Like most Hindu temples, the temple of the Hindu American Religious Institute (HARI) houses various deities of the Hindu tradition. It is also home to one of the most sacred figures of the Jain tradition-Lord Mahaveer, the twenty-fourth Tirthankar, or enlightened world-teacher, of our cosmic era.
Non-Hindus, particularly those from religious traditions that do not use images, often do not understand the role of the deities and their images, or murtis, in the Hindu tradition. An image is a way to focus one's loving attention and devotion on a specific form of the Divine Reality. Brahman, the Divine Reality, is everywhere and in everyone. In order to relate to this infinite Reality in a more personal way, Brahman is happy to manifest in as many forms as we living beings need in order to draw nearer to our divine source. This is neither monotheism nor polytheism, as these are conventionally understood, though it has aspects of both. It is the idea of an omnipresent divinity that can be approached through infinite forms and in infinite ways. The deities of the Hindu tradition are forms that the Divine Reality assumes in order to draw us ever nearer, evoking the experience of bhakti, or sacred devotion, filling the devotee's heart with love and bliss.
LORD RAMA, LAKSHMANA, AND SITADEVI
Every Hindu temple, or mandir, has a central deity. The central deity of HARI is Lord Rama, or Lord Ram, as his name is pronounced in many parts of India. Lord Rama is an avatar, or incarnation, of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver of Dharma. (Dharma is the cosmic order, including the laws of nature, as well as the laws of society: all our duties and moral obligations.) His life story is presented in the Ramayana, one of the sacred scriptures of Hinduism.
His wife, Sitadevi, stands to his left (or to the right, from the point of view of one who is facing his image). Sitadevi is also a divine incarnation: of Goddess Lakshmi, the wife of Lord Vishnu. To the right of Lord Rama (the viewer's left) is Lakshmana, his brother.
The central altar at HARI also includes smaller images of other important deities, such as Lord Hanuman, who takes the form of an ape. He is a great helper to Rama in the story of the Ramayana. There is also Lord Ganesha, or Lord Ganesh, who is depicted with the head of an elephant. He is the remover of obstacles. His elephant head represents divine wisdom and strength. The central altar also has a small image of the baby Lord Krishna, as well as a Shiva Linga (the abstract form of Lord Shiva), which is guarded by Nandi, the bull, who serves as Lord Shiva's vehicle (or vahana), and the symbol Om, which is an especially sacred mantra, or prayer, that symbolizes the infinite Brahman.
To either side of the central altar at HARI are images of other important deities who are sacred to the Hindu tradition:
The Goddess Saraswati is the embodiment of wisdom in all its forms. These forms are represented in her physical appearance. She has two pairs of arms and hands. In one pair of hands, she holds a musical instrument called a veena. This represents the creative arts. In another hand she holds a book of the traditional Indian palm-leaf style. This represents academic knowledge-"book learning."
Finally, in another hand, she holds a mala, or a string of prayer beads, representing spiritual wisdom. So: creative, artistic knowledge, which is often associated with the right side of the brain, rational, intellectual knowledge, associated with the left side of the brain (and she holds the book, interestingly, in one of her left hands), and the integral knowledge of spirituality are all represented by Goddess Saraswati.
The spiritual traditions of India have co-existed with remarkable harmony for millennia, sharing many of the same basic beliefs and values. One tradition that co-exists with the Hindu tradition and that shares the same values of nonviolence and the inherent divinity of all beings, and the same belief in karma, rebirth, and liberation, is the Jain tradition.
According to the Jain tradition, twenty-four enlightened beings known as Tirthankars are born on the Earth in the course of a cosmic cycle-an enormous span of time. The twenty-fourth Tirthankar of our cosmic cycle has already appeared, and is Lord Mahaveer. Lord Mahaveer lived around the same time as Lord Buddha, roughly the fifth or sixth century before the Common Era. He is represented at HARI temple with a murti, or image, in accord with the Murtipujak Shvetambar tradition of Jainism. The Jain community of the greater Harrisburg area celebrates its holy days at HARI just as Hindus do, and all are welcome to participate.
For more information on Jainism, see: VCU - Janism
Goddess Durgamata is, like Goddess Parvathi, a form of Shakti, the Mother Goddess and the supreme power of creation. Goddess Durgamata is depicted with either eight or ten hands in which she holds various weapons that represent the various deities of which she is composed. In the Devi Mahatmya, a part of a Hindu scripture called the Markandeya Purana, it is said that an arrogant and terrible monster known as the Mahisha-asura, or Buffalo Demon, had taken over the Earth. Demonic monsters of this kind typically are embodiments of the pride and ego that must be overcome in order for spiritual realization to occur. All the various deities tried to overcome this monster, but were unable to do so. Going to Lord Vishnu for help, he advised them to combine their powers. Projecting all of their spiritual energy into a gigantic ball of cosmic power-Shakti-the Goddess Durga, or Durgamata, emerged, riding on a lion. Goddess Durgamata then went into battle and easily destroyed the Buffalo Demon, showing that cooperation and working together wins out over arrogant pride every time.
Lord Shiva is one of the most popular deities of the Hindu tradition, and is accompanied by his wife, the Goddess Parvathi, who is the Mother of all creation. Lord Shiva is one of the most mysterious and fascinating of the Hindu deities. He is said to dwell high in the Himalayas, on Mount Kailash. When one looks closely at his image, one can see what looks like a waterfall emerging from his head. This is the holy River Ganga, who is also a Goddess. It is said that when the Goddess Ganga was to descend to the Earth in order to purify it, Lord Shiva agreed to use his own head to break the impact of her descent; so the Ganga flows down from the Himalayas, from the head of Lord Shiva himself. Lord Shiva also carries a trishul, or trident, as a weapon, which he uses to destroy the three enemies of the spiritual life: greed, hatred, and delusion. Though married to the Goddess Parvathi, he is dressed like a forest-dwelling monk. He frequently engages in meditation and is also known as Yogeshvara, the Lord of Yoga. Finally, Lord Shiva is also known as Hara, the Remover or Destroyer. This refers not to destruction in a negative sense, but to the process of time and change, over which he presides. Rather like the law of physics of the conservation of matter and energy, according to Hinduism, nothing is ever really created or destroyed. Rather, the basic energy of existence simply takes different forms.
The cosmic energy, or Shakti, is represented by Goddess Parvathi. Her red dress, or sari, is a symbol of the creative power of the universe. This entire existence is the interplay of divine consciousness, embodied by Lord Shiva, and cosmic energy, embodied by Shakti, the Mother Goddess, known as Parvathi, and also as Mahadevi, Durgamata, and Kali.
Another very popular Hindu deity is Lord Krishna, depicted at HARI with Radha, who is his beloved devotee. The love story of Radha and Lord Krishna is famous, and is found in such classic works of Hindu literature as the Bhagavata Purana and the Gita Govinda, a beautiful poem by the twelfth-century Bengali Hindu poet, Jayadeva. Lord Krishna is also the teacher of the hero Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, one of the best known and most beloved of Hindu scriptures.
The love of Radha and Lord Krishna represents the love of the individual soul, or jiva, for its Supreme Lord, Krishna. Some Hindu traditions teach that Lord Krishna is, like Lord Rama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, while others teach that Lord Krishna himself is the original Supreme Being. Lord Krishna is usually shown playing a flute, whose enchanting music represents the call of the Divine Reality that is drawing all beings ever nearer.
LORD VENKATESWARA SWAMI
Lord Venkateswara Swami is a form of Lord Vishnu. His main shrine is in Tirupathi, in southern India, where he is especially popular. He is also known as Balaji, "the powerful one." His gaze is so powerful that the eyes of the original image are kept covered.