Blessing the Hudson River
Last year in mid-September, the Broome Street Ganesha Temple charted its neighborhood in Hindu terms. First, believers circled around the streets of temple’s neighborhood. Then, to celebrate Ganesha’s birthday the temple organized the first-known Hudson River arati (a devotional ceremony) to honor New York City's most popular body of water. In a soft rhythmic tempo Stern explained the theological elements of the ceremony, “Since we're in New York City and there's not a whole lot of nature around us, we thought we'd bring everybody out from the temple for one day and come by the Hudson River, which is a tremendously beautiful and wonderful river … we will do some vedic chanting by the river and we will worship the river.”
The temple obtained permission from the city government of New York to hold their religious quest at the tip of Pier 40 along the west side of Manhattan. The congregations gathered under the pier awning that shielded glare from the afternoon sunlight and brisk wind to have a picture perfect view of the river's flowing waters. About one hundred people gathered to chant, pray, and meditate during the arati ceremony, which lasted two hours.
Arati, also spelled arathi and aarthi, is a Hindu ritual of devotion towards a god that involves waving a five-wick lamp in clockwise, circular motions. The clockwise direction is believed to adhere to the orientation of order in the universe. The ritual usually takes place inside a Hindu temple two or three times a day before a deity, but it can also be in a natural setting, like by the foothills of a mountain or the edge of a river.
For example, an arati takes place in the pilgrimage town of Haridwar, India where the Himalayan Mountains and the Ganges River meet. On evening at sunset, believers watch as high priests oscillate arati lamps to commemorate the Ganges.
Where ever arati takes place, the same message is the same: paying homage to the divine in a particular place.
“It's a way of identifying with the geography of the United States, that we can replicate what we do here,” said Anant Rambachan, Chair and Professor of Religion, Philosophy, and Asian Studies at Saint Olaf College. “It's a statement that we can sense divine presence in the Hudson River.” The river was marked off as divine, the streets were paved with holiness and its walkers were empowered by sacred energy.
The cosmological meaning of Ganesha’s birthday
The worship pujas during Ganesha’s birthday were intended to provide an opportunity for a direct transmission of Ganesha’s powers to his worshippers. Because water is believed to be the medium for transmitting divine energy, nine brass pots of water filled with concoctions of water, saffron and cardamom rested on the hardwood floor before his altar. Nested next to them were plate offerings of money, fruits, and de-stemmed flowers.
The nine pots also symbolize the solar system. At the celebrations, a brass pot with a yellow colored clothe wrapped around it was put in the middle of other smaller pots to symbolize Ganesha as the sun. The necks of the smaller pots were wrapped with cloths of other colors, such as black for Saturn, green for Jupiter and red for Mars. The implication seemed to be that worship is the time of drawing near through Ganesha to the power behind the whole universe.
At the same time, Ganesha's statue inside its domicile received careful attention. Stern and Vedic Priest Bhat Prakash washed the deity in milk and honey. Afterwards, they adorned it with necklaces made of bright marigolds, chrysanthemums, and roses.
Worshippers sat in circle on the floor and chanted mantras for three hours. Because Vedic ritual emphasizes the spiritual importance of chanting from memory rather from reading a text, those who did not memorize the words sat observing with intense eyes. At times they swayed trance-like to the deeply harmonic, rhythmic voices of the chanting. After an hour of chanting, the voices coalesced into one low murmur.
Joining the ceremony was a steady flow of congregants in and out of the temple. They were are as diverse as the city itself: Indian transplants, Soho moms; yoga aficionados; and Stern's followers.
The theology of Ganesha’s birthday
Coming from a variety of backgrounds, the worshippers offered theological explanations of their activities that ranged from classical Hindu ideas to a popular religious emphasis on the multiple gods to adaptions borrowed from new age spirituality.
Girsh Krishna, 37, who attends yoga class at the center, offered that “Ganesha shows the qualities that a leader should have." He is from Pattabhi Jois’ hometown of Mysore, the city with the original Ashtanga Yoga institute. "Gane- means group, -esha means lord,” he explained. So, Ganesha as the “Lord of the group” portrays an ideal leader.
Krishna brought his friend Balaji Subramanyam, who reminisced on how Ganesha's birthday was celebrated in India where he grew up. “The festival in India is celebrated for 10 days and we immerse him (the deity) in water at the end of 10 days,” said Subramanyam, 37, who is from Bangalore, a southern city nicknamed the Silicon Valley of India.
Subramanyam explained that in his home city as elsewhere in India, that the water immersion of Ganesha’s statue was a way of creating a new beginning for one’s life. “In India, the statue is made of clay so at the end it disperses,” he said. The belief is that Ganesha's statue will absorb one's karma or fate into the clay medium during the festival. As the statue dissolves in the sea, so will one's karma so that one can start anew.
Deepak Chopra’s New Age interpretation of Ganesha
At the ceremony by the Hudson River, Deepak Chopra gave a symbolic interpretation of the physical qualities of Ganesha. For Chopra the worship of Ganesha is a way to make oneself more spiritually aware. “His huge ears makes him the best listener in the world,” said Chopra, who is famous for authoring 21 New York Times bestselling books on New Age spirituality and alternative medicine. Chopra is not affiliated with any one particular religious faith and preaches his own unique angle of holiness. "Religion is cultural mythology," he wrote in one of the many websites promoting his brand. "Spirituality is self-awareness. They [religion and spirituality] have nothing in common."
A divine symphony of nature
The temple set up last year’s event along the Hudson River so that sound, light, and water were orchestrated for significant effect during the arati ceremony. The chanting of mantra Om Jaya Jagadish Hare, meaning “Oh Lord of the Whole Universe,” fluttered in the wind while the sunlight, flickering candles and water on Hudson River sparkled on the scene. Stern pointed out that the symphony of elements created the feeling of interconnectedness. "We're all made up of the same fabric," he said. In a humorous aside that seemed to emphasize the humbleness of one’s place in the universe, he observed, "We're all woven together like one giant inter-cosmic piece of poly cotton.” Chuckles scattered throughout the audience of approximately 100 people facing Stern and the Hudson River.
The pale yellow of the mantra sheets which were given out to the audience harmonized with the play of light at the ceremony and emphasized the symbolism of light as the ultimate nature of each participant..
The mantra “is a very widely used mantra that accompanies the aratis in Hindu temples,” observes the scholar Rambachan. The mantra of Jaya Jagadish Hare, sometimes spelled Jai Jagdish Hare, "basically says that you are light itself and even the light of the sun and the moon cannot illuminate your brilliance. …It is because of your brilliance that everything shines...how can this small flame of light illuminate you when you are the brightest of all light?” The reasoning behind the arati leads toward an emphasis on cultivating self-awareness as a spiritual exercise. Self-awareness brings one to God.
Part of the song from which the mantra comes translates, "Lord, formless and yet multiform. Grant me a glimpse of Thyself." Chopra reminded the crowed that the mantras are not just song or petition but are a calling out of the divine presence. “What you heard are not prayers, they're invocations," Chopra said. Ganesha is called to be present.
In an email Gavin Flood, professor of Hindu Studies and Comparative Religion at the University of Oxford, observed that the sounds of the ceremony created the conditions for divine connection. “God is manifested as sound, and sound in the form of mantras is thought to put us in touch with God,” he wrote..
At the arati, the constant motion of the Hudson River created a rippling sound and sight. There was a feeling of being purified by a washing away of problems. “Water is a purifying substance," explained Flood. "Orthodox Hindus wash or pour water from the head downwards, washing away impurity. So water and mantra repetition are believed to purify the practitioner and connect him/her with the deity.”
“You can reach the gods through water,” a worshipper, Rahul Suresh, age 25, said at the temple.
Hudson River Blessing
After chanting, Stern and Priest Prakash set up two metal lamp plates with a copper tint. They placed camphor cubes inside the plate and lit them on fire. Holding the lamps in their hands by their necks, they walked to the end of the pier, exposing themselves to the elements. The wind coming off the river swept Stern's beige and light orange dhoti, a traditional Hindu clothing worn by men resembling a long wrap around skirt.
People followed them out to the edge of the pier. As the camphor burned, it made noses twitch with the sharpness of mint in the air. The lamps' flames flickered wildly in the wind.
Stern then walked around the crowd as people motioned their hands above the flames in circular movements. They crossed their hands slowly over their faces, moving to the top of their heads and down towards the shoulders and torso. The idea is to let the blessings of Ganesha wash over one's body.
A wave of giddiness quickly then spread over the crowd. After Stern and Priest Prakash made their rounds throughout the gathering, Stern announced, “That's all! We did it!” The crowd cheered.
As instantaneous as the feeling of whimsicality came, it went. The crowd began fixing their Autumn jackets and windbreakers and slung bags across their shoulders. Parents grabbed the hands of children. Turning away from the sacred river, the crowd walked back with an elevated purpose towards the Westside Highway and busy New York.
The Broome Street Temple is located on 430 Broome Street 2nd Floor, Manhattan.