- With the exception of marriage ceremonies, temples have moved most of their activities online.
Religion by its very nature is a communal affair. Congregational worship and participatory rituals are the essence of every religion. It is not surprising, therefore, that the practice of religion has been severely affected by the onset of the Coronavirus. The lockdown and social distancing have dramatically impacted most activities that need religious sanction or rituals.
The Hindu temples across the country are no exception. Temples have had to reschedule services and improvise ways of conducting their activities and performing rituals to conform to the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC.
Performing marriages has been one of the most impacted religious ceremonies. Amidst all the limits on congregations and gatherings, with indoor events completely out of consideration, weddings conducted at temples have come to a halt. Unlike other religions Hindu marriage ceremonies are not very amenable to a virtual medium.
Ravi Vaidyanaat Sivachariar, Director of Religious Affairs at The Hindu Temple Society of North America, says, “The current CDC guidelines make it impossible for a wedding to be conducted in traditional Vedic ways. And they cannot be conducted virtually. There are some essential rituals like lighting the fire, ‘mangalidharna’, ‘saptapadi’ that can only happen in a physical space where physical contact is essential. There are also practical difficulties of getting close to fire after using the hand sanitizer which is a fire hazard.”
A priest at the Durga Mandir in Princeton, N.J. who did not wish to be identified by his name, raises the question of legal paperwork and registration of a wedding that temples can only do if weddings are performed at their physical locations. The temple cannot do the wedding registration if ceremonies are performed online.
The Hindu Temple Society, N.Y. is in fact encouraging couples to marry in court and come back later to perform their religious rituals.
Temple wedding halls, too, have remained closed for the better part of the past six months. Whereas there used to be 2 to 3 weddings performed every week before the pandemic hit, there have been none since. “We are not exempted from the economic effects of the pandemic,” says Sivachariar.
Temples are mostly dependent on donations from devotees which have mostly dried up during the pandemic. For that reason, Malibu Hindu Temple in California has set up Coronavirus Relief Funds “for the purposes of maintaining the payroll and maintenance cost of the Temple.”
Most couples have outright postponed weddings, instead of having restricted ceremonies and celebrations outdoors, says Dr. Kusum Patel, Organizer, Global Gayatri Parivar, IL. They’d rather wait and have a larger, grander gathering against the limited one permitted. “People want more than 200 people but that’s not possible right now,” she says.
Overseas travel restrictions and delays have also led to a disruption in supply of essential items like flowers, garlands and ‘puja samagri’ that temples depend on to perform ceremonies and rituals.
Shalini Takyar, Creative Director at the event management company Vedika Creations who helps organize weddings and other pujas at temples among other venues says, “If earlier we got our supplies in a week, we now get it in a month. This has definitely slowed down things a lot.”
In-person visits to the temples have drastically come down. Dr. Kusum Patel says only 10% of the regular devotees actually visit the temples now, compelling them to adapt to the times and increase their online presence.
Most have started regular live screenings of their pujas, services and rituals. Durga Temple in Princeton, for instance, does a daily live telecast of its artis on Facebook and The Hindu Temple Society of North America in New York prides itself in having maintained their connection with the people with their online telecasts of Tulsi and Satya Narayan pujas among others.
Temples are making it easy and convenient for devotees to book pooja services online. Austin Hindu Temple, TX has started conducting e-archanas with bookings made available on their website, with rules clearly laid out for their limited in-temple services.
More than just places of worship, temples are also centers of art and culture in America. Home to numerous classical Indian dances Kathak, Bharatanatyam, and Indian regional language classes including Hindi, Telugu, Tamil etc., the temples have moved all these activities online.
The Hindu Temple of Delaware, for instance, has started virtual language classes for children who wish to continue learning, an endeavor welcomed by parents who want continuity in learning.
While temples have refrained from conducting any weddings online, they are continuing to perform, virtually, funeral rituals. In the wake of the pandemic particularly, where so many have lost lives, priests are helping families who have lost loved ones by guiding them through rituals online. ‘Weddings can wait, last rights cannot’, as Sivachariar says.
Embracing change, the temples are maintaining their connections with their devotees during the pandemic.
Nupur Bhatnagar is a lawyer by training, an entrepreneur and a storyteller. She is rationalist and an art enthusiast who is fascinated by history. She loves to read and watch historical dramas — sometimes even sees herself in them. Nupur lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children.