An Atheist Walks Into an Ashram…

I recently had the opportunity to do something I would have never done on my own: Visit a Hindu temple to participate in a full moon fire ceremony.

Our group arrived early to Haidakhandi Universal Ashram in the midst of a crisp, cheery morning. A friendly woman with fair skin and light hair, who looked to be in her mid to late twenties, greeted us outside in front of the temple. She smiled warmly as she welcomed us to the ashram. In her hands were three items, one of which was a small container of rice. The other two items, paste-like substances, were a bright yellow and a bright red. She dabbed a bit of each on our foreheads and then stuck a few rice grains there. I believe these three items were meant to represent the qualities of clarity, beauty and abundance (but I could be remembering it wrong…..).

 

Receiving the rice and other stuff.

We had some time before the fire ceremony started, so we decided to go check out the inside of the temple. Shoes are not to be worn, and any woman menstruating (or, as they term it in her “moon”,) should not enter the temple or attend the fire

ceremony. Apparently, this rule has been debated in some circles. The temple was very airy and peaceful, with numerous windows allowing in the natural light. There was a large altar in the main sitting room (grab a cushion and plop on down!), the focus of which was on the namesake of this particular temple. Pictures of him adorned the altar and hung from the walls of the main temple room. His name was Shri Babaji. They say he appeared from a cave, already an adult, and instructed his followers to build ashrams around the world, so people may come to them for spiritual nourishment and enlightenment. The temple itself is dedicated to the Divine Mother, and another altar within the temple holds a figured representation of her. Who or what is the Divine Mother?

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Main room of the Ashram with photo of Babaji.

As Shri Babaji puts it:

“The Great Power that is the cosmic Maya, the Supreme Divine Energy, the Mother Goddess of Haidakhan embodies the totality of all that is to be known. To worship the Universal Goddess while we are in this mortal frame gives human life its highest realization.”

So, I guess she’s pretty important….

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The Divine Mother

We then went outside, took off our shoes and sat or stood around a small fire pit. Apparently, a bear had gotten into their usual, larger fire pit. There were many visitors who had come for the full moon ceremony, so the space around this smaller fire pit was a bit crammed. A picture of Babaji was placed at the head of the fire with a flower lei dangling over his picture’s frame. Those closest to the pit made offerings from small plates filled with what looked like rice and mustard seeds while two attendants threw offerings of flowers, cream, ghee, seeds and oils into the fire. A man from the temple stood and read from a book he was holding. Honestly, it sounded like gibberish to me but I’m guessing it was actually Sanskrit (He read really fast!). I’m not sure what we were saying each time before we threw our seeds and rice into the fire but I repeated as best I could as the smoke created from the oily fire burned my eyes and made it difficult to breathe. I guess I was not in an optimal spot, in relation to the direction the smoke was blowing.

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The smaller fire pit before the beginning of the fire ceremony.

After all the offerings were given, we went back into the temple for some guitar-led chanting. The woman singing had a beautiful voice, and I appreciated the fact that she explained to us what the first chant was about before we joined in. She told us that the chant comprised the names of  two gods (or goddesses?), which represent  two shadows of human nature. They are narcissism and self-deprecation; two sides of a coin that she conveyed as equally destructive. Sadly, she did not explain what the other chants were about, though I repeated them anyway. Overall , it was a very calming experience, and I thoroughly enjoyed the singing and guitar-playing.

Afterwards, we walked down to the kitchen and were treated to a truly delicious, home-cooked vegetarian meal of fresh, green salad with garden cherry tomatoes, chickpeas and rice and a warm cup of chai tea.  It was really yummy!

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The meal after the fire ceremony

It was fascinating to experience a completely different take on beliefs than what I’m used to here in the US. Of course, we are aware there are other religions besides Christianity. But Christianity is so dang pervasive here in the U.S. it’s easy to forget about these earlier religions, like Hinduism that pre-dates Christianity, that I know little or nothing about. This particular religion seems to offer such a rich, colorful suite of beliefs that are in some ways so different (and in my opinion, more nuanced) than Christianity.

At this particular ashram, they practice what is called karma yoga, which I believe they defined as living in constant service to others and to the Divine without attachment to the results. Here is more from their philosophy:

“Shri Babaji instructed people to live in truth, simplicity and love. He was more concerned with the way people lived than with the forms of religion, which they practiced. He said, in many different ways, that humanitarianism is the real religion or duty of human beings. By living in truth, simplicity and love, one can gain insight into mind, body and feelings of the heart; walking this Path leads to a happy, useful, and contented life in the world.”

As an atheist and a humanist, I can agree with these principles. Where I part ways is when the supernatural notions accompanying these ideas enter the scene. In my view, they are unnecessary. Working on being a good person in the world does not require belief in extraordinary, unfounded claims.   At the end of the day, we humans are all seeking answers. Some answers are more appealing than others (hence, the vast spectrum of belief systems….) and some of us are okay with the fact that we just don’t know the answer yet and we may never know it. This, for me, is the more intellectually honest position.

Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the ashram and I hope to take my son there one day to experience it as well.

 

Namaste.

 

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