Sunday, August 9, 2009

Forty Gallons of Milk

According to United Nations Development Program's 2008 poverty index, Sri Lanka ranks at 99 and India at 128 out of 177 participative countries. 17.8% percent of Sri Lankan and 31.3% percent of Indian nationals are statistically determined to be under the poverty line. Even if you're not a math whiz like me, the writer, it's easy to presume that Sri Lanka and India fits at the bottom half of this index.

According to a UNICEF report about 148 million children in the developing world are malnourished or under weight and half of these children live in South Asia.

Although these statistics paint a raw and painful picture, the real situation may be worst in most cases due to complex demography, remoteness of this population and challenges in gathering real information.

Now, let's switch gear and relocate to Longitude 44N and Latitude 77W to a divine place in Rochester, New York.

The Rajarajeswari Temple is located in the Rochester suburb of Rush on 23 acres of rolling verdant ground. This Hindu temple with an approach to allow non-Brahmins and even women to conduct pooja ceremonies is famous for equal opportunity and oceans away from traditional temples' hierarchical methods of priesthood. The temple follows the Sri Vidya tradition of teaching Sanatana Dharma rituals to all, regardless of cast or creed. The expansion of the temple is visible and impressive. Every year the temple conducts youth camps to enlighten westernized children with Hindu culture and philosophy.

The equal opportunity status also extends the visitors and devotees, regardless of differences, to perform Abishekam on godly idols. An Abishekam, for non-Hindus, is similar to bathing a religious idol with liquefied items (milk, yoghurt, honey, sandalwood, crushed bananas, etc.) however, is only a ceremony of ablutions and symbolic offerings, according to the Hindu Temple of Rochester (no relation to Rajarajeswari temple).

However, a recent visit to the Rajarajeswari temple gave me a jolt on one of their rituals.

During this visit, while the Yaga being conducted at a big hall with huge exhausts, the devotees were asked move on to an altar to perform Abishekam on the main idol, Sri Rajarajeswari Amman. People lined up in colorful saris, veshtis, children hanging to the tail ends of their parents. As they reached the altar, there they witnessed a line up of milk cans, about forty of them, each with four liters of fresh milk. A young man constantly poured milk into a metal container and handed over to devotees who in return poured the milk over the main idol. All forty gallons of them!

I too stood in line, watched the events then asked someone if the poured milk is collected at the drain-end and reused. This person didn’t know the answer but looked at me in amazement of my question. When I got close to the altar, with a feeling of guilt spiking through my backbone, shouting that ‘this is wrong’ when 140 million children go hungry every night, I backed off.

For the record, I am a born Hindu, brought up a Hindu and have practiced Hinduism extensively during my early years. I believe and trust that Godly things are to be delivered through human beings and that it’s human responsibility to spread and spend God given wealth to the most needed. And mainly when it comes to food, wastage is crime when millions are malnourished with no hope of revival.

I do not think that God asked us to pour forty gallons of milk on his visuals. I don’t think the God will become angry if we give him or her a symbolic offering and donate the rest to the needy and vulnerable of our society. I don’t think the God, which is sometime a statue carved out of stone; sometime a framed picture and sometime just a thought in our frame of mind will punish us for doing humane things.

Instead of following rituals of abundance and flaunting our wealth based on how many gallons of milk we pour on an intricately sculptured statue made out of black stone, the temples of modern society must guide their membership in righteous thinking; just like how the same Rajarajeswari temple dissolved cast, creed and sex discrimination to learn and perform pooja ceremonies.

An email sent on August 3, 2009 to get the Temple's side of view remain unanswered at press time.