The Way of Devotion

In development the

religious studies scholar Joanne

Punzo Waghorne has referred

as “split-level” Hinduism, many

U.s. temples include basements

with kitchens,

rooms, and classrooms where

members can attend Sunday

school classes or learn Indian

languages or classical Indian

dance. Many temples also

include sanctuaries for

gational worship—a rarity in India.

Hindus are the most highly

educated and compensated religious

group in the United

States, and they have made their

mark in particular on business, engineering, and com.

puter science. Many Silicon valley

firms are run by Hindus. Hindus are also slowly making

their way into the corridors of

power in Washington, DC. In 2000, Venkatachalapathi

Samuldrala, a priest from Parma, Ohio,

delivered the first Hindu prayer before the U.s

House of Representatives. In 2012, Tulsi Gabbard

of Hawaii became the first Hindu

elected to the U.S. Congress (she took her

oath of office on the Bhagavad Gita).

But Hinduism isn’t just for Hindus anymore.

Millions of Americans practice yoga every

day, and an increasing portion of these practitioners

understand that this practice has

Hindu roots. Long gone are the days when most Americans

associate Hinduism solely

with Apu, the Kwik-E-Mart proprietor and Indian immigrant in The Simpsons television

series. In fact, Apu may be gone, too. In response to criticisms that the character is rac_

ist, including a 2017 documentary called The Problem with Apu, his character has quietly

disappeared from the show.


Today, the word “Hinduism” is all but synonymous with bhakti. There are followers of

Gandhi who practice karma yoga. If you travel to India you may see wandering renounc-

ers practicing jnana yoga. But when it comes to liberation from samsara, or even a better

rebirth, most Hindus prefer help. Rather than relying on their own work or their own

wisdom, they fall back on the gods of their choosing and trust that they will be there to

catch them. These chosen gods vary from region to region. Devotees in Maharastra tend to worship Ganesha. Devi is popular in Bengal, and Shiva in the Himalayas. But the love devotees lavish on these gods is surprisingly similar, evident not only in bhakti poetry but also in puja, festivals, and pilgrimage.


Hindu devotees have not traditionally gone to congregational worship services akin to the Catholic Mass. They worship their gods on their own time, in the temple and the home•This worship is called puja. During puja, devotees make offerings of flowers, food, water’or money to a god said to reside in an image. Because the deity does not eat anything morethan the essence of this offering, the food offered in puja is offered back to worshipers asprasada (divine “favor”). In temples, puja may include mantras chanted by priests plus theringing of bells. It will typically also include aarti—when a lamp is passed among devoteesand with it the “heat” (and favor) of the god. In times before electricity, this practice als(illurninated the divine image.

Unlike the Jewish tradition, which forbids approaching cod through “graven images’Hinduism revels in images of the divine, which grace home shrines and city



Outsiders have long criticized Hindus for bowing down to statues made by human hands.

Following a visit to Varanasi, Mark Twain dismissed the city, which he dubbed “Idolville,”

as “a vast museum of idols—and all of them crude, misshapen and ugly.’OS But Hindus

know that the images they worship are made by human hands. In many cases, they might

even know the stone carvers. Nonetheless, they trust that gods can animate the inanimate.

At the climax of a spectal ritual that tranforms dead stone into a living divinity, a priest

inserts the eves. and in that moment the god takes up residence in the image, which from

that pount forward requites round-the«lock attention from a priest. When Hindus go to

Lived Hinduism 69

darshan sacred seeing; eye-to-eye

moment in Hindu worship

when a god and a devotee

take in one another in a visual


a temple. they go to look in those eyes and to see the god of their choosing look back at

thern. The Indologist Diana Eck has identified this intimate encounter—darshan, or

•sacred seeing”—as the heart and soul of bhakti worship.36


In India. virtually every day is a holy day. There are countless local festivals to deities.

Therx• ate regional festivals celebrating gods known throughout India yet most popular in

a particular state, And there are pan-Indian festivals in which gods beloved across India

have thetr moments in the sun.

Many of these festivals feature theatrical performances rooted in episodes of the

Mahabharata, the Ramayana, or popular vernacular epics. For example, the Ramlila (“The

Play of Ranf) is performed during September or October throughout India and in Nepal,

Thailand, and many other countries. Typically, this performance of the battle between

Lord Rama and the demon Ravana described in the Ramayana, takes place over ten days.

However, across the from Varanasi at Ramnagar, an elaborate maharaja-sponsored

u•rsion that takes a full month has been staged every fall since the 1830s. The actors who

play the gods in these pageants are revered as embodiments of the divine. The plays they

put on function like Passover functions in the Jewish tradition—both to remember a story

and to recall key values, in this case loyalty and duty.

Divali Of all the pan-Indian festivals, Divali is the most popular. In fact, it is celebrated

not only by Hindus but also by Sikhs, Jains, and some Buddhists. It is an official holiday

in India, Nepal, Trinidad and Tobago, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and other countries. During

this five-day festival of lights, typically celebrated in late October or early November,

devotees light earthenware lamps, set off firecrackers, watch fireworks, dress up in new

clothes, visit friends and family members, gather around bonfires, tell stories, pray, wor-

ship, exchange presents, dance, enjoy sweets, and otherwise celebrate what they hope

mil be a good year to come.

Traditionally, Divali marked the last fall harvest. Today, it marks the end of one finan-

cial year and the beginning of another. Merchants buy new account books. Devotees

sweep their floors to prepare for a visit from Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. They then

set out lamps (divali means “rows of lighted lamps”) to guide her to their homes and

businesses. Families also open doors and windows for Lakshmi and the good fortune she

is said to bring.

In Divali celebrations in North India, devotees recall the return of Rama and Sita to

the city of Ayodhya after fourteen years in exile. In South India, they celebrate Krishna’s

defeat of a demon who had terrorized the heavens and the earth. Sikhs on this holiday



70 CHAPTER 2 Hinduism. • The Way of Devotion

mark the liberation from prison of their sixth

Hargobind. Jains recall the time when their guru,

last Guru

teacher Mahavira entered into nirvana. In all the great

celebrants mark the victory of light over darkness se


over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. , good

Divali was first celebrated in the White House in 2003, and Barack Obama became the first U.S.

president to attend a Divali celebration there in 2()()9. In 2012, th Indian American astronaut Sunita Williams celebrated Divali in the International Space Station. The U.S. postal Service issued a Divali postage stamp in 2016. Dozens of public schools on the eastern seaboard of the United States now observe Divali as an official holiday. Divali was also the subject of an episode of the hit television show The Office.

Two young boys celebrate the colorful spring festival of Holi. During this playful celebration, people toss brightly colored powders at one another, leaving participants covered in different shades of the rainbow.

Holi Holi, the most photographed of Hindu festivals, also features bonfires. But here

celebrants also throw colored powders and spray one another with colored water, turn_

ing their bodies into what anthropologist McKim Marriott has described as “a brilliant

smear.” 37 Like Divali, Holi is a harvest festival, though in this case the festival comes in

late February or early March—a Thanksgiving of sorts for the start of spring. But Holi is far rowdier—a Hindu Mardi Gras in which strict social mores give way to practical jokes,

raunchy songs, and intoxication. “Holi hai!”—”lt’s Holi!”—celebrants shout, in an ancient festival that may have begun as a fertility ritual before evolving into what slack-jawed

British Victorians referred to as “the Hindu Saturnalia. 38

There are many backstories to this two-day riot of colors. One tells the tale of Holika

a demoness with the power to walk into fire unscathed (thanks to the supernatural

powers ofa magic cloak). After an evil king ordered his son, a pious Vishnu devotee, to

be put to death, the king’s sister Holika picked up her nephew and marched with him

into a fire in an effort to burn him alive. But the boy snatched the magic cloak from her

so she died instead. An alternative backstory stresses the playfulness of the holiday. In

this telling, Holi was inaugurated by Krishna, who delighted in playing practical jokes on

the milkmaids of his youth. Shiva worshipers see Holi as a remembrance of the moment

when Shiva, deep in meditation, was rudely interrupted by the love god Kamadeva, who

was trying to wake him up so Shiva’s wife-to-be Parvati could seduce him. Angrily, Shiva

opened his third eye and burnt Kamadeva to a crisp. Later repenting of his rage, Shiva

brought Kamadeva back to life.

In all these cases, Holi is, like Purim in Judaism, a ritual of reversal in which social

taboos are relaxed and things are turned topsy-turvy. Traditional hierarchies of age,

caste, and gender are suspended, and typical Indian reserve about public displays Of

affection is set aside. On Holi, wives ritually hit their husbands with sticks. Proper

ladies and gentlemen shout obscenities and sing raunchy songs. Youngsters take pot –

shots at their towns’ elder statesmen. And anyone who feels like it can splatter their

neighbors with cow dung or urine. All this takes place to the beat of drums that, on

Holi at least, seem as capable as Mardi Gras jazz bands of seducing celebrants into

otherwise illicit liaisons.