The temple itself provided an all-encompassing sensory experience. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the grandeur of this place of worship, which so clearly juxtaposed its suburban Maryland surroundings. The outside of the temple was a vibrant bright white, and it supported an impressive tower decorated with many of the Hindu gods.
As I entered, I took my shoes off in the lobby and stepped inside. The temple floor was enormous—about the size of a large department store—and held a total of 17 different shrines to Hindu gods, many of which are replicas of shrines that can be found in India. Each shrine holds its own significance, story, and set of prayers. The shrines were adorned with offerings to the idols, including fruit (mostly bananas), flowers (which were being strung by a gathering of women near the front door), and a variety of sweet smelling incense.
As I walked around, I could see Hindus praying at these various shrines. I witnessed two puja services performed by Hindu priests for the sake of individuals who had purchased them (according to one sheet I saw, for about $30 each). Each of these took place in front of specific shrines, and each held its own set of rituals and prayers, all spoken in Hindi.
In one, a man was marked with ointment as he went through a series of prayer positions. In another, a woman stood before an idol as it was washed with milk and water. As I was watching this ceremony, the woman turned to me and whispered that I could come closer. At the end of her ceremony, the priest doused her with water and, after asking if it was okay, doused me as well. Although I am not sure exactly how or why I was blessed, I appreciated the experience nonetheless.
There was a profound sense of inclusion at the temple. This Hindu community of friends and believers welcomed me to their faith tradition with open arms, never once questioning whether I belonged, was knowledgeable, or acceptable to partake in it. As long as I was willing to participate respectfully, they were willing to have me. I think this is what interreligious experience is all about: welcoming one another to explore and grow in faith, and to recognize that every tradition, like every person, holds an intrinsic value of its own.