Walking in New York is a holy gait for New Yorkers who feel the city is sacred ground.
The Dutch Calvinists laid out the original New York according to their vision of the confluence of heaven and earth; Calvinist John Randel, Jr. imposed a rational order through his 1811 grid for Manhattan above Fourteenth Street; the evangelical reformers swept the streets for corruption; the Catholics mapped the streets with parish boundaries, pilgrimages and storefront shrines; and the Jews laid out boundary lines for their holy days. Traveling among the lite-up skyscrapers on a wonderful, clear evening is like walking among cathedrals with spires reaching for the heavens. The sociologist Max Weber saw the skyscrapers in 1904 from Brooklyn Heights as fiery pyres of homage to the Protestant work ethic.
Believers in some of the gods who have more recently arrived in New York City are also claiming the city for their imagination. They are building their Holy Cities right here around us. The sacred architecture starts with their worship centers and spills over into the public squares.
In Manhattan, Hindus are making a smaller, but profound city map through the Ganesha processions organized by the Broome Street Ganesha Temple.
Every year around September, Hindus flock to temples and streets to celebrate Ganesha's birthday in an elaborate festival called Ganesha Chaturthi. Devotions and chanting fill the joyous occasion for ten days. A Ganesha statue, usually made of clay, parades through the streets in a procession to a river or sea where it is immersed.
The popularity of the public processions of Ganesha go back to Indian demonstrations to claim independence from Great Britain. The site of the first freedom marches were in the Bombay/Mumbai area. The idea of Ganesha marches to claim new beginnings for Hindu identity and projects spread widely. However, even today the processions in the Mumbai religion are more numerous and spectacular than anywhere else. There Ganesha statues can tower up to 33 feet high.
On the second Sunday of September this year, a train of Hindu devotees marched around inside of their God’s holy temple in Lower Manhattan to celebrate his birthday. Men hoisted the two and half foot metallic idol of Lord Ganesha onto the top of the wooden beams. The God with a distinct shining elephant head was draped with silk fabrics and necklaces of magenta, pink, beige and white marigold and roses blooms. As they marched, followers could contemplate about how they would map out their time for the coming year. The unruly Chronos, as the Greeks saw the God of Time, was being put on the rails designed by a very happy divinity.
Last year, the temple devotees went outward rather than inward to map out lower Manhattan with a holy pilgrimage in a loop for six blocks from Broome Street to Mercer Street, then to Spring Street, down to Broadway, and coming back to Broome Street. Then, they gathered to claim the Hudson River as a Hindu God like that of the River Ganges in India.
Eddie Stern brought the idea of a Ganesha temple in Greenwich Village from India. Leaving an unhealthy life style, Stern had taken up yoga and had even become an instructor. In 1990 exploring yoga in the city of Mysore located in south India, Stern heard from a local bookseller that Sri K. Pattabhi Jois was a famous yoga master. So, one morning Stern visited Pattabhi Jois at his center. The yogi looked insignificant but his conversation was weighty. Pattabhi Jois wore "what looked like a dish towel wrapped around his waist," observed Casey Spooner and Adam Dugas in an article for The NY Times Style Magazine. Yet, Pattabhi Jois' knowledge and wisdom was striking. Stern took another opportunity to return to Mysore the following year to study with the yogi.
Pattabhi Jois had popularized Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, a gymnastic-like yoga that emphasizes eight spiritual practices, including a moral code and breath control. This type of yoga is not your mother’s type unless she is an army sergeant. It calls for a great deal of discipline and will power. First established as the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in 1948, his center continues today as the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute.
Stern brought back the torch of his teacher’s Ashtanga enlightenment and in 1995 established a branch of his teacher’s institute as a yoga studio named Ashtanga Yoga New York. The center offers daily yoga classes and free meditation classes once a week. Seriously disciplined celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, William Dafoe and other notables have attended classes. Heeding his mentor’s call to intertwine the physical and spiritual disciplines, Stern also created the Broome Street Ganesha Temple inside the yoga center in 2001.
In the Broome Street Ganesha Temple there is a main shrine to Ganesha. The deity lives inside a pristine white-walled structure located in the back of the sanctuary on the second floor. Though no larger than a tool shed and so small that only one person at a time can pass through its entrance, the opening to Ganesha's house is ornate with golden trimmings and shiny steps leading up to the statue.
Commonly known as the god of success, Lord Ganesha is portrayed with the head of an elephant, body of a human, and four winding arms holding lotus flowers, axes, musical instruments, and bowls filled with sweets. Earlier images of Ganesha portrayed him clasping on his elephant tusk to assure worshippers of their safety. Now, it is more common to picture him with his hands posing in gestures, known as mudras, that symbolize an energetic existence.
The Vedas, sacred scriptures for Hindus, recount Ganesha's story as the son of Shiva and Parvati. In one version of the story, Ganesha was a commander for Shiva's troops. His job was to create obstacles for the demons and remove obstacles for the demigods allied with Shiva. Consequently, Ganesha became known as the remover of obstacles for his devotees. Hindus often commence religious holidays with the worship of Ganesha so that he will remove obstacles to the success of rituals to other Gods. During the festivals of Ganesha birthday, his devotees also pray for blessings on new ventures in the upcoming year.
Ordinary evening worship (pujas) take place on Friday in the temple's sanctuary. The pujas include offerings and chants to the God who will bless the participants. Pujas are loosely similar to the Christian practice of collective prayer during worship services. The Greenwich Village temple also has shrines to the gods Radha, Krishna and Hanuman.
The temple emphasizes the teaching and practice of Hinduism according to the exacting traditions of the Vedas which date back to 1500 BC to 500-400 BC.
Part 2 will recount the re-imagination of the Hudson River as a Hindu god and the theology of Ganesha’s birthday.
The Broome Street Ganesha Temple will be celebrating the 2013 Diwali Festival on Saturday and Sunday, November 2nd & 3rd.
The temple will be open from 4 to 8pm. Special Diwali pujas will begin at 6 pm each day.