just inside the doorway and peered in awe in the first room on the right, but Kathy motioned for both of us to follow her, so we walked to the left while still looking over our shoulders at what it seemed like we were leaving behind.
Though all temples worship each of the Hindu gods, each temple is slightly different from one another in that they each have one particular deity whose presence is honored. The SRP is a temple that is dedicated to the Divine Mother Rajarajeswari and was founded by Sri Chaitanyananda (known as ‘Aiya’). Rajarajeswari is actually one of three forms of the Great Goddess of Sri Vidya known as Tripurasundari. The other two forms are known as Lalita, who is age sixteen and Kamaksi, who is age twenty; however Rajarajeswari, who is twenty-eight, is considered the foremost deity and the names Divine Mother and Devi are also used interchangeably. Kathy explained a bit of this to us while we entered a room filled with murtis (sacred images of deities, often a statue). Luke and I aren’t exactly scholarly experts in religion, but we know enough to be confused about the fact that we as visitors, and that anyone other than a Brahman priest, could be standing in a room filled with murtis as accessible as a book on a shelf. Kathy told us that the SRP was a teaching temple and that all are invited to experience the divine connection with the gods that normally only a priest would be allowed. As we walked around the room looking at each of the statues, speakers blasted the prayerful chants and music coming from the other room. Devotees walked around in a specific pattern paying homage to each of the gods while the two of us tried to take in every word our new friend threw at us about what was happening and about each of the statues. This was entirely different than anything I had ever experienced in my life and I struggled between taking mental notes and allowing myself to just relax and be present. We asked questions here and there and Kathy even brought someone else over to explain one of our questions. Normally I would be concerned that the imposition our attendance and questions posed would be offensive, but everyone seemed happy–genuinely happy–to share the experience with us.
We eventually learned that Aiya is a Sri Lankan Tamil, who is a non-Brahman. What this means is that Aiya is not in the designated caste to practice as a priest, but he still feels called to do so and learned the ways of Sri Vidya from his guru in Zambia when he lived there during the 1970s. Aiya eventually agreed to his guru’s wish of teaching Sri Vidya to those willing to learn, and moved to the United States with his family in the early 1980s. Aiya practiced and taught Sri Vidya in his garage for years, but by 1998 he bought the land in Rush where the current temple is located. What is so special about the Temple we were standing in is that in very few places in the entire world are attendees privy to the ritual secrets of Sri Vidya and also have such free access to the deities.
While standing with Kathy and watching the swirl of devotees that surrounded the room, it appeared that a few people in particular were beginning to prepare for something, and a line started up near the front of the room near a platform with a short wall of plexi-glass surrounding the deities. Kathy motioned for us to join the line with her and began to explain. Milk abhisheka pujas are typically performed only by priests, and while chanting mantras to the deity, milk is poured over the deity as an offering to cleanse devotees of bad karma. In the case of most pujas, the priest absorbs the bad karma of the present devotees and the cleansing absolves the priests of that karma. What was about to happen where we were standing was nearly unheard of: devotees began to pour milk into copper bowls and wash their own bad karma away by pouring milk over the big three deities of the Temple (Ganesha, Sri Rajarajeswari, and Siva lingam) and then saving a bit of milk to pour over the three-dimensional mandala representation of Shakti known as a sri yantra. We watched in awe while realizing that not only was it rare that Hindus get to do this, it was even rarer that we’d get to be present for it. It wasn’t long after we shot each other looks of ”can you believe this?” that we were handed bowls of milk ourselves to wash away our own bad karma. We looked at Kathy as if to ask if it was ok or not, I almost felt like a non-Catholic accepting communion and somehow felt guilty. She assured us that even though we weren’t Hindu per say, we had physically made our way to a place where Hindu spirituality was present, and our very being there was an indication that we were seeking, and our seeking was enough to earn us the honor of partaking. The experience of standing in a room that was unlike any other I had ever been in, surrounded by total strangers who treated us as longtime friends and pouring milk over stone figures of gods was a bit unnerving. As I poured I tried to match the process that I had seen devotees before me complete, and realized that it was best to embrace my naiveté and remind myself that I was there to wash any bad karma I had brought in with me. I hoped that Ganesha was assisting me in overcoming the obstacle of thinking too much and overanalyzing as I doused him in 2%. I stepped away from the final piece of the abhisheka and felt a shakiness similar to when I took refuge vows with His Eminence Garchen Rinpoche–Luke and I had been in the presence of something wonderful and moving, and I had no idea why. We happened to have been in the right place at the right time (which seems to be a theme with us), because just as we each finished with the abhisheka there was a long line of devotees waiting their turn. Kathy swept us up and moved us into the other room.
Other than the hundreds of people sitting on the floor around the outside of the room dressed in saris and traditional Hindu clothing in every one of the brightest colors imaginable, the first thing noticeable in the next room was a multi tiered plywood table with shells on it. Kathy started into the explanation: the table itself was actually a sri yantra just like the one we had poured milk over in the previous room and was created as a three-dimensional representation of the Divine Mother. Each conch shell is a right facing conch shell, or Daksnivarta, and is incredibly rare (apparently only 1 in 100,000 is right facing), they each were found in India and shipped to the temple. The conch shell represents the Hindu god Vishnu and is an icon of fertility and prosperity and is a cleanser of sin, particularly when used to cleanse the gods like we did with milk–which is precisely what these shells were being prepared for. Each one had water in it, with a lotus flower and various spices and powders. Devotees surrounded the room while music played and incense burned and mantras chanted and Aiya led the room in prayer. We joined the others on the floor and chose one of the few spots on the floor that was free. After a couple minutes, a woman politely instructed us that we shouldn’t be sitting with our backs to the god, and that’s why the spot had been empty before we chose it. Unfortunately, Shiva’s eyes had been just inches from the back our white, bald heads but all was forgiven and we adjusted our seating.
After sitting for a couple hours on the floor in a room with a couple hundred other people that had a couple fires going on a hot summer day, I needed a little break and got up to wander outside with Luke following close behind. It seems like it would’ve been inappropriate to walk out, but people were coming and going and some stayed the entire time and some stayed for a few minutes and then left. I’ve noticed it at the Hindu Temple of Rochester as well, and later found out that it’s quite common for devotees to come and go as they please, there’s no “being late” or “leaving early” and worshipping is a fairly personal experience. We took the chance to wander around the property and see some of the outside shrines and a small creek where water was brought from Kashi, the city of Shiva and a tree where it’s said that the eyes of a deity (whose name we cannot remember) had once shown themselves, though there is now a cloth over the spot where the eyes appeared. We walked to another building where people were gathering and saw that children were prepping a chariot for one of the gods, where they would later pull a deity around to close the ceremony. A woman was standing nearby and noticing that we probably looked lost, struck up a conversation with us. We were soon joined by a couple younger children and while we talked we found out that they had come from Canada for the weekend for the festival. I said, “What is it about this place that would make you travel so far?? There must be another Hindu temple closer, right?” The woman smiled and paused to think, but it was during her pause that a young shirtless boy who had been running around in a sprinkler with his friends said, “Oh. The energy! There’s NOTHING like this place!” There was no denying that he was spot on. The energy there was one of connectedness and peace, and there probably truly was not too many places like SRP in existence. We shared that everyone had been super friendly and asked a few questions. The woman seemed to want to help, but shared that she wasn’t as knowledgeable as some others there, and that we should try to find a woman named ‘Kathy’, and that she was very devoted. She told us that Kathy was so practiced in her devotion, that she was just a “few positions” (my words) below Aiya, the founder of the temple. We stood in disbelief at the fact that we originally had no idea who we would talk to when we arrived, and we met someone in the driveway before even entering, and that it was the person who others would recommend we talk to. We wandered back inside and continued our break of fresh air by getting a few of the refreshments being offered.
Back inside the temple a line was forming near the conch shells and moving in the direction of the same murtis we had earlier poured milk over to cleanse our bad karma. A younger man who clearly was an official of the temple had a microphone and was telling everyone about the opportunity for the conch shell cleansing. For $11, a devotee could receive a conch shell to offer the gods and by doing so receive one of the most rare and cherished blessings. I wasn’t able to quite get all that he shared but the overall feeling was, ‘I hope you all know how incredibly rare and fantastic this is!’. Luke and I made our way over to the room with the murtis and chose a spot near the back so we could see as much as possible and still not be in the way. Devotees lined up with their conch shells and poured the water and lotus flowers over each of the gods just as we had done earlier while slowly and deliberately washing their spirit in the collective consciousness that filled the room. A man standing nearby who appeared to be overseeing the procession came to me and indicated that I follow him, and then corralled Luke to join us. The area was filled with people moving every which way and following in the confusion wasn’t as easy as I would’ve hoped, particularly since I had no idea why we were following him in the first place. We arrived at the sri yantra with the conch shells and he motioned to two young girls and pointed at us. I tried to explain that we hadn’t paid for the blessing and the look on his face indicated that he had already known that, and this was a gift. Suddenly he was gone and we were whisked into a line while saffron infused water was poured into our hands to drink and then wash with, and then we were handed a conch shell each and whisked off again to join the line back in to the murti room. We stood in line with furrowed brows trying to figure out how we ever could’ve possibly been privy to such an experience and wondered if it was luck, or if Ganesha had just pulled a ton of strings that day and kept removing obstacles. Luke and I were now at the front of the line and we each took our turns cleansing the gods with our conch shell’s water and lotus flower and again stood watching the others as we tried to process what we had just done.
We proceeded in to the other room and joined our friend Kathy on the floor who hadn’t yet moved and was one of the few people in the room with a microphone leading prayer. She was holding an open book that I could see didn’t have a word of English in it, and in fact, she wasn’t even reading it–she knew all of these mantras verbatim. She did take a few breaks here and there to explain things as they happened, and exchange emails with us, and then went back to leading prayer. A fire in the firepit had been started and the room was stifling hot. Kathy said she probably wouldn’t be moving from her spot for at least a few more hours. I knew that even if I didn’t pass out from the heat, my back would never last that anyway. I got up and walked to a different area of the room and watched with some others that were standing. Luke soon joined me, and we decided that after a few hours of culture shock, neither one of us could sit much longer. We each went to the book store and made sure to contribute to the temple that had been so giving to us all morning and made our made back to find our shoes in the collection outside the door.
As we found our own in the sea of footwear and got ready to depart, the same woman from Canada who had chatted with us earlier showed up amidst the sea of people that were standing around. She said she saw us looking ready to leave and wanted to be sure to say goodbye. She was so friendly and so happy to share that it was inevitable that the conversation continued. She was able to explain a bit more of what we experienced and shed some light on some customs that we had seen, but she said mostly she just wanted to be sure that we had felt welcome. Rush is about 20 minutes South of the City of Rochester which Luke and I both grew up in–this was our home and a woman from another country was going out of her way to be sure we felt welcome?? The irony wasn’t lost of any of us, but the logic we intellectually understood at the start of the day made no difference anymore–what we felt and experienced really can’t be put in to words despite the above best efforts. We managed to overcome the obstacle of our fear of going to SRP, and managed to overcome the obstacle of finding a way to put it in to words, and you apparently overcame the obstacle of reading such a long post. Coincidence? Maybe I don’t believe in those anymore.