Sunday, September 16, 2012

Hindu House Blessing: The Photo Essay

Before I say anything about yesterday's Hindu house blessing, let me say that I didn't take notes; I wanted to be more fully present.  I did take a picture here and there throughout the ceremony (with permission granted beforehand), but again, I wanted to be present.

Even if I had taken notes, I'm not the best person to explain what happened yesterday.  The Hindu priest was very gracious in trying to explain what we were doing, but my basic lack of background hindered my own understanding and my writing about it here.

For example, the priest explained why we gathered at the early morning hour by giving us a brief explanation of the astrology and study of the planets that determined the decision.  But I don't really know much about Indian astrology, and so I just listened.

I wasn't sure I was always understanding the priest, both in terms of content, and in terms of being certain what the priest was saying.  He had a lovely, lilting accent.

So, my standard disclaimer:  any thoughts expressed below are my own.  I don't presume to speak for Hindus, for Indians, for anyone but me.  I don't intend to offend.  If I've misunderstood any element, it's my own fault, and I'd be happy to be educated.  For more theological thoughts, see this post on my theology blog.

So, back to yesterday.  I arrived just before 6 a.m.  My Hindu friend was boiling milk, which South Indians feel is a way of bringing luck:

She has not yet moved fully back into the house; in fact, the house isn't quite finished.  But she had set up an area for the blessing to take place; when the priest arrived, he created a small altar area out of a cardboard box and a variety of objects.

Here's the area before we started:

The Hindu priest looked like I expected, but I'd met him before when we went to yoga classes at my friend's temple:

The priest later explained that the marks on his head are made of ashes.  He says that priests apply ashes every day so that they are reminded of how very temporary our existence is and how important it is to make every day count.  Not for the first time I thought about how we should all be putting ashes on ourselves each day so that we remember.

The priest carried several bags with all sorts of supplies.  He first put some powders on a plate. He dribbled water on the powders and then painted on the silver plate.

At some point, he also put a dab of paint on my friend's forehead.

The first part of the ceremony involved offerings and the 9 planets.  Each planet had a grain offering put on the silver plate:

Then the priest took a flower and dipped it into the colored powders.  As he did this, he chanted, and my friend held grains of rice.  My friend put the rice on the grains on the silver plate, and the flower went on top of the rice. 

There was also incense wafting and a statue of Ganesh and a coconut:

The coconut would become important in the second part of the service, as we moved into offerings to the gods of fire:

You can see the coconut with the flower on top of it.  What you might not realize is that the object in the middle of the square object is a coconut, not a potato.  Through the course of the second part of the ceremony, the coconut would be burned and grains and other offerings would be added to the flame:

Later, my Hindu friend explained that many centuries ago, a human would be the sacrifice.  My Western friend said, "You'd burn a woman?" 

My Hindu friend said, "No, of course not!  We'd sacrifice a man."

I added, "Wombs are too valuable to waste that way."

We talked about the coconut as womb, the coconut as a symbol of a human.  The morning was full of symbols of all kinds.

But, I digress.  Back to the ceremony.  In the photo above, you see a jar of yellow liquid between the two platters.  It's a jar of ghee, clarified butter.  It was used as fuel for the fire:

I am sure I am not the only one who thought about my friend's house fire and felt nervous about open flame.  But we had fire extinguishers and water, and I tried to calm my brain.

In the end, the super-sensitive smoke alarms went off, but happily, it was after the end of the ceremony.  We moved the flame to the patio:

The priest needed to leave right after the ceremony; he had to get to the temple to open it.  But the rest of us stayed.  We drank chai tea and ate some Indian food, along with the nuts.

The others needed to leave, but I stayed.  My friend and I went to her old/temporary place (across the back yard) to feed the cats, and I helped her move a few items back to the her restored house.  She had told us how big her television is, how heavy, how impossible to move.  I thought she was talking about an 82 inch screen or something equally massive. 

But it was an old-fashioned television, more awkward than heavy.  I insisted on moving it; I said, "What is the point of working out with weights if I can't help friends with their heavy objects?"

I have been feeling guilty because I feel like I haven't done enough to help my friend through this process.  I've cried with her and helped her salvage the objects that survived the fire and listened to her frustration with the restoration process.  Still, I wish I had done more.

Could I have done more?  I'm not a contractor, and the restoration work had to be done by licensed professionals.  I'm not the homeowner, the one who must deal with the city.  I couldn't have made the homeowner's association do what my friend wanted any more than my friend was able to make that happen.

Still, I wish I could have done more.  I feel that way about so many lives.  So, it was good to do something concrete to help, a television moved from one place to the other.

I'm so glad that my Hindu friend invited me to be part of the ceremony.  I'm so glad that I went over, despite the early hour.  I'm so glad that the priest was so gracious and inclusive.

But most of all, I'm glad that my friend was able to persevere.  I'm glad to see firsthand this concrete example that life can be rebuilt out of ashes.

May we all be similarly blessed:  our tragedies converted into resurrections, our ashes the foundations of something better yet to be revealed.

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