When Dr. Shashidhar Pai moved to Charleston in 1979, the Holy City had no Hindu priest, not even a temple for prayer and celebrations. He and his family relied on a home shrine instead.
Hinduism, the world's third-largest religion, embraces a diversity of beliefs and does not enforce strict doctrine that devotees must follow.
The world's oldest living faith, dating back to 1500 BC, it is the main religion of India and has about 900 million followers worldwide.
Adherents can believe a variety of things about God, the universe and the path to liberation and still be considered a Hindu. Unlike other major religions, the Hindu faith does not link its origin to a specific teacher or the spiritual experience of any single person.
However, Hindus generally believe in one Supreme Being that incarnates as multiple deities representing different places, needs, suffering, moral values and so on. Hindus worship these deities as parts of the Supreme Being.
It sacred texts include the Vedas, Upanishads, Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita.
Views shared by most Hindu faithful include belief in:
The authority of the Vedas, the oldest Indian sacred texts.
A soul that moves from one body to another at death, or reincarnation.
The law of karma, a Sanskrit word that means "actions" or "deeds" and refers to the belief that life is governed by a system of cause and effect in which one's deeds have corresponding effects on the future.
When out and about, he would approach fellow India natives he encountered and invite them to get together, working to build a small but close-knit community.
Today, there are too many for him to approach anymore.
Pai, who arrived in the U.S. in 1972, came to Charleston to join MUSC's genetics faculty. Since then, he has seen the local Indian community blossom and, with it, the ranks of Hindu faithful, given that most Indians are born into the world's third-largest religion.
"We are growing a lot," Pai says.
There has been so much growth that in 2010, the Sanatan Temple and Cultural Center of South Carolina purchased its first brick-and-mortar home, an old church building in West Ashley, and transformed it into a vibrant Hindu temple.
Just a few weeks ago, devotees welcomed their first full-time priest.
It all leaves Pai, the temple's president, beaming with hope for the future of Lowcountry Hinduism.
Tucked within a quiet residential neighborhood, the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center looks like your average church building: unadorned tan brick, painted red door, sparse landscaping, a bit drab even.
But step inside.
The temple, festive with hues of red and orange and gold, mirrors its brethren around the world that celebrate colorful iconography. Ornate statues of Hindu deities adorn the praying hall. Tapestries and paintings depict their epic stories. A large golden image of Vishnu arrived last fall to join others up front.
The cultural center purchased the building off Orange Grove Road in 2010.
"As the community grew, we felt like we should have a place of our own," Pai says.
Yet, for several years, they had no priest. Imagine his surprise when temple members told Pai: "You are the priest until we get a real one."
He laughs at the memory and assures, "I am the least likely person to run a temple."
The Hindu temple is owned and operated by the Sanatan Temple and Cultural Center of South Carolina. But some members worried people might read the word Sanatan as Satan. (Sanatan Dharma means "eternal religion.") Instead, to avoid confusion, the temple's sign reads: Hindu Temple and Cultural Center, terminology more familiar to locals.
Still, with no priest, the temple sat locked and unused much of the week.
When newcomers moved to town, temple leaders had to tell them that they could only worship for a few hours on weekends. Pai wonders how many didn't come after that.
In India, a temple is central to daily life. It is open to celebrate every kind of event in the lives of its people: births, deaths, showers, birthdays, you name it.
"Anything that happens, you go to the temple," Pai says.
Now it can be that way in Charleston as well.
Welcome the priest
The temple's new priest, Keshava Bhattar, greets visitors with a warm smile and a gentle bow. His 3-year-old son runs around with a gigantic grin.
Temple members wanted a priest with keen language skills because local Indians come from all over the vast country and speak its many local languages. They got that in Bhattar, who speaks five languages, including Hindi and English.
Now 31, Bhattar moved to the U.S. from India when he was 19, the son of a priest, from a family rich with priests, to work at a busy New York City temple. He planned to open his own one day.
But life often leads down other paths, and with a wife and young child, Bhattar also wanted a reprieve from the constant bustle and demands of big-city work. He wanted more time for his wife, Shilpa, and son, Vaishnav, and with people who come to pray and celebrate at the temple.
"He really decided he'd seen enough snow and was coming down," Pai laughs.
It didn't hurt that Bhattar's uncle is the priest up Interstate 26 at Columbia's Hindu temple.
With Bhattar here now, the local temple is open weekdays for morning and evening prayer and to welcome anyone who wants to visit. It offers Sunday educational classes and Monday meditation time.
As a priest, Bhattar can add different prayers than were available before, broadening the temple's offerings. He wants to feel the energy that comes with growing fellowship and communal Hindu chanting and worship.
"Prayers keep the temple brighter and more vibrant," Bhattar says.
And when the temple held puja, a ritual of worship, last weekend, he had time to explain what he was doing. He had time after worship to greet people. In New York, he felt too rushed.
He, too, expects the temple to grow quickly now.
"It is always open to everyone," he says.
The Charleston temple draws nearly 180 people when festivals are celebrated on Saturdays. But it sends regular emails to nearly 800 others who have shown an interest and who, hopefully, will come more often now.
When Pai moved to Charleston in 1979, he knew of about 25 local Indian families. Today, he estimates about 1,000 Indian families live in the area, although he knows of no exact count.
"It's been growing by leaps and bounds," Pai says. "Everywhere I go, I see Indian faces."
Along with hearing from newcomers, temple members also field calls from curious students and religious studies professors. They host regular interfaith gatherings to foster relationships among local Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and others.
Shaila Shroff is an active member who helps organize the interfaith meetings, among other events and ceremonies.
"I am quite excited about the presence of a full-time priest," she says. "This weekend, I saw him perform elaborate Satya Narayan prayers and also bless a new vehicle for the protection of the riders. He sure will provide a variety of rituals."
Pai encourages anyone interested to visit April 12 for the large festival Shri Sita Ram Kalyan, which celebrates the wedding of Hindu's divine couple, Lord Rama and Sita. Devotees bring gifts and the priest goes through traditional Hindu wedding ceremony rituals. It runs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. with lunch afterward.
In the heart
In the temple, there is no judgment about who is attending and whether they "belong." There is no hierarchy to Hindu temples and no enforcer of strict doctrine.
Each temple, including Charleston's, operates independently run by local people who decide most matters of philosophy and practice.
That said, most Hindus believe in a supreme God manifested as many gods that derive from it.
"They are representative of a deeper meaning common to the average person, a philosophy as to what does this signify," Pai says. "But we believe you can worship any god any way you want."
Most Hindus also believe in a cycle of birth, death and rebirth from body to body dependent on how people lived their previous lives.
"There is a fundamental belief in karma, rebirth and eternal life for the soul that unifies us everywhere," Pai says.
Although most Hindus are born into the faith, everyone is welcome, Bhattar says. It is not evangelical, and there is no formal conversion ritual or process. It's within each person to figure out where they stand.
"Hinduism is always in your heart," Bhattar says.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.
Shri Keshava Bhattar (right), the new priest at the temple, prays to the gods with Shyam and Rani Yellapragada during recent services at the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center in West Ashley.×
Shri Keshava Bhattar is the first priest hired by the temple since opening its doors in West Ashley.×
Shri Keshava Bhattar (right), new priest at the temple, prays to the gods with Shyam and Rani Yellapragada during recent services at the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center in West Ashley.×