Saturday night I went to the Hindu Holi festival at the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago with my wife and kids. It was great. I was amazed by how friendly and welcoming everyone was. There were probably only 10 white faces there, including the four of us, and hundreds of Indians. People were throwing colored chalk in the air and going around a painting each other’s faces with it. Several complete strangers came up and added various colors to our faces and wished us a “Happy Holi Day”. It felt like a blessing.
People gathered in a kind of “mosh pit” and danced to what sounded like contemporary Hindu music. My wife and I and our son and daughter danced together. My son was smiling in spite of himself. And my daughter was truly in her element. The people were so welcoming. Honestly, we hardly got a second look, in spite of our obviously being visitors.
After the dancing, there was a ritual with chanting that ended in the lighting of a bonfire. People circumambulated the fire, some barefoot, and strewed flower petals into the fire.Before we left, we went into the temple proper. We removed our shoes and walked around to the various shrines which were inset into the walls, shrines to Durga, Shiva, Ganesh, Parthavi Devi and others. I was impressed by how people brought their young children into the temple and let them ring the bell for fun. It was simultaneously a reverent and a joyous affair.
At one point, my daughter seated herself with numerous other people in front of the shrine for Ganesh. A priest was disbursing various offerings to the idol, including milk and fruit. My wife and I were impressed by my daughter’s seriousness … until it came time to leave and she complained that they hadn’t “finished making the cookies”. Apparently, she saw the offerings, mistook them for ingredients, and somehow inferred that cookies would be forthcoming. I should have known! She wouldn’t sit still for that long unless she was expecting dessert.
I can’t claim to understand anything more about Hinduism as a result of attending the Holi celebration, not intellectually at least. But I do truly feel that the experience of participating in the celebration brought me a little closer to the spirit of Hinduism. I think there is a “spirit” to every religion. It is something which cannot be communicated through books, but only through participation. Prior to going, I had downloaded the temple brochure which explains a little about Hinduism, its major gods, and the role of idols. But reading about it and experiencing it, even as an outsider, were vastly different. Like the difference between reading the instructions for assembling a bike and riding a bike.
Participating in the celebration and interacting with the participants conveys something that cannot be communicated in the language of doctrine or dogma. It’s a feeling — a pathos, if you will. It is a quality that varies considerably from the Hindu Holi celebration to the Mormon experience of my childhood to the evangelical Christian services to a Catholic masses I’ve attended to all the various Neopagan rituals I attended at Pantheacon.
I know I’ve still just scratched the surface of experiencing Hinduism. Just as reading the pamphlet about Hinduism barely scratches the surface of Hindu theology and mythology. We’re all looking forward to going back .. maybe for Diwali in the autumn.