A Visit to Broome Street Temple
Yesterday, I visited the Broome Street Temple in New York City with an American-born South Indian friend I met in college. The last time I visited the temple, which describes itself as a “traditional South Indian Hindu temple” on their website, was about six months ago, (as Foursquare conveniently informed me) and so I was excited to return there for the Shiva Abhishekha (a ritual worship of Shiva, the Hindu god of cosmic destruction).
For 90 minutes, I sat there listening to the priest chanting ancient shlokas, some familiar and some unfamiliar, watching as he poured milk, yogurt, honey and later offered flowers, incense and camphor (light) to the deity manifest in the Shivalingam.
I left the temple with mixed feelings.
On the one hand, I was honored to participate in a ritual that goes back thousands of years and connects me to so many people. I was reminded of my time at Princeton University where I was an active member of the Hindu community. (Remarkably, I co-led a Ganesh puja there a few years ago.) Albert Raboteau, a Religion professor at Princeton University who had a big impact on my academic and spiritual growth once told me about the importance of belonging to a spiritual tradition that goes both backwards and forwards in time. That stuck with me, and since then, every time I participate in a religious ritual I am more cognizant of being part of a community and that elevates the meaning of the ritual.
On the other hand, I left frustrated not being able to understand all the verses in Sanskrit that the pujari (person who conducted the puja) chanted. I took a semester of Sanskrit in college and while I can read and write in the language, I still don’t know enough to understand ancient shlokas. This is not the first time I have been frustrated about not being able to completely understand Sanskrit verses. Given that most people don’t understand Sanskrit anymore, I wonder if we will see a move towards conducting prayers in languages understood by the common man? But then I worry. Will ancient <em>shlokas</em> said in English or Hindi or Assamese resonate the same way with me? I’m not sure. Probably not.
Curiously enough, I also lamented the lack of a sermon. In the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time in churches and at the Bhakti Center (an ISKCON temple), and more recently I’ve regularly attended prayers at the Islamic Center at New York University (ICNYU). Given that worship at each of these places features a sermon, or at least a lecture based on readings from scripture, I’ve begun to feel that one of the main elements of worship is a sermon. That’s mainly because if the prayers are recited in languages I don’t understand, I can still take away something valuable and meaningful if the main teachings are summarized in English. Should I attribute this desire to take away a message from a religious ceremony to my years attending chapel at Princeton University?