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Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago Hosts Maharudra Yagna: 3-Day Prayer for Peace


[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.


Are you the hero of your story?

A keynote I gave to the Golden Key National Honor Society UF Chapter in 2007.

I was asked here this evening to offer some advice about success. The thing of it is, planning for the success itself is easy. It’s pleasant to look forward to prosperity, respect, advancement. What’s hard is accepting, and even planning for, the setbacks and failures that are inevitably part of any well-lived life. If success is the opposite of failure, then is the key to success avoiding failure? How do you avoid failure? The answer: set very low expectations for yourself. Then you’ll find it easy to succeed and never fail. For example, I’ve set myself the goal of going home this evening and watching a rerun of The Simpsons. But, you may well point out, the Simpsons is on at 7:30 and this banquet may not end in time. But my friends, I TIVO’ed it. I’m going to watch it. Then I’m going to check it off my to-do list and sleep the sleep of the easily satisfied.

If I fill my weekly schedule with similar items, by Friday I’ll have checked off a long list of mundane and pointless tasks and feel ever-so accomplished and successful. I might similarly design a whole life in which my ladder to success is more of a gentle slope dotted with modest, easily reached milestones: have job most of the time, live in enclosed structure with indoor plumbing, enjoy relationship with not entirely repulsive significant other who is firmly resigned to the fact that I’m the best she can get.

Not the stuff of great novels, but entirely within my grasp. Not so bad, could certainly be worse. If this vision of a modest, easily-achieved, not entirely objectionable life doesn’t fire your imagination, ask yourself why. Why do we seek a life of challenge? Why flirt with risk? Why do we get inspired by quotes like the one from Helen Keller, who said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”? Is it ego? Do we all have an inner Napoleon or perhaps an inner Madonna who craves conquest and fame? Or is it something we needn’t judge so harshly? Is our ambition to succeed something that is good, not only for ourselves but for the world?

I think of the stories we tell ourselves and each other for inspiration. Rarely are they stories of prudence, modesty, and settling for what is practical. The great stories are always of heroes daring the impossible, or possibly impossible, enduring hardship and humiliation, growing and adapting with creativity and humor, but never, never giving up. Those are the stories we cherish. My friends, each of us is living a story, and I urge you to think about what sort of story you are living. Above all, ask yourself, am I the hero of my own life story?

I believe we all have a right to see ourselves as the heroes of our own life stories. Not the victim of circumstance, not a comic side character, not a villain waiting to be exposed, but the hero. When you think that way, you can remember that in every hero story, there are parts where the hero struggles: Cinderella sitting among the ashes, humiliated, alone, her true worth unrecognized. And you need that part of the story to be there. If the story went: Cinderella was popular, rich, and never had any problems, and then she met a prince and lived happily ever after—well, nobody wants to watch that movie! You might want to live it. But then again, deep down, no you wouldn’t. It’s the struggle that makes the success mean something. It’s the essential part of the story.

When a friend of mine was going through a severe illness, I shared this idea with her, and asked her to write the story of her life, but with her as the hero, not the victim. I wanted her to see that if you only look at the chapter in which the awful stuff is happening, you might see it as just an ugly, sad story of a victim suffering. She was living that chapter then, and you can imagine she felt like a victim. She felt like a failure. She asked “Why me?” as anyone would. But writing is wonderful therapy, and this time she rewrote her story, so that the horrible chapter she was going through—her body failing her, her husband leaving her, etc.—was part of a larger whole—a story of which she was the hero and, indeed, the author, or perhaps co-author.

I knew something interesting was happening when she asked if she could make the story an allegory, like a fable. I said sure. Then she said, and I quote, “Can I be a fairy princess?” Now, this is a high-powered executive, who lives in suits and leads a large organization. I knew something interesting was happening. When I read her story, it was funny and touching, but nearly half of it was very detailed descriptions of what she, as a fairy princess, would be wearing. I said, “This is mostly costume changes! What about the important stuff?”

To which she replied, “What I’m wearing is the important stuff!”

But there was also a plot, and though the events were the same, it had gone from the story of a victim suffering, to that of a hero struggling. That is the key difference. As I said, every great story has setbacks, heartaches, periods of great suffering. We put up with them because we know that at the end of the tale, those dark chapters lead to the eventual successes and without them, the hero’s successes wouldn’t mean anything.

When you are facing one of the dark chapters of your own life–and unless you set consistently low expectations for yourself, you will have dark chapters–remember that you have the choice, to see that episode as one of a victim suffering meaninglessly, or a hero struggling meaningfully and creatively in the midst of a noble quest. Have the courage to look at your so-called failures and setbacks and decide for yourself what they mean in the context of the larger story, a story of which you are the hero and the co-author. Then you can deal with those dark chapters in a way that respects your deepest values and your inner nobility.

I realize that what I’ve given you is advice on how to look at failure, when I was asked here to give you advice on success. So let me conclude with some advice on how to handle success, which I learned from my friend who said, “What I’m wearing is the important stuff.” My advice to you is, when success comes, as it will for all of you, people will want to take your picture, so make sure you look good. Iron your clothes, get your hair done, maybe get some of those tooth-whitening strips. Because people will look at the person in that picture, and they’ll think about your story, and then they’ll think about their own stories. Your story can inspire others to make their own stories great, even people you never meet. So that’s my advice on success: don’t just achieve it; achieve it with style. The hero of your story deserves nothing less.