Hindus at home on the prairie
Chatham temple eyes expansion
By Bruce Rushton
[verbatim quotations copied and pasted from article at http://illinoistimes.com/article-17565-hindus-at-home-on-the-prairie.html]
[Lede:] At sunset one recent Thursday, Dr. Dharmendra Nimavat pauses outside the Hindu Temple of Greater Springfield, where he is installing new flags to replace storm-tattered banners.
New complete-with-fold-marks flags of India and the temple itself are ready, but the U.S. flag is missing. Nimavat, a pediatrician at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, unlocks the temple and checks inside. Still no luck. An American flag will be here soon, he determines after making a phone call. In the meantime, the flags that are ready are hoisted, with top position, above the Indian flag, left vacant for the expected U.S. flag, which Nimavat explains should naturally fly above the flag of his native land.
“Wherever you stay, that’s your home country,” Nimavat says. “You should respect it.”
In the Springfield area, desire for a temple that ended up in Chatham grew over the years, fueled by folks like Nimavat, who came to this country in 1996. Worshipping at home, where phone calls and other distractions are near givens, isn’t the same as coming to the temple, he says.
“You don’t get the same vibes when you come to the temple – it’s different,” Nimavat says. “The second generation that’s coming from India, they’re really driving things. They demanded it (a temple), and it’s happened.”
In the early days, before acquiring property, temple members gathered in basements, Nimavat recalls. The need for such gatherings, and for a temple, isn’t just religious. The temple has 90 members, most of Indian heritage (there is also a member from Iran and a member from Nepal). The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t distinguish between people of Indian descent and other Asians, but it’s fair to say that Indians are a small fraction of the local population.
“The temple is a focal point,” Rao says. “It’s a meeting place to imbibe in our culture so that children in our community get an opportunity to get in touch with our roots. The other factor is, although people can pray at home, deities in temples have been specially energized, imbued with the presence of God. They’ve, in effect, been brought to life by a priest.
“Put another way, air is everywhere. But you go in front of an air conditioner if you want to get cool.”
Some compromises are almost inevitable.
In India, Hindu temples tend to be carved from granite. Granite and granite carvers being scarce in central Illinois, the temple in Springfield will likely feature plaster, says Rao, who grew up in Florida, where he says that his father helped organize and build the first Hindu temple in Tampa. It wasn’t an easy task, he recalls.
“I initially thought I would not be like my father,” Rao says. “Over time, people change.”
Hinduism evolved over centuries across India, one of the planet’s most populous nations. Besides geography, devotees are separated by language, and so traditions and beliefs vary. In the United States, however, the Indian population is relatively small, and so organizers must coalesce a temple community from folks who didn’t necessarily follow the same religious customs in their homeland. It is, essentially, a theological melting pot within a cultural melting pot that every immigrant experiences in the United States.
“It’s fondue all over,” says Dr. Kartik Mani, a cardiovascular physician who is chairman of the temple’s board of trustees.
Diversity is apparent during temple ceremonies. While groups of a dozen or more devotees seated on the floor sing or chant together, others walk in, alone or in twos and threes, to present offerings of fruit or money at three altars that display statues of more than a dozen deities. Paying no attention to group rituals, individual devotees clasp hands in prayer form or prostate themselves in various directions or simply linger for a few moments at the altar before leaving. Some appear to pray before pictures of deities that hang from the walls. Some announce their entrance into the worship room by ringing a bell that hangs at the entrance, others do not. No two devotees do exactly the same thing.