Rediscovering the Sound, Power, and Purpose of Prayer

Temples, like vegetables, come in all shapes and sizes. However, temples, especially here in the U.S., don’t get built unless there is a thriving Hindu community in the surrounding area to populate it. Therefore, big or small, temples are never empty. They’re also never quiet. Whether it’s a priest performing an archana for some late afternoon visitors or a large group chanting in front of the main sanctum sanctorum during an abhisheka, the sound of prayer fills a temple from morning until evening, every day.

My parents have brought me to visit temples fairly regularly throughout my life, so I kind of grew used to the whole experience early on. I recognized most of the slokas chanted during different poojas and I’d join in whenever I could catch a phrase or prayer I recognized. Mostly, I’d circle through the temple in a known ritual – Ganesha first, then stopping by a few more miscellaneous idols and saying quick prayers, doubling back to the corner to circle the Navagraha idols nine times, a few more idols, then joining in the abhisheka or other major ceremony of the day, then aarti, and then prasad. I was always so focused on going through these almost automatic routines that everything else faded out around me – the sounds, the other people, sometimes even the idols themselves. I got so focused on making sure I finished all the steps that I knew so well that I forgot why I was performing them, or why I chanted the prayers, or why I even went to the temple at all.

So I stopped going for a while. I was so blinded by the rituals that I could no longer see through the actions to the purpose. Add to that the crushing weight of AP classes plus a healthy dose of teenage angst, and you can sort of figure out why I barely visited any sort of temple between the ages of 14 and 18.

I do remember, however, my first visit back to a temple one evening after finishing my first semester of college and coming home for winter break. I stepped back into the main section of the temple, shivering as the December wind from behind me combined with the feeling of my bare feet on the bare marble floor. Almost immediately, I was shocked by how loud everything was – there were three different groups of people in three different parts of the temple chanting three different prayers to three different gods. Right in front of me was a large group of people of all ages chanting the Vishnu Sahasranama in front of the main idol of the temple, Lord Venkateswara. They were chanting with the utmost devotion in perfect unison, most of them having memorized the Sahasranama when they were quite young and then continuing to chant it their whole lives. Having not heard this form of group prayer for such a long time, the wave of familiar and yet unfamiliar sound that washed over me made me remember again what I had forgotten for years: There was a purpose to prayer, and there was also an immense power to praying with others. Though you may not be speaking directly to each other, and though you may come from completely different backgrounds, you lend strength to each other, you share in each other’s devotion, and you are united by the common purpose of expressing love towards and seeking blessings from the same God, whatever His form may be.

I never realized before, having been born and raised in the U.S., that this must be an immense source of comfort for many of the Hindus who have emigrated and continue to emigrate from India every day to work and start families in completely unfamiliar places around the world. That is why temples are never quiet and never empty – they are filled with people who use their devotion and prayers and ritual practices to regain the sense of religious and cultural familiarity and identity they feel might be slipping away from them during all the time they spend going about their daily lives, and which I had unwittingly allowed to slowly drain out of me for years.

I’d love to say that I visit temples more often than I used to, but I’m still in school, and AP classes have now been replaced with real college classes away from home. However, I can say with certainty that my attitude toward temples has changed greatly, and I often find myself thinking about the next chance I can get to step into a temple and join in that sense of comfort and strength that fills me every time I am greeted by the familiar sights of idols, the smell of incense, and, of course, the sound of a group of devotees praying, fulfilling the ultimate purpose of and lending power to the rituals that mean something to me once more.

Overheard by Manasvi Ramanujam | Wharton Class of 2018


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s