At the Festival of India 2008 & Inappropriate Accidental Worship

On September 13th my family and I attended the annual Festival of India at the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork Utah. The first time I attended the festival was in 1996 and I have returned seven or eight times since then to observe the proceedings and learn about their culture.

Here is a slideshow of photos I took at this year’s festival, including explanatory captions to give those of you who have never been a taste.

The temple building itself is an interesting addition to the Utah landscape, located across the street from the Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It had not yet been constructed in 1996 when I first attended the festival, and I have watched over the subsequent years as it was built. The LDS Church apparently contributed a considerable amount to its construction through its philanthropic arm, the LDS Foundation .

The annual festival is a celebration of the legendary king Ramachanda , and his defeat of the 10 headed demon Ravana . They believe Ramachandra, or Rama, was an incarnation, or Avatar, of their Hindu god Vishnu.

At the climax of the festival, there is a theatrical, musical retelling of the Ramayana , the epic story of Ramachandra, how his wife Sita was kidnapped by Ravana, and how Rama saved his wife and led an army to destroy the 10 headed demon. To the adherents of Hindu, the story is scripture. The presentation is extremely abridged from the original drama, which apparently can last days, and has become even more abridged since the first time I saw it performed in 1996.

At the end of the drama, the character playing Rama, accompanied by the other characters, leaves the stage into the audience. The people in the audience stand and follow him to the top of the hill, where they have previously erected a 25 to 30 foot image of Ravana (see the slideshow above). Ramachandra then fires flaming darts at the image of the demon (represented by Roman candles), and the demon image is ignited and burned to the ground while participants in the crowd cheer and throw stones at it while fireworks explode overhead.

After the incineration, the crowd gathers around a band that plays music while they chant the Krishna Mantra and dance. The mantra is a chant of words praising Rama and Krishna that the Hindu believe imparts power and intelligence simply by being repeated continually.

From what I understand, in the ritual the demon Ravana represents the wickedness in each person and by joining Rama in destroying him the participants symbolically purge themselves of their own wickedness.

As I mentioned, have attended the event for a number of years, and every time I am careful to not participate in either the ritual burning of Ravana or the mantra chant, since I understand them to be forms of Vishnu worship, and I intend only to be an observer.

However, every year I note a number of clearly LDS BYU students who join in throwing stones and the ritual defeat of Ravana and in the mantra chanting with the band. Mostly I believe that they participate because of their naivete about what is going on. But there are a few that exhibit a frivolity that I consider disrespectful of the beliefs of others, and their participation is done as a subtle form of mockery—they participate because it is ridiculous to them.

In either case, every year their participation concerns me and in my opinion, they are accidentally worshiping Vishnu. I would hope that they would have both enough circumspection and enough respect for the beliefs of others to refrain from joining in the ritual and mantra.

At the same time, I realize that just as Latter-day Saints do not deny the Sacrament to visitors, the Krishna adherents are not likely upset by the accidental worship of their visitors. For all I know they may be pleased by the number of local Mormon college students gaining power from praising Krishna and Ramachandra. At least they seem to encourage it by calling on the crowd to chant with them and using a band with catchy rhythms to make the chanting fun.

This year one of them even commented to the crowd that “worship should always be this fun.”

Should LDS BYU students be participating in the rituals and worship of other gods, even inadvertently? Even in the name of mutual understanding? I feel that they should not. What do you think?

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