OLYMPIA - A bell rings, and 100 people collectively chant "Om" three times. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, children offer food and water to a god who removes obstacles. Small photos and idols of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god, share a place on plastic plates next to the food and spices.
Practicing Hindus and others gathered Sunday at the Governor Hotel in Olympia to help their children learn the Ganesha pooja – a ritual meant for blessings and observance of Ganesha, the most revered of the Hindu gods.
The event was hosted by the local Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, a nonprofit social and cultural organization aimed at preserving, practicing and promoting the practices of Hinduism. The national group has about 100 chapters across the United States, including one in Olympia that was formed last year, says organization volunteer Lava Basavapatna.
“This is a family,” Basavapatna said of the organization. “We learn together.”
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Leading the pooja, Mallik Bulusu asked the children to name Ganesha’s characteristics, many of which are deeply rooted in symbolism.
“Big ears,” one child shouted, with the idea that we must listen more.
“Small eyes,” another child said, meaning one should concentrate.
From the first day of school to when they buy a house, Hindus pray to Ganesha more than any other god.
The Ganesha pooja is just one of many Hindu festivals celebrated throughout the year. Sunday’s event was catered toward Hindu children and included step-by-step instruction on devotional singing and rituals.
Those in attendance varied from strict Hindus to those who were just becoming interested.
Balaji Narayanan brought his 4-year-old daughter with the hope that she will continue the Hindu tradition in his family.
“In India, there are temples everywhere,” he said.
Narayanan, who moved to the United States from India with his wife in 1995, said maintaining the Hindu tradition in a society that is not immersed in the tradition is difficult.
Hinduism is the world’s third-largest religion, with more than 1 billion followers, most of them in India. It differs from the monotheistic traditions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism as its followers believe in and worship many gods. As of 2004, there were about 1.5 million Hindus living in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of State.
Keeping tradition alive and healthy is why Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh has dedicated much of its efforts to children, its volunteers say. The Olympia chapter is about a year old, and its weekly gatherings usually garner about 20 people. Cultural roots and values are learned through stories, yoga, and arts and crafts.
Other attendees, including Les Peterson of Tumwater, had never attended a Hindu ceremony prior to Sunday. After growing up in a Christian household and dabbling in many religions, Peterson arrived at Hinduism, a religion he says lines up closely with his interpretation of modern science. He brought along his 13-year-old son to check out the ceremony.
Those in attendance also took part in the prasad, a ritual that involves offering Ganesha food and then eating the food once it has been blessed.
Nate Hulings: 360-754-5476 firstname.lastname@example.org