Religion

Hindu Lord Ram road-trips through the United States

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(RNS) — For the past month, four road-trippers have been making their way across the United States, snacking on vegetarian treats and playing Hindu devotional music called bhajans on the car radio.

With them, a very important passenger: the idol of baby Ram, or Ram Lalla. For the first time in North America, Ram Lalla is being paraded from temple to temple on a two-month-long, 16,000-mile road trip, just in time for Ram Navami — the birthday of Lord Ram.

“I bought the van and I said, ‘I’m going to go, anybody wants to join?’” said Amitabh Mittal, joint general secretary of the World Hindu Council of America-VHPA, the group behind the Ram Rath Yatra, or Ram chariot procession. “‘Just be part of it,’ I said. ‘Don’t regret it later.’”

Rather than a chariot, Ram’s normal conveyance in Indian versions of Mittal’s trek, the baby Ram is seated in the back of a decked-out Honda Odyssey, visiting about 14 mandirs, or temples, per day for about 30 minutes at each. From makeshift temples in strip malls to grand architectural feats like the massive new BAPS Robbinsville Mandir in northern New Jersey, Ram and his companions are making history.

“I would say I had a blessing from Shri Ram,” said Manan Rawal, one of the four road-trippers. “If he wishes something, he will make it done, and he has willed that Amitabh Mittal called me. It’s all about Shri Ram. I am blessed that he chose me.”

Rath Yatras occur during Hindu festivals throughout India, where deities are charioted through the streets so that the general public can experience a darshan — a mutual look between worshipper and the image of a precious god.

The VHPA, or Vishwa Hindu Parashad of America, is the American arm of one of India’s most powerful religious organizations closely knit with the Hindu nationalist group RSS and its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party. These groups frequently support yatras, especially for Lord Ram, who has become one of the most prominent religious figures of the Hindu nationalist movement.

The best known Ram Rath Yatra occurred in 1990, when a political and religious rally was organized by the BJP and VHP to gain support for a temple dedicated to Lord Ram at the site of the 15th-century Babri mosque.

More than 30 years later, the long-awaited mandir has finally been built, dedicated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January, in a promise kept by the popular BJP and Modi, who has touted the mandir’s opening in his reelection campaign.

“At that time, we never dreamed that this was going to happen,” said Rawal, who is the head of Bharat TV, an independent media organization covering the Yatra, whose family participated in the 1990 rally. “Even I was like in that opinion, that ‘they’re saying they will but they aren’t able to do it.’ They have proved themselves. “



But this North American journey, VHPA officials say, is less about nationalist politics, and more about unity.

The Ram Rath Yatra in India comprised of visits to more than 500,000 temples, but Mittal is pleased that more than 850 temples on this U.S. tour have made themselves available for a short and sweet darshan. “People say, ‘What? There are that many temples in the U.S.?’” he said. “Thirty years ago, we were struggling to make one temple.”

Premnath Ramsawak carries an idol of baby Ram, or Ram Lalla, at the Shree Raam Mandir in Tampa, Florida. (Photo courtesy Shree Raam Mandir)

Premnath Ramsawak carries an idol of baby Ram, or Ram Lalla, at the Shree Raam Mandir in Tampa, Florida. (Photo courtesy of Shree Raam Mandir)

On Tuesday (April 16), the travelers passed through the Shree Raam Mandir in Tampa, Florida, where devotees wore their festive best and a small child could be seen dressed up as Lord Hanuman, the monkey god who is known to be Ram’s most devoted follower. “It was full of buzz and excitement,” said Premnath Ramsawak, the mandir’s spiritual head.

Ramsawak says he heard of the yatra’s passing through his city only on Sunday. But “when God wants to be somewhere, he sends his messengers to make it happen.”

“He came back on his own birthday,” said Ramsawak, a Trinidadian immigrant who visited Ayodhya for the opening of the Ram temple there. “He came back to see me. Even though he lives in Bharat desh (an alternative name for India), his presence can be felt all the way here.”

Waking up at 6 in the morning and ending the day at midnight is not for everyone, said Mittal; otherwise, he thinks their chariot would be carrying more than four.

“Seriously, people don’t know how strong the Hindu community is here,” he said, pointing to the burgeoning South Asian and Indo-Caribbean Hindu population. “We just don’t show strength, and some people don’t know we exist. There are Hindus in every nook and cranny of the U.S.”

Rawal, who founded Bharat TV, an online news service dedicated to “the new India,” started the company to get all Indians united through one thing many are famous for loving: entertainment. His channel runs programming in almost 10 Indian languages and has been live- broadcasting each temple visit and puja, or ritual, along the way. “To be very frank,” he said, “I have never gotten up at 6:30 in my life. But now, I’m always fresh and good to go.”

The group still has about half of the journey to go. But signs and miracles, they say, let the four know they are in the right place. Rawal, one of the car’s drivers, narrowly avoided a collision with a loose tire that spun off a truck on the highway, a near miss he credits to God. And Mittal, who felt the urge to go to the bathroom and ended up in a gas station with two young Indian workers, said the girls had “teary eyes” when Mittal brought them out to get a look at the deity in the trunk.

“We were pulled over because Ram wanted to see them, more than they wanted to see Ram,” he said. 

For Catherine Vander Vliet, another passenger who works for Bharat TV, the journey has already made her a “different person,” meeting people she would have never met otherwise, whom she credits with introducing her to the “patience, warmth, and perseverance” of the Hindu faithful. Americans like her, she says, “don’t know the real Bharat.” 

“At the end of the day, we’re all one no matter who we say our prayers to,” she said. “They’re doing the same thing that we’re doing, they’re putting their heart and their soul into their God. That’s the same thing I do when I go to church.

“Maybe all the things I’ve done in my life have led to this.”



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