Author: Adrian Remnant
HIS 191: Cults, Chakras, and Crunchy Granola
July 23, 2019
For this report, I chose the Hindu Temple of Rochester. I chose this site for a number of reasons. Firstly, I have a long held (though distant, given that I was not raised in the community) attraction to Hinduism. As a child, I found the bright colors of the artwork found in Hindu shrines and temples appealing. The apparent peacefulness of the blue-skinned deities, frequently surrounded by cosmic imagery, and adorned with luxurious garments, caught my eye. As I grew older, other aspects drew me to the religion. The story of Krishna (a deity who, for whatever reason, I always liked), and his battle against a demon (the specifics of the story escape me), was compelling. There was also the (again, apparent) polytheism of Hinduism. Instead of one God, simultaneously abstract, and personified as (usually) a bearded white man, Hinduism’s gods took many forms, all of them seemingly non-human. How wrong I was. Like many non-Hindus, I had bought into a misconception about the status of deities, and it wasn’t until my visit that the notion would be dispelled.
I visited the Hindu Temple of Rochester on July 19, 2019. The temple is situated at the end of a long road, in an area also home to Word of Life Christian Fellowship, In Christ New Hope Ministry, Inc., Faith United Methodist Church, and Christ View Church. Founded in 1975, so as to cater to the needs of Rochester’s growing Hindu population, the temple did not have a structure of its own until 1993. Prior to the latter date, the temple consisted of Rochester’s Hindu community organizing festivals and classes from “homes, at various public places, Interfaith Chapel of U of R and ICC [India Community Center].” In that year, the temple’s first stage of construction was completed, and the site has undergone continued expansion up until least 2016. For transportation purposes, I visited with a friend. Upon reaching the building, I was surprised by its apparently utilitarian architecture. It was not a collection of domes and spires, as I expected, but a two-story brick building with a gable roof, though the entrances were adorned with the characteristic low spires and Sanskrit lettering.
I brought several other assumptions with me, some of which had their origin in my own (very limited) knowledge of Hinduism, and others that were fed to me via popular culture. Many of these were visual in nature: as mentioned previously, cosmic images of many-armed, blue-skinned gods, sometimes with the heads or bodies of animals. Another was the polytheism of Hinduism, the assumption that the Hindu pantheon is home to many gods and goddesses as opposed to the popular Abrahamic notion of a single God (monotheism). There is also, as far as I still understand, a lack of uniformity in Hinduism, but rather refers to a broad range of traditions and forms of worship with a few unifying notions. I also knew, vaguely, the ideas of Karma and reincarnation were a part of Hindu theology, but again, only vaguely. I knew they were important, but not why, and did not understand the details of them. In short, apart from the few fragments of knowledge and popular assumptions I had imbibed over the years, I came to the Hindu Temple of Rochester as a blank slate, at least with regards to the religion.
Upon entering the structure, we were greeted with a large staircase, and were directed to a room off to the left where we removed our shoes, before ascending to the main prayer area. This was a large, mostly empty space. The floor consisted of soft (I believe) red felt carpeting. At the front of the room there was a large shrine, home to several carefully decorated and dressed statues, each a representation of a different deity, including Lord Krishna (representing tricksters, childhood, and playfulness) and Lord Rama (representing authority, might, and paternalism). There was also a smaller shrine, home to a sole elephant headed deity, off to the right, near the room’s entrance. We sat and waited for our correspondent, Mrs. Rao, chair of the temple’s board of trustees.
As we sat waiting to meet Mrs. Rao, we made a number of observations about life at the temple. An older couple entered the space. They circled the elephant-headed deity a number of times, before kneeling in front of the statue, almost prone, in apparent prayer. We also saw a priest enter the shrine area. He started playing a chant or prayer over the loudspeakers built into the room’s roof, and chanted/prayed along with it, while intermingling with the deity-statues, rhythmically ringing a bell, and interacting with the statues, gently brushing and sprinkling water on them.
Mrs. Rao’s explanation of the broad tenets of Hinduism occupied most the time I spent at the temple. We moved to the far end of the room, so as to avoid distraction from, and avoid distracting, the priest, and Mrs. Rao began her explanation with one of Hinduism’s most important tenants, that of the Brahman. The Brahman is a concept that translates very roughly to energy, or life force. As I understood it, Brahman is a universal force that everything, and everyone, belongs to. The same Brahman that exists in myself exists in my friend, Mrs. Rao, and every other person. Because of this, when Hindus greet each other, they do so by saying, “Namaste,” the recognition that souls in each individual are the same, and bow to the Higher Principle (the Brahman, or the Universal Spirit, life-force, etc.), with their hands open and together (reminiscent of Christian prayer hands), each hand representing the meeting of the two “same” souls.
The question then became, if the soul is the same, as part of the Brahman, why is the “packaging” different? That is, why do we look different, have different lives, different levels of wealth? The answer to that is Karma Theory. According to Karma Theory, an individual accrues various positives and minuses throughout their life. Good and kind thoughts (and actions, but more importantly, thoughts) translate into positive karma, while bad and malicious thoughts and actions translate into negative karma. At the end of one’s life, the individual’s karma is added up. If they have more positive than negative karma, in their next life they will be a human, and depending on how large the margin, potentially a very wealthy, handsome, or talented human. If there is a very small margin or the karma adds up to be equal, they will be a human, but poor, ugly, or otherwise unfortunate. If they have more negative than positive karma, they will be a plant or animal, and their slate will be wiped clean. For this reason, she said, she will never be jealous if she sees someone of greater wealth than her, more attractive than her, better with people than her, etc., because their actions in a previous life allowed for their elevated position in this life. So what happens when a person accrues no negative karma?
This brings us to deities, or more accurately, Deity. Despite the common misconceptions, there is only one god in Hinduism. When a person has accrued only positive karma, they merge with God. The multiple deities that are frequently associated with Hinduism are merely representations of the many different aspects of Brahman and God. As previously stated, Rama represents authority and fatherhood, while Krishna represents trickery, innocence, and childlikeness. Ganesha, the elephant headed god, has large ears, so that he can hear gossip, but a very small mouth so he doesn’t recite it. According to Mrs. Rao, all of these representative deities exist as certain benchmarks, ways that individuals can understand small components of the grander Universal Spirit. Before leaving, we circled the shrine to the deities, as a reminder to keep God in the center of our lives, and were given water and nuts, as no one is to leave a temple without having been given sustenance.
Certain principles that we discussed with Mrs. Rao were definitely reminiscent of themes and motifs we have discussed in class. It’s easy to see where Theosophists, Universalists, hippies, and other spiritualists drew particular influence from Hinduism.
Unlike much of Abrahamic religion, Hinduism is not so concerned with worship of God, but rather views worship as self-directed. One prays to God not necessarily out of reverence, but because that prayer will help prevent any negative thought from entering their minds. Through this, one might not need to go to the temple, or even pray, as prayer is a tool to be used for ones’ self, not an act of worship. This focus on both individualism and positive thinking is found several strains of new age spirituality. New Thought and Theosophy both sought to harness the power of positive thinking. In the individualist strain, many new age practitioners pick and choose beliefs at will, and are not unified by a common code. The emphasis in new age spirituality is usually not on worship, but on some sort of restorative property that an individual can access.
The universalism of liberal American religions also finds parallels with Hinduism. Mrs. Rao told me that her son had married a Christian woman, and that she now keeps a picture of Jesus Christ in her shrine at home. She said that a Hindu can pray to Jesus Christ and still be a Hindu, if praying to that particular figure is what helps them clear their mind of negative thoughts. This is reminiscent of two strains of American liberal religion: Universalism, the idea that all religions are somehow correct or have insight, and, to a lesser extent, monism, that God is in everything.
Hindu Temple of Rochester. http://www.hindutempleofrochester.com.
 Hindu Temple of Rochester, “History of the Hindu Temple of Rochester,” http://www.hindutempleofrochester.com/temple-history.html.
 Hindu Temple of Rochester, “Board of Trustees,” http://www.hindutempleofrochester.com/board-of-trustees.html.