FREMONT, CALIFORNIA, November 3, 1012 (San Jose Mercury News): The best things in life are supposed to be free, but a Hindu temple here angered worshippers Friday with the announcement that it would ask for money to take part in an annual ceremony.
"They're making the temple a place for moneymaking, and that's wrong," said Fremont resident Rita Ratra. "It's not a mall, or something like that."
The Vedic Dharma Samaj Hindu Temple in Fremont asked worshippers to pay $11 to participate in Karva Chauth, a religious observance in which a married Hindu woman fasts most of the day and prays for her husband to enjoy long life and happiness. A page on the temple's website announcing Karva Chauth includes the notation: "Participation -- $11."
Seema Dubey said she and her friends are upset because they have been attending the temple's poojas -- religious rituals where offerings are made to Hindu deities -- for years and have never been charged before. "Everyone has their right to attend this," Dubey said. "This is a temple, and they should not make it commercial."
Leaders of other temples, stretching from the South Bay to the Midwest, said that even asking for financial donations is out of the ordinary. At Balaji Temple in San Jose, priest Anandanatha Swami said a special pooja was scheduled Friday night with free food for worshipers with no suggested donation. "Anything given from their heart will be accepted," he said. Rathinam Kumar, president of the Wisconsin-based American Hindu Association, said it is not standard for money to be given to enter a temple. "I don't know about California, but normally, anyone can get into the temple anytime," he said.
But Govind Pasumarthi, the volunteer coordinator of the Vedic Dharma Samaj Hindu Temple in Fremont, said there was nothing unusual about the suggested donation. "It's not a fee; it's not mandatory," Pasumarthi said. "Nobody will be turned away." He said admission to a regular pooja always is free, but the temple suggested that observers pay Friday because Karva Chauth is a yearly celebration, involving special rituals in which as many as 2,000 women participate throughout the day. He said the temple may continue the practice for other special occasions.
From 1:30 p.m. to about 9 p.m. Friday, scores of married Hindu women -- dressed in a traditional Indian sari or salwar kameez and carrying a thali, or a traditional plate -- entered the temple in Fremont's Grimmer neighborhood for the annual ritual. Several said they were told at the front door they should pay $11 to enter, but those who didn't were allowed in.
"Those that paid received an admission ticket, like a movie or a show," said Sandhya Khurana, a Fremont resident. "This is part of our culture and they're trying to turn it into a business."
The temple is a nonprofit, tax-exempt religious organization dedicated to serving the religious and cultural needs of the Hindu community, according to its website. The organization relies on donations to survive, especially as it pays down expenses, including $80,000 spent on renovating the temple's parking lot, as well as its flooring and carpeting, Pasumarthi said. The number of temple attendees has grown by three or four times in the past five years and as many as 3,000 people will attend special occasions, such Karva Chauth.
"We've gone from one or two priests to having five or six," he said.
Pasumarthi said that donating money falls in line with Hindu tradition, in which a typical pooja is considered incomplete without an offering some kind. "Giving is considered noble, whether it's shelter or food or money to those in need," he said.
But some Hindu women at the temple Friday saw it differently, saying that they worried the temple was discouraging people from attending. Some said they believed that the presence of the media forced the temple to be less aggressive in its requests for money to enter.
Pasumarthi said the women's complaints should be taken with a grain of salt. "The ladies have been fasting since morning," he said, "so we can't expect them to be in the best of moods."