BU Hindus gathered last month for worship at the School of Theology. Photos by Kalman Zabarsky
The first sign of reverence is the shoes left outside the School of Theology room. Inside, their 50 owners sit on the carpeted floor as incense perfumes the air near a table draped in white and splashed with colorful murtis (icons) of Hindu deities, including Ganesh, dispatcher of obstacles. (Traders chant his many names at the start of business each day on the Bombay Stock Exchange, according to Stephen Prothero, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of religion.) To the side of the table sit a married Hindu priest and priestess from nearby Lexington in robes, brought in to lead this late-February celebration of the festival of the god Shiva.
They open by leading the group in a gentle chant, accompanied by tambourine and hand drum. Each worshipper has a plastic plate and bowl with ritual items. They will sprinkle themselves with water, anoint the person next to them with vermillion powder, and braid that person’s wrist with thread. “All these props that we are using for puja [ritual practice]—these are meant to focus our mind and focus our hearts on a particular line of thinking,” the priest tells the crowd. “You can think of it as an experiment in which we can connect our mind to the supreme consciousness. At the end of the hour, when you have done this puja, you will find that your energy levels are elevated, your mind is more positive, you’re feeling happier.”
Hinduism boasts the oldest scriptures of any religion, the most worldwide adherents after Christianity and Islam, and a burgeoning BU presence, estimated at more than 350 students. The University has taken notice: this year, it appointed its first Hindu campus minister “because of the strong participation and size of the Hindu Student Council,” says Robert Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel. Meanwhile, an on-again-off-again campaign to find a designated prayer space is on again. Currently, students bounce between the School of Theology and a borrowed basement room in Marsh Chapel for Saturday prayer.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen before I leave,” laments Pratik Desai (CAS’12), copresident of the University’s Hindu Student Council. A rail-slender South Carolinian born in Zimbabwe, Desai says that without space to spare now, BU likely will need two or three years to pin down a permanent location. That’s frustrating to former council officer Prady Tewarie (CAS’13), who says students have sought prayer space “for at least a decade.”
Regular worship attendance is dwarfed by special events; last fall’s rasa lila, a festival of dance, drew more than 1,000 people from BU and nearby to the Metcalf Ballroom, says Desai. Such community outreach won BU’s Hindu students the best chapter award last year from the New Jersey–based Hindu Students Council, which promotes Hindu culture. BU’s Hindu contingent is the largest of that council’s 60 campus members.
Yet with growth comes growing pains. Marsh sometimes needs its basement for special events, and the students must scramble for an alternate venue. “Sometimes, we don’t know where we’re going to be that week,” Desai says. Even if Marsh is available, the largest turnouts, which can hit 100, stretch the basement’s seams. Then there’s the theological problem: the opportunity for the faithful to view icons is a central tenet of Hinduism that’s affronted by the current need to store them in a locked basement closet. “We’ve broken a lot of them in transport, and the fact that they’re in a closet is sacrilegious,” he says. “If you go to a temple, they’ll be on an altar, and they’re treated just like people. So the priest will put them down to go to sleep every night.”
“Hindu worship…is first and foremost about sight,” Prothero notes in his book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World. “Whereas Protestants go to church to hear the gospel reading and the sermon, Hindus go to temple to see and be seen—to gaze at their beloved gods and to be gazed at lovingly in return.” His book describes Hinduism as “the least dogmatic and the most diverse” of religions. Most believers agree that humanity’s central need is to escape our never-ending cosmic rut of birth, death, and reincarnation. Scriptures offer various routes to escape, Prothero writes, but the most popular today is loving devotion to a personal god chosen by the believer.
Helping search for space is new campus minister Pandit Ramadheen Ramsamooj. A lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and headmaster of a New Hampshire private school, he’s at BU part-time, serving students as needed for counseling and worship (he estimates that he made four visits to campus during autumn). Yet as the first minister, he knows he’ll define the job and says he has “very ambitious plans.” Besides a designated worship spot, he’d like to start a scholarship fund for Hindu students from poor nations to attend BU, financed by the University’s Hindu alumni. American interest in India, home to most of the world’s Hindus, runs high now because of that country’s growing economic importance, he says. (A final fact from Prothero: Hindus operate 40 percent of Silicon Valley’s high-tech firms.)
“I also want to help network with not only other Hindu student chapters, but with the greater Boston community,” Ramsamooj says.
He’ll get a chance during the spring festival of colors, Holi. Although it falls next week, BU Hindus tentatively plan to celebrate it April 14, when the weather should be nicer. A joyous event in which people from all walks typically toss water and colored powder on one another, Holi will be observed in the same spirit here. According to Desai, students will gather at BU Beach and “throw around paint at each other.”