Four of us accepted the invitation of Andrew Wingate, who some may remember came to All Saints’ over a year ago and talked to us on Inter-faith matters, to go to the Apple Tree Centre in Crawley last Tuesday, where the Hindu Temple and Community Centre is situated. We were warmly welcomed on a lovely early summer’s evening by one of the Temple “ambassadors”, a retired chemical engineer called Ashwin Soni. We also met with Andrew and the rest of the party about ten or a dozen in number. We knew about the Namesta greeting “I bow to the divine in you”, but also learnt from Ashwin that the hug is also often used, as the action of holding someone means that you each share your heart with the other. On farewell later, Ashwin hugged each one of us.
First impression of the outside of the Temple is a sense of wonderment at the carved façade and entrance. Ashwin told us that it had all been carved in very hard pink sandstone in India, and carefully shipped to Crawley and assembled. Ashwin himself had been closely involved in the project to build the Temple, which had only been completed in 2010. There are about 1,200 Hindu families in the Crawley area, but they would not have been able to undertake the project on their own. First, they had to acquire a suitable site, despite local opposition. They were able to acquire the land for £1million, but the cost of the buildings would be another £4million. Somehow they raised the money for the land, through a rally of Hindus nationwide, at which a “pope-like figure” attended, and then they borrowed from a bank. They still owe over a million pounds, but the whole operation is now in full swing, including a Committee Room and huge Gym/Games area. Later we there witnessed classic Indian dancing…such grace and movement!
Ashwin talked to us in the Committee Room, giving us an introduction to what Hinduism is all about. What struck me most was the inclusive nature of the faith. Religion is not imposed; all religious paths are tolerated and accepted. But it does claim to be the oldest religion, with current practice being based from “the collective experience” which first formed the Vedic civilisation from which emerged the Hindu religion. We were given a most useful summary of the basic beliefs, with scriptures being the foundation, an omnipresent god, in whom one is free to believe or not. The universe goes on for ever in cycles of creation, preservation and dissolution, and you create your own destiny (KERMA) by your deeds. And there is much more besides. Andrew asked about the caste system, but Ashwin asserted that this had not played any part in his life, and was not a major influence generally.
Then, we were admitted to the worship area, having removed our shoes, and we saw an unforgettable sight of brilliant white marble, strongly lit, at the far end of the area. There were, in line, a number of pagodas in which stood images of the deities Krishna and Radha, Shiva and Parvati, and others. At the side were placed Ganesh, the elephant god and Hanuman, the monkey god. We were told that the statues, all gorgeously arrayed in many coloured garments and decorations, were not idols, but more like icons in which the divinity rested. After a short time, we were asked to leave while a curtain was drawn across, so that food could be offered to all the gods.
After further instruction from Ashwin on the Hindu way of life, mentioning respect for parents, teachers and elders, daily prayer and washing, celebration of festivals and vegetarian food, complex language and general bodily and spiritual wellbeing, we were invited to witness the evening service in the Temple. The priest, who had addressed us earlier, now went through an elaborate ritual before each of the deities, accompanied by bells and clapping from the congregation, a number of young families having joined the priest. After about 15 minutes, we left and re-assembled for photographs and a meal in Crawley, where we had further opportunities for discussion.
We drove home witnessing a beautiful sunset, and so grateful for the welcome and good feelings we had received. We would like to ask Andrew back soon to talk to us more on his work.