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The Hindu festival of Navaratri which honors feminine energy begins today

Overhead picture of the Hindu Cultural Society Temple
Hindu Cultural Society
An overhead picture of the Hindu Cultural Society Temple

Off Interstate 990, just north of the University at Buffalo’s sprawling Amherst campus is the hamlet of Getzville. Originally a farming community of mostly German-speaking immigrants and a waypoint on the New York Central Railroad line to Niagara Falls, this area remained largely rural until the 1970s when UB opened its north campus. Today, Getzville is a bedroom community that’s home to a regional center for Hindu culture.

On Sunday mornings, members of the Hindu community gather at the temple here to offer prayers and devotional songs. Everyone is welcome. In the prayer hall is an altar with large, colorfully adorned devotional images of the deities called murti, and offerings of fruits and flowers. Devotees sit cross-legged and shoeless on the carpeted floor. In the center of the hall are the community singers leading the call-and-response style of singing.

Meena Vivek is one of the singers.

Meena Vivek before Durga Murti in the prayer hall with her hands together
Hindu Cultural Society
Meena Vivek before Durga Murti in the prayer hall

"So we call it kirtan," said Vivek. "What we sing is called bhajan. Bhajan is like a love poem to the god."

A microbiologist by education originally from Mumbai, Vivek is a long-time volunteer Hindi and religious teacher. She’s also serving her second term as president of the Hindu Cultural Society. She explains that for this month’s festival of Navaratri, which means "nine nights," they will chant each night and day, read scriptures, and observe a fast in honor of the goddess Shakti who is divine feminine energy. Vivek points out that the ancient Vedic scriptures are consistent with our understanding today of the cosmos and the natural world.

"According to the Vedas, we say the whole universe, the divine energy, divine supreme is in the universe," said Vivek. "And of course, we feel that we have divinity in our tiniest of tiniest cells. Of course, that’s true for the physics as well. You know that in every atom, there is movement. The electron moves around the nucleus. There’s a proton and a neutron, and there’s an electron moving around, so there’s nothing that is static. So there’s divinity everywhere."

Founded in 1979, the Hindu Cultural Society would outgrow the small, single-story plain brick building here on North French Road and in 1995 build a magnificent temple. White as the lotus flower that represents knowledge and crowned with rows of steeples representing the sacred Mount Meru, a grand two-story outdoor staircase climbs to the prayer hall at the top. The year 1995 was also the year Pandit Ranganathan joined this community.

Pandit Ranganathan from the chest up in front of a set of stairs leading into a temple
Hindu Cultural Society
Pandit Ranganathan from the chest up in front of a set of stairs leading into a temple

"At age seven, I went to the Vedic school in Kumbakonam," said Ranganthan. "Then I finished there. Then I came back to Hyderabad. I learned from my grandfather. And after my degree was over, I served the government in India, in temples."

The Pandit is affectionately addressed in the community as Panditji, the title of one versed in the Vedic scriptures with the honorific "ji" added as a sign of respect. He grew up in an affluent business family in Hyderabad but felt a calling to the priesthood at age seven and began his formal studies at a Vedic school in Kumbakonam. He served as a priest for the Indian government for nine years before coming to the United States. Vivek says that he’s recognized as an expert in the Samaveda also called the “Book of Song” and that his insight is visionary.

I often find that Panditji has a psychic vision as well," said Vivek. "So he is very knowledgeable beyond the three-dimensional world. So this is his chosen path, in the service, the service to God."

It’s a Friday afternoon, and Vivek is meeting with Ray Bednarski and Melissa Fox from Kideney Architects. They’re looking at flooring and wall covering samples for the temple.

In June of last year, a fire broke out that resulted in widespread destruction. According to Vivek, the insurance company believes the cause may have been electrical. She says the fire was a huge blow to her and the community, but Panditji kept a positive outlook, setting up a worship space in the original prayer hall and maintaining an affecting sunny optimism.

"He is always very positive," said Vivek. "So when the fire happened, I was crying so much for so many days, but then he just held us together emotionally. He said, 'Oh, no, don't worry,' then he set up in such a beautiful manner, and then people’s spirits are lifted."

Vivek is looking forward to seeing the temple restored, resuming her Hindi language classes, and welcoming everyone back including the hundreds of UB students from India that she says used to come regularly. She’s hopeful that will be in time for the fall semester.

"It's a long road, but we’ll get there," she said. "Once it is done, you should see it. Yeah, so Panditji will be very happy too."

Modern Hindu culture has been influenced by and diffused globally by the Mumbai-based film industry known as Bollywood. The immense popularity of Bollywood films is one reason Meena says her young students want to learn Hindi.

The international viral hit “Naatu Naatu,” which is at the center of the Telugu-language film RRR won the Golden Globe and Oscar this year for best original song, helping to bring the vibrant, dynamic forces of Hindu culture into our national conversation.