Two Hindu centers flourish in Chico after years with no place to celebrate
Whether it’s waving a flame in front of an image of a god or offering food, ceremonies and festivals are important ways for Hindus to show devotion to the gods. Until recently, though, the Hindu community in Chico did not have a place to celebrate festivals, hold ceremonies or meditate.
In 2008, Manju Pillai bought a former church on Hicks Lane and converted it into the Grace Light Hindu Temple to give Hindu Chicoans a place to gather.
“We can do all of it at home, but when more than one person join together, the power of prayer is multiplied 100 times,” Pillai said during a recent visit to the temple.
The place of worship gives believers a place to sing devotional songs, recite prayers and make offerings to the gods. Uniting the Hindu community is a vision that began when Pillai became involved with Hinduism two years ago, she said.
Pillai grew up in Fiji as part of a Hindu family, but remained distant from the faith. However, in the last few years, she found a guru through the religious group Grace Light. She felt a deeper connection to Hinduism after traveling with her guru to India, where she learned about the religion and the philosophy of karma, she said. This renewed faith inspired her to open the temple.
“Without God’s grace, I could never have come close to it,” Pillai said.
The temple is growing in membership, but is open only for festival days and special meditation sessions. It features paintings and statues of a range of the Hindu gods, but is dedicated to Krishna, Pillai said.
According to the Mahabharata, an Indian epic tale and religious text, Krishna came to Earth as an avatar, or incarnation of Vishnu, who is at the top of the Hindu pantheon, said Daniel Veidlinger, an assistant professor of religious studies at Chico State who specializes in Asian religions.
“The two main gods, Vishnu and Shiva, are worshipped by most Hindus,” Veidlinger said. “According to Hinduism, Vishnu over the eons has come down to Earth in different forms to help humanity.”
The many gods in Hinduism reflect the many aspects of Brahma, which is the source of divine reality. There are many ways in Hinduism to worship the gods. These rituals include offering food, flowers and incense, waving a flame in front of and looking with reverence at a representation of a god, and singing.
These forms of worship are commonly used at the temple, Pillai said. In addition to worship, meditation also helps followers commune with Brahma.
Last Friday (March 12), Hindus gathered to worship and meditate at the temple. The session was led by a woman whose spiritual name is Nakhila, which means “self-realized one.”
The ideas of creation and destruction are seen as cosmically balanced in Hinduism. Worshipping the gods destroys negativity and brings positivity, Nakhila said.
“You are removing all tension and negativity and breathing in more love and more light” during meditation, Nakhila said. “Maintain that sense of peace and love in your life.”
Although meditation varies from group to group, it generally encourages participants to reach a deeper understanding of their inner selves, Veidlinger said. Meditation and yoga overlap within Hinduism to teach adherents to control their minds and bodies.
The Hindu ideas behind meditation are also present in the Ananda Meditation Center of Chico, which is based out of a one-story white house on East First Avenue. This center opened in October and is based on the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda.
Yogananda was a Hindu yogi who traveled from India to the United States to spread his message of how to realize the divine will. He combined aspects of Hindu yoga and meditation with Christian beliefs, said Marlene Marron, a meditation group leader and co-founder of the Ananda Meditation Center of Chico.
The center embraces aspects of many religions as part of the path to self-realization. Marron was raised Jewish, but she became involved with the Ananda movement 25 years ago after attending a retreat. She said Yogananda’s way of connecting with God through love attracted her to Ananda.
“He loved to talk to God as the loving, caring and nurturing mother who cradles us in her arms,” Marron said.
Through coming to the U.S., Yogananda spread this vision of the divine to everyday people, said Victoria Tooker, who is also a meditation group leader and co-founder of the center. He taught meditation techniques to the public that were normally accessible only to those following a monastic lifestyle.
While the Ananda Meditation Center of Chico’s theology differs from that expressed at the Grace Light Hindu Temple, they both encourage meditation. Each exposes Chico residents to the Hindu idea of self-reflection as a way to connect with the divine.
“You don’t have to separate yourself from your everyday life to find God,” Tooker said.