I can honestly count the number of times I have visited a temple on one hand. It’s not something that I confess to be particularly ashamed about – I grew up in the middle east and as with any polytheistic religion based on iconography, it was fairly easy to circumvent the usually infuriating trips to an overcrowded building with very little in terms of architectural divinity.
Temples around the world are not the same as temples in India. There’s something lacking in them, almost as if they aren’t connected to whatever is up there in the same way – I can’t quite describe it – think of it as the difference between a wireless, router driven wi-fi and a wired internet connection, one of them can be shaky, the other is almost always steady and stable. I think it’s the same difference here – India being the wired connection, everywhere else acting like wi-fi. Putting that aside, though, I decided to go to the Shri Vallabh Nidhi Mandir, rather conveniently promoted with the extremely 21st Century monicker – SVN, in Wembley.
You know when they say someone is a fish out of water? That was me. The only thing I knew was to take off my shoes. Everything else? Nada, nein, nope, not a clue. I’m a terrible Hindu. Those who know me, the very few, would know how much I hate the feeling of vulnerability that is associated with not knowing. Even if it is my own faith. Luckily, Iman isn’t intimidating.
I walked up the ornate steps of this building that looked as if it was carved out of a single piece of limestone, into a small space (6 feet by 6 feet at most) where you rang a bell (which I did rather sheepishly, at first) and you prayed by pouring milk and water onto a little Shivling (an incarnation of the lord Shiva, the Destroyer). I noticed the people around me, praying in their own fascinating ways,
Someone lay flat in front of this Shivling, his head touching its base.
Others with knees bent, kneeling.
And then people like me, standing, perhaps slightly bent over, pouring milk and water.
Regardless of how they prayed, though, everybody around me said the same three words –
Om Namah Shivaya
It means to salute Shiva, but to me it was more about how those three words felt in the moment. They weren’t fearful of this "Destroyer of Worlds", this deity whose third eye causes cataclysms. They were peaceful, almost as if they were meant for resonation, not prostration. As if that Shivling was an antenna that caught onto this chant and beamed it into the heavens. It was extremely powerful.
I continued on into the “Great Hall” where there was a circular path laid out with statuettes of most of the Hindu deities. The usual suspects – Ganesh, Radha, Krishna, Saraswati (the Goddess of Education and a personal favorite of my dear mother’s) – and some of the more obscure variety. I have always known that Hinduism as a religion, as a doctrine, as something, operates differently – it reflects worship, not prayer. Its a strange dichotomy, you worship aspects of life in Hinduism, you don’t pray to them.
Take Saraswati as an example, she is the Goddess of Education. You stand and bow to her, you respect her, you may petition her, but you worship her because you worship education. It’s a fascinating concept and I remember being shocked at how I had never taken a more acute interest in this.
I walked around that hallway perhaps four or five times and just took in the veneration. I wasn’t feeling particularly good that day, coming off a bout of dehydration and feeling extremely anxious. But walking around that space, standing in front of representations of the diversity of life, they reminded me of something. They reminded me that there is a lot in life – education, occupation, dedication, appreciation. There is love, everywhere. There is hope, everywhere. There is Iman, everywhere.
All you have to do, all you have ever had to do, is look.
Have a good week, my friends.