Disclaimer: These are my beliefs and not those of any other group or organization I may represent or affiliate with. i.e. not the PC(USA) or YAV program.
Today we took a trip to New York City for multiple purposes. First, they sought for us to learn a bit about public transit and the second was to engage with some partners of the Presbyterian Church in the area. Some groups went to a Sikh Gurdwara, others the Presbyterian Office at the U.N., others the Church of the Master in Harlem, and my group went to Šri Mahã Vallabha Ganapati Devasthãnam, the first formal Hindu temple in Flushing, NY.
I consider myself fairly well-versed in public transit, so the subway was fairly straight-forward. Just long. You see it takes quite awhile to go from Bronx to Queens, two hours to be exact. Especially when you’re a group of about 25. All the same, it was fascinating to watch the city change as we moved from Bronx to Queens. I’ve been to the city several times, but I’ve never had the chance to watch it like that. The neighborhoods are way more distinct outside of Manhattan than I realized. Just a note from an upstate suburbs kid.
I’ll move on to the temple though. I was honored to be allowed into the space and spoken to by a leader within the temple. That being said, the Hindu community is very open to any visitors and does not maintain membership. I won’t spend time on the tenets of the Hindu faith, as I do not have a proper understanding of those to try and act like an authority. I don’t even have the right credentials to edit a Wikipedia page.
I will highlight one observation I had on this temple’s (and what seemed like traditional) policy on visitors. You see, there is no membership at Hindu temples. Anyone can come and ask the priests to lead in one of the three main rituals offered by the temple. I got the sense, though I do not ask, that even I would be allowed to do so if I so pleased. At this point it leaves me wondering how one defines oneself as a Hindu. In the church we have members or you’ve at least been baptized or something. Yet, this tradition was far more open to perform rituals for anyone as long as they followed proper rules like taking off their shoes and being respectful.
I bring this up because it’s interesting question of identity. The identity did not come across as solidified in some way ordered way. Yet, those who practice Hinduism seem far more tied to their way of life and “experiencing God” as our guide explained to us. It is very difficult to parse out a Christian identity from the dominant USA culture and it is often why I have resisted openly identifying as Christian or religious. I’ve struggled with it and most people I know also struggle with it.
It just seemed that Hinduism, by nature of its origins in a non-dominant culture of the United States could preserve a unique identity without issue. This plays well into our workshop on Critical Culture Competency, which identified that Asian Americans are usually perceived as the Perpetual Foreigner. They are not perceived to fully enter society and constantly receive the question, “Where are you from, really?” It’s not a good categorization and yet, it feeds right into the separate identity of Hinduism. More specifically, it may be why I perceive Hinduism as having a much more solidified identity than mainline protestant Christianity. Where Protestantism is tied to a US culture in a way that sometimes makes me uncomfortable, Hinduism is tied to an Indian culture and one that is perpetually foreign.
That being sad, The Hindu Temple Society of North America, of which this temple was a part also seems to pride itself on connections to India. Šri Mahã Vallabha Ganapati Devasthãnam was built over seven years as materials were shipped from India. All the Hindu priests speak minimal English and are raised in the tradition for 15-20 years by their fathers. There’s some intentional separation there and I respect the agency taken to maintain a connection to Hinduism’s origins. I do not respect those who observe this and allow it to feed into perpetual foreigner archetypes.
Overall, I enjoyed the trip to New York City, though it is always a little uncomfortable visiting a sacred place outside of my culture/religion with a large group. There’s worries of intrusion, tokenism, etc. And yet, we were invited. The discomfort I felt is important as it motivates the thoughts that I had above. Part of our orientation has been to embrace that discomfort, so we can better see where the examples of systemic cultural dominance lie. Today was, in some way, a practical example of that.