Until now, I have had very little contact with any religion outside of Christianity. I have been raised Catholic in a small town filled with mostly Catholics. I left the church after making my confirmation. Recently attending two ceremonies beyond my realm of knowledge, Friday prayer at the Muslim Mosque and the Hindu Festival of Shiva, I have found the exposure enjoyable and enlightening. Each experience merely scratched the surface of the deeper meaning it contained, but still, I felt intrigued with a growing curiosity.
My immediate reaction to Friday prayer at the mosque was surprise at the separation of the women from the men. Being an American woman, I took offense internally believing this to be sexual discrimination. Wanting to learn more, I respected their tradition and temporarily pushed my own feelings aside. I hung my coat and removed my shoes in the woman’s separate coat room. I took my place with the rest of the women behind a railing at the back of the room and waited for the ceremony to begin. I learned later that the men are required to attend public prayer while women have the option to attend or pray in private. It was difficult for me to believe when the speaker explained that the women prefer to be separate. My feathers were a bit less ruffled when I also learned that not all mosques are identical. In some, women pray on one side while men pray on the other rather than the women sitting at the back.
Prior to the ceremony I observed the men dressed in neutral, modest attire. The women’s attire was elaborately designed with American influence but still, it covered much of their bodies and heads. Modesty, whether decorative or not, is certainly regarded as the preferred method of dress. Hats and head coverings, if the meaning is similar to the Jewish tradition, may symbolize humility.
Waiting for the commencement of service, small boys leaned affectionately against their fathers and grandfathers as they sat patiently on the floor. A woman with both a small child and an infant sat beneath a sign asking mothers with children to observe the service from an alternate location. Women of all ages fawned over these children and seemed to pay no heed as the little girl danced around humming a song. This was obviously a community focused on family inclusion regardless of the initial exclusion I perceived.
All the people in attendance spent their time bowing, kneeling, and pressing their foreheads to the floor honoring God. They also incorporated hand gestures near their heads. These actions were somewhat similar to those in Catholicism, reminding me of genuflection and making the sign of the cross. Although I didn’t understand their true meaning, I understood that this was a way for the entire body, mind and spirit to align in prayer. This was never apparent in my own religious experience, but seeing the Muslims pray bridged that meaning for me for the first time.
The structure of the service wasn’t a far cry from the Catholic services I have known. The prayers were carried out with a clear beginning, middle and end. As the speaker delivered his sermon, the message was clearly global. He spoke with disdain about the greed present in this world and honored work being done by two members of the mosque easing hunger for the poor. He encouraged others to get involved, stretching themselves beyond their community and reaching toward a grand scale of improvement for all. This was to be achieved peacefully as he was sure to add that one should lead by example and not confrontation.
Before and after the ceremony, we learned about the five pillars of Islam:
- Iman: Faith or belief in the Oneness of God and the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad;
- Salah: Establishment of the daily prayers;
- Zakah: Concern for and almsgiving to the needy;
- Sawm: Self-purification through fasting; and
- Hajj: The pilgrimage to Makkah for those who are able.
These pillars define not only the religion, but the structure of a Muslims day, week, and entire life. The level of devotion to uphold each pillar must be all consuming and, at the same time, comforting.
The Hindu Festival of Shiva was an entirely different experience. The sounds and smells assaulted my senses as I entered the temple’s atrium. The bells were constant and loud within the temple and a small group was chanting. The incense smelled lovely and I couldn’t wait to see what was happening behind the door. I removed my shoes and coat and entered the temple feeling slightly overwhelmed. The space was alive with an undeniable energy and it made my head swim. The colors were vibrant, including everything from the extravagant statues with many hands to the women’s beautiful sarees. This was an experience for the entire body.
Shortly after our arrival, a man named Shree gave us a tour of the temple. He explained that the Hindu religion is really a state of being, reminding me of the Muslim belief. This reaches beyond the notion of compartmentalizing religion, keeping it separate from every day life. It is what you live every minute of every day. While Shree tried to explain his religion to us, it was difficult for him to offer us anything to relate to. It was as if his religion was so engrained that he had a difficult time putting it into words.
As we came upon the statues of the gods, although it was explained time and time again that there is only one god, we were first introduced to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. We then made our way around the temple to all the other Hindu gods. As it was explained, each Hindu god is like a Catholic saint. Since God is too important to attend to every need, people pray to these “specialty” gods for health or guidance in whatever direction they feel they need. I was most surprised, as I am finding much comfort in the book Start Where You Are by Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, that Buddha is the smallest and least decorated statue in the temple. As it turns out, he is rarely recognized by the Hindu people anymore.
Shiva, for whom this festival is thrown, is the god of destruction. Without a negative connotation, the meaning is that he destroys to create. The tables were covered with offerings of food in his honor. When it was time to make the offerings, the bells rang out. Men held conch shells high in the air and blew high pitched calls through them. Milk, honey, orange juice and other foods were poured over the statue of Siva. I watched in amazement as people chanted and sang. The chants were ancient from Sanskrit writings and the prayer leader led the people through what to say. He seemed to have memorized every portion.
The rhythm of the ceremony ebbed and flowed, rising in energy as it proceeded. The prayer leader, without his bare chest, had broken a sweat. The room was getting warmer. This went on for some time until a curtain was drawn across Sivas room. Chanting continued but I couldn’t help wondering what was happening. This air of mystery during this part of the ceremony was as prevalent as that in the imagery of the gods with their multiple hands and animal heads.
When the curtain was opened, the statue of Siva was adorned in beautiful flowers and fruit. The display was impressive. At this time, several bowls of a creamy substance were passed around. The cream seemed to be made from a mixture of the offerings. It was orange and sweet smelling. People dipped their fingers into the bowl and wiped some of the waxy mixture on their foreheads. Perhaps it was meant to symbolize the eye of god, much like the red dots the women wear on their foreheads. One man explained that nothing went to waste here.
Cash offerings were made as a plate was passed around. The plate itself held a burning flame. People waved their hands over it directing it’s energy toward their faces. It appeared as if they were receiving a blessing and I believe the candle was part of the offering ceremony just as the bowl of the creamy substance was.
After the ceremony, I stayed to watch the young children perform songs and dance. The dress was elaborate and the dance mysterious. One young girl stole the show with her rolling eyes and odd hand motions. Her movement exemplified what the statues would look like if they were to come alive with motion.
I found these experiences widely different from each other in practice. The Friday prayer service at the mosque was much more rigid than the Hindu Siva Festival. Muslim practice is structured with the tools of time, dress, and repetition while the Hindu ceremony ran on “temple time,” following the flow of the room and the mood of the people. There was a freedom of motion and participation not found in the mosque. The Hindu temple was animated and exciting while the Temple was quietly serene and reverent. I enjoyed from both the noise and the quiet, the soft colors and the vibrant, the formality and the fluidity.