Born into a white Hindu home, I felt shy about my religion until my first pilgrimage to India
BY DEVALA REES
THE WAY IN WHICH I BECAME a Hindu is by far the most common: by birth. What makes it unusual are my race and nationality. I am a white American, born and raised in the rural central US. The house in which I grew up was much like a Hindu temple in many ways, with thirty-six murtis of the Gods and Goddesses filling almost every room. Each morning my priestess-like mother worshiped each of them with Sanskrit mantras, arati and delicious prasadam, which I would then eat for breakfast. Throughout my childhood I learned puja from her and came to love performing the worship myself.
However, when I went to school, or almost anywhere else outside of our home, it felt like stepping into an alien realm. No one I knew shared my world of loving, colorful Deities, incense and mantras. In my early childhood, Hinduism was a tradition of my home, not my community. But when I felt lonely or scared, I always mentally called on Krishna and felt a glowing, golden grin of comfort enter my heart. I always had something to hold onto. In the evenings at home, my mother and I sang stotrams and ashtakams to the Gods before bed, and in this way I learned many chants and songs.
My lack of a Hindu community outside the home changed at age 12. That year I met the woman whom I would take as my guru: Mata Amritanandamayi. I first saw her for just a week in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That week was a key turning point in my feeling fully like a Hindu. Previously, I’d been missing a vital element: the immeasurably profound treasure of a living guru. Apart from my mother, my guru and her community of shishyas have been, by far, the greatest influence on my spiritual life. While my guru lives in Kerala, India, she tours the US annually and I always visit her. When she is away, I study and practice her teachings from afar. The initiation she gave me utterly revolutionized my spiritual practice, and remains the basis of my sadhana to this day. The mantra she whispered in my ear feels like a supercharged direct link to God, powered by her grace. It exerts a palpable benefit on my mental and emotional state whenever I direct my attention to it.
Not long after finding my guru, I also discovered a growing community of Hindus in my home town. Many Indian families moved to the area so their children could attend a Hindu-influenced school there that was originally started by the Transcendental Meditation movement. This influx of Hindus soon created a demand for a public temple.
I soon met a pandit named Parthasarathi Vempati who arrived from India. He would found the Sri Devi Mandir in our small but eclectic town. From my teenage years until today, I’ve regularly participated local pujas and homas, community events and festivals with Panditji. Thus Panditji has been a profoundly beneficial teacher in my discovery of the deep satisfaction of bhakti. While they’re certainly not necessary for everyone, I personally love the intricate dynamics of outward devotional ritual. I find they lend a rich and enjoyable framework to the unfolding experience of my inner relationship with God.
Even after all this, not until I was a college freshman did I openly call myself a Hindu among people of different traditions. Before that I had been reticent to share such a deeply important part of my personality. I definitely felt like a cultural minority.
Partly for this reason, one of the most joyous experiences of my life was my first pilgrimage to India at age 20. Spending a month living in a flourishing and proudly Hindu society was perhaps the final influence that led me to comfortably and openly identify as Hindu and publicly embrace the camaraderie and solidarity of Hinduism as a worldwide community.
DEVALA REES, 27, is a Business Intelligence Analyst at FoodChain ID. A staunch Hindu, he actively contributes to his local Hindu community in Fairfield, Iowa. Email: Devalarees@gmail.com