R’avi Kamath received a pair of polished stones from a friend’s 7-year-old daughter. The child’s simple gift sits in a platter on Kamath’s home shrine as a reminder of God’s gift of love.
“God is everything and everywhere,” Kamath said. “Eventually, God is love.”
The stones are part of a Kamath’s small-but-elaborate shrine for puja, or ritualistic Hindu worship.
There are more than 750 million Hindus in the world and more than 1 million in America. Hindus traditionally have a room or place in their home set aside for worship and meditation. The space usually includes lamps, incense burners and a model temple containing images of gods and goddesses with platters for offerings of food and drink. Items vary according to each family’s particular choice of deities, practices and beliefs. The Hindu faith embraces a diverse cultural and spiritual background rooted in ancient Indian culture.
Kamath, an assistant professor at MU’s School of Medicine, said his shrine is filled with items that direct his thoughts to the divine. Plush red carpet leads to a shrine filled with statues of Ganesh, the god of knowledge with an elephant’s head. The god is a popular figure in Kamath’s home on the west coast of India. Pictures of saints and holy places are also in places of reverence. Although Hindus say there are 330 million gods and goddesses in the pantheon, Kamath said all deities are embodiments of the same divine principle.
“There are many forms, but there is one truth. That is God,” Kamath said.
Kamath said he tries to take time each day to meditate and perform rituals.
“You are a different person when you are able to do this everyday,” Kamath said.
However, Kamath said daily life can lead him to lose sight of ultimate truths.
“Very often we say we don’t have the time,” Kamath said. “The forces of the material world drag you in different directions.”
When he is able to start his day with worship, Kamath said he carries feelings of peace and discipline throughout his workday. Although all the items in this room help Kamath experience God, he said none can capture God’s full essence.
Designs for divine connection
Vikram Pattarkine has based the layout of his entire house on a traditional Indian design to help enhance his connection to the divine. Standing in front of a bank of windows that open to the morning sun in the east, Pattarkine said uniting with God should be the ultimate goal of all ritualistic worship.
“The danger of ritualistic worship is equal in all faiths,” said Pattarkine, an environmental engineer. “When (something other than God) becomes an end in itself, then it is dangerous because it is fostering ignorance.”
Every item in the Pattarkines’ shrine is invested with spiritual significance. Small statues and pictures remind family members of stories with moral and metaphysical meanings. As a part of a ritual, Pattarkine’s wife, Leena Pattarkine, draws complex geometrical patterns on a board to decorate the shrine.
“They all have mythological significance,” she said as she pointed to one spiraling star-like figure. Each time she draws one of these figures, she said she reminds herself of God’s infinite presence in the universe. The Pattarkines also light a lamp, burn incense and offer food and water to invite God into their home.
Leena Pattarkine, a biochemical researcher at MU, said the presence of a shrine in her house is similar to the presence of Bibles and crosses in Christian homes. She said the shrine and the rituals are the tools and symbols of the faith she wants to teach her 7-month-old son, Om, and her 11-year-old daughter, Uma.
Although Hindus have community festivals and holidays, family worship is centered around the home.
Vikram Pattarkine said the rituals are a step on the path to greater consciousness.
“The ritual is an external appearance of the same eternal longing that each individual has towards the divine,” he said. The ultimate goal is the individual’s union with God, Vikram Pattarkine said.
His home, his temple
Ranadhir Mitra, an associate pathology professor at MU’s School of Medicine, said the Hindu faith is very personal.
“You don’t have to go to a temple or anywhere,” Mitra said.
Mitra, one of 11 children, said his mother was faithful, but she rarely visited temples.
“She said, ‘My duty is to raise my children. If I have time, I go to temple,’” Mitra said.
Mitra said most modern Hindus have made space for ceremonial worship in the corner of a room like he has in his home. Mitra’s home shrine consists of pictures of his parents and in-laws, incense burners and a pair of paintings and statues of Shiva and Durga, popular gods from his birthplace in eastern India.
Mitra calls Shiva “the world’s oldest hippie.” With a cloud of incense smoke swirling in front of the shrine, Mitra told stories about Shiva, the god of dance and destruction, who wore an animal-skin loincloth, long hair and a snake around his neck.
Mitra said when he first came to the United States in the 1960s people jokingly called him “guru” because of his accent and beard.
He said he is glad he grew up in India with access to people of multiple faiths.
“You can have different faiths, but at the same time you can live together,” Mitra said.