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Hindu temple brings a community together

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 2, 2009 - Working precisely so as not to stain their brilliant colored silk saris, two women plucked fragrant carnations, marigolds and dahlia blossoms from their stems, then arranged them on large trays to offer to marble, granite and golden idols enshrined at the Hindu Temple of St. Louis on a recent Sunday.

The woman talked about how the temple across from Queeny Park in West St. Louis County and its allied Saturday school in rental space in Ballwin has made it easier to raise their children in their Hindu faith in America's pluralistic society.

"The temple gives us a place where the children can see the pujas," said Dr. Savita Bhat, a West County psychiatrist. Pujas are offertory rites of gratitude before statues of various deities including Shiva, Vishnu, Rama and Krishna. The images evoke various aspects of the one God that sacred Hindu writings describe. Individuals or priests chant the pujas in the ancient Sanskrit language.

"At the temple, the children learn different chants, prayers, and celebrate the festivals," Bhat said.

In 1991, when the doctor moved to St. Louis, she was pleased that a few hundred Hindu devotees under the leadership of the soft-spoken, self-effacing Dr. G.V. Naidu were starting a basic campus on Weidman Road. It now has two buildings, one of which is a landmark towering white temple. The worship space first featured two-dimensional prints of various deities popular with the founders. Temple leaders brought from India rotating 11-man teams of shilipis -- skilled craftsmen who specialize in carving and molding sacred Hindu shrines.

The craftsmen built a four-story tower, and embellished the exterior and interior. In 2000, all the shrines of the chosen deities statues were complete. The Indian craftsmen continue to come to create more religious symbols.

Last week near the temple doors, two craftsmen finished an outdoor installation of a silvery prayer column called a kumbah.

When they arrived in St. Louis, Bhat and her husband and two children easily made friends within the St. Louis Hindu community, she said. Other Hindu devotees -- the term for followers -- who were born in this country and received scant Hindu education except from their own parents say the temple community revives their faith.

"My 9-year-old daughter knows more about her religion than I do," said Priti Shah, a stay-at-home mother from West County. Delight and pride rang in her voice. She is a U.S. native who grew up in Louisville, Ky., before that community built its temple.

Now on alternate Sundays her daughter Vaishali Shah spends two and half hours at a Center of Indian Cultural Education, Bal Vihar of St. Louis, a volunteer-run school, in a rental arrangement at Ballwin Elementary School.

Shah's Indian-born parents passed along the stories of the Hinduism, but her Kentucky community lacked a temple and a school. She's proud that her daughter is learning more.

The women's floral trays were pujas offerings for the Diwali holiday, which many Hindu devotees -- but not all -- consider their New Year. The festival day celebrates the conquest of hope over gloom, light over darkness, and good over evil. All afternoon, families worshipped together, moving in silent prayer from one white stone shrine sheltering one deity to the next in the temple's large second-story worship space. All face east.

On the Diwali holy day, devotees wear new traditional clothing to symbolize a fresh start in the New Year. Milee Patel, 7, was resplendent in a jewel-toned silk brocade skirt and waist-baring silk top. She enthusiastically explained that her grandmother, a resident of India, had brought them as a present on her visit to St. Louis.

On the parking lot, Milee swirled her floor-length skirt for her parents Shital and Gujarat Patel with the flair of a Bollywood star. She enjoys celebrating holidays and seeing a few acquaintances at the temple, but she said her "best friends" are at school and in her neighborhood.

Many devotes, like the Patels, prayed silently and meditated on their own. Hindu worship is usually intensely private between the devotee and God.

"You don't get same emotional feeling (praying at home before) a picture that you get being present in a temple," said Madhav Narayan, 16, a junior at Marquette High School in West County. He is the volunteer coordinator for student community service at the Saturday school. Hindus believe that temple worship and rituals help them communicate with various holy or divine beings -- devas -- that they believe exist in unseen worlds.

"In the temple I can really find peace, hear the priest chanting the prayers, go around to each of the deities, then, just sit there and get lost in peace and tranquility," he said. "When I sit and think about a problem that I have in school, usually I solve the problem. It's very peaceful."

On the holiday, many who made private devotions remained to attend a public rite chanted in Sanskrit by some of the temple's five, full-time Indian-born priests. Diwali, also called the festival of light, concluded with fireworks on the temple grounds.

The St. Louis Hindu Temple is supported by 2,700 households from eastern Missouri and southern Illinois. Additional Hindu families turn up for big holidays such as Diwali or request a priest for Hindu weddings at hotels or funeral services in mortuaries, said Naidu, a gastroenterologist and past president of the National Association of Hindu Temples. He's widely known in St. Louis as a longtime cabinet member of the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis. He has talked to many regional interfaith groups about Hinduism. With nearly 900 million devotees, it is one of the world's five great religions with roots that reach to about 1500 B.C.

"In the 1980s I never could have dreamed St. Louis would have so many Hindu families today," Naidu said. "Never."

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer who has long covered religion.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.