Temple Matters

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This is a sequel to Priestly matters, where I had an interesting discussion on Hindu Wedding rituals (of the Iyer Tambram variety) with the priest who eventually conducted my wedding, and Sacred Threads, where I shared some varying viewpoints on what the thread was really about. This is not a sequel like say, Empire Strikes Back. It’s more like Munna Bhai, where the tale is set in the same universe, but does not quite follow the previous one logically.

The dramatis personae here are assorted mamas from my family. Mamas with whom I have had several conversations in the past. And more importantly, mamas who had the nice habit of not using Argumentum Ad Antiquitatem to dismiss my questions. Mamas who aroused my curiosity enough to attempt a corny, uninformed, modern day Abhivaadaye. (You can read about that episode in the Glossary page under the term Jilpa)

And oh, all of this didn’t quite happen over a single evening, with bajjis and filter coffee. It’s snippets of conversations over the years woven into a messy tapestry that is likely to be sold only in the export-rejects shops in Burma Bazaar.

It all began with,

M1: Dei, come to the temple.

KA: Why?

Ok. To elaborate a bit, I never really liked visiting temples as a kid. To me, the cost-benefit analysis didn’t quite pan out. Standing in long winding queues, getting startled by the frequent high-decibel exclamations of Govinda Gooooovinda, all for a 2 second view of an idol wearing unholy amounts of bling while jargandis were being dished out with physical shoves, was not my idea of how to spend a weekend.

M1: Dei chinnapayale (hey kiddo), a temple is the place where people come, after leaving all their bad qualities behind. When you are in front of the deity, you are one with the community. No egos, no pride, no hubris. Have you ever wondered why we ask devotees to take their shirts and footwear off? The idea is to create an atmosphere where everyone is equal in front of the idol. There are no rich and poor in a temple. Just devotees. Isn’t that something worth preserving?

KA: (now miraculously grown up) I agree that temples were the way you describe them, in the past. But are they like that today? How can one talk about equality in front of the deity when the temple presents me a menu card of offering options? Ill take the Kalyanotsavam for Rs 5000 please. No thanks. Ill settle for the basic archanai. Isn’t it is a blatant display of pride, hubris and ego to shell out all that money for a grand offering of some sort? And all the crowds, the jostling, the rudeness..what goodness are they leaving behind anyway? My point is, are temples what they used to be?

M2: Granted. A lot of commercialism has crept into many temples. But you are missing the point about all the offerings. Again, I am afraid I have to take a trip to the past to explain this. A temple, if you really think about it, is an indirect form of taxation. It was a very subtle way of getting very rich people to redistribute some of their wealth in ways other than direct charity. Nobody wants to receive charity. Most people want to work for a living. A temple provided the perfect platform. It created job positions. The bell ringer. The flower decorator. The cleaner. The lamp lighter. The fruit vendor. And many more. A Mahakumbhabhishekham sponsored by the local zamindar meant that a large section of the community found itself employed and earning good money.

KA: I have always had this confusion. Did economic disparity between professions create and solidify the caste system or was it the other way around? But anyway, are you saying that a temple played a caste-system-neutralization role of a kind? And does it do it today? Electronic drums, outsourced cooking and koyambedu flower mafia seem to be the order of the day. Further, how many temples truly operate as non-profit entities? I mean, how many temples do a fair enough job of redistributing wealth today? In today’s world, I am not even sure such redistribution is a good idea. Shouldn’t temples be playing their social parity fostering role by focussing on children’s education, especially for the downtrodden? Instead, we have these large profit making enterprises that run universities and create millionaire priests. I am not out to denigrate the value of temples in today’s world. I want to understand how they could possibly adapt to the times. I am just not clear if they are adapting in the right way.

M3: Temples adapting aside, I think it is more valuable to think of this from a personal journey perspective. The Upanishads do not call for rituals or offerings. They call for a personal realization of the grandeur of the cosmos. The rituals and offerings are merely symbolic reminders of the nature of this universe. A visit to a temple is intended to constantly remind you of the ultimate truth. Of course there will be distractions, but an ideal temple is an outward representation of an inner journey of realization.

KA: Ok. Here is my problem. It is perhaps my not-so-stellar IQ, but I have trouble understanding something like that. When I visit a temple, my mind is mostly focussed on the which pillar I am going to rub my ash/kunkumam smeared hand on. It’s always observing the priest who visibly shows disdain for poor people by brushing them aside to ask me and my family “Vaango. Eppidi Irrukkel”. (Come. How are you).

Let me tell you what makes me realize the grandeur of the cosmos. Images from the Hubble Deep Field Telescope. Books by Stephen Hawking. Star gazing. The Orion Nebula. The Andromeda Galaxy. I always get the feeling that religion never really adapted symbols to suit the times.

M4: Maybe, and perhaps maybe not. Symbols tend to have very long shelf lives. But I do agree that the exponential growth of science and technology has caused an overall crisis of faith in old religions. But the solution is not to throw away temples.

KA: True. I am not saying that. For one, I love their architecture. But I want to know what a temple should mean to me. They are not the primary centres of art and culture. The music has moved to Sabhas (Vaataapi Ganapathim), Kollywood movies (Thirupathi Ezhumalai Venkatesa) and the Unwind center (What if God was one of us). They are not community meeting points. They are overcrowded and noisy. And nobody ever explains why most of the rituals are done in the first place.

I mean, look at the Sabarimala temple for instance. I have nothing against the place, but what messages is it sending me? We live in an increasingly gender-neutral, technological world. That temple has got to do better than ban women and put on Makara Jyothi displays, orchestrated by the Kerala State Electricity Board from a furnace situated in a nearby hill. Today’s generation will question everything. I think it’s high time we faced that and stopped considering it bad attitude. I do agree that the questioning should be polite and respectful. But temples have got to start engaging in a conversation with the youth today. I mean, get on Facebook and Orkut dude.

Ok. Perhaps not that. But still.

M5: Ok. Pesardhu porum. Come let’s go get Puliyodharai from the Parthasarathy temple. They make the greatest Puliyodharai in the world

KA: Yeah. Come, let’s go. I also like the temple elephant. It’s such a joy watching him.

The end.

ps: A lot of very wise people comment on this blog. I may have arm-twisted my mamas by the cunning use of my immaturity. But what are your thoughts on this? I want to understand what relevance temples/churches/mosques have in today’s world, from your perspective. I also want to understand what religious institutions ought or ought not to be doing to stay contemporary and relevant.

ps 2: No fighting please. I generally do not moderate comments, but I probably will, if things get rude or heated. And no inter-religious debates.

65 responses to “Temple Matters”

  1. maxdavinci Avatar

    Ashok saar,

    People goto temples out of bhakti. Now bhakti can be of many types, lemme name a few

    1) Daiva bhakti: This is the foremost of all, and consists of god fearing people who feel that by visiting temples, performing archanais, singing hymns to the lord, their passage to afterlife would be peaceful and his life would go without obstacles.

    2) Prasada bhakti: This is the puliodhare type like, a better example of which would be the charecter sendhil played in the film ‘Boys’. Which sannidhi, which day, what time, what prasadam…..

    3) maami and figure bhakti: This type of bhakti is to ogle at maamis and collect kanni ponnus who come to the temple to pray for husbands who will be the opposite of the guys who come to collect them.

    4) vendudhal/mannat bhakti: This type of bhaktas are usually visible during exam time, or have some vendudhal like kids, visa etc. There is a very famous temple in hyd where the swami is also known as ‘visa venkatesha’.

    5) peethal/show off bhakti: This type of bhakti is just to show of your newest jewellery during festivals, or exhibit the power of your wealth by performing pujas involving high donations and basically have braggin rights to how religious you are.

    6) tag along bhakti: Here you are accompanying another bhakta who falls into any of the above categories

    7) wat the hell bhakti: well you just decided to visit the temple as you didnt have anything else to do, and a lil hi to the lord won’t hurt.

    8) flickr bhakti: this is when you are touring the country and visit temples with splendid architecture as you take 286 pics of yorself against various backdrops.

    9) spl occasion bhakti: this could be when there is a festival or a kutchery in the temple and you go just coz you like the festive atmosphere.

    I can go on but this is long enough i guess. heck! i’ll make a post outta it….

    thnx for scratchin my head KA…

    1. Prathima Avatar

      @ KA & @maxdavinci : Excellent write-up and I completely agree with you.

      I guess temples have lost their original intentions of being a community centre. During ancient times, the gopurams (gopuram meaning – place of cows) of temples used to indicate the weary travellers of ancient times that they are nearing a human settlement. Gopurams used to be the tallest structure in the settlement. Also, if you notice, there are two horn like appendages, which indicates that one can find cows in that settlement; sort of cow+human symbiotic relationship. Next is the garuda pillar in temples. In olden days, the garuda pillar used to serve as a giant oil lamp with wicks lit atop them for the same purpose as above, but for night times. But then, I do not know how these oil lamps were protected from wind and rain. Again, why the garuda pillar is located at a distance in front of the deity, I do not know.

      And from what I have read, temples used to be the community centre in olden days. It used to cater to children’s education by being the school; it used to be the centre of fine arts, concerts, debates, dance recitals, communal celebrations (festivals, etc) and general time-pass location for the crowd. Now each of these functions are being catered by their own places. Suddenly, the temples seem to have lost their usefulness in these functions.

      Honestly, now temples have become business centres .. Sorry… make that profit centres what with ‘Circle Mariamma Temple’ in Bangalore specializing in new vehicles puja (different rates for different types of vehicles) and so on…

      The priests will give you ‘special’ prasadam if you drop Rs.10 and above, in the arathi plate instead of buying an archana ticket… the higher the denomination, the greater and more elaborate the blessings and the variety of prasadams. You make the blunder of dropping a 50paise or a 1Re coin, you can forget about any blessings or prasadam. You will be in fact honoured with dirty looks from your neighbours stamping on your foot, in the queue or from the priest or from both, with the arathi plate whisked away from you with lightening speed.

      Next are the people who come to have the ‘darshan’. Why are there so many types of queues? Dharma darshan queue, Rs.50 queue, Rs.100 queue, VIP queue (which will essentially block out all the other queues and to hell with causing any inconvenience), special puja for VIPs like film stars, politicians, cricketers and the generally stinking rich.

      The more yellow-hued rings and chains,plus sparklers one sports, the warmer the welcome, bigger the smiles, the greater the blessings after special entry for the entire entourage into the sanctum sanctorum, completed with tonnes of prasadams. One can almost see big Rs (very big denominations) signs in the eyes of the priests.

      And ‘God’ sits silently watching all this crap. I sometimes wonder how it would be if ‘God’ were to suddenly come to life when these things happen. Boy! That would be interesting. I wonder whether ‘Gods’ really wants all those tonnes of milk (skimmed, low fat, full cream, buffalo, etc) to be poured on Him instead of feeding the malnutritioned kids, whether he really enjoys being smeared with such a thick smothering layer of sandalwood paste; being subjected to a smoke screen every now and then; being subjected to the ‘heat-wave’ of the arathi every few minutes accompanied by very loud clanging of symbals, drums ,etc; being smeared with ghee, rubbed with squishy banana, using abrasives like sugar on His skin and so on, being bathed in full public view all in the name of ‘abhisheka’. Imagine people paying to watch someone being bathed and fighting fro not getting a better view.

      So far, of all the temples I have visited there is only one temple in Mysore, which has a board saying ‘silence please’. That board actually made me realize that people hardly keep their trap shut in temples, unlike in churches or mosques, and they have to be reminded that it is a place of worship and maybe people would like some quiet to have their conversation with God. They yak about everything under the Sun. This is the main function which any temple serves now apart from being a place where the rich can showcase their wealth and their ‘God fearing’ aspect. I wonder why they should ‘fear’ God.

      But then, going to the temple has now lost it’s meaning, at least for me. Better sit at home and pray.

      Sorry about the length of the comment.

  2. mosilager Avatar

    At least in Kerala the big temples suck – they are too commercialised and any sort of god who might have chosen it as her temporary abode has long since fled.

    The small temples are great places for meditation and art appreciation – some of the paintings and such are great.

    Of course, all religions say that god is everywhere but they act like he’s only present in some places. I think they should put their money where their mouth is and turn all places of worship into universities and colleges (aka temples of education) instead of confusing poor people like me.

  3. Voracious Blog Reader Avatar

    @ Maxdavinci

    Real nice write ups you have. Do not have a livejournal account for publishing my comments. What should I do?

    Voracious Blog Reader

  4. Srinivasa Avatar

    Interesting post – but the interrogation of popular practice is unoriginal.
    If these are your felt questions, read any sensible atheist/rationalist/utilitarian. If you’re satisfied with the answers that the a/r/u provides as part of his/her analysis, then that should be sufficient for you. If they’re not, then more questions are indicated.

    But as an educated and/or modern man aka flickr/facebook/orkut dude, perhaps you need to ask yourself if there are questions beneath the current set of questions.

    I had the same reaction to ‘Priestly Matters’ and ‘Sacred Threads’ – the answers that one gets are usually circumscribed by the kind of question one asks. In many cases, you have also been misinformed. For example, you change threads any time you perform a formal action viz., seemantham, ayush homam, wedding, death ceremony etc etc. So the Avani Avittam stuff is nothing special though the question persists as to why a separate thread changing day. You didn’t ask that question so you didn’t get the answer either.

    Your way of interrogating some practices that you list is akin to an understanding of a woman as a physical entity consisting of breasts, womb etc.. So why marry such an assemblage?

    This is not to pretend I have answers for your questions. But in our modern world where the questions themselves are held to be far more important than the answers thereof, you have not spent much time, it seems to me, thinking on the questions.

    I apologize in advance if I give offense, But this is my 2c.

  5. Gagan Avatar

    Do you have a way of reading my mind? The above conversations are pretty much similar to the ones I have had with people i know.
    One more reason I don’t like going to temples (or any other such place) is because of the heightened emotions that they raise in people. I mean, look at the Ram Janmabhoomi controversy ,wouldn’t it be more prudent to just bull doze the entire structure and make it into a playground for the neighboring kids?
    I don’t mean to hurt anyone’s emotions but the only use that i feel old temples serve is the architectural value that they provide (as you have rightly mentioned). But even that is missing in the newer temples.

  6. krishashok Avatar

    No offense taken whatsoever 🙂 And my interrogation was not meant to be original as well. And I am very aware of the fact that while it’s easy for me for ask uninformed/misinformed questions, I am part of a generation that’s increasingly doing that because very few answers (or directions towards asking the right questions) are forthcoming.
    It’s like I get the feeling that I’m missing out on something profound, and somebody gave me the menu card for the wrong restaurant, so I’m asking for the wrong things 🙂

  7. Rekha Avatar

    Maxdavinci, I think people go through all the types of bhakti you mentioned depending on which stage of life they are at.
    For those who go to the temple for non-superficial reasons such as prasadam, figure, etc.. it is because their minds and hearts have been trained to find comfort and solace in the presence of their ‘Ishta dhaivam’.
    I was once told by a grand-athimber who is probably now in heaven himself that in this yugam called kali yugam – god is beleived to reside in idols. Perhaps that is true and this what draws people to temples.
    Hinduism has not marketed itself to our generation. It might do our culture a big favor if those who knew and those who realize they are in a position to protect this cutlture took the trouble to propogate it’s true message and its day to day significance in a
    “modern world where the questions themselves are held to be far more important than the answers”.

  8. maxdavinci Avatar

    @Voracious Blog Reader : i always crosspost at blogger

    @rekha: well you do have a valid point there,we r drawn by idols.

    @KA: i was thinkin of more types of bhaktis n ‘jollu bhakti’ is wat i conjured. this is where bhaktas n bhaktinis use the temple as a meeting place, share prasadam, do pradikshinai together etc etc……

  9. 10yearslate Avatar

    I have always had this feeling that in social mores we Indians tend to be about three or four decades behind the west. (Eg: Divorce, nuclear families, food habits etc) This delay is not necessarily a bad thing-however we need to learn from the consequences the west faces as a result.

    Take for instance the deconstruction of religion, which is roughly what we are discussing here.

    The west engaged in this with great zest over the last several decades and the results are there for all to see. People have turned away in droves from organised religion and as a result if we play memory association games with the great religions of the west we will come up only with negatives. (Eg Catholic church=paedophile priests).

    Magnificent churches have been reduced to stops on the bus tour of Europe. Orthodox Christians have become figures of ridicule.

    I accept that questioning is important, but never ridicule what you do not understand. Also let’s recognise the consequences of unstructured inquiry. This can lead to jettisoning what we know witout having an alternative.

    I go back to the rudderless, aimless millions I see in the west. These were the masses whom Lenin (V.I, not Mu.Ka) said religion was an opium for. That opium has now been taken from them with no methadone substitute.

    Rekha has made the same point I did in response to sacred threads (I think) that we need our sacraments and values explained well to us.

    My dad’s generation had the late Shankaracharya’s ‘Deivatthin Kural’ in ‘kalki’ that set them on the straight and narrow. We need something similar today.

    KA, on a lighter note….that’s my ‘hypercomment’ for the day!!

  10. Rekha Avatar

    10yearslate – I do agree that the religion has eroded in the west and I am not sure of the reasons for that, but living in the US and receiving the quantum of junk mail that I do, I somehow get on the list of mail campaigns by local churches. They send out colorful fliers boasting of informal atmosphere, casual dress code etc. Churches certainly market themselves well around here.

  11. Bikerdude Avatar

    Expectations out of religion, just like those out of life, need to change with the times.

    Earlier, religion/god was a means of explaining all that was not understood in the world. With an increasing understanding of the smaller-picture things around us, it is important to alter our perception and practice of religion to work through modern-day worries that did not exist before: Those of stress, anxiety, a reduced social support system, and the intense need for peace and tranquility.

    If the focus of religion shifts from a book of rules to a provider of comfort and succour, I think the new age version of religion will catch on again.

  12. krishashok Avatar

    Agree. But the erosion of religion in the west did not happen over a 50 year period. It was the slow and methodical deconstruction primarily powered by the progress of science.
    India, I feel, is at this tipping point, where my generation (which is already “old”) is careening, at high velocity, in a direction we have no clue about. Religion does not mean the same thing it did to my father’s generation. And this sea change is happening in a one or two generations, unlike the West, where it happened over 5 centuries.
    Srini has a point – maybe we are asking the wrong questions, so what should be done to help this generation ask the right questions?

    1. Prathima Avatar

      Maybe my comment is in the wrong place, but I sort of missed out commenting in the ‘Upanayanam’ post. Too lazy to go back and search for that post, hence sharing my 2-bit knowledge here.

      When a boy undergoes upanayanam, he is being initiated to take up vedic studies. Vedas are in Gayathri chandhas or metre (brush up your Sanskrit on chandhas!) and the ‘Gayathri’ manthra that is whispered in the boy’s ear during the ceremony is actually called Vishwamithra Gayathri. That is, this particular manta was composed by Vishwamithra in Gayathri chandhas. So, the boy learning and repeat this mantra prepares him for learning the Vedas.

      There is a person by name ‘Bannanje Govindacharya’ in Karnataka.
      [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bannanje_Govindacharya]. He is a scholar and a very contemporary one. He has explained many of the customs, practices, etc in his discourse, though I prefer to call them lectures. His lectures are always run to packed houses and this crowd does not comprise of only elderly people. I attended a couple of them (after being sort of dragged to them) and came away impressed.

      He explains that Vishwamithra Gayathri contains the entire essence of the 3 vedas and goes on to explain how. And this is the reason why only this Gayathri mantra is used for initiation and not any other Gayathri mantra.

  13. krishashok Avatar

    Very interesting. Any ideas why it’s not happening in the West? And what should we avoid in order to prevent us from going down the valium/methadone path?

  14. 10yearslate Avatar

    “modern-day worries that did not exist before: Those of stress, anxiety, a reduced social support system, and the intense need for peace and tranquility.”

    Biker-Anna, how do you know there was no stress in bygone days?

    My granddad in rural T.N was a retired school teacher. He had a ‘cricket team’ of children. Plus we vacationing grandkids from all over the country who descended for three months. Money was scarce. His income was a small pension and what he got from going to ‘brahmaNastham’s. He had three veshtis and angavastrams. Grandma had three 9 yards sarees. Had they wanted to, they could have stressed out spectacularly. However they chose not to. Their faith in God was all pervasive. A saying I heard early and often was ‘AaNdavan maele bhaaratthai podu’.

    And they were the happiest people I’ve known. There’s a lot to be said for simple living, high thinking and faith.

  15. Diviya Avatar

    I come from a town with a beautiful temple, and I go there every trip home to see if the next fresco on the wall has been restored to breath taking beauty. And then I’m done. But I balk every time my father makes a long distance wish to Siddhi Vinayak and I have to stand in a 2km queue to drop Rs501 in the hundi. Isn’t the essence of religion about finding the God within?

    I have nothing against other people’s beliefs, as long as they don’t ask me to follow them.

  16. Marc Avatar

    An interesting debate. The problem is religion stops people from thinking further most of the time. People end up developing blocks to certain concepts. My father for example has great trouble accepting anything that is contrary to what is said in religious texts.

    Then there is also superstition. I find that people tend to mix superstitions with religion, thus producing religious superstition which isn’t gotten rid of easily.

  17. CW Avatar

    I was mentally writing out a post on religion and god & their relevance to me when I saw this.

    Among people of our generation there’re those who follow what the previous generation followed and those who question. The fact that the latter category is often subjected to the grown up version threat of ummachi kanna kuthum is proof of how and why evolution is a time-consuming process.

    The way I see it- fear seems to be the underlying driving force of all things religious. And that greatly bothers me. The interpretation of the concept of god (and religion) is personal, so it would seem rather insensible to have institutions (which in the current world are often political) dole out rules and advice on who to and how to pray.

    So yes, to me religious institutions are irrelevant. But that wouldn’t stop me from lauding outstanding humanitarian work that some of them are involved in. If only that would be the primary objective..(as cliched as cliched goes)

  18. imemoir Avatar

    Liked your post.It has lots of answers for my questions.Even I feel better meditating in a home pooja room rather than going to a temple

  19. mahendrap Avatar

    //I want to understand what relevance temples/churches/mosques have in today’s world, from your perspective.//

    From my perspective, temples (or churches, or synagogues, or mosques) have historical and cultural value in today’s context. All other kinds of relevances are not irrelevant, they’re evil.

  20. Bikerdude Avatar

    KA: Most modern religions (AD) seem to be formed out of a set of dictats relating to what and what not to do. With the passage of time, these dictats seem to have developed holes, as the reasons for their formation become less and less relevant.

    Perhaps the eastern faiths are spared this to a large extent. Their basis is ‘opinion’, without a rigid and uncompromising modus operandi. This might in fact help them survive the onslaught of rationalism better, and albeit without the layers of orthodoxy and rituals that were piled upon them over the years.

    10yearslate: Our grandparents prove my point somewhat. They were happy because they had a huge social system that pretty much functioned exactly the way they did. They were surrounded by friends and relatives who were more or less in the same socio-economic circumstances as themselves. A common faith, together with all its rites and rituals formed an important social aspect of their lives.

    Modern living necessarily involves breaking out of the religious comfort zone, to travel, work and to socialize. Communities are no longer closed. Religious practices therefore become somewhat of a burden for those who do not have abject faith. The stress of sticking to the old school wears thin on those who do.

    If the essence of religion is maintained, but its practices altered to accomodate modern living, I think it is possible to continue to be religious. otherwise, Im not sure.

    KA: Sorry about the Nehru Memorial comment 😛

  21. farkandfunk Avatar

    Very interesting article, and some very thought-provoking comments.

    Here’s my (rather immature) interpretation on it. I don’t mean to preach or anything (last thing i’d do), just sharing my rather dumb thought:

    It’s all about having faith- and ultimately: faith in ONESELF. Our lives more or less are governed by our own set of actions and reactions, and there’s a strong interaction with society and nature. Of course , nothing can be generalized, but in essence, there are some basic set of actions that lead to welfare of the being and others around him/her , and otherwise. The powers of nature are the strongest, overruling everything else.

    Through the course of life, humans are meant to “live” this cycle and attempt to contribute to the well-being of themselves, their society , and most importantly : NATURE. That is the purpose of life.

    Most of the actions/reactions that humans can experience have actually been covered in various religious text, and the consequences they can have been documented too -be it in the form of slokas, verses, hymns, scripts, or even stories.

    Human’s ultimate purpose is to have strong faith and belief in himself or herself, and lead a life of positivity. Faith and faith alone can help him or her do this. There are many obstacles and pitfalls along the way, and these have the potential to destroy the belief, the light within and make one feel hopeless. Man has 2 choices to improve this :

    1. Faith in himself/herself. This is the belief from within , and belief on yourself that you can experience and learn from these obstacles, and get back in track in life again.

    1a. When (1) fails, you have the option of God – where you learn from centuries of experience – you find something/someone you identify with, in those scores of texts, verses, hymns, stories .Something you seek definition for, to uplift you again, and you seek guidance. You place your faith on god . The main point is that this is invariably the path to placing faith on yourself all over again, to understand from a set of documented beliefs and actions, and then move on from there. To guide one into understanding what to do, to help oneself from there on.

    Thus, the point is the same. It doesn’t matter if one believes or doesn’t believe in God. One needs to believe in himself/herself. Either of the 2 paths to welfare will lead to the same result -faith in oneself. Ultimately, the faith is rewarded.

    Ok , you folks whack me up now 🙂

  22. krishashok Avatar

    Nehru Memorial comment? Didn’t see anything in the moderation list. Perhaps the internet ate it up 🙂 You should try post it again.

    Faith in oneself is very important, and you mention that scriptures contain centuries of wisdom to learn from. But the issue is the contextualization of this wisdom in a modern setting. How can that be done? Who can do it? Does it need to be done?

  23. tenyearslate Avatar

    “rhaps the eastern faiths are spared this to a large extent. Their basis is ‘opinion’, without a rigid and uncompromising modus operandi. ”

    Bikedude is correct here. Eastern thought allows for atheists within its framework. To the extent that one of the lesser known ones, Prashnopanishad, answers precisely the kind of questions we have here.

    While I am no scholar on this, the basic qualification to read this (I’m told) is for one to have felt that spark of divinity within him/her.

    We have all felt it…that quickening of the pulse and the spring of tears to the eyes when the ‘thirai’ is thrown open to the ‘MahamangaLarti’ of Tiruchendur Murugan. Or that deep sense of peace when we have ‘group rendered’ the Punyahavachana mantram. Or indeed as KA said elsewhere, when you gaze into the depths of the cosmos.

    These people recognise there is something spiritual within us that is latent..that wants to be awakened. We are CONSCIOUS of it.

    We may not have the answers but we know we must seek.

    Let’s accept that most of us live in what all the Upanishads (Katha, Chandogya, BrhadaraNyaka etc) term ‘Avidya’ where we consider the multiplicity of egos and objects to be final and fundamental. The unseen is of no consequence or questionable at best.

    That much derided aphorism ‘Brahman arindhavan BraahmaNan’ springs from this ancient philosophical fount.

    I am very far from realising the concept of Brahman, however there have been moments when I think I can catch a distant glimpse, however ephemeral….

    Keep this discussion going!!

  24. tenyearslate Avatar

    KA, to answer your last comment, “How can that be done? Who can do it? Does it need to be done?”

    S.Radhakrishnan’s ‘Selected writings on Philosophy, Religion and Culture’ is an enlightening if heavy read.

  25. krishashok Avatar

    From the perspective of terrorism, child marriages/sacrifices, religious fundamentalism etc, yes. But what about, for e.g, the lessons/symbolism from the mahabharatha or the puranas. Or the Upanishads?

  26. mahendrap Avatar

    Ashok: Our ancient philosophical wisdom, including atheistic/monotheistic/polytheistic/dvaita/advaita/etc. philosophies, that was symbolized in the more popular epics, lies in our manuscripts, not our temples.

    I’ve written a couple of times about how important it is to preseve our manuscripts. I’ve written in detail about efforts by Google, our Indian Government, etc. in this regard.

    Does that address your question (about my opinion) of how to contextualize this wisdom in a modern setting? Wouldn’t it be great if I could use Google to translate a Sanskrit manuscript and compare our ancient epistemology with modern ones?

  27. krishashok Avatar

    It does. Being able to bring the power of modern technology to the understanding of ancient manuscripts would be wonderful. Have you seen http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/index.htm ? Not the greatest of translations, but a start, none the less.

    For the rest of you,
    what do you think? What role does a temple have to play in our lives today? Apart from a historical and cultural sense, i.e.

  28. Karthik Krish Avatar
    Karthik Krish

    “what do you think? What role does a temple have to play in our lives today?”

    Nothing. IMHO they are just making money in the name of some fictitious being called god. It is not any different from a guy cheating you of money for goods which does not exist.

    Most temples nowadays conduct hundreds of yagna’s and archanas…all of which cost money.
    Why do i have to pay money for god(if he does exist) to bless me with all good things? It makes him look like a corrupt goverment official.

    I understand all of this is optional…people pay because they want to …but then it is the fear which religion has instilled in them that makes them do this. Most people do it because they are afraid that god will smite them if they do not do the necessary duties and temples thrive on this.

    Take the Besant Nagar Vinayakar temple, i have seen my own parents spend hundreds of rupees on “Sani payirchi” or something like that. Why? Because the temple continues to instill fear in the people about gravitational pull of saturn affecting the lives of humans on earth.

    Just to be clear, i am talking only about temples here and not about hinduism and its philosophy, sacred texts etc.

  29. KK Avatar

    I think there’s a difference between organised religion that tells everyone to do a certain set of things, and individual faith. The former empowers the priests, the popes, the whomsoevers who run the institutions that lay down the rules. The latter, in some mysterious way, makes the practitioner happy, or atleast makes him think he’s happier than he was earlier; which is essentially the same thing. It can be called peace of mind, absolving guilt, whatever.
    There can be interaction between the two forms of religion I have mentioned, and one has always led to the other.
    The trouble arises when religious institutions become too big for their own boots, and begins to control people’s beliefs.
    Organised religion, on the other hand, gives a whole lot of people something to lean on, something to have faith in, something to make them endure in times of distress, some sort of placebo maybe.
    It is imperative that, while we question ritualistic practices and so on, that we also have tolerance and let things be for the people who prefer it that way. The reverse holds true too – nothing should be imposed on anyone.
    In the end, it comes down to individual choice, and if someone chooses to blindly have faith, there’s something moving, and beautiful, about that choice too.
    And religion has given us so many forms of cultural expression. When I listen to a Thyagaraja composition, I don’t particularly think about Rama, but it was Rama who made that composition possible. We can argue that if not Rama, there may have been something else, and Thyagaraja would have still composed something of great beauty. That is conjecture.

  30. 10yearslate Avatar

    //All other kinds of relevances are not irrelevant, they’re evil.//


    I have to disagree. In my simple mind, I look at things like this. We cook in the kitchen, bathe in the bathroom and do not perform the lavatory function anywhere else.

    While accepting that spirituality (not God) is resident in ourselves and also blades of grass, temples help focus the mind and let’s agree that there are a lot of ‘mind is a monkey’ masses, foremost among them, myself who need that framework to focus.

    I was in Germany a few years ago and contrived to be in Cologne (Koln) just to go and visit the famed cathedral. This awe inspiring structure was spared in the Allied bombing while all else was laid waste around it.

    I went there with the express intent of spending some time in quiet contemplation. This was not to be, as this bulwark of Christianity was completely overrun by tourists from all over the globe. Ecumenical services were entirely conspicuous by their absence. Despite the best efforts of the ushers, it was a babel of noise as everyone jostled for the best vantage point for a snap.

    Contrast this with a visit to the Thanjavur Big temple I had some time back. The ‘prakaram’ outside the sanctum sanctorum was ringing with the sound of the Shivashtakam read by a group from Karnataka, while ‘tourists’ stayed in the background. The spiritual experience was fulfilling and complete.

    If we accept your posit that “From my perspective, temples (or churches, or synagogues, or mosques) have historical and cultural value in today’s context” and exclude the spiritual, then their raison d’etre ceases to exist.

    They then run the risk of becoming the Cologne cathedral.

  31. apenny Avatar

    I think you will enjoy the book ‘Albert Einstein : His Life and Universe ‘ – by Walter Isaacson. I think you might even enjoy Einstein’s view on religion, didnt read your entire article, stopped at star gazing and had to write you about the book. – its a good read , atleast for me.

  32. mahendrap Avatar

    10yearslate: I do not understand how agreement/disagreement can be valid here.

    Spirituality means different things to different people: Chanting hymns, observing galaxies, watching a sunset, blindly performing rituals, going on an LSD trip, looking at the Earth from space, deflowering sacrificial virgins on the altar, listening to Hindustani or Carnatic classical, burning witches at the stake, performing meditation, burning oneself under ‘Sati’, etc. can each be a spiritual experience for different people.

    That’s why I restricted my response to “my perspective”. I was simply sharing my personal, individual perspective, and not making any generalizations.

    Do you mean to disagree with what I think my own perspective about spirituality is?

  33. 10yearslate Avatar


    Sorry..must have missed the “my perspective” bit.

    I do not disagree with your right to have a perspective at all.

    As Romain Rolland(?) said
    “I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

    or words to that effect!

  34. maami Avatar

    A temple is a physical space for worship, usually of a presiding idol.

    Unlike other organised religions, it is not mandatory for a Hindu to visit the temple. In Vedic times, there were no temple building activity, nor any records of idol worship.” God” was a fire before which people collected.

    Though the reason for temple building is not exactly dated or recorded, as societies formed, it seemed a physical space for people to congregate and engage in collective worship ( a group would probably pray for rains to bless their harvest, women circumambulate a tree ( they were nature worshippers to begin with ).

    Soon it became politicised by the various strata as society building progressed. Some had access to the Hindu temple on account of caste and class and monetary and political power, while others were not allowed free access. Until the abolition of untouchability in 1950s many “lower” castes could not enter the Hindu temple to meet “God” or the idol. All were not equal in the eyes of God unlike other religions. He was the preserve of the holiest of men, usually the upper castes.

    For warring kings in medieval ages , temples were monuments to make statements about their victories. ( In south India it was ‘I vanquish the Chola king, so will build another gopuram to commemorate my victory’ etc usually one Hindu king fought another here); in north India, vanquished warriors would have to bear the ignominy of having their queens and monuments desecrated and destroyed. The temple was a symbol of political, cultural and religious entity of a people who emerged victorious or vanquished politically.

    The role of temples change according to social mores and time.

    Today Chennai alone has more than700 temples at every muchandi and theru, a rising indication that temples, idols, gods serve as placebos for the faithful. These are above the questions of rationality, many profound, others profane and dismissable.

    It is interesting that for today’s youth, religion and visiting temples is a process of reclaiming a heritage ( questionable legacy) and conforming to community’s diktat’s. This is apart from checking out “figures”, worrying over jobs, exams papers and other negotiations. The more economically a Hindu society grows, its youth turn more conformist and religious. Why? Because temples seem to suggest that they are zones of economic and spiritual prosperity. The idol a.k.a God “gives” for the faithful who propitiates him. For the pure bhakth it offers peace when you offer a prayer, a place to collect your mind and thoughts and energies.

    You get what you want for a temple. If you are Vivekananda you gain spiritual power and wisdom, if you want temporal gains, you work on your hopes. But it is the thronging and milling of people that makes it uncomfortable for many of us who are unable to concentrate for a few moments and collect our minds to reflect. That, alas, is what happens when the faithful increase in numbers and they want to shop at God’s temples.

    I ramble too much.

  35. mahendrap Avatar

    10yearslate: Thanks, no probs! I appreciate your defending my rights. 🙂

    The quote is most commonly spuriously attributed to Voltaire, but is actually coined by Beatrice Hall in her 1906 book, “Friends of Voltaire”.

  36. mahendrap Avatar

    Ashok: No, I had never seen the sacred texts site. Thank you so much! It seems to be a treasure trove even if it is a start. I haven’t read anything yet, so don’t know about the quality of the translations…but this is indeed promising and in the right direction!

    Thanks again.

  37. mahendrap Avatar

    Incidentally, tomorrow I’m scheduled to attend a dance performance based on the Natyashastra – considered by many to be the Fifth Veda. 🙂

  38. krishashok Avatar

    Nice discussion.

    Maami, Mahendra, 10yearslate, KK, apenny, CW, Bikerdude,
    Thank you 🙂

    I see a couple of points emerging.

    1. That religion, spirituality and significance of temples in our lives is a personal viewpoint/decision is fairly uncontroversial. For many, a temple provides that meaning, and others find it elsewhere, in nature for e.g.
    Many of you have shared your personal perspective and I think it enriches us all.

    2. The crudity/crassness of the commercial aspects of organized religion is an irritant of our times. Will this somehow cloud the ability of a younger generation to see any utility in going to temples? Perhaps, but I can’t predict what the consequences will be. I am only 30 😉

    3. Organized religion can have unsavoury side effects (in the past and the present) such as terrorism, child sacrifices etc.

    So I will probably ask the last couple of questions I have –
    1) what is your opinion on children being taken to temples but not encouraged to ask why.

    2) At what point do you think parents/elders should leave the decision of finding personal meaning in religion to the individual? What would you do with your children?

    3) Or are we simply OK as we are. In other words, no matter what the generational paradigm shifts we are undergoing, temples, religion and spirituality will somehow find their niche, and as individuals, we really can’t do anything about it.

  39. Rekha Raghavan Avatar
    Rekha Raghavan

    KA: With respect to the latest questions posted by you,
    My daughter is 19 months old. Right now all she knows is that there is a cabinet in our kitchen that has ‘umaachis’. She knows she is supposed to ‘kai kuppify’ and say ‘ram-ram’. I dont believe she knows what she is doing or why she is doing it and she is probably too young to realize. Right now she flicks the pullayar from the perumal sannidhi and runs all around the house with it. But, what I think is over a period of few years she will understand the significance of ‘umaachi’ – that god should be revered and treated accordingly. As she grows up, I am sure she will find a meaning for religion in her life. The importance that she gives it might be different from what I give it, but she as an individual will know what place it takes in her life as she grows up.

  40. mahendrap Avatar

    Ashok: Now you’re touching some discussion points about which I’ve been planning a post for the past couple of weeks. So sorry, you’ll have to wait for it on my blog; I’ll try my best it’ll be soon! 🙂

  41. krishashok Avatar

    Thank you. That was a nice response. I have a follow up question, and I ask especially because you have a daughter. How would you deal with religious situations/traditions/rituals where men are given priority, and most Hindu traditions (actually most other religions as well) tend to be male-centric and have a very strong gender bias. For example, how would you explain that she will be allowed to go to Sabarimala only until a certain age?

  42. Rekha Raghavan Avatar
    Rekha Raghavan

    Haha.. The easy way out for that would be to redirect her to the internet or to thatha-patis. However what I might end up doing is probably explain to her what I believe is the reason – that by disallowing women to do certain things it doesnt mean that our culture demeans women. Our society and culture has clear distinctions of a man’s job and a woman’s job and it is upto the individual to consider one demeaning and the other not. For eg, some people find it demeaning that the women should cook and clean whereas the man doesnt have to do that. But if you thought of it as being the women is responsible for creating the home and nourishing the family it doesnt sound that bad, does it? I think one should tolerate the methods and preferences of Sabarimala as one would tolerate the habits and beliefs of one’s elders at home. After all, even though women are not allowed to go to Sabarimala, the same Keralite culture does have a matriarchal system. Women are still considered ‘Lakshmi’ of the house and are believed to bring propsperity to a family. Guess, its how one looks at it and as a mother it is my duty to reasonably justify certain things and then leave the rest to her judgement.

  43. CW Avatar

    A great post and a brilliant discussion. So much food for thought- writing and re-writing my post. The children-question is very relevant too. And I think u nailed it with pt #3.

  44. Priyank Avatar

    Woha! I’m so late I missed the bus,
    well, almost…

    I was raised in a home that didnt have a little shrine or hold pujas or ceremonial stuff like that. Naturally, I have little appreciation for rituals. My parents left the religion decision entirely to me. I firmly believe that taking your child to temples and making him/her perfom rituals for the sake of it amounts to nothing but an intellectual abuse. That said, you can never visit temples all your life or perform rituals, yet be a devout Hindu, because of reasons known to you. Temples remind me of only one thing – returning from the playground after school, exhausted, the two litte temples on the way offered the much needed prasadam 🙂

    Mahendra: Thats a nice spirituality list. I wanna add ‘listening to Pink Floyd’ to it 😉

  45. mahendrap Avatar

    //Woha! I’m so late I missed the bus//
    In my mind, I’ve once compared attempting to comment on Ashok’s blog to catching a Mumbai-Karjat local train just when it was leaving! 🙂

    //Thats a nice spirituality list. I wanna add…//
    Try trying to be Gandhiji when you’re Sreesanth, and you’ll appreciate my short list of examples! 🙂

  46. Karthik Krish Avatar
    Karthik Krish

    Here are some interesting talks on religion etc.

    One of the best dissections of religion by Sam Harris:

    Part 2 and 3 should be in the related tags.

    Andy Thompson on Sucide Bombings and evolution:

  47. Revathi Avatar

    This post is too serious but I liked the puliyodarai bit. For me a temple is a place where I like to go just because it is there, it is beautiful, there are people in their best clothing and atleast trying to be on their best behaviour, where I dont have to bring in rational thinking, where the lord with his great weapon will get rid of the evil. At the moment I believe in this and feel good about it. It is the social manifestation of my belief system. I would feel sad if it disappeared or became just monuments like the churches in Europe. I would never want to go to Sabarimala because it doesnt want me and I wont find like minded souls there. The guys who have avoided the very sight women for 40 days dont interest me anyway…

    At home, I am all doubt; is Vishnu really going to come back to rid of evil? Has he already come and have I missed him/her?
    There is absolutely no compulsion to go to a temple, one can pray equally well at home if one wants to- it is like going to the cinema hall when you can watch the DVD at home.

  48. […] been thinking about this ever since, when I was asked the following questions by Ashok in comments on his Temple Matters post: 1) What is your opinion on children being taken to temples but not […]

  49. […] take on Carnatic Contortionism, my list of desi blogosphere specimens and Maxdavinci’s encyclopaediac list of bhakti types, here we […]

  50. […] 8, 2007 by maxdavinci KA’s post on the relevance of temples and mosques in todays world got me thinking on the reasons why most of […]

  51. Faiza Avatar

    I think I’m too late to leave a comment on this post, yet I thought I will leave one.
    Faith is something that is not to be compromised, irrespective of the fact whether we live in a bronze age or an ipod age.
    Being a Muslim, I’l tell things in my perspective..

    A mosque is nothing but a hall that is used for congregational prayers. We believe that there is only One GOD, and all human beings are from Adam and Eve. There is no such thing as rich/poor bias or caste/color bias in a mosque and whoever comes first will stand in the first row, whoever is last, in the last. You can see this universal brotherhood phenomenon happening so beautifully in Makkah, where people belonging to all countries, races and colors, stand together in humility for prayers.

    And think of the most developed nation in the world which still discriminates people based on color. Need I say more.. 🙂

    p.s. The issue of not allowing women into mosques is something peculiar only to India. 😦

  52. suhasini Avatar

    GOD! years after endless arguements with friends,stares from kith and kin when i refused to go to a temple with them,seremons from teachers who always missed the point of what i was trying to say,this blog was atrip down memory lane.many parents and elders feel questions like these are a fallout of education and freedom and even adolescent rebellion. during school days when such questions bugged me i tried reading the GITA, got too deep into it.but questioning is good,it is the basis of spirituality.questions remain more than answers even now.to the list of reasons why one might not like to visit a temple-too unhygenic sometimes.

  53. indra Avatar

    I read you blogs for the fresh perspective. On religion:
    Why focus on the negative alone and forget the beauty.
    Sabarimala: Why dont you start a movement to allow all? Did notsomeonedo that toopen up caste temples to everyone in the not so distant past?
    Mores and norms change and change is brought about by some who feel strongly about itand are ready toa ct on it.
    What is thepoint of complaining if you are not ready to take up the issue and battle to change it?
    Rituals, rules and responsibility go hand in hand with freedom, free choice and free thinking. They are the road rules that let me speed on the freeways and auto bahns. Sometimes they are antiquated and have to be revised — yet we need them to hold a society together and to be able to enjoy life itself.

    Faith is the hope that helps survival. We can have faith of many forms. Fiath that your spouse is faithful to you, faith that you will belooked after in old age, faith that you will not be killed while crossing the road etc.

    The questions you ask about faith — if you are truly asking them with a hope to find answers — you will find convincing answers. But if you are asking for vithandavadham — then you really do not want answers.

  54. One Piece Of My Life Avatar

    Exellent post. You got some really good points there. Thank you for sharing.http://www.onepieceofmylife.com

  55. One Piece Of My Life Avatar

    Exellent post. You got some really good points there thanks for sharing.http://www.onepieceofmylife.com

    1. Saatvic Avatar

      If I read this post 3 years back then I would say that you have just brought back my memories of asking similar situations with my parents and elders. Being the Tam-Bram I would have just enjoyed reading this post…But then now with evolution I have started relying on me to find answers…rather than asking people for significance and what is happening outside, there is now an inner search for all sorts of questions….deep down I know that if I am sincere enough then i should find my answers to questions like significance of rituals, temples to who am i, what is my purpose here, where do i go after my death, where was i before my birth….

      Today when I go to a temple, I know all the things you mentioned are there…but it doesnt matter to me…as there is an inner peace…an inner vibration which i listen to and hence dont care about or lest not aware of outer happenings…this inner vibration which is hard to hear anywhere else easily but which just happens naturally in a temple…

      I totally admire you for your sincerity…I just hope you give fair amount of time in understanding/researching the deeper significance of temples, rituals other than the ones that talk about caste system or improving the economy…To give a glimpse, please try to read “The Vedas” by Kanchi Paramachariyar….You will get a glimpse of our tradition and what is being preserved…Answers are out there…We are living in a generation where we need to go and find them…the only requisite from our side is patience and sincerity….

      Sincere seeker…

  56. Geera Avatar

    To me, the temple is a place I can go to to access some me-time without having to justify it to myself and the world. I prefer to go (if at all) on very quiet days (when no free food is being offered) to temples where there is less of a likelihood of meeting people I know. It is an opportunity for me to quieten my mind. I have a young son and I teach him all the stuff I was taught as a kid: ‘thappu pannina ummachi kanna kuthidum’ ( if you do something wrong the Gods Uma and Sivan with dig your eyes out); ‘don’t stamp your feet, Bhuma Devi ( Goddess of the Earth) will get hurt’; ‘don’t kill anything because everything is God’ (peppered with equal doses of ‘that person is pure evil’, ‘spray that bug-zapper on that darned cockroach’ and other such contradictory statements), etc. I hope that by doing this, I am sowing the seeds for him to question everything and seek knowledge in his own time.

  57. kavya Avatar

    Hi KA, I saw this very late. I don know if you will see this post. I know you are an atheist. And I like your point of argument , and ur way of questioning. You abuse your community and make of fun of it. But thats the beauty of it. You religion allows you to question you , it allows you to make fun of it.
    seeing your post I know you are a programmer. Have you tried to explain what work you do to your grand parents. Or anyone who don know programming. You cannot explain. Even if u tried to they cannot understand it right. If you reply to this I wud get into an one to one argument with you. I wud like to answer some of ur questions in my own way.

    1. Ela Viswanath (@ElaVisu) Avatar

      What! So you ‘know’ that KA is a programmer?! Poor KA.

  58. Spurti Avatar

    I totally agree with ur idealogy!..
    Temples have become way too commercialized these days. I visit temples only to marvel at the architecture and bemoan the changes made to the age old structures in the name of renovation!!
    Long haphazard ques, shorter for those willing to spend more for the darshan (read VIP visits), rude mannerism of those heralding the people into the inner sanctum like we’re cattle and a very brief glimpse at the idol is hardly pleasing..

    A temple may provide a place to introspect only if its in natural harmony with the environment,, u discover an ancient temple amidst greenery, not corrupt with the maliciousness of commercialization, u might feel closer to the entity that binds us all..

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