Rites of Passage: A Hindu American Experience

Rites of Passage: A Hindu American Experience May 6, 2015

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Rites of Passage. Read other perspectives here.

A few years ago, the temple in the metro-Detroit area that my family goes to most often started conducting a special puja to mark graduation. I was fascinated. A puja is a religious rite, where Hindus worship through devotion to God, offering prayers and food, often to a specific deity, performed daily or on special occasions, on holy days.  Pujas are done to mark rites of passage – and some are critical components of samskaras, or various life sacraments, such as the Gowri puja I did before my wedding ceremony. So I appreciated the temple’s decision to couple the Satyanarayana puja, a ritual done every full moon at the temple,with graduation, as a new and innovative way to engage Hindu American children in worship. As New York-based journalist Lavina Melwani said about passing on the Hindu way of life:

For Hindu children who grow up in India, their religion is all around them. It resounds from the bells of their neighborhood temple, in the stories told by grandparents and in the countless rituals and ceremonies that are a part of daily life in India. Living in a country that is more than 80 percent Hindu, they absorb their religion by osmosis, surrounded by large, loving extended families, by colorful festivals and holidays that permeate the seasons. The Hindu way of life wafts in the very air they breathe.

But what about Hindu children born in fast-moving America, where there are few markers of Indian life? Religion and culture are best absorbed in childhood, yet these children do not see Hindu culture echoed in the world around them, especially if they live in Smalltown, USA, where there may be few people who look or worship like them.

Samskaras are the closest thing to a rite of passage or religious sacrament in a Hindu’s life, and celebrating these traditions can help to connect Hindu American children to their religious heritage. While it may not be possible to celebrate or even relevant to conduct all of these, there are 16, which help an individual throughout his or her life, encouraging positive behavior and removing or reducing the difficulties s/he may encounter.

Many resources exist to help explain what these samskaras are, including these from the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS),  a socio-spiritual Hindu organization with its roots in the Vedas.

https://vimeo.com/88719626

The pictures and explanation offered by Hinduism Today’s Chapter 39 of “What is Hinduism,” take me down memory lane, with more memories from my children’s life experiences than the sacraments that I went through:

…My vivaha, amidst a gathering of hundreds, as my husband and I were the elder children in our nuclear families, and part of an extended family that spanned generations, reminding me what India’s first prime minister Jawarhalal Nehru wrote decades before, to his daughter Indira Gandhi: marriage is between two families, not simply two individuals.

…My daughter’s vidyarambha, or aksharabhyasa  done in India, with both sets of grandparents and extended family, contrasted with my son’s, done in America, with just the grandparents who were visiting For both, a hand was guided to write with chalk on a slate, the sacred syllable Om, to initiate them in learning and education, before they started preschool.

…My daughter’s annaprasana, done in the US, with just one grandmother, contrasted with my son’s done in India, with both sets of grandparents and extended family. For both, it was the first time they ate solid food, the same sweetened rice pudding flavored with cardamom.

…My son’s namakarana, done amid the festivities of my brother-in-law’s wedding, to take advantage of the facilities and family that were already gathered.

My son’s upanayanam, an initiation into the daily chanting of the Gayatri mantra, something that is akin to being twice-born, where he received the sacred thread – a physical reminder of the responsibility that he now has, “to allow the divine light to enter his mind.”

But the memories are not complete without the accompanying explanation of the value of these traditional rites of passage:

Each one, properly observed, empowers spiritual life, preserves religious culture and establishes bonds with inner worlds as the soul consciously accepts each succeeding discovery and duty in the order of God’s creation. Religious samskaras serve two purposes. First, they mark clearly within our minds the occasion of an important life transition. Second, they solicit special blessings from the devas and Deities, society and village, family and friends. These blessings and feelings of love have a markedly positive effect, stabilizing the mind so that the deeper meanings of life can unfold within us.

Be it in India or America, the Hindu samskaras are the same – and prepare a person for life’s transitions. To complement these traditional sacraments, a young Hindu American can also perform this new rite of passage, the graduation puja, as they embark on the next stage of education and/or life, with the blessings of the community at the temple.

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