One Decade, 7,000 Years

Exploring the basics of the world's oldest religion as a Hindu temple celebrates its 10th anniversary.

Dr. Sridara Sastry puts down the fork and furrows his brow.

"Hinduism is very hard to understand," he says, and picks his fork back up.

Between bites he talks of Vedas and Satyanarayana, pooja and Maha Kumbabhishekam celebrations, his tongue rolling through the several-syllable words faster than I can grasp the concepts behind them.

"The soul is always alive, it never dies," he continues. "Kennedy's been gone since '64, but people still talk about him like he was here yesterday. Did you hear they are looking for Jimmy Hoffa's body again?"

A few minutes later, he finishes his lentil cake and spicy rice, and smiles at the challenge of explaining the world's oldest religion.

"Hinduism is very hard to understand," he repeats.

I didn't expect to hear about former presidents and mobsters when I stepped onto the sacred grounds of the Hindu Temple of Florida, the first and largest of its kind in the area.

I'd just been curious to learn more about the temple, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last weekend. A two-story, cream-colored edifice covered in intricately carved elephant and peacock designs, the temple's five domed towers stand out amidst the plush subdivisions and large shopping malls off the Veterans Expressway.

On the day of my visit, worshippers, mostly Indians dressed in khakis and collared shirts, walk unhurriedly up and down the stairs leading to the temple. I choose the elevator.

When the doors open, I am in a rooftop courtyard with a small glass-walled sanctuary at the center. Inside the sanctuary, 10 worshippers sit with their legs crossed on the wooden floor while a priest, dressed in a sari the color of curry powder, chants in Hindu's ancient language, Sanskrit. A tall man in a starched white shirt — Dr. G.M. Ramappa, president of the temple — comes out to greet me.

Ramappa moved with his wife to New Port Richey from Miami in the early '80s. "At that time there were not that many Hindus here," he says, recounting the days when only a few dozen families worshipped in a small school on Sligh Avenue.

But as the decades passed, Indians continued to immigrate to urban centers like Tampa, seeking employment at local universities and hospitals. According to census records, Hillsborough County's Indian population grew from 2,316 to 6,329 between 1990 and 2000.

Even by the mid-'80s, Ramappa and his fellow worshippers had outgrown their improvised temple. So, with just $200, the congregation began fundraising. Within seven years, they obtained the land, built a small canteen that served as the interim temple and laid the foundation for a grand palace, to be designed and built by Hindu artisans from India.

In the spring of 1996, the temple opened to the public. Over the last 10 years, several other features have been added — a community hall, Sunday school, the Indian Cultural Center — to accommodate the growing membership, which Ramappa pegs at 3,000 worshippers.

During the same period, the growing Hindu community in Tampa Bay built three more temples serving thousands of worshippers from India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

And another one is under construction just 200 yards away.

Ramappa introduces me to Dr. Sastry, whose family was another one of the first to be involved in the temple's construction. Sastry immigrated to Miami from India when he was 25, and moved to Tampa in 1983. Besides working full-time as a doctor in St. Joseph's Hospital's intensive care unit, Sastry regularly teaches classes on Hinduism to area college students.

He is the perfect person to introduce a novice to the finer points of Hinduism.

Inside the sanctuary, the priest holds a silver tray with incense pouring from it and waves it around each deity's gold and silver "murti" (idol) positioned in the room's corners. A dozen worshippers follow him, hands clasped, praying. A large table, low to the ground, is covered in vases and glasses containing water and fruit.

The pooja ritual — a set of prayers outlining the 16 steps of worship — celebrates the temple's 10-year existence and blesses it for another decade.

Contrary to popular misconception, Dr. Sastry explains, Hindus do not worship multiple gods, but one God who manifests itself in various forms, be it Lord Ganesha, the elephant-like deity of wisdom, or Lord Karthikeya, who came up with the meditative word "oum."

"I always give the analogy of hardware and software," he says. "Say you have a laptop. But you cannot do anything with just the laptop. You need software. Every software has a particular function. And so we have a God for every particular function."

This philosophy allows Hindus to accept other faiths and their deities in what Sastry calls "seeing the sun in different angles."

But despite his pluralism, Sastry — no matter how much he denies it — seems annoyed by Hinduism's hippie spin-off, the Hare Krishnas.

"I have a lot of respect for them," he says, carefully choosing his words. "The music is wonderful, but it is not the way we would like to practice."

Wise to public opinion through the college classes he teaches, Dr. Sastry cuts through my naïve questions: Hindus do not remember their past lives; they believe in nonviolence but understand a soldier's duty; and although they don't worship them, Hindus really, really love cows.

"The cow is for us like a mother," he explains, the happiest I've seen him the whole conversation. "It is always giving, giving, giving. And it does not demand anything from you. That is why it's so sacred."

There have been challenges in the temple's decade of existence, among them vandalism, tough zoning regulations and the need to forge a communal identity, particularly important in the wake of post-9/11 bias that paints all South Asians as terrorists.

"Before we were afraid to call ourselves Hindus," he says, frowning. "We were afraid to call ourselves Indian. We didn't have an identity.

"But now, you are proud to say you are Hindu or Indian. You [have] pride to say you have such a rich culture and values."

The priest comes by and holds out a tray with bananas. Dr. Sastry takes one and motions for me to take the other.

"You never leave God empty-handed," he says.

On our way out of the sanctuary, he talks about his commitment to education on the Hindu faith, especially for American children.

"My goal is to make sure young children know about Hinduism," he says. "Anything foreign should not be considered as terrorism."

"We believe in universal peace," he continues. "It is easy to retaliate and attack, but it is very difficult to control the anger and work toward the good. If you think there is God in another person, you will not hurt him."

He laughs.

"Remember, we are coming from the land of Gandhi."

The sun descends, and I bid Dr. Sastry farewell. I get in my car and drive down Lynn Road, seeing the temple in my rearview mirror. I take the banana, peel it back and eat it.

It tastes divine.

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