Hindu community fasts, prays to honor Lord Shiva’s holiday

Pamela Steinle

If her mother hadn’t reminded her, Neelu Babu might not have realized the Hindu holiday of Maha Shivaratri was upon them.

“It’s not on the calendar you buy at Barnes and Noble,” said Babu, a University graduate student studying scientific and technical communication.

Tuesday marks a time of fasting and prayer in honor of Lord Shiva, one of the three main deities of Hinduism.

Traditionally, Shiva devotees will follow a specific ritual that includes bathing the god’s image in milk, yogurt, honey and rose water; making food and fruit offerings; and reciting the 1,008 names of Lord Shiva in prayer.

But Babu, who immigrated with her parents to the United States from south India when she was three, has modified the traditional rituals of Maha Shivaratri to mesh with her busy American lifestyle.

Babu fasts during the day but usually breaks it at sunset. She said she doesn’t stay up all night unless the holiday falls on a Friday or Saturday, when she doesn’t have to function at work.

In addition, she said, she doesn’t bathe the image because it is not possible due to the length of time it takes and the mess it makes in the modern home.

But Babu does participate in a simple “puja,” or prayer service, with her family to commemorate the day. She said preserving Hindu traditions is important to her identity as an Indian-American and to the identity of her future children.

At sunset, she will enter her home’s puja room with her mother and father, which serves as a mini-temple for the family. A collection of pictures and sculptures of Hindu gods decorates the room, and Babu will stand before an image of Lord Shiva.

But she isn’t praying to a god, Babu said. Instead, she is worshiping the “Linga,” the round, dome-like structure on which Shiva rests.

According to Hindu legend, priests asked the three Hindu gods to protect them from demons while they performed their rituals.

Lord Brahma ignored the priests, and therefore Hindus do not pray to him. Lord Shiva gave partial help, but not enough to satisfy the priests, so humans only pray to his Linga.

Lord Vishnu gave acceptable help, and that is why most of the deities Hindus pray to are reincarnations of him.

Babu will hold her hands in front of her body, with her palms together and will point her feet away from the god.

After praying in silence, she will end with “Om Namah Shivaya,” which means, “I pray to Lord Shiva.”

She will then anoint her forehead with “viboodhi,” the Telegu word for a white powdery substance meant to represent ash, and break her fast by eating special food prepared by her mother, such as “kheer,” a dish similar to rice pudding.

Babu said she can’t think of any friends who will be performing the ritual in its entirety. Many are like Babu, in that they mainly pray to reincarnations of Lord Vishnu and therefore consider Lord Shiva’s night less important.

But Babu said many are uninterested in Hinduism or have not had traditions passed down to them.

“It’s really sad,” Babu said. “We are stopping traditions, and cultural aspects are not being passed on. It’s a tragic loss to the Indian culture.”

On Monday night, the Hindu Mandir in northeast Minneapolis performed the entire traditional ritual to a group of more than 65.

The scent of sandalwood permeated the sanctuary as the high priest began the purification process. As he chanted, he spoke the names of fellow worshipers who had submitted them on white pieces of paper. Naming the participants draws them personally into the process of worship.

When the chant was completed, the high priest began making offerings of fruit and flowers to the Linga.

But even in the temple, evidence of American culture was present.

Men and women unloaded Kemps milk jugs and packaged sugar from plastic Cub Foods bags. Some were dressed in traditional regalia, while others came in blue jeans or business suits.

Rahul Rathi, an international student from western India studying chemical engineering, said he has hardly gone to the Hindu temple since coming to the United States in 1998.

He said the religion is still important to him here, but without the convenient facilities or societal and family influences, he has slipped away from the ritual aspect.

“It’s going to happen,” Rathi said. “It’s kind of sad, but you can’t stop it from happening.”

Pamela Steinle welcomes comments at [email protected]