|Interior of Sikh Temple, Richmond Hill, Queens|
Standing next to his uncle in the kitchen of the Govinda Café in Richmond Hill, Claude slices sandwiches into triangular pieces while explaining why the deities, Krishna and his brother Balarama, are not on display today. “They’re being painted. Their eyes,” he says, pointing to the temple room where clearly the curtain has been drawn. Steve explains to me that when the deities are being prepared no one is allowed to look upon them except their caretakers. Hare Krishna devotees believe that the statues of the deities on display in their temples are manifestations of the God himself. This concept makes me a little uncomfortable. I am used to images and statues in churches and in a holy place. In Greek Orthodox Christianity, icons, or images of the saints and God are venerated as physical portals into the divine. To pray to the icon is to pray through a window peering into the divine. The Hare Krishna devotees feel their holy places are graced by divinity itself. Not only that, but they offer food to the deities every day. “Krishna eats first,” one devotee explains, “then we wash our hands and eat.”
Claude smiles as he finishes up preparing the sandwiches. All the food prepared in the café is vegetarian. To eat meat is a profanity against Krishna. God is in the food. God is in the strawberry flavored chai. God is in the people around us. The panentheism the devotees profess is dogmatic. To think of anything in the material world as not made of God is tantamount to heresy. “God is in everything,” Claude says, smiling again, “even in the prasadam” (the name for the food offered to the gods). I buy an iced Snapple for two dollars.
Steve tells me he wants to take me to the Sikh temple two blocks away. We say our goodbyes to Claude and his uncle, disappointed that we can not see the deities. Claude says to us, “You go to the Sikh temple. It’s dirty.” Later I ask why the Sikh temple is considered dirty. Steve explains to me that the Sikhs are a syncretic faith combining both elements of Hinduism and Islam. The women do not cut their hair. Nor do the men. And some do not bathe as frequently as is customary in the West. The Sikh are from the Punjab region of India. Their language is Sanskrit. It does not have the same lilt as Hindi; as I am used to hearing Claude and Sham speak two blocks away. I am struck by Claude’s discriminatory remark but assume it is only natural to want to criticize a faith that is so similar to your own but marked by different customs. It is similar to the attitude of Protestant Christians and Catholic Christians or Hasidim and Orthodoxy in Judaism.
Passing in front of the “Punjabi Bride” shop, the colors of the dresses tell a story of attention to imagery. The Sikh seem to marry the imagistic imagination of Hinduism with the cold monotheism of Islam. While the women’s dresses are colorful and bombastic, the interior of the Baba Makham Shah Lubana Sikh temple (or gurdwaras, as it is known here) is blue and muted. In front of the temple portico, men discuss with each other in their own tongue; I am not privy to what they say. Loudspeakers mounted onto the outside walls project the religious chant being sung inside. Steve and I take off our shoes before entering the temple. “Cover your head with a bandanna,” Steve tells me, “You can’t go into the temple with your head bared.”
I take my shoes off and place them in a cubby hole. Men, women, and children come in to take off their shoes. No one bothers the other. A man sits next to me slowly taking off his shoes. I notice no one stares at me. I am immediately aware that I am not seen as an outsider. In fact, no one asks me why I am here or whether or not I believe. The temple is open twenty-four hours a day. The poor and homeless often come to seek shelter and food. Seated behind the Sikh holy book, men take turns reading from the sacred texts non-stop, day and night. I follow Steve's lead. Bowing to the book, I think of my own love for books and wonder if it is the same thing. I do not worship the physical book, but merely its contents. And even then, I am trained to be critical of what I read, and never take anything as absolute truth. Again, I feel out of place, but no one reads my mind nor do they ask me of my convictions.
Steve says hello to those he knows and introduces me as his friend the philosopher. I stand up and Steve suggests I partake of cereal food given to me by a Sikh holy man. The sweet cereal paste is moist and delicious. I thank him and he nods. Mothers sit with their children in the temple area. One smacks her child on the behind gently so he won’t roam the temple area. Older men sit with each other and listen to the readings uttered in monotonous glory. Younger adolescents with turbans but wearing Westernized T-shirts and shorts enter the temple and sit. The space is peaceful. The word that comes to mind is non-judgmental. Although I read about a recent brawl in front of the temple only a few weeks ago, today, there is no hint of animosity or discontent. What the people do here everyday is interwoven into the fabric of their everyday life. The holy man serving me the cereal paste most likely has a job, maybe it is an electrician or building contractor. He dedicates time to serve God in this temple. Steve and I sit in silence for one minute. At the most. Getting antsy, we both get up to be served prasadam.
Entering the serving area adjacent to the temple space, a few dozen Sikh eat prasadam. Portraits of Sikh gurus adorn the walls. One is decapitated and holds his own head. Another is a photography. A more recent holy man. A gentle West Indian from Guyana serves Steve and I. He speaks to me in Hindi. I say I do not understand. He then speaks to me in broken English. “I go to the Krishna temple too. But I come here.” Steve tells me he recognizes him from the Hare Krishna Temple. I ask him if it is okay that I eat the prasadam even though I am not an adherent of Sikhism. “God is in everything,” he says simply. That seems a simple enough answer. There is no hint of proselytizing. The Sikh have carved out a space for themselves in a small pocket of New York City adjacent to the A train in Richmond Hill, Queens. I sense a strong familial bond between the people. Outsiders are not a threat because amongst themselves there is a strong sense of communal identity. The caste system already dictates the place of people in society. There is no equivocation about one’s place in the world. Ostensibly, everyone is aware of their place. Any tension or anxiety about who they are and what they espouse as belief is not present in these believers. The melody of the chant echoes through the serving room. The male voice is quite beautiful, sung with his whole body.
As I eat the prasadam: the dahl, the sappu, the biryani rice, I recollect the fact that I have not eaten meat for a week since hanging out with Steve. Am I becoming a believer again? To me, Krishna is a concept. God is a difficult concept. Krishna, Vishnu, Jesus, Balarama. All ways to articulate a concept that is abstract and hard to grasp. I can relate to the need to arrive at a temple like the one I sit in today. But I do not feel the conviction to go beyond God as a concept that is difficult to reason. Maybe impossible. For many here maybe there is no need to go beyond belief. To sit at the podium in the center of the temple and chant holy songs is as natural as combing the lice out of your son’s matted hair, or rising early to water your garden before the sun’s heat becomes too intense. One thing I envy is the eagerness I experience here. There is no apparent worry about the “why” or the “how.”
By 10:00 PM the temple becomes crowded. A young man with his hair bundled into his headdress sings to himself. A more urban male play fights with his buddy in the lobby. Two young women dust the benches in the portico. Two older men read the news. Steve and I wash our hands again. I drink warm brown chai. It is hot to my lips. My stomach is sated. I yearn for something. But I do not quite know. I know I do not have the faith to believe. But I envy belief. I envy faith. Steve drives me to the train station. “Roselli,” he says, “You were not out of place in the temple. You didn’t look anxious at all. Some people I take there are anxious at first. Not you.” I smile and suggest that I have traveled a bit so I am used to differences in culture. But, I say, it is also because the Sikh temple is inviting and the people kind.
Would you like to read more? Fetch Greig Roselli's book of essays, Things I Shouldn't Have Said (And Other Faux Pas) for more good writing, dammit.
photo credits: steve e.