Hindu Temple of Atlanta, Bhakti Yoga

Bodhinatha presents an overview of the Hindu Temple of Atlanta and the Hindu Temple of Orlando where he will soon visit. He illustrates that in the practice of Hinduism a devotee can experience and see God and how Hinduism differs from many other religions where one must wait until the hereafter to experience God. In Hinduism bhakti yoga has paths to bring us closer to God. Shakti radiates out from the Deity in the temple. Bodhinatha quotes Swami Chinmayananda to demonstrate how we can experience the blessings of our Hindu religion and culture.

Unedited Transcript:

Good morning everyone. Continuing to work on some talks for our trip to Atlanta. As I mentioned they have two temples now in Atlanta. Hindu Temple of Greater Atlanta. There's the Venkateswara Temple, their original temple and now they have a Siva temple along side of it of equal size, the Ramalingeswara Temple. So the challenging talk is some of my talks are given in the Venkateswara Temple and some of my talks are given in the Ramalingeswara Temple so, say the right thing in the right temple. [laughs] Keep the Vaisnavites and the Saivites both happy. So this is a talk that's designed for the Venkateswara Temple as well as parts of it can be used in other places. We're confirmed now for a visit to the Hindu Temple of Orlando. Having a kumbhabhishekam in the middle of June. So they've invited us and confirmed. They're very closely associated with the Chinmayananda mission. Some way there they share in one of their facilities, temple society and the Chinmaya Mission so part of the talk is a fairly extensive quote from Swami Chinmayananda which can be used in that situation as well. It's also appearing in the next issue of Hinduism Today in our center section. It's going to be a little bit controversial which talks about all religions aren't really one, despite the fact that some people like to say so. There's quite a big difference between religions so that's coming up in our next issue of Hinduism Today. So here we are, sitting in Atlanta, Shanmuganathaswami at the Venkateshwara.

Shanmuganathaswami and I are pleased to be present at these ceremonies of the annual festival for the Sri Venkateswara and Ramalingeswara temples. We were present a year ago at the 12-year reconsecration of the existing temple for Venkateswara and for the inauguration of the new temple for Siva and still have fond memories of the powerful and soul stirring chanting of the priests during the prana prathistha and other ceremonies held during that utsava.

One of the major activities at our monastery is the publication of an international quarterly magazine called Hinduism Today. We are currently working on an article on the Balaji temple in Tirupati. One of the interesting facts we discovered early on is that the current darshan time in front of the Venkateswara Deity for a devotee is just five seconds. Imagine that. You have stood in line for hours and because there are so many devotees, you are only allowed to view the Deity for five seconds before you have to move on. This may give you a new appreciation for having your own Balaji temple here in Atlanta that has no such time restraints, no such time constraints on worship! In other words that's a joke, supposed to laugh. [laughs] Imagine that you know, five seconds, that's all, goodness.

As publisher of Hinduism Today, I provide a two-page opinion piece entitled Publisher's Desk, for each issue. In Publisher's Desk a few years' ago I wrote on the topic; andquot;I Want to See God! Some pertinent suggestions to sincere seekers on where and how to look for Divinity.andquot; The reason I chose this topic was to emphasize that one of the greatnesses of Hinduism is that it is experientially oriented rather than belief oriented. In other words, the goal is not simply to believe in God but rather to experience God. In some religions the ultimate the religion offers is having a strong belief in the existence of God. In Hinduism, however, believing in God is only a first step toward an ever-deepening personal experience of God's presence. In other words in some religions all they give you now is a belief in God. To experience God you have to wait until you are in the hereafter, in heaven. However, Hinduism provides a way to experience God in the here and now. We don't have to wait for the hereafter to experience God.

Returning to the Publisher's Desk I wrote it begins with the classic story of how Swami Vivekananda, when he was still a college student in Calcutta, went around to the religious leaders in the Calcutta area and asked them all if they had seen God. None of them gave a satisfactory answer until he met Sri Ramakrishna. The answer that Sri Ramakrishna gave was andquot;Yes, I see Him as clearly as one sees an apple in the palm of the hand; nay even more intently. And not only this, you can also see Him.andquot; This answer deeply impressed the young Vivekananda who soon after accepted Sri Ramakrishna as his Guru.

Swami Chinmayananda in his first public talk, which was given in December, 1951, also emphasized the importance of the experiential side of Hinduism. To quote: andquot;The true Hinduism is a science of perfection. There is, in this true Hinduism, a solution to every individual, social, national and international problem. True Hinduism is the Sanatana Dharma (eternal truth) of the Upanishads. You can tell he's a Vedantin. The Upanishads proclaim in unmistakable terms that, in reality, man is God. Man is therefore advised to live his day-to-day life in such a systematic way that, hour by hour, he is consciously cleansing himself of all those imperfections that have gathered to conceal the beauty and divinity of his true, eternal nature. The methods by which an individual may consciously evolve by his own self-effort comprise the content of Hinduism.andquot;

The Publisher's Desk article then explains a number of different ways Hindus can experience God in the here and now. The way we will focus on today is through the Deity's image in the temple. This is the devotional or theistic approach and applies equally in Vaishnavism and in Saivism.

The Hindu temple is not simply a place we go to listen to a lecture on Hinduism. It is a sacred place, built and maintained in such a way, that we can go there to experience the Divine. Gods and devas are in the inner, spiritual worlds and able to bless us through the image in the temple. The image is like a temporary physical body they use during temple ceremonies. Though occasionally a devotee may have a vision of the God, the more common way we experience the Gods and devas is as an uplifting, peaceful, divine energy, or sakti, that radiates out from the image. It is easiest to feel their blessings at the high point of the puja when the flame is held high. Also their blessings are strongest on their major festival days.

Let me share an interesting story. My guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, had many visions of the Hindu Gods, so many that he didn't even bother to share them all with his monks and devotees. But one he did share occurred in Karnataka when in was in a car that was driving by a temple of Lord Hanuman. The reason he shared his vision of Lord Hanuman was that Gurudeva was impressed by how very, very tall Lord Hanuman was in the vision. He was absolutely gigantic.

We have arranged group pilgrimages to India since 1969, and some pilgrims on various programs definitely had visions of the Deities in the temples. The vision would often come in the form of the stone or bronze murthi moving and smiling at them, or turning into a human like figure that would move, or also with their eyes closed seeing the Deity's face as a living being. As I mentioned earlier, though some devotees have these kinds of visions, many do not and just experience the Deity as a spiritual energy emanating from the sacred murthi.

We had an interesting experience in this regard. At our Hawaii monastery we have a temple to Lord Nataraja that was founded in 1973. Following tradition, twelve years later in 1985 we had a kumbhabhishekam, or reconsecration ceremony. The priests took the power of the temple into a number of kumbhas and placed them in a tent under a nearby tree. The change was dramatic. The temple that had felt like a holy place just a few hours before now felt like a garage. There was no sense of sanctity at all left in the building. The priests had removed it all and placed it under the tent. This experience deeply impressed me as to what the special blessings, energies, shakti, that are usually present in the Hindu temple feel like and how blessed we are to be in its presence.

Not only does Hinduism provide a means whereby we can experience God here and now, it also provides us with the tools, the techniques whereby we can deepen that experience--that is become ever closer to God. One set of tools given to us by Hinduism is called bhakti yoga. Bhakti yoga is the process of becoming closer to God through attending the temple, chanting bhajans and other devotional songs and japa which is the repetition of a mantra while counting on japa beads. My Gurudeva summarized the essence of bhakti yoga in saying: andquot;To love God is to know God. To know God is to feel His love for you.andquot;

We can also do the same bhakti yoga practices at home in our shrine room. Through receiving special training, we can even learn to conduct a special type of puja called Atmartha Puja in our home shrine. In fact I like to say that Hinduism is the only religion in which everyone can own a temple and become the temple's priest--the temple of course is your home which you can spiritualize or make feel like a temple through conducting daily puja in the home shrine.

Let me share a story. A young couple visiting our Hawaii monastery was talking with me and the wife was sharing memories of her childhood religious impressions in India. Her family's Deity is Venkateshwara. She explained that when she was young her family went on pilgrimage and at one particular temple would rise at 4 AM, bathe in the ocean and then roll around the entire temple in their wet clothing, even the young children. She also mentioned that her grandfather did a major daily puja in the home shrine. It was his practice to rise, bathe and begin his puja at 6 AM which continued until 2 PM. Only then would he eat or even allow anyone to touch him. That is a serious Atmartha Puja! The story also shows how in our retirement years we can spend significantly more time in our daily practice of bhakti yoga.

In preparation for this talk I was studying a Hinduism Today article we did a number of years ago on the five schools of Vaishnavism. In describing the Chaitanya school, the article gave an excellent example of the idea of becoming ever closer to God. It states that in the Chaitanya school bhakti is seen as progressing through five stages: neutrality toward God; servitude for God; friendship with God; parental feelings for God; and relating to God as a lover to the beloved.andquot;

It is interesting to note that in Saivism there is a concept that is quite similar. The first stage is called the dasa marga, meaning andquot;path of servitude,andquot; for here the soul relates to God as servant to master. The second stage is called the satputra marga in which our relationship with God is as a son to his parents. The third stage is called the sakha marga as God is now like a friend to us. And the fourth and final stage is called the San Marga, andquot;true path,andquot; in which God is our dearest beloved. We can clearly see that the Vaishnava and Saiva concepts regarding the soul becoming ever closer to God through the regular practice of bhakti yoga are almost identical.

A few years ago I gave a talk at the Vishnu Mandir in Toronto. It is a temple with a North Indian style altar that has a large number of murthis spread across a platform. After the talk, I was in the basement giving an interview to a Canadian television reporter. Her background was Christian Protestant, and it was her first time in a Hindu temple. Looking at the temple through her eyes, the images she saw represented a multiplicity of separate Gods, maybe fifteen Gods in all. She was clearly a bit overwhelmed by the experience. So I began chatting with her before the interview began by saying, andquot;Sometimes Hindus are criticized as being idol worshippers. However, this is definitely not true. As you saw today for yourself, Hindus are definitely very energetic in their worship and not at all idol.andquot; This broke the tension and she laughed.

During the interview, I had the opportunity to present the idea we are looking at tonight--that in Hinduism belief in God is only the first step toward the actual experience of God. I also gave a more serious answer to the idea that Hindus are idol worshipers by this comparison. I mentioned that adults commonly have pictures of their spouse and children on their desks at work, in their wallet and throughout the home. Does this make them picture worshippers? Of course not! The picture simply reminds them of the members of their family and their love for them. Similarly Hindus have images of the Hindu Gods in the temple, at work, in their car and throughout the home. They are not worshipping the idol but the God who the idol represents who in a temple or home shrine projects His presence and blessings through the image that is the object of worship.

In concluding this part of our talk let me quote again from Swami Chinmayananda's first public talk from 1951: andquot;The vast amphitheater of Hinduism is preserved, yet hidden, deep within the camouflage of its heavy descriptions, which are contained in the scriptures and their many, many commentaries. This overgrowth has so effectively come to conceal that true grandeur of this Temple of Truth that, today, that temple is all but lost amidst its own festoons. Religion becomes ineffective if the seekers are not ready to live its ideals. For that matter, is there any philosophy political, social or cultural that can take anyone anywhere if its followers don't obey certain principles in daily life?

However great our culture might have been in the past, that history alone cannot help us in our present trials. We must learn, then live, the Hindu life. Knowledge alone will not suffice. A study of a cookbook, however thorough it may be, cannot satisfy our hunger. No matter how long we meditate upon and repeat the name of a medicine, we cannot obtain its cure unless we actually ingest it. Similarly, the blessings of religion can be ours only when we are ready to live its recommended values.andquot;

Let Swami Chinmayananda's enlightened words inspire us all to live even more fully the Hindu life through increasing our practice of bhakti yoga at the temple and in the home shrine.

Om Shanti