Prayer to Shiva
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
The Shiva Lingam at the Hindu Temple of Minnesota, decorated for the holiday Shivarathri.
Priest Sri Gowtham Sharma, at the new Hindu temple of Minnesota, sings a prayer to his family God, Lord Shiva. This particular temple offers equal devotional space to 19 Hindu deities, unlike many other temples which focus primarily on one. As a result, it’s unique in welcoming the many different Hindus, and also Jains, that make up the local South Asian-American community. For Sri Sharma, although Shiva may be his family God, he prays to all the deities at the temple since, as he puts it, “all the power [of the Gods] is one — like all rivers go to the sea.”
Priest Sri Gowtham Sharma (courtesy of Hindu Temple of Minnesota)
My parents, like many of the members of this temple, were once new Hindu immigrants to North America. My interest in visiting the temple is in part my childhood experience of Hinduism — it helps me create a larger context for my personal experience and shed new light on my own family traditions.
What are some of your stories of reconnecting with your traditions, and where have they taken you?
What’s Your Hindu Star Birthday?
Shubha Bala, associate producer
A couple of weeks before my birthday, my mom sent me an e-mail reminding me when my “star birthday” was — March 14th, by the way — and saying she was donating to a local temple on that day so they can provide free food for the congregation. Although I’ve always been told when my star birthday was, this was the first time I went on a quest to find out what it was.
Simply put, your star birthday is your birthday using the Hindu calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar. Hindu calendars are traditionally used to derive entire individual horoscopes, which are culturally consulted for just about everything — from determining a baby’s name to finding the best wedding location (and person!)
Your birth star, or Janma Nakshatra, is just one component of the calendar. If you draw a line from where you were born, at the time you were born, to the moon, the Janma Nakshatra is the star constellation that the line would pass through. Each month has 27 Nakshatras, which means some Nakshatras will occur twice in a month.
As with most aspects of Hinduism, there is no rule as to what significance a star birthday has. For example, I spoke to Narayanan Kandanchatha, who grew up in the Indian state of Kerala and is from the sub-caste Nambudiripad. He said that each year they would have to do an important prayer on their star birthday. In his case, the star was so critical that if it was missed, rather than do it the next day, they would wait until the Nakshatra of the following month. He also said that in his culture, in order to do a Upanayanam ceremony (the male coming of age ceremony for the Brahmin caste), a boy must have conducted a special ceremony on his Nakshatra 36 times.
For my mom, her tradition was to wear new clothes on her star birthday. Then she mailed me a new shirt to wear. Some people believe naming your baby with the same first syllable as their star is auspicious. My parents didn’t intend it, but in researching this blog I discovered that I coincidentally ended up with an auspicious first name!
Finding your star birthday
- Find your Janma Nakshatra when you were born by using this calculator and your birth year (mine is Satabhisha.)
- Next find the Hindu month in which you were born. Scroll to the table of Hindu months here to find the start and end dates for that month. For example, I was born March 5, which would be the month Phalguna, starting on February 20.
- Then, go back to this first calculator, and for the date range enter your full Hindu birth month (e.g., February 20 - March 19) for the current year. It will give you a table with all the Nakshatras for the month. Find the date your Nakshatra lands on, and that is your star birthday this year (March 14 for me). If your Nakshatra occurs two times in that month, the second time is when you would celebrate your star birthday.
Since Hinduism is a religion composed of diverse cultures and history, the details in this procedure can change. Many cultures define their months differently. Also, some people don’t use the Nakshatra at all, using instead the Tithi, a completely different aspect of the calendar. But I’ll leave you to investigate these varieties on your own.
The Ramayana, Illustrated
Shubha Bala, associate producer
Sanjay Patel, supervising animator at Pixar, has come out with his second illustrated book on Hinduism, Ramayana: Divine Loophole. Patel is one of the few people who have presented Hindu mythology in a way for North American kids to understand, and enjoy. But he also presents the Ramayana, one of the Hindu epic mythological stories, in a wonderful way for adults too — complete with illustrated character bios and geography lessons in the back.
He says in an Atlantic Monthly interview:
"I grew up in a house where there was no explanation—there was just practice. It was like eating for me: ‘Okay, I’ve got to eat. I’ve got to sit down and pray and stare at these wild illustrations of Hindu gods.’ My parents completely subscribe to these stories as philosophy, of course, but it’s also very much a religion to them, and they do see these beings as gods. I would ask my father, ‘Dad, do you really think there’s a blue guy out there?’ I couldn’t really narrow him down on that. But he seems to believe it.
So the Ramayana was always something my parents would study and worship, but it had no meaning to me until I read the story. Then I was like, ‘Wow, the characters are so cool. The plot is so cool. What they symbolize is so cool. This totally needs to be told!’ I wanted to use all the skills and the knowledge I’d gained at Pixar to put these ancient stories in a package that’s relatable and entertaining. If I have children, I want them to know something about their cultural mythology in a way that’s fresh and dynamic.”
He’s also asked about finding existing images of the Ramayana before creating his book:
"I realized after doing some research that centuries and centuries ago, The Ramayana wasn’t actually illustrated. It was sung and performed, and the actors would bring it to life with masks and costumes. Then later, there were these amazing sculptures. So I was looking at that for sure. But artists only really depicted certain episodes in the Ramayana. I wanted to show all those other scenes, like the part where they meet Jambavan the bear! If I were a kid, I’d want to see cool icons and badass graphics.
That’s what’s so great about this story. If you want to get into the dogma you can. But on a raw level, these stories are amazing conduits for really deep philosophy. I think that’s uniquely Indian in many ways. It’s this profound stuff but told through stories that common people can completely engage with—avatars and man-gods.”
The Tao of Cow
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Sometimes the most delightful surprises and promises of insight come in the form of a Facebook status update:
"So, Mom called. The cows broke out again. Two separate locations, and Dad had just repaired the fences. Hunters everywhere (makes them stampede). Hopefully they can get all the repairs done in time to make our family concert in Fergus Falls tomorrow… I know Hindus revere the cow, but Buddhists should as well, because they are really good at teaching impermanence and letting go."
The author? Andra Suchy-Pierzina, a friend and regular performer on A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor, who grew up on a farm outside of Mandan, North Dakota.
As I read this, I couldn’t help but feel lighter and be reminded of Matthieu Ricard’s story (next week’s program, “The Happiest Man in the World”) about two women navigating muddy Himalayan roads. One kvetched; the other smiled and embraced. Andra reminds me to be the latter.
(Photos: cows on the Suchy farm before jailbreak, courtesy of Andra Suchy-Pierzina)
Cleanliness Is Next To …
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
Editor’s note [9.5.2009, 2:21pm]: a link was removed from the stricken language below and a link to a more in-depth article by Rivkah Slonim explaining the family purification ritual was added. We regret the error.
I find myself fascinated by this story from a few years ago about some Jewish feminists’ renewed interest in the 3,500-year-old tradition of the mikvah. The mikvah is a purification ritual involving immersion in water
(a precursor to Christian baptism), and was mandatory for Jewish women at the end of their menstrual cycle. What was once considered an anachronistic and even demeaning ritual, as NPR’s Tovia Smith reports, has been adapted for contemporary life:
"…the mikvah is also being used today as a kind of spiritual therapy, for everything from getting over a miscarriage, to completing a round of chemotherapy, finishing a doctoral degree or breaking up with a boyfriend."
Of course, Judaism doesn’t have a monopoly on cleansing and purification rituals. Islam has the practice of ablution, or ritualized cleansing, in preparation for prayer; and many Hindus gather during the 2,000-year-old Kumbh Mela pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges river and absolve their sins. To list all of the world’s cleansing rituals here would be unwieldy, but they seem to be common throughout many faiths, cultures, and nations.
Within the last few years there has been a bit of scientific research on the psychological relationship between cleanliness and morality, which has revealed what’s been called "The Lady Macbeth Effect" — in reference to the fifth act of Shakespeare’s play, when Lady Macbeth obsessively washes her hands in an attempt to ease her conscience. One study showed a tendency to seek physical cleanliness when thinking guilty thoughts, while another demonstrated how thinking about physical cleanliness can cause one to be less judgmental.
I find this interesting not just in the context of larger spiritual traditions, but also in day-to-day life. For me, sometimes simple pedestrian rituals like taking a shower can serve as a point of transition and reflection. How does cleanliness play a role in your spiritual and moral life?
(image: detail of John Singer Sargent’s Ellen Tarry as Lady Macbeth, via freeparking/Flickr)