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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6 Responses to At the Festival of India 2008 & Inappropriate Accidental Worship

  1. Clearly participating in others’ rituals in the spirit of mockery is inappropriate. Stepping away from mockery to honest participation, I see a couple of things going on.

    One is participation rather than worship. Even participating in destroying the demon seems that it could be interpreted as participation rather than worship. I think that participation needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis. I have attended worship services of many other faiths and participated in varying degrees (singing hymns, speaking briefly before the group to our common beliefs, etc) and usually felt either uplifted (at many churches, at Native American sweat lodges) or neutral.

    I can think off-hand of only one case where I had a bad feeling, where there were some very physical spiritual manifestations (people going into trances, etc), in which I felt uncomfortable and politely excused myself.

    In terms of worship, I have wondered about this. I believe that Father receives all worship intended for him, regardless of the name. That said, those who are aware of appropriate, true worship should (arguably but not – to me – obviously) stick to “true” worship. That would suggest LDS should not participate in worship.

    But I think this is not internally consistent. If I attend another Christian faith, with which I share many views but also believe that there are key untruths, I will sing hymns (often a form of prayer), participate in prayers, etc. If I were to participate in worship at a mosque or at a Hindu temple, I don’t actually see that as different in substance (albeit in degree). The form of worship, some of the names applied LOOK more different from mine than a different Christian sect. But substantively, if the element of worship is something good (seeking for God to eliminate tempation, for example, or something else that I would feel comfortable with in a church that LOOKS like mine), then I don’t see why these more different-looking forms of worship would be inappropriate.

  2. While I think it is important for us to have an understanding of different religions, practices, beliefs and ideals. We need to be very careful that we don’t participate in their rituals. Often a ritual comes with a covenant. We need to be sure that the covenants that we are making are in coherence with our religion. I have attended a Catholic wedding and I was cautious about what I said “amen” to and the other group pronouncements that were required by the attendees to the wedding. Perhaps, I am too worried about this, but I would rather be safe and not sorry.

  3. Thanks for your insights Dave and Travis. I agree that to a great extent that we can participate in the worship services of those who believe differently than we do, like Dave outlines. But I would feel much more comfortable within the realm of Abrahamic religions (Christian, Muslim, Jewish) than I do with others because it is easier to see that they are all, in their own limited understanding, worshiping the God of Abraham, who is the same God I worship. Even then, like Travis, I would be very careful.

    But as we move into other religions, like Hinduism, I am less likely to see things that way. While I agree to an extent with Dave that the Father receives all righteous prayers, unless I believe that Ramachandra really was an incarnation of the true God, and all of the implications that entails, it would be wrong to worship Rama through repeating his mantra.

    And while defeating personal wickedness is a worthy cause, LDS doctrine is clear that it is only through Jesus Christ that sin is conquered. There is no other name given. In participating in the celebration of the defeat of the embodiment of sin by Ramachandra, even though the cause is righteous, the name is wrong.


    I invoke 1 Cor 10:19. Christian liberty. All LDS know that Vishnu doesn’t conquer sin, only Jesus Christ. So to participate in this festival at all, is akin to eating food offered to idols. Elsewhere in Acts Paul condemns it. In 1 Cor he allows it, AS long as we are not damaging the faith of our other brothers and sisters. However, this seems to be a question that the BYU students should be asking themselves. “Are there others here whose faith is hurt by my acceptance (or mocking) of these ceremonies?”

    I am unaware if individuals in this religion undertake covenants simply by participating in the ritual.

    When I attended a friends wedding, I had no problem being placed under covenant to support his marriage. I thought it was absolutely beautiful that the community is asked to promise to support the marriage and to never do anything to harm, and that the community took the pledge before God. It was especially beautiful that I took this pledge, standing next to a jewish friend, at a protestant wedding.

    Sure I didn’t quote the Lord’s prayer with evyerone else, (because I haven’t memorized it), but I had no problem in undertaking that covenant.

  5. A couple of thoughts:

    1. Like NOYDMB, i’m not sure that simply participating in a ritual (even if that ritual entails a covenant), actually commits you to the covenant. Covenants are much more than words, and just as a non-LDS who partakes of the sacrament is – I think – not under the precise same covenant as a baptized LDS, it’s not clear that participating in a ritual commits you.

    2. Jon, I think that I disagree with your distinction between the God of Abraham and other deities. I think this again comes down to appearance. If we believe in the apostasy, then it’s not clear to me that the differences between my perception of God and their perception of God are in substance so different than the differences between my perception of God and a Hindu’s perception of God. To me that requires the assumption that, for example, the difference between our salvation story and the Hindu salvation story is bigger than the difference between believing that God has a physical body (and all that is implied by that, which is I think a great deal).

    I think that other Christians worship a deity that LOOKS a lot more like ours, but I hold that I’m not sure the substance is more different than these other religions that are indeed more cosmetically different. Yes, other Christians agree that only through Christ are we saved; but there are key fundamentals in which we differ. In my graduate program, several of my very closest friends were members of the Bahai faith. the stated doctrines are wildly different from our own, and yet much of the spiritual exercise felt kindred to me. Which is a more important difference / similarity? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure how to judge.

    For all my relativity, I – as i said in th earlier comment – tend to follow what I feel and end up being quite inconsistent (at least externally) in this practice. At best, this is sensitivity to the Spirit. (There are unfortunately less generous interpretations, including capriciousness and weakness.) In truth, it is probably both, depending on the time.

  6. Good thoughts, Dave and NOYDMB.

    Concerning ritual and covenant, I think that it is clear that a visitor to the LDS Church who takes the sacrament while ignorant of its full meaning is clearly not bound by the covenant.

    Neither do I believe that the BYU students who chant the Krishna mantra in ignorance of what it is or entails are bound.

    But I do think it would be very questionable to participate knowing what it is and means unless one is willing to accept that meaning. And it would be prudent to avoid participating in the worship services of others unless you do know what it means.

    I think there is a difference between eating meat previously sacrificed to idols, and participating in the slaughter of the bull.

    For me there is a clear spectrum of increasingly less acceptable worship: Other Christians, Jews, Muslims, any other group that can say “That God who spoke to Abraham, regardless of whether my understanding of his nature is perfect, He it is whom I worship.” These are all, at least tenuously, worshiping the same God. I would be increasing less likely to participate as I moved down the spectrum, though I would probably be fine singing Hebrew and maybe Muslim hymns, praising the God of Abraham.

    I can see how you might say that Rama clearly represents virtues similar to those of the God of Abraham, and therefore recognize him as at least pointing to the same God.

    But in the case of the avatars if Vishnu, we are talking about supposed incarnations other than Christ and the Mantras of Krishna and Rama are worship of those specific incarnations. It is not a prayer to the creator. It is a a repetition of the names of these false Gods, the vocalization of which, by itself, supposedly imparts power.

    I agree with Dave that one should follow the promptings of the Spirit. But I am very wary. In my limited view the BYU students ought to exhibit more caution and circumspection about this issue. Perhaps they are following the Spirit, but I have my doubts.

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