Temple Matters

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.