Embrace new cultures with an open mind

By Shelby Harrell | Jun 19, 2014
Photo by: Shelby Harrell

Working in journalism for three years has provided me with many unforgettable experiences, but none so thrilling or fascinating as the “Hanuman” installation ceremony at the Sri Somesvara vedic temple I attended earlier this week.

The installation was the fifth and final ceremony that was celebrating the Lord Shiva at the temple. The temple held celebrations to “energize” the statue from May 29-June 2.

If someone told me that attending the ceremony meant I would be showered in spiced water, milk and clarified butter during the “bathing” of the 20-foot granite statue representing a deity, I would have laughed at them. But Monday afternoon, I was doing just that — shielding my work camera from the “blessing” droplets of milk and butter that Hindu priests — called “pandits” — were flinging from the top of the “Hanuman” statue. Wow, that’s kind of a mouthful.

Essentially, the Hanuman statue is a representation of power and strength. It was designed by a Hindu family and was hand carved from granite. Its human form in combination with a monkey’s face represents the message that deities have many different faces but ultimately everyone and everything is connected.

I will admit, when I first saw the group of people chanting and shouting at this statue of a monkey/man deity, I had my doubts. I was asked to take my shoes off, so I ended up walking around on the creamy ground trying not to get in the way of the dozens of people chanting and praising the Hanuman…their hands high into the air, reaching out, bathing in the blessings. In the culture, to receive droplets of the water on you is considered good luck. Well, I must have been very lucky that day.

Just when I was trying to make sense of it all, something more strange would happen — a cow would show up for example. Apparently, cows are sacred in their culture, hence the milk and butter. And then as part of the installment, the pandits had to “dress” Hanuman, and we weren’t allowed to face or see Hanuman until it was completed. I waited in anticipation with the rest of the crowd, expecting to turn around and see the statue clothed in scarves and linens. I was wrong.

The first thing I noticed were the $1 bills hanging around Hanuman’s neck, as if the string of bills made a long necklace. Then I noticed a similar string of fresh green limes, a string of donuts, ribbons of leaves, flowers and so on. Hanuman had not been dressed in clothes but rather offerings to the Hanuman statue.

According to the culture, those who give offerings to Lord Hanuman will be blessed with happiness and all their worries will be erased, their sins and suffering will disappear, wealth will bestowed and businesses will flourish. Hanuman received many offerings that day, and the Hanuman statue is now a fully energized deity on display at the temple in Mount Soma.

When I returned to work after covering the ceremony, my feet covered in butter and mud, I was a little baffled. My cheeks were a little sunburned and I sat down at my desk going through the pictures I took — re-living the memories. I started thinking about what all I had just experienced, and just how little I knew about the culture before. When I first walked up to the temple, I had expected some quiet dwelling of prayer and bowing. And what I ended up seeing was a very loud, muddy crowd yelling praises and celebrating.

I may have not been able to understand their songs, or see the significance of Hanuman, but there was one language I did understand — the language of joy. I could sense the happiness and positive energy flowing, all the way from my head to my toes being bathed in mud and milk. It was impossible not to feel happy around such spunky people, and even though I was attending the ceremony as a reporter with my notebook and camera, I had a smile on my face the whole time.

Sometimes we get so caught up in what’s right and what’s wrong that we aren’t able to let our guards down and enjoy the moment. I don’t really understand Hinduism, or Buddhism or even the Muslim faith, but that doesn’t mean we just shun those who do practice those faiths. Sometimes we just need to kick off our shoes, be respectful of other people and just observe the traditions that they hold so dear.

If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that it’s OK to learn something new about a different culture, even if you don’t understand it. As I mentioned before, this was one of the most fascinating assignments I’ve ever had, and an experience I surely won’t ever forget. We should all be a little more accepting of other cultures — even if it’s a religion that we don’t believe in. If I had clung to my own beliefs and not been open-minded, I may not have attended, or may not have appreciated the experience. Instead, I’ve chosen to look at it as a way of growing as a person, and in the future, I’m looking forward to embracing other cultural learning experiences, no matter how bizarre they might seem.