Hindus Gather in Pomona for Reading of Early Epic

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For four hours they sit quietly, listening to a high priest recite Ramayana, an ancient epic that is fundamental to Hindu belief and culture.

More than 1,000 Hindus have gathered each day for more than a week at the Fairplex in Pomona to hear Ramesh Oza tell the story of Lord Rama's life. The tale is told over nine days in stretches of three hours that often turn into four or five.

Oza sits on a white altar with hand-carved statues of religious figures and palm trees behind him. His face is projected on large TV screens.

The story can take up to 30 days to tell, said Amit Desai, chairman of the event, which ends Sunday. The Ram Katha, as the event is called--katha means story--is sponsored by the Radha Krishna Mandir, a Hindu temple in Norwalk.

This is the first time Oza has read the Ramayana in Southern California, event organizers said. Oza--also called Bhaiji, a title of respect--speaks around the world, they said.

"Ramesh Oza, he's the best story reader of Ramayana at this time" in India, said Uday Shah, a Corona dentist who belongs to a Jain temple in Buena Park.

"It is our culture, our religion, and we are a few thousand miles away from our country," Shah said, explaining the importance of listening to the story. "I take my kids with me so they can learn our own heritage."

On Wednesday evening, about 1,500 people sat in folding chairs or on swaths of carpet in a cavernous hall at the Fairplex. They had come from all over the Southland and from as far away as San Francisco and North Carolina.

Oza spoke with the Ramayana text in front of him, but he never looked at it. Sometimes he would sing, accompanied by a flute, a drum and other instruments.

At other times he added commentary to the epic, which originated between 1,800 and 2,200 years ago.

The story begins before Rama's birth and includes tales of his marriage, his exile from his kingdom and his triumph over evil. He was the ideal man, a symbol of maryada purshottam--someone who lives with strict principles--who respects his elders, doesn't steal and has only one wife, Desai said.

Hearing the story reinforces messages of respect and helps direct listeners to inner serenity, said Dr. Kishor Shah, a Cerritos physician.

"The good thing is the whole community is coming together," said Shah, "and that's the best part of it."

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