A Hindu priest shows visiting Catholics a container of holy water that he uses for his rituals at Sri Krishnan Temple. Photo by Daniel Tay

SINGAPORE – Breathing in the sweet smell of incense, a group of mostly Chinese Singaporean Catholics toured a 139-year-old Hindu temple adorned with paintings of saints while Hindu priests looked on. For many, this was their first time stepping into a Hindu place of worship.

As the evening sun filtered into the temple interior, the Catholics turned their attention to the numerous idols and images adorned with gleaming gold and glittering semi-precious stones.

P. Sivaraman, the chairman of the temple’s board of trustees, explained to the audience of about 80 Catholics, which included several religious sisters, that Hindus do not worship the statues and idols. Rather these aid devotees towards self-realisation.

Hindu devotees find it easier to focus on the Lord (Brahman) using a concrete object than the abstract idea of an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient god.

The Jul 29 visit to the Sri Krishnan Temple was organised by the Singapore Archdiocesan Council for Inter-Religious and Ecumenical Dialogue (IRED) as part of a formation programme for Catholics conducted by the Inter-Religious and Ecumenical Dialogue (IRED) council under the Singapore Archdiocese.

Although there was a large interest by Catholics, the temple hall could accommodate only 80 people, so the remaining had to be turned away until a future visit can be arranged.

Visits to other faith traditions’ places of worship will be conducted by the IRED over a period of five months. The programme is a follow-up to last year’s series of five talks on Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam conducted by Catholic religious and priests in the IRED.

Participants of the talks had given feedback that they wanted to hear about the faith traditions from the respective religious teachers, and to visit their places of worship.

The half-hour tour of the Waterloo Street Hindu temple was followed by a vegetarian meal and a talk on the basics of Hinduism – who God is, who neighbour is, and how the Hindu relates to God and neighbour.

Yashodhara Dhoraisingam, a volunteer religious counsellor at penal institutions and student of the Hindu faith, gave the hour-long talk. She explained that contrary to misconceptions, Hinduism is actually a monotheistic faith.

She said that Hindus were so named by the Persians who mispronounced the name of the river ‘Sindu’. Hindus refer to themselves as followers of ‘Sanatana Dharma’, which means ‘Life’s eternal values’.

According to Yashodhara, Hinduism has no founder or prophet, but is a faith revealed by Brahman (or God) at around 5,000 B.C.. The faith was transmitted orally through the generations until it was eventually put in writing in the Sanskrit language.

These writings which form the Hindu scriptures are called the Vedas which focus on rituals, and the Upanishads which focus on spiritual insights and philosophical teachings, discuss Brahman, and reincarnation.

In Hinduism, Ms Yashodhara explained, “The universe manifested from Brahman, is sustained by him, and will return to him.” She added that Hindus believe in a trinitarian God personified by Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Sustainer, and Shiva the Transformer (or Destroyer).

“Because everything comes from him, God is the material and efficient cause of the universe,” she said. “Everything is him, and God’s divine essence exists in everything.” As a result, a Hindu is taught to be compassionate and loving to his neighbour because “he and his neighbour are one and the same; all life is one”.

The idols of over three million deities seen in Hindu temples are merely “manifestations of the Supreme Reality” that is Brahman, she said. “These idols reveal attributes of God,” she said, giving the example of the lotus which represents the attribute of purity, because it is able to grow in mud and blossom into a lovely flower.

The Hindu concept of salvation, or self-realisation (“moksha”), takes place when we free ourselves from the bondage of identifying with only the physical, mental, and emotional limitations of the body, and unite ourselves with the Lord, which is our essence, said Ms Yashodhara.

To achieve self-realisation, Hindus must “rise above his selfish ego”, she said. The means by which this is achieved is through reincarnation, where the material body of a person dies, but the essence of the person lives on and is reincarnated into another form, depending on the good or evil the person has committed in his lifetime.

Holy Trinity parishioner Betty Lee, 60, had come for the temple tour because she had never visited a Hindu temple before. She was surprised to learn that their beliefs “are like Catholic” because they believe in one God, and that “all lead to one path”, but “we don’t believe in many reincarnations”.

Terence Chin, a 32-year-old engineer from the parish of St. Mary of the Angels, was surprised to learn that “they have a concept of a trinitarian God”, and that some of the essentials “is similar to Christianity”.

According to a representative of Sri Krishnan Temple, there are about 200,000 Hindus in Singapore belonging to two Hindu sects – the Saivism and Vaishnavism. The Sri Krishnan Temple follows Vaishnavism (worship of Lord Vishnu).

According to government statistics, 42.5 percent of Singaporeans are Buddhists, 8.5 percent are Taoists, 14.9 percent are Muslims, 14.6 percent are Christians and four percent are Hindus.

By Daniel Tay
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