[originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune]
Last weekend, the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago hosted a historic and massive three-day convocation to pray for world peace. Thousands from the Chicago area and around the world gathered for ancient Vedic ceremonies that transcended boundaries of religion, nationality, or gender and allowed devotees a rare and transcendental experience.
Thousands of devotees and hundreds of priests and scholars participated in the mass chanting of ancient prayers, culminating in Saturday’s Maharudram Yagna, a fire sacrifice whose history dates back 5000 years, but whose relevance to modern challenges and contemporary life could not be more profound.
Rudra, a deity first described in the Rig Veda, the world’s oldest scripture, appears on the surface as a storm god. But Rudra emerges in the scriptures as an embodiment of universal truth. He represents both the storms of life and our power to weather those storms and turn them into blessings.
The prayer addressed to him transforms into a deep meditation on the fundamentals of a conscious and compassionate life. Leading the chanting was a rare assemblage of 121 Ritwiks, scholars who have devoted themselves since childhood to the study of ancient Sanskrit scriptures and the performance of the elaborate rituals associated with them. These include the great yagnas, which involve offering oblations of clarified butter, symbolic foods, cloth, and therapeutic herbs into a sacred fire in precise unison with the chanting of Sanskrit verses.
The Maharudram event drew attendance and support from a vast array of local, national, and international spiritual, political, and community leaders, including Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami, the US-born spiritual head of Himalayan Academy, Hawaii; Swami Ishatmananda of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society, Chicago; Swami Ramanaswaroopananda of Atma Vidya Mandir, Tiruvannamalai; Sri Samaveda Shanmuka Sarma, Hyderabad; Swami Sharanananda, Chinmaya Mission, Chicago; and Sri Swami Adhyatmanandaji Maharaj, Sivananda Ashram, Ahmedabad. Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago President Bhima Reddy and Committee Chair Lakshman Agadi led the large congregation in honoring the visitors from India, Hawaii, and all over North America with fresh flower garlands and gifts, paying respect to their various religious orders.
Maharudram committee co-chairs Dr. Vijaya Sarma, Subrahmanian Sundaram, and Gopalakrishnan Kary, with the support of chair Lakshman Agadi, led dozens of volunteers and planned with the help of religious scholars for over a year to ensure that the ritual, the prayer, and the geometry of the sacred space itself remain virtually unchanged from yagnas performed millennia ago in ancient India. Dr. Sangita Rangala emceed, explaining the symbolism and significance and maintaining a positive and prayerful mood for the large gathering. Over a hundred children knotted traditional flower garlands and brought them in a procession to offer to the deity. The priests received them and used them to decorate the pyramid of 108 kalasams, silver pots decorated with coconuts, flowers, vermilion and sandalwood powder and symbolizing the cosmological elements of matter and energy out of which the universe manifests itself.
The Maharudra Yagna encompasses psychology, metaphysics, cosmology, and moral teachings. The event was a rare opportunity for children and families to witness heritage and history come to life.
However, this Maharudram Yagna, performed on a hillside in Lemont, Illinois, was not a recreation of a bygone era in a far-off land, but a living part of American Hindu spiritual life, as relevant and meaningful in 2015 as in the time of the ancient epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana. At the start of the day's ceremony, the priests led the assembled 2000-plus in Sanskrit prayers which listed the names of sacred places the congregation calls home. Along with the names of places in India and rivers like the Ganga, the priests chanted the names of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, Michigan and Alabama.
Friday’s events celebrated the power of women and girls, central to Hindu and Vedic philosophy. Nearly 1300 women and girls chanted in unison the Lalita Sahasranama, a poem listing the 1008 names of the Supreme Goddess, who embodies the essential power and love of the universe.
Seated row upon row in a sea of colorful silk and gold saris, the women and girls sat in front of small, individual statues of the Goddess and prayed and meditated as one. Men and boys volunteered with logistics or sat at the periphery joining in the prayers. At the front and projected on large screens, priests from Chicagoland and around the world led the recitation of the 1008 names, offering flowers and fruit to the statue of the Goddess, a symbolic representation of the divine feminine power, or Shakti.
A literary and spiritual masterpiece composed with perfect meter and no repetition, the Lalita Sahasranama uses the 1008 names to describe 1008 universal or divine qualities which are manifested in the world and in the individual. The vibrations of the chanting and its spiritual counterpart are said to have healing and liberating power for those who chant and listen.
The Lalita Sahasranama pooja, or offering of prayer, was preceded by a Gomata pooja, or worship of a cow and calf, which symbolize the loving and all-nurturing nature of the universe. Through symbol and ritual, devotees show gratitude to the universe which gives us everything we need to sustain our material and spiritual selves, just as a cow provides both the milk and the protection and love needed by her calf. Just as the calf grows to become a cow herself, we also seek to grow in our capacity to love and care for others.
In keeping with tradition, dozens of volunteers prepared thousands of fresh meals in the temple's kitchen, and the organizers donated to a local food pantry to feed thousands more. And in a sign that the event was truly a 21st century version of a 5000-year-old tradition, a quadricopter drone took aerial live streaming video and children got a 3D virtual walk through famous temples in India.
Sunday culminated with the Nava Chandi Homam, 14 simultaneous fire sacrifices with offerings of ghee, clarified butter, flowers, fruit, and special preparations of therapeutic herbs, seeds, and aromatic wood. Devotees chanted verses praising the feminine aspect of divinity, embodied as the Goddess. Seated in front of the priests' large fire pit in squares of 16 people around 13 smaller copper fire pits designed according to geometry prescribed in the Atharva Veda, worshippers praised the goddess's various qualities: she is omnipotent and terrible to those who would do harm, tender and all-protective to those who have faith and seek peace within and without.
Despite severe thunderstorms and flash floods, volunteers laid tarp and made emergency provisions so devotees could sit comfortably through the three-hour ceremony and focus their meditation on the 700 verses of the Devi Mahatmyam, one of the most treasured scriptures in praise of the Goddess.
The goddess in her multiple incarnations represents universal forces of power and compassion. When the forces of greed, exploitation, oppression, and patriarchy grow too great, the goddess manifests herself to destroy evil and restore harmony. Both a source of comfort and courage, the goddess also reflects our own power to overcome our weak tendencies and cultivate the inner power that lies beyond earthly fears and ambitions.
In Indian philosophy, the concept of God is of a truth that lies beyond gender, form, ethnicity, time, and space. Rather, this Ultimate Truth manifests itself as all these things. By realizing the oneness of all, we cultivate true happiness, the goal of all religions. The final pooja offering celebrated this union of Shiva and Shakti, Rudra and Devi, individual soul and universal consciousness. Whether it was the sweet fragrance of the smoke, the soothing sounds of the Sanskrit verses, or the way the sky cleared halfway through, the smiles and tears and rapt attention of the participants showed that the mood Sunday morning had turned to pure joy and togetherness.
Organizers had expressed their hope to the volunteers that those in attendance would not just be moved, but transformed. The original intent of the Maharudra Yagna is to transform the worshipper, to help him or her transcend fear and doubt, and it remains the same 5,000 years later: to help us discover the divinity within ourselves and each other, to empower us to face the storms of life with courage and faith, and to be peacemakers in our lives, in our communities, and on behalf of the whole world.