It's been a cold spring, but any day now the ground will thaw and construction will finally begin on the Salt Lake Valley's first free-standing Hindu temple.
Sri Ganesh Temple will sit on a perfect rectangle of land in South Jordan. An auspicious location, facing east.
At first, says Indra Neelameggham, the temple will probably just look like a big, square building. The embellishments, the architectural details that will turn the box into something more majestically Indian, will come later, when enough money is raised. "We go step by step," says Neelameggham, who has learned to be patient. Originally, the temple was slated to be completed in 2001.
In the meantime, Utah's relatively small Hindu community has continued to worship once a month, and on special occasions, in Neelameggham's basement in South Jordan.
At the most recent special occasion, Maha Shivratri, Hindus gathered to celebrate the deity Shiva, one of the three deities considered most important in the Hindu pantheon. Worshippers poured milk onto the Shiva linga, the symbol of Shiva, as a way of honoring and pleasing the god.
If this were India instead of America, the temple might be dedicated primarily to Shiva, Vishnu, Goddess Devi or another specific deity chosen by the community. But in the United States, Neelameggham explains, Hindu temples are generally combination Shiva-Vishnu temples, are Hare Krishna temples like the one in Spanish Fork (with Krishna as the main deity), or are temples dedicated to the elephant-headed divinity Ganesh.
Ganesh, the deity who removes obstacles, is worshipped by all Hindus, including those whose primary deity might be Shiva or another of the gods. In the new temple in South Jordan, a statue of Ganesh will occupy a central sanctum, surrounded by other shrines designated for various Hindu divinities.
There are thousands of Hindu deities, and the number is growing. Some Hindus consider these multiple gods to be manifestations of one supreme God, but some Hindus don't. Some Hindus don't believe in gods or God at all.
Clearly, Hinduism does not fall into the more tidy explanations Americans expect from a religion.
"There is, literally, every nuance in the book," explains Paul Pojman.
Pojman, who teaches philosophy at the University of Utah, lived in India for two years and was a Hindu monk for seven. He does not consider himself a Hindu now, but he has spent a lot of time pondering the religion. On a recent evening he tried to explain the nuances, drawing a flow chart that included designations such as dualism and non-dualism, real and not real, plus the names of female goddesses that correspond to male deities.
"You are allowed to believe what you want," Pojman explained. "This is the complexity of Hinduism. . . . It's incredibly more diverse than any other religion that has a name."
In fact, some Hindus are agnostics and some are atheists, he says. Some are polytheists and some believe in one supreme God and some believe that everything in the universe is part of a greater, pure oneness, an absolute truth "without qualities."
"New gods and goddesses are coming out of the woods every day," says Pojman, since Hindus often worship a personal god or goddess, sometimes known only to them.
Deen Chatterjee, who also teaches philosophy at the U. and grew up in India, calls Hinduism "by far the most pluralistic, individualistic, experiential and experimental of all the religions." There is no exclusive path; instead, the individual Hindu decides his own path.
Not based on the teachings of one historical prophet or a single holy book, it's a religion that has evolved over the millennia. It sends out no missionaries and tends to be more passive than confrontational.
Muslim Mughals invaded India in the 8th century pitting two opposite world views against each other. While Muslims strive for salvation, through adherence to strict moral and religious codes, Hindus strive for enlightenment. But there was something about the Hindu culture and about the Indian sub-continent that mellowed the Islam of India, says Chatterjee, "and a great hybrid culture arose."
Later, though, when the British began their colonial rule of the country, they operated under the principle of "divide and rule," creating tension between Hindu and Muslim politicians, who in turn exploited those tensions and continue to do so today.
Most recently, the nationalist Hindu party has been involved in a deadly controversy over the Ayodhya Temple in northern India. Militant Hindus are at odds with Muslims over the holy site that, over the centuries, has been home to both a Hindu temple and a Muslim mosque. The controversy has left several hundred Hindus and Muslims dead in the past month.
By and large, though, Hindus and Muslims enjoy a harmonious co-existence in India, says Neelameggham. "They party together, eat together, have fun together, work together, do business together, meet for festivals and holidays of each other; some even intermarry while maintaining different religious identities." In Utah, too, Indians from various religious backgrounds form lasting friendships, she says.
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