“Hindus worship everything.” This is what Temple Advisor G.V. Naidu expressed when asked to describe Hinduism in as few words as possible. The Hindu Temple of Saint Louis and its followers have a significant impact on the religious aspect of Saint Louis through Hindu practices and culture. Hinduism is a way of life mostly in Southern Asia. It is "not a religion" according to G.V. Naidu, and is based primarily on eternal principles. There is no creation date for Hinduism and, according to Naidu, does not require a conversion -- one just follows whatever is comfortable for them. Those who practice this believe that "every religion is a different path," and it is one's own decision to choose which path to take. As opposed to Abrahamic religions, Hindus do not believe that humans are sinners because every person has some divinity within them.
This temple is considered an icon of St. Louis culture. It is a place for daily prayer, celebrations, and volunteer work. There is also a "Mahatma Gandhi Cultural Center" on the site which is dedicated to the famous Indian activist. Gandhi once said, "I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills". He is a historical figure that led the Indian independence movement against Britain's rule through non-violent acts. This temple is in a very affluent location in western St. Louis County with nearly 17,000 Hindus in the area. There are local visitors and donors from this area. It is one of three prominent religious spaces on Weidman Road, so it is not isolated, sharing a stretch of suburban road with a Catholic church and one of the city's largest mosques.
Hindus believe that there is one true god, the supreme spirit, Brahman. However, they do not assume the appearance of Brahman, as he/she/it comes in many different forms. Hindus are very open minded and believe that God pervades not just our planet, but is spread throughout the entire universe. Hindus believe that God is present in every living thing, which explains why many individuals don’t eat meat or hunt and kill animals. Since there is God present in animals, it is considered a sin, or negative karma, to harm them.
Hinduism is also very focused on Karma and reincarnation. Karma describes the principle of cause and effect. It is a value-neutral principle that exists in relation to action. Karma states that every mental, emotional, and physical act, will return to the individual with equal impact, either in this life or the next. Reincarnation is also a concept Hindus are very passionate about. It works like a cycle. If you were moral and good in this life, then the next life you will stay human and move another step closer to becoming one with divinity, which is the ultimate goal. Likewise, if you were immoral and bad in this life, then the next life you will be sent back to the animal/insect kingdom, placing you several steps down from becoming one with divinity.
The earliest time recorded when Hinduism came to the United States was around the early 1900s. Many Indians moved to America to escape the aftermath of demonstrations against Asian laborers in Bellingham, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia, in September 1907. Indian immigration to St. Louis began in the late 20th century, after the passage of the 1965 immigration act. The Hindu Temple of St. Louis and the adjacent Mahatma Gandhi Cultural Center were built in 1991, making it the largest and most complex focal point of Hinduism in the region.
This temple was built by Indian architects who were flown in from India with the task of creating, designing, and constructing all of the statues and structures by hand. This project included several large statues of deities, intricate marble pillars and a divine rooftop complete with statues of elephants and Gandhi outside the temple. Even with all of the intricacies in the design, the temple was started in the late 1980s and took many years to complete. The groundbreaking ceremony, which is a religious rite, took place on April 21st, 1990.
When attending the temple, there are many things to keep in mind. Dress codes, electronic rules, and housekeeping customs are strictly enforced. Hindus wear modest and clothing out of respect. No shorts, mini skirts, tight or promiscuous clothing are allowed. The temple is a place of worship, so it is important to show respect. It is expected to take off your shoes upon entering the temple. When it comes to electronics in the temple, it is necessary to put them away and keep them out of sight. There is absolutely no photography allowed inside the temple and there are no exceptions.
Another custom done at the Hindu Temple of St. Louis and other temples is ringing a bell when entering. This lets the priests know that someone is there and creates an “Om”. An Om is one of the most sacred symbols and icons in Hinduism. It is not necessarily a word, but a tone, similar to the strum of a guitar. It is believed to be the first sound created in the universe. Some believe that the repetition of the word “Om” can slow down the breathing and calm your body.
A walk through the temple always begins on far left side and is always done in a clockwise manner. It is required and respectful to walk in this manner. From a scientific point of view, this is done to move in the direction of the Earth's natural magnetic forces and to gain energy from it. It increases positive energy and peace not just in an individual, but throughout the entire temple as well.
Stopping in front of each statue is how Hindus pray and is done to give respect. Each statue represents a specific thing and individuals pray to these deities to help them in their everyday lives. Some Hindus leave a form of offerings in a tray or bucket that is set in front of the statues. Things such as coins, dollar bills, or even flowers are left in these places for gratitude.
When we asked tour guide G.V. Naidu what contributions the temple makes to the community, he started a list of things the temple and the people of the temple do to give back and help the community. The Hindu Temple of St. Louis is known for the countless ways that it gives back to the St. Louis community. They are welcoming to anyone, regardless of age, faith, ethnicity, or race. One form of charity that they carry out every year is their clothing drive. They have a clothing drop-box located in the parking lot outside of the temple and give all of the donations to people in need. With several of the returning visitors being doctors, the temple offers free health screenings for anyone that may not be able to afford it otherwise. There is also kitchen and eating area below the temple, which prepare fresh and authentic Indian cuisine for visitors and the hungry. Also open to everyone, they lead free relaxing yoga classes every Saturday morning to incorporate Hindu beliefs and fun.
Researched and written by Ajla Ahmetovic, Anna Grubmuller, Sarah Tiro, and Tara Frank.