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By Chandler Padgett
(Tuscaloosa is a town in Alabama state in USA. Located approximately 60 miles from Birmingham, it has a population of about 95,000.- NewsGram)
Nagaraj and his wife kneel before an altar in their apartment, chimes ringing in the air. Laden with colorful deity figurines and ornate art, the altar, or mandir, acts as a small temple for the Hegdes and a vital aspect of their religion, Hinduism.
Unlike the many churches that fill the Tuscaloosa landscape, the approximately 400 Indians (many of whom are Hindu) primarily worship at small mandirs in their own homes, as mass gathering is not emphasized.
“A mandir is a place where we can surrender our mind, it’s a small set-up, this home is an extension of the temple,” said Nagaraj Hegde, UA Vedic Society president and a Ph.D. student. “Even though the television waves are everywhere, we still need a TV set to capture it and play it back. We understand that divinity is everywhere, but these are concentrated forms where the deity is present.”
“We offer prayers, we worship them,” Hegde said. “We offer the food, whatever we eat, before, to the divine beings, pray to them please will you accept it, and we will take the remnants.”
In addition to domestic mandirs, there is a modest temple in Tuscaloosa and a larger one in Birmingham, which has a larger population of Hindus. People gather there every Sunday.
“Once in a week it’s good to meet each other,” said Parnab Das, a Ph.D. student at the University. “They give good, home-cooked vegetarian food. We do a small worship service, and we discuss things from our scriptures. We try to discuss not only religious things. We try to discuss social things going on in this world. Just try to inspire each other what we should and should not do in our life.”
Though a mere fraction of the population, Indians in Tuscaloosa are a close group kept together through cultural practice and traditions.
“We are very much closely bound,” said Vaishali Batra, president of the Indian Student Association of Tuscaloosa and Ph.D. student. “We do a lot of events together, a lot of social gatherings together. We always make it a point that we get together on Indian cultural festivals. We also meet the senior citizens and families, so we are very well-knit in Tuscaloosa.”
As is natural with intercultural interaction, Hindus in Tuscaloosa sometimes have to deal with misconceptions and misunderstandings from Americans and other non-Indians, such as the name Hindu itself. Most likely coined by Persians, Hindu merely referred to people living on the Sindhu River. The original name of the religion is Sanatana Dharma.
“Sanatana means eternal and Dharma means law or the way, so Sanatana Dharma means the eternal way or eternal law of being close to God,” Das said.
Even then, Das clarifies that Hinduism is more of a way or law of life than a religion.
Das and Nagaraj Hegde have faced some negative experiences during their time as students here as well.
“I was being asked by one of my lab mates that after death, if I go to hell because I am not a Christian, and it is being written in the Bible that if you are not a Christian you go to hell, what will I do?” Das said. “So I said, then I will go to hell, what else can I do? If God cannot see the deeds which I have done in my life, if God cannot see my love towards him, if God cannot see my dedication towards him, if still he asks me to go to hell because I am not a Christian, then I have to go to hell.”
Nagaraj Hegde shared a similar story.
“Once, four years ago, we were singing Indian kirtan on Manderson Landing, and within 5 minutes, someone said you can’t do it here,” Hegde said. “But it’s really improved a lot. Last year, every single Thursday in the summer, we have done it and nobody bothered us.”
The positive change in the past few years hints at some of the positive relationships Hindus have in the community. For example, Hegde’s Vedic Society seeks to educate Americans and other non-Indians about Hindu and Indian traditions and beliefs like yoga, meditation and universal harmony.
“I try my best to present the real knowledge without adding my own interpretations and present the knowledge as Krishna presented it,” Hegde said. “We try to bring about harmony in this world. We get Christians, we get Muslims, we get atheists, every type of person, and we don’t exclude against anybody.”
Some new international students struggle to become acclimated to Alabama and find their way around, especially since few have cars. Batra and ISAT seek to help with that.
“Our organization on campus is about uniting people and helping new students as well as the older students to settle down here or to help them with the basic things they need in the beginning or give them campus tours,” Batra said. “And this organization is about organizing Indian festivals so that students can have the feel of home when they are away from home.”
Hindus and Indians have formed a community in Tuscaloosa that maintains cultural and religious ties while simultaneously interacting with and befriending others across the city.
“Initially it was hard, it was very hard, but once I started the Vedic Society meetings then I made such wonderful friends, such nice people I could never imagine, I feel at home,” Hegde said. “I have many nice friends. There are nice people everywhere. You just have to go and find them. You think ‘oh this is bible belt they will be close-minded,’ but that’s not a fact.”
Diwali is arguably one of the most auspicious and celebrated holidays in South Asia. It is celebrated over the span of five days, where the third is considered most important and known as Diwali. During Diwali people come together to light, lamps, and diyas, savour sweet delicacies and pray to the lord. The day has various origin stories with the main them being the victory of good over evil. While the North celebrates the return of Lord Rama and Devi Sita to Ayodhya, the South rejoices in the victory of Lord Krishna and his consort Satyabhama over evil Narakasura.
Narakasura- The great mythical demon King
Naraka or Narakasur was the son of Bhudevi (Goddess Earth) and fathered either by the Varaha incarnation of Vishnu or Hiranyaksha. He grew to be a powerful demon king and became the legendary progenitor of all three dynasties of Pragjyotisha-Kamarupa, and the founding ruler of the legendary Bhauma dynasty of Pragjyotisha.
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Narakasura was created, grew up to be strong and powerful but he was not satisfied with it, so he decided that he would worship Lord Brahma. He performed severe penance and was driven by the power of his penance; Lord Brahma appeared before him. Narakasura knew his mother loved him dearly so he asked Lord Brahma to grant him a boon that he would only die by the hands of his mother, Bhumidevi. Lord Brahma smile and ultimately granted him the boon.
Narakasura burst out laughing as Lord Brahma vanished. He thought no mother would kill their child so Lord Brahma had made him immortal. Drunk and maddened by his own power Narakasura brought all the kingdoms under his control and targeted Swargalok (Heaven). Even Indra (King of Gods) and demi-gods had to retreat in front of Narakasura. He kidnapped and took 16,000 women from the palaces as prisoners. Troubled by Naraksura's deeds the gods rushed to Lord Vishnu for a solution.
Lord Krishna and Devi Satyabhama were born to kill Narakasura
Lord Vishnu was born as Lord Krishna and Narakasura's mother Bhumidevi took the avatar of Krishna's wife Satyabhama. As Satyabhama, Bhumidevi was unaware of the knowledge of Naraksura being her son. Aditi the mother of all gods approached Satyabhama crying for help with bloodied ears as Narakasura had torn off the glowing earrings from the ears of Aditi.
Satyabhama was furious on gaining the knowledge of Narakasura's atrocities she asked Krishna to fight the demon king while she fights alongside him. Krishna agreed and they attacked the great fortress of Narakasura, riding his mount Garuda with his wife Satyabhama.
The furious battle unleashed. Krishna defeated Narakasura's general Mura and came to be known as Murari (the killer of Mura). Narakasura used several divine weapons against Krishna, but Krishna slew all those weapons effortlessly. The demon hurled a shakti towards Krishna, which mildly hurt Krishna and he fell unconscious. Upon this sight Satyabhama was enraged, she furiously pulled out a weapon of her own and hurled it at Narakasura's chest. Anxious Satyabhama turned to her fallen Lord, Krishna got up with a smile and he was completely fine. He was only playing his part. It was Satyabhama who was an incarnation of Bhoomidevi, whose hands were destined to slay Narakasura.
ALSO READ: Choosing Environment-Friendly Diwali
Lord Krishna and Goddess Satyabhama had put an end to the Narakasura's kingdom of evil. As Narakasura lay on his deathbed he realised that Satyabhama was no one but an avatar of his own mother. He requested a boon from his mother, for no one to mourn his death. Instead, he wished for people to celebrate it with light and colours. They freed the 16,000 women who later married Lord Krishna to restore them of their honour in society, retrieved Mother goddess's earrings. This day is celebrated as 'Naraka Chaturdashi' popularly known as Choti Diwali - the day before Diwali as the triumph of good over evil.
Keywords: Diwali festival, goddess Laxmi, demon king, Lord Krishna, Satyabhama, the festival of light, Naraksura, Narak Chaturdashi
For all the great inventions that we have at hand, it is amazing how we keep going back to the safety pin every single time to fix everything. Be it tears in our clothes, to fix our broken things, to clean our teeth and nails when toothpicks are unavailable, to accessorize our clothes, and of course, as an integral part of the Indian saree. Safety pins are a must-have in our homes. But how did they come about at all?
The safety pin was invented at a time when brooches existed. They were used by the Greeks and Romans quite extensively. A man named Walter Hunt picked up a piece of brass and coiled it into the safety pin we know today. He did it just to pay off his debt. He even sold the patent rights of this seemingly insignificant invention just so that his debtors would leave him alone.
Anyone wearing safety pins that were visible began to be associated with the rock movement in the 70s. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Later, he even invented the sewing needles and a couple of other important inventions but never kept any of the patent rights.
When the punk rock tradition took over in the seventies, safety pins became a fashion rage. They were used as piercings and to patch clothes together. Anyone wearing safety pins that were visible began to be associated with the rock movement. In some cultures, the safety pins have become symbols of good luck.
Keywords: Safety-pins, Punk Rock, Brass, Accessories, Walter Hunt
In South India, Deepavali marks the end of the monsoon and heralds the start of winter. The festival is usually observed in the weeks following heavy rain, and just before the first cold spell in the peninsula. The light and laughter that comes with the almost week-long celebration are certainly warm to the bones, but there is still a tradition that the South Indians follow to ease their transition from humidity to the cold.
Just before the main festival, the family bathes in sesame oil. This tradition is called 'yellu yennai snaana' in Kannada, or 'ennai kuliyal' in Tamil, which translates to 'sesame oil bath'. The eldest member of the family applies three drops of heated oil on each member's head. They must massage this oil into their hair and body. The oil is allowed to soak in for a while, anywhere between twenty minutes to an hour. After this, they must wash with warm water before sunrise.
Women applying oil to the heads of men Photo credit: Indians in Kuwait
In some parts of the peninsula, soap is not used to wash off the oil because it nullifies its effects. Some cultures who do not like the oil to remain in any way on their skin wash it off with shikakai and herbs, which is a paste that is traditionally used as a substitute for soap. Sometimes, the oil is heated with flowers and spices as well and is less sticky than in its pure form.
The purpose of this ritual is to cleanse the body, detoxify it, and produce heat in it. Sesame is a very heaty substance and tends to heat up the body. This heat, or 'usshna' in Kannada, prepares the body to face the sudden cold that comes to the peninsula immediately after Diwali. South India has no smooth transition weather-wise from monsoon to winter. There are a few days of stable, rainless weather, and suddenly the cold winds descend.
In many ways, the celebration of Diwali is centered around preparing for winter, considering the amount of heat and light the rituals consist of – lighting lamps, bursting crackers, and consuming warm treats. Those who practice these rituals earnestly find the shift in seasons and weather quite pleasant.
Keyboards: Sesame Oil Bath, Diwali Ritual, Traditional Sesame Oil Bath