Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Fundamentals of the Bhakti Tradition
in Hinduism

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by Professor V. Krishnamurthy

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Part III: Temples Galore

Part I Part II

Between the second century BCE and the 18th century CE, India has continuously built a multitude of temples throughout the length and breadth of the country. The varied Indian architecture provides the art lover and the historian a feast that is fantastic in its quality and educative in its purpose. One finds oneself in the presence of something rich and spiritually satisfying. A multiplicity of forms, an exuberance of sculpture, the calm tenderness of frescoes, ceilings covered with paintings - everything adds up to the glory of the heritage. Every one of these bears witness to the collective faith and fervour of an anonymous collection of stonemasons and sculptors.

The famous Tiruchirappalli cliff, which houses on its top a temple consecrated to Lord Ganesha, embedding within itself more than one mythological event of religious significance; Kanchipuram, one of the oldest cities in Asia, and a city of numerous temples, where each pillar of the marriage pavilion is an aspect of the God of Light and has amazing sculptures; Madurai, where the proud multi-coloured towers defy the elegant coconut palms, rise above the holy city and hide the incredible labyrinth of corridors within; Ramesvaram, at the southern tip of the country, with its kilometre-long corridor leading to God, which is visited by hundreds of thousands each year.

The temple of Visvanatha in Kasi, the holiest of the holies, where Lord Shiva has elected to abide eternally; Mysore, with its Nandikesvara, the sacred bull carved from a single block of granite; the abode of Goddess Mahalakshmi in Kolhapur in the state of Maharashtra; the Shiva Nataraja of Chidambaram, the most famous icon, a symbiosis of art, science and religion, replicating the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva, the lord and master of dancing who inspires the universe; the imposing towers of Tiruvannamalai enclosing Lord Shiva as Arunachalesvara, honoured by a column of fire; the Mallikarjuna temple situated on the Srisailam mountain overlooking the river Krishna; the snow-covered temple of Kedarnath in the Himalayas at an altitude of 11000 feet; the temple of Guruvayoor in Kerala which houses the deity whose curative and healing power over 'incurable' diseases is world-famous.

The Srirangam temple of Lord Ranganatha, the largest temple in India, the headquarters of Vaishnavism, itself a grandiose ensemble, containing a number of enclosures, each a temple by itself; the Venkateswara temple on the Tirupati hills, by all means the richest temple in India, one of the few temples that escaped the iconoclastic fury of the invaders and retained its old and pristine glory even to this day; the Shaivite temple at Kalahasti, not far from Tirupati, which developed from a jungle shrine to its present imposing size and which is famous for the story of one of the greatest devotees of God; Pandharpur, on the bank of the river Bhima in Maharashtra, housing the famous temple of Panduranga Vithala, sung by a succession of saints from age-old times; the great Brihadeswara Temple of Shiva, in Tanjore, an architectural marvel, the finest example of Dravidian architecture, founded by the Chola King Rajaraja I (10th century), considered by far the 'grandest temple in India'.

Puri, known as the mystic navel of the earth, housing the shrine of Jagannath, in whose benign presence there is no high, no low, no caste barrier; the temple of Padmanabha in Trivandrum, earliest inscriptions which go back to the 12th century, at whose holy feet was laid the whole kingdom by a succession of kings for more than three centuries; the jyotirlinga of Somnath in Gujarat, traditionally one of the oldest temples but destroyed by iconoclastic fury and reconstructed in modern times in 1951; the Dandayuthapani temple on the Palani hills, dating from the remote past, where the image is said to have been made of nine kinds of medicinal minerals; the list goes on, almost endlessly.

Though the physical environs of these large temples have been built in historic times by historical personages, the deity enshrined in the sanctum sanctorum very often goes back in origin to mythological (prehistoric?) times when that deity really appeared as a manifestation for a specific purpose. This is another reason why different gods and goddesses are worshipped by the Hindus. Every one of these manifestations had a name and a form and that particular representation of the nameless Divinity had caught the imagination of people at one time and they have been worshipped ever since. Every temple of olden times has risen like this. There is probably no other culture in the world whose literature is so fully replete with a myriad of such manifestations of divinity and the exploits of that Supreme Almighty for the benefit of His devotees.

This is not to say that Indians are the best devotees of God. It is only to say that India's past goes beyond the few millennia into which history dares peep. The ancientness of the country goes back into such a distant past that the events recorded in the form of deities enshrined in various temples have been discarded by history as belonging to mythology. For instance, the deity, Nataraja of Chidambaram cannot be dated historically. Carbon dating and other scientific methods can apply only to the physical matter connected with the temple structure. It can in no way affect the concept enshrined in the temple that motivated the building of the temple. The concept is older than anything that history may attempt to speak of. Listen to Sage Ramakrishna on the spiritual power inherent in holy places and temples:

Know that there must be manifestation of God in places and temples where countless people have practised austerity. From time immemorial numberless devotees and men of realisation have come to these holy places to have the vision of God. Therefore, God, though equally present everywhere, manifests Himself especially in these places in the same way as water can be had anywhere by digging the ground but where there is a tank or a lake, one has not to dig for water, but can get it whenever one likes.

The temple is the centre around which the whole of Hindu life revolves; at least it was so till one hundred years ago. In a typical village householder's routine, each day he goes to the temple to offer a prayer in the sanctum sanctorum therein. Having bathed in the nearby sacred tank, he enters the temple, feet and chest bare, his forehead, shoulders and forearms marked with the three horizontal lines of sacred ash, if he is a Saivite, or with the three vertical lines (called 'nAmam') if he is a vaishnavite. In most of the villages, there will be a Vaishnava temple at one end of the village and a Shiva temple at the other end. If it is not a small temple, one passes through a number of enclosures before one is face to face with the main deity of the temple. The statue of the god or goddess to be worshipped must have been made strictly according to the rules of iconometry, prescribed by the relevant Agamas. The Agamas form the source book of all ritualistic material, particularly relevant to the construction of temples and worship at home. The statue may be of gold, silver, bronze, marble, granite, wood or terra cota.

The officiating priest is the only person authorised to enter the sanctum sanctorum. When the priest has finished the ritual puja and waved the flaming camphor before the deity, he comes out and shows the flaming camphor to the devotees almost one by one individually if possible. The devotees pass their palms over the flaming camphor and touch their eyes and forehead in reverence. The priest also offers the 'prasadam' that is, a little lustral water taken in the hollow of the right hand and swallowed immediately with all reverence. The devotee makes a certain number of perambulations around the sanctuary reciting his prayers or mantra, makes his prostrations to the Lord and leaves spiritually satisfied and enriched.

There are often elaborate public ceremonies associated with each temple. There are car festivals when the deities are profusely decorated and posited in a gigantic structure called a ratham with huge wooden wheels and the ratham being dragged manually by hundreds of people through the outermost path around the temple. Every temple will have such a car festival at least once a year. The richer the temple, the more elaborate are these. But despite these temples, their ceremonies and festivals, worship is essentially not congregational. Rather it is an individual matter to be carried on privately, when and in whatever fashion the worshipper may choose.

Every Hindu home has a spot, if not a room, set aside for worship - called a puja place with a little ledge for images of the gods and for incense burners and usually with garlanded pictures of the gods hanging on the wall above. Religious observance may take place not only at home but also in connection with work. Behind the machines in a factory there will be puja places created by the workers themselves. The Indian craftsman conceives of his art not as his own nor as the accumulated skill of the ages, but as originating in the divine skill of his god and revealed by Him. Every hospital and every commercial establishment will have a place, small or big set aside for worship and prayer with idols and/or pictures of gods. Every business concern would certainly have pictures of gods right at the place of money handling, with incense burning almost all the time. Every equipment that is installed, including a computer, would most probably be sanctified by appropriate worship of the Almighty before installation. The debut of a young professional dancer is essentially a religious ceremony - a consecration of the dancer to her art which itself is religious in its themes and motivation.

QUESTION: Granting that there is a point for image worship, is it still not ridiculous to have thousands of deities supposedly enshrined in the innumerable temples, each claiming the status of the Absolute Supreme?

Part IV

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012