The Goddess Lives in Upstate New York: Breaking Convention and Making Home at a North American Hindu Temple

The Goddess Lives in Upstate New York: Breaking Convention and Making Home at a North American Hindu Temple

The Goddess Lives in Upstate New York: Breaking Convention and Making Home at a North American Hindu Temple

The Goddess Lives in Upstate New York: Breaking Convention and Making Home at a North American Hindu Temple

Synopsis

The Goddess Lives in Upstate New York is a profile of a flourishing Hindu temple in the town of Rush, New York. The temple, established by a charismatic nonbrahman Sri Lankan Tamil known as Aiya, stands out for its combination of orthodox ritual meticulousness and socioreligious iconoclasm. The vitality with which devotees participate in ritual themselves and their ready access to the deities contrasts sharply with ritual activities at most North American Hindu temples, where (followingthe usual Indian custom) ritual is performed only by priests and access to the highly sanctified divine images is closely guarded. Drawing on several years of fieldwork, Dempsey weaves traditional South Asian tales, temple miracle accounts, and devotional testimonials into an analysis of the distinctive dynamics of diaspora Hinduism. She explores the ways in which the goddess, the guru, and temple members reside at cultural and religious intersections, noting how distinctions between miraculous and mundane, convention and non-convention, and domestic and foreign are more often intertwined and interdependent than in tidy opposition. This lively and accessible work is a unique and important contribution to diaspora Hindu Studies.

Excerpt

Imagine for a moment that I have visitors whom I decide to take on a day trip to the Śrī Rājarājeśwarī Pīṭham, the “seat” (pīṭham) of the goddess Rājarājeśwarī. Since they have never been there before and I do not tell them where we are headed, they are in for a bit of a surprise. As we near the temple, we look out at the lovely rolling landscape of rural upstate New York and remark, depending on the season, on the deep green of the rain-drenched hills, the electric fall foliage, or the sparkling winter wonderland around us. After winding though long stretches of farmland dotted with barns, silos, and cows, our car takes a turn down a long, narrow driveway that leads toward a small, neatly painted, one-story yellow barn. We leave the car in the parking lot and, as we near the barn, we encounter a fourfoot statue of Ganeś, the rotund, elephant-headed Lord of Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles. Ganeś, appropriately, is our first clue that something Hindu is afoot. Carved in typical south Indian style from black granite, he tastefully wears splendid silks and goldcolored ornaments. Peering out from his clear Plexiglas shrine, he may or may not sport sunglasses to keep the sun’s glare from his eyes; this also depends on the season.

Entering through the side door, we add our shoes to the rows of footwear and, because morning worship (pūjā) is in full swing, we hear the faint sound of chanting coming from beyond the next door. As we pass through this door and into smoky air thick with incense, we are greeted by a chorus of Sanskrit chants, the clanging of bells, boisterous Karnatic temple music (electronically piped in) and, most dramatically, an array of gleaming gods and goddesses. Upstate New . . .

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