Anantha Gopalaratnam starts Saturday mornings with a prayer to the Hindu deity Vishnu. The prayer is a religious tradition she learned from her parents while growing up in Maharashtra, a state located in the west central part of India.
Gopalaratnam has lived in the United States for more than 30 years and is an active member of Shanthi Mandir, Columbia’s only Hindu temple. The temple is home to Columbia’s Indian community, and its members represent diverse cultural and religious traditions. India is home to a number of the world’s oldest and most varied religions, and, as a result, temple members come from different states, speak different languages and worship different deities.
Balaji, who uses only his first name, is from Tamilnadu in the south of India. In his region, members of the Brahman caste often go by only a first name and reserve their family name for religious purposes. Balaji grew up with a particular emphasis on the deities Siva and Vishnu, but says he understands the importance behind including everyone at Shanthi Mandir.
“India is a big, vast country, and some of the traditions that are followed in the South are not followed in the North,” he said. “But here we can see everything. We give importance to each and every god.”
Gopalaratnam arrives at the temple early on Saturdays for Suprabhatham Prayer, Sanskrit hymns recited to awaken the Lord. The prayers begin shortly after 9 in the morning as a handful of temple members arrive with friends and family. Two colorful red blankets are spread on the floor of the large, open sanctuary of the temple. Worshippers sit on the blankets and face a small dais that serves as an altar.
Framed pictures of Hindu deities and venerated gurus line the walls. Gopalaratnam lights incense and then presses play on a stereo. A recording of ceremonial chanting fills the sanctuary. Temple members chant along with the recording and follow the Sanskrit phrases with laminated hymnals.
The event schedule at Shanthi Mandir is shaped by the myriad traditions of its members. Many temple members have busy schedules and worship at home, but they also come to the temple to maintain a sense of community,
“What we are trying to do here, because we don’t have a priest, we are doing whatever the members of our congregation are able to offer to keep this place going,” Gopalaratanam said. “The whole idea is you can seek god in your own home, but we believe there is a special power that comes from worshiping together, and that is what a temple hopes to accomplish.”
Shanthi Mandir’s more generalized theological focus is also influenced by the age of its members. The temple offers Tamil and Hindi language classes that focus on attracting the young people in the Indian community.
Gopalaratnam said programs like the language classes help young Indians connect through a shared cultural background.
“Despite all our differences,” she said, “there is one underlying culture which is kind of common to all of us, and that is what we would like to pass on to our children.”
Gopalaratnam’s daughter, Adithi Vellore, a sophomore at Hickman High School, said she has seen her family’s Hindu beliefs broaden as traditions are passed down from older to younger generations. While her mother grew up with an emphasis on certain deities, Vellore said she chooses to focus on the general values of Hinduism and less on specific traditions and customs.