Food & Spirituality: Serving Up a Holy Feast at the Shiva-Vishnu Temple

Shiva-Vishnu Temple in Livermore. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Shiva-Vishnu Temple in Livermore. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

It’s hard to overstate the awe and wonder you feel turning into the parking lot of the Shiva-Vishnu Temple. Rising incongruously from the quiet suburban streets of Livermore, the white, intricately carved spires of the main hall hint at another world within. Inside, as a priest chants from Vedic scriptures, a couple thousand devotees from all over the Bay Area make the rounds, visiting shrines for all the major Hindu gods.

Ceremony worshipping Ganesha. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Ceremony worshipping Ganesha. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

The temple boasts about 25,000 people on its email list, though many families regularly attend smaller temples close to home. They come to Shiva-Vishnu for the major celebrations. There are more than 30 Hindu temples in the Bay Area, and the number is exploding, along with the Asian Indian population, thanks to Silicon Valley.

Om Namah Shivaya barricade enclosing place settings to celebrate Ganesha. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Om Namah Shivaya barricade enclosing place settings to celebrate Ganesha. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Everything in the temple is designed to focus the attention on engagement with the divine: the chanting of Vedic scriptures, the tinkling of bells, garlands of flowers, incense, and, of course, food. There are two commercial-sized kitchens on the temple grounds where food is prepared for the gods and the public. The cooks are devout volunteers from the community. In the sacred kitchen they wear dhoti, a traditional loincloth, and kum kum, or red powder, on their foreheads, reflecting the fact the cooking is a spiritual practice. Framed Vedic mantras are posted on the walls.

In the public kitchen enormous pots are used by the temple cooks to prepare holiday feasts. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
In the public kitchen enormous pots are used by the temple cooks to prepare holiday feasts. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

"They are reciting the hymns when they are doing the cooking," Prabha Duneja of Pleasanton explains. She’s written eight books on Hinduism and lectures widely at religious colleges across the country.

The food, she says is "saturated with positive energy, and then the food is offered to god. And then it becomes graced. And then everybody takes a part of it."

Congregation participating in ritual honoring Ganesha. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Congregation participating in ritual honoring Ganesha. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

The Shiva-Vishnu Temple is pan-Indian, serving people from all Hindu traditions. Twelve priests imported from all over India serve the congregation here, but the food tends to skew Southern, starting with the fact that everything is vegetarian. Huge pots -- the size of steel pan drums -- hold lentils, garbanzo bean stews, vegetable stews like sambar, rice pilafs, and sweet (sheera) and savory (upama) forms of cream of wheat.

"No meat can enter on the premises of the temple!" Duneja says emphatically. "Because meat comes from the animal, you know, and when the animal is killed, they are very angry. So that vibration goes into the food."

So how to account for all those restaurants serving chicken vindaloo and lamb korma?  Duneja cites foreign occupiers. "India was ruled by Islam and then by Britishers. They introduced non-vegetarian food." That's especially true in northern India. Duneja comes from New Delhi in the north where meat is part of the cuisine but she herself is vegetarian as part of her religious practice. "Our holy books all emphasize vegetarian food."

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The meal on offer also reflects the calendar of worship. Different holidays draw different population blends, reflecting regional preferences for certain gods and celebrations. I visited in September, during the 10-day celebration of Lord Ganesha, Ganesha Chathurthi, a South Indian favorite.

Lord Ganesha - remover of obstacles. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend
Lord Ganesha - remover of obstacles. Photo: Wendy Goodfriend

Between his elephant head and his big, pot belly, Lord Ganesha is easily the most adorable of all Hindu gods, but he serves a vital function. He is the remover of all obstacles, and the god of beginnings. One of the priests here, Pandit Nagaraja, explains "In our Hindu tradition, whatever work you do, you start with praying to Lord Ganesha. Without that, it will not go a step further."

That said, the belly suggests how much Lord Ganesha loves sweet, round things. So the cooks made mountains of ladoo, dough balls stuffed with coconut, cardamom and nuts.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Ladoo is dessert, and there's plenty of savory dishes to eat first.

Duneja notes "Most of the food is a mixture of grains, vegetables and eaten with yogurt. That makes it a complete meal, you know?"

Duneja adds the explosion of Asian Indians in the Bay Area has brought with it an explosion of Indian restaurants, many of them serving up South Indian dishes.  Her favorite is Swagat Indian Cuisine in Milpitas but there are numerous other choices. Here's a list of options to explore, and if you've already made the rounds, please feel free to recommend your favorites in the comments section!

Indian restaurants serving both vegetarian and meat dishes:

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Indian restaurants serving only vegetarian dishes:

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