Apekshya Panda is at home inside Maple Grove’s Hindu Temple of Minnesota, a hidden gem nestled between rolling farmlands. The temple’s ground level is composed of a cafeteria, classrooms and an auditorium. Upstairs is the temple itself, featuring various shrines honoring different gods.
As Panda gives the tour, it’s easy to see that she considers herself lucky to belong here.
Panda, an 18-year-old Wayzata High School student, is comfortable with her faith. She considers Hinduism an accepting, welcoming religion that isn’t much different from other faiths of the world. She takes on the responsibility of reflecting that belief, along with educating people who don’t understand aspects about her culture.
“That’s something I’ve always believed. Just be kind to people, be tolerant, and accepting,” she said.
How do you identify your faith?
Hinduism is a really encompassing religion, and there are different parts of India, different people that are Hindu. They follow different traditions. It’s not like all Hindus do the same things. Some people like to say Hinduism is very flexible. I think one of the reasons for that is that it’s a really old religion. It’s evolved a lot over time. Different people have adopted different practice.
I’m from Eastern India. That’s where my family is from. Hinduism has a lot of gods, but my mom has always told me — and this is what I believe — that there’s one God, and that all gods are kind of a reincarnation of one God.
We don’t think that there’s one right religion. We believe that Hindus, Christians and Muslims — we all believe in one God, one higher power, and we just have a specific way of worshipping that God. We follow specific customs and prayers to worship that God. I always feel like there is one God.
What is your relationship with Hinduism?
It’s hard to say. I feel like my family is a pretty religious family. It’s not like I come to temple every weekend, but my parents come and do things. I am a pretty strong believer in my faith. I feel like I really get something out of it. It’s not like we have strict times for prayer. It’s more like whenever we feel like it. I take part in all the major ceremonies and holidays, so I consider myself a decently involved Hindu.
Have you ever questioned your faith?
All the time. There are little things where I ask my mom, ‘Why do I do this? It seems so random. What’s the reasoning behind it?’ There are some specific beliefs and superstitions I don’t necessarily understand. But I don’t really question the faith. I feel like I need to learn more about the faith. Not just Hinduism, but religion in general. I never really question whether there’s a god.
How do you practice?
I don’t eat meat on Mondays. It seems random, but it’s the day we worship a specific god. There are a lot of different days that people don’t eat certain things, because they honor different gods on different days of the week. Sometimes I wonder why I do just this one day and not several other days, but it’s just whatever people relate to most, whether they feel connected to a certain god.
Being Hindu doesn’t really affect me on a daily basis. We just have our ceremonies, and other religions have their ceremonies, so it’s not really different. I think Hinduism is definitely one of those religions, even though it doesn’t have different sects or anything, where people have a variety of different levels of how devout they are and what they do. It really depends on what you want to put into it.
What is your earliest memory of being religious?
I grew up in India. I lived there until I was eight. I remember this one temple near our house in India, and I loved going to that temple because they gave us special prasad. If there is a temple where you do a puja (religious ceremony), they’ll give you a fruit or a little treat that you eat. It’s more of a blessing or gift. But I remember when I was little we’d go to that temple and they’d give us these little sugar-ball things.
I also remember when I lived in India, a little shrine was in the room I shared with my brother. A lot of Hindu people have a little area to worship God in their houses.
What do you consider to be the most important values of your faith?
Karma — the idea that if you do good, you’ll get good, and vice versa. And something that my mom says: ‘We can always change our fate.’ Basically, working for something is what will get you there. She says that when you pray to God, you can’t just pray and hope for something to happen. You have to pray to God and work toward whatever your goal is. That’s something I’ve always believed.
What comforts you?
I feel like Hinduism is one of the religions that’s really accepting and very tolerant and forgiving. And that is something that shapes me as a person. Those are all things that I believe in. Our Hindu community is also a really big source of support and comfort. My mom tells me a lot about the teachings of Hinduism. (She) tells me about how we should live our lives and how we should treat others. That motivates me to be a good person.
What are the biggest misconceptions?
The way I interpret Hinduism is that there’s one God — and a lot of people don’t understand why there are so many different gods in Hinduism. That’s one of the big things that people are confused about. I mean, there are a lot of gods, but they all represent different parts of one God that we worship. I also think people don’t realize that we (Hindus) don’t think that our religion is the only right one. We also believe that all religions believe in one higher power, one God.
What do you like about having such a strong community at the temple?
I think people my age, in America, are more in touch with Hinduism and our culture than my cousins are in India. They try to be Western and they don’t follow as many of the things we do. It’s not like we’re constantly doing Hindu things. It’s not about coming to temple.
There’s also an auditorium and a cafeteria, and we have a lot of cultural events. I guess (the community) keeps us remembering our roots. I really like the fact that we have religion classes. I actually teach dance (at the temple) … kathak … one of the classical forms of Indian dance. I feel like our community fosters learning, dance, and other cultural things, and I think that helps us keep in touch with who we are.