The Art of Praying

Gandhinagar, Hyderabad 2003
8:30am 

I watched my aunt pour a golden glass of milk over the porcelain statue of goddess Lakshmi Devi. After milk came honey. Then water. I sat cross-legged, half paying attention to the pooja, half paying attention to my Cafurty Telephone Piggy Bank. It was filled with a few paise and stacks of crinkled rupees. Even though the money in there could barely afford a piece of bubblegum, I cherished that red telephone piggy bank with all of my five-year-old heart. As I prayed with clasped hands, I peeked protectively over to it to make sure the money was still in there.

On the warm marble floor of the pooja room, I sat patiently and watched my aunt continue to decorate the goddess with the finest silks and jewelry. The faint scent of kumkum hovered in the air as she applied the paste to my forehead. I crinkled my nose and watched the vermillion powder fall. Soon my empty hands were filled with one coconut and two pink roses. I bowed my head as I placed the offerings at Lakshmi Devi’s feet.

My aunt told me to pray sincerely. I prayed. For what — I had no clue.

New Brunswick, New Jersey 2020 
11:20pm

I haven’t thought about seeking help from the gods and goddesses in over a decade. It was terribly easy to forget my faith after moving to the United States. I clasped my hands when my mother told me to. I went to temples with my family, aimlessly circling around the black and gold figures, listening to the pandits, the mantra… hardly feeling anything.

My mind was occupied. With doubt. With unholy thoughts. With logic.

For the better half of my college career, I decided to retrace my steps — back to the exact moment where I had left my religious affirmations. Perhaps I relinquished my sense of faith when I watched good people from my life vanish from this world far too early. Perhaps it was the moment I realized prayers alone to the countless avatars of powerful deities and saints could not bring back the people that I had lost.

So I told myself: “Why believe in something that doesn’t exist?”

What is the point, exactly? 

Like identity and culture, I grew up questioning my faith.

Sai Datta Peetham, New Jersey 2010
10:00am 

The Sai Baba temple we frequented was not the most elaborate or glamorous temple but this was where my parents felt the most secure. There were a dozen other Telugu families at the temple and we would all sit on the faded carpet, eat our prasadam and pray.

It was there where I realized the process of devotion in Hindu culture had no agency. There was no structure or script. We were all practicing our faith independent of each other.

“Make sure to pray hard. Sai Baba will see you only if you see Him. He will answer all of your wishes.”

“What did you wish for?” I asked my mother.

She looked down at me and carefully placed the vibhuti on my forehead and neck.

“For everyone to be happy and healthy.”

What a hopeless, vague prayer, I thought. None of this is real. We are in control of our own happiness and health. 

New Brunswick, New Jersey 2020 
1:30am

The miniature bronze figure of Lord Ganesha stared back at me across my shelf. He sat perched on top of a family picture frame. Sometimes as a kid, I would talk to Him. I never really wished for anything substantial… just good grades and maybe a new pair of shoes.

Now at twenty-one years old, I wanted to feel something — anything. I was tired of logic and science. For the past few years, I found myself at a standstill with my wavering faith. Call it what you will. Existential crisis. Panic. Spiritual Awakening. I knew I wanted to pray again. To who? It did not matter. I wanted to find meaning in it again. I wanted what my mother had. I wanted what my aunt had.

And to be clear, I was not looking for God. I was not trying to understand God. I guess… the point of it all was to instill this notion of unconditional hope in someone that did not exist in this material world.

I just never thought it would be so hard to firmly believe in something other than myself.

 

__

Glossary:

*Kumkum – red turmeric powder used for making the distinctive Hindu mark on the forehead.
*Lakshmi Devi – the Hindu goddess of wealth, good fortune, prosperity, and beauty.
*Lord Ganesha – the elephant-headed God that is widely revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences and the deva of intellect and wisdom.
*Pooja – is a prayer ritual performed in the morning by Hindus to offer devotional worship to one or more deities, to host and honour a guest, or to spiritually celebrate an event.
*Prasadam – a material substance of vegetarian food that is a religious offering in both Hinduism and Sikhism.
*Sai Baba – an Indian spiritual master who is regarded by his devotees as a saint and a fakir.
*Vibhuti – the sacred ash which is made of burnt dried wood in Āgamic rituals.

 

__

Featured Artwork by Akshay Varaham