Western Converts

Shiva's welcome

Installation of the god's Lingam is celebrated by San Diego worshippers

By Sandi Dolbee
July 21, 2005

The temple room nearly vibrated from the cacophony. The rhythmic chanting from devotees packed shoulder to shoulder on the floor and in chairs was joined by a clanging bell rung for so long a half-dozen men took turns pulling the cord.

The sounds, and the people, were for Lord Shiva, the powerful third deity of what is often referred to as the Hindu trinity. There is Brahma, the creator; and Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva, the destroyer who can do away with everything from bad habits to evil.

Behind a red cloth curtain sat the focus of the congregation's anticipation: a Shiva Lingam, a newly arrived idol symbolizing Lord Shiva, which was being installed at the Shiva Vishnu Temple of San Diego.

And with its arrival came another symbol of how San Diego County's religious diversity continues to deepen. The Shiva Lingam is believed to be the first in the region, taking its place among other idols at the 5-year-old temple that is tucked into the back of a business park off Arjons Drive in Mira Mesa.

"It's very auspicious," said Usha Dilawri, a 49-year-old Rancho Peñasquitos resident, of the arrival of the Shiva Lingam.

Like many in the crowd, Dilawri was born in India, where Hinduism is believed to have been founded and is the predominant religion today. For her, Hinduism is like her second life. "It gives me peace and satisfaction. It takes away my worries and my difficulties and gives me the strength to live my life."

They cling to a faith that is not only part of their heritage but also gives them a code for conduct ... particularly the cause-and-effect teachings of karma. "I think if you think about it, you don't do wrong things," saidSudesh Kumar, a 58-year-old Carlsbad resident who also is from India. This lingam, which means form, is not the typical image of Shiva that Westerners are used to seeing ... a princely looking man holding a three-pronged trident or wearing a third eye or dancing about with four arms.

Indeed, the ancient idol form isn't meant to look like a being, at all.

Instead, when the curtain was raised, what was revealed was a black stone pedestal, a couple of feet high and shaped like a basin, with an elliptical, watermelon-sized brown stone atop it.

The Shiva Lingam is a powerful and sacred symbol in Hinduism, so much so that the Shiva Vishnu installation ceremonies took place over four days – beginning Thursday and continuing through Sunday.

The temple services were elaborate, each step a part of a colorful process to bring this manifestation to life. "When we pray to this one, we're actually praying to Shiva," explained Pandit Srihari Kadambi, chief priest, who was joined for the festivities by a visiting priest from a Livermore temple.

The stone itself is from the Narmada River in India. "It has to come from only that river," Kadambi said. Some Hindu writings describe the stone's shape as phallic to represent "the regenerative aspect of the material universe."

The Shiva Vishnu Temple of San Diego is one of at least three Hindu temples in San Diego County, joining a landscape that includes an increasing number of Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques, Christian churches, Buddhist congregations and other houses of worship. The Hindu population also is growing – with some longtime members estimating that there are several thousand devotees living here.

On Saturday, the modest temple overflowed with about 250 men, women and children, dressed in a colorful mix of Indian clothing – along with some San Diego-like ensembles of jeans and T-shirts. At lunchtime, people gathered under the shade of canopies, the pavement cushioned by mats and rugs.

"If somebody told me I have to give up chocolate or religion, I'd probably give up chocolate," said Sharad Sundar, a 12-year-old University City student who came dressed in a Nehru-style suit. Sharad said that for young people, Hinduism gives us something to focus on when we're in some kind of predicament."

Not all Hindus are of Indian descent. As East met West, over the last half-century particularly, there have been converts from other faith backgrounds.

Gary Hofacker, a 55-year-old Descanso resident, became interested in Hinduism through the writings of Gandhi. Raised a Protestant, Hofacker said one of the attractions of this Eastern philosophy is that it accepts all religions.

"It's like every religion is right, just different paths to God," said Hofacker, who wore a red dot on his forehead to symbolize the third eye of Shiva.

Raised a Catholic, Erika Kalter came to Hinduism through practicing yoga and then learning chanting. She's been attending the Shiva Vishnu Temple for about a year. "I just really found that this really filled something in for me, where there was an emptiness," said the 51-year-old Hillcrest woman, dressed in a burgundy and gold sari.

Over lunch, there was much talk about the universality of religions. About how everyone breathes the same air and bleeds the same kind of blood. Headlines, however, often tell stories of violence and disagreement in the name of faith.

That's the fault of people, said Joe Kohli, a 64-year-old Carmel Valley resident. "From God's point of view, when he's looking at it, they're all the same," he said.