The glow of an electronic flame illuminates the wooden table frame. Three small idols sit on the surface, each one a different material and color, each one a couple inches tall yet representing something much larger. One by one, students approach the table, holding a silver platter with the battery-powered candle on it. They slowly move the platter in a circle around the gods as the attendees recite a slokam, or chant — crossing their fingers for good fortune and luck for the year to come.
This is aarti, a Hindu religious ritual that the College of William and Mary’s Hindu, Sikh, and Jain Students Association performs every month. Some elements differ slightly from what priests might perform in a temple — the electronic candle, for one — but the club has adapted a traditional religious ceremony to the College setting.
HSJA held its first monthly meeting and aarti ceremony Sept. 4 in the Sadler Center’s York Room. HSJA co-President Manasi Deorah ’20 spoke to the significance of aarti in Hindu culture.
“Traditionally, aarti is done a couple times a day for Hindus, and that’s not super feasible at college, but it’s just a small moment to connect with what’s larger,” Deorah said. “The whole idea is that you give prasad, or an offering, you light a flame, and you have murtis, or statues, of the gods because we believe that, in moments of worship, the statues actually embody the presence of God.”
The chant sung by students at the aarti is a devotional song that connects the students to the deities represented by each idol.
“The whole aarti that we sing is a show of reverence and acknowledgement that there is an ultimate divine out there, and I am a small member of it,” Deorah said. “I respect that, and I respect that it’s out there. I find it very comforting; I like it quite a lot in a hectic world, and hopefully it brings that same kind of comfort to other people.”
For Vibhav Badrish ’21, the aarti ceremony serves as a way to stay connected with religion while far from home.
“Back home, me and my family would visit the temples basically every week, and you can’t really do that when you go to college,” Badrish said. “HSJA is a place where I can really engage with my religion and be in touch with that side of my life.”
The proximity of places of worship to Williamsburg has affected HSJA’s purpose and mission in providing Hindu, Sikh and Jain students a safe and welcoming place of worship on campus.
“The nearest Hindu temple is in Newport News,” Deorah said. “There’s a lot of other faith groups that have places of worship nearby, and that allows them to have adult mentors sometimes, but we have just kind of been on our own, and that definitely affects how we run and how we function, but also gives us a bigger motive to have this space, to continue to build this space.”
HSJA member Nakul Dar ’21 has several goals for HSJA’s upcoming year.
“I really want to create a space where students of the Hindu, Sikh and Jain faith may be able to practice their religions, discuss their feelings, and find a sense of continued community away from home, especially on conversations or discussions that may be difficult to have away from whatever religious background or upbringing they received prior to their time at the College,” Dar said.
Dar feels that religion can provide a sense of constancy that can be helpful for students, especially when getting used to life at the College.
“College can be a very isolating place; it can be a place that is difficult to transition to,” Dar said. “It can be a time of great change, but I think it’s also important to have a sense of continuity, and religion is a great way to do so.”
Deorah’s relationship with her Hindu faith has shifted over time. For a long time, Deorah believed that she wasn’t religious, but coming to college allowed her to rediscover her religion in a new light.
“I had a really difficult relationship to faith, and I was not religious for a long time, mainly because I believed that because of who I was, I was not compatible with these communities and that it just wasn’t for me to be a part of the Hindu, Sikh or Jain communities,” Deorah said. “It occurred to me that in this space at William and Mary, this is the time where I can actually be part of a Hindu community. I can figure out my relationship to faith, see what’s going on there, and be accepted for who I am.”
According to Deorah, the college environment offers an opportunity for students to determine their levels of religiosity independently of their family upbringing.
“The Hindu, Sikh and Jain religions are very much cultural; they’re very much a heritage. You were raised that way, you were raised with a lot of it,” Deorah said. “A lot of times, when students come to college, that’s their first experience to be able to figure out for themselves what they believe in, what they feel.”
HSJA encourages all students to attend their monthly aartis and meetings, regardless of their level of religiosity or connection to faith.
“One of the fundamental aspects of Hinduism is acceptance, and recognizing the eternal nature of the universe,” Dar said. “I think something that we strive to do is that no matter what level of religiosity a student feels, they will always have a space here where they will be welcomed and accepted.”
In addition to their monthly aarti meetings, HSJA also plans two larger campuswide events every year: a Diwali celebration in the fall, and a Holi festival in the spring.
The group hopes to collaborate with other campus organizations to put on these events, as well as continue to cultivate a safe and productive space for students.
“We’re just trying to build an inclusive, relaxed community where anyone, regardless of your relationship to the Hindu, Sikh or Jain community or tradition, can feel welcome,” Deorah said. “Join one of our monthly aartis, engage with us — you don’t have to necessarily be involved or practicing, you can just hang out or maybe come with us to dinner afterwards and get to know us; and just have a space where you can feel like you can exist without judgement, because we’re all small pieces of a bigger force that’s much larger than all of us.”