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Hindu Art Exhibit
– By Shoba Narayan

An Atrocity and an Exhibition Make One Believer Reflect on Her Faith

(This article originally appeared in September 2001)
Growing up in India, I had an intimate but businesslike relationship with Lord Ganesh, the remover of obstacles in the Hindu pantheon of gods. Come exam time, I would stand in front of Ganesh at the local temple and indulge in some intense bargaining. If he granted me an A+, I vowed to circle the temple 101 times and break several coconuts, which were his favorite food according to the myths my grandmother told me. If, however, I only got a B, Ganesh would only get one coconut and no temple circling.

Five days after the terrorist attack on New York, I stood again in front of Ganesh, only this time at the Museum of Natural History. The early-20th-century marble statue was gorgeously corpulent, as Ganesh ought to be. It holds pride of place at the entrance of “Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion” (through February, 2002), an earnest exhibit that attempts to contain the chaos, color and culture of Hinduism within the hushed confines of a museum. I had come to the museum to get away from the charred images of the previous days. I was seeking a distraction, a sanctuary, and I found it in the soothing strains of Raga Shivranjini that echoed through the dark room.

In his hands, Ganesh held two “modakams,” round rice balls stuffed with coconut and the crude sugar called jaggery, another of his favorite foods. (It is no secret in Hinduism that the way to this particular God’s heart is through his stomach.) In spite of myself, I silently reverted to my usual relationship with Lord Ganesh. I told him that if he found my friend’s brother, who was missing amid the rubble, I would deliver a plate full of modakams, if not to the museum, at least to the Ganesh temple in Flushing, Queens. And with that, I realized, my own experience of Darshan, the Sanskrit word for “meeting god,” had come full circle. In the past I had importuned Ganesh for something as banal as good grades, and here I was, communing with him again, when surrounded by tragedy.

As religions go, Hinduism is a melange of interrelated ideas that bend to accommodate the mundane and materialistic as well as the profound. As Stephen P. Huyler, the curator of this exhibit, points out, Hindus visit temples to heal from life-threatening cancers and tie make-shift cradles on holy trees to conceive a child, but they also do puja (pray) to win the lottery or get a promotion. In fact, there is a temple in New Delhi, called the Visa Ganesh temple, that is thronged by Indians who want to get visas to the United States. This elasticity and flexibility of Hinduism allow it to thrive in secular India, which has a history of nurturing diverse religions such as Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism and Judaism. (It is only recently that Hindus in India have become more stridently parochial.)

The Hinduism I knew was utterly unholier-than-thou. Rather than inducing guilt, it offered options. So you forgot a promise that you made to God? There are ways around it. Go on a pilgrimage, fast for a day, do karma yoga, and God will forgive, God will accept. A Hindu devotee echoes these sentiments in Huyler’s excellent documentary, titled “Puja,” which is shown as part of the exhibit. I found the documentary and interspersed video clips to be the best part of the whole exhibit, because they contained images of real-life Hindus going about their business of worship, ranging from sunrise prayers at the holy river Ganges, to bustling temple processions, to drawing kolam-designs with rice flour so that even ants and insects would get sustenance.

In an adjacent room, puja utensils such as lamps (aarthi), prayer beads (maala), ritual water containers (panchapatharam), spoons (uddharanes), bells, and containers of vermilion powder, turmeric and sacred ash, have been placed behind glass enclosures. While these ritual objects are pristine and beautiful to behold, they are touched and used every day by Hindus during their daily prayers. I wished that a snippet of the “Puja” documentary showing a woman in the Washington, D.C. area doing puja at her home had been placed next to these objects to give them context.

To Huyler’s credit, rather than try to explain Hinduism in a logical, hierarchical fashion, which would be nearly impossible, he has simply showcased disparate images, almost as a montage, albeit with specific explanations. This simulates the aggregate, rambling nature of Hinduism, more akin to the cosmic threads of the Milky Way than a monolithic, cohesive solar system. There is the esoteric doctrine of Vedanta to contrast with daily rituals that are almost childlike in their simplicity. Hinduism is not congregational, yet people gather in temples, sometimes daily, for communal worship. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, Hinduism is large; it contains multitudes. A bewildering pantheon of Gods, Goddesses, rivers, trees, visiting guests, cows and even ants are considered sacred. Museum visitors are given a taste of these Gods, ranging from playful, mischievous Krishna, a favorite of children, to strong, loyal Hanuman; the fierce Goddess Kali; Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth; and Shiva, the cosmic dancer and destroyer of evil. Interactive shrines invite visitors to open their closed wooden doors to get a startling glimpse of the vivid colors that epitomize a puja room. These shrines are among the more successful elements of the exhibit. I observed some visitors gasp when they opened the first shrine.

Toward the end, the exhibit tries to explain the concept of sanyas, or renunciation of worldly pleasures in pursuit of the spiritual. As a lifetime Hindu, I know that sanyas is one of the four life stages (ashrams), which include brahmacharya (bachelor), grihasta (householder) and vanaprastha (forest dweller). Strangely, this exhibit merely touches on the concept of sanyas without delving into it fully. Nor does it talk about the other life stages, leading me to think that sanyas could have been left out altogether.

More interesting, insightful and fun were the photos just outside the exhibit, showing Indians in America incorporating Hinduism into their daily lives. There are photos of Indian cab drivers carrying images of the goddess Kali in their windshields, video-shop owners improvising makeshift puja rooms behind the cash register and a family in New Jersey doing puja.

I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Huyler, an author and cultural anthropologist who has made numerous trips to India, recording its crafts and religion in photos, books and videos. However, I humbly submit one suggestion for his next project: Rather than putting Hindu icons behind museum glass, how about a full-length documentary that reflects the throbbing vitality of Hinduism with clapping devotees, clanging bells and chanting priests? I would look forward to watching it.

This article originally appeared in September 2001.
Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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