Home - A Sacred Sanctuary Takes on an Added Meaning in a Hindu Family

A while back I wrote an article on role of temples, which becomes even more magnified for the Indian-Americans thousands of miles away from their home country.

Today I want to share another aspect of worship in Hinduism. While the Hindus visit the temple often for various occasions or as they desire, worship of their gods is not limited to temple visits but is an integral part of their lives. So a place of worship or shrine in a Hindu home is a natural outgrowth and a almost a must since Hindus have gods which address almost every aspect of their lives. Now remember these Gods are representing the One Universal spirit. It is understood that God pervades the images during prayer and ritual. Anyway that is a concept too complex and philosophical to address here so let me just share the practical aspects of my religion.

In many Indian homes, guests have to take off their shoes at the entrance especially if the house has makeshift shrines and religious images and sacred items spread through out the home. This is the entrance of a Hindu's home. Note that the family pictures show three generations. That is a typical family set-up

Typically no Hindu home is complete without a shrine or sanctuary dedicated solely for prayer, meditation and just quiet contemplation. Some devout Hindus will dedicate a whole prayer room with a proper shrine, others will use a part of their closet space or even a set of shelves in a room. Respect for the divine is so strong that no one can walk in without a shower and definitely not with shoes because shoes are just not allowed in a sacred area as it is believed that they are dirty and unsanitary and thus disrespectful. The bottom-line is that no Hindu home is truly complete without a sacred place to place the Gods and conduct prayer to spread God's blessings in the abode.

Pictures showing the sacred Om on the entrance to the prayer room which consists of a beautiful handmade shrine imported from India and other prayer items.

Below is a simpler shrine created in a linen closet that has been emptied out and decorated equally lovingly with idols and images.

Just as eating dinner together is consider essential for family bonding here, praying or doing Puja (Hindi word for prayer) as a family is considered critical especially during significant occasions and festivals. I recall growing up how my parents refused to indulge their seven kids with lavish birthday parties, but would rather conduct a family prayer, followed by sharing of sanctified Indian sweets and candy with money being kept aside for charity along with a token birthday gift for the birthday child. None of today's extravaganza that borders on vulgar display was part of our family customs. No one left the house daily without going to the family shrine and asking for blessings for the day and dinner could only be served after a family prayer that my mother led and we followed. I still cringe at my brothers' and father's tuneless singing but no matter, we all had to join in.
This is a picture of my family growing up. It shows one of my brothers and my nieces and nephew with my mother leading the prayer along with my two sisters-in-law. Your truly is sitting in the red top. Carpets were rolled up and a makeshift shrine created on the floor and the family squatted Indian style to pray together. Years have rolled so fast. As a way of proud introduction and I won't apologize because each really earned their laurels through many life's tribulations but hung on due to the power of prayer, the little girl in glasses is a doctor now completing advanced studies, her sister in her mom's lap is an MBA, both in New Delhi,the little boy today is an executive in New Zealand and his father, my brother shown here is head of an R&D in a dairy company also in New Zealand and of course, I am here. Who dreamed that we would be scattered on three continents eventually, but the ties that bind us from the earlier days are still very strong and in no small measure due to our spiritual beliefs where family plays a pivotal role.

While my son has been born here, I have attempted to teach him some of our sacred sanskrit mantras that he has learned to chant with me. Well sort of. I am so grateful that he accompanies me and is in touch with his religious roots, that I am even able to suppress an almost hysterical desire to chuckle each time I hear him distorting sanskrit with his complete American accent. I just swallow hard and ask God for divine forgiveness for these moments of levity! After all prayer is serious busines! As I grow older, family traditions are resurfacing daily and increasingly and consciously as I try to give my son a sense of belonging because it is easy for many first-generation Indians to get caught between two such different cultures, but I digress...
Here my son is bidding goodbye to his dog after having done his prayers with me before leaving for his long drive to UVA. And for protection, he has the sacred ash from the fire we burn in our pooja to honor our Gods. Right from his childhood, I have continued the tradition of saying a prayer before heading out of the house.

In all seriousness, despite all my Westernization and analytical mind to the point of being annoyingly argumentative about rationale behind day to day things (ask my friends and family), there is a part of me that has a undying faith in my core religion alongwith its rich rituals and mythology where I am happy to abandon my sense of reasoning and instead submit to the power of the symbolic Universal Force, unquestioningly. Somehow I don't think this is unique to me...

Anyway, it is finally fun to rejoin Candid Carrie's Friday Fiesta after a long hiatus. Happy Friday to all. Aren't these short work weeks great!


careysue said…
This is so interesting to me Raksha and no matter what your religious beliefs are, we're admonished to teach our children. I was just wondering about your son as I was reading your post today and then you answered it!

You are such a strong woman and a woman of substance, how easy it would be to put aside your family traditions living so far away, yet you haven't you are a faithful person of your beliefs! I really admire that.

So happy you're back!

Now if only we could talk!!

We'll find time.
Malini said…
yes raksha , far away from home reminds us all the more of traditions and beliefs we have grown up with. I always say that the more we try to be different from our parents the more we end up being the same. This is a tribute to a generation that has instilled in us a sense of discipline and humility, and the recognition of a greater being. Just today the principal of the school where I taught questioned me about the tenets of hindu religion. All I had to say was one God, one people..do your duty and speak kindly,love generously..Right
Anonymous said…
Very, very interesting. I laugh at the "new agers" who think they alone have discovered the idea of setting up a sacred place in their homes. . . it's actually an idea as old as time, as evidenced by the long-standing traditions and values in India that you have described. I love these old traditions which ground us and given us stability. Beautiful pictures too, btw. However, as interesting as this was, I would like to hear more about your family that moved to New Zealand. We've learned why you moved to the U.S., but how is it that your brother landed in New Zealand? -DT
Gori Girl said…
Lovely post! However, one quick point of contention - a Hindu home can be complete without a specific "shrine or sanctuary dedicated solely for prayer, meditation and just quiet contemplation." - ours is.
Teri said…
What an excellent post, as always. I am intrigued by the various religious traditions around the world. I admire you for carrying on your values with your son.
RBK's Realm said…
Hi Gori,

Thanks for stopping by. No contention here at all. There are many Hindu homes without a specific place for worhip or shrine. I guess, I should have amplified in my post, that I am talking of more traditional and typical Hindu homes.

Hinduism is actually more than outward show of worship through paraphrenalia but rather a deep philosophy so yes a shrine is not always there in every home.

Does that make sense?

Please definitely visit again as I always enjoy a hearty discussion of different viewpoints.
Gori Girl said…
RBK, I strongly suspected you knew that too - I was more just throwing that out there for any Westerns who visited.

Adiya, my husband, is definitely more on the philosophical side of Hinduism than what is considered typically "traditional." He's an atheistic/pantheistic Hindu (which always freaks out our Christian friends, who can't understand how you can be religious without believing in a personal deity).
1inAmelianCooks said…
Your blog is not only interesting but informative. I learned alot more about the Hindu religion and must say the more I lean the more I like it. Thank you for sharing and please....share more!
Anonymous said…
You have been tagged.
Anonymous said…
Raksha, yet another beautiful post. I have always admired the presence of a sacred space in the homes & rooms of my Hindu friends. It reminds me of the holy spaces many devout Catholics of my Grandparents generation had in their homes as well. I'm a fan of it, and keep several small spaces for reflection and ritual in my home.
Sandi McBride said…
I was so interested in your prayer rituals and enlarged your pictures so that I could get a closer look at the shrines and your family, too. Such a nice post about your life. I once took the time to say a prayer everytime I left the house, and can't tell you when it stopped...I can't be sure. It's something I will be taking up again. Thanks so much for the reminder that God is in our lives for the long haul,not just for our convenience.
cyclingred said…
That was interesting. I always enjoy learning about other religions.
What a great post... you always have the most interesting photos/stories!
Beautiful post. I like how you relate across the cultures.