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Creating a Sacred West

How Hindus have honored and blessed the ancient American homelands



Hindus now have over 1,000 temples in North America. How exactly are they transmitting spiritual power from India to the West, to re-bless a sacred land not commonly thought of as holy by others? In 1999, Dr. Vasudha Narayanan, President of the American Academy of Religions and professor at the University of Florida's Department of Religion, presented a paper, condensed below, at the AAR National Meeting titled "Victory to Govinda who lives in America: Hindu Ritual to Sacralize the American Landscape."

Hindus have made the land of the Americas ritually sacred in at least four ways: composing songs and pious Sanskrit prayers extolling the American state where the temples are located; identifying America as a specific dvipa or island quoted in the sacred texts; physically consecrating the land with waters from sacred Indian and American rivers; and literally recreating the physical landscape of certain holy places in India, as in Pittsburgh or Barsana Dham, Texas.

Songs of the Land: In America, Hindu places of worship are beginning to use the land or shrines held sacred by the native inhabitants. These sacred lands are then reaffirmed and reiterated in many ways. For example, in 1986 a cassette of devotional songs was issued by the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Penn Hills, Pennsylvania. These devotees praise Lord Venkateswara, a manifestation of Lord Vishnu, in song, America vasa jaya govinda, Penn Hills nilaya radhe govinda, sri guru jaya guru, vithala govinda, which means, "Victory to Govinda who lives in America; Govinda who with Radha resides in Penn Hills. Victory to Govinda, Vithala, the sacred Teacher." Singing about a place expresses its sacredness and makes it a palpable spot of holiness. Dr. J. Sethuraman, professor of statistics at the Florida State University in Tallahassee, composed an elegant poem called Sri Venkatesha America Vaibhava Stotram, "Praise of the Appearance of Lord Venkatesha in America." It is in classical Sanskrit, in the style of a traditional kavya, or poem, replete with exquisite literary devices and ornate verses, "Such a Venkatesha, the ocean of nectar of kindness, has come to the hilltop at the well-known city of Pittsburgh, surrounded by the three rivers, Allegheny, Monongahela and the Ohio, to remove the miseries of the people."

"Declaration of Intention": Another example of making the West a sacred home is evident in the sankalpa, the "declaration of intention," done at the beginning of every ritual. The land is usually identified with one of the dvipas, or "islands" from the Puranas, books of ancient lore composed in the first millennium CE. Thus, Hindus in India begin most rituals with a sankalpa which includes the line, "in this island of the Rose-Apple, in the fragment of land (country) called bharata, south of Mount Meru." In Canada and America there are new parameters. Almost all temples state that America is located in the Krauncha ("heron") island, which is west (not south, like India) of Mount Meru. In the intention recited in Tallahassee, Dr. Sethuraman chanted: "In this island of Krauncha, in the delightful continent, in the sacred province of the cows that is east of the Mississippi River, in the sacred land called Tallahassee."

Sacred Rivers: Hindus think of rivers as sacred and as liquid purifiers, capable of spiritually cleansing all those who bathe in them. But why should they mingle the sacred waters brought from India's rivers with the local waters of the Mississippi and the Suwannee? On the simplest level, the sacredness of the Ganga, the Kaveri and other rivers will physically attach itself to the local rivers of America. But there is more going on here than just spiritually or physically invoking the holy Indian rivers into the local waters. As we saw earlier, during the intention chant of any ritual, the names of the rivers of America are mentioned. They would not be in the worship if they were not sacred in some intrinsic way, something the Native American Indians knew for thousands of years.

Creating India in America: Another way Hindus in America enhance the sacredness of their temples is to try to either recognize and rediscover resemblances between American physical landscape and distinctive sacred spots in India, or to recreate that similarity. The earliest attempt was at the Venkateswara Temple in Pittsburgh. Devotees voiced the similarity between the sacred place in India where the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the underground Saraswati meet, and the local confluence of the three rivers, the Allegheny, the Mongahela and the subterranean river brought up for the 60-foot-high fountain in downtown.

Some of the most sustained attempts in recreating the landscape are in Barsana Dham, Texas, and at the Iraivan Temple to Siva, in Kauai, Hawaii. Barsana Dham resembles Barsana in Northern India, said to be the hometown of Radha, the beloved of Lord Krishna. Here, all the important landmarks of Krishna and Radha's homeland were recreated. At Iraivan Temple in Hawaii, not only are the names reminiscent of India (Path of the Tamil Saivite Saints, San Marga Path, San Marga Iraivan Temple, Rishi Valley, Rudraksha Forest, etc.), but the similar environment of tropical India meshes with the local Hawaiian land to create a unique milieu.

Recreating these landscapes is not an end in itself. Barsana in Texas as well as Iraivan Temple in Hawaii will become the new pilgrimage destination for millions of Indians living in the Western world who cannot go to India. Dr. Sambamurthy Sivachariyar, an important priest of a large temple in Madras, India, who presided as chief priest for the stone-laying ceremony of Iraivan Temple in 1995 said, "I am too old to go on pilgrimage to the holy sites in the Indian Himalayan mountains, where, according to Hinduism, God Himself resides and gives His grace to pilgrims. That was a life-long dream of mine. But now that I have come to the most beautiful place in the world, Kauai, to this sacred land, I feel my dream has been fulfilled. I have come to the home of God."

Primary Sacrality: While resemblance, blessed land and waters mark the experience of sacrality in most places, a few places, such as those in Virginia and Hawaii, seem to have primary or immediate sacredness. Some of the sites, such as in Hawaii, build on the sacredness of the indigenous traditions. During the ritual to lay the foundation of Iraivan Temple, were rites from the local Hawaiian traditions. Also added were precious gems, gold and silver offerings sand, stones, earth and waters from sacred sites from nearly every country, notably India, Europe, Australia, mainland USA, Russia and ancient Mayan and Incan holy sites in Central and South America.

San Marga Iraivan Temple is also similar to the powerful temples in India in that it was started with a vision of God Siva by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami in 1975. The ancient Hawaiians called the holy site, which is at the foot of Mount Waialeale near the sacred Wailua River, Pihanakalani, "where heaven touches Earth."

While it seems both natural and practical to recognize and honor the Hawaiian traditions in the ceremony to start a new Hindu temple, it must be emphasized that this is not an interfaith temple, of which there are many in America. The temple is not only Hindu, but is sectarian in that it is unambiguously dedicated to God Siva. Most temples in America are the homes of many DeitiesÑSiva, Vishnu, and His many manifestations, Ganesha, various Goddesses, etc. The Deity to be installed in Iraivan Temple is a Sivalinga, a conical piece of crystal rock discovered and brought to Kauai from Arkansas. It is significant that this crystal is "American born." While the manifestation of Siva as this crystal lingam is American, and the land, American territory, the temple is being carved in India and imported to Hawaii.


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