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Field Work Report #2: Shri Krishna by Hannah Miller Structures of Social Experience and Characteristic Tensions

ARRIVING ONSITE

Observing the Surrounding Area: When we arrived at the area near Shri Krishna, it was very commercial and generic. Following Nick's finger, one sees the Alameda Street sign, indicating that we are located on a major road where many cars are constantly passing through and parking. Even though there are many cars and stores, the area lacks energy and is more so just a "passing-through" area. On the main road, even among these stores, there is feeling of vacancy. Unless one knows Shri Krishna exists, it would never be assumed that a religious site lives around the corner. This is an aspect of the structure of social experience, since in order to attend the temple one has to know it exists, and it would be difficult to find on its own. In this way, it cultivates a community of people connected through their privileged knowledge about the temple.

Approaching the Space: When we turned down Sunol street to walk to the temple, I started feeling skeptical about where we were going. I was surprised when we arrived and it was just a simple building that looks like a house among many other residencies. The house next to the temple had a porch decorated with cactus plants and lights and a white male was sitting on his porch. This suggests that this sacred space is embedded within a larger residential community, but is at the same time detached. This detachment and difference was marked by the gate and the illustration of a lotus flower on the ground that distinguished the temple among other residencies. Personally, the image of a lotus flower is one that I find very recognizable and comforting. Additionally, it is a symbol of welcoming that made me feel at ease. Being able to physically walk over this image suggests that once visitors have successfully found this hidden little temple, they are welcomed.

LOTUS/MANDALA SIDEwalk ILLUSTRATION
The home-like appearance of the temple itself made the experience of entering far less intimidating and stressful because a home is a universal image that everyone shares. This lack of formality fostered greater familiarity when entering into this new space and revealed that the purpose of the temple was humble, rather than obtrusive.

Entering the Space: We entered through an open metal gate and put our shoes in a wooden rack outside the building. These structures indicated that this was a space in which we had to enter, alter our bodily behaviors (like removing our shoes), and become part of a space in which we had never before been. The gate made me feel as if this was a space separate from the community, and in this way it becomes more of a sacred experience as I have to be permitted entrance. After placing our shoes in the wooden racks, we walked on a concrete path towards the main building. In this central patio we passed a banana tree, which to me, suggested an emphasis on natural goods that may be part of an idiomatic practice.

When we entered the main hall I noticed several bushels of bananas on the sacred, elevated stage. Throughout the ceremony more and more bananas were ushered to the front and were then passed out during the blessing. Although I didn't know the meanings of the bananas, the extent to which they were treated with honor made me understand that they were a sacred element of the Hindu tradition. The bananas illustrate that material goods are an element of the Hindu tradition and reflect their cultural value for earthly goods. Additionally, material goods such as bananas bridge a gap between the tension of the physical and spiritual words. Goods like bananas become the vehicle for religious value and practice.

Inside: We passed through a hall first that we would later find to be the dining hall, but at first we just noticed the images on the wall and the signs that said silence your phones, and no running. These signs were laminated throughout the main prayer hall as well, attempting to provide instruction and structure. However, there was tension in how they were followed. Even though the signs were posted, there seemed to be a lack of legitimacy to them. Everyone brought their phones in and were using them before the service fully began. Children were running around even during the chants. There was a sign that said “maintain lanes” which I initially interpreted as meaning women on one side and men on the other since the rugs were divided in two sections. However, men and women were interspersed and there didn’t seem to be any division, yet our group still separated with men on one side and women on the other. Even though the members of the community weren't conforming to the sign, as outsiders we were timid to violate or intrude on any custom. This demonstrated, like Michael Jackson observing the Kuranko people, we made an assumption before actually experiencing. We later realized during the receival of the blessing that this sign was referring to the line that formed around the room waiting to receive the blessing, rather than a distinction between genders. The tension associated with the signs suggests that this community is comfortable with one another and that they do not need strict rules to guide their interactions, but have an innate sense of understandings ones actions.

During the main Puja practice I felt an overwhelming sense of rhythm, grounded in the chants and prayers of the leaders and visitors. The room was vibrating with sound, but in an entirely peaceful and calm way. There was one chant that began with an ‘Ohm’ sound, and during this chant I was most inclined to participate because I am familiar with the ‘Ohm’ practice. I felt myself drawn to close my eyes and I felt my body swaying. The group synergy of this practice had a physical effect on me that was grounding and meditative. Although the group energy was calming, everyone was keeping their own beat which suggested the individuality of the experience. The age demographic ranged from very young children to elderly people. The majority of people seemed to be in their twenties to thirties. Some were dressed in idiomatic clothing such as the saris seen in this image, but you can also see that people are in very informal clothing. However, the main leaders on the elevated stage wore distinct formal dress. This idiomatic expression suggested the social structuring of class and status, that these individuals were esteemed among others. Although there was an overarching sense of community grounded in the shared practice, it seemed more so that people were engaging with the people they came with rather than the congregation as a whole. I didn’t notice people saying hello to each other unless they came together or seemed that they planned to meet up. This suggests that the service itself is valued above a community support system. In fact, many people we spoke to noted that they come to this temple because it is convenient, and on a Thursday night after work they need to go somewhere close by. This implies that the temple is part of a more informal culture, but is still valued very deeply by those who attend. In this way, the religious reverence to Hinduism is more important than the structure of the space itself.

during most of the Puja service tHE RHYTHM WAS KEPT AT A CERTAIN PACE. However, when the chants would reach a certain volume and magnitude, it marked a special moment in the service. the noise would become chaotic and the beat would start to break down and become frantic.
For example, at one point when the main leader was waving several lit candles at the main worshipping center, the gong was being struck aggressively and repeatedly. the main leader was ringing a bell disorderly and loudly. To me it sounded like they were attempting to awaken the Gods/Saints or let them hear their prayer. After the main leader waved the fire, it was ushered through the crowd and people excitedly rushed to it to put their hands over it and put the warmth to their faces.
After this, everyone seemed much more together and united. For example, prior to the fire sharing there was a lot of space around me, enough for other people to sit. instead, however, everyone was sitting in other places, standing, and crowding in the back. I noticed that after the fire, people seemed more centered, and were willing to come sit near me. The space next to me on the mat was filled, and A little boy was sitting in his father's arms in front of me looking at me the entire time giggling. These gestures made me feel more a part of the congregation and that rather than just observing, I was immersing and partaking.

During the fire section when I could partake in the practice, I felt like I was embedded in the experience, whereas the actual chanting made me feel like I was observing from the outside since I didn't know the words. My involvement in touching the fire was a sign to people that I was there to engage, and therefore they felt more comfortable approaching me. Even though the rhythm during the chants enveloped me in a physical sense, the words were so foreign to me that it was more difficult to attach to them. In these moments, I felt like an outside observer that struggled to read the practice, both literally and metaphorically.

Reading: In order to follow along to the chants there were prayer books, that for me, were entirely unreadable. I attempted to find the place in the book in which they were chanting, but it was incredibly difficult to discern and I was unsuccessful. People that did not have books used their smartphones to look up the words to the chants. I found this very intriguing considering our discussion in class about having the Virgin Guadalupe on a phone case. Should technology be used during a holy practice?

The use of the phones reflected to me a sense of informality in the service and also a sense that the chant itself was vital to any other aspect of the service. in this way, the means of participating in the chant was subordinate to the chant itself. The reading of the chants was ritualized into the habits of everyone; it was likely they were reading the script off of an app or website they visit regularly. Having that sacred text on their phones allows them to keep it close to them at all times, even outside the service.
"while words and concepts distinguish and divide, bodiliness unites and forms the grounds of an empathetic, even a universal, understanding" (Jackson 341)

This quote from anthropologist Michael Jackson's "Knowledge of the Body" reflects my experience with the chanted verses. Although I could not connect on a linguistic level, the bodily feelings associated with the chants brought me closer to the practice. These bodily experiences are outlined here:

WHILE PARTICIPATING IN THE CHANT, EVERYONE KEPT THE BEAT. I SAW ONE MAN COUNTING EACH NOTE WITH HIS FINGERS AND A SMALL GIRL CLAPPING THE BEAT PERFECTLY. WHEN THE CHANT ENDED, SHE EXECUTED A PERFECT BOW WITH HER HANDS IN A PERFECT PRAYER POSITION. FOR ONLY BEING PROBABLY FOUR YEARS OLD, SHE KNEW EVERY WORD TO THE CHANT EFFORTLESSLY. HER HABIT AND REFLECTION OF BODILY KNOWLEDGE SUGGESTED THAT THIS PRACTICE WAS INGRAINED IN HER BEING AT EVEN SUCH A YOUNG AGE.
RIGHT BEFORE WE RECEIVED THE BLESSING, WE DECIDED TO GO TO THE BACK OF THE LINE SO THAT EVERYONE ELSE COULD RECEIVE THEIRS FIRST. IN FEAR THAT WE WERE LEAVING, WE WERE APPROACHED BY A MAN THAT SEEMED TO HOLD A LEADERSHIP POSITION, ENCOURAGING US TO STAY, RECEIVE BLESSING AND EAT WITH THEM. AFTER THIS MAN SPOKE TO US, MANY OTHER PEOPLE IN LINE BEGAN MAKING CONVERSATION WITH US. THEY WOULD ASK US WHERE WE WERE FROM AND THEN WOULD TELL US ABOUT THEIR OWN RELATIONSHIP TO THE TEMPLE. THE LEADERS ACTION OF SPEAKING TO US BRIDGED THE TENSION BETWEEN US AS OUTSIDERS.
The final thing we did was participate in the dinner meal. We were the last group of people to enter the dining hall and there was barely any space left. They were encouraging us to find spots, but as a group it was clear we were skeptical about separating. At this moment, it felt like everyones eyes were on us. Even though they welcomed our company, to me, taking food can sometimes feel as if we are trying to beneforit from thier service, when we are not apart of their typical congregation. in this moment, i felt the most tension as an outsider.

The above image is a classic Indian dessert that we ate, Jalebi

Once we finally found places to sit, the actual meal made me notice tension as well. Leaving food behind is something that always makes me feel uncomfortable because I feel as if I am not respecting their kindness in sharing with me. Sitting on the floor together, I felt like I was equal to them within the practice and I didn't want to make myself stand out as disrespectful or different. The physical spatial structure of the ground made me feel welcomed, but internally I felt tension.The last thing I ever wanted to do was appear ungrateful. However, what I was feeling was not a result of anyone saying or doing anything towards me, but reflects an innate fear of judgement that occurs when entering a new space. This reflects that when entering new spaces, each individual alters their paths in response to how others are acting and behaving.

Roses: After dinner we proceeded outside to water taps to wash our hands. I noticed that where the water taps are located, roses grow beneath the water. During the service, I also noticed roses being carried through the space and placed on the stage in addition to the bananas. The leader even spread rose petals during one moment. Outside, considering how much water gets poured out of the taps, I found it amazing that any plant could survive so beautifully there. The roses were bright pink and in perfect bloom. The water washed off our hands after dinner appeared to be aiding the life of the roses. This suggests a possible Hindu belief in the ties between sacred and natural practices, and human life and the natural, spiritual world.

LEAVING SHRI KRISHNA

When we existed from the space we were walking down the street when we were approached by a group of what seemed like a few twenty-year old friends attending service together. They asked us where we were from and then we all just started chatting about the service and the temple itself. I ended up walking all the way back to the cars with a young couple who was telling me all about the temple and various parts of the traditions. While our conversation was fascinating, the part of this interaction that stuck with me was their willingness and curiosity to engage with me. Even though there is tension when outsiders enter a new religious space, they were willing to sacrifice their skepticism to connect with us. Their desire to talk to us also implied that our presence had altered the fabric of their social experience, and that being able to interact with us was unique to their visit as well. The following quote by Certeau illustrates how when I entered Shri Krishna my own path began to intertwine with other visitors. Although we all come from different backgrounds and share different cultures, in these few hours we wove a new type of bodily "poem" grounded in our shared experience and awareness.

"THe paths that correspond in this intertwining, unrecognized poems in which each body is an element signed by many others, elude legibility" (de CErteau 93)

WORKS CITED

De Certeau, Michel. "The Practice of Everyday Life." Trans. Steven Randall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Jackson, Michael. “Knowledge of the Body.” Man, vol. 18, no. 2, 1983, pp. 327–345. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2801438.

Credits:

Created with images by rawpixel - "hand teamwork cooperation" • Tanuj_handa - "diya light flame" • Jeremy Yap - "untitled image" • Bagus Hernawan - "untitled image" • solut_rai - "mudra meditate energy" • Anastasia Taioglou - "untitled image" • Vitamin - "fresh jalebi indian sweet dessert" • César Abner Martínez Aguilar - "untitled image" • Ryoji Iwata - "untitled image"

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