On this week’s 51%, we speak with Sangeetha Kowsik, a Hindu Chaplain at New York University, as part of our series speaking with women religious leaders and scholars. Kowsik discusses the multitude of ways Hinduism is practiced, her love of pujas, and her thoughts on how the religion is depicted in popular culture.
Guest: Sangeetha Kowsik, Hindu Chaplain at New York University
51% is a national production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. It’s hosted by Jesse King. Our executive producer is Dr. Alan Chartock, and our theme is “Lolita” by the Albany-based artist Girl Blue.
You’re listening to 51%, a WAMC production dedicated to women’s issues and experiences. Thanks for joining us, I’m Jesse King. This week, to kick off your new year, we’re continuing our series speaking with women religious leaders and scholars, to celebrate the different ways that we worship. Our guest today is Sangeetha Kowsik, a Hindu Chaplain and founder of the Hindu Center at New York University. Kowsik has a lot of loves: she’s an artist and fashion designer by profession, a scholar of Arabic calligraphy, an activist, and even a trained dancer. But she says her faith plays a role in every aspect of her life — and it has for as long as she can remember. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Kowsik says her father helped start three Hindu temples across the U.S., including her childhood temple in Livermore, California.
Tell me about growing up by the temple. What was it that you connected with in Hinduism?
Unfortunately in the West, there’s a negative connotation, that they call our deities “idols,” and that Hindus are idol worshipers – which is not correct. The correct term for the statues, the deities that you see inside the temple, is “murti,” which is a symbolic representation of the divine. So these murtis stayed at my house and our puja room – a puja room is a special room, or a corner, or a cupboard, or anything in your house that you dedicate just for worship. We have an extra bedroom downstairs, so that’s our puja room. So before the temple was consecrated, the deities stayed in our home. And for me, as a child – I’m a very small child here, [about] 4-years-old – these deities, I thought they were my friends. Just like I would play with my Barbie dolls and my stuffed toys, I would feed them, I would play with them. I gave them tea, played tea party with them. I loved them, and especially Durga. Hinduism is the only religion in the world that sees the divine as not just an almighty father, but almighty mother. So this murti, Durga, stayed in our puja room, and I thought she was my friend. I thought she was my bestie. I loved her so much. So when the deities – I think I was four – when the deities got moved, the temple was consecrated, I remember throwing a huge temper tantrum. Because you took my friends away. You took my dolls away, basically, right? But as I got older, I realized how much they mean to me, and how much Hinduism means to me.
I’ll give you an overview. So, India is the birthplace of Hinduism – South Asia, basically this giant landmass. So what is now India: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, parts of Iran, Nepal, Afghanistan. They were all one giant landmass before partition and lines occurred. So Hinduism has no historical founder, like the three Abrahamic religions. Islam, Christianity and Judaism all come from the prophet Abraham, peace be upon him. [But] we don’t have that. Hindus don’t have that. What I thought was so cool, is that you can see the divine in so many different ways. It’s not some scary being in the sky, with a huge beard, telling you like, “This is wrong. That is wrong.” It could be the soft, sweet, beautiful deity like Ganesha – the elephant I’m wearing, it’s written in Arabic here, right? So Ganesha, he’s so sweet and gorgeous that you just want to pick him up and play with him, like a child. Or you see Lord Shiva, almighty Shiva, who is the mighty father. So whenever you have an issue or problem, you can call to Lord Shiva – like your dad, “Go kick his ass,” you know what I mean? It’s like, “That dude is rude. Go kick his ass.” You can pray to Lord Shiva. You can see beautiful Mahalakshmi dressed in her gorgeous robe…
And the fact that the songs that my mom taught me, the meaning behind them, is so beautiful – it’s a very personalized relationship with God. That’s why I love Hinduism so much. It’s very personal, like you can feel it. You can feel him / her/ it, I don’t know all these pronouns, [but] we believe in all the pronouns. So it’s like all of them in your heart, and Hinduism doesn’t state that something is wrong. It gives LGBTQI rights. It gives women’s rights. It gives rights to all creation, because everything in this world is created by the mighty divine. Like paper, pens are all of the goddess Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and learning. So we don’t step on any paper or step on paint brushes or musical instruments with our feet – feet are nasty and gross, you walk outside with it – I always thought that was so cool, and wonderful, that we respect everything. Everything is divine. When you say namaskar or namaste to somebody, it literally means, “I bow to the divine in you.” The fact that you can see multiple ways of the divine is something that always appealed to me. Like whatever you’re feeling inside, there’s space for you. There’s room at the table for you. There’s room for you in the temple.
Kowsik says the Shiva-Vishnu Temple in Livermore showcases that inclusivity with a range of languages and priests, as well as a combination of North and South Indian architecture. When Kowsik moved to New York City, she found herself attending and volunteering at another temple her father had a history in: The Hindu Temple Society of North America in Flushing, Queens. Kowsik says her work with youths there caught the attention of NYU — that, and her participation in another, what she calls “more hipster” temple at the time: Eddie Stern’s Broom Street Temple in Brooklyn.
Tell me about your work at Broom Street Temple and NYU.
Well, I got 80 white people to sing [in service]. Pat on my back. Yeah, pronunciation was wack, but whatever. God accepts everything, you know. It’s the intention behind the prayer, not your pronunciation. Anywho, NYU – they’d never met anyone who was born and raised in the U.S. who knows Hindu scriptures. Because generally, Jesse, most people who go to Hindu temples in the U.S., you just see older people. You see grandmas and grandpas, aunties and uncles. More people from India going to temples – you rarely see people born and raised here [in the U.S.] going to temple, because it’s not clearly explained. I get it, I totally get it. You take a kid into a temple, the priest is doing something for like 40 minutes, he doesn’t get what he’s doing. He’s bored, and thinks, “I’m gonna watch The Simpsons or some s***.” You know what I mean? So it’s like, I get it. Hinduism, it might be the oldest religion in the world, [but] it’s still very much a baby religion in the United States. It’s brought by immigrants. And so it’s going to take a while for people to understand what this faith is. So I help the students [by] not just having events to teach about Hinduism [and] take part in worship, but also if they need spiritual advice, if they’re having an issue, [I help them] solve that. I can refer them to a scripture passage, or teach them a mantra, or teach them a saying to help them get through their darkness as well.
For those who might not know, what do Hindu prayers and services look like?
OK, so again, Jesse, this depends on how you were born and brought up and raised – whether you’re South Indian, North Indian, East Indian, this and that. “Puja” means ritualistic prayer. In Hinduism, when we’re praying, we’re not worshiping the idol. We’re worshipping what this murti represents. We’re asking the divine to come and inhabit this Ganesha, for example. Let’s set Ganesha as an example, right? We’re asking Lord Ganesha to inhabit this. And you have to go back into history: South Asia was very rich with gold, as well as agriculture, back in the day before colonization and partition. And so to express gratitude, they used to give everything to the temple. And they imagine that Ganesha is sitting right in front of them. We worship as though God is sitting right in front of us. So like the exalted king, or the exalted queen, these words that we’re saying in the puja: “Avahayami, avahayami,” means, “Please come forth, my beloved.” So like a king or a queen, you offer them a seat, you offer them food, you offer them ritualistic bathing. At the end is the Aarti. People might be familiar with Aarti, because of all the Bollywood films. Everyone does it, right. But again, it’s beautiful because when they sing it, it’s saying, “You are my mother, you are my father, you are my friend, you are my beloved.” “You are my everything,” is what they are calling to the divine. So that’s what a puja is. Puja is ritualistic prayer.
Everything has to be neat and clean. Like, for example, before the priest starts the prayer, he cleanses himself with water, he’ll drink the water to clean his insides, clean his heart, clean his brain, his ears – you know, to let only good thoughts [in] and let [him] be pure and clean when [he] offers these prayers. So a priest, he leads the prayer – but he’s not God. Anybody can do this, that’s another thing. But priests are trained, because they go to special schools in India where they study all these mantras, these chants, prayers. And then they come to the United States, and they lead it. And they’re not chaplains. Like, you know how in Christianity, there’s a pastor, and he goes up there, and he takes a Bible verse, and then he explains it? Or then he talks about day-to-day life, what’s going on, and helps people? We don’t have that. The priest, that’s not his job to do something like that. His job is to lead the prayer rituals. And then he gives you the offering, the flowers, or the food that you offered, and stuff like that. So that’s what puja is like.
Pujas are very high flown in South India – because again, they didn’t have the Islamic influence, they didn’t have the Christian influence, because there’s a mountain range that protects South India. Where my parents are from, it’s called the Temple State. So these rituals for years on end, eons on end, have remained the same. Because they didn’t have an influence from anybody else. North India, they have the Islamic influence. So a lot of North Indian women, they cover their hair when they go to prayer. And in North India, Sanskrit is the language, [they use] Sanskrit prayers. Sanskrit is supposed to be the mother of all languages – that’s where Hindi came out of, Urdu came out of. Everything, all of our prayers and rituals, came out of Sanskrit language and came down here. But Tamil people also have a unique way of worshipping. So do Bengali people. So do Punjabi people. That’s what makes Hinduism so cool, is its diversity, and multitude of practices. For example, if you took the New York City area: in Manhattan, there’s only the Hari Krishna center, the Bhakti Center, which is in the East Village. So their main deity is Radha-Krishna, and they follow the sayings of the saint who started the Hari Krishna movement. But that’s it. If you want to see a South Indian ginormous temple, you haul yourself on the seven train to go to Flushing, Queens, and then you can see the Flushing Ganesha temple. And then across the street from Flushing temple, there’s a North Indian one that’s there too. They have marble deities. And there’s an Afghan Hindu temple, also. Afghan people were Hindus back in the day, and there’s still some Afghan Hindus left. And the way they do things vary. But Flushing temple, you go on their website, and ever since COVID, they’ve been live streaming their prayer rituals every single day. And it’s beautifully done. It starts on time ends on time, no Indian Standard Time, no brown standard time. Everything starts and ends on time. Why Jesse? Because it’s run by a woman. Dr. Uma Mysorekar, for 45 years, she’s been the president of flushing temple. Everything starts and ends on time, you know, complete efficiency.
Well, on that note, is it becoming more common to see women becoming priests or taking leadership roles in temples?
I think so. Like I read about in the New York Times, there’s a – I think she’s a North Indian lady – who married LGBTQI couples. She was featured in the New York Times, so that was pretty cool. I know another two or three like pujaris – “pujaris” means “lady priests” – in Chicago and in the New York area. So there are some people taking the initiative to learn these prayers and hymns and to be able to lead puja. Slowly but surely things are changing now in the community.
You’ve mentioned some of the misconceptions about Hinduism. What are some other things that you feel people confuse between Hinduism in practice versus other societal or cultural norms?
Of course, like, for example, the idea of arranged marriages. Did you see that crappy show, that show Indian Matchmaking on Netflix?
Yes, I have.
Yeah, I hate binge watched it along with Amina, my Muslim lady chaplain friend. We hate binge watched it, OK? Because, first of all, what she’s saying – not all Indian people act like that. Not all Hindu people act like that. In fact, in Hinduism, none of our deities were arranged marriages. Goddess Parvati, who is the embodiment of beauty, and who’s Shakti – “Shakti” means “energy,” like no male deity can live without his female counterpart, the energy, the almighty mother, right? Parvati won Shiva through penance. And her penance was so intense that the entire world shook. She chose Lord Shiva. She chose Lord Shiva. Lakshmi, she came out of the churning of the ocean. She chose Lord Vishnu. So not an arranged marriage, right? And Ganesha is technically Parvati’s kid, Parvati didn’t need Shiva to have a kid. Ganesh came out of a piece of Parvati’s body, right. So why do we make fun of single mothers? Why is it such a taboo to be a single mom, when technically Parvati is a single mom? Subramanya, Kartikeya, [Ganesha’s] younger brother came from the six sparks of Lord Shiva. So this is a modern-day family. Shiva and Parvati are a modern-day family because you have a father, you have a mother, and they have these two children. Ganesha’s the first deity, you can’t get around him. Every prayer begins with Lord Ganesha, can’t get around him. Ganesha and Subramanya are brothers, but technically, they’re not even half-brothers. They’re brothers who came, one from Lord Shiva, one from Goddess Parvati. So why do we judge single parents? Why do we judge divorced people? Another cool thing, Lord Ayyappan – Ayyappa is a deity of South India, Kerala. He is the son of two male deities, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. So why is there so much animosity towards the LGBTQI community, when Ayyappa is the son of two fathers? Even though Vishnu took the form of the enchanter Mohini, the lady, to have the baby, still. It’s like, why do we have these stigmas and taboos?
Arranged marriages, it’s a cultural phenomenon. It’s not a religious phenomenon. And why is it always considered a Hindu thing, when the tutors in the European dynasties also had arranged marriages, in order to keep wealth in the family? Why is it a taboo that, “Hindus believe in arranged marriages?” No, we do not. It’s a cultural thing. Maybe it’s an Indian practice, or South Asian practice, you can say, but it’s not a Hindu practice. That’s something that I firmly believe in. Also, and we have Brahmacharya deities, celibate deities. Hanuman is a celibate deity. He didn’t want to get married. Ganesha’s technically a celibate deity. You know how he got out of marriage? They were pressuring him to get married. And he’s like, “OK, fine.” He’s also the lord of wisdom, right? It’s like, “Alright, fine. Find me a woman more accomplished than my mama, more beautiful than my mama, and I will marry her,” right? And you can’t get more beautiful or more accomplished than goddess Parvati, so he got out of it. But in some stories, in some ways of thinking, he has Siddhi and Buddhi, he has two wives.
Also, when women have periods, they’re considered impure. I remember, Jesse, when I went to India, and we went to a temple in North India, there’s a huge sign outside that said, “Women on their periods who are menstruating should not enter the temple premises at all.” I’m like, “What are you going to do, check?” When I saw that, I was horrified, and I was disgusted also. I gave a lecture on this topic with Amina. So you have to go back, again, in history. When women had their periods, people didn’t live in cities [back then] – they were gatherers and wanderers and nomads. They lived in like, tents in the middle of the forest. So when women bled, animals could smell the blood, right? Then they would attack. So that’s why they kept these women isolated – so people could protect them. They would build the village around them. And where did everyone socialize and gather? It was at the temple back in the day. So when women are going there, animals could smell the blood, and they would attack. So that’s why it’s they kept them separate, they kept them from going there to keep [the community] safe. Plus, I don’t know about you, but women, when we get our periods, we go crazy with PMS. It feels like someone stabbing us in the back with a stiletto. So why would you want to go to temple, when you’re trying to pray and connect with God, and you’re like, “Oh, my back hurts. Oh, my legs hurt.”? You know, that’s another reason people kept them separate. But it’s not because you’re impure, or you’re unclean. Actually, there are a couple of temples in northeastern India – I read about this – where the goddess menstruates. They have an entire festival built around this lady who menstruates. I thought that was so beautiful and so cool.
You had asked me before what I love about Hinduism. There’s always something new and fun and fascinating to learn about in Hinduism. Another deity, another way of thinking, another practice, another book, another scripture. Everyone says that in Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita is the only scripture that they’re familiar with. No, that’s not the only scripture we have. We have Vedas, we have Shastras. We have different books written by different saints and sages. So Bhagavad Gita isn’t our “Hindu Bible.” That’s another stigma that needs to be broken. While I was working at the Metropolitan Museum, a curator told me, he’s like, “Think about it. Before the British came, the Bhagavad Gita wasn’t really illustrated. It wasn’t really written down. It wasn’t really illustrated on paper. You saw carvings of it, but there’s no paintings, no paper of this. Why? Because when the British came to South Asia, they saw all these people thinking in a multitude of different ways, praying in all sorts of ways, and they were massively confused, because they came from a Christian background. Because they came from one book, one prophet, one thing. And they saw all of this and they’re like, ‘OK, you know what, we’re going to take Mahabharat, the poem that Bhagavad Gita is extracted from, and here you go, this is the Hindu Bible.” And that’s not right. So after the British came, you see a lot more paintings and drawings of Lord Krishna giving the sermon to Arjuna, and stuff like that written down. But it’s interesting, you look in art history, and it teaches you a lot as well. So we don’t just have one central text, we have a multitude of ways of thinking, and multiple books, and everyone should accept how the other ones think. North India isn’t better than South India, South India isn’t better than East India, East isn’t better than the West. We’re all equal, under the divine.
You mentioned that Hinduism is growing in the US, but it’s still one of the smaller religions. What do you see as both the obstacles and opportunities in Hinduism right now?
For opportunities, first of all, we’re all spending more time online, because we can’t congregate in person because of COVID. Right? That means the reach is far. People can get to know about Hinduism through YouTube, through Facebook, through all these channels of communication, through the digital world. So that opportunity, and the fact that the world is becoming more inclusive. You see all of these different colleges have inclusivity and diversity trainings, so that’s a step in the right direction – at least they’re starting to care a bit more.
The obstacles I face is that people don’t know so much about Hinduism correctly in order to actually help. For example, I was part of NAHCA, the North American Hindu Chaplains Association when it was formed. And that’s to help with spiritual caregiving and find chaplains to work in hospitals, the military, and the university system. But even the word chaplain, we don’t have that in Hindu language. Like, when I went to NYU, Imam Khalid was the first person who took me under his wing, and I’m like, “What the hell’s a chaplain, dude?” And he explained to me, it’s spiritual caregiving. It’s being there for someone the way they need you to be there for them. “Dope, that’s so cool. I can do this.” But when you say Hindu chaplain, most Hindus, even the ones born and raised here, they don’t know what a Hindu chaplain is. My parents don’t know what a chaplain is, until I explained to them. Slowly, Hindu chaplaincy is growing in the United States. Like, I’ve had people contact me from the military, and from also prisons as well. But they also need to know the right terminology. For example, I’ll get requests, “Can you marry this couple?” And I’m like, “OK, in Hinduism, what is the language that they speak? What culture did they come from? How are they raised? What do they prefer?” They can’t explain these things to me, so you need to ask the right questions. Also, for example, one of my students at NYU, he wanted to study chaplaincy. So I wrote his recommendations to divinity schools – there’s Harvard Divinity School, and there’s one in Chicago. And the box check [on the form] says, “Affiliation: Church, Synagogue.” Yo, you forgot temple, you know what I mean? Stuff like that.
But you know, Jesse, I have a positive outlook that things are growing. And because the world is becoming more inclusive, and people are starting to understand each other more, and have access to each other more – like, no matter how much I have a love-hate relationship with social media, at least you learn information, learn about new things. You can hear about some cool graffiti artist in the middle of Africa someplace, because he has an Instagram account. You know, there’s a huge Hindu temple in Ghana, Africa, that I can’t wait to go to. Yeah, Black people, African people are Hindus. There’s a gigantic temple in Ghana, Africa. So [likewise] there are different Hindu people in the U.S. who are trying their level best to bring Hinduism to the mainstream.
But I really don’t appreciate [things like] this Indian Matchmaking show. You need to put a disclaimer on that, that this is only certain types of people who act like this. Meanwhile, there are other like good TV shows like Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever. Did you see that?
I haven’t seen that, no.
It’s about an Indian American family who lives in Southern California, in L.A. But you know, she beautifully illustrates what Indian American Hindu kids feel. Devi, that’s the lead [character] in that show, she doesn’t know anything about Hinduism. She’s growing up like any other American kid, like, she has a crush on the hot guy or whatever. And then they take her to a Hindu puja in a school gymnasium, and it’s just more a cultural thing than anything. No one is really worshiping. They don’t understand the meaning behind it. That’s how a lot of people feel, a lot of Hindu kids feel in the U.S. But I thought that was a beautifully done show. Because people assume, also, culturally, that everyone speaks Hindi. Like all Indians speak Hindi, which is not true. I don’t speak Hindi. I don’t understand Hindi so much, here and there. My father speaks Hindi fluently, because he lived in the north, and my mom does not. So it’s like, at least Tamil has been put on the map, like, a South Indian language has been put on the map. And people need to realize that India is extremely diverse. There’s over 5,000 languages that are spoken there. English and Hindi are not the only two, you know. People need to accept the diversity of Hinduism, the diversity of Indian cultures, as well as their different ways of thinking. And accept all of them.
Lastly, do you have a favorite religious message or deity or story that you’d like to share with listeners?
Oh, my God, I love all of them. That’s the biggest thing is for me is this Sanskrit phrased that means, the world, the entire world, is one family. That’s the principle that I adhere by. So technically, you’re my sister. He’s my brother. She’s my mother. She’s my sister. If you see everyone as one, as oneness, then you wouldn’t have hatred or malice or judgement in your heart and your brain. And then another phrase, which means, “Let all creation be healthy, happy, prosperous.” It’s said at the end, after every prayer ritual. So we’re not just praying for Hindu people to be happy, or Indian people to be happy. We’re praying for the entire world, entire planet, all creation. And creation includes animals, birds, plants, vegetation – all of that, too.
You’ve been listening to 51%. 51% is a national production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. It’s hosted by me, Jesse King. Our executive producer is Dr. Alan Chartock, and our theme is “Lolita” by the Albany-based artist Girl Blue. Thanks again to Sangeetha Kowsik for taking part in this week’s episode. Until next week, I’m Jesse King for 51%. Happy New Year!