Recently, a map put together by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies showed which religious traditions have the second-highest number of members in each state.
In Arizona, behind Christianity comes Hinduism. We spoke to Caleb Simmons, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Arizona, about religious affiliations in Arizona and whether there’s anything about the state that would make it more diverse from the standpoint of faith.
After speaking with Simmons, I visited some members of the Hindu community at the Ekta Mandir temple here in Phoenix to learn a little bit more about the religion and how it’s practiced.
When I got there, I was greeted by Uma Raman, a 20-year-old woman who has been volunteering at the temple and in the community for some time. Once I took off my shoes and she showed me through the front door, I immediately noticed the strong smell of incense, and the sound of prayers being chanted.
The temple is gorgeous and opulent. The floors appeared to be made of smooth, light-colored stone. Beyond the entrance way is a large, open room with chairs in the back and a raised section starting in the middle. That’s where there were two priests leading rituals – or puja. Sitting on rugs around them were a few dozen devotees who are getting ready to make a pilgrimage to a Hindu holy site in Tibet – Mount Kailash. Nearby was a plate of ritual offerings including bananas and rose petals.
And just beyond where the rituals were taking place were a number of shrines that featured different deities – which are statues of the Hindu incarnation of God, in different forms.
Uma and five other community members who worship at the Ekta Mandir temple and are part of the Indo American Cultural and Religious Foundation met with me in a room just behind this area. They spoke about what Hinduism is to them, and how it’s practiced. They explained that Hinduism is an ever evolving, individualistic belief system that is more a way of life than anything else.
“The ultimate core belief of Hinduism is that there is one ultimate, supreme formless God represented in the syllable “ohm” which we often say – you might hear in meditation and things like that. And that this God is – pervades throughout the universe and is in every living being in all matter and to represent this formless, abstract God we worship these several different forms of this God as different deities that you see in the temple.”
“Hinduism is not really any religion. It is the name that is there for Hinduism is dharma. Dharma means duty. And the duty of any human being – that’s what the principles of Hinduism give. So if you look at it as ever evolving – as time goes by, you come into new relationships and everything – and this religion will just adjust to it, you know, so that basically the idea being that you are doing good deeds towards your fellow mankind and any living being, or for example earth or the universe. Every person – if he follows the principles of Hinduism – is a Hindu. If you – you don’t have to convert to Hinduism. It’s a way of life. So if you follow the principles of being honest, being – whatever the different forms can be, you know, if you follow that, you are a Hindu.”
“You don’t need to go to the temple. A lot of people do have a small temple in their own home where they can pray and take care of the daily things. You don’t have to run to this place if you live 30 miles from here every day to pray. Many people have deities installed in their home that they can do the same rituals at their home without any – in the comfort of their home.”
“God could be in you, in me, in our parents, teachers, and in the different forms.”
One of the things they explained to us is that Hinduism is not a hierarchical religion. Still, there are priests who are responsible for performing certain rituals.
Priest Hari Joshi said priests are responsible for leading worship and prayer with a variety of activities, including things like marking a child’s first haircut.
And as I mentioned before, one of the things he and one other priest were doing that day was leading rituals and prayers for a number of devotees who are making a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash – a holy site in Tibet.
The group’s leader is Ashok Tripathi. He says that the group will hike around the 32 kilometers holy site – which is no small feet given its location and elevation.
“So from Kathmandu we can drive all the way up to 900 kilometers. So you can – we drive to a place called Kodari, which is where we switch the border between Nepal and Tibet. We go to a place called Nyalam. And Nyalam starts at 12,000 feet. So we all did a hike on Mt. Humphreys. And everybody was like huffing and puffing and we did great at getting to the top and I said – this is a great achievement, you know, how we get from the valley up to Mt. Humphreys, it’s difficult. Nyalam starts at 12,000 – and then you go up.”
One unique thing about the group Ashok is leading and the Ekta Mandir temple, is that it includes people from all different parts of India, and incorporates different customs that often vary regionally. In fact the two priests I met, Hari Joshi and Sudharshana Reaghava Bhatt, were from different regions, and chanted for us a mantra in the way that each of them is accustomed to.
Ekta Mandir is one of around a dozen Hindu temples in the Phoenix area that collectively serve the growing number of Hindus in the Valley.