So this has been a Ganesha-kind of week. (Who or what is a Ganesha? You’ll find out later)
First, Thursday, a couple of good friends of mine and I are meeting at Pieology (pizza place extraordinaire) to discuss plans of ways to strengthen and encourage leaders. As we are in line ordering the things that each of us want on our pizza, I see the guy helping us has a long tattooed line of script on his arm. It looks something like this:
वक्रतुण्ड माहाकाय सूर्यकोटि समः प्रभः
So, being the curious person I am I asked, “So I know that on your arm is not Arabic, but what language is that?
“Sanskrit” is his one-word reply. Silence. He keeps working on our pizzas.
“So…what does it mean?” I ask, determined to keep up this conversation.
“It is a prayer to Ganesha.”
“The elephant-god Ganesha?” I ask.
His eyes dart up and meet mine. “Yes, the elephant-headed god” he says tentatively.
“I teach Asiatic religions at a couple of universities. I know about Ganesha.” I say, trying to get him to say more.
“Basically it means, ‘Oh Lord Ganesha, move all obstacles from my way’”.
“You have obstacles?” I ask.
He doesn’t go there.
“So you go to temple on occasion?” was my next attempt to engage him. I know that there are several Hindu temples in the Portland area, including two in Tigard.
“No.” is his one word reply and he pointedly moves down the row to help other people with their pizzas.
OK….so I tried.
And then Saturday evening, I was driving on US-26 out to preach for the Saturday night service at North Plains Christian Church, as I do most Saturday nights. The traffic gets jammed up around the Helvetia Road/Brookwood Parkway exit (for those of you who know US-26 west of Portland). It is never backed up at 5:30 on a Saturday night going west. Sometimes the east bound lanes are jammed with people coming back from a day at the coast or in the mountains, but not the west-bound lanes.
But as I move over in the left land to pass the line of slow moving vehicles, I see that this line of slow-moving cars is following a pickup with something in it. Looks like something from a parade, perhaps. The closer I get, I realize that riding in the back of this orange open-bed U-Haul pickup is a 6-7’ statue of Ganesha!
(The local motto is “Keep Portland Weird”, but frankly even in Portland, it isn’t every day you see a parade of cars following a statue of an elephant headed Hindu god going down the highway with streamers flying off of the statue.)
Suddenly several things come to mind: I knew that this was “Ganesha Katurthi,” one of the most important holidays for worshipers of the god Ganesha. It is a ten day festival dedicated to Ganesha and asking (like the tattoo that I saw) that all obstacles to their projects would be removed.
I happened to be checking recently on when Diwali (another major Hindu religion) was celebrated this year & was reminded that Ganesha Katurthi was happening about now. (BTW: Diwali is Oct 30 this year, so buy your Diwali gifts early to avoid the last minute rush) I also remembered that there was a new Hindu temple being built at the intersection of US26 and Glencoe Rd. (the turn off for North Plains). And as I approached that intersection, sure enough, there were a whole bunch of cars sitting on the empty field where the temple is going to be built.
Well, I needed to get to my responsibilities, so I went on, but made a mental note: I gotta check this out afterwards.
So church was done and I headed home, but I texted my wife that I had a stop to make. I drove past the freeway to the exit for the field and turned in. It appeared that whatever had happened there was pretty much closing down. Families were loading up grandma and the kids and putting what looked like dishes from a pot-luck dinner in their vans & cars were leaving. Kids were running and playing tag in the field, some boys, in full Indian dress were climbing some trees along the outer edge. But, there was no sign of the festive U-Haul pickup or of the statue of Ganesha. I was curious.
People looked at me strangely. First I was not in appropriate Indian dress, plus I was the only Anglo person to be seen. But, being the buffoon that I can be, I engaged a couple of different guys in conversation, and all they would say was that Ganesha was down in the water. (Water? What water? This was a big dry field).
I meandered on over to where the center of activities was (or had been) and introduced myself to another man. Every person I met was very cautious & reserved at first, but when I engaged them they became very animated and friendly.
Suddenly out of a crowd I saw a young man I had seen before…he was the guru of the temple that was being built and was in brightly colored robes. He had made a presentation to the North Plains Chamber of Commerce back in Spring of 2015 about the proposed temple. (drawing picture to the right). The church in North Plains had asked me to attend. The man was distinctive enough looking then that I immediately recognized him.I introduced myself and told why I was there. He (and everyone) were glad to explain.
He seemed surprised that I knew we were in Ganesha Katurthi (I think that softened them up). They all laughed when I said how surprised I was to see Ganesha traveling down US26. Today was the final day of their celebration of Ganesha Katurthi. And as they were actively working to build the temple, they wanted (and needed) Ganesha to remove all obstacles before them. It was sort-of a blessing of the land. Usually a statue of Ganesha is taken into a holy river near where the temple is going to be built and immersed in the water. But this was a dry field. So (I was told) “Ganesha had dug a big hole in the field”, and when they “found it” they knew they needed to fill it with water and immerse Ganesha in it. (“You use what you have…” one smiling man said sheepishly). And it was then that I saw what looked like a big pit covered by a black tarp. “Is Ganesha under the tarp,” I asked? “Yes,” they all said nodding and smiling.
The statue when it arrived had been immersed down in the water. The kids had been making clay statues of Ganesha and they also placed those in the water.
The priest/guru said, “Ganesha will always be here.” I asked, whether there also be a statue of Ganesha in the temple. He looked horrified that I would think otherwise: “Of course! Of course!” he exclaimed.
Suddenly some people came up and gave him two apples and a paper towel. He turned to me and said, “Here are apples from our native country. They are yours as our guest. And (in the paper towel) here is a sweet [looked like a round loose pastry] made out of chickpea and sugar, for you.” (an internet search after I got home told me that it was probably a ladoo.) (http://www.vegrecipesofindia.com/ladoo-recipes/).
After asking permission to try it, I ate the sweet… and it was really, really good.
I wanted to ask if I could go over, lift the tarp & take a picture of Ganesha in the water, but was fearful of being disrespectful.
I gave the guru my card and said I would love to visit some time and I made my retreat as they continued to load tables & chairs in a van and close down their Ganesha Katurthi blessing of their new temple site.
Life can be interesting. I have no interest in becoming a Hindu and worshiping an elephant-headed god who digs holes in fields. But the chance to interact with people who think differently than I do and learn about what is important to them will hopefully give me the chance someday to share what is important to me and the faith that I hold.