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West Orange Times & Observer Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020 1 month ago

Temple brings Hindu community together in Oakland

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Shree Jalaram Mandir, a Hindu temple in Oakland, recently celebrated the manifestation of Saraswati — the Hindu goddess of knowledge and the arts.
by: Bianca Morales Intern

Tucked away in Oakland, a Hindu temple offers a home to willing devotees.

Hindu residents congregated at Shree Jalaram Mandir Saturday, Feb. 1, to celebrate the birthday of Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and the arts.

The Shree Jalaram Mandir, unlike many mandirs — or temples, is dedicated to a Hindu saint instead of a devi or deva — a goddess or god. That saint’s name was Jalaram Bapa — he was born a week after Diwali, the Hindu Festival of the Lights.

The temple in Oakland has been open to devotees for 10 years, but the group that attends is small and tight-knit.

Pandit Batuk Shukla officiated the Saturday service and expressed great respect and appreciation for Saraswati.

“The flowers bloom,” Shukla said, pressing his hands together and splaying his fingers outward like the petals of a blooming flower. “The trees give fruit because of Maa Saraswati Durga.”

A murti — an idol of a deity or religious character — of the goddess was placed in the middle of the hall so everyone could see her golden sitar, her blue sari, her loyal swan and her intelligent eyes. 

“Today is a very holy day,” Shukla said. “The birthday of Saraswati Mata.”

Women in colorful silks strung flowers into a mala — a garland of flowers and beads — and looped them around Saraswati’s neck in reverence. Decorating the murti is a symbol of respect.

This was all in preparation for the Saraswati Puja — the goddess’s “birthday party”.

Pujas, or poojas, are prayer rituals dedicated to deities in which offerings of money, fruits, desserts and flowers are presented as tokens of appreciation for blessings.

Kautuka — a red and yellow colored string — is tied around the puja participants’ wrists to protect the wearers against evil and negative energies. 

Dots of sindoor — a red cosmetic powder — are pressed onto the middle of the attendees’ brows as a symbol of the third eye chakra. 

Hindus believe that the third eye chakra, which could awaken during intense sessions of meditation, would bring them intuition and closer to Brahman, the ultimate reality. 

 

A CLOSE COMMUNITY  

From his chair among the crowd, Shukla gave out the order of procedures for the ritual. 

“Sister,” he said to one of the devotees participating in the ritual, giving her the kautuka. “Tie these around their wrists.”

Usually, women and men sit separately, but before Saraswati’s statue, they all sat together in mass adoration. 

“We prepare a seat for the goddess,” Shukla said, passing a leaf to one of the women. “Like when we welcome guests into our house.”

Toward the end of the ritual, parents and their children handed books and school supplies to the pandit — or priest — for a blessing from Saraswati.

One of these families was the Sadhu family. Ayangshi Sadhu and her parents, Madhebi and Arnab Sadhu, received the blessing of Saraswati when Shukla drew the symbol of the goddess on Ayangshi’s chalkboard with sindoor.

“We had a good time, offering to the goddess,” Madhebi Sadhu said.

She said that while it was the first time they visited the Shree Jalaram Mandir, they would like to return.

Saraswati Mata, as bestower of intelligence, holds a special place in their lives.

“We have a child, and we want Saraswati, the goddess of education, to bless her,” Arnab Sadhu said.

Monalisa Roy, another devotee, had been excited to celebrate Saraswati’s birthday.

“I have been fasting since the morning,” Roy said. 

Fasting allows the body to purify itself and prepare to receive blessings from the holy.

Roy said that, back in India, the little girls would wear saris — garments wrapped around the waist — to represent Saraswati. 

“This mandir is very good,” Roy said. “They’re welcoming and very friendly.”

Like in every birthday party, there’s conversation, laughter and sharing. 

At the back of the worship hall, the devotees sit by tables, enjoying the home-cooked meal prepared during the ritual. 

Bowls of yogurt were shared between family members, the scent of spices wafted through the air and children toted around the books that had been charged with Saraswati’s blessings. 

The temple creates an environment that resembles home. Roy said the other devotees are very friendly and welcoming. 

“My son loves to come here and play with friends at the mandir,” Roy said.

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