Hinduism in the Hudson Valley

That old time religion: As relevant today as it was ages ago, Hinduism gives its followers freedom to choose their own path. Just remember to remove your shoes

With its tower doorway guarded by menacing stone demigods meant to ward off evil, the Hindu Samaj temple in Wappingers Falls might seem forbidding at first. But step inside and you’ll immediately feel welcome. Scents of sandalwood and fresh flowers perfume the air, as dozens of granite and marble statues — with offerings of fruit, flowers, and dollar bills placed before them — smile benevolently out from their shrines. Take off your shoes in the coat room, and feel free to explore.

Westerners are often confused by the plethora of Hindu deities. Who are all these gods? The answer is deceptively simple: The statues, called “murtis,” represent different aspects of one single God which is in everything and is everywhere. A Hindu may worship all, some, or none at all.

Hinduism is an umbrella term for a multiple belief system, much the same way that Christianity describes a number of different denominations, such as Methodists and Catholics. It is the third largest religion in the world, and arguably the oldest: It is estimated that it has been practiced for as many as 10,000 years. Its followers, however, might not call it a religion at all, but rather a way of life.

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Hinduism first made a major appearance on the American scene in the 1960s and ’70s, fueled by the era’s counterculture and even the Beatles’ 1968 visit to India, which shone a spotlight on Indian mysticism and transcendental meditation. While interest in these aspects of Hindu life slowed in the following decades, the Hindu population in this country has continued to grow dramatically. The Hindu American Foundation estimates that, as of 2008, the U.S. population of Hindus of Indian origin was approximately 2.29 million — up from 1.1 million in 1997.

“The main objective of Hinduism is the search for truth, to understand what this whole life — this whole universe — is about,” says Dr. Sushumna Iruvanti, a trustee for the Wappingers temple, which was formed in the 1960s by transplants from India, many of them IBM workers, eager to create a meeting place. A barn initially served that purpose; but as more Indians flooded into the Valley — drawn by IT and medical jobs — the temple expanded to its current location in 1997. With some 600 members, today it serves as both a community center — offering classes in yoga, dance, Hindi language, and traditional Indian music — as well as a place of worship. Although most Hindu temples have a main deity, this one does not specialize. “Here we have a cross-section of the community, so we have deities for everyone,” says Iruvanti.

A constant stream of devotees enter the temple, each with his or her own style of worship, which can vary from simply standing with hands clasped and head bowed to reclining before the shrines in yoga’s child’s pose. Most people start their worship with Ganesha, the popular elephant-headed god of obstacles.

“Hinduism has various schools of thought. One of them is that there is no duality — the creator and the creation are the same,” says Iruvanti. “The creator is infinite.” Unhappiness is caused by people feeling that they are lacking, or “finite,” in some area — whether it be wealth, prestige, or personal capabilities, says Iruvanti. “If you eliminate these feelings of inadequacy and commune with an infinite God, you will be happy.”

The trick is to get to that state — which is where practicing yoga and repetitively chanting mantras come in. In Hinduism, yoga is more than just exercise or a way of obtaining a sleek physique: It is a meditative discipline.

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However they practice their faith, most Hindus also follow dharma, a way of living that leads to spiritual advancement. They also believe in reincarnation, which means that, when you die, your soul is reborn in another body, either animal or human. The ultimate goal is to achieve “moksa” — the state of liberation from suffering and the cycle of death and rebirth. “If you can curb your desires and reduce them to nothing, you will no longer need a body,” explains Iruvanti.

“We also believe in karma: Basically, it means for every action there is a reaction — it’s a subset of Newton’s laws,” says Iruvanti. “You pick acts that are likely to have a good reaction. If you mean harm, then the reaction will likely have negative reaction for you, too.”

The secret, says Iruvanti, is to recognize that we’re all in this together. “If all people believed this, there would be utopia.”

Despite the lack of strict worship rules, being a Hindu doesn’t mean “anything goes.” No alcohol or meat is allowed in the diet — cows are sacred in India — although dairy products are permitted.

Indeed, milk flows freely during certain religious rites. Popular deities have sacred bathing ceremonies held on specific days of the week. During these rituals, the priest pays homage to the deities by bathing them in the five “nectars” (milk, yogurt, honey, ghee [clarified butter], and sandalwood paste), then dressing them in ornamental garments augmented by jewelry and fresh flowers that are woven into garlands by temple volunteers.

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Because God is everywhere, Hindus do not have to visit the temple to worship. They can do it at home with a personal shrine, or devise their own prayer ritual while cooking dinner, cleaning the house, or doing just about anything.

Aside from weekly services (known as poojahs), there are festivals throughout the year. In February, there is the Festival of Shivaratri. “It’s a big night of Shiva worship, the exact date depends on the auspiciousness of the moon,” says Dr. Iruvanti. “Many people will fast that day. The bathing ceremonies and mantra chanting could on all night long in India, though here we stop at midnight because many of us need to work the next day.”

The most important celebration of all is Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, celebrated in late October or early November. Hindus use oil lamps, candles, electric lights, and tinsel to light the way for Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune, to visit their homes. Fireworks are set off to frighten away evil spirits, gifts are exchanged (silver and saris are popular), and banquets mark the occasion.

In Rockland County, the Sri Ranganatha Pomona temple has been drawing cross-country pilgrims by the thousands on weekends since 2001. Built by skilled artisans flown in from India to do the stonework and gilding, the cavernous, 13,000-square-foot space dazzles with a real gold-plated dome. Such extravagances don’t come cheaply: It’s said that quite a few of the 600 members took out second mortgages on their homes to fund this special spot.

Different in belief from their neighbors in Wappingers, the Pomona group believes in Vaishnavism, one of the many subdivisions of Hinduism. That means they only worship Vishnu, so just this deity’s image is shown in the temple. Another big point: They believe that the self is separate from God. “We are a bit more traditional and for certain prayer sessions — like marriage and for having a child — devotees must be in sari and dhoti, traditional Indian clothes,” says Venkat Kanumalla, a live-in priest who is a temple founder and chairman of the board of trustees.

And yet another temple is in the making. In White Plains, there will be a spring groundbreaking for the Temple of Tristates, which already has some 900 members and a mailing list of 5,000. “We used to go as far as Flushing, Queens to find a temple,” says Jagdish Mitter, a founder-trustee. “Now we will have a place to come together locally.”

Once a month, Mitter hosts a fund-raiser at Royal Palace, his White Plains restaurant, which often draws hundreds of people. They sing devotional hymns and pray “sankirtan” style, a call-and-response chanting that recently crossed over into the non-Hindu hipster crowd — which just goes to show how everything that’s old is new again.

For more information

Hindu Samaj
3 Brown Rd., Wappingers Falls, NY 12590. 845-297-9061; www.hindusamajtemple.org

Sri Ranganatha Temple
8 Ladentown Rd., Pomona, NY 10970. 845-364-9790; www.ranganatha.org

Hindu Temple of Tristates
390 North St., White Plains, NY 10605. 914-289-1988; www.hindutempleoftristates.com

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