Sunday, May 1, 2011

Inter-Religious Project

The religious service I attended was an Aarti at noon on Saturday the thirtieth of April at the Hindu Temple of Kansas City. I heard much about Aartis, which are a form of Puja, before coming to the Hindu temple, but I was still quite unsure as to what I should expect when I arrived. Upon entering, I was first asked if I was a volunteer, at which I smiled and said that I was there to explore. My companion and I took off our shoes at the caddy and proceeded into the Temple, were we immediately saw an idol of Ganesha, before which offerings had been laid and incense was burning. The priest, Atul Trivedi, gave many blessings before and after the Aarti, where the people being blessed would come, prostrate themselves before him and touch his feet, and he would bless them, chanting and drawing symbols in the air over them or on their heads.

When I entered the worship area I was immediately floored by the beauty of the splendorous arrays of flowers and brilliant colors which adorned the alter and the idols around the room. There was a tile walkway down to the alter and around it, but the rest of the floor was covered in a white carpet, on which people sat and prayed or prostrated themselves before the idols on the alter, namely before Luxmi, the idols of Radha and Krishna and those of the trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. People walked around the alter praying to the idols, which I found fascinating, given that all things are in their idea of reality Brahma, and therefore, to worship at these idols is to worship idealistic manifestations of sirguna Brahma, but more “enlightened” Hindus will not worship at temples at all to recognized the all-pervasiveness of the Godhead.

The Temple was open on Saturday from nine in the morning to nine in the evening, and all throughout that time people were having various pujas said for themselves or their loved ones, but the Aarti is an offering of fire from the whole community to the idols, blessing the various devas with the lamps which one person said took on the power of that deva. The people all took turns blessing the idols with the fire and then blessing themselves while two young men rang the bells on either side of the alter constantly. While the priest chanted, the people offered up fruit to be “sacrificed” to the idols, though I was quite curious as to what they mean by “sacrifice”. Do they mean that the idols need sacrifice to continue existing? It could be as a memorial of the sacrifice which began the world, which would make sense, as the food seemed like it was blessed rather than sacrificed, and the people consumed it after it had been blessed.

The pure devotion the people showed to these idols was striking and brought to my heart the question of why such devotion is locked away from sight in the Catholic of today, as if such devotion was embarrassing. I was ashamed for more than a moment at the death of living ritual in the spiritual life of the American Church, and in almost all of modern Christianity, which has aligned itself with secularism out of fear of condemnation by skeptics and atheists. If one were to ask a Roman Catholic what they thought of ritual, the answer would probably contain a contempt for ritual and even a denial of its efficacy, when in fact ritual has been a life-giving element of the Faith throughout its history, only eschewed during this present century as being outdated, what one could say was the effect of Protestantism on Catholicism. This, I am am sure is a heresy of some kind, which denies the efficacy of ritual and form in worship, spilling over into the disregard for proper ritual shown by priests and quasi-faithful alike.

Ritual does have meaning, which is both a blessing and a curse, for it means that while I was able to appreciated everything that was there, and sense the presence of a very devoted though misguided worship, I could not participate fully in the rituals. Rituals do indeed have meaning, and thus to consume the food that had been offered to those idols would have been a mortal sin for me as a Catholic, as would have blessing the idols been. When we as Catholics make the sign of the Cross, we are blessing ourselves in a profound way that imprints on our very bodies the sign of the Passion. When we say the Most Blessed Name of Jesus, we should cross ourselves and bow in reverence. In more orthodox churches, Catholics don't have pews, they move around freely and prostrate themselves in front of icons and burn candles, offering up a sacrifice of fire as a single undivided focus of the will for whatever intentions are needed. The ritualism of the Catholic Faith is a ritualism which is lethally potent, and which desperately need to be recognized in a culture of Catholicism which has trapped itself into the contradiction of a “uninvolved” Mass and yet bristles when anyone so much as says “Dominus vobiscum”. The physical form of a sacrament is just that, sacramental, and Catholics can reconcile new-age philosophy and the place of man as the pinnacle of creation by recognizing the quasi-sacramental nature of creation itself, this very flesh on our bodies, the air we breathe. Hinduism is a religion rich in ritual and overflowing with symbolism, which contributes to the joyful worship I witnessed these people engaging in. Throughout history, Catholicism has done what it is meant to do in the world: take what men have reached through the light of reason and created reality and enlighten it with the revealed Truth of Christ. The treasures of Hinduism should not be neglected, for they are true treasures indeed, which need to be polished before they can shine forth their brilliance. Therefore, let us as Catholics seek out diligently the good, the true, and the beautiful in Hindu ritual and integrate it organically into our own traditions.