A Most Precious Resource

We came to the Laxmi Narayan Hindu Mandir (Temple) in Surrey, Canada, expecting to see unfamiliar religious practices. But, as often happens in interfaith encounter, we were surprised. We — Jewish and Christian visitors — recognized familiar quirks of spiritual community, and learned valuable lessons from the spiritual leader.

Our host, Arun Chatterjee, gave us a tour of the Mandir’s spacious main hall. Today, he explained, was Durga Puja, the annual celebration of the Goddess Durga. Durga is a universal spirit, formless and elusive, yet dwelling in all that exists. She is a cosmic mother, birthing other spiritual powers and their divine expressions. Arun showed us the altar, featuring a porcelain family of gods and goddesses, dressed in fine, glittery clothing. Statues of the divinities, he said, help devotees concentrate on the powers the gods represent. Without idols and the rituals performed around them, seekers would have no concrete, communal focus for their spirituality.

We watched as the priest conducted his rituals, chanting from the Vedas (scriptures) and ringing bells, accompanied by enthusiastic amateur drummers. Members of the community came forward in small groups to dance in honor of the Goddess, carrying incense pans. A short cultural program featured dancers performing different styles of traditional Indian dance, followed by singers both female and male. Volunteers served sweet pudding donated by a family who had asked us to pray for a relative’s healing. Finally, an abundant vegetarian dinner was served.

Of course, people talked and socialized during the priest’s rituals. A few reluctant teens awkwardly participated in the goddess dance. Overly enthusiastic dancers dropped burning incense, and were rescued by the priest’s intervention. Friends videotaped performers during the cultural program. A family made a donation to the Temple, asking us to pray for healing. Tired children ran, jumped and shouted with their friends. Volunteers served food, asking anxiously, “Did you get enough to eat?”

After the ceremonies, the priest Rathin Bhattacharjee spoke with us about his philosophy of spiritual leadership. Pointing at the altar of Durga he said, “See her 10 arms? That symbolizes the greatness of her reach. Religion is not just spiritual these days, it’s cultural. It’s a way of life. Here, we never want to be orthodox. Religion belongs to the people. At our Temple, we try to give them some spiritual resources for their lives.”

He described the fine line walked by many religious leaders in North America. It’s not easy to promote appreciation for an ethnic heritage and teach a beloved spiritual path, yet flow with changes brought by new social contexts. Still, he seems to know the way: above all, be open to people, with all their quirks; they are a tradition’s most precious resource.

Photo used with permission of photographer Lorraine Ashdown.

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