I visited The Hindu Temple of St. Louis yesterday with a friend, and my experience there inspires this article. I was extremely pleased with the magnificence of the temple and the great care that was taken to maintain it. The presence of people offering prayers was very refreshing and the very first I had seen in person since my adoption of polytheism about three years ago. And it was a special experience indeed: the Hindus have the largest and strongest tradition of polytheism in continuance. Surely we revivalists and reconstructionists can learn a great deal from the example of this prosperous people who seem to be flourishing within a diaspora. To that end, through careful observation, I have reflected on the following points as necessities for the establishment of a polytheist or pagan community.
1. People with a common interest and vision
Any new community of faith begins with a certain number of people that, in being distinct from the majority around them, hope to maintain and also nourish their particular beliefs and customs. What number is the least to set out with is subject to opinion, but I can’t help but think that even as few as three or four people can take it upon themselves to form something and aim at future growth, because a common interest for or devotion to what is being preserved can only be sustained by growth and can only be begun by a bold initiative. The Hindu Temple of St. Louis was first conceived as an *idea* in 1983, a time when not too many Hindus lived around, but because the growth in the numbers of Hindus was inevitable (because of families), the idea was solidified as a non-profit organization five years later.
2. Monetary contribution
How can a piece of land and a particular structure be allotted to the religious activities of a community? It must first be purchased, unless it is offered for free, which is almost never the case. Just as parents look forward by saving for their children’s college education, they must also do the same towards their spiritual and cultural education. The same happened with the Hindus of St. Louis as with any other community of faith; donations were gathered after the situation was explained to parents and then a piece of land was purchased. The ground-breaking ceremony for the Temple and first rituals before construction were performed in 1990, two years after the non-profit organization was formed. Construction was obviously gradual, and patience needed to be plentiful, but when there is a will, there is a way; no vision can be stronger than that of a home and the grander it can be, the greater the community will prosper. The first phase of construction was completed within a year and a half. At first, there were only pictures of the Gods, but in the course of five years, the temple received the splendor it deserved.
3. A connection to a native culture with deep roots
The Hindu parents were not to allow their children to lose the native traditions and precious beliefs they had come with from abroad, because they were sure what they brought was valuable. Especially in such a different country as America, where either Christianity or materialism determined the general way of life (in the absence of sufficient native voices), traditions could decay or decline easily within one generation, unless care was taken. The depth and strength of the cultural roots that the migrants brought, they could never bear to see gone because it would mean the severing of many centuries, indeed millennia, of continuity. It was only natural that an architect from India, and a renowned one too, would symbolically plant a native seed in a foreign soil by designing the temple, just as if it were magically transported from India. And the native languages needed to be maintained also, as also the native food and clothing, because the ritual experience could not have otherwise been authentically “Indian”, just as it was at home, where the kin and ancestors were. As for those of us who are less fortunate with regards to historical continuity, a heavy burden is on us, which history will judge us by: we must still look back and somehow seek our deeper roots, both cultural and ancestral, a task that is by no means easy, but is necessary. There can be no such thing as “American” polytheism, because it never existed, except for the lucky natives themselves whose ways and lineages have survived. Any attempt to Americanize polytheism, will only cause division and subversion, usually in socio-political factions that parallel those already in existence, and this is something we can already witness. For those in a diaspora, including White Americans, some serious connection to a distant past must be made; the absence of deep roots signifies a weak or stunted growth, if not one that dies off in time. True polytheism requires much more than the worship of many Gods, and the Hindus teach us this.
If rituals are not performed correctly, the temple cannot remain in function, and thus the whole purpose of a temple that can help people by serving the Gods will be weakened or lost. But who determines how the rituals should be performed? Those with a continuous tradition have an easy answer: those who study and know the ancient ways of the ancestors. There are four priests that serve the Hindu Temple of St. Louis, because the languages and ways of India are diverse. For revivalists, the task of attaining and maintaining a priesthood is very difficult, but can become easier, if those with learning consult with the Gods and with one another about the best general courses to take in ritual practices. Once this foundation is laid, each community can further develop its rituals organically. Communities understand the value of leadership, including priesthoods, precisely because communities cannot be formed except with the initiative and vision of leaders.
After a community grows in number and flocks together, certain differences are bound to arise, even among those who strongly share the same vision and hope. There is a natural tendency for minds to battle through conflicting opinions, especially in the beginning when there is much at stake. But if the common vision is continuously emphasized, and people are always reminded of it, diatribes can turn into discussions and disputes into discourses. It is an inherent part of every community to endure early struggles, but the way to reduce the difficulty is always to maintain the bonds that were originally put in place. By this means, general structure becomes more important than particular details, or to express it better, structures guide details, and details are not permitted to be emphasized so much as to lead to the formation of distinct structures. Perhaps if polytheists think of polytheism as a structure and traditions as details, at least until such time as each group can form distinct communities, we will be far happier than we are now.
6. Organizational bodies
Cooperation must always require management within a collective effort. If priests serve as those who organize and lead rituals, committees and boards serve as those who lead and organize the larger system. The Hindu Temple of St. Louis is no exception to other successful community centers: They have a Board of Trustees and an Executive Committee, the latter with distinct functions for overseeing and deciding how the temple is cared for. The executive committee is moderately hierarchical and consists of a president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, joint secretary, joint treasurer and general members. These positions are elected with three-year terms. The proceedings of committee meetings are shared with the community, because there is no need to hide anything from those you are eager to serve; positions come with a privilege, but also a duty. This resembles a small nation, but as we all know, small nation is far happier and easier to manage than a large one.
The initial money discussed earlier is never enough for the preservation of a great project that continues and indeed grows with time. A community of faith is a serious investment that demands considerable management and funds before satisfactory returns can be made. The Hindu Temple’s Board of Trustees ensures that sufficient funds are collected as well as spent efficiently. The construction of a grand temple and all its very magnificent components could not have been accomplished without plenty of dedication and generosity. After 30 years, they continue to grow: I saw the community center, a project worth $6 million, still in construction. It is needed for the current and future generations of the 16,000 Hindus that live within the larger region.
8. Community events
Rituals are necessary in a community of faith, but social events are necessary in any community. There must be activity, including entertainment, to keep a community alive and proud of itself. In addition to the Hindu Temple and the new cultural center, there has been a cultural center (within the same large plot of land), where musical performances, weddings and other events take place. There is a library also where books may be borrowed. As I was leaving at the end of my visit, I noticed lights outside after what must have been a very festive Diwali. Such events always help the younger generations stay within the community rather than leave it, which is essential for continuity.
9. Youth groups
A further step must always be taken with youngsters, because they have additional energy and soon become ambitious to make their mark. Channeling their energy towards the right direction is a serious matter that requires a clever mind, but the benefits are huge when it is done correctly. A well-trained youth can become the life-blood and fuel that drives a community forwards. The Hindu Temple has a youth group with its separate page, publications, events and achievements. The youth are divided into four groups, ranging from kindergarten to high school. This allows the older youth to lead the younger, which lessens the burden they sometimes feel when they are led by adults. In fact, there is hardly any burden at all, once the youth understand their purpose and their value, through the guidance and care of adults.
10. Community service
This is what connects the community to others in the region and gives it a good reputation. One becomes more confident in and proud of his community when he knows that it helps others who are in need, even if they are not of the same faith. How else can the world become more harmonious and less hostile, but by such means? It is obvious that the Hindus are a minority, but they must make themselves heard and known, much like the other faiths in the area and region. Accordingly, the Hindu Temple generously offers the needy donations of food by various efforts, as well as a free legal and health clinic at certain times of the month.