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The following is a post from AUA Mosaic Fellowship recipient Anina Tweed. Anina is currently volunteering in Bangladesh during the summer of 2012. To find an amazing volunteer opportunity, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations© today.
I visited a Krishna Hindu temple last Thursday with some of the professors and my roommate Meghan. We climbed up a steep hill to the temple in the most intense downpour of rain I’ve ever been in, arriving drenched. We sat for several hours discussing religion and ideals with the devotees, smiling, happy men in light orange robes who welcomed us into their compound. The devotees explained that the material world we live in creates frustration, complication and depression because we are so tied to money and things we lose sight of what is important. They profess that what is really needed, is a return to nature and a dedication to Krishna. They believe that even our bodies belong to the material world – not to ourselves – as our souls transfer to different bodies throughout our many lives. It’s only once we detach from these material things that we can be truly happy; we must practice “simpler living, higher thinking.”
I found it particularly interesting, that a true devotee goes through several phases in his life. He begins as a devotee in his twenties, dedicating his life to learning and possibly even living at the temple. Some devotees had actually already received their Masters degree in various subjects and were now turning their attention to their religious study. Then in his thirties and forties, he may marry and start a family. However, by the time he is about fifty or sixty, he can choose to leave his family and become a monk – the highest honor and most intense dedication to Krishna. This detachment from the material world means realizing that even your family must eventually be left as you focus more intensely on Krishna in preparation for leaving your body, and hopefully, the material world altogether. If a Hindu can think of Krishna and only Krishna at his time of death, he may finally return to the “true home,” the ultimate goal for a Hindu. I was surprised to find that being “reborn” into another body was not actually seen as a positive thing, but as a failure to achieve the ultimate goal of leaving the material world.
Being the feminists that we are at AUW, we began to ask about the place of women in Hinduism. One devotee quickly stated, “All boys and girls are created equal by Krishna.” Already knowing the answer, I quickly asked, “oh so a woman may become a monk as well?” The devotee paused and laughed. “No, no. A woman is first under the protection of her father, then her husband and then when her husband dies, her younger son. She may never leave her family to become a monk.” So it seems that Hinduism is not the equalizing religion we had hoped for. However, this particular view of women’s place, may have more to do with the conservative cultural context of Bangladeshi society than the religion itself. The devotee stated that he thought some women in western countries were allowed to study alongside male monks. The devotee went on to laugh when Meghan stated that her degree was in Women’s Studies. “This is a real degree?” he asked incredulously. He didn’t seem to approve that we were not yet married.
The devotees were excited, however, to find out that we were vegetarians (well, in Bangladesh, I’m like 80% vegetarian at least), since this is a major pillar of their religious beliefs. Because Krishna created all living things, you cannot harm any other living being, especially since our souls may shift between these bodies over our lifetimes. After an hour or so of discussion we were ushered in to another room were we sat on the floor and shoveled all kinds of delicious vegetarian food into our faces using only our hands, but only after a solid round of “Hare Krishnas” and hand shaking of course. I have to admit, I’ve been a bit meek about really attacking the Bengali style of utensil-free eating. It can get messy, and look really gross. But on this day I embraced it fully and really got the technique down. It’s all about mashing everything together with rice to form a sticky ball, then scooping it into your fingers, palm towards your face, and using your thumb as a lever to sort of flick, push it into your mouth. I started to feel like a pro. The devotees smiled at us encouragingly and continually asked if they could give us more, even though our plates were heaped high to begin with. Their focus on practicing vegetarianism means that they don’t actually eat as consuming food, but as “prashad,” a type of worship in itself.
After our meal, more socializing and discussion was had until we finally excused ourselves. One of the more smiley devotees offered to take us to the temple before we left to check out services. He stopped at the little biscuit store (they can’t really eat outside of the temple since they can never really be sure that food products here are vegetarian) and fed us mishti, or Bengali dough balls soaked in sugar syrup. He pointed out a beautiful, massive sacred Banyan tree in the middle of the complex and then ushered us into the temple where services were already starting. Upon entering, everyone prostrates themselves by lying down on the floor in front of images of what I assumed were Krishna. Then everyone gathers facing the most glittering, golden, colorful shrine of Hindu gods and gently sways, claps and sings. Some devotees play the drums and other noise making instruments and lead the song with a microphone. This swaying and clapping eventually escalates into full on dancing and singing, although we had to leave before the real party began. Meghan explained to me later than Hindus believe that everything was created by vibrations, which is why vocalization of worship through music – chanting and singing – is so important to the Hindu religion. It is an entirely different way to enter the trance-like state of worship than the other major religions that often emphasize silent, internal worship.
As someone who has been continually interested in learning about different religions, I am so excited to finally be in a region where Hinduism in practiced. I am excited to go back to the welcoming environment of the temple, for cooking lessons, socializing, eating, singing and dancing and the many festivals they have coming up. Hopefully, in the few free hours I have, I can go explore a few of the other sects of Hinduism in the area and gain a greater understanding. While I can’t see myself ever participating fully in a religion where women will never be permitted to achieve the same relationship with their god as men, I do think that there are a lot of beautiful lessons and life philosophies to take away from Hinduism. There is an openness, joy and love about the devotees that’s particularly appealing in the context of the restrictive, conservative society in Chittagong. While we walk the streets averting our eyes from men and would not dream of entering a male-dominated Mosque here (women do not seem to pray at mosques equally in this region), the temple seems to be a space that is excited to greet us, even if only to turn us into true devotees of Krishna.