(American) Thanksgiving, Pujas, and Giving Thanks.

American Thanksgiving was on 24 November, and was celebrated with momos after Kathak class. Never one too keen on holidays, I forgot about it until just recently – it’s not like you can get a turkey up here, nor a goose (which is my bird of choice for holiday cooking; much more flavourful). Even if dinner was fried momos in the school cafeteria, it was definitely an interesting day: I got to participate in a puja for the welcoming of new neighbours into a new home (and newlyweds at that), and we got to do more of the performance prep at Kathak, so I have a fair bit to practice over the winter, and some shopping to plan to do in Lucknow and Jaipur.

In the morning, Sareena asked me if I’d do the welcoming aarti for the couple (being walked through it step by step, literally), so my morning was: bathe, dress, skip breakfast, knit, do aarti, knit, go across the way for the Griha Pravesh puja, have lunch, come home and write. An aarti is a fire ritual, harkening back to Vedic times when there were fewer gods in the Hindu pantheon (Hinduism is considered pantheistic: God and the universe are the same, God is in the universe and the universe is in God. Christianity and Judaism are considered panenthistic ). No matter how modern Hinduism gets (check out this updated Ganesh, to the right!), there remain aspects which are held on from the culture and practices from thousands of years ago, and the Vedic rituals are part of those practices. Now, we mostly only see them in the aartis and in Hindu weddings, where the bride and groom circumambulate a fire.

What I ended up doing was lighting a ghee-based diya, daubing sindoor and rice on the couples’ foreheads, and blessing them with the fire and water. Then the bride, Meena, had to knock over a little pot of rice before she could come into the house. From what I understand, this ritual can be performed by a friend of the family, or often the mother-in-law of the new bride. From a website:

Grooms Home

Pani Varna – “Pani vaar banne di maye, bana tera, bahar khada…” This is when the groom’s mother performs aarti with a pitcher of water around the newlyweds heads. She is suppose to sip from the jug of water each time. The groom is suppose to try to stop her each time, allowing her to sip the water only on the seventh time. It is one of the past customs in which the groom informs his mother that there is another contender for his love – his new wife.

Before entering the groom’s home, the bride is often asked to knock over a vial of mustard oil or an urn of rice with her right foot as she steps into the house. Her first step is considered auspicious. According to Hindu mythology the new bride is considered ghar ki lakshmi (a goddess representing prosperity). Also, by her touching the rice urn with her right foot she acknowledges her understanding of the responsibilities towards her new home.”

A few hours later was the “big” puja, which is performed when you move into a new house. The pandit (priest) was there when I came in, and had already done some of the major work – drawing out designs in turmeric and sindoor on various objects (some thalis, and a tray which would later be where a fire was built). He was making up a ghee diya by taking ghee and putting it in the earthenware diya, and then putting a wick in, then mushing the ghee up around the wick to both hold it upright, as well as keep the wick fuelled.

There was a very large sense of community during the Griha Pravesh puja; a lot of communal touching-of-things (the priest would bless a marigold, we’d all get touched by it; he’d bless a spoonful of sindoor that would go onto a bell, we’d get touched with it before the bell, etc). He was also quite clever, in that he subtly showed us all what we were supposed to do, by doing it himself, or miming it, or making his gestures obvious. It was clear this was the first Griha Pravesh puja for a few people, so I was happy to only stick out by skin colour. Additionally, it sounds like not all pandits know how to perform it; one of the other couples who had recently moved into a new house mentioned that they had wanted to have one done, however they hadn’t been able to find someone to do it for them.

I couldn’t understand most of the Hindi and Sanskrit used during the puja; it was being spoken quickly, and with that ease borne of the familiarity of speaking the same words many, many times. I was able to pick out a smattering, mostly the names of gods and goddesses being invoked. The pandit did most of the talking; only a little sort of “call and response” at the end, when we were tossing earth and I’m not certain exactly what else (I’m pretty sure there was dried fruit!) on the fire, and then a final prayer/devotional song almost everyone participated in. The song is “Om Jai Jagdish Hare“, and it was explained to me that it is what Hindus tend to use for the end of their daily puja.

One interesting aspect of it, and one that made me very happy (and thankful), was the fact that there was absolutely no question of my involvement. I was there – therefore I was involved, down to having a tikka and a prayer thread put on. The pandit never blinked an eye, never questioned, never asked “Is she Hindu?” or threatened to withhold part of the ceremony. I was invited, and… there was no doubt that I was welcomed and my involvement would not  blemish the ceremony or be problematic.

Adam and I have seen this same behaviour in other Hindu temples, like the temple of Durga and the temple of Hanuman in Varanasi – we went in with offerings (okay, more me than Adam!) and we were welcomed and treated as complete equals. It was nice, when comparing it to the sometimes extremely austere places of worship or ceremonies in other faiths. I’m not out to convert to a religion yet (I’ll still be the faithless heathen) but it was certainly the most welcoming and interesting religious event I’ve ever been part of.

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