"After our youngest son had seen Star Wars for the twelfth or thirteenth time, I said, "Why do you go so often?" He said, "For the same reason you have been reading the Old Testament all of your life." He was in a new world of myth." Bill Moyers, interview with Joseph Campbell











PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | December 2004  





               Before You Visit a Hindu Temple




                   Rada Krishna




     Difficulty in Comprehension



     It was in the early 1950s, long before the advent of TV in India. I had heard the story of an Indian villager who came to a nearby small town. His ancestors had barely travelled outside his village for hundreds of years. He had little ability to read even his local language, but somehow managed to learn to recognize the English alphabets. His friend in the town pointed to a small church nearby and told him, Go and see the temple in which the Christians worship. He went in and came out in forty seconds and said, No, that is not a temple. I see no divine images, no flowers, no bells to ring, no light, nothing. I see a few rows of benches like in a school. That must be a classroom. His friend took him back to the church, walked over to the altar, pointed to the wooden cross and said, There, that is the Gods image they worship. These are benches for the devotees to sit.


     The horrified villager exclaimed, They worship wood? Why, it looks like the English letter T! Do they worship that - wooden letters?


     Some such reaction is to be expected from a Westerner who visits a Hindu temple in America for the first time! In addition, most of the temples built in the US have a large number of images on the altar to satisfy the needs of Hindus who migrate from different parts of India. Out of the 1.1 billion people in India, over 800 million are Hindus, and Hinduism is a fascinating, unorganized religion!


     The early Westerners who came to India were traders and travellers. They were astonished to see the large number and types of temples. The multitude of images, the many shapes and sizes of gods and goddesses with many hands and expressions and with their own Mercedes and Cadillacs (read vehicles of transport), and some images even partly like animals - the Westerners were fascinated by all this. To some they were even repugnant! With the cultural arrogance of the times, they even dubbed the Hindus idolators, primitive worshippers of crude, unnatural objects.


     Luckily, times have changed. At least the educated and the open-minded have understood that each culture and religion is different, having its own symbology and philosophy. One has to study and ponder other cultures to comprehend and appreciate a little, if not understand them fully.

On 9 June 2004 we saw the picture of President Regans coffin in Washington DC in a gun carriage drawn by horses. One of the horses did not have a rider, but had a pair of cowboy boots hung in the reverse direction from the empty saddle! What is that picture to convey to one who is unaware of the military traditions of the USA?


     I wonder what that villager would think if he now comes to my house and sees my computers, scanners, printers, speakers and mouse, with lots of wires hanging around in a mess. If I told him that all these are communication tools, he would have said, What? These wires and plastic boxes and a few cute, coloured lights - how can you communicate with these?




     Problems Posed by Hebraic Antagonism to Imaging the Divine




     Added to the problem of understanding Hindu temples we have the following, says Diana Eck:


     The bafflement of many who first behold the array of Hindu images springs from the deep-rooted western antagonism to imaging the divine at all. The Hebraic hostility to graven images expressed in the Commandments is echoed repeatedly in the Hebraic Bible. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (1)


     Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the three major religions that originated in the Arabian Peninsula, trusted the word more than the image: Meanwhile, back on Mount Sinai, Moshe, who now has the Ten Words in written form - the two tablets of Testimony - is told by God. (2) The double corpus of sacred writings formed by the Old and New Testaments has always been regarded as regulating church life, and as the ultimate source of Christian doctrine. (3) He gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak. All but one of the Korans 114 Suras begin with the phrase, In the name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful. (4) Words were more trusted than the eyes!


     Hinduism is an imaginative, image-making religious tradition in which the sacred is seen as present in the world around us. Alain Danielou says, The complexity of Hindu polytheism is mainly due to the number of attempts at explaining in different ways the universal laws and the nature of the all-pervading principles. (5)




     Are Christianity and Islam Completely Free from Images?




     Hardly! The verbal icon of God as Father or King had considerable power in shaping the Judeo-Christian religious imagination, says Eck: The Orthodox Christian traditions, after much debate in the eighth and ninth centuries, granted an important place to the honouring of icons as those windows through which one might look toward God. In the Catholic tradition as well, the art and iconography, especially of Mary and the saints, has had a long and rich history. (6) When you travel in Europe, among the very important places to visit are the large number of museums. The Vatican museums in Rome, Louvre and Sacre-Couer in Paris, St Marks in Venice, Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the rich and huge Hermitage in Russia - all these, just to name a few, are loaded with marvellous statues and paintings depicting Christian personalities. When I wandered through the endless galleries and corridors, one question kept popping up in my mind: Are these graven images? Is this idolatry? Why then did the early travellers and visitors and even the current crop of ignoramuses call the Hindus idolaters?


     Many Muslim families decorate their homes with wall hangings of cloth or paper panels showing beautifully written texts of the Koran. Pictures of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem or of other important mosques or shrines are quite common. Shiite households frequently have pictures of Ali, his two sons Hasan and Husayn, and sometimes of famous imams and their burial places. Muslim households will not display a picture of Mohammed. Some families put the Koran centre stage during Ramadan.


     All the three traditions of the Book have developed the art of embellishing the word into a virtual icon in the elaboration of calligraphic and decorative arts, points out Eck.




     Are Hindus Idolaters?




     Websters definition of idolatry is the worship of a physical object as a God. The fifteenth-century singer-saint Tukaram wrote: I made an earthen image of Shiva/ For the earth is not Shiva./ My worship reaches Shiva/ The earth remains the earth it was! I have yet to see a Hindu (or, for that matter, the follower of any religion) pray, O God Marble or Granite, grant my prayers! or O Saint Stained Glass, save me! Idolatry is the name wickedly hurled at the symbols and visual images of cultures other than ours! The great American sociologist Theodore Rozsak locates the sin of idolatry in the eye of the beholder. (7)


     Again, The image is a window, not an object. The eighteen-foot image of Vishnu is no more an idol than the cross, the Our Father or the bread at Holy Communion. And no less. (8) There is no idolatry even among the so called nature worshippers as in Shintoism. John Reynard says:


     If one were to produce a brief Shinto creedal affirmation it might go something like this: I believe that sacredness surrounds me, that it pervades all things including my very self, and that the all-suffusing divine presence is ultimately benevolent and meant to assure well-being and happiness for all who acknowledge it and strive to live in harmony with it. The word idolatry seems to be a hang-up prevalent in some parts of the world. (9)


     But, it is a fact that even intelligent and thoughtful viewers may fail to grasp or understand images as alien as the images we find in the religious landscape of the Hindus. To see meaning in them we have to read, think and look with tolerance and imagination. Otherwise they become inaccessible to us. Also, if we do not see them as in any sense divine, we miss the essential meaning. Looking without insight, without informed perspective, is mere passive viewing. That is useless. It has to be replaced by creative seeing. If we do the kind of seeing which could change our minds, we might eventually gain a glimpse of the divine in one of the myriad images of Indias multitude of gods. (10)


     Hindu temples are totally unlike other places of worship. The visual articulation is intricate, extensive, and not self-evident. The shapes and forms of art, iconography and rituals are not easily discerned and are a closed book for the casual onlooker.


     Buddhists do not believe in God at all. Yet, no religion has existed in such disparate cultures as a major influence for so long. Over fifty per cent of the world population lives in areas where Buddhism has at some time been the dominant religious force. What do you see if you visit a Buddhist temple? A lot depends on where you are and the size of the temple. A large image of the Buddha or a major bodhisattva stands or sits atop an altar, sometimes in the company of several smaller images. Side altars dedicated to bodhisattvas or holy persons such as founders of the various lineages are not uncommon. Buddhist sculpture and painting have evolved in many different styles. Each denomination has a number of symbols and signs to which it assigns special meanings. Nepal, officially the only Hindu kingdom in the world, is a collage of cultures, with some aspects differing as much from each other as they do with us. (11) There is a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism with their rich treasure of images of gods and goddesses and ritual objects, many of them unique to Nepal.




     Starting Point of Learning




     So, to the thinking mind, the visible world of Hindu and Buddhist temples, and the large number of images, raises a multitude of questions. These very questions should be the starting point for our learning. Without such self-conscious questioning, we cannot begin to think with what we see, and we simply dismiss it as strange. Or, worse, we are bound to misinterpret what we see by placing it solely within the context of what we already know from our own world of experience (12)




     Do Hindus Believe in So Many Gods?




     This question was asked about three thousand years ago! The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad discusses this very question. A person asks Sage Yajnavalkya, How many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?


     Yajnavalkya: 303 and 3003.


     Questioner: That many?








     The person questioning knew that there was something deeper. So he persisted.


     Is it six?




     All right, how many are there?




     All right, so how many are really there?


     One and a half!


     Finally, how many?




     Then what are all the other numbers?


     They are all but manifestations. (13)


     To the Hindu it is like going to the ocean with a variety of vessels to collect the water. The shapes and sizes of the vessels make the water inside look different, but the content is one.


     Again and again we come across this metaphor of the ocean. Sri Ramakrishna says:


     Satchidananda [the ultimate Reality] is like an infinite ocean. Intense cold freezes the water into ice, which floats on the ocean in blocks of various forms. Likewise, through the cooling influence of bhakti [devotion], one sees forms of God in the Ocean of the Absolute. These forms are meant for the bhaktas (devotees), the lovers of God. But when the Sun of Knowledge rises, the ice melts; it becomes the same water it was before. Water above and water below, everywhere nothing but water. (14)


     How many different shapes and forms of ice blocks are possible in the oceans of the world!




     The One and the Many Are Not Incompatible




     Another interesting point about the Hindu psyche is that the manyness of the Divine is not superseded by the oneness. Rather, the two are held simultaneously and are inextricably related. A Hindu will say, it is like seeing an album of 100 pictures - all of you only, but in different dresses and costumes, maybe some like Mickey Mouse, some in your tuxedos, some in your Halloween costume and some with a graduation headgear - but it is all you!


     Simultaneously the Hindu knows the limitations imposed by the human condition. That was primarily responsible even for his having the images and the rituals. As one of the great prayers says, O Lord, in my meditation I have attributed forms to Thee who art formless. O Thou Teacher of the world, by my hymns I have, as it were, contradicted that Thou art indescribable. By going on pilgrimage I have, as it were, denied Thy omnipresence. O Lord of the universe, pray, forgive me these threefold faults committed by me. (15)




     Is the Knowledge of the Gods Necessary to Achieve the Hindu ideal?




     Troy Wilson Organ discusses this issue in his book The Hindu Quest for the Perfection of Man:


     Are the gods necessary at all? They are not needed for creation, for salvation, for moral ideals, nor for moral sanctions, but they do enrich mans understanding of the world. They dramatize the environment in which the human lot is cast. They inspire man to aspire for ideality. If they are not metaphysical necessities, at least they are axiological assets. Hinduism would be possible without its gods, but it would be much impoverished. The Hindu gods demythologized are symbols of the full realization of mans potentialities. A god may be a symbol of self-realized man. The word god is adjectival, not nounal. God-realization is but a poetic metaphor for Self-realization. (16)




     Why Does a Hindu Visit Temples?




     Hindus do not generally say, I am going to worship. They are more likely to say, I am going for darshan. What is darshan? The word has many meanings, but here we mean beholding or seeing.


     The central aspect of Hindu worship for the lay people is to stand in the presence of the deity and behold the image with their own eyes. It also means to be seen by the deity. It is a two-way interaction: to see and to be seen. In the Hindu context seeing is a kind of touching. The famous art historian Stella Kramrisch writes, Seeing according to Indian notions is a going forth of sight towards the object. Sight touches and acquires its form. Touch is the ultimate connection by which the visible yields to being grasped. While the eye touches the object, the vitality that pulsates in it is communicated. (17)


     Meanwhile, visual perception is integrally related to thought. So it becomes a form of knowing! Thus darshan, seeing, is not a passive collection of visual data, but it is active focusing, touching and knowing.




     The Hindus Mental Attitude When He Goes for Darshan




     His attitude is generally one of the two: (1) The Sanskrit word for image (not an exact translation) is vigraha. The word itself means to grasp. In practical Hindu spirituality there is a lot of stress on developing a power of concentration. The image is primarily looked upon as a focus for concentration. (2) The second is looking upon the image as one of the embodiments of the Divine.


     Human beings generally need something more tangible, something that engages the feelings and imagination as well as the logic-bound mind. Hindu tradition acknowledges that one can approach the truth by considering God as Brahman with attributes or qualities (Saguna Brahman). In this approach (which is really a concession to the human need) the Lord becomes accessible to men and women, evoking their affections. How is this expressed? Hindus not only show the gestures of humility, but also utilize the entire range of intimate and ordinary domestic acts as part of rituals. These rituals are common affectionate activities directed to the deity. They are simple yet powerful: washing and bathing the deity, cooking for Him, serving Him, offering food to Him, arranging for His rest and sleep, waking Him up, offering Him food, flowers and drink, and so on. The Hindu worship you notice in temples is not only one of honour but also of affection, which brings an attitude of someone close and dear.


     There are many other aspects related to Hindu temples, and the deities like iconic and aniconic images, representational and symbolic images. In addition is the vast field of temple architecture, its many schools, evolution and so on. I am not covering them here. These temples and images constitute a considerable heritage of human imagination over centuries. One must learn to read these visual texts with the same insight and interpretive skill that is brought to the reading and interpretation of scriptures, commentaries and theologies, says Eck. (18)


     A question may come to one who feels overwhelmed by the task of studying and understanding this different language, the language of the rituals and symbols in Hindu temples with all the trappings of Hindu cultural and traditional values.




     Is It Possible to Know the Core of Hindu Philosophy without the Trappings of Popular Religion?




     Is it possible to attempt the attainment of Self-realization without having to know these trappings? The answer is a definite yes. None has answered this question more succinctly than Swami Vivekananda:



     Each soul is potentially divine.



     The goal is to manifest this divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal.



     Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy - by one or more or all these - and be free.



     This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details. (19) (Emphasis added)




     Is Going to a Temple Mandatory for a Hindu?




     Are any of the common rituals like marriage or naming a baby necessarily done in a temple? No, it is not mandatory to go to a temple for rituals connected with the rites of passage. In fact, one can consider oneself a Hindu even if one never sets foot in any temple in ones entire life!








     One has to have an open mind to understand the institutions, symbols and practices of other cultures, as human minds are conditioned by cultural and other prejudices and preconceived notions. A thoughtful and understanding attitude is needed, recognizing that there is a fascinating diversity hiding the underlying unity of all existence.


     Temples, like churches and mosques, are really a recognition by man that that there is a higher Reality, and the concrete and the visible is a feeble attempt to grasp and communicate with that Reality. Human beings use different approaches to the Divine, and all do not have to follow only one path. Beliefs and practices may vary, but the ultimate goal transcends all human limitations.









     1. Diana L Eck, Darsan (Pennsylvania: Anima Books, 1985), 18.

     2. Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews (New York: Nan A Talese, 1998), 150.

     3. A New Handbook of Living Religions, ed. John R Hinnells (New York: Penguin, 1997), 113.

     4. John Renard, Responses to 101 Questions on Islam (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1998), 36.

     5. Alain Danielou, The Myths and Gods of India (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 1991), ix.

     6. Darsan, 21.

     7. Theodore Rozsak, Where the Wasteland Ends (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1990).

     8. Diana L Eck, Encountering God (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 78.

     9. John Reynard, The Handy Religion Answer Book (Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2002), 487.

     10. Robert A McDermott and Harry M Buck in their Foreword to Darsan.

     11. John Burbank, Culture Shock (Portland: Graphic Arts Center, 1992), 5.

     12. Darsan, 17.

     13. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 3.9.1-2.

     14. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 191.

     15. Swami Yatiswarananda, Universal Prayers (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1977), 239.

     16. Troy Wilson Organ, The Hindu Quest for the Perfection of Man (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1994), 183.

     17. Stella Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple, 2 vols. (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1976), 1.136.

     18. Darsan, 13.

     19. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.124.

International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015






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