WEST PEORIA — Peoria is not a convenient place for Gokul Hareendran to live — his job requires him to fly a lot. But he and his wife Ashwini chose to raise their children here because of The Hindu Temple of Central Illinois.
“If not for this temple, we would have gone to live in a city with a bigger airline hub,” Gokul said.
Gokul and Ashwini discovered the temple shortly after moving to Peoria from India in 2007. It provided a much needed piece of home.
“One Sunday we decided to go to the temple. We were shocked. People were speaking our language, and doing things that we normally do,” recalled Gokul. “They look at you like they’ve known you for a long time, they are part of the family already. You are at home there.”
While many large cities have Hindu temples, the Hindu Temple of Central Illinois is different, Gokul said.
“I’ve been to a couple of temples in big cities. Chicago is the one that I go to the most. The food is awesome, but I never could bond to the temple,” he said. “It is just money driven — you pay money, you get this prayer done. Here, in this temple, it’s very unique. It’s very informal here.”
At the West Peoria temple, worshipers are allowed to dress the gods during ceremonies, something that is usually only done by a priest, said Gokul. He also likes the fact that all the different Hindu traditions are represented.
“My wife and I speak totally different languages. My culture is different from her culture, but we are both Hindu. The temple, they celebrate all festivals — my festival, her festival,” he said.
In India, most temples are devoted to a single god, a single Hindu denomination, said Prakash Babu, one of the temple’s founders, while sitting in the temple recently. But since it takes a lot of people to support a temple, the founders — themselves quite diverse — knew they had to appeal to all Hindu traditions for the temple, which opened in 1999, to be viable financially.
“The diversity in India is immense, not just in faith, but also in languages,” Babu said. “There are 850 languages and dialects in India, and 14 official languages.”
All 14 of those languages are spoken by expatriate Indians living in central Illinois.
“The only way we can all communicate is English,” said Babu’s wife, Ratna. The temple’s two priests, however, are multi-lingual. They speak Hindi, the national language of India, all the languages of southern India, and English.