Sunday, May 10, 2009

Hindu Temple Welcomes Worshipers Of All Varieties

By Joseph Kellard

Each Sunday morning, several minivans and SUVs are parked around the median outside 610 Laurelton Blvd. The unassuming two-story white house there is a Hindu temple, where sitar sounds from a Casio keyboard may be foreign to those of other faiths, but not the Hindu priest’s altruistic ethics.

“Rise to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves,” said Rory Ram, the 40-something priest who sat on the floor lotus-style at a service in March. That day, some 45 worshipers sat shoeless on white linen sheets that covered the living room-turned-sanctuary’s carpet, as the smell of curry from the kitchen permeated the house.

Later, during the standard two-hour Sunday service, a pre-teen boy who sat beside Ram echoed his message: “Service to others is service to God.”

Founded in 1989, the Maha Shiva Mandir — Temple of Great Lord Shiva — is one of only a few Hindu temples in Nassau County. Its congregants live mostly in Long Beach, but many come from throughout Long Island and as far away as the Bronx and New Jersey.

Jennifer Harricharran, an accountant and the temple’s secretary, lived and worshiped in Queens before she moved to Long Beach 19 years ago and helped found the temple. “It’s the only one for a few miles around, so it’s a little community,” she said. “In Queens they have about 30 and anyone can go to any of them. Here you basically have one place, so you have to be a family.”

Harricharran, the other founders and many worshipers are native to Guyana, South America, and they practice Sanatan Bharma, which means “an eternal way of life” and that their temple is open to all comers. “Because of the tolerance that we preach,” Ram said, “we’re able to accommodate everybody.”

As proof, he mentioned the temple-goers who come from many walks of life — lawyers, doctors, teachers, sales reps, the unemployed — and explained that some are of difference races.

Katrina Meyer of Oyster Bay first attended services at Maha Shiva Mandir last year with her boyfriend, and was made to feel very welcomed, she said. Meyer has since visited other temples in Nassau and Queens, some of them much larger. “It’s very intimate, the Long Beach gathering,” she said, “and I think it’s beautiful like that, and I really enjoy it because you really are coming together and you feel part of it.”

On Sunday, March 15, the temple emptied out early, because congregants were headed to a parade in Queens that celebrates Phagwah, the festival of colors, a holiday that ushers in spring and the Hindu New Year, and highlights the tolerance that is a central tenet of Hinduism.

“We cannot say there are certain hard and fast rules, that this is what you have to follow and do as an individual to be a part of this group,” Ram said as he prepared to leave. “It’s like many different colors: You have to appreciate each color for what it is, and you cannot say because I like red that red is the best color or higher than anyone else.”

Yet Ram indicated that courage, truth and helping others were attributes that makes followers more devout Hindus. And the temple’s elder priest, Ramnarine Tiwari, 78, suggested that Hindus face judgment days. As he described reincarnation, perhaps the religion’s most widely known belief, he said that at death, before a believer’s soul can live on in another body, the lord Shiva analyzes and assesses his actions on earth.

“Based on your merits, you may come back as a human being, the highest order of animal,” Tiwari explained. “... So you have to do your best to carry the right deeds — if you don’t, you will not be able to come back as a human being, but as a lower creature.”
Against a wall in the temple stand statuettes of several gods. Worshipers pray to them through another major god, Shiva, who represents peace and tranquility, said Ramcharran Harricharran, a co-founder of the temple. “Shiva shows you that you can control everything by controlling the mind,” he said. “If your mind is out of control, your life is out of whack.”

When regular temple-goer Ramrattie Persaud, a Long Beach resident and a phlebotomist at Nassau University Medical Center, was going through tumultuous times, she prayed to Durga Mata, the matriarchal power behind Shiva. “I was devoting more time to Durga Mata because I believe she is the destroyer of all evil,” Persaud said.

The temple’s services are filled with music. Congregants young and old play an array of instruments, from the dholak (a drum) and the dhantal (a medal rod that sounds like a triangle) to the mandolin and dish-sized gongs.

Ramcharran Harricharran chiefly plays the harmonium, an accordion-like organ, but during one service he handed it over to a young girl. Giving children the opportunity to take part is seen as a form of passing the Hindu culture from one generation to the next, said Ram, who added that music is among the most effective ways for people to understand the concepts he preaches.

“It is through participation, not through lectures, that one learns best,” he said. “The first form of devotion that a person can have is the ability to listen, and Hinduism provides this ritual of listening through music.”

When the temple was first established, the services were held in the basement of another home on Laurelton. Tiwari, a retired sugar chemist who arrived in Long Beach from Guyana 30 years ago, bought the house the worshippers now use with donations from congregants, and took out a mortgage with another founder.

“We had a handful of Indians living in Long Beach, so we thought of mobilizing ourselves together in order to offer prayers at large and to keep the community together so that they can remember where they came from,” he said.
The temple’s president, Mahadeo Persaud, said that the number of worshippers has never been higher, estimating that there are 150 in all.

“Right now,” he offered as an explanation, “people enjoy our priests.”

Meyer, who was raised a Lutheran but was also exposed to Judaism and Catholicism, said she believes that because people are taught from an early age to hold to one faith, they fear exploring other religions, but she likes to attend services of different beliefs. “When you go in there,” she said of the temple, “it feels very exotic, and it’s like you’ve entered into another country or realm.”

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