Ok, so I know some of you are wondering how I got here splattered in neon-colored powder. My answer? Holi! A Hindu festival to celebrate the arrival of spring and the wiping away of negativity within.
Traditionally, white is worn (I was NOT the only person in colored clothing, lol) during Holi to represent peacefulness and a pure mind. The bright colors "washes" the white to symbolize how our lives should be "bathed" in colors that bring us happiness.
Aside from it being a traditional festival, how many times will you get the chance to live out the kid inside of you and throw colored powder on people without getting in trouble? Right, not many. Hence the reason I had so much fun.
However, Holi wasn't my entire experience. Y'all know I had to talk to people and visit another temple. So my curiosity led me to a coworker, a practicing Hindu, and the Hindu Center of Charlotte where I met Thakor, my temple guide. Now, just what is Hinduism? Most websites define it as the main religion of India which includes the worship of many gods and the belief that after you die you return to life in a different form. Probably the same definition you would've given, right? Me too.
Besides the definition, what have I or you ever really known about Hinduism? I'd never met anyone of the faith and movies always present different religious practices with a slant--an evil slant like they did in this scene from Indiana Jones. Y'all remember this movie? No? Just me?! Ok, moving on!
Yep, that was the extent of my knowledge too. By the way, Kali Ma is a real Goddess. Later in life, I would hear of an event like Holi Moli--a version of the Hindu festival of colors held on college campuses and come in contact with coworkers who proudly wore their Bindi (the red dot worn in the middle of their forehead). It's the very reason why over the last couple of months I decided to learn what I could. First, let me emphasize this:
Everything I share is from my own experience and understanding; I'm only scratching the surface. Enjoy at your own leisure.
My journey started with a quick conversation at my favorite diner with a coworker. Amrita, my lunch date, walks in with a beaming smile. Her jet black hair lightly tousled from the wind. I stand to greet her. The cold wind from her jacket gives me chills as we embrace. I'm nervous; my journalism skills are a bit rusty. However, she reassures me she is an "Open book. Ask whatever you want. No question will offend me." The diner is busy with chatter and clanging silverware. We sit close to hear one another.
Amrita, a first-generation Indian, begins by telling me about her parents who immigrated to the United States in the '70s and were a part of a small Indian population in Cocoa Beach, Florida."Yeah, my parents were a part of a small group that built the towns only Hindu Temple." She continues, "since then, that temple has grown massively, and the population has grown also." I nod in awe. The waitress walks over pulling her pen from her shirt ready to take our order. As always, I order the shrimp and grits and Amrita orders a Greek salad.
*Amrita is in the orange shirt holding her sleepy little boy.
My next question, "How would you explain Hinduism?" "Fun question," she says with a chuckle. "A lot of books present Hinduism as a polytheistic religion. From what I've seen, I disagree. For me, my interpretation of it is that it is monotheistic. There is one God, but God can come in many different forms. It's more of a philosophy and way of life rather than a strict, rigid, structured religion."
Just like Christianity, there are different secs of Hinduism. Such as Saivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism, and Smartism. It's within the various sects you can see the differences. For instance, Amrita attends the Hindu Center of Charlotte, and her mother visits BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. As she explains, her mother's temple originates from the village she grew up in, and it's where men sit in front of the women during worship because they believe "women are a distraction to their devotion." Hmmm...sounds like a practice from another religion. Can anyone guess which?
Our food comes, and I ask her about any difficult experiences she's had since wearing her Bindi. Cutting through her salad, I see her slightly tilt her head to the left thinking. She remembers being invited to church by a friend. "Yeah, David (her husband) is Catholic, so going to church wasn't a big deal. Plus, my friend invited me, so I went." When Amrita arrived at service, she realized the true reason behind her "friends" invite. "Everything seemed fine until the pastor said, 'Thank you to those who invited people of a different faith. We need them to repent and start living the right way.' Needless to say, we never went back."
While I've heard plenty of stories similar to Amritas, I'm still shocked. I take a moment before asking her another question, and I quickly recall another woman I met at the Hindu Center after Yoga. She travels all over Charlotte attending yoga sessions mostly at different temples; a practice she took up over the past several years to help beat her addiction. While her friends always complimented her achievement of sobriety and physic, joining her for yoga never seemed to manifest. "They were all excited to come, but once I gave them the address or told them where it was held, I would never respond or show up," I remember her saying.
"This salad is so good," Amrita says breaking my thoughts.
I have mindlessly eaten half of my shrimp and grits. "How did that happen?" I mumble to myself.
Amrita looks up with eyebrows raised while hiding her mouth from chewing.
"Oh, I say collecting my thoughts, "when was the first time you felt different? Living in a small town with an even smaller Indian community, is it safe to say you were the only minority."
She nods, stabbing what's left of her salad with her fork, "I was the only Indian girl and one of a handful of students of color. The other kids would call me ‘sand n*ggert'."
We fall silent.
This time, I am not so shocked. It is the same ignorance that I, and so many others that look like me, have been subjected too. Sadly, not much has changed since Amritas schools days. Turn on your television or tap on any social media app, and you'll see people of color protesting for justice and equity, defending their right to live or fighting against discrimination for wearing their NATURAL hair, daily.
We're just about finished as I see our waitress look over as she scoots the last plate in front of another customer. Probably getting ready to run our tickets but I don't want to end our conversation on this note.
"With so many deities, do you have a preference of just one?" I ask. Amrita hasn't noticed, but I signal to the waitress that it's one tab.
"I do, She says smiling, "Lord Ganesha. He brings good fortune and removes obstacles from your path."
Lord Ganesha is also known as the patron of Arts and Sciences and the Deva of Intellect and wisdom. Being the god of beginnings, he is honored at the start of rites and ceremonies.
After playing tug-of-war with the bill, we finally get up to leave. I thank Amrita for meeting me for lunch. She smiles wide until her eyes squint, "No problem, I really appreciate you wanting to know about me and my culture."
Such a simple thing to do: genuinely inquire about someone's belief or traditions without judgment. sYet, people stop just shy of doing so. Oh, the experiences you miss out on when you do.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where we go inside the Hindu Temple with my Guide Thakor.
A big thanks to Sabrina (@signedspkr) for taking these awesome pictures!