Name: Jyotindra Shukla and Yashodhar Bhatt
Title: Former and current priests, Hindu Community Center Temple
Thoughts on Faith: “One of he most important parts of faith is inquiry.”
There is a puissant mythos infusing the soul of Vedic spiritualism; tales of battles and beast-gods; stories of how Brahma, god of creation, born in a lotus flower, created the 10 fathers of the human race; of Lord Krishna, still a babe-in-arms when he killed a demoness assassin and tamed the murderous serpent Kaliya; of Vishnu, blue-skinned, four-armed, who strode the universe when all was young and wrought earth, sky, and heaven in the chasms of his mighty footprints.
So it seems odd that such gilded traditions would find a comfortable seat here in the prosaic foothills on the outskirts of Lenoir City, scarcely a mile past one of those megalithic highway fireworks emporiums with a name like Bobo’s or Crazy Larry’s…
And yet the Hindu Community Center squares well with its surroundings, at least from the outside. It is a humble and unassuming place, an off-white building with a pinkish roof and trim. With its modestly spired roof and inviting front porch, it looks like a cross between any small-town community center, and any small-town church.
Which it is, in essence. Since its founding in 1991, the HCC, which also houses a Hindu temple, has served many functions to the community of local Indian expatriates who frequent it. It is a social gathering place for people with shared culture, heritage, values; a retreat for those who would honor its millennia-old religious traditions; and a spiritual/educational resource for those who would learn them afresh.
“In Christianity, there is a concept with the clergy of counseling church members on personal issues,” says Jyotindra Shukla, a Farragut engineer who helped found HCC in 1991, and presided over its services before the congregation could find a learned priest. Today he joins one of the temple’s priests, Yashodhar Bhatt, in greeting a pair of English-speaking visitors; having taught himself the language, Bhatt’s English is still a work in progress.
“That concept [of counseling] is not there in Hinduism. The key is that not having grown up here, a lot of us are still learning about Hinduism. Hinduism is very rich in history and mythology. So understanding the complexities of the history and mythology; educating young people about the faith—these are very important functions of the Hindu priest.”
Addressing the plight of his visitors, he notes with a chuckle that, “Learning about Hinduism in two hours—that is like learning Shakespeare in five minutes.”
Bhatt explains that Hinduism is a “conglomeration of religious, philosophical, and cultural practices, originating in India.” There are many discreet traditions, and a vast pantheon of gods harbored within the reach of its panoptic umbrella. But all Hindus are united by a few immutable tenets, including a belief in reincarnation, and the knowledge that all deities in the pantheon are but manifestations of the same divine power, the one God who has taken many forms.
“Like water flowing anywhere on earth, it ultimately ends up in the ocean,” says Shukla, a soft-faced, avuncular gentleman with a scholarly bent and a penchant for potent metaphor. “Likewise, if you follow any god, it ultimately flows back to the Almighty.”
Born in Bombay (now Mumbai), Shukla came to the U.S. for his master’s degree in engineering in the 1970s. He’s been an East Tennessee resident since 1987, and a Farragutian for all but a few of the years since.
As the local Indian population grew, bringing new and younger families with young children, Shukla says “there was a need for having a place to congregate. We used to meet in people’s houses to do what you would call ‘fellowship.’ That grew into a need for a community center, now a community center and a temple. It’s a religious as well as a social place.”
As their plans came to fruition, members of the local Indian community contacted a swami back in India, a cleric who had often helped fledgling Hindu groups abroad find resources as they sought to build their own houses of worship. The swami sent one of the young priests he was mentoring, Yashodhar Bhatt, to serve the Knoxville temple.
“It was a noble sacrifice on his part,” Shukla says of Bhatt. “When he started, it was very hard. He left his family. He lived in a small trailer that was very cold in the winter. Rats would come into his trailer.
“Not to worry, we have built him a nice house now,” Shukla adds with a chuckle.
A shy, trim fellow in his white priestly robes and golden stole, Bhatt earned the equivalent of a master’s degree in Sanskrit from Sampurnanand Vishwavidyalaya University in Varanasi, the holy city of India. He spends part of his time in India, rotating his duties at HCC with another priest. Here, he performs Aarti [a Hindu ritual, usually involving candles and song] at 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. every day, greets and guides supplicants who come in outside of regular services simply to pray. Throughout the evening, area Hindus are apt to come into the temple’s spacious main hall, kneel before the bejeweled and satin-clad figures of nine gods (Krishna and his consort, Rhada, taking center stage), pause for a word with the priest and perhaps a bite of sacramental food.
Descended from Brahmin—the Indian priestly caste—himself, Shukla, seated in a small conference room inside HCC, defines faith as “the counterbalancing part of knowledge. In Hindu philosophy, knowledge and faith are complementary to each other. Knowledge is incomplete without faith and faith is incomplete without knowledge.”
And with knowledge comes investigation, introspection, and a questing for truth; in Hinduism there is no proselytizing, Shukla says, since matters of faith must be inevitably addressed through the filters of one’s own conscience and intellect. “One of he most important parts of faith is inquiry,” he says. “That is encouraged. It is better to inquire and understand and come to believe on your own understanding. Otherwise, it is better to be an agnostic. Hinduism is a religion of freedom; there is no coercion.”
And Shukla believes the process by which we wrestle with matters of faith is as inevitable as it is personal. “Life is a journey,” he says. “Like the Monarch butterfly, I believe we all have this homing device in us, the desire to know God. This drive may be dormant in some and stronger in other. But we all have it. Each one of us reached the culmination of his or her belief in his or her own way.”
Shukla says he has attended many Christian church services during his time in the U.S., and has friends among area clergy. “I am attracted to people of faith,” he says.
That Hinduism has so many faces and tolerance for so many diverse traditions within its own ranks is telling; there is an unflinching sincerity to Shukla’s mien when he discusses the power in other faiths, like so many rivers flowing into the sea of Truth. “There are many ways to reach the mountaintop; it does not matter how you get there,” he says. “We all perceive our creator in our own way, and he is merciful enough to meet us in any form that we realize Him.”