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Touch of harmony
By Bruce C. Robertson


It was a momentous event in Maryland when the Greater Baltimore Temple and Community Centre was formally inaugurated. This brings to reality an eight-year dream of the immigrant community there, says BRUCE C. ROBERTSON.

A MAJOR festival in the religious life of Baltimore, Maryland, took place last year. The Greater Baltimore Temple and Community Centre was formally inaugurated in a murti pranapratistha sthapana in which six deities were consecrated - Siva Lingam, Durgama, Ganesha, Saraswati, Nandi and Hanuman. In April this year more deities - Radha, Krishna, Rama, Sita, Lakshman and Balaji - were consecrated. In May, Svetambara and Digambara Jain munis performed pratistha ceremonies installing a murti Mahavira.

These uniquely momentous events bring to fruition an eight-year dream of an immigrant community in Baltimore to define itself by establishing a public place of worship and a cultural centre. Like so many others (African-American, Italian-American, German- American, Korean-American, Muslim, and Sikh, to name only a few), they have moulded this multi-culturally rich, economically vibrant, international, university town as house of worship and community centre - this is the American way.

Americans are a very religious people. We attend church, synagogue, mosque, mandir and gurudvara in record numbers. Conservative religious groups are growing the fastest, largely at the expense of the so-called "mainline" Christian denominations such as the Episcopal (Church of England), Presbyterian, Methodist, and Lutheran. Islam is one of the fastest growing religions.

Religion is "in" among university students. At the John Hopkins University, a group of American-born Indian-American Hindu students study the Bhagavad Gita together once a week. Muslim students read the Quran in a dormitory room. Bible-study and prayer groups meet regularly. The ecumenical chaplain's office is one of the busiest on campus. The other side is that religion in America is big business.

There are over a million Hindus in America, with seven Hindu temples in the  Baltimore-Washington-northern Virginia area alone. The Greater Baltimore Temple and Community Centre may be unique for its latitudinarianism. There is perhaps no Hindu temple in India like it.

A quick glance at the names on the temple committee suggests a profile of the temple congregation (this is the word we use here for religious aggregations) - Andhras, Bengalis, Delhiites, Gujaratis, Maharashtrians, Malayalis, Orians, Punjabis, Tamils, Saiva, Sakta, Vaishnava and Jain, including some of the mid- Atlantic region's most distinguished architects, physicians, lawyers, academics, engineers, managers, entrepreneurs, and private citizens.

Commanding (in symbol and in fact) the high ground overlooking the Finksburg Shopping Centre, the Greater Baltimore Centre is situated among working farms in some of Carroll County's most scenic countryside. This is the trend among many affluent religious communities located outside urban centres, attracted by relaxed zoning laws, favourable local tax and building codes, and low crime environments. In America, a shikhara (temple tower) is an eye-catching backdrop to a Roy Rogers and Pizza Hut.

Mistaken for a synagogue, even a Mexican restaurant, it is unmistakably a mandir blended into the very conservation, nominally Christian rural farming community. The 22,000 sq.ft. building is an eloquent statement of inventive Hindu architectural adaptability that the Vastu Sastra would surely sanction. Chitrachedu Naganna, Praful Vani, Nikhil Sheth, Jaya Bansal, Satyam Chary, Ashok and Jyoti Kumta, as well as other members of the temple committee, have repeatedly emphasised to me that this Hindu-Jain congregation is committed to reaching out to the surrounding non-Hindu community.

Again, like many religious community centres in America, the Greater Baltimore Centre performs a dual role of being a religious education-cultural and a community centre to local non- member organisations, typically groups like the Boys and Girls Scouts, Alcoholics Anonymous, school tutoring, family support agencies, proliferating "Save the whale" or "the Chesapeake Bay" environmental and other special interest groups. The only rules are: no alcohol and no meat.

Uday Purushe, of Laurel Design Alliance architects, a graduate of the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, who primarily designs retirement communities (some for the aging Indian-American community), described some of the difficulties in designing a Hindu temple in America. Aside from keeping within budget, building codes required separate security, electrical, heating and air conditioning systems for the community hall and the mandapa. Even then homas had to be performed outside the mandapa in five brick-lined homakundas under a specially erected shamiana so that the fire alarm would not go off.

The temple is in the Oriya style, modelled after the Lingaraj temple of Puri. The mandapa occupies the east wing (in compliance with rubrics in the Matsya Purana, according to P. V. Kane's monumental History of Dharma Shastra), with the garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) directly under the shikhara. The shikhara itself is high enough to be seen clearly from the highway about a half-mile away, though low by Indian standards. The vimana is also lower than in South Indian temples. Around two front sides of the complex there is a canopy. Windows appear to be dressed in the "Hindu-style" with rajagopuram-like stepped ledges atop columns. The masonry exterior is painted beige with salmon trim and accents.

Distinctly American touches include tinted, plate-glass windows along the front lobby area, a concession to both the vagaries of mid-Atlantic weather and local canons of ornamentation, a circular dirveway leading to the temple entrance, and a well- lighted parking lot, and all within pleasingly landscaped grounds. Purushe has also completed the design of a new Swaminarayan temple in New Jersey.

The three-day sthapana was presided over by six mahants and seemed to follow the general outline that Kane gives for the consecration of immovable (sthirarca) murtis.

The acharya of sthapaka, was Sri Thanga Bhattar, former chief priest of the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, who had come from Thailand where he had presided over another temple opening.

I attended the maha abhishekham on the last day with my oldest daughter and son, Aimee and Andrew. We arrived as a procession of devotees bearing kalashas on their heads was returning from the homa ceremony in the shamiana. It reminded us of the procession of palms last Palm Sunday, another cold and rainy day. In the mandapa, families, many with little children, were gathered, teenagers off by themselves, young women in colourful saris and salwar kameezes, and a few young men dressed, with begrudging congruity, in kurta, docksider slacks and chappals. Coloured pennants were strung connecting the garbha griha with the homa garh outside.

I was mesmerised by the chanting of slokas, the cadences, the retroflex nasalisations, the allitervative, liquid soft, sesquipedalian, civilised sounds, in much the same way I love plainsong in my own tradition, especially when it is a sonorous baritone voice, sound, sabda, the eternal word of advaita vedanta, recalled to mind the words of the Taittiriya Samhita "Vac, Speech, once upon a time escaped from the gods, and settled in the trees. Her voice still resounds in wooden instruments." I have a recording of Jesudass chanting selections from the Bhagavad Gita and Rig Veda. I heard a live recitation of the Quran recently and it was also moving.

The acharya chanted while the assisting pujaris bathed and dressed first the lingam then each of the other deities. Chanting, bells and incense, this was very "high church" as we would say. Sitting at the back I understood about as much of what was being said as I, a Protestant, did back in the pre-Vatican II days of the Catholic Latin mass. Yet, or perhaps because of this (as though sacred processes are profaned by our comprehension) a sense of the sacred, of the holy, was palpable as congregants watched and listened, a few whispering (japa) the chanted slokas. On a cold, damp winter day in central Maryland, U.S., a beautiful wooded hillside was transformed into a sacred grove, hallowed ground.

The singing of bhajans at the end brought me back to an awareness of a community at worship as individuals, then family groups joined in. Worship is contagious and we left reflecting upon the significance of the pageant.




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